American Orthodox leaders, inevitably on one or other side of the widening Greek–Slavic divide in world Orthodoxy, typically echo the voice of the peculiar foreign “Mother–Church” to which each hierarch is canonically bound. So Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) in the USA, although expressing his sympathy for the hapless Russians being “deceived and victimized by their leaders . . . both civil and religious,” clearly echoed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decisive condemnation of “Moscow’s obsessive ethnophyletism and promotion of its Russkiy Mir agenda.”[i] No less pointedly, Archbishop Elpidophoros placed the “responsibility for condoning such unrighteousness . . . squarely on the leadership of the Russian Church and clearly on Patriarch Kirill.” By comparison, the overall transparency of the two statements posted on the website of the “only autocephalous American Orthodox Church”—to repeat the usual mantra of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—falls somewhere between the obscurity of the first statement (from OCA Metropolitan Tikhon [Mollard]) and the half–clarity of the second statement (from the bishops of the OCA Holy Synod).
In his statement of 24 February 2022, Metropolitan Tikhon refers ethereally to “the distressing developments in Ukraine” and repeats the exact verbal subterfuge which the Russian Federation used to announce their invasion: he asks, using the first person, that “President Putin put an end to “the [not his] military operations.”[ii] Within twenty–four hours after this anodyne request was publicly criticized,[iii] the OCA Holy Synod posted a more politically robust statement which correctly identifies the “military operations” as “the war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” An informed reader can discern and a prudent not to say sympathetic one can appreciate the ecclesiastical menace which, one can reasonably conjecture, obstructed the OCA’s public progression from obfuscation to half–clarity: the possible annulment or, more likely, effective neutralization of the fifty–year–old ROC tomos granting the (always contested in “Greek” world Orthodoxy) “Russian autocephaly” of the OCA.
His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon Members of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America
We write as painfully concerned, truth–seeking, and truth–committed Orthodox Christians: we are chagrined clergy and lay members of the Orthodox Church in America, who as American citizens value religious and political freedom. Conscience compels us to speak. The unprovoked Russian military invasion and indiscriminate bombardment and levelling of Ukrainian cities have resulted in the violent deaths and maiming of thousands and the dreadful displacement of millions of innocent Ukrainian citizens, among them vulnerable non-combatants: women, children, hospital patients, and the aged. We are perturbed that the episcopal leadership of the Orthodox Church in America has not only refused to identify in a public and straightforward manner but, instead, has chosen to cloak and shield through its silence and platitudes about the evils of war, the two primary and immediate agents responsible for commanding and defending the unjust Russian attack on Ukraine: Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, who directly ordered the invasion and continuing attacks, and Kirill (Gundyaev), the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, who willingly serves as the chief religious ideologist and propagandist for President Putin.
There are beleaguered and oppressed Russian dissenters who, at great personal cost, repudiate President Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s war against Ukraine. Their heroism speaks for itself but it also should speak to our Holy Synod. There should be no need to demonstrate to our OCA bishops what persons throughout the world—of many different political persuasions but with rightly informed consciences—know: that Russian President Putin bears primary responsibility for the morally unjustifiable Russian invasion and continuing barbaric attacks on Ukraine, and that Moscow Patriarch Kirill willingly defends the viciously aggressive and repressive Putin regime. Now if there really is a need to demonstrate such evident facts, may God help the OCA! For, apparently, no merely human political or theological analysis of these facts will ever suffice to motivate the Holy Synod to speak out in defense of truth and justice! Nonetheless, there is such a theologically precise and convincing demonstration available, which was issued by an international group of Orthodox theologians, churchmen, and intellectuals: “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir).” The Declaration is a cogent theological refutation and strong condemnation of (what it labels) President Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s “heretical” religious–political ideology.
The January 2021 Schmemann Lecture delivered by Mr. Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor of The American Conservative, has provoked bewilderment and objections especially among former students of Father Alexander. Was Dreher—neither an academic nor a theologian but a polemical journalist who proclaims it pointless to “dialogue” with Orthodox progressives—the appropriate person to deliver a lecture named in honor of the late archpriest? Not, certainly, if one compares the scholarly and ecclesial standing of Dreher to previous Schmemann lecturers. Does the warm, even apparently tight embrace of Dreher by the current President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, signify an already accomplished “culture war” transmogrification of the seminary and portend further hardline, divisively ideological efforts to reorient the whole OCA? The answer to the first question seemed evident enough to provoke a letter of protest from a number of anxious alumni to the seminary’s board of trustees. But a plausible answer to the second question requires considerably more effort—an informed and judicious reading of many ecclesiastical signs, a dangerous task that few OCA clerics would be equipped or eager to undertake publicly. The recently provoked band of objectors seems confronted by a debilitating choice: naively continuing by impotent complaints to close the barn door after the horses have fled, or bravely and equanimously—but perhaps foolhardily (as many will surely think)—enlisting themselves among those who speak the neuralgic truth because it is the truth. Are there many people who want to listen much less act upon the latter?
Gregory Thompson, a Protestant pastor, who is himself an academically trained theologian, has written an extensive and trenchant critique of Dreher’s most recent book: see Comment, “Return of the Cold Warrior: Reflections on Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies,” December 3rd 2020. Dreher’s book, the proximate source of his Schmemann Lecture, rhetorically targets the “soft totalitarianism” menacing American culture: in Thompson’s description, the “progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition” Thompson, however, details what he considers to be four egregiously ruinous errors in Dreher’s “Cold War,” fearful political theology. It is: (1) a morally black and white, Manichean account of history; (2) an ideological division of persons into godless progressivist villains and godly conservative victims; (3) an instrumental and tendentious use of people identified as allies; and (4) a self-confirming projection of Dreher’s own politicized religiosity but a reductively escapist account of the Church’s mission. All of these themes can be found in his recent Schmemann lecture.