Bishops are regularly in the news for exercising their authority and then either coming under fire or being praised for doing so. Over the last couple months we’ve seen volcanic reactions for and against Archbishop Elpidophoros presiding at the baptism of a gay couple’s children in Greece. When the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America delivered an uncompromising statement on same-sex relationships and sexual identity to the 1000 or so clergy and lay delegates of the “All-American Council” the gathering spontaneously gave the bishops a standing ovation. Others were deeply troubled by the bishops quashing discussion, debate, and dissent. These opposite public reactions to what bishops say and do vividly illustrate the polarization of church life. But they also illustrate a healthy (even if messy) tension between the institutional and the charismatic which has always been present in the Orthodox Church And this tension needs to be allowed and even encouraged, not stamped out.
“Bishops and Pentecost” is a short-hand way of saying that the Orthodox Church affirms both the institutional and the charismatic. The Holy Spirit courses through the Church’s history, scriptures, liturgy, sacraments, icons, and what could be called its structures of discernment, meaning especially its bishops acting in council. At the same time, faithfulness to the experience of the Spirit speaking in the past is balanced by discernment of the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking in the present. And here too, the bishops play the key role. To use a playground image, consider a seesaw, with Tradition on one side and contemporary experience on the other. The bishops are at the center, as the fulcrum, discerning the direction of the Spirit to bring these two dimensions into balance. To be sure, the rest of the church—clergy, laity, monastics, and even scholars—are there to inspire, aid, and challenge the bishops in this process, but it is the bishops’ specific vocation to maintain balance between faithfulness to Tradition and discernment of the Spirit today. Anyone who wants to understand the invisible heart of Orthodox Christian self-understanding must take seriously the central place given to bishops all over the Orthodox world—regardless of geography, ethnicity, nationality, culture, history, or any other secondary factors. But none of this should be romanticized. It’s a chaotic process that takes place over time through the ragged jostling of fallible human beings—including bishops—who all in their own way are “looking through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12).
Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality: the banquet of immortality. In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, Let us receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify. (Holy Thursday, Canon Ode 9)
In January 2022, I was invited to give the annual Father Georges Florovsky Lecture for the Orthodox Theological Society in America and one of the issues I addressed was the disturbing trend among some Orthodox to reject dialogue with their fellow Orthodox Christians on controversial topics.
Especially now, with the violence in Ukraine largely pitting Orthodox Christians against each other, one would have thought that this was precisely the moment to value conversation. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s armed forces are devastating Ukraine with barbaric ferocity, and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes as refugees. And yet, negotiators from Russia and Ukraine are still talking. If enemy governments can negotiate, can we who share the same Eucharist refuse dialogue with one another, even on the most sensitive topics?
Rod Dreher of The American Conservative is the most prominent champion against dialogue. “I only engage people who come to me in good faith and are willing to listen. I don’t waste my time with those who don’t. It’s not worth it. I’m not interested. I don’t grant legitimacy to those who are just trolling me or trying to own conservatives.” In the lecture I drew attention to Dreher’s views on dialogue, and a couple weeks later he responded with a blistering critique in The American Conservative. “If you listen to Father Jillions’s speech, you’ll see that it’s a classic example of progressive obfuscation—the kind of thing that well-meaning priests and laity who have never dealt directly with it can easily fall for.”
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is still uncoiling, but the destruction he is inflicting on the people of Ukraine has already succeeded in uniting the fractious Orthodox churches in Ukraine around defense of their homeland. He has also ensured that the Patriarchate of Moscow—so closely aligned with Vladimir Putin—has no future in Ukraine, whatever its canonical claims. The Orthodox Church is devoted to preserving good order and canonical tradition, but there are times when canons must yield to reality, and in Ukraine, it should have been obvious decades ago that Moscow’s ecclesiastical oversight of Ukraine was impossible. Certainly after 2014 with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his carving out of Donbas, and his war of occupation that left 14,000 Ukrainians dead in eight years. This was a glaring pastoral reality that Patriarch Bartholomew recognized in granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018 despite canonical controversy. Now, among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine faced with uniting against Moscow’s monstrous war, there is already talk of a union council. And maybe the rest of the Orthodox world will eventually catch up and see the pastoral wisdom of Patriarch Bartholomew’s action.
Here, the history of the Church of England during the American Revolution in 1775-1783 offers some valuable lessons. As David L. Holmes wrote in an important article on which this essay is based:
Technically speaking, the Anglican Church in America was an innocent bystander in the American Revolution. But since it lived in the neighborhood of one of the participants and was intimately related to the other, it emerged with a terrible beating. The war raised questions of patriotism, of loyalty, and of the obligations of Christians at a time of war…
(David L. Holmes, “The Episcopal Church and the American Revolution,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September, 1978), pp. 261-291, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973625, 261.)
The recent dustup over Archbishop Elpidophoros borrowing the historic St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City for a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and then subsequently meeting with its rector, Bishop Dean Wolfe, highlights the perennial debate among Orthodox about how we ought to relate to outsiders. Throughout church history some have seen threats where others see opportunity. But opportunities can be threatening, because they imply risk and change. And for churches to make the most of opportunities requires leaps says Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian Catholic philosopher and author of the widely praised A Secular Age: “There can and must be leaps. Otherwise no significant forward steps will be made in response to God. Someone has to break altogether with some historic forms” (669).
This conflict over relating to outsiders is as old as the gospels. Jesus made a point of engaging with people “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13). While this was refreshing for some, among religious leaders and traditionalists it mostly ignited opposition. They saw Jesus and later the Apostles as threats to familiar and even God-given customs and traditions. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus standing his ground in the pursuit of the mission to open new opportunities to generously advance God’s Kingdom through compassion, healing, offering a spiritual oasis, simplifying and widening access to grace. He does this often quietly and secretly, but at other times in open defiance of religious leaders and the expectations of his own family and disciples. Here are a few examples: