Fr. Edward Henderson is the rector of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church (OCA) in Berkeley, California. I first met Fr. Edward when he was a student at St. Tikhon’s more than ten years ago, and I was glad to meet up with while he was visiting Moscow.
Fr. Edward came to Russia to receive a portion of the relics of two recently canonized saints who are venerated in his parish. He also had to time to sit down with us for an interview on the reason for his trip to Russia, his interest in the Old Rite, his pastoral life in Berkeley, and much more.
A love of the Old Rite
—I know you’re going out to visit Mikhailovskaya Sloboda [an Old Rite parish near Moscow] this weekend. Tell us how you got interested in the Old Rite in the first place.
—It’s an interesting story. I actually became Orthodox at an Old Calendarist monastery in Florida. I was seventeen and very impressed by them, so I had their mentality. Then in 1998, our bishop brought us into a new calendar canonical jurisdiction, though we stayed on the Old Calendar. We used our own translations, we did everything in Byzantine chant, and we did the services in their entirety, without the abbreviations you find in parishes.
That was also the year I first went to Russia. I somehow had the false impression that if you buy books in Russia, you have to keep the receipts or they will be confiscated at the border. I was a beginner in Russian then and was struggling to ask for a receipt while buying a book, and the man behind me offered to help. He was surprised that I was buying a commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse, and I told him I was Orthodox. He said, “Oh, you’re Orthodox? Are you Russian or Greek or Serbian, or…?” I told him I had converted about two years ago, which again surprised him, but he excitedly offered to show me his church, near Christ the Savior Cathedral.
When we got there, he told me this church would be different. I asked how, and he said in Russian, “We are Old Believers.” I said, “Oh, you’re raskolniki [schismatics],” but he explained that they were Edinovertsi—Old Believers who had returned to the Church.
They were having a service when we went in, which was very long, and they were singing everything in Znamenny chant and using hand-written books. It was rather amazing, and I stayed for the entire service, and afterwards they invited me to the trapeza, where I had borsch for the first time. And while there, they invited me to Mikhailovskaya Sloboda, so I went that weekend. There were several priests, including one who knew English, so my first time confessing and communing in Russia was with the Edinovertsi.
They explained their whole history, about the schism, and I saw all these parallels between the Old Calendarists and the Old Believers. They felt that despite everything, schism is a sin, and they had to be in the Church. That further convinced me that the monastery in Florida had done the right thing by joining the Church. I wasn’t sure before that, because being an Old Calendarist isn’t just about the calendar, of course: It’s about ecumenism, modernism, and all that. When we were first told we were going under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I was confused. We had always been told they were the worst people in the world, and now we were joining them. So to see these Edinovertsi maintaining their customs and identity further convinced me that we had done the right thing by becoming canonical.
They were very hospitable—great food—and I went back two more weekends. When I was back in America I ordered a copy of the Old Rite prayer book from the Old Rite parish in Erie and that started it for me. Then right before I left for seminary, I was attending services at the local OCA parish in Fort Myers, there was this priest visiting, and he introduced himself as Fr. Pimen Simon. I had heard his name before, and during coffee hour I told him about going to Mikhailovskaya Sloboda and living in Russia for three years by that point, and he invited me to visit his parish, the Church of the Nativity of Christ, in Erie while I would be studying at St. Tikhon’s. So I visited and took some other seminarians, and we really liked it, and I ended up doing my summer internship there in 2008, when you came and visited for the conference. 
Fr. Pimen always said that even though they were with ROCOR, in some ways it felt more like an OCA parish. “We’re not Russians, we’re Americans,” he said.
—He also says that in an article we published on Fr. Pimen, “The Way We Serve Is Our Means of Communicating With God.”
—Of course we studied Russian Church history at St. Tikhon’s, so it was a great opportunity to go to Erie and see a living example of pre-Nikonian liturgical customs, which aren’t just Russian, but go back to Constantinople and Jerusalem. There are certain movements like the choirs coming together for the katavasia during the canon at Matins, and the reading of Patristic commentaries at various points in the services. You can see the customs and hear the melodies there.
Another seminarian did a paper where he found many connections between Znamenny and Gregorian chant. We also had students from the Malankara Indian church who would pray in their own chapel in the dorm. When I heard their chants, it sometimes sounded like Znamenny. So some of the Znamenny melodies are clearly very ancient.
And I think Fr. Pimen and the Edinovertsi are right—they don’t say the Old Rite is better than the New Rite, or that it’s the original way the services were done in Russia, because we know that after autocephaly, the Russian Church changed from the Studite to the Jerusalem Typikon.
—So when you go to Mikhailovskaya Sloboda, will that be your first time actually serving on the Old Rite?
—It will be my first time serving as a priest in the Old Rite.
—How do you feel about that?
—Well, I have the liturgical books that Erie has published. I’m sure I won’t be the main celebrant. I won’t be doing Proskomedia or anything like that. Maybe I need to look through the Prayer Behind the Ambon.
—From my own observations, it seems more of the differences come during Vigil; Liturgy seems to be very similar.
—When I was at Erie I would sing on the kliros for Vigil and serve in the altar for Liturgy, so I saw it. The Proskomedia is a little different.
—Seven loaves instead of five.
—Exactly, and the priest’s prayers are much longer. There’re also more prostrations that the priest does.
Fr. Pimen told me when they came into the Russian Church Abroad, the Greek monastery in Boston was still with them. They were using a more traditional practice than the Greek Archdiocese, a more Athonite typikon. When Fr. Pimen went there, he noticed more similarities to how he was serving than when he went to regular Russian parishes.
