A Thought Experiment

Let me offer you a thought experiment.

Yesterday on the Orthodox Church in America’s website there was an interesting press release recounting a “discussion between members of the Holy Synod of Bishops [of the OCA] and a number of congressmen during a late-January 2010 meeting in the US capital” (OCA Holy Synod members share human rights concerns with US congressmen).

The meeting addressed, again in the words of the press release, a

variety of issues affecting traditionally Orthodox Christian lands — among them, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey in light of His All Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew’s widely acclaimed December 2009 interview on “60 Minutes”; the plight of Orthodox Christians in Kosovo and Coptic Christians in Egypt; human trafficking; and other human rights issues.

Let me first say, I think it is a good thing for the bishops to speak with representatives of the US government; it is a very patristic thing actually.  It also speaks well of the Holy Synod that instead of bring their own, relative narrow concerns to Congress, they went not as advocates for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians and for human rights more broadly.  Generally and except for pro-life issues, Orthodox social witness has typically focused on matters of immediate interest to the Orthodox community.  The Holy Synod speaking on behalf of human rights generally, and doing so in a face to face meeting with members of the US Congress, is in my view something we should welcome.  Not only that, by our words and prayers we should encourage the bishops to build on this latest meeting.

For such a witness to be fruitful will mean that we must learn how to speak to a broader audience then those sympathetic to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.  Though not without there own challenges, speaking to traditional Anglicans or Evangelical Christians investigating Orthodoxy is not the same as making a case for human right before the US Congress.  As I have argued here before, and as I will continue to argue, we cannot limit our witness merely to inviting Christians from other traditions to join the Orthodox Church.  We must learn to speak more broadly.  As part of this we must learn how to established collaborative working relationships with those who share our concerns but WHO ARE NOT INTERESTED in becoming Orthodox.

And now, the thought experiment.

Let me suggest that learning to work collaborative with those who are not interested in becoming Orthodox will, on balance, be a good thing for the internal life of the Church.  The more skilled we become in establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships with those outside the Church, the more skilled we will become in establishing and maintaining similar relationships among ourselves.

It is to our benefit as a Church to learn how to make our case without having to depend on a shared tradition.  While a good thing, at least in an American pastoral context our shared tradition has resulted in Orthodox Christians–where ever they are in the ecclesiastical hierarchy–making arguments from authority .  To our determinate we are many of more inclined to coerce then persuade.

Absent a way of enforcing my authority such arguments are little better than the posturing of school yard bully.  While my authority might secure your compliance in the short term, it comes at the cost of the long trust between us.  The harm however does not end here.

Consistently arguing from authority–or what is just as bad, preaching to the choir–increasingly restricts my vision of the tradition.  Whether we are talking about a person or a community, with restricted vision comes rigidity, fear, distrust and anger. All of these compromise not only our witness but our shared life.

To be effective, persuasion requires not simply that I constantly meditate on the tradition but that I also make the effort to know you evermore fully.  Yes, I might be tempted to sophistry–but this is hardly an argument for coercion and besides  arguing from authority is equally prone to sophistry.

Are there risks involved in the Church broadening her witness beyond the immediate concerns of Orthodox Christians?  Will we be tempted to compromise the Gospel for political gain?  Yes.

Riskier still, however, is to refuse to work together with others of good will–Christian or not–”in behalf of all and for all.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
UN:F [1.8.1_1037]


  1. Father,

    I like your line of thinking and welcome the fact that the bishops met with leaders of Congress. I have been saying we need to be involved on this level for a long time now. +Jonah mentioned at the conference a few months back that a unified American Orthodox Church would be able to speak with a much louder voice on these issues. And you are correct that we need to speak the truth in love. We need to engage the political arena and be comfortable speaking in that area.

    My belief is we as the church are called to speak on behalf of all people not just those who are Orthodox. We need to make this world a better place for all people not just for Orthodox. I think we have been silent far too long adn this is a great start.

    • Fr Peter,

      Thank you for your comment.

      If I’m not mistaken, SCOBA had (has?) an office in DC with the express purpose of bring issues important to the Orthodox Church to the attention of Congress. In other words, a lobbyist. Does anyone know what happened to it?

      Your broader point about learning to engage the political arena is spot on–it’s why I contribute to AOI and one or two others. At the risk of inciting controversy, what areas and on whose behalf do you think we ought to speak?

