On 11 June 2021, Archbishop Elpidophoros, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOARCH), presided over the Divine Liturgy at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The venue and the timing of the liturgy, the feast day of Saint Bartholomew, were intended to honor Elpidophoros’ superior in Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew. He was joined by several other GOARCH hierarchs and by Archbishop Michael of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). This liturgical celebration was controversial in light of the fact that this particular parish church and the Episcopal Church as a whole have been on the forefront of promoting the LGBTQ agenda. This event caused consternation among the Orthodox both within GOARCH and within OCA, leading many to wonder what had just taken place. The Orthodox website Monomakhos.com reported that one member of OCA wrote to Abp. Michael and received this response:
Let me be clear and state unambiguously the following: The fidelity of the Orthodox Church in America to the faith and moral teaching of the Church is unchanged. The concelebration of His Eminence Archbishop Michael with His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros and other bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church was exactly that, a concelebration of Orthodox hierarchs and clergy. No texts, statements, or gestures were undertaken, made, or even proposed with respect to any moral issues. In no way should this event be taken by anyone as a modification in any way of the Church’s moral teaching, or as laying the groundwork to modify it in any way. (Emphasis added.)
The OCA hierarch made a point of stressing that nothing had changed, and that OCA remained committed to the historic teaching and worship of Orthodoxy. But, is that indeed the case?
Transforming Historical Institutions
OrthodoxReflections also published an article on the same event. The article contained an insightful paragraph about what the author labeled “revolution within the form.”
Given the peculiarities of Orthodoxy, our Orthodox revolutionaries have to be smarter than those in other “Christian” traditions. They must introduce changes slowly and incrementally. All the while, Orthodox revolutionaries must convince the “unenlightened” that nothing of any great importance is actually happening. In many ways, this stealth method of revolution is more dangerous than overtly challenging the existing norms as the potential opposition can’t decide if there is even a threat. Called a “revolution within the form,” this method of transforming historical institutions has been stunningly successful at winning the battle before most of the victims even notice they are under attack. …. (Emphasis added.)
The strategy of revolution within the form has been used in other Christian denominations with quite a bit of success. Incremental changes were made that ostensibly were inconsequential but in the long run were irreversible. If one looks over the American religious landscape in the twentieth century, especially in the mainline Protestant denominations and in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, one cannot but be struck by the massive changes that took place in just a few decades. As liberal Christianity took over many mainline denominations many of the conservative members fled to the Orthodox Church. They believed they had found safe harbor in historic Orthodoxy. Many former Episcopalians and Anglicans are dismayed that what they have fled is now showing up in Orthodoxy, especially with the apparent acceptance shown by these two archbishops towards the Episcopal Church.
5 Centimeters Week by Week
Lawrence Wheeler, the administrator for this weblog, Handwritings on the Wall, told me a somewhat amusing anecdote about an Anglican seminarian in Japan who attempted change by stealth. Each seminary student was assigned to weekend duty at a nearby parish. This particular student’s job was to clean the church every Saturday in anticipation of Sunday services. In his enthusiasm for liturgical innovation, he took the opportunity to move the church altar five centimeters closer to the people every week. The goal was to create space behind the altar so that the priest could celebrate the Eucharist facing the people rather than maintaining the traditional position of keeping his back towards the congregation. The change was done gradually to avoid detection by the parish priest and avoid giving offense to the conservative congregation. The intent was to present the congregation with a fait accompli–a thing that has already happened. By the time the change might be noticed by observant lay people, it would be too late for them to demand a return to the more traditional posture. Moreover, by speaking out, they would be viewed as trouble makers who were unnecessarily opposed to the new status quo. The anecdote would be amusing if it were not for the fact that it involved unauthorized tampering with the holy things of God.
