– At an October 1970 meeting of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas (SCOBA), which was called to discuss the burning question of an independent American Church, the presiding conference chair Archbishop Iakovos got fed up and quit. Official letters raising the subject of independence had been sent to the “mother Churches” in Constantinople, Bucharest, Belgrade, Athens and other Orthodox “centers” pointing for the need to do something about the chaotic “situation of Orthodoxy in America.” Only three replies came back. To the Greek Orthodox Iakovos, this was proof that no one took SCOBA seriously and, for that matter, the American Orthodox.
The archbishop resigned from SCOBA in disgust, saying that he had no desire to be the head of a “dead body.” According to a contemporary account, the official minutes of the meeting were forged to cover up what would turn out to be a temporary resignation.
It would take another 40 years for SCOBA to be officially dismantled and replaced with the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, also known as the Assembly of Bishops. Its founding articles constitute the body for “the promotion and accomplishment of Church unity in North and Central America.” It is also charged with providing a “common witness by the Church to all those outside her.” But given its sterling record of non-accomplishment on that “common witness” so far, is there good reason to expect that the Assembly won’t become the sort of “dead body” that Abp. Iakovos feared SCOBA had become?
Nothing could reveal this more clearly than the Assembly’s non-reaction to the Jan. 20 mandate by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that orders most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs (the “morning after pill”) free of charge. In sharp contrast to the somnolent Assembly, the response from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was swift and unequivocal.
“From a human point of view, we may be tempted to surrender, when our government places conception, pregnancy and birth under the ‘center for disease control,’ when chemically blocking conception or aborting the baby in the womb is considered a ‘right’ to be subsidized by others who abhor it,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of USCCB. “Not us!”
It wasn’t just a Catholic thing. Protestant and Orthodox Jewish leaders had written to the White House in late December about concerns that “the contraceptives mandate in the health insurance regulations, and about the ‘religious employer’ exemption that is so narrow that it does not protect most faith-based organizations.”
The Obama administration mandate came down just before Sanctity Sunday, on Jan. 22, and the March for Life the following day. As for these events, widely attended by Catholics, Protestants and those of other faith traditions, the “common witness” of the Assembly amounted only to silence.
That is not to say that individual hierarchs, clergy, seminarians and lay Orthodox did not turn out in numbers and show their support at the 2012 March for Life in Washington and other cities. Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America delivered an eloquent and Spirit-filled opening prayer in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – with Abp. Dolan at his side. On Sanctity Sunday, Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, offered a thoughtful talk on the Orthodox Tradition, abortion and the death penalty at a Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Vespers held in Chicago.
The Assembly Nods
The Assembly is chaired by Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA). The Committee for Church and Society, which aims to “develop a process to determine both the propriety and the priority of advocacy by the Assembly of issues concerning Church, government and society,” is chaired by the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh. Both are hierarchs under Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Putting the left-leaning Met. Savas at the head of the Committee on Church and Society was a masterstroke of political cynicism. His idea of social critique is to post offensive videos on his Facebook page like, “Tea Party Jesus: Sermon on the Mall.” Whoever was responsible for nominating Met. Savas to the Church and Society position probably felt especially clever for the rest of the day, like the schoolboy prankster who puts fresh paint on doorknobs. But the intent of Met. Savas’ appointment has been so grossly obvious, it’s not even worthy of the Byzantine reputation for subterfuge and manipulation in high places.
Could it be that Met. Savas hasn’t roused the Church and Society committee to speak out on the Obama administration’s ruling on contraception, sterilization and abortifacients, or the March for Life, because he doesn’t want to be reminded of how he exulted at President Obama’s election, using the most florid biblical language? If he’d like some pointers on how to speak out on public square issues, he could do worse than follow the lead of his plain talking Roman Catholic counterpart in Pittsburgh, Bishop David A. Zubik. Or read the statements that, at last count, 126 Catholic bishops have issued on the HHS mandate, many of which were read at diocesan Masses or included in parish bulletins.
But what could the Assembly have done under its current framework and administration? Read the Church and Society’s to-do list, for some reason labeled “terms of reference,” and you find a perfect prescription for bureaucratic gridlock. It was designed for paralysis.