But by and large, the differences aren’t so radical, and I will be one of three or four priests, so I’ll be doing more watching and learning. I’m going to ask them to teach me how to cense Old Rite style.
—And the people put their hands up and then cross them over their chests to “receive” the incense, right?
—That’s right. And in the traditional Greek practice, you cross your hands over your chest and bow, so that’s probably the older practice.
A gift of holy relics from Russia to America
—But obviously you didn’t come to Russia just to serve on the Old Rite.
—So tell us about your main purpose. You received some relics, correct?
—It’s kind of an amazing thing, because it’s not something I put a lot of effort into; it was more like permitting someone to do the work.
—What do you mean?
—I was ordained to the priesthood in October 2013 and assigned to St. John the Baptist Church in Berkeley, California, which is one of the older parishes in the Diocese of the West—almost 100 years old. During the Russian Civil War, when the Red Army came into the cities of Izhevsk and Votkinsk in the Urdmurtia Republic, northeast of Kazan, the workers rose up against the army. The army was better armed, so the people lost and many fled—some to China, some to Japan, and then some made it to America as refugees and were settled in the east of the San Francisco Bay.
They started the parish in the 1920s, initially using St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, with a priest coming from Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco once a month. In the 1930s they bought a house, and in the 1950s—the current church we have. The initial founders were from Votkinsk; they kept the memory of the uprising alive in our parish, and we have a memorial plaque about it.
Our current starosta [church warden], Valery Borisovich Okulov, has roots in Votkinsk, and for many years championed the cause of the canonization of Archpriest Nikolai Chernishev and his daughter Barbara, who were shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Valery told me a few years ago that he wanted to write an official letter concerning their canonization and that he needed a letter from me blessing his work. I didn’t know much about their lives, but they were killed by the Bolsheviks, and I had no reason to question Valery’s intentions, so I wrote the letter.
Then, a couple of years ago on the feast of the Royal Martyrs, there was a woman at church who had a letter from Metropolitan Viktorin of Izhevsk and Urdmurtia about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the uprising in Votkinsk. They had heard that we honored the memory of the uprising and had made contact with our starosta, and the Metropolitan wondered how we were planning to celebrate. I wrote back that most of the people from that heritage had moved away, and we weren’t planning any activities, but that we would love to send a delegation from the parish to be part of the celebrations there. Unfortunately, we never heard anything back; but then last year during Lent the news came out that the Synod had decided to canonize Fr. Nikolai and Barbara. I was surprised to see our parish even mentioned in the official report that had been read before the Patriarch and the Synod.
Then we commissioned an icon of them from an iconographer in Izhevsk, and we asked about getting relics put into the icon. We didn’t get relics, but we were given dirt from their graves. St. Barbara had been involved with the Red Cross, and Fr. Nikolai was very much involved with working with alcoholics, so a lot of people in Votkinsk go to their graves for problems with alcohol and drug addiction—which is greatly needed in Berkeley too—so that’s providential.
But then our starosta suggested that we try again to get some relics, so I wrote to Met. Viktorin. We received a response in June that he had agreed to give our parishes some relics, but that I had to come as the priest. They couldn’t be given to parishioners. We had a parish council meeting about it and they agreed I should go and receive the relics, and the parish paid for my ticket, visa, and hotel. So I’m here on a working trip, with a little vacation to Pskov tacked on.
So I went to Izhevsk, with which I was very impressed. It reminds me of Erie—it’s well built up, with very nice people. My host, Fr. Georgy Kharin is a wonderful priest, very active in the diocese and obviously loved by the people. I was on his radio show; I was on the news.
—You’re big in Russia.
—I guess I’m big in Russia now. I also went to the cathedral in Votkinsk where St. Nikolai served; I went to his grave; I served Vigil at Fr. Georgy’s lovely parish, and Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, which is a beautiful cathedral. I had a great time. I was very warmly welcomed and received the relics.
—I saw in the pictures that you received the relics in an icon. Was that the icon you had commissioned a few years ago?
—No, I didn’t bring the icon, but it was a copy of the icon we had commissioned. I’d like to get a reliquary and hopefully get the relics of several saints. We want to ask Archbishop Kyrill [of Western America, ROOCR] for relics of St. John (Maximovitch) because we have several parishioners who knew him, and I’d like to get relics of St. Herman of Alaska and some other American saints.
Fr. Nikolajs Vieglajs, who came from Latvia, served as rector of our parish for 40 years. He was among those who helped bring the Tikhvin Icon to the U.S. He was to have been ordained to the diaconate by St. John of Riga, but his ordination was postponed because St. John was burned alive at his dacha. So I’d like get relics of St. John of Riga as well, if there are any.
We’ve already started doing molebens for people with drug and alcohol problems, which is one of the major causes of homelessness in the Bay area. It’s not uncommon to see people shooting heroin in plain sight, or smoking crack, or defecating on the streets. I’ve seen all types of anti-social behavior. We even have drug dealers right across the street from the church, so we need the deliverance, and I think it will also be a big support for our parish. I don’t want to be too uncharitable, but it would be nice if these drug dealers went away for good.
—Do any of the Orthodox parishes have any specific outreach to the drug addicts or homeless?
—Not that I know of. They help out with food banks and things like that, but California is so bureaucratic that there would be a lot of resistance. The state is pushing churches out of social ministry. They try to force Catholic hospitals to do abortions or sex changes, and Catholic adoption agencies to adopt to same-sex couples, for instance. There’s also the expense of such programs, so that, combined with the bureaucracy makes it hard to do charitable things. I’d like to get FOCUS North America to come.
