Game of Thrones

Originally posted in Monomakhos

Last month, Archbishop Elpidophoros, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.  Neither the date nor the venue was coincidental.  More to the point, his “homily” (which was really a glowing encomium to his patron in Istanbul) was somewhat unsettling, being as it had nothing to do with the Gospel. 

One thing that stood out was the mention of the longevity of Patriarch  Bartholomew’s tenure as Ecumenical Patriarch.  We ere told in the homily that he has occupied the patriarchal throne longer than any of his predecessors  (thirty years to be exact).

The fact that St Bartholomew’s Church was festooned with LGBTQ paraphernalia was not lost on those of a more traditional bent within Orthodoxy.  Some speculated that the choice of the venue was a subtle message that the Greek-speaking churches (as opposed to the Slavic churches) were more sympathetic to the present zeitgeist

Given that the historic See of Constantinople has known little peace throughout its seventeen-hundred-year history, this is not insignificant.  Cyril VI Lukaris (d. 1638) for instance, had six different tenures on the throne.  Many other patriarchs were exiled and reassigned on a whim by their Turkish suzerains.  (Not that it was much different during the Byzantine period for that matter.)  One can therefore be forgiven for viewing mere longevity as an accomplishment, especially in such a turbulent area of the world.

Be that as it may, hope springs eternal.  Unfortunately, Bartholomew’s hand was a poor one, since “Constantinople” as a church, had been dying for generations.  Because of his erudition however. as well as his excellent command of the English language (something which his predecessor lacked), he was able to find a more useful niche to play on the world stage.  And that was environmentalism.  All things considered, he played that role very well.  Unfortunately, he did so while the forces of globalism (of which environmentalism is a part) would begin to unravel.  

That said, when he assumed the Constantinopolitan throne, globalism was still on the ascendant.  If he was going to assume a papal-like presence on the international stage, then he had to rein in the many foreign eparchies that made up his patriarchate.  North America was especially problematic, being that it was then led by the charismatic Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzis.  Because of Iakovos’ commitment to pan-Orthodox unity in America, Bartholomew sensed that America was restive for autocephaly, and thus, he forced Iakovos to retire in 1996.   

The intervening twenty-five years have not been particularly peaceful.  If anything, the demand for greater inter-Orthodox American unity has only grown, as have demands for autocephaly.  Unfortunately for Bartholomew, Iakovos’ successor, Metropolitan Spyridon Pappas of Italy, had a disastrous tenure, alienating in particular several in the leadership class, including the bishops.  And so, in order to placate the bishops of the GOA, Bartholomew elevated them to metropolitan status, thereby making them “equal” to the new primate. 

This only bought Spyridon some time and things continued to degenerate in the archdiocese.  Bowing to the newly-minted metropolitans’ increasingly insistent demands, Bartholomew sacked him in 1999, replacing him with Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis.  An irenic man, Demetrios’ tenure was less turbulent and more long-lived but he (like Iakovos decades earlier), had excellent relations with the Orthodox Church in America, and even forced their inclusion into the newly-formed Episcopal Assembly of the United States.  This did not sit well with Bartholomew who had long viewed that American church’s grant of autocephaly by Moscow as a thorn in the flesh.  Predictably, Demetrios was forced out in 2019, to be replaced by the Metropolitan of Bursa, Elpidophoros Lambrianides.  

For many, the question is why has the Ecumenical Patriarch behaved in such a high-handed manner?  His curious interpretations of obscure canons as well as the crafting of novel doctrines which aggrandized his authority struck many as pretentious and self-serving.  Some worried that he was creating an Eastern papacy.  They continue to do so.  Needless to say, his actions weren’t particularly well-received by the rest of the Orthodox world who found his brazen attempts to craft new autocephalies in already-existing local churches shocking.

In Ukraine, this has caused a deep fissure bringing Orthodoxy to the precipice of schism.  

Unless historical events change to justify his ecclesiology, the most charitable assessment of his archpastorate at present is that it is one that has been mired in controversy.  The question before us today is where will he go from here?  

According to his calendar, Patriarch Bartholomew is supposed to go to  Ukraine next month, where he will implement diocesan changes in that country.  Presumably, he will do this by sacking some bishops, relocating others, and demanding obedience from the rest.  Regardless, it is hard to see how he will succeed, given that (1) there was no groundswell for support for an autocephalous church in the first place, and (2) Metropolitan Onuphriy of Kiev has only gained more sympathy from the rest of the Orthodox world.  The reality on the ground is that the average Ukrainian is firmly in Onuphriy’s camp. Prudence would indicate that given the precarious political nature of Ukraine, he would be wise to take all of these things into account.  (https://www.helleniscope.com/2021/07/28/massive-crowds-celebrate-the-baptism-of-the-rus-in-kyiv/)

How chaotic are things in the Ukraine?  Presently, there are three Metropolitans of Kiev:  Onuphriy Berezovsky, who is universally recognized as the legitimate primate; Epiphany Dumenko (Bartholomew’s uncanonical candidate); and the extremely colorful Philaret Denisenko, the man who singlehandedly precipitated the entire Ukrainian crisis in the first place.   In order to placate Denisenko, Bartholomew made him “Patriarch Emeritus” of Ukraine, a move which satisfied no one and in fact, only served to anger Denisenko.