The Orthodox Church is known for its conservatism. There is a popular light bulb joke: “Q: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? A: Change? What is this thing called change? We’re Orthodox! We don’t change!” Those who wish to promote false ecumenism—union with the heterodox without the renunciation of heresies and innovations contrary to Holy Tradition—are aware that they need to bring about change within American Orthodoxy very slowly. The basic strategy is to retain the outward forms of Orthodoxy, but to slightly alter the context or content of these outward forms.
In the case of 11 June 2021, many of the outward forms of Orthodoxy were kept: the well-respected hierarchs of GOARCH and OCA met on the Feast Day of Saint Bartholomew to concelebrate the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. What changed was the venue. The Orthodox hierarchs met at an Episcopal parish church which is well-known for its liberal theology. The hierarchs entered the Episcopal cathedral through an entrance which was draped with the rainbow flag symbolic of the LGBTQ movement. Nothing appeared to change that day and yet everything changed, given the context. What changed was the apparent toleration by Orthodox hierarchs of the Episcopal Church’s heterodox teachings and morality. Rather than shun a church building associated with non-Orthodox views, our hierarchs acted as if the external settings did not matter. Apparently, for the hierarchs the outward, visible settings did not count for much. But this would be similar to a man taking off his wedding ring before entering a bar. Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed.
By sending the mixed message “nothing has changed, but everything has changed,” the Orthodox hierarchs set the stage for further desensitization of the Orthodox laity and clergy to heterodoxy. Silence on the part of the clergy and laity signals compliance and acceptance, and they create an opportunity for other mistakes that push the envelope of Orthodoxy. The way out of this mess is for the hierarchs to admit openly that a mistake has been made and that they are committed to avoiding this mistake in the future.
What the Orthodox Laity Can Do
The first thing Orthodox laity must do is to be grounded in Holy Tradition. In these perilous times when so many assumptions and beliefs are being questioned and challenged, it is imperative that Orthodox laity become knowledgeable about what comprises the Tradition. They must stand, not on their own personal opinion, but on the historic Apostolic Faith. If it appears that our clergy and hierarchs are in danger of compromising that Tradition, it will fall upon the Orthodox laity to step up to the plate and defend Orthodoxy. We encourage Orthodox laity to commit themselves to keeping the daily rule of prayer and to daily reading of the Bible. We also encourage the laity to commit themselves to attending the Sunday Liturgy every week. Beyond that, it would be good for Orthodox laity to become acquainted with the Church Fathers, church history, and the lives of the saints. In this time of crisis, the laity need to be informed by Holy Tradition and not act out of reactionary conservatism.
There are three ways that the laity can defend Orthodox Tradition: (1) with their voice, (2) with their pocketbook, and (3) with their feet.
Speaking out – In light of the excerpt from Archbishop Michael’s communication to the OCA layperson above, it seems that His Eminence made light of the event, saying that nothing really happened, that everything remains the same. But if the revolution within the form hypothesis holds true, then something of immense consequence happened that day and that the OCA laity need to speak out to their clergy and hierarchs. Rather than inquire timidly as to why something happened, they should take a firm stance, saying that what happened was inappropriate and a mistake, and they should request that the OCA go on record saying that the mistake will not be repeated. But first, what is needed is an admission from the OCA and the GOARCH hierarchs that what took place on 11 June 2021 was a mistake for which they are remorseful. OCA laity should also ask their respective clergy to speak out, saying that what took place on 11 June 2021 at St. Bart’s was a mistake and contrary to Orthodoxy. The same thing applies to laity within GOARCH. If a mistake is made and if those responsible own up to it, then the response of the Orthodox laity should be that of joyful forgiveness.
Orthodox laity in other jurisdictions should ask their respective clergy and hierarchs to speak out about Elpidophoros’ actions at St. Bart’s. What happened at St. Bart’s on 11 June affects all of American Orthodoxy.
Voting with the Checkbook – The next incremental step to take if the hierarchs do not admit their error, is for Orthodox laity to inform the local priest that they are withholding their giving in protest. Financial giving is for the kingdom of God. It is not a tax obligation that the laity are under obligation to provide the local parish. An offering in the plate is an act of a free conscience. Withholding financial support is a serious step and must be undertaken after prayer and careful consideration.
