Public Criticism of Orthodox Bishops by the Faithful – Responding to Letters from Priests

church with closed signWe got two response from priests, one Antiochian and one Greek Archdiocese, taking us to task over our article Why Won’t Orthodox Bishops Fight for California? Before we get into a discussion of their feedback, let’s explore how we ended up in a situation where the Faithful are being openly critical of their own bishops.

There was little or any criticism of bishops over church closings at the beginning of the Coronovirus “crisis.” The media had thrown everyone into hysteria by endlessly discussing computer models, from self-serving academics, that predicted millions of deaths just in the United States alone.  Academics, by the way, with long histories of predicting one Apocalyptic crisis after another that just did not materialize. The bishops, we are sure, were beset by legal advice that it was best to go along with government policy. Many of the pronouncements from bishops read like they were primarily written by legal counsel.

But the promise was “15 days to flatten the curve,” and the idea at first glance appeared to be somewhat reasonable. Slow the spread to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed like they were in Italy. Further, there was no reason at that point to expect the bishops to understand how thoroughly politicized the public health and epidemiological sectors of our government really are. They also could not have envisioned how tyrannical state and local officials could become if given the chance to rule by decree. So by and large, the first real criticism of the bishops did not start till well into the lock downs.

But 15 days became 30 days then became 60 days and now, six months later, emergency orders are still in place and churches are still closed in California (officially as we will see) and very constrained many other places. The goal posts for resuming normal life have continuously moved, to the point that some  governors are claiming that some level of lock down will continue until a vaccine is available and widely used.

Even as far back as April, the data were clear that the lock downs were an over reaction to a modestly threatening disease. Dr. Scott Atlas, former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center, is now a leading advisor to President Trump. Back on 4/22 he published a blistering critique of lock down policy that concluded:Scott Atlas

The overwhelming evidence all over the world consistently shows that a clearly defined group — older people and others with underlying conditions — is more likely to have a serious illness requiring hospitalization and more likely to die from COVID-19. Knowing that, it is a commonsense, achievable goal to target isolation policy to that group, including strictly monitoring those who interact with them. Nursing home residents, the highest risk, should be the most straightforward to systematically protect from infected people, given that they already live in confined places with highly restricted entry.

Subsequent information has only confirmed what Dr. Atlas first said in April. The estimated survival rate for Covid-19 is 99.6%. The CDC has confirmed that only 6% of those listed as Covid-19 deaths died solely of the disease while the other 94% had an average of 2.6 additional conditions or causes of death. Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and sepsis. The average age of a Covid-19 death is over 80 years of age in the United States. That is actually over the average life expectancy in this country. Then there is the fact that a New York Times report indicates that 90% or more of the positives on the PCR should really have been negative for coronavirus. That not only calls into question our current numbers, but further casts doubt on the morbidity figures. Many of the deaths associated with Covid-19 were not based on a diagnosis, but instead were based on a positive test.

By now, it is quite clear that we wrecked our economy and closed our churches over unfounded hysteria. Only a small portion of the faithful, the very old, and/or those with serious comorbidities, were ever at risk. But despite all the new information, 15 days to slow the spread has now become, for the first time in history, an indefinite period to eradicate a virus. Amid this ongoing “crisis,” criticism of Orthodox Bishops over their seeming inaction is publicly mounting. Or in the case of multiple spoons, it is precisely their actions that are causing the criticism.

Keep in mind, there are some 50 or more canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States plus the ones in Canada. So the criticism of “the bishops” is sweeping with a very broad brush. If there are bishops who are more active in defending religious freedom than others, please let us know via email or in the comments. The Orthodox faithful on this continent need heroes.

Below is an excerpt of an email we received from a Greek Archdiocese priest about criticizing bishops

It has been a while since I have seen an Orthodox author/article commit the sin of ierokatagoria (judging the clergy) and take such cheap pot shots at our Orthodox hierarchs without you yourself ever walking a mile in their shoes. In doing so, you insult all your Orthodox brothers and sisters in their jurisdictions. May I remind you that St. John Chrysostom tells us that one who judges the clergy, and especially publicly, is unworthy to enter the threshold of the Church. St. Cosmas of Aitolos tells us “be careful my brothers–let not the laity judge or curse the clergy…for you set a fire and will get burned by it, for the clergy are higher than the Angels!”

We don’t know of any one whose first instinct was to write an article criticizing a Successor to the Apostles. However, it has been our experience that at least the really important bishops do not return phone calls or emails. Even the most respectful questions / comments end up deleted from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook and the poster usually finds himself/herself blocked from any further conversation. In all fairness, of course, this is probably being done by an employee or intern. Nobody expects elderly bishops to necessarily manage their own social media and email. But it does indicate that at least the important bishops in North America live in an echo chamber. Since in-person visits in a country as big as ours are rare, that leaves us with only public channels to make our voices heard. That is a very unfortunate situation that could easily be remedied by letting the Faithful actually talk to their bishops.

