Late last week, the Orthodox Church in America, the second largest Orthodox church body in the country, issued an unprecedented statement seeking to silence any discussion about same-sex relationships and the sacramental inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the Orthodox Church. The statement is particularly chilling as it:
“call[s] upon all clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church in America never to contradict these teachings by preaching or teaching against the Church’s clear moral position; by publishing books, magazines, and articles which do the same; or producing or publishing similar content online.”
Those who refuse to comply are threatened with, “ecclesiastical discipline.” In short, this statement represents a clear shot across the bow, not only of LGBTQ people and their allies, but of freedom of thought and expression within the OCA, and perhaps in the Orthodox Christian world more broadly.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint a single “triggering event” for the release of this statement, it should be noted that earlier this month Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of North America (GOA), the largest American Orthodox jurisdiction, presided over the baptism of twins born to a Greek-American gay couple. As is entirely predictable at this point, while the Archbishop’s decision won praise in many quarters, it was roundly and brutally condemned by conservatives throughout the Orthodox world, including with the jurisdiction he heads.
The statement might reasonably be interpreted as a shot at a clerical rival. The OCA and the GOA have a contentious (and sometimes contemptuous) history. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, of which the GOA is part, doesn’t even technically recognize the OCA. This should give you some idea about the complexity of that relationship.
Moreover, it’s also likely that the Synod is taking aim at a handful of Orthodox publications and scholars widely viewed as “progressive” on issues of gender and sexuality, seeking to either silence or delegitimize these publications and thinkers.
Whatever the motivation, the OCA Synod’s statement is the most recent, and arguably egregious, incident in what can only be described as a concerted takeover by extremists of the OCA, once among the most progressive Orthodox bodies in the world. I’ve previously written for RD about the reactionary direction of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, the theological school run by the OCA in Yonkers, New York.
While it’s important to stress that Eastern Christianity has its own history and debates, it’s impossible to view the movement of the OCA towards fundamentalism without including it in the matrix of the larger narrative concerning the slide of American religion and politics towards Christian nationalism.
Before the 1980s, American Orthodoxy was, almost exclusively, a religious tradition composed of immigrants and their descendants. However, beginning in the 1980s, there were an increasing number of converts to Orthodoxy, many of whom (though notably and importantly not all) came as refugees from debates of gender and sexuality in their own denominations—debates they had lost. These conversions have been a major catalyst in the transformation of the political face of American Orthodox Christianity and bring at least some of the Orthodox into the fray of the culture wars.
Not all American Orthodox jurisdictions are created equal with respect to their involvement in the culture wars, however, and two jurisdictions in particular have been notably active in their efforts: the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdioceses of North America (AOA) and (you guessed it) the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Both are, unsurprisingly, characterized by a large number of American converts in their ranks. Nearly 70% of those in the AOA are converts, while the OCA is about evenly split, 50-50.
Similarly, the GOA, arguably the most progressive Orthodox body in America—“progressive” being a relative term—remains almost exclusively composed of ethnic Greeks. Focused on their own ethnic political concerns, including the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in the modern Turkish state and the preservation of the Greek language in America, the GOA has remained a relatively inhospitable environment for converts, a feature not terribly great for Christian evangelism but which probably offers a something of a firewall in the current climate.
This suggests that the culture-war mentality (not to mention the chilling authoritarianism) that we see present in the OCA Synod’s most recent statement is, at the very least, deeply influenced by traditional American Christianity, whether it be evangelical or mainline Protestant, Catholic, LDS, or another denomination. Christian nationalists are on the rise and statements like those released last week suggest that the OCA is looking for its place at the table.
Further evidence is offered by the fact that the OCA’s movement toward its current culture warrior posture began under the leadership of Metropolitan Jonah (born James Paffhausen, Jr.). The first convert to serve as OCA primate, Metropolitan Jonah became a signatory of the Manhattan Declaration less than a year after his elevation as metropolitan, something that the leaders of every other major Orthodox body in the United States declined to do.
In addition, he ended ecumenical dialogue with the Episcopal Church USA (the church of his childhood) due to their acceptance of same-sex relationships and began dialogue with the breakaway Anglican Church in North America. Finally, he made it publicly known that OCA bishops were expected to be present at the March for Life and threatened to pull the OCA’s military chaplains should they be required to “condone homosexuality” in any way.
Metropolitan Jonah was forced to resign in 2012, after a list of allegations came to light, including that he “had failed to remove a priest accused of rape,” according to a report in the Washington Post. Yet despite his relatively brief tenure the damage had been done.
Over the past decade, the OCA has continued to follow the path that Metropolitan Jonah laid for it. It should not go unnoticed that Metropolitan Tikhon, the current head of the OCA, is also a convert from the Episcopal Church, and one who seems equally fixated on culture war issues—particular, abortion and same-sex marriage—as his predecessor.
Predictably, the consequences of his leadership have been horrific, even beyond last week’s chilling statement. The OCA has failed, for example, to offer a strident condemnation of Vladimir Putin or Patriarch Kirill in light of the invasion of Ukraine. This is in no small part, I would posit, because at least some of the leadership of the OCA might very well accept Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s absurd assertions that the invasion of Ukraine is necessary to prevent the acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
This willingness to betray any other moral demand and make any allegiance, even with the most vile of leaders, so long as the narrow cultural objectives of American Christian nationalists are met (i.e., anything goes so long as you’re allowed to oppress women, gender and sexual minorities, and non-Christians) is the real problem. And that gets obscured when conversations about American Christian nationalism focus too narrowly (for obvious reasons) on the United States. But American Christian nationalism isn’t just dangerous for America—it’s dangerous for the rest of the world.
The rise of extremists in the OCA highlights this reality as few things can: on the one hand extremism in the OCA aids American Christian nationalists by increasing their political influence, but on the other, it aids dangerous factions abroad, like Vladimir Putin, by making a significant number of American Christians his political allies as well.
Of course the Holy Synod of the OCA doesn’t want to have a conversation. They want to simply crush opposition and silence the debate. In doing so, they’re leaning into a brand of authoritarianism that would make even the imperial Orthodox leaders of old blush. Despite having developed and thrived largely in absolutist monarchies, Orthodox theological debate has typically been a vibrant, polyphonic affair. Nevertheless, the influence of American Christian nationalism appears to have succeeded in creating an Orthodox Christianity more authoritarian even than emperors and tsars, demanding that Orthodox Christians stop debating and discussing theology.
The Synod’s goal may have been to end the debate, but it’s far more likely that this statement is just the beginning. What exactly the end will look like—that remains to be seen.