Voting with the Feet – Here the anomalous American situation of multiple jurisdictions may offer an unexpected blessing. The OrthodoxReflections article was written by a former member of GOARCH who migrated to the Antiochian archdiocese. Leaving a parish should be considered only as the last resort. And if done, should be done out of love and compassion, not anger and bitterness, or in a spirit of triumphalism. Leaving a parish over an issue like this should be done out of love for Jesus Christ and his Bride whom he redeemed with his Blood.
Heating Up the Kettle
There seems to be certain individuals and/or groups within American Orthodoxy who favor assimilating Orthodoxy into the American religious establishment. They support closer ties with Roman Catholics and Protestants while avoiding the awkward points of divergences from Holy Tradition. They are very aware that Orthodoxy is about Tradition and that anything too openly radical will cause the laity to flee, taking their checkbooks with them. This would explain why they are taking tiny baby steps in ecumenical relations with Roman Catholicism and with the Episcopal Church. They are counting on the Orthodox laity to be complacent or too unwilling to rock the boat. The advantage of the clergy has over the laity is that of time. Religion is their livelihood, meaning they can devote more time and attention to the ecumenical agenda than busy lay people. This brings to mind the analogy of the kettle full of frogs that was heated gradually so that all the frogs ended up cooked to their unwitting demise.
However, the advantage of the laity is their sheer numbers and their checkbooks. The advantage of the Orthodox converts, laity and clergy, is that we have experienced firsthand the revolution-within-the-form strategy in our former mainline Protestant churches and in Roman Catholicism. Many cradle-Orthodox Christians, who have little firsthand experience with mainline Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, often have little knowledge of how far non-Orthodox denominations have strayed from historic Christianity. At present the American Orthodox laity are in an undeveloped state of national solidarity. We need to reach out to one another and build strong networks based on personal friendships and collaboration. Here, the Internet can be a useful means of organizing the laity. An awakened Orthodox laity united in defense of Holy Tradition can stem the liberal tide.
It is time for American Orthodox laity to stand up for Orthodoxy and to hold fast to the Pearl of Great Price in the face of false ecumenism. (More will be said about this Pearl of Great Price in a future article.) We need to guard against complacency or the fear of rocking the boat. Silence signals tolerance or acceptance of the recent scandal. Our silence opens the door for other transgressive actions against Holy Tradition. Vocal opposition to heresy in these troubling times is an act of love for Christ and his Church.
A grave mistake was made by the Orthodox hierarchs on 11 June 2021 at the St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. However, there is still time for a course correction. This error needs to be corrected before it leads to other more serious scandals. At present (summer 2021), we are in the early stages of the crisis. The Orthodox laity need to speak out, saying that what happened on 11 June 2021 was contrary to Holy Tradition. That for Orthodox hierarchs to use a well-known place of worship associated with heterodox beliefs and practices is an error to be shunned in the future. We, the Orthodox laity, are waiting for the Orthodox clergy to address the matter. If they do not speak out, then it falls on the Orthodox laity to speak out loudly and clearly on the matter.
Lord, have mercy!
by Robert Arakaki
M.A., Church History; Ph.D. Political Science
Asian-American convert to Orthodoxy
“Is Syosset Feeling the Heat?” Monomakhos.com 19 June 2021.
“The Orthodox Revolution Comes to St. Bart’s.” OrthodoxReflections.com. 24 June 2021.
Press release in Orthodox Observer News. N.d. “Archbishop Elpidophoros to Celebrate the Feast Day of the Ecumenical Patriarch at Historic Saint Bartholomew Church in New York City.”
St. Paul Antiochian Church, Emmaus Pennsylvania. “Introduction to Orthodox Christianity.”
Lawrence Wheeler. “Really, Your Eminence?” Handwritings on the Wall (weborthodox.com), 26 June 2021.