We used to have an Orthodox homeless shelter in San Francisco, the Raphael House.
—That’s right. I spent a week there on an OCF Real Break and some friends lived and work there for a while.
—The problem is that as an Orthodox house, they didn’t have enough support, so now it’s state-run, with no connection to the Church. There had been a chapel and a chaplain there, and when they voted to become a state organization they had to close the chapel.
—When I was there in 2006, Archbishop Benjamin was living there.
—I think both Abp. Benjamin and Abp. Kyrill wrote letters expressing their displeasure about Raphael House ceasing to be an Orthodox shelter. But there was no financial support. Yes, we need prayers, but we also need finances.
This new cathedral here at Sretensky didn’t just come from prayers, but people also gave, and people with lots of money gave.
—People love Vladyka Tikhon here. They support his projects.
—Of course this is an Orthodox country, so you have millions of people you can try to rally to give a few dollars each. That doesn’t happen in the U.S. The only person that’s come close to that is Elder Ephraim.
—I was sorry to hear about the Raphael House, because although the Holy Order of MANS had its strangeness, it was also fascinating.
—They were strange, but I’ve met people from the Order. I met Fr. Herman in my early days. The thing about the Order is that they were looking for the truth, despite the weird ideas, and they wanted to help people. They eventually found Orthodoxy, and by 2000 they were regularized.
Some of the Order people are in the OCA. I went to a parish once in Lincoln, Nebraska, and they were serving on the Old Calendar, they were using ROCOR translations, they had services every day, and they owned a coffee shop. I said, “You wouldn’t happen to be Christ the Savior Brotherhood, would you?” The priest asked how I knew, and I said they had all the telltale signs.
He told me an interesting story about how the Order was influenced by the Jonestown Massacre, because Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple had a large parish in San Francisco, not that far from Holy Virgin Cathedral, and also in Los Angeles, and they were influential in California. People make Harvey Milk out to be a great hero, but they don’t realize that part of what got him elected was that he had the support of the Peoples Temple—they were a major political force. Before the suicide and reports of sexual abuse, they were the darlings of the liberal elite, with their social gospel. Jim Jones himself had served in San Francisco city government and even met with President Carter’s wife and the governor.
This priest said that since both the Order and the Peoples Temple were both based in San Francisco, it’s possible their people knew one another or some had even been in both groups. So they were shocked when the suicide happened, and the Order people realized it could have been them, had they gone another way. This was the late 1970s. So they were no longer content being an independent group and realized they had to find the Church, because there had to be a bigger picture. That’s when they met Fr. Herman and started their route to Orthodoxy.
—And I know that before they even met Fr. Herman they had already come across writings of Fr. Seraphim (Rose).
—I think maybe a few of them had even written to Fr. Seraphim, but I’m not sure.
San Francisco Orthodoxy
—It’s amazing to think that at the time the Order was starting in San Francisco, Frs. Seraphim and Herman were starting their bookstore, just a few streets away from one another.
—San Francisco isn’t really that big. You can get around the city very quickly.
—How far is Berkeley from San Francisco?
—It’s very close, over the East Bay Bridge. I have served early morning Liturgies at Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco; I can drive there in about twenty or thirty minutes if traffic is light.
—Obviously there’s a strong Orthodox presence in San Francisco. Is there a sense then that Berkley is part of that circle?
—Yes, the Orthodox in this area get along very well. Our parish is happy in the OCA and the Diocese of the West, but we’re also very Russian; we’re bilingual. The Diocese of the West is more Russian than Carpatho-Russian, unlike many dioceses of the OCA, because it doesn’t have the heritage of St. Alexis Toth. In California, the split between the Metropolia and ROCOR was basically an inter-Russian split. Most people just went to the parish that was closest, unless they were really in tune with Church politics. That’s how it was with our parish. It was just the parish in the East Bay, so the people who lived nearby came there.
Fr. Nikolajs Vieglajs. Photo: Pinterest Fr. Nikolajs Vieglajs was well respected in Russian circles, and Archbishop Anthony of ROCOR always said he wouldn’t start a parish in Berkeley as long as Fr. Nikolajs was there. People remember Fr. Nikolajs serving panikhidas when St. John died. Despite the perceived animosity, the people knew each other. Fr. Nikolajs was among several Latvian priests in the area in both ROCOR and the Metropolia/OCA, and they all knew one another.
I took a Russian parishioner to the OCA Holy Trinity Cathedral on Green Street [in San Francisco] once who had never even seen it. He didn’t know it had been built by the Tsar, that it had pre-revolutionary bells, pre-revolutionary icons, the vestments of St. Tikhon, and so on. From the point of view of Russian heritage, Holy Trinity is very rich.
—I didn’t know about the bells. I’ve been there but I didn’t know all that.
—Tourist walks on Sundays often even start at Holy Trinity to hear the bells.
—So, being part of this greater San Francisco community, what do you think of Fr. James (Corazza) being elected as bishop by ROCOR?
—I think it’s great. I know Fr. James from the Old Cathedral, which is one of the points in the “St. John pilgrimage,” in addition to the St. Tikhon of Zadonsk parish/orphanage, where he lived, and the new cathedral, which has his relics. St. John used to serve at the old cathedral since the new cathedral wasn’t finished yet. That’s where Fr. Seraphim (Rose) first saw St. John, and of course they have St. John’s mantia there. There’s a rich history there, and Fr. James has been there for a long time. I think he will be an excellent bishop.
