COVID and the Breakdown in the Episcopal Response

Last month,  Orthodox Reflections published an excellent essay.  I highly recommend that you read it for yourself in its entirety.  It’s that good.  

The crux of this essay is that the American Orthodox episcopate dropped the ball regarding the crisis brought on by the pandemic.  It is an eloquent and precise appraisal of the crisis in our considered opinion.  It is in fact a diagnosis of how we got here.  Namely, that our episcopate lives in a rarefied bubble in which there is no feedback from the bottom up.  Their only contact with their pastors (at best) is through their chancellors

Instead of asking the priesthood –the men on the ground who are most connected to the laity–they talk only to one another.  Worse, they receive the overwhelming majority of their direction from the secular authorities; from the same people who gave us conflicting information from the outset of this pandemic –and worse–continue to do so. 

To add insult to injury, these are the same authorities who divided the American people into those who do “essential” work as opposed to those who do “non-essential” work.   In case you didn’t know, abortuaries, liquor stores, and cannabis dispensaries are “essential”.  Churches are not.  That’s what the Federal gummint said and our bishops didn’t say otherwise.

This has caused a worrisome division where there are those who signal their virtue by wearing a mask as opposed to those who do not.  Unfortunately, this is not the end of the road.  Now, the division has widened to include vaccination status.  (Will a yellow star be far behind?)

As to why such a disconnect exists in the first place, one can look to the distortion of the episcopate under secular and/or anti-Christian regimes.  In Ottoman times, the Patriarch of Constantinople was the ethnarch of the Rum millet (the Christian nation).  In the communist regimes, the bishops were informants for the various intelligence services of the Warsaw Pact nations.  In neither instance was any of this spiritually profitable. 

The coronavirus has exposed yet another spiritual problem in the United States for the Orthodox Church.  This is ironic because in this country (as opposed to the Islamic and Marxist regimes), we live in a country in which freedom of religion is one of the bedrock principles.  Yet our episcopate has not been able to break out of its Old World mindset.  As a result, the fissures between the episcopate and the laity have been laid bare.    

In the great swath that makes up Middle America for example, many bishops are geographically far removed from their parishes, while there is a surfeit of bishops in the great cities of the East and West Coasts.  Between California and the Hudson River, few Orthodox bishops are in actual residence.  Therefore many of these coastal bishops are responsible for parishes of the hinterlands, which are hundreds of miles away.  Under such conditions, it is hard to see how they could know what the pastoral concerns of their flocks could be. 

Indeed, given the fact that the secular authorities gave out wrong (or at least incomplete) information in the first place, even those bishops in the major metropolitan areas who were close to their flocks could not minister to their close-at-hand urban flocks in a thoughtful manner. 

The author makes copious mention of the misinformed and spiritually injurious dictates that erupted from the dictates of several of our bishops.  (One bishop in Canada even called fellow Christians who disagreed with him “pagans”.)  Unfortunately, these dictates did not end at the medical level:  equally uninformed and maladroit pronouncements extended to the political sphere as well.  There is no reason to hash them out chapter and verse here (the original essay does a much better job of this anyway) but it is important to point out that all of these pronouncements indicated a decided leftward tilt.  This was at a time in which hundreds of American cities were being destroyed by anarcho-leftist mobs (specifically Antifa).   

Needless to say, gestures such as these alienated Orthodox parishioners who had other opinions on these matters. 

And yet, there was more.  One archbishop served the Divine Liturgy in an Episcopal cathedral in New York City.  This cathedral is in its own words  “ground zero for the queering [sic] of Manhattan”.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, he returned weeks later to thank the dean of that cathedral.  Later, he went on to speak a few weeks later at an ecumenist conference in which he preached universalism, saying there was more than one way to achieve salvation.  

The author chalks it up to lack of communication.  He is not wrong.  He also posits that there is no repentance on their behalf.  Regrettably, he is right:  only one bishop remarked on how tumultuous the “roller-coaster ride” of the past year has been.  Note the passive tone.  It just “happened”.  Nobody was responsible.  It was as if there was nothing that he –as a hierarch–could do. 

This logically leads to the question why do we need bishops in the first place?  Are they merely curators of liturgical rites?  Or regulators who merely hand out marriage licenses and baptismal certificates on behalf of the secular authorities?  If so, then would we be wrong to assume that they answer to the government and no one else? 