27 September 2018

Closely reading Metropolitan Tikhon’s pastoral letter

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of All America and Canada

Vladyka Tikhon of our canonical but controversially-autocephalous church has penned a pastoral letter broaching the topic of the autocephaly crisis in the Ukraine, which although far-off and entangled in various other political questions, cannot but closely affect ours. Our good Metropolitan is a shrewd bloke (pardon the informality). This letter has revealed him as far more temperate and far more prudent in the classical senses than I am or would ever have been in his shoes. His language in the letter, particularly in the opening paragraphs, is also considerably more demulcent and lenitive than any I would have used. However, he touches with the needed firmness on the key indispensable points: the first is the explicit prayerful support for his canonical (and officially- and privately-threatened) brother-Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev; the second is the need for a regular, truly conciliar (read: sobornyi, rather than monological) approach to these questions of autocephaly, which would in fact be truer to the worthier and better historical spirits of the Orthodox tradition.
We call on our clergy, monastics, and faithful to offer their support and fervent prayers for His Beatitude, Metropolitan Onufry, and all the bishops, clergy, monastics, and faithful of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. May the Lord grant them continued strength and wisdom in their endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
I welcome and applaud this gentle, but firm and principled, stand by our Metropolitan. There is only one canonical and legitimate Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, and His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufriy and no other is its head; Metropolitan Onufriy is singled out as the keeper of that brotherly and peaceful unity in the Ukrainian Church which is of the Holy Ghost. We in the OCA are called in unequivocal terms to support and pray for him as such. May God indeed bless, preserve and strengthen Metropolitan Onufriy continuing in that rôle. O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries, and by the virtue of thy Cross preserve thy habitation. However, the more important part of this letter, and indeed the more Orthodox part, comes before this exhortation. The following in particular is worth reflecting on and considering in its profundity.
Our Holy Synod has been apprised of initiatives by His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to address this painful situation and has noted the various preliminary responses offered by other Orthodox Churches. In particular, we have received with sorrow, yet with understanding, the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate to cease liturgical commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch and suspend concelebration and participation by bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate in inter-Orthodox contexts.

We are deeply aware of the pain and trauma in the life of Orthodox people caused by ecclesial schism which weakens Orthodox witness and evangelism in society. Such pain and trauma have been wounds in the life of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine for several decades. Schism, division, and mutual antagonism are not only canonical problems—they are pastoral and spiritual challenges demanding the healing power of Christ and Christian faith. We are mindful of the Russian Orthodox Synod’s call to the local autocephalous Churches to “understand the common responsibility for the fate of world Orthodoxy and to initiate a fraternal all-Orthodox discussion of the church situation in Ukraine.”

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America supports the need for regular dialogue at every level and appeals to all local Orthodox Churches to address the current crisis in Ukraine through the convening of a Pan-Orthodox
synaxis, or similar conciliar process, wherein an authentic solution can be found to this problem.
This is worth reflecting on at length. The distinct genius of the Orthodox Church – that which has historically kept us from either congealing into a high feudal fiefdom modelled after and competing with the worldly kingdoms, or else flying apart at the seams and disintegrating into tens of thousands of confused bodies haggling over even the most basic tenets of dogma – is our conciliar, that is to say, sobornyi practice. We neither each assert his own particular truth, nor do we rely on any one man to dictate the truth to the rest of us. But instead we come together in the spirit of Truth that has been left to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit… ideally. This is the theoria The praxis, sad to say, has historically been more honoured in the breach than in the observance, whether under the ægis of the Byzantine imperial state or the Russian – but it has been there in fragments, and has always been there, left to be sifted and held up to the light of our limited wisdom by Russian religious philosophers like Khomyakov and Berdyaev.

Our Metropolitan has called upon the Œcumenical Patriarch – by that descriptor – twice, in describing the ecclesial problem at hand. I tend to read this as a gentle term of rebuke: as though calling to mind a particular understanding of the oikoumenē as an imperial symbol. The Byzantines used it to refer to the ‘entire inhabited world’; that is to say, the world as inhabited by civilised (Roman) man. This oikoumenē no longer exists. That political reality is every bit as much gone as the Soviet Union now is. A new political ordo stands before us, and it is before this ordo that the Orthodox witness needs to be reformulated and rearticulated, otherwise we are condemned to our current ‘weakened witness’ in the ‘schism, antagonism and mutual division’ of the echoes of dead empires and the resurgence of duelling nationalisms and the spectres of fascism and ochlocracy. The current breach between the old imperial centre of Moscow and the older (and prouder) imperial centre of Constantinople is indeed saddening, but understandable. In this instance, though, if we were to choose between these two piles of gæopolitical rubble, Moscow has the clearer claim to right on her side than does Constantinople.