I wasn’t expecting his election, but then, there are patterns you start to notice with how the Church works—if you get elevated to the rank of archimandrite, for example, or if you’re a bishop’s unmarried archdeacon for a long time, then they just might be eyeing you for something... Or if you’re a single priest and start getting appointed to lots of committees.
—Are you on any committees yet? [laughs]
—I’m not, and that’s how I know I’ll never be a bishop [laughs]. And I have no such ambitions.
—Well, that’s good!
—The life of a bishop is hard. Some people love the idea of standing on a raised platform, being dressed as an emperor, and having people tell them to live for a long time, but I see Abp. Benajmin—that man works so hard for the Diocese. I’m not afraid to fly, but I hate it. I’d hate to spend most of the month living in and out of suitcases.
—And the Diocese is so geographically spread out.
—It’d be nice if they could find some kind of solution.
—That would require Orthodox unity, because it’s a matter of financial support. We already have four bishops in San Francisco, and soon Fr. James. We have so many overlapping dioceses. We have more than fifty active diocesan bishops in America, so in theory you could have one for each state, although it wouldn’t realistically divide up that way because of the distribution of parishes—but you see the point.
When I was in Greece I went to Preveza, where the book Beauty for Ashes is set. It’s a tiny little town, but they have a metropolitan. They say that most of the time when he visits a parish he walks. When you have a diocese that’s really like a little town and you really know the bishop, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But that’s an Orthodox country. So I went there and I met Metropolitan Meletios, whom the book is about.
On the Ukrainian crisis
—And you know Archbishop Nikitas, who is now the Constantinople hierarch in Great Britain, correct?
—Yes, through the Patriarch Athenagoras Institute in Berkeley. He used to be there. Abp. Benjamin wanted me to be involved there with the OCF. I had wanted to meet Abp. Nikitas for many years anyways after I saw a documentary about his work in Southeast Asia, which impressed me. Then I found out we’re both from Florida, which made Abp. Nikitas very happy.
I would serve Liturgies and attend classes and OCF events there. We had a good personal relationship, and he often invited me to go places with him—Mt. Athos, Istanbul, Buenos Aires—though I was never able to make it. I also briefly worked as his interim secretary there, so I saw him all the time.
—And as you told me before, you spoke to him about Ukraine. Was he on the Synod of Bishops of Constantinople at that time?
—I think so. He was going to Istanbul all the time, and he has Turkish citizenship. I knew they had serious plans about Ukraine. Even if I have disagreements with him, he’s a good man.
But yes, I spoke to him about Ukraine. He’d been there and met with Metropolitan Onuphry and also with Philaret Denisenko and his people. But when we started hearing rumors last summer, I was like a lobbyist. I said, “Please, please, please do not have anything to do with Denisenko. Don’t mess with this situation. If you get entangled with Philaret Denisenko, you’re going to regret it. These are not just people who want an independent church; these people are cuckoo.” I told him I’d been to Ukraine two times. I’m not an expert, but I’ve visited the historical churches, and when you visit the Kiev Caves Lavra or the canonical parishes, look at the books they’re selling—prayer books, lives of saints, Patristics, spiritual stuff. Look at the books in “Kiev Patriarchate” parishes—they’ll have a Ukrainian Bible and prayer book, but everything else is against Russia or defending their “canonicity”.
—It’s the same in the news now. Everything that comes from these churches is about “our aggressive neighbor to the north.” Just be your own country!
—I can’t comment on that. In America we hear different things about the war there. But the thing is, unfortunately what’s happened with Ukrainian identity is that it’s like a teenager—when you’re a kid you want to be with mommy and daddy all the time. Then you’re a teenager and you tell your parents to drop you off at the party a block early so no one sees you arriving with them. It’s like so much of the Ukrainian identity is saying, “We’re not Russia.” Yes, but you’re human beings, first of all. You’re Indo-Europeans; you’re Europeans; you’re Eastern Europeans; you’re Slavs; you’re Eastern Slavs. You have a common heritage. You eat the same food. You have a common history of ancient Rus’, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Yes, the Holodomor was a terrible thing, but Stalin starved a lot of people.
—Not just Ukrainians.
—Not just Ukrainians. It was a horrible thing and that needs to be acknowledged, but the idea that we are so separate that we have nothing in common is ridiculous, and so much is just focused on being not Russia. Okay, if you’re not Russia you’re not Russia, but you don’t have to be so crazy about it.
The Church does need a council, not to make fancy statements or delight the press, but we’ve come to a point where we have several questions about structure we have to solve—dealing with territory and primacy.
We can’t find a clear precedent in many ways. The canonical structure is based upon the geopolitical reality of the Roman Empire, which is fine if you have that empire. But now we live in nation-states, which is a more modern phenomenon. Look at the Byzantine Empire—it had five or six autocephalous Churches within it. The Church structure wasn’t based on a geopolitical border, but on the people of a certain area with its metropolis.
But now we have Churches based on national borders. So are we going to base the canonical territory of a Church on the geopolitical boundaries of the time? That’s not the Roman model.
—We have a mix of this today, like with Moldova.
—Some people say the European Union is evolving into a single state. Were it to become a more centralized geopolitical state like the U.S., does that mean the Churches of Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Poland, and so on should give up their autocephaly and become a single Church, because they’re all in the EU? It depends on which model you want to follow. If you follow the Roman model, you could hypothesize that the Russian Church should be divided into several Local Churches—maybe one for Moscow, one for St. Petersburg, one for Ekaterinburg, and one for Vladivostok, for example.
Let’s imagine Ukraine had a united autocephalous Church. What if at some point Ukraine somehow gets divided into two countries? Think of Crimea—it’s now part of the Russian Federation but remains under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Church. There isn’t a consistent pattern.