In November, Bartholomew is slated to come to America.  Rumors abound that he will “bless” the new charter for the GOA and force the retirement of the existing metropolitans, replacing each with a bishop.  The seats will be filled with several unknown monks who were recently brought to the United States by Elpidophoros and placed strategically near the archdiocesan headquarters. 

In addition, he is to consecrate the St Nicholas Shrine in New York City, roughly approximating the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its destruction.  His agenda is not set in stone and neither is St Nicholas.  It remains an incomplete eyesore, horrendously over budget.  Even worse, it has no set date for opening.  As for the prospects for jurisdictional unity in America, they appear to be remote.

Finally, Bartholomew was supposed to pay a visit to Cuba after his American sojourn.  One can only speculate as to why.  As a revolutionary society, it is an abject failure and no longer holds much allure even for the Third World.  We have since learned that this leg of the journey was “postponed”.  

Perhaps his declining health precludes it.  If the cancellation of the Cuban leg of his North American journey is any indication, then we can say that his plans remain fluid, especially if any prospective successes in the United States remain elusive. 

This hesitancy is viewed positively in some circles.  One reason would be the fact that should he proceed to execute his plans for Ukraine, he runs the very real risk of provoking a worldwide schism within the Orthodox Church.  As is known, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church is scheduled to meet in November of this year.  Metropolitan Onuphriy of Kiev sits on that body and no doubt any further intrusions in his archdiocese will be viewed most unfavorably.  

As a Christian bishop resident in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim in population, it cannot be overlooked that despite Bartholomew’s tight grip on the reins of power within his patriarchate, he is ultimately a hostage to events and not a driver of them.  Try as he might, he cannot escape his circumstances; neither the size of his patriarchate (which is minuscule) nor the usually hostile Turkish government allows him any such luxury.  As such, he has no real power; a fact which is obvious even to those who surround him.  Flowery titles for metropolitans of extinct dioceses to the contrary, some of the bishops have the remarkable latitude to engage in their own whims and caprices while others engage in internecine squabbles. 

His putative heir, Metropolitan Emanuel Adamakis of Chalcedon for example, has not taken Turkish citizenship (which is a requirement for elevation to the patriarchal throne); instead he has purchased a home in one of the northern suburbs of Athens, a move that was met with anger by the Turkish government.  Already there is jockeying for position among certain metropolitans, which the Turkish government is using to its advantage (https://orthodoxtimes.com/turkish-games-aimed-at-the-phanar/)

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future holds.   Of course, we hope for his health, yet despite his longevity on the throne, the time will come when a more sober analysis of his legacy will take place.  Presently, all we can say is that he is viewed in some circles as a man of progressive vision, one who took the necessary steps to bring some semblance of order as far as inter-Orthodox relations are concerned.  His championship of the local Episcopal Assemblies, for example, has merit, at least as far as the diaspora is concerned.  Likewise his granting of autocephaly to the local church in Albania was rightly lauded and overdue.  

Not that he was a lone actor; it was Elpidophoros’ mission to bring the other American jurisdictions into the Constantinopolitan fold.  This would have been one of the crowning achievements of Bartholomew had Elpidophoros been able to do so, as it would have invalidated the autocephaly of the OCA.  (That said, the OCA has divested itself of its properties in Syosset and is moving its headquarters to Washington, DC,  move which, if anything, would be congruent Orthodox ecclesiology regarding the placement of a headquarters for a national church.)

That being said, the record is mixed, at best.  His still-born “Great and Holy Council” has not resolved anything despite all protestations to the contrary and even its votaries have quietly forgotten it.

As for his heavy-handed intrusion into Ukraine, it is hard to imagine how it could be viewed in a benign light.  The fact that several “mini-Ukraines,” (e.g. Macedonia and Montenegro), wait in the wings has likewise galvanized opposition to him in Balkan circles.  This newfound arrogance seems to be in lock-step with American hegemonic ambitions and does not sit well with many in the Orthodox world.  Especially so given the fact that American geopolitical hegemony is no longer cloaked in the mantle of freedom as it was during the days of the Cold War, but in unsettling, ultra-liberal ideas.

And then there is the elephant in the room, which is the deliberate steps that Bartholomew has taken with regard to union with Rome.  It’s ironic but instead of healing the Great Schism, should he take this step, then schisms within schisms will erupt in ways that would be difficult to contain.

As for this last venture, time is probably not on Bartholomew’s side.  This might explain his headlong rush into Ukraine, his desire to unite all of the American jurisdictions under him, and the ill-advised granting of autocephalies in the Balkans (to say nothing about Ukraine).

However, it is unity with Rome that remains the long-awaited jewel for his earthly crown.  He will accept nothing less before he goes.  None of the other men who are his possible successors possess the stature to execute such ambitious plans and there is little time to teach them.        

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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