In the last week of February, Fr. John Whiteford, the rector of St. Jonah of Manchuria Russian Orthodox Church in Spring, Texas and a regular contributor to OrthoChristian.com, visited Moscow to give a presentation on an American perspective on the Ukrainian crisis at an international conference dedicated to the crisis.
During his stay in Moscow, he found time to visit Sretensky Monastery, where we were able to sit down with Fr. John and conduct an impromptu interview.
—You’re here in Moscow for an international conference about the Ukrainian crisis. You’re speaking about the American perspective on what’s happening there. How did you personally get invited?
—I was told that some people here in Russia have been reading articles that I’ve written in English, which put me on their radar screen. They tried to invite people from a variety of perspectives and from around the world to talk about the issues related to the schism in Ukraine.
—So there are people from outside the Russian Church?
—There’s a priest from Serbia. They invited two Athonites, but something came up and they weren’t able to come. However they sent a written presentation that will be published. There were at least one or two from Ukraine itself, if I’m not mistaken. There was a Greek-Russian who is an expert on Greek culture, so they’re covering it from a lot of different angles—some people are focusing on the history behind it, others are focusing on the ramifications of it, and so on.
—Speaking of the history, I thought it was interesting that when Patriarch Kirill went to Constantinople in late August to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew, he proposed holding a conference or meeting to discuss the history of the Kiev Metropolia’s move into the Russian Church—the 1686 document and the patriarchal letters—and Pat. Bartholomew said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” That doesn’t speak well for his stance. He says it would have taken too much time.
—Besides everything else, if you believe that the canons give Constantinople the right of appeal (and the idea that it is a universal right of appeal is rather bogus), according to the analogy with the canons from the Council of Sardica that talk about the Pope’s right of appeal in his own Patriarchate, it involves inviting people from the area where the appeal is taking place and hearing what they have to say. So even the Pope doesn’t claim the right to hear an appeal without bothering to actually hear it.
—That’s a good point. Pat. Bartholomew only ever read letters of appeal—no actual appeals process ever took place.
Could you give us a synopsis of your presentation?
—I talked about why people in America care about what’s going on and how it affects us. I pointed out that in some ways it actually affects us more than most people in Russia. Obviously the people in Ukraine are the most affected, but outside of Ukraine, they don’t have Constantinople Patriarchate parishes around them and people that they’ve had relationships with and families that straddle parishes and are connected to both that suddenly find themselves not in communion anymore. That’s a problem that we have.
It also effects our witness. Since I became Orthodox, one of the big things I have been concerned with is trying to bring people into the Church. It’s harder to bring people into the Church now because it’s harder to explain what Orthodoxy is. When people ask me what the Orthodox Church is, I have some quick answers that I give. If someone ask if it’s like the Roman Catholic church, I say it’s like what the Roman Catholic church was 1,000 years ago. That’s an answer that’s designed to make them think. They’re not going to listen to you give a speech, but it might cause them to wonder what I meant by that.
But a lot of times I’ll say, “Do you know what the Greek Orthodox Church is? You’ve probably heard of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s that—they’re the same Church.” You can still say that, because the Church of Greece is not part of this, but in terms of what most people think of as the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, it’s now much more complicated than that. The waters have been muddied and they’ve been muddied over something that has no basis in the canons or traditions. It’s just a power grab.
And this is not really new. I talked quite a bit about St. John of Shanghai’s report to the Second All-Diaspora Sobor in 1938 in which he talked about the decline of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. When you read that in light of what’s going on right now, its all the more true.
