Church Life and Pastoral Care, Orthodoxy and Modernity

Heersay: Fr. Peter Heers and Online Orthodoxy  

Published on: June 23, 2023
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On Bright Thursday 2023, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States issued a statement about an Orthodox cleric without a canonical home. During the bright joy of Paschaltide, the bishops decided to tackle an issue plaguing Orthodoxy in the United States for the past several years: namely, how to publicly denounce a divisive online cleric with an ambiguous canonical affiliation. Fr. Peter Heers, who, through his far-right ideologies and conspiratorial thinking, has built a large and growing social media following among the Reactive Orthodox movement, has failed repeatedly to answer an easy question: Who is your bishop? Finally, it seems, the hierarchs had enough of Heers’s canonical subterfuge and decided to set the record straight themselves. In the communiqué, they proclaimed:

The Assembly can further confirm that Archpriest Peter Heers is not a clergyman of, or on loan to, any other canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States. To the extent that this individual purports to act as an Orthodox priest in the United States, including celebrating the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church and teaching the faithful and those who inquire into Orthodoxy, he does so in a manner outside of the Holy Canons.

This straightforward asserting of Heers’s acting “as an Orthodox priest” and “outside of the Holy Canons,” brings us to a pressing question: Who is Peter Heers, and why would the Assembly of Bishops opt to make such a public statement of condemnation against Heers during the festal time of Bright Week? To understand why the critique of Heers is so important for the Church in the United States, we must trace out the conversation around Heers’s canonical authority. In the [forthcoming] second part to this essay, we will also dive into his social media presence and theological ideologies.

For Orthodox Christians not following the story of canonicity swirling around Heers, the Assembly’s statement might come as a shock. For those of us who work on and in U.S. Orthodoxy, this statement was a long time in the making. Heers has always been a bit of an outside figure in U.S. Orthodoxy. He converted to the faith in the 1990s while he was in college after he heard that his father, an Anglican priest in the San Francisco Bay area, was in the process of converting his religious community. The mid-1990s would find Heers in South Carolina, working for the now defunct Rose Hill College, a pan-Orthodox great books institution.  In the late 1990s, Heers studied at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, obtaining, according to his curriculum vitae, a D.Th. in 2013. Eventually Heers settled in Greece, married a woman from Thessaloniki, and had five children. During this time, Heers was also active in the creation of Uncut Mountain Press.

According to his own biography, Heers was ordained to the priesthood in 2003 in the Diocese of Kastoria in Greece. The 2000s were a productive time for Heers. He was attached to a parish in Greece, then to a monastery, then to a parish again. By 2017, Heers was in the United States and teaching at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, although it appears that he also went back to Greece for a short time. Right before his transition to the United States, Heers became the founder and editor-in-chief of Orthodox Ethos (OE). OE now serves as a key site for conspiratorial and radically ideological Orthodox content. Eventually, Heers also offered his 43,600 YouTube subscribers and followers a podcast to go along with OE’s written content. Additionally, Heers monetized his content, creating, as many digital microcelebrities do, paid memberships to access exclusive content. Outside of his digitally expanding presence, Heers was on the move geographically. After a brief stint in Jordanville, Heers was off to Arizona to head up Three Hierarchs Academy in Florence, AZ, which he seems to be done with now.

Heers’s move to the United States created questions in the minds of many about his canonical and jurisdictional affiliation. When questions were raised on social media, Heers often deflected or only partially answered the question “Who is your bishop?” Social media personalities such as TheoriaTV and Craig Truglia attempted to figure out Heers’s canonical standing and have become spiritual inquisitors in a sense, providing documents and evidence from different dioceses to trace out Heers’s jurisdictional affiliation. In 2022, the question of Heers’s canonical standing became even more pointed, and in November the Eastern American Diocese (EAD) of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia issued a statement, circulated widely on social media, proclaiming that Heers was not “a clergyman of the Eastern American Diocese or of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia nor is there any pending consideration of his reception.” Furthermore, the EAD claimed that “to the best of our knowledge he remains a cleric of the State Church of Greece.” Heers responded to this statement in blog post on November 17:

In 2021 I was received into ROCOR by Metropolitan Hilarion of New York (of blessed memory) and assigned to the clergy of Holy Trinity Monastery, being a lecturer at Holy Trinity Seminary in the certificate program. Sometime later, due to an irregularity with regard to my release and reception, the Holy Synod suggested that I find a way to re-regularize my position.

Heers’s assertion is in direct contradiction to the ROCOR statement. So was Heers, a man who knows very little Russian and is steeped in the Greek Orthodox culture, planning to leave the Church of Greece for a Russian jurisdiction?

Heers posted in a scan of a canonical release letter from the Church of Greece to the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.SA.  Ben Cabe of TheoriaTV, an outlet that decries both “progressive” and radical Orthodoxy, was eventually able to acquire low resolution photos of a 2018 letter from the administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. that indicate the diocese was willing to receive Heers. This letter was written by Bishop John of Naro-Fominsk, who eventually moved to Europe and then retired in 2020 to Moscow. Heers is not listed among MP U.S.A. clergy on their diocesan website, indicating that he is not currently a priest under the authority of the Russian Church. Perhaps what is more telling is the fact that Assembly of Bishops, including Bishop Matthew of Sourozh, the Interim Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in the U.S.A. & Canada, has clearly indicated that Heers is not a priest within a U.S.-based jurisdiction. Furthermore, unless Heers has the documentation to prove otherwise, it is evident from the 2018 release letter that he is no longer under the Church of Greece. Thus, it seems that Heers is a priest without a bishop. This lack of canonical oversight suggests he is without antimins as well.  Perhaps this is the reason why Heers has turned to the digital Orthodox world to serve as his de facto parish.

Certainly, the lack of clarity regarding Heers’s canonical status is alarming. Recently I reached out to Heers for a statement, but he did not offer a response. What is more alarming than his canonical status, however, is Heers’s form of Orthodox theology and spirituality, which appears to be deceptively alluring to his far-right base of Orthodox rigorists and radicals, many of whom defend him online with great vigor despite the lack of veracity in his claims. In part two of this essay, I will delve into the type of reactionary, often false information Heers preaches to his online followers, and why folks such as Heers raise concerning questions about the trajectory of Orthodoxy in the United States.

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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.

About author

  • Sarah Riccardi-Swartz

    Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology, Northeastern University

    Dr. Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University, where she is also an affiliate faculty member in the women's, gender, and sexuality studies program. Before joining Northeastern University she was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Recovering Tru...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website 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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