What about Czech Republic and Slovakia—they were once one country, but why aren’t there two Local Churches today?
We need a council to determine which pattern we want to follow. It’s causing confusion.
Another issue is primacy—what does it mean to be first among equals? What were the prerogatives of Rome and then Constantinople? We don’t have an empire—do we need a first among equals? I think we do, but what does it mean? We say Rome had primacy not mainly because of St. Peter, but because it was the capital of the empire.
—That’s what the canons say.
—That’s what the canon says. When the capital moved to Constantinople, that prerogative became shared. Now that we don’t have an empire, which see should be first? Should it be the Patriarchate of Moscow because it’s the largest Orthodox country? Should it be Jerusalem because that’s where our Lord lived? Should it be Geneva because it’s in a neutral state? Should it be NYC because that’s where the UN is headquartered? Should it be Alexandria because it’s second in the taxis? Lots of questions.
And second, what are the prerogatives of the primate of a Local Church?—because they’re not the same everywhere. The primacy that the Patriarch of Moscow enjoys within the Russian Church is not the same as the prerogatives of other primates. Here you see bishops taking a blessing from the Patriarch. You don’t see that in other Churches, because the Patriarch is still a bishop—he’s not a super bishop. In theory, if he were to do something uncanonical, the Synod could depose him. What does that mean for ecclesiology?
I think those are the three issues that we need to define in our modern world. We haven’t dealt with these matters, we have a new geopolitical reality now, and Constantinople is using that confusion to claim to be first without equals—and no one challenges it. What’s happening in Ukraine already happened in Estonia, and communion was suspended for a while, then it was left to be what it is. People have disagreed on paper with Constantinople, but no one has really corrected them. We didn’t correct Rome for centuries and it resulted in the Great Schism.
Should Ukraine have an autocephalous Church based on the fact that it is an independent geopolitical state, or based on the fact that it’s a local area with a historical metropolis?
—Even the Kiev Metropolia that Constantinople lays claim to does not equal modern-day Ukraine. There should be more attention on that.
—That’s right, but again, it’s not been clarified how we want to handle all these issues. There are places big enough to invite every diocesan bishop in the entire Church—one bishop- one vote, and they don’t all have to vote in blocks.
The real goal of the Crete council was to establish that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has the right to call a council. I agree with what the Russian Church said—how can we have a council without the Georgian, Bulgarian, and Antiochian Churches? “If they’re not going to come, then let’s hold off on this.” I don’t think it was the Russian Church playing politics. I think they had a legitimate concern. And of course the OCA wasn’t even invited.
—A slap in the face.
—A slap in the face to the OCA. But I think the Russian Church was being genuine in saying the time was not right for the council.
The purpose was for Constantinople to set a precedence of having the right to call a pan-Orthodox council.
—I haven’t read it yet. What’s his proposal?
—In the end, he basically says we should call a council and Moscow should accept everything Constantinople has done. But one of his points is that we have to come together and have an agreement before the council happens. Then at the council the bishops will put their stamp on it.
—But that’s not a council.
—Right, what about the Holy Spirit? I think he even says that if we don’t agree beforehand, then all we’re going to do is come together and agree on our disagreement.
—But that’s the point of a council. And the ancient councils took time. Crete was one week. St. Nicholas slapped Arius in the face. That’s what goes on at councils. The First Ecumenical Council was mostly clergy who had survived the persecutions. They probably had fingers and eyes missing. They had been beaten up, then they came to this council. This was not some kumbaya of ecclesiastical princes. They had suffered for their faith. And they came to deal with Arius, and look at St. Nicholas. That’s an Ecumenical Council.
If you’ve already agreed beforehand, just do it all by telephone or a video conference. Why spend the money? I think we should agree on an agenda beforehand. But every diocesan bishop should have a voice. Whoever shows up, shows up. And the majority makes the decision and if it’s in harmony with Orthodoxy, then it’s a council, and if not, it’s a robber council.
Let’s really hash it out and stop playing these games. Everyone’s too concerned about looking good and “officialness.” No. don’t have any cameras. Closed doors. Have a secretary record everything.
If Met. Onuphry went, everyone would be convinced of his case. Let’s face it, Epiphany is a zero. You can put that in the headline. That man is a zero. All those guys in the KP or UAOC are zeros…
And now they Archons are giving a human rights award to Epiphany. The man didn’t do anything, he just showed up in the right place.
—That’s another slap in the face to the Ukrainian Church.
—I can see giving a human rights award to Elie Weisel, but Epiphany? He didn’t do anything.
—In this case it’s not even a matter of the fact that we disagree with his church. He just literally has done nothing for human rights. It’s like when Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. You have to do something.
—It’s bizarre. People only have as much power as you give them. The Church of Greece is being very careful, but the other Greek Churches have spoken out more. The Church of Cyprus says they only recognize Onuphry. Jerusalem only recognizes Onuphry. The OCA has said that it cannot recognize Epiphany. And Abp. Benjamin was in Kiev for the feast of the Transfiguration to serve with Met. Onuphry. The Antiochians aren’t serving with the OCU. Met. Joseph sent out a directive to his priests that if clergy from OCU come to their parish, they cannot concelebrate with them. The Serbs, too. The Church of Greece is being careful and trying to balance something. I’m sure there’s pressure. They know if they say something they’ll be in trouble with somebody.
—At this point it is really unclear which way they’re going to go, if they ever make a decision.
—I think they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing—kicking it down the road. Obviously there’s more pressure there. Greece is in the EU; their economy is in bad shape. I’m sure there are external factors from other governments. If they say, “We only recognize Met. Onuphry,” there will be consequences. If they say, “Yes, we recognize Epiphany,” there will be consequences.