I also talked quite a bit about the fact that when the Ecumenical Patriarchate held its council in 1923, which adopted the new calendar, it also pushed a bunch of other issues, like allowing a second marriage for priests, shortening the services, shortening the fast, and fixing Pascha to the nearest Sunday to a specific date on the calendar, so it wouldn’t be as movable as it is now. The Living Church1 held its council one month prior to that in Russia and the agenda was almost identical. It later came out that the Living Church claimed that it already had connections with Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis. The only thing accepted by any of the Churches out of that council was the new calendar. But a few months later, Meletios Metaxakis was forced to retire because people were so incensed by the things that were adopted at that council. He got himself elected as the Patriarch of Alexandria and introduced the new calendar there, so in 1925 when the Living Church held its second council, Constantinople and Alexandria were both there.
You see that these people had an agenda. If you read about how Meletios Metaxakis became the Patriarch of Constantinople, you can see that there was outside interference from foreign governments. In particular, the English were really pushing for it because they thought the Orthodox Church was going to unite with the Anglican church.
Meletios Metaxakis began his career in the Jerusalem Patriarchate and was expelled for “actions against the Holy Sepulchre.” I haven’t been able to determine exactly what that means, but he was expelled. He then joined the Church of Greece, which at that time oversaw the North American Church. That was when he started doing a bunch of funny stuff with the Episcopalians for which he was deposed by the Church of Greece, and then he was elected Patriarch of Constantinople; so the Church of Greece was forced to rescind the deposition.
His election was strange, too, because another candidate was actually elected by about sixteen out of seventeen votes, but that candidate was pressured to withdraw his candidacy, and so suddenly Metaxakis was elected. He was only Patriarch for a short time before he held that pan-Orthodox council that Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch all refused to participate in. He was forced to retire and then became the Patriarch of Alexandria, which is where he ended his days. He and his successor in Constantinople both supported the Living Church and condemned Patriarch Tikhon.
—There are a lot of parallels to what’s going on today.
—The only thing that makes it even worse is that when you look at Constantinople's agenda now, judging by the people he allows to speak for him, like his Archdeacon John Chryssavgis and also the Public Orthodoxy website, which is supervised by the Greek Archdiocese and funded largely by the Archons of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, they make the Living Church look conservative by comparison because they’re pro-homosexual. That’s all the there is to it. They’re spewing out garbage that’s promoting deviancy on a regular basis and there’s not been a peep of rebuke from anybody with any power to do anything in the Greek Archdiocese.
—There is also a connection between Fordham and St. Vladimir’s Seminary, which I would like to see cut off.
—Right. One thing interesting about that—you know about the hieromonk who married a man, and who was expelled by St. Vladimir’s. Fordham used its relationship with St. Vladimir’s to force St. Vladimir’s to allow that student, who was expelled by them because of his moral failings, to return to their campus and into class as a Fordham student.
—So he was back at St. Vladimir’s but as a Fordham student?
—As a Fordham student.
—There’s a lot that could be said there, but turning back to your presentation—you made some predictions for where this situation is leading.
—I closed with where I thought things are headed and I said it doesn’t appear to me that Pat. Bartholomew has any intention of backing down, so it looks like it’s heading towards something like a permanent schism. Although I did point out that if the other Local Churches took a strong stand, that would hold out hope that there might be some dialing back on the part of Constantinople. But, if it goes all the way and we have a permanent schism, it forces every Local Church to make a decision, and I think we’re going to see schisms within the Local Churches, because there are liberal elements within the Local Churches that will ostensibly be going into schism over this issue. But it will really be because they’re pro-homosexuality and Constantinople is the one they figure is going to promote their agenda, or at least tolerate it.
I hope that I’m wrong, but I think in America you’ll see a schism in the Greek Archdiocese and in the OCA. I suspect that the Antiochians, Serbs, and ROCOR are going to remain united. I think the Romanians are not going to pay a whole lot of attention, judging by my experience with the ones in the United States. I think a majority of the Greek Archdiocese will likely stay with Constantinople, but a significant portion will not go along, because they’re more traditional and won’t go for that. It’s hard to say how great of a schism there would be in the OCA, but there’s definitely some pro-homosexuality elements in the OCA that, I think if it comes down to it, will decide that they’re with Constantinople and not the OCA.
