Orthodox Bishops Assembly Silent on Moral Issues

By John Couretas

– 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.


  1. Geo Michalopulos :

    John, this is a broadside! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Two ways lie before us: one of active Orthodox witness, the other of Byzantine nostalgia. The first will lead to growth and salvation, the other to extinction. The GOA hierarchy owes it to us to tell us which it will be so we can stop wasting our time and money. If extinction, the sooner the better. This will save us from further embarrassing the Christian tradition with our eloquent disquisitions on FYROM.

  2. Right on the mark as usual, Father Hans. The crucial part of this new mandate is the redefinition and narrowing of “religious exemption.” For its redefinition, the Obama Administration used a provision drafted by the A.C.L.U. (I kid you not). Newt Gingrich summarized it well (http://www.lifenews.com/2012/02/01/gingrich-blasts-obamas-anti-religious-coverage-mandate). He noted that Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York City and current head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “even Jesus and His disciples would not qualify for the exemption in that case, because they were committed to serve those of other faiths.”

    President Obama swore his socialized medicine plan would not include abortion. Prolife Christians knew better, but were ridiculed by our own brethren –even priests and potential bishops. Now, the Obama Administration is requiring abortion be provided by Obamacare –even forcing church-run businesses to provide abortions, violating their beliefs. Where are those clergy “leaders” voices now? I can’t count how many liberal Orthodox priests ridiculed and assured that the President said Obamacare would not include abortions. One priest at least, has reversed himself, admitting that he was “duped” into voting for Obama (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fr-petermichael-preble/religious-freedom-under-attack_b_1223424.html).

    Many other Orthodox priests and hierarchs were duped as well. Obama got a lot of Evangelical votes, too. Prolifers know all it takes is a candidate’s stand on abortion to decide their vote, but not everyone is so discerning toward the signs of the times.

    This is exactly what The Manhattan Declaration was addressing. Axios to Metropolitan JONAH, Archbishop STEPHAN, Bishop BASIL Essey, Bishop MARK Maymon, Father Chad Hatfield, Father Patrick Reardon, Father Alexander Webster and you, Father Hans, as well as the other Orthodox leaders who signed it! Those who criticized that signing either do not have their eye open to the sign of the times, or else are a part of the problem.


  3. The silence of the Assembly of Bishops is DEAFENING. There is no greater moral imperative than the Defense of the Innocence and standing for the Sanctity of Life. Choosing to say nothing and do nothing on such key moral issues is not a neutral act, but a silent complicity in gov’t tyranny and a failure to be the Light and Salt of the earth that Christ calls all Christians to be to others and the society and communities we live in.

  4. John, congratulations on this amazing article that covers all the important failures of the assembly in concise detail. I hope you will return to writing more here at AOI in the future as your insight is most certainly missed and very much valued.

    My prediction is that after Metropolitan Savas and Fr. Mark Arey get relief for their sudden case of heartburn they will most certainly gin up a cotton candy press release or two on the important work of the assembly and the Church and Society Commission.

    Fr. Mark will also probably pop up and answer some softball questions about the future of the EA but my gut still tells me that this year’s meeting will be postponed due to ummmm……….”pressing overseas ecclesiastical matters” We do know Fr. Mark reads this blog from time to time and has even posted comments. I posted a series a questions a year ago that went unanswered so since a year has passed I would like to ask these questions again.

    Here they are:

    1)How is the Episcopal Assembly of the USA funded? How are expenses being paid for the next meeting and the ongoing operations of various committees?

    2)Are there any plans to broadcast the proceedings of the next Episcopal Assembly to the faithful much like the most recent visit of the Patriarch to the USA?

    3) If the majority of members of the Assembly vote in a manner that Archbishop Demterios disagrees with can he overrule the vote or issue the equivalent of a veto?

    4)How are issues voted on and accepted by the assembly? Simple majority? 2/3 majority? or something else?

    5)Does every hierarch who participates in the assembly receive one vote? What constitutes a quorum for the assembly conducting official business?

    6)Is the assembly prepared to support FOCUS North America as an EA approved organization? If no, why?

  5. It is the new Typos! Anathema!

  6. All true, great piece. As usual, our Bishops would rather dabble in incomprehensible foreign politicking than standing up for core Christian values in the country where they actually live. Is it any wonder American Catholics and other serious Christians think Orthodoxy is basically a joke — all fancy dress and complex services (often in some weird language) but sadly lacking in a hard faith, and disconnected from the life that people actually live?

    As an Orthodox Christian this leaves me sad but hardly surprised. Although all our jurisdictions have problems, the GOA is really cancerous on these sorts of issues.

    Tough times are ahead for people of faith. The Obama moves are just the beginning. Far too many US Orthodox, especially Greeks but certainly not exclusively, would rather win applause from secular “leaders” than adhere to our ancient faith. This will not end well.

  7. As a Catholic, I sympathize. the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) has been fairly spineless and more concerned about. Before Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan became the president, the USCCB used to be worse.

    But even with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, it took the HSS mandate to wake him and the USCCB up. Fortunately, the USCCB and the Orthodox Bishops Assembly are artifical entities. Saint Ambrose, Saint Chrysostom, and Saint Athanasius didn’t need either an assembly or synod to be effective in confronting the state. All we need are saints. Career bureaucrats are a distraction. That being said, there is nothing stopping the truly Orthodox bishops from creating their own assembly if co-ordination of the truly Orthodox voice is helpful. At the minimum, it would show the world that the Orthodox Bishops Assembly does not speak for the entire Orthodox world, and might either shame them into repenting their ways or cause an exodus into the truly Orthodox assembly.