We would challenge this priest and the hierarchs to think about this – what would cause the most dedicated, the most concerned, the most prayerful Orthodox Christians (in some cases priests and monks) to openly criticize men they consider to be the very Successors to the Apostles of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? The people posting criticism are not the typical malcontents pushing for women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and union with the Episcopal Church or whatever. Nor are they the Christmas and Easter crowd or the folks who come a couple of times a year to make Yia Yia or Babushka happy. The people writing these criticisms are the Faithful who typically pray, pay, and obey. Many of the people taking the current situation the hardest are the foundation of the Orthodox Church on this continent. At the very least, the bishops and the clergy need to give these people a fair hearing, rather than trying to shut them up or avoid the conversation.

None of us have walked in the shoes of a bishop. But are the bishops walking in our shoes? Are the bishops walking in the shoes of millions of unemployed who desperately seek hope? These people just want to go to church in a normal fashion and feel that God, and their hierarchs, love them. The number of couples looking to divorce is up 34%. Are the bishops walking in the shoes of the desperate husbands, wives, and children whose lives are disintegrating? Drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, mental illness, and alcoholism are sky rocketing. Those are some tough shoes to walk in. Millions have had their lives turned upside down by riots that tore through American cities, leaving whole commercial areas in ruins. We have yet to see a major “official” Orthodox publication from the bishops talk about trying to walk in their shoes.

And what about the parents struggling to raise children in this time, when it seems that the Church in its embrace of the Covid-19 hysteria is no different than thejesus-suffer-the-children world? One Orthodox mom poured out her heart this way:

In the last three months, I have not heard one bishop, or directive from a bishop, speak about our children. Not one.  The ONLY reference to children has been that if they cannot distance themselves properly, they will need to remain home.

I am deeply grieved by this and, quite frankly, angry and I believe rightly so. My husband and I, like many other Orthodox parents, have struggled and done the hard work, week after week, year after year, for twelve years now, to take our children to church and teach them our faith.

And with one virus, that we are learning is not nearly as deadly as it was reported to be, they have pulled the thread out of not only our twelve years of work but thousands of years of work combined, by all Orthodox parents, all diligently working to pass on our precious and unique faith to our children, as our parents and grandparents did to us.  This is all wrong.

You know, Father, if we felt like the bishops were even trying to feel our pain, our anguish, our fear, and our struggles – then we would not be having this conversation.

Finally, a sin is no less a sin just because it is widespread. So if public criticism of the hierarchs is sinful in this case, then we bear that stain. But we would like to point out to the good priest that his comment that we are somehow unique or alone in this is simply, totally, untrue. In fact, the same Orthodox Website on which the GOA priest read our post also, at the same time, was running an article from a Serbian priest that was far tougher on the bishops than we had ever dared to be:

Most sadly, many of our spiritual shepherds – the bishops, have idly watched how our religious freedoms are being taken away from us without saying a word, while some blindly followed the unconstitutional orders of the State authorities and closed churches to the believers, thus pretending that going to church and participating in the Holy Sacraments is “non-essential”. Shame on them! They will not escape the righteous wrath of God.

It may comfort this GOA priest and/or some of the bishops to believe that only a few bad apples are complaining. That is a false comfort. For every criticism you manage to read, there are so many, many more unhappy Faithful who are simply suffering in silence. They are at risk of leaving the Church, and they are exactly the kind of people the Church needs most.

In his email, the GOA priest also said:

The hierarchs’ intent is to keep their faithful safe and out of harms way, and they too are doing their best to navigate these unchartered waters.  Whether or not they should take step A or step B instead, they will be criticized either way.  Many parishioners, whether out of weakness, lack of faith or erring on the side of caution, are concerned about the virus and spreading it to their loved ones.  Should a hierarch ignore this, and insist their faithful ignore the state mandates, he might very well scandalize them and lose them.  A shepherd can lead his flock only as much as flock trusts him and is willing to follow.  Our hierarchs have pressures placed on them that we cannot possibly fathom.  They, like us, will give an account before God for their actions or inactions.  Our job is to pray for them.

American flag burningThat is the same kind of single-dimensional thinking that caused governments to imprison the young and healthy in order to protect the sick and the elderly. The faithful that have multiple co-morbidities and/or are of advanced age could be cared for individually, while the rest of the Church resumes its regular life. The bishops are obsessed with one group of the Faithful and one method of protecting them, while sacrificing everyone else. You do not build the Church by catering to the weak while tearing down the strong. We need to build up the Faith of those who doubt, protect those legitimately at risk (instead of merely fearful) and pastor the entire Church which has a multiplicity of needs. We have already given example after example of how our society is in a chaotic free fall. The bishops need to think about the entire flock, not just those who have surrendered to their fear of death.