I mentioned in my talk that it’s not coincidental that all the pro-homosexual elements in the Orthodox Church have lined up behind Constantinople on this issue. It’s also not coincidental that pseudo-Metropolitan Epiphany got that spoof call2 and said he’s not going to take a conservative position like the Russian Church. I’m sure the average rank and file Ukrainian has no time for that view, but apparently they’re so nationalistic that they’re willing to ignore it.
—Even the Kyiv Pride organization tweeted congratulations about the creation of this new church. Why should a gay pride organization care?
—They know they’re going to get a better deal from Constantinople. It’s the Living Church 2.0. I wrote an article on that subject a while back, though I didn’t connect it with Ukraine because it wasn’t on the radar screen at that time. However the parallels are undeniable.
—I’ve been seeing that in the news I come across. Outlets are more and more openly calling it the Living Church. Was your talk well received?
—I think so. I got some positive comments afterwards, though I suppose people are polite enough that they wouldn’t tell me if they didn’t like it. But I think it was well received.
—Having to post news on the Ukrainian subject, I am finding it very tiresome.
—By the way, I appreciate everything you publish about it because it’s been a great resource.
—No one else in English seems willing to touch it. Romfea has a new site in English, but it’s clearly Constantinople propaganda. They openly admit that their new site is funded by the U.S. State Department to strengthen ties with Constantinople. They’re not even trying to hide it.
—The Orthodox Institute at Fordham was recently bragging about getting a grant to study human sexuality and Orthodoxy. How much do you want to bet that the studies they produce are not going to say that the Church’s stance is actually one hundred percent correct and that we just need to leave it alone and tell people to get it right?
—Father, that’s not nuanced enough! It’s not sophisticated enough...
—We need to have a dialogue (laughs). You know the first dialogue in the Bible was the one Eve had with the serpent and that didn’t go so well.
—But turning to good dialogue—you said your major focus is getting people into the Church. A friend and I were speaking about a related topic just today—something that you’ve probably already written about somewhere. Does God punish? The Orthodox view vs. sinners in the hands of an angry God, the legal language in the Church, and so on. I was telling my friend that I think sometimes we reject the legal language too much to bring in people who are tired of legalism in the West, but then once they’re in, they realize that language is in the Bible, it is in the Fathers.
—This Sunday we celebrated the Sunday of the Last Judgment. It’s not the last doctor’s visit. It’s not the last checkup at the spiritual hospital. It’s the last judgment, and if you wind up on the wrong side of it, you go to hell. It’s a judgment with a sentence and a verdict. There are all kinds of legal imagery in the Scriptures. When you’re talking about realities that are beyond our daily human experience, we can only talk about it in images. There are lots of images used in Scripture, but none of them taken alone tells you the whole story. They tell you a facet of the story and you have to put them all together. One facet is talked about on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son—that God is merciful, and that’s true. He’s like a loving father that wants to receive his son back, but then you have this Sunday where we talk about how if you don’t get right with God, the day will come where it’s too late and you’re going to go to hell.
That’s another part of the truth, and you can’t say, “I like this truth but I’m going to toss this one because I'd rather not think about that.” The truth doesn’t care about your feelings, as Ben Shapiro likes to say. If you don’t do right and have a right relationship with God, and if it’s true that you’re going to go to hell, wishing that it isn’t so isn’t going to change the fact. I think it’s a mistake to overdo the, “We’re not legalistic like the West” thing. The traditional teachings of the Western churches are almost always based in at least a large portion of truth—they just distort it. It’s okay to say they’re distorting here, or they’re overemphasizing and underemphasizing this truth here and it’s not balanced. But it’s also not balanced to say that because they overemphasize this truth we’re going to toss it out in the window and just talk about this truth. Well, you’re destroying the full picture of what God is trying to teach us.
—It seems to me that Kalomiros’ “River of Fire” goes too far in the other direction. I’m sure you’re’ familiar with Vladimir Moss’ “River of Fire Revisited.”