  8. Fr. Hans,

    The Assembly of Bishops today published a statement on this issue.



  9. So, apparently Met. Savas had not ‘roused the…committee to speak out’ because, in His Eminence’s own words: ‘We don’t yet have a mechanism for responding at the speed required by the present-day news cycle to matters like this… One day, God willing, we’ll have a dedicated, full-time staff. For now, we make do, with the prayers and support of the faithful.’ In other words, no moral cowardice involved.

    • If the words of Metropolitan Savas in the above message are accurate then all I can really do is laugh loudly. Metropolitan Savas spends hours posting all types of opinions on facebook. HOURS! He has all types of computer equipment. He knows how to get information in a timely manner and how to disseminate it. He can act on any piece of informaiton quickly if he wants to. But here is the deal. He doesn’t want to. All is words are in the above quote is yet another example of how he hides his own opinions and avoid any serious discussion on serious issues. The “we make due with the prayers of faithful” is a game of words meant to distract the reader from the Metropolitan’s inaction.

    • Like Andrew mentioned, Metropolitan Savas spends time nearly every day posting on his “ministry” facebook page an endless stream of liberal or left-leaning articles, various pop-culture and artistic pieces, quotes, poems, Bible passages, YouTube music videos, GOYA basketball tournament announcements, different GOAA and Wikipedia links, etc…

      There was not a peep from him in the last 2 weeks regarding the March for Life, the defense of the unborn, the Sanctify of Life, Obama’s pro-abortion mandate from the HHS, or anything related to the attack on the religious liberty of Christians and all Americans.

      It would have taken him all of 30 seconds to cut an paste a link to any of the many articles out there on this (and there are many, from the OCA, AOI, Life Site News, OrthodoxNet, Catholic Online, St. Valdimir’s Seminary, The Voice Blog, etc. etc. etc.). He chose to remain 100% SILENT on the abortion issue. His silence was DEAFENING, especially given how active and busy he is posting stuff on his public facebook age.

      Finally this morning, he posted the Protest Against the Infringement of Religious Liberty press release by the Assembly of Bishops with the pathetic excuse mentioned above. He also made sure to immediately post another link to the White House page that provides a positive and benign spin on the very same oppressive HHS pro-abortion mandate:

      The Obama Administration is committed to both respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services. And as we move forward, our strong partnerships with religious organizations will continue. The Administration has provided substantial resources to Catholic organizations over the past three years, in addition to numerous non-financial partnerships to promote healthy communities and serve the common good. This work includes partnerships with Catholic social service agencies on local responsible fatherhood programs and international anti-hunger/food assistance programs. We look forward to continuing this important work.

      However, even now at the 11th hour, Met. Savas still refuses to criticize any of the mandates or policies of the Obama administration, even when they contradict and trample on the moral conscience of Orthodox Christians and the Constitutional protected religious liberty of all Americans. Apparently posting a YouTube clip of the movie Groundhog Day and a link to another article about the same movie with the comment: “A great article on a great movie. Happy Groundhog’s Day!” take precedence over any criticism or public comments by this bishop regarding oppressive government policies promoted by President Obama. After all, it was then Bishop Savas who, upon hearing of Obama’s election, posted a link “This is the Day that the Lord has made!” and proclaimed with glee and enthusiasm in terms that can only be described as divine:

      Do I expect miracles from the President-Elect? Am I confusing the man with the Messiah? Of course not. But neither is he the Antichrist, as some of his opponents would have you believe. Americans did a good thing yesterday, an inspired thing. They didn’t voice their opinion, they shouted it. A new day has dawned, a day that the Lord has most emphatically made. Are you as delighted as I am? Send up thanks to the Lord our God! Are you for any reason unhappy? Pray to the same God for our President-Elect’s enlightenment.

      This Metropolitan sure has his priorities straight! Lord have mercy!

  10. People, who support them, depend upon their help. They need to work and lead, concentrate on the flood before they drown.

  11. macedonianReader :

    I have to say as an Orthodox Christian of Macedonian decent, other than the issue of abortion and the silence on the subject by Orthodox Bishops generally speaking, no other “Orthodox issue” has ripped at my heart strings than that of “FYROM”.

    But in all fairness to the GOA, I’ve even been lectured at by an OCA clergy (pretty well known at that) about how I need to “stop oppressing my brethren” in the Balkans.

    Meanwhile, AFR is promoting a piece on the “Faith of Michael Dukakis” on the radio. Just wondering. Did he repent of his political policies on abortion recently? I can’t find anything about it if he has…

    • John Couretas :

      macedonianReader: Do you mean the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN)? It has posted an interview with Dukakis here:

      “Politics, Faith and Integrity”
      Gov Michael Dukakis shares his thoughts on how personal faith and integrity affect a politician’s professional life.

      • Michael Dukakis!1????? On OCN????? This one is yet another embarassment. I bet the interviewer tossed old Dukakis alot of softball feel good questions when in fact Dukakis advocates for all types of social shenanigans and human rights violations like abortion!

        And lets not forgot, in his brilliant compassion Dukakis furloughed a couple of folks from prison who went on to kill again. I also thought Dukakis was never married in the Church because of his wife’s religion.

        • Father JJ, Can we have a separate blog posting for the OCN Dukakis interview? It would be nice to contrast OCN and remind people of the Dukakis record and its hostility to Orthodoxy. It would also be nice to hear the opinions of Greek Orthodox leaders and the Archdiocese’s response when he was running for president.

          You do have to wonder what OCN was thinking when they put Dukakis out there until the title of Faith, Politics and Integrity…….


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