[ditty_news_ticker id="27897"] HAVE WE HIT ROCK BOTTOM? REFLECTIONS OF A NOT-SO-INNOCENT BYSTANDER [witnessing the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution]

HAVE WE HIT ROCK BOTTOM? REFLECTIONS OF A NOT-SO-INNOCENT BYSTANDER [witnessing the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution]

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Source: Public Orthodoxy

by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis

Image: Orthodox World Council of Churches pre-assembly meeting (Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations)

There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.

Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.

And just as I thought that Orthodox bishops could stoop no lower, Patriarch Kirill dug his primatial staff deeper and exacerbated his ideological immorality, looking every inch the “Putin altar boy” that Pope Francis warned him about. How embarrassing for us all that Patriarch Kirill is now being considered for EU and US sanctions as a Putin oligarch. It doesn’t quite help his cause that his loudest supporter is Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban. For Patriarch Kirill, Russia is the perpetual victim; everyone else is to blame: the West and Ukraine, the Phanar and Vatican, the US and UN, NATO and LGBTQ. It’s not always easy to understand how to connect the dots of this “martyrdom,” but somehow President Putin and Patriarch Kirill do so quite seamlessly. I would expect this of a political bully; but should we not expect more of an Orthodox patriarch?

How do we interpret the fact that so many of our bishops continue with life inside and outside the church as though nothing is happening in Ukraine? For instance, how does a senior prelate like Patriarch Kirill serve and raise the chalice with the blood of Christ at the altar of a church conceived by a military general and dedicated to the armed forces, boasting frescoes with heavenly and earthly warriors as well as medieval and modern battles? Or how does an ordained bishop like Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev attend a meeting in Cyprus for an Orthodox pre-assembly meeting of the World Council of Churches to discuss “dialogue” and “reconciliation” with blood on his hands? In fact, how does any Orthodox hierarch passively tolerate the bloodshed in Ukraine? An overwhelming majority of bishops remain silent about more carnage than those they savagely point fingers at for abortions. How many dioceses, monasteries, and seminaries look the other way, even as they revel in blood money from “the potter’s field”?

How have Orthodox leaders responded in the more than two months since Russia’s brutal and unprovoked assault on Ukraine?

  • Four of the fifteen autocephalous primates (Patriarchs John of Antioch and Theophilos of Jerusalem, as well as Porfirije of Serbia and Neophyte of Bulgaria) have yet to condemn the war; Patriarch Kirill, of course, unforgivably supports it.
  • A number of churches, for fear of incurring the wrath of Kirill but under pressure from their own faithful, have denounced war and encouraged peace with platitudes more pertinent in times of serenity than times of suffering. For me, the most disappointing among these have been the statements of an exceptional hierarch—a personal hero, teacher, and mentor—Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, who was happy simply to quote the Beatitudes and “condemn all forms of violence, appealing for peace and reconciliation in Ukraine.”

Perhaps some of our bishops throughout the world can take a lesson from their courageous and scrupulous congregations. Perhaps some of our bishops in the United States should take a step back from their single-issue partisan thrones. Perhaps our hierarchs can derive inspiration and admiration from the hundreds of priests who defiantly risked arrest by addressing a protest letter to Patriarch Kirill; from the over a thousand theologians who publicly decried the religious ideology of russkii mir; or from the global demonstration organized by laypeople and spearheaded by women. I am also mindful of first responders around the world who have selflessly contributed to humanitarian organizations or taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose churches have condemned the invasion, or whose governments have imposed sanctions on Russia, often at tremendous economic sacrifice at home. These are the authentic silent heroes and titanic selfless actions of this kairos moment.

But the focus of my article is the state of the Orthodox Church, which desperately needs addressing. Perhaps the Orthodox Church needs to hit—or we need to admit it has already hit—rock bottom. Perhaps we should confess that our church consistently rejects freedom and democracy. Perhaps we should appreciate what we know in our hearts but rarely confess with our lips: that once again we are hopelessly and shamelessly on the wrong side of history. Then, and only then, will we be able to take the first—initially clumsy and cautious—steps toward reconciliation with our church and with our world.


Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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7 Comments

  1. Vladimir Melnik on

    I am completely on board with the condemnation of the war and the bishops, but I ask you why your and others singular concern about this war? The US has been aggressively executing violence around the world for decades and there has been no loud outcry for condemnation. Today the US illegally occupies one third of Syria, helps Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen, runs cover for the crimes of the Israeli state against the people of Palestine. Yes, these bishops are hypocrites but so are we for not speaking out for equal and greater crimes by our state. Where is the outrage and the prayers for these people? Silence by the Bishops to this is as great of an offence.

    • Peter Ray Millman on

      Hi Vladimir, In my humble opinion, it all boils down to the cowardice of our elected officials especially, Congress, and the US President. As we all know, Congress is bought and paid for by the various lobbies.

      • Vladimir Melnik on

        Hi Peter, yes complete cowardice is evident in our elected officials but how about the Church? While it is good that we are praying for peace and the people of Ukraine and calling out the hypocrisy of the Russian church leadership, we are silent regarding the victims of US aggression? Why is Church leadership in America and the world not calling out the crimes against humanity that US perpetrates? We are we not praying for these victims specifically? In my years since graduating college in ’91 the Us has been at perpetual state of war killing and maiming hundreds of thousands and displacing millions and I don’t remember our bishops calling out these crimes or calling for special petitions inserted into the liturgy for these victims.

        • Peter Ray Millman on

          Hi Vladimir,
          I could not agree with you more!! You really hit the nail on the head. Well said, my friend!!

  2. Ashley Nevins on

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. When corruption becomes systemic that is when the system goes dictatorial. Centralized power and control that is a religious and secular political dictatorship is IRAN. In Russia, might makes right and might that is right is Putin and Kirill in unity and agreement. Are Russia and Iran allies in the Middle East? How is the relationship between Israel and Russia today? Who is the author of division, war and murder? Who is control when those things are in control of a church? Do you know the name or the author of evil? There has been little mention of him from what I gather.

  3. Courageous, in that he acknowledges that there is a problem within Orthodoxy, but even if all the hierarchs expressed opposition to the war, significant problems remain. I am reminded of the words of our Lord in the book of Revelation when He stated: “you have lost your first love.”

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