—I think Vladimir Moss takes it too far too, but I think his critique had a lot of good points in it. But he has too legalistic of a view. He talks about his father who died as an Anglican, and I asked him online years ago whether he believes his father is definitely in hell. He said “I’m not happy about it, but yes.” I think it’s more balanced to leave it in God’s hands. We don’t know what happened in somebody’s relationship with God before they died. We can’t say who’s in hell and who’s not, but we can say what’s true and what’s not because of what God has revealed to us.
—This was also one of our several ongoing discussions at seminary. I’m sure people will be discussing this for a long time.
—It’s true that people can sometimes overreact to things that they grew up with when they convert. It’s particularly true if one of the reasons they became Orthodox is because they had a negative experience with what they were raised in. When I came to Orthodoxy, I knew there were things that were missing, but I didn’t leave the church I was raised in because I was mad at the people I went to church with, had had it up to here, and was ready to hit the road. Prior to discovering Orthodoxy, I figured that what I was raised in was about as right as what I could discover form reading the Scriptures. Still, I did have the sense that there was something missing and I thought the answer was in going back to the earlier roots of the tradition I was part of—the Holiness movement. So I scoured the writings of the nineteenth-century Holiness writers, and people like John Wesley, but I still wasn’t getting it. But I believed that was where I would find it—I just needed to dig harder. But then I discovered Orthodoxy, and I can’t say I’ve attained everything in Orthodoxy, but at least I know where it is. And the balance in the Orthodox Church and the fullness of truth is irresistible, once I became aware of it.
I can understand people having negative experiences, because there are a lot of churches with negative stuff going on, and you can get fed up. You just have to be careful that you’re not overreacting and ignoring things that are really true because it reminds you of something you might have been beat over the head with in your former church.
—I wanted to ask you about that as a pastor. Say for example that you have someone from a Calvinist background: Is it acceptable, or is it dishonest to let them focus more on just one side of things until they get over their past, or do they need to know right away that there still is that legal punishment aspect?
—It depends on their reaction. If it’s someone coming from that background and saying, “I don’t believe in all that stuff,” then I would tell them why they should believe in all that stuff. But on the other hand, if I had someone who was still weighed down by all that stuff and had a hard time believing that God really loved them and that they had a chance to be saved, then I would be talking to them about that, and God’s mercy, and trying to balance out the distortions of their understanding. So it all depends on where they’re coming from.
—I’m curious how you’ll respond to this: I came across a video of Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, who is a major player in the Greek Archdiocese and was influential in arranging the Crete Council. In the video, recorded during the Crete council, he is asked for his view on the Ukrainian parliament’s 2016 appeal for autocephaly. He says that Church independence should have nothing to do with politics, that it was too bold of the Rada to ask for it, and, “Of course, as you know, Patriarch Bartholomew recognizes only Patriarch Kirill as the Patriarch of All Russia, which includes Ukraine.” That was in 2016, so I called him to ask what he thinks now, but I never quite got to ask the question. He asked where I’m from and I said I’m from Pennsylvania, that I converted in the OCA, and now I’m in Moscow. When I said OCA and Moscow he wouldn’t let me get to my question. He said I first needed to find an answer for him as to how Moscow can give autocephaly to the OCA and yet still have their own parishes and ROCOR there. He said if I could get him a good answer then I could call him back and we’d talk about Ukraine. Could you respond to that?
—I think you have to read the tomos of autocephaly given to the OCA. I haven’t studied it but I know it specifically states that that tomos doesn’t invalidate the other Churches that are in North America and that it was more about the hope that eventually the other jurisdictions would unite with the OCA of their own free will; moreover they didn’t force any Moscow Patriarchate parishes to join if they didn’t want to.