It is true that bishops, as public leaders, will always be subjected to criticism. The key question is whether or not it is valid criticism? A bishop being criticized for zealously defending the Orthodox Faith is wearing a badge of honor. A bishop being criticized for passively accepting the closure of his Churches is not. Discernment is needed by any leader to decide when to change course and when to double-down.

bishop throne

It is quite apparent that many, many of the Faithful simply do not trust the bishops and are not willing to follow. As noted in our previous article, we have not seen any real action on the part of Orthodox Bishops to counter the impression left by the lock downs that Orthodox worship is non-essential. It is true that Archbishop Kyrill did protest the California ban on liturgical singing. Glory to God for that! But that is only one small part of the overall problem and we cannot find where the Archbishop has said anything about the California church lock down.

Is Orthodox worship essential?  If it is, then the bishops need to speak forcefully, clearly, and publicly for the benefit of the Faithful and those who are inquiring into Orthodoxy. Silence continues to harm Orthodox Christians, and we would argue, the witness of the Orthodox Church that is so needed in our divided nation.

An Antiochian priest posted a welcome comment that indicated, despite the ban on Churches, at least some of the Orthodox parishes in California are operating. The priest wrote:

And in addition the Antiochian orthodox metropolitan Joseph issued a letter to all his clergy in California after the governor’s second shut down of the churches, in which he instructed them to keep them open at the same 25% capacity that he had blessed previously. He instructed us however to have the live streaming to be audio only, as I assume he is not trying to purposely pick a fight with the authorities but remain faithful to our orthodox practice and faith in the face of the politicization of this crisis. He is not asking us to run out and cause martyrdom on this issue, but he is sticking firm that the churches remain open and be able to do all the sacraments and the services. And that has been our practice since.

We also heard in the comments that Archbishop Kyrill has made communion available to his flock. These are all wonderful things for which we give Glory to God. The people need their shepherds and to be present in worship. We fully support these actions and pray for the continued success of these parishes.

We would simply add that it is not yet time for the catacombs. While we should all be ready for martyrdom, as professing the name of Christ can be dangerous anywhere and any time, we are not yet living in Pagan Rome, the Soviet Union, or modern Turkey. The bishops over parishes in California can continue what they are doing, and they can speak out against the selective tyranny of Governor Newsome. Free speech has not yet been eradicated, and a public declaration in favor of Orthodox freedom of worship would do much good for the Faithful and for those who are looking for authentic Christian witness in this land.

Further, we still have a functioning court system in this country. The Protestants are filing law suits along with public interest legal foundations. The First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of Religion still applies in California. If there is a reason why the Orthodox Churches cannot avail themselves of the courts the way Protestants (and even Catholics) are doing, then the Bishops need to teach us that reason. Otherwise, it looks as if the Orthodox do not care enough to fight for their God-given right to practice the Faith.

We fully understand that it is unreasonable to believe that in the Church we are somehow exempt from illness. Gathering together will always be a risk. Though the Eucharist is free of disease, no crowd ever is. But at the same time, we understand as Archbishop Theodosy (Snigiryov) of Boyarka said:

If the Church adopts a “whatever they say, we’ll do,” stance as its doctrine of responding to social problems, then in the near future, authorities in different countries will be able to close our churches, and deprive the faithful of the Liturgy under any humanitarian pretext—a pandemic, the danger of nuclear war, climate change, etc.

Many citizens outside the Church have noticed the silence of the Bishops and have used it to mock and denigrate the Faith. These include Catholics, Protestants, and those of no faith. Public perception matters. If we are to boldly preach the Gospel, then it is perfectly fine for us to be hated for the sincerity of our Faith in Jesus Christ. Martyrs through out history have won converts to the faith by standing steadfast in the face of horrific persecution. It is okay to be hated by the world. But when the world believes that we don’t even take our own Faith seriously, then we are in a sore predicament indeed.

Finally, the Russian Synod has shown the way to how our Orthodox jurisdictions can move forward. The Bishops of Russia wrote:Patriarch Kirill

The considerably limited participation of people in worship service was unprecedented for our episcopate, clergy and laity in their personal experience. Realizing that the new threat facing humanity could involve grave consequences that hardly could have been fully predicted and aware of her responsibility for the life and health of innumerable people, the Church shared people’s burdens generated by the spread of the harmful infection and called upon her faithful to refrain for a while from their habitual way of participating in the liturgical life. However, this decision adopted as it was in an extraordinary historical situation, cannot become a new norm. The freedom of conscience and freedom of faith, including the right of believers to participate in worship services even in exceptional situations should remain unshakable.

The message gives the impression that mistakes might have been made, but that going forward the “new normal” is rejected and freedom of worship is embraced, even in a crisis. Have we seen any such declaration from our own bishops? Will we see one, ever? Such a message will go a long ways towards rebuilding the trust of the Faithful in the bishops.

We pray for our bishops, and we pray for such a message.

-Nicholas with contributions from the Orthodox Reflections Editorial Staff

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Public Criticism of Orthodox Bishops by the Faithful – Responding to Letters from Priests