I always tell people this is not a fight between Greeks and Russians. They’re fine. This is a struggle between the Russian Church and the Church of Constantinople. Constantinople is responsible for this. They knew what they were doing.
—I wanted to ask more about Met. Nikitas. You warned him.
—I told him, “Please don’t do this. Do not legitimize Philaret Denisenko.”
—Did you have any sense that he personally took your warning seriously?
—He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What can I do?”
It’s a mess. We used to joke, “Oh, it’s good to see you; it’s good we’re still in communion.”
Pastoral life in Berkeley, California
When the break happened I made a decision for myself. I’m in the OCA and I love the OCA, but I have a responsibility to my parish. I cannot in good conscience serve with clergy of Constantinople. Not because I don’t like them—I have plenty of friends there. I come from there. But if the other Russian priests aren’t doing it, I can’t do it. I’ll commune the laypeople, but I won’t serve with their clergy.
I decided to follow the rules that the Moscow Patriarchate put forth, for the sake of my parish. If I were in a more Americanized parish I don’t know if I’d do that. But that’s not the situation I’m in. I stopped serving at the Institute. It was sad because it ended my involvement with the OCF there. I didn’t want to just go and eat a free dinner and hang out with college students. The irony is that when I stopped going, a lot more college students started coming to my church.
This is the odd thing about outreach. Sometimes when you reach out to people, their instinct is to run away. When you don’t reach out to them, they want to come. Sometimes I’m tempted that when I talk about how people should behave as Christians, I should say the exact opposite because then they’ll do what they’re supposed to do. Come late, talk all you want, dress inappropriately, leave early, don’t contribute. And then they’ll all want to follow the rules.
But if you’re vested and say something like that, then you’re guilty of spreading heresy. I’m not going to test God that way.
—Have these college students come and stayed?
—Some have. Usually one or two a year come to Orthodoxy in our parish. We do the Liturgy half in English and half in Slavonic now, and what we do in one language one Sunday, we do in the other the next Sunday. So I tell people to give us two Sundays in a row and experience both versions. This helps our Russian families who understand that their kids need English services but also want them to hear Slavonic. And people are realizing they understand things like the Anaphora now, because they’re hearing it in English.
—How many people do you typically get on a Sunday?
—How many are officially on the rolls?
—Our mailing list has about 250 people. We really should have 100 people in church on a Sunday. This is the main difference between the Russian Church in Russia and Russian churches outside of Russia, I think. Here in Russia, you go to church for spiritual reasons. You go to pray and confess your sins and especially to commune, out of love for God. You don’t have to go to church to speak Russian or learn Russian or eat Russian food. All the cultural stuff you can do outside the Church, whereas when you live abroad you get nostalgic; then our ethnic parishes, not just Russian, become cultural centers as well. So you have a lot of people who are not really religious but who come to meet other Russians and eat Russian food. You have to go and tell them this is about the spiritual life.
I have people come who want their children baptized but they don’t want to come to church. They say they can’t. Then I go on their Facebook pages and I see that they can’t because that Sunday they have wine tasting or they have to go shopping or on a boat trip.
—So how do you deal with people who show up and want a Baptism, whom you’ve never seen before?
—I tell them to come to church for a month and then we’ll talk about Baptism, and usually they disappear.
—That’s what Fr. Pimen says in the article too.
—I tell them it’s not an ethnic club, and they need to make a commitment to the Church—come to Vigil and Liturgy, and weekday services. They have to make a real effort. If I were a priest in Russia I’d probably baptize anyone who came to me, because they have the surrounding culture supporting them. It’s so secularized in the Bay Area that if you don’t bring your child, they won’t remain Orthodox. I’ve done enough funerals to see the fruit of not educating your children. I can’t in good conscience just baptize someone.
I do the full ceremony and I immerse those kids. They go all the way under the water. I see too many videos of priests pouring. Baptism means immersion.
—Who can’t immerse? Who can’t go get at least a makeshift baptismal font?
—I have a Rubbermaid trough, and we baptize in the church yard. Then we chrismate them and go back in the church for Liturgy. I always baptize adults by full immersion unless there’s some kind of medical preclusion.
—Now that you’ve been a priest for a few years, can you say that St. Tikhon’s prepared you well?
—Yes. The value of a seminary education is not that you learn everything; but St. Tikhon’s gives you a firm foundation and the ability to recognize what you need to learn more about and how to find it. Maybe I don’t know everything about St. Basil’s writings on the six days of creation, but I know he wrote about it and where to find it. I know if I am somehow confronted with Monothelitism, then I have to go to St. Maximus the Confessor. And for those who are already ordained while in seminary, there is onsite liturgical training at the monastery.
So St. Tikhon’s definitely prepares you. You can’t really prepare. We don’t prepare, we get ordained. But, in a certain way, we do prepare.
—There will always be realities you can’t prepare for, of course.
—I was immediately thrown into the fire, in my parish. During my second week there, two people showed up wanting exorcisms. I knew enough to say I was a new priest and I couldn’t do that at that point, but that we needed to talk. One was Catholic, anyways. I told the person that if they wanted to become Orthodox and get baptized, that would include exorcisms. The other was Orthodox, and we met, and I told the person they didn’t need an exorcism—what they really needed was confession and Communion.
But being in Berkeley, you get all sorts of weird stuff. I get these requests quite a bit. “Can you do an exorcism on me right now?” No, I’m not going to do an exorcism on you right now.