      In Christ


  2. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Greg, I believe Fr Peter sums up his support for your “thought experiment” rather well. I too agree. My only caution is that we are honest with ourselves while doing so.

    Permit me to explain. Recently, the EP did exactly what you suggested, proclaim a message to the broader community and not for our own, or from our own narrow Orthodox perspective. His message was expansive and tolerant. To his credit, he rarely mentioned Orthodoxy and as such was a message for all humanity. It was a great example of what can and should be done by Orthodox bishops. Unfortunately, it was done in service of a great fraud –anthropogenic global warming–a scheme which was riddled with pseudo-science from the get-go. (Both he and the GOA hierachy had been warned several times on this blog by courageous pastors that this would all end in tears.)

    How much more wonderful would it have been if instead the EP had spoken up for the sanctity of life, or religious minorities throughout the world? I mean not just Orthodox, but Tibetans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and yes, Jews. (Let’s be honest, the “60 Minutes” interview was self-serving: is he the only religious man being “crucified”? Right now Sudanese Christians are literally being crucified by Muslim slavers.)

    I’m fully aware that the Sanctity of Life message would have gone over like a lead balloon given the present extremist makeup of the Congress and the Administration. OK, ditch that. Instead, the message of religious persecution would have resonated well I believe. At this point, the EP could have rightly used his own precarious position as a reference point and thus, his moral authority would have compounded immensely. This would have been a message that could have united both the Left as well as the Right into action.

    Forgive the verbosity of my counter experiment. I totally agree with your thesis. The meeting of the Holy Synod of the OCA with Congressmen to discuss things that are not within the narrow interest of the OCA is a Christian act in and of itself. If I may add one more thing: our ability to speak to the broader audience with no ulterior motive would be more believable if 1) we were united, 2) we acted as an American church, and 3) we established institutions such as hospitals and universities for the broader public. (I know our numbers are meager, how about if we start with soup kitchens, free medical clinics, and thrift stores/food pantries)?

    • the message of religious persecution would have resonated well I believe. At this point, the EP could have rightly used his own precarious position as a reference point and thus, his moral authority would have compounded immensely. This would have been a message that could have united both the Left as well as the Right into action.

      I just had a thought. What if the EP worked regularly with the Dalai Lama on behalf of all oppressed religious minorities?

      To be honest, until I became interested in Orthodoxy, I never gave the EP a second thought. And, even if it’s not true, I always identify the DL with Tibet rather than any larger “world peace” type issues.


      If these two came together, wow! Think of the possibilities. To begin with, how could you pigeon-hole them? An Orthodox Christian and a Tibetan Buddhist! Are they conservative? Are they liberal? Maybe folks would stop trying to label the issue, and just listen to (and act on) the concerns.

    • George,

      Thanks for the observations above. A couple of quick points.

      (1) Yes, it is unfortunate that the EP has tied concern for the environment (a good thing) to global warming which, at a minimum, seems based on rather shaky scientific research. While we can, and should, use science to illustrate and explain the faith, we need to be careful about basing our arguments solely on scientific data which, by their nature, are provisional and subject to revision.

      (2) Granted that a pro-life message would not have been well received by many in Congress but I think the EP would do well to speak directly (or at all) against abortion. His failure to do so is troubling to me and I think to many.

      (3)The EP speaking on behalf of persecuted religious minorities, using his own situation as an illustration, would be a good thing and a powerful witness.

      Finally, I do not think your comments verbose and concur that our witness would be more effective if we spoke with one voice.

      In Christ,


  3. George Michalopulos :

    Greg, excellent idea. I’ve often thought about it myself. the Dalai Lama is a good guy. You know, the Buddhists took it on the chin when the Taliban destroyed those giant statues of Buddha carved into those hillsides in Northeastern Afghanistan. Even Muslims were offended by this sacrilege.

  4. cynthia curran :

    That’s true on religous persecution. Another hot spot is North Korea where christians, mainly protestant, have been forced into labor camps. Its just not the Orthodox or Roman Catholics, most protestants have not tried to do anything for North Korean christians, since Kim Ill thinks he is a god.

  5. This post clearly stems from Fr. Gregory’s anxiety over what he perceives to be a “sectarian” tendency or strain within American Orthodoxy. I am already on record of disagreeing with this perception. In fact, I find it a bit of an affront IF by “school yard bully” and the other references to “authority” he means reasoned opposition to the NCC/WCC and environmental movement for example. I think he is building up a caricature here only to tear it down.