But just saying that eludes the greater question. What can revive that, or any, Orthodox witness? Only the practice of conciliarity, of sobornost’. Not just as a dreamy legacy of the long-dead Slavophils and populists. Not just as the anguished cry of the Russian Orthodox Christian intellectuals in diaspora. Not just as an academic buzzword to make fancy-pants Fordham professors and theology post-docs sound cleverer than they actually are. But as a real practice of sitting together in a spirit of truth, familial openness and respect. This has never been done, it bears saying once again, without an emperor. But we have no (shall we say œcumenical?) Constantine and no Justinian to turn to this time, who is willing to convoke all of the local churches on his authority, sit quietly to the side as they deliberate, and then meekly accept their consensus decision. We have no Ober-Prokuror Pobedonostsev this time to make the Bulgarians sit their butts down and behave themselves. This is a task that we, the Church, have to accomplish on our own. Lord, have mercy, and God help us all. Seriously.

It is said in recent days, both of ourselves and of our estranged brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church, that we face massive and parallel crises of confidence. On its face, I wouldn’t dispute this. But such a characterisation I think misses part of the bigger picture. We are both dealing with self-inflicted wounds, precisely where our institutional praxis is weakest. Roman Catholics are struggling to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of their own faithful, precisely because their institutional structure is permanently locked into a rigid and almost militaristic defensive posture, such that they close ranks – almost literally – around even abusive priests. (One sees the same dynamic in, for example, American law enforcement.) We Orthodox Christians suffer from a problem that looks diametrically-opposite, but in fact shares similar features. When two of our hierarchs have a dispute, it isn’t hushed up and cordoned off within the hierarchy. We air our dirty laundry in public. We, as the saying goes, ‘take it outside’. We can’t help it. The conciliar and dialogical nature of Orthodoxy makes these differences of opinion – pardon the hideous turn of phrase, please – gloriously messy. But as the very legacy-imperial nature of these disputes shows, we’re no less militaristic and we’re no less prone to herd-thinking, wagon-circling and rank-closing; that is to say, the internal logic of these disputes is every bit as much the result of a deformed masculinity as that in the Catholic hierarchy is.

This is something we all will have to struggle with. The stakes – to put it litotically – aren’t exactly low, as Metropolitan Tikhon evidently fully comprehends. And in this case, it isn’t just the hierarchs and monks and clergy that are faced with the need to turn around. We all do. It may look like a weakness of our Church to a Catholic for whom the Holy Father in Rome provides the needed external security, or to a Protestant mystified by these frightening tides of mass mobilisation in seemingly-petty fights between bishops over centuries- and millennia-old ‘canons’. But the conciliar nature of our Church (including, as Vladyka Tikhon points out, the laity) can also be a source of strength – our ‘authentic solution’.

Save, O Lord, and have mercy upon our Most Blessèd Metropolitan Tikhon, His Grace our Bishop Paul, the priests and deacons and the whole clergy of thy Church, which thou hast established to feed the flock of thy Word, and by their prayers have mercy upon me, and save me, a sinner.


  1. Deformed masculinity. I would like you to expand on that please. I would also add that in general we are afraid of the freedom in Christ. That fear drives us toward legalism.

    Just to give my own bias, Greeks irritate me, even when I love them. Russians make more sense to me. Even though I had an ancestor on the Mayflower and in the Boston Brahmin, my roots are in the Plains of the United States in what used to be called The Great American Desert including the ethos of the Native American Plains cultures.

  2. Hello, Michael, and welcome to the blog!

    Yes, I tend to 'get' the Russians better too, even if my politics sometimes align more with the Greeks in this country. The Russian saints seem to speak more directly to my experience somehow. (Maybe it's because I lived in Kazakhstan?) But, that's cool! Fellow Midwesterner!

    Anyway, regarding 'deformed masculinity'. The lust for domination, what David Bentley Hart and John Milbank with their shared classical jib call the libido dominandi, is largely what I mean here. I don't think it's specific to Orthodox and Catholics, and I don't think it's even specific to men (women do exhibit it too), I think it's universal; that still means, though, that it is something we have to deal with both individually and on a communal basis.

  3. ...such as interpreting headship as dictatorship? A desire for control rather than giving of oneself?

  4. I would say those are both good examples.

  5. How does one practice sobronost in the midst of a worldly mind that condemns and ridicules genuine community and the obedience require to give dynamic life to such community. Tryanical equalitarianism or tryanical nihilism rule the day it seems.

    One cannot live in the Kingdom unless one acknowledges the authority of the King.