If you look at what was going on in America at that time, the OCA was a group of questionable canonicity at the time. The Russian Church Abroad was always seen as legitimate, although there was some pushback towards the end of the 1960s when they took a hard line against the ecumenical movement, and there were some critics that began to question ROCOR’s status too. But the OCA was generally seen as somewhat questionable canonically. That’s why Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote that essay about the canonical questions of Orthodoxy in America. If you read it in the context of the OCA being in limbo, that article makes a lot of sense.
The MP wanted to reconcile with them but they didn’t want to force them to be totally subjugated to the MP, and the OCA wasn’t willing to do that anyways, so they came up with a way to give them an independent status. But it is clear from the tomos itself that it is not autocephaly in the full sense of the term. But compared to the tomos that Constantinople just gave to Ukraine, it at least grants independence, which is what autocephaly means. In the case of Ukraine, it’s not autocephaly—it’s autonomy, if that. It’s less autonomy than the legitimate Church in Ukraine has. But I think the MP was just trying to come up with a way to reconcile these people and enter back into communion with them. It wasn’t intended to state that this is the Church of America and anybody else that is here is not legitimate.
—That is an interesting parallel with Ukraine, because Constantinople says they were just trying to bring people back in and they hope it will lead to unity.
—Here’s the big difference: The MP specifically did not invalidate any other presence in North America but Constantinople did in Ukraine. They announced that anybody who doesn’t join the new church is now uncanonical.
—The letter that he sent to Met. Onuphry informing his that supposedly he is no longer the canonical metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was appalling.
—Pat. Bartholomew was dictating to people who did not want to be part of this deal. Even without this it still would have been a canonical violation, because they went into Ukraine, which they’d always recognized as part of a Local Church’s boundaries, and because they entered into communion with the schismatics. But they went one step further by invalidating the canonical Church at the same time that they entered into communion with the schismatics.
—They just did a flip flop.
—No one complained when Constantinople accepted the schismatics in North America under its wings, even though they were people ordained with a dead hand.3 There are many reasons why people could have objected to receiving them, but they understood that we’re not here to keep people out of the Church. If Constantinople is able to bring these people in and they’re in communion with everybody else then I suppose that’s a good thing. Here we’re talking about a part of the world where there’s no agreed-upon boundary. But with Ukraine, everybody agreed where the boundary was, and Pat. Bartholomew just decided to simply ignore it. So there is just no comparison.
—It was interesting that the Cypriot Church came out with its statement, and that same day, one of the bishops who had signed the statement sent his own letter to Romfea that was much stricter. He said the biggest mistake was how Constantinople treated Met. Onuphry with such contempt. That should have been obvious. Met. Onuphry commands such respect in the entire Orthodox world that certainly they knew there would be pushback.
—I think Pat. Bartholomew believed some of the schismatics’ propaganda and thought there were large numbers of bishops simply chomping at the bit to join a united Ukrainian Church free of Russia, if Constantinople would just step in and offer the chance. And when they only got two bishops out of the ninety... we’re talking about a miniscule number. They were disappointed. They weren’t expecting that. The problem is they’ve invested so much into this already, they’re not prepared to just back off. Although, there have been a couple of steps along the road which, if Pat. Bartholomew were looking for a way to back out and save face, they could have taken, but by the time they got to their schismatic council it was too late—even though the “Kievan Patriachate” folks were acting out. And Constantinople wasn’t happy with the way things actually panned out, because they wanted one of the legitimate bishops to be elected as the metropolitan, but the KP people decided that wasn’t going to happen.
—Which shouldn’t have surprised anyone…
—I think before too long Constantinople is going to realize that they’ve hooked up with people who are going to do whatever they want. They think they’re going to do what Constantinople tells them to do, but they’re not. At some point, they might just declare Epiphany the Patriarch of Kiev and say, “We’re totally independent, so you can shred this tomos because we’re declaring our own independence.”
—Constantinople has a very odd way of looking at things. One of their priests who personally knew at least one of the canonical Ukrainian bishops (and I later heard he’d been working on him for years), told me that the Ukrainian Church is subjugated to the Russian Church and the evidence is that the Metropolitan of Kiev has a permanent seat on the Russian Holy Synod. Is that an example of subjugation? Giving him a position of power!?