    I certainly don’t see this sort of “sectarian” stubbornness in the American Church. I think “thought experiment” is actually where this thinking belongs, because as the history of the NCC/WCC, and the more recent history of the EP’s involvement with the environmental alarmists demonstrates, reality has a way of being much more nuanced and complicated than a “thought experiment”.

    Also, as an Orthodox Christian in a “post-Protestant” culture we are already well practiced at discussing, persuading, and otherwise cooperating with “the other”. Every time I have a significant discussion with a person I work with, the guys at the neighborhood poker game last night – does not matter I am almost never talking with another traditional Christian, let alone an Orthodox one. Perhaps Fr. Gregory would be kind enough to identify the inward looking sectarians he is worried about.

    Finally, as an American Orthodox Christian and not a Turkish one, I would hope that the Bishops would address the concerns of America first and foremost. Plenty there to discuss with congressional leaders. The EP is an anachronism. As long as our bishops are taking time to deal with that dead letter we will continue to be a foreign church in America, and not Of America. I want my little girl to grow up in a Church that is focused on the opportunities and temptations of her life – NOT the EP’s…

    • Christopher,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Forgive me but you are mistaken about my motivation for this post. I wrote it for the reason I stated, as a thought experiment.

      Regarding the comments in your last paragraph, first, the Church is OF Christ and will never, and must never, be OF America, even as we are to be IN the world but not OF the world.

      Second, the EP is not an anachronism even if its role in the universal Church is unclear.

      Third, we must be concerned for other local Churches. The Apostle Paul is clear, a local Church has a responsibility to and for the needs of other local Churches. This is why, in 2 Cor 8, he commends the Church in Macedonia for it generosity for the Church in Jerusalem. If we are to be faithful to the apostolic example we can do no less than to be concerned for the needs of the EP.

      Finally, if you do not wish to advocate on behalf of the EP (and presumably the Coptic Church as well, they not even being Orthodox), you are certainly free to not do so.

      In Christ,


    • George Michalopulos :

      Christopher, I hear your concerns, but I can’t equate the Holy Synod speaking on a moral issue in and of itself and membership in the WCC/NCC (which may or may not speak to moral issues. Hey, who are we kidding: not ever speaking to moral issues, just leftist clap-trap.) Anyway, Orthodoxy’s membership w/in the NCC/WCC is another issue entirely. I’m just glad that +Jonah and the American bishops did speak out for another local church, one that has no formal ties with it.

  6. The EP is a creation of an empire (i.e. a government) and a culture/”religious situation” that exists only in history books. The Church should have responded when Islam took over most of the historic lands 1300 years ago. His role today is a square peg in a round hole. Yes, it is what it is and we have to work with what we have, but any effort done “on his behalf” should be in the direction of the reality of the Church in today’s “empires” and more importantly the cultural reality of today’s Church. Anachronism is EXACTLY what the EP is.

    As far “in” and “of”, your preaching to the choir. Perhaps you should direct your counsel to your own parish/bishop/Church, for as know you do go by the title “Orthodox Church in America”.

    Finally, concern for other local church’s (or any other virtue) is always within the larger context of the all the rest of the virtues. Your proof texting here. Two problems with American bishops spending what little time they have with congressional leaders on the EP, Kosovo, and the Copts:

    1) Our own culture and context (our own house) comes first. Plenty to talk about (abortion, religious freedom vs. “multiculturalism”, etc.). Now perhaps you know something I don’t and the concerns of America’s local church’s were discussed (and to a greater extent) than local church’s and historical anachronisms in other lands, but press release you quoted does not indicate that.

    2) political pressure from the state department on Egypt’s government is next to worthless. Indeed, it’s as likely to give Egypt’s repressive oligarchy yet another excuse to ride roughshod over there own people (Copt’s and Muslims both). It is naïve at best to project our western concern for “human rights” on to these sorts of governments. If one is really interested in helping the Copts, then address the root and cause. What is the religious, cultural, and political contest of their life? What can be done practically (as opposed to idealistically) from our position? I would support an organization that would help the Copts in their real life and situation. If our bishops would do something in this direction (which would not involve congressional leaders or any other governmental action) I would be there. The bishops actions here were sentimental at best…

  7. Is John Couretas posting anymore on this blog? I miss his insightful contributions.

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