—It’s interesting that they are on the one hand recognizing something spiritual, beyond the material, but on the other hand it’s also not a serious approach.
—Demonic possession is a major problem in the Bay Area because of the pagan spirituality. I talked to a famous Catholic exorcist, Fr. Gary Thomas. The movie The Rite with Anthony Hopkins is based on his story. He said every Catholic diocese now has an exorcist. More people are involved in the occult, and sexual morality and illegal drugs can also lead to this. A lot of the drug cartels in Central and South America do rituals over the drugs before they send them in—a lot of them are Satanists or occultists and do spells or incantations over these drugs. I’m not saying it will always happen, but if you do illegal drugs, you open yourself up to demonic possession—and they are seeing an increase in the need for this ministry.
In the Orthodox Church, any priest can be blessed by his bishop to do an exorcism. But you don’t go into that lightly. If you believe you have to, you need to be prepared, because if someone is just psychologically ill and you do an exorcism over them and then the problems are still there, you do great damage. You have to be really careful about that.
My church has drug dealers on the other side of the road; we have a pagan new age temple right next to us; a few blocks away there is a Thai Buddhist and a Zen Buddhist temple; there’s a hippie dippie Jewish synagogue right near us.
—So you’re right in the thick of it.
Sexual immorality and the purity of the Church’s teachings
—We’re right in the thick of it. And all the mainline Protestant churches have their rainbow flags on their doors. We’re this little Orthodox church. I wouldn’t say I’m the best priest or preacher, but I do try to teach what the Church teaches. I don’t like it when I see certain Orthodox blogs questioning Church teaching. We’re not going to do same-sex weddings…
—You can go do that in any other Church. Just go, if that’s your main concern.
—And look at these churches. No one goes to church in Scandinavia. It certainly hasn’t attracted new people to the church. They’ll ordain a female kangaroo in a lot of these churches. I don’t bully people. I don’t preach every homily on this one issue, but when it’s the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, I’ll talk about sexual morality, and I talk about what the Church teaches. When I see some of these American blogs, like Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Public Orthodoxy, the Wheel… How you can see even Orthodox clergy contributing to that… These sites should be immediately shut down. People can do what they want. They can start a blog. But clergy should not be supporting that.
—They hide behind this veil of, “We’re just having dialogue.”
—When I see things like that conference in Oxford, I just want to say, “Explain to me how engaging, whether you’re married or not, same sex or not, in anal or oral sex complies with the moral tradition of the Orthodox Church.” Let’s go there and talk about that. No one wants to talk about that.
—To allow these acts you have to say sex has no purpose other than pleasure. And then in that case, anything is allowed.
—Tell me how these two types of sexual acts are somehow in compliance with the ascetic-moral tradition, even within a marriage, because as far as I know (and not just me—Fr. Thomas Hopko, Fr. Josiah Trenham, and others also talk about it), those two things cannot be done even when you’re married.
—I think the canons consider it even worse when you’re married, because then you’re abusing your own spouse.
—Right, but no one wants to talk about that because they want to imagine that this is all normal. I’ve told people who identify as gay that if they want to love someone of the same sex, that’s fine. What do you call a relationship between a father and a son or two brothers? That’s a same-sex relationship. Basically, friendship is just an extension of brotherhood.
Read Cicero’s treatise on friendship—it’s one of those “seeds of the Word.” His work is beautiful. This is someone who isn’t even Christian. He says the purpose of friendship is to build up virtue that is affirmed through mutual respect and affection. It’s not about just enjoying each other’s company, it’s not about, “Oh, you’re cool, let’s hang out”—that’s acquaintanceship. It’s a committed relationship for the building up of virtue. I always tell people who are dealing with these issues to read Cicero and see what a friendship truly is.
If you want a loving same-sex relationship—father-son, brothers, friends—if you want intimacy with someone of the same sex, then pray with them, work with them, struggle with them, talk with them. You can have a perfectly godly relationship with someone of the same sex, perfectly sanctioned by the Church. How many monastic saints have had a monastic companion? Read the letters between the Fathers—you see the love between them. Have that. But you don’t need a sexual relationship. That’s not going to give you what you want or need.
—And that’s a far more serious view on relationships in general. Obviously, they’ll say they love each other, but they’re basically reducing it to pleasure.
—Fine, love each other.
—But adding that other element is just pleasure.
—It’s fine if you love each other. I love my brother priests. I love serving the Liturgy with them. There’s nothing more intimate than that; or than sitting in a church and praying the Jesus Prayer together, like they do in certain monasteries; or singing the hymns in a choir together with other men, or concelebrating the Divine Liturgy as clergy. Concelebration between two priests is an extremely intimate act. But it’s godly. That’s proper same-sex intimacy. We’re not going to find it through immoral acts, and that’s what these people on all these blogs don’t seem to get.
—You put it much better than I could have, but I’ve always thought about this: Married people will say, “Keep the Church out of my bedroom; it’s too intimate.” But there are far more intimate things in the Church. Communion is far more intimate than the marriage bed.
—And yet, the Church is the one giving us Communion. It doesn’t refrain because of intimacy.
—We have to remember that every vice is a perversion of a virtue. Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings. What corrupted Saruman?
—It’s been too long since I’ve read it.
—Well, Saruman decided that in order to defeat Sauron, he had to study him. He looked through the Palantír into the eye of Sauron. Saruman was originally a good, noble, and respected wizard, but he got corrupted. That’s a very Christian message. I can’t help someone overcome a passion for murder by murdering someone so I’ll have the experience of it. If Orthodox Christians are chaste, they’ll be able to help people. If you’ve invested in chastity, whether through marriage or monasticism, then you can really help people. You’re not going to help them through unchastity.