—The irony is that if you look at the arrangement that the canonical Church had with Russia compared with what the fake church has with Constantinople, the legitimate Ukrainian Church has much more of a say in the affairs of the Russian Church than the Russian Church does in the affairs of the Ukrainian Church. The Ukrainian Church doesn’t have to answer to Russia at all. The only time that Russia has any possible say is when they elect a new Metropolitan of Kiev, and there’s no reason to believe that unless they elect some crazy candidate, the Holy Synod would not approve him. And if the Russian Church started batting down legitimate candidates, that would only fuel the autocephalous movement. They don’t want Ukraine to break off so they’re going to treat them with a great deal of consideration and leeway.
Does the fake church have any representatives on the Holy Synod of Constantinople? No. There are a number of things they have to get approval for, including any change to their statutes. The Russian Church doesn’t have any such stipulations about the real Ukrainian Church. There’s no comparison. To say that the Russian Church is picking on or subjugating Ukraine, or, as I’ve heard—that they’re a cash cow for the Russian Church—is ridiculous. There’s no money flowing from Kiev into the Russian Church. None.
—It’s like the “big lie.” If you repeat it enough, people will believe it.
—Right. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not have to pay a fee, unlike when the EP would get elected and had to pay the Turks, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that were still the arrangement. There’s no fee. There’s no exchange of money. The Ukrainian Church has almost full autocephaly, whereas the fake church has a lot less than that.
—As far as I understand it, the Ukrainian Church has more freedom than the Greek Church. The Greek Church can’t make its own Chrism, which the canonical Ukrainian Church can’t either, but the Greek Church can’t even canonize its own saints. Why does Constantinople need to maintain control of that? The UOC can canonize its own saints. The only difference between their autonomy and autocephaly is that they commemorate Patriarch Kirill and they don’t make their own Chrism.
—The thing is that the Russian and Ukrainian Churches are so closely historically connected, that this attempt to drive a wedge between them isn’t driven by the faithful of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It’s largely driven by an agenda in the West. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Carter, wrote years ago that what we need in the Orthodox Church is a schism to weaken Russian’s influence on the rest of the Orthodox world. So, people are looking at this from an entirely geopolitical standpoint of what benefits the West, and not what’s for the good for the Church. One has to wonder what changed, because Pat. Bartholomew had been promising he was not going to do what he did until he did it. So something changed, and it wasn’t the canons.
—I think it’s a lot of things. He’s very angry about Crete—he thinks the Russian Church pressured the others not to attend. There’s the factor of Western influence. It’s hard to understand to what extent each factor was an influence.
—When you see the U.S. State Department praising what’s been done, you have to start wondering. And I’ve heard people who support what Constantinople did in Ukraine openly acknowledging that there was some pressure from Western governments, but they don’t say exactly what form it took. I think it’s not really disputed that there were at least nice requests, if not threats, made to Pat. Bartholomew.
—Makary Maletich, the head of the “Autocephalous Church,” said right around the time of the council that the whole thing came together through the intervention of foreign ambassadors. It’s not being hidden.
Thank you very much for your time, Fr. John.
—Thank you, and God bless.
1 I.e., the Renovationist Church that was backed by the Soviet government with the intention of undermining the Russian Orthodox Church.
2 Epiphany Dumenko, the primate of the Ukrainian schismatic church, was called by a telephone prankster who asked him about his views on homosexuality and other liberal agenda items. Before Dumenko began to suspect that the call was a prank, he made some telling statements belying his liberal stance.
3 This is a reference to the history of the so-called Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. There were no canonical bishops willing to consecrate anyone in this group that had arisen on the wave of Ukrainian nationalism in the early twentieth century, and so a group declared one of their members a bishop by the remains of a reposed canonical bishop.