What’s more, the Assembly is already issuing appeals for funding. Does it not have the resources necessary to carry forward its ambitious – if wholly unfulfilled – mission? Why not? The Orthodox comprise one of the wealthiest faith communities in America, behind only Hindus and Jews. To be considered for this year’s National Herald ranking of the “50 Wealthiest Greeks in America,” for example, you’ll need a net worth of at least $60 million. (In 2011, the list published by this ethnic newspaper had a cutoff point of $72.5 million.)
Obviously, the American Orthodox world is awash in money. What’s more, there’s plenty of willingness to involve the Church in politics.
Obscure Balkan Controversies?
The Assembly managed to shake off its “common witness” torpor on Dec. 27 when it issued a press release expressing its “outrage” at the arrest of a Serbian bishop in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Under Assembly protocol, which bears a striking resemblance to GOA protocol, one must never refer to this country simply as Macedonia. That’s because the question of whether or not the Macedonians can call their country Macedonia is a pressing “national issue” at the GOA and with its leadership in Istanbul. As is well known, you can go into coffee hour at just about any Orthodox parish in America on any given Sunday and the faithful will be hotly debating this “national” issue. No, actually, they don’t even know what a FYROM is.
Raise a stink on behalf of all American Orthodox bishops about obscure Balkan church-state politics that are completely incomprehensible – and meaningless — to 99.9 percent of the American laity? Sure. But evidently the GOA doesn’t want the Assembly to confront the Obama administration publicly and in a unified way. Especially not on one of the bedrock principles of this administration. In marking the anniversary of Roe V. Wade on Jan. 23, the president said in a statement that, “we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.”
Then again, how could Patriarch Bartholomew, who says the Church has no business in parishioners’ bedrooms, object? We shouldn’t expect to see him delivering the opening prayer at the March for Life anytime soon
The reality is that the GOA and the Istanbul leadership have been neck-deep for decades in massive lobbying efforts in Washington on “national issues”: FYROM, Cyprus, the Turkish oppression of the patriarchate. All of this is done with the close cooperation of the Greek Foreign Ministry, whose representatives sit at places of honor at clergy-laity banquets and show up for constant photo-ops with GOA hierarchs at New York headquarters. In an interview with a Greek newspaper, Archbishop Demetrios admitted that the GOA was dedicated to the promotion of Greek national issues in Washington. “We exercise pressure constantly,” he said. Which explains why, when Patriarch Bartholomew was in the United States in 2009, his itinerary was packed with speeches and visits with Democratic leadership and center-left and progressive think tanks. These happen to be the folks in power right now in Washington.
This lobbying is less about “speaking truth to power” than it is about speech making rich with ecclesiastical tropes but with a meaning that is essentially innocuous to secular ears. If your strategy is to constantly lobby the powers-that-be to advance “national issues” – regardless of which party is in power – your moral witness is essentially neutered in the political sphere. Your Church has sold off its prophetic witness for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25:29–34).
And we can’t dismiss this problem by saying that the Orthodox, broadly speaking, don’t get institutionally involved in politics. Far from it. How else can you explain the churches’ long membership in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, Protestant-dominated bodies that exist to put a patina of theological legitimacy on leftist economic and political ideologies?
Patriarch Bartholomew is all too ready to talk about how the Church invented hospitals more than 1,600 years ago, as he did in a 2009 speech sponsored by the Center for American Progress and Georgetown University in Washington. He even noted that these Byzantine hospitals were “public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good.” Although the patriarch stopped short of backing the Obama administration’s health care initiative before this liberal/progressive audience, he endorsed the notion that “every member of society, from the greatest to the least” deserves the best quality healthcare.
But Patriarch Bartholomew and his lobbyists are nowhere to be found when 21st Century American hospitals are feeling the heat from an administration trampling on conscience protections. We’re talking about hundreds of hospitals founded by Catholics, Jews and Protestants and serving people in real need — today and not in some idealized forever-gone past.
Ultimately, what is the Assembly of Orthodox bishops communicating to our Catholic and Protestant and Jewish brothers and sisters? That their hospitals, medical clinics, schools, universities, social agencies are good enough for the Orthodox when we need them, when we want to rush a child to an emergency room. But don’t look for us when you need back up.
The Assembly of Orthodox bishops, the bearer of “unity” and “common witness” for American Orthodox Christians, simply can’t be bothered on this issue.