—This is also why someone like Fr. Sergius, a monk, can be a good spiritual father for married people.
—Some people say, “What does a monk know about marriage?” Well, he lives the spiritual life. He has virtue.
—Of course, in the Orthodox Church we don’t micromanage people and they can find the spiritual father they want. There are advantages to having a married priest as your spiritual father and there are disadvantages. It’s the same with monastic spiritual fathers. Every priest has their own charism. Some are better at confessing people, for example. You gravitate towards whomever helps you. At St. Tikhon’s, when we picked our spiritual father, some of us picked the hieromonks and some the married priests.
—Fr. Daniel Donlick is very “popular.”
—Of course. Or Fr. Artemy Vladimirov here in Moscow. A lot of Americans go to him. He’s married. We have plenty of good priests who are married. It’s a matter of finding what you need. It’s not one thing or the other.
Truth and heresy
—So Saruman studied Sauron and got corrupted. In his book Nihilism, Fr. Seraphim (Rose) said just to hear the words of unbelievers is corrupting.
—It can be. I had an interesting case one time. I was at St. John’s Monastery in Manton and they had a bunch of books, including Nestorius’ book in which he argues that he is not a heretic. I thought, “Oh that’s interesting, maybe I’ll read it,” and as soon as I opened it up, a black widow spider went running out.
—It’s a sign.
—I thought, “Nope, I will not read Nestorius. Sorry, God.”
But, it depends on the context. It’s one thing if you’re taking a comparative religion class from an academic point of view. And even in the Church, there are those heretics whose writings we burned, but there are others who were more tolerated for a while. In the East we have Origen, who wrote many great things; in the West you have Tertullian—he gave us the word Trinity and wrote a lot of great things. We have Evagrius Ponticus, who wrote a lot of great things. And there’s St. Augustine of Hippo. Yes, there are problems with his theology, but that’s more ignorance than anything else (and Fr. Seraphim’s book explains that well), but he wrote many good things. Some people say St. Gregory of Nyssa taught apokatastasis. I don’t think so.
—I think he tried to use Origenistic terminology, while changing the meaning. Whether he was successful or not, I don’t know, but I don’t agree that he teaches universal salvation.
—He’s saying everything will be restored. Everyone will be resurrected, but not everyone unto salvation.
—That’s the way I see it.
But we have to be careful just calling things heretical. I remember one lady didn’t want her kids to read Tolkien. “He was Catholic; he was a heretic.”
—He’s not trying to teach dogma, first of all.
—And we have to define “heretics.” It’s someone who consciously rejects clearly-defined Church teaching, who has been condemned, and whose teaching is so perverse that it’s causing confusion and doubt. Fr. Hopko said, “I may be wrong sometimes, but I’m not a heretic.” People make mistakes. Sometimes we’re just not thinking or don’t explain something clearly. Sometimes we just misspeak. Heresy is a much bigger thing. So I’m not going to call every Catholic ever a heretic.
—Dr. Al Rossi from St. Vladimir’s gave a retreat at St. Tikhon’s one year. He said something about how we fell from Paradise, and people thought, “Oh, he’s an Origenist. He’s teaching us Origen.” I thought, “Come on people, in context, we know what he’s talking about.”
—There’s responsible ecumenism and there’s irresponsible ecumenism. Of course, concelebrations with the heterodox are impossible and praying in ways that compromise the Orthodox faith is impossible. But at the same time, I think it is important for clergy, especially in America, to know the other clergy in the area. I have a very good friendship with the Dominicans. They’re more traditional, and they know what’s going on in our world. They love the Philokalia and St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov and St. Isaac the Syrian, and they read the pre-schism saints, of course. I think they feel closer to me than they do to the Jesuits.
Of course, we don’t have any wishy-washy ecumenism, but it’s a good relationship. We don’t want to just approach other Christians who are doing the best they can and tell them they’re heretics. One youngster called me once, complaining about Protestants. I told him to look at a map of Orthodox churches in America. There are many places in the middle of the country where there are no churches. All there is is Baptist, maybe Catholic.
What if there is a man who is living a profligate life, doing all sorts of terrible things, who goes to a tent revival with a traveling preacher who really believes in his heart and teaches people to pray, to love God, to read the Gospel and live accordingly, and this man hears the message and something changes with him and he repents and gives his life to Christ? Is it the Orthodox Sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist? No, it’s not that. Is it in the Church in its fullness? No. But something happened, and it’s God’s grace there.
—We can’t just say, “Oh, you’re not Orthodox, so your spiritual experiences are 100 percent invalid and you’re in prelest.” It’s like what Elder Sophrony once said to an archimandrite who liked to argue with Catholics: He asked him, do they believe in Jesus Christ, do they believe in the Trinity, do they have sacraments, priests, and monastics, do they pray to the Virgin Mary? Yes, so start with what we have in common, and work from there.
Build a relationship, be their friend, because you’re not going to convince a stranger of anything. You might be preaching the truth, but speaking the truth without love is just as dangerous as speaking a lie. But if you take the time to build a relationship with them and show an interest in their life, then when they come to you and ask what the difference is between Orthodox and Catholicism, for example, then you can really get into it. Then they know they aren’t talking with someone who’s just trying to prove them wrong for their own triumphalism.
Again, I’m all in favor of responsible ecumenism. But, of course, we have to be careful, because there are obvious abuses in the ecumenical movement.
—That’s about all the time we have, Father. Thank you very much for this interesting and enlightening conversation!
—God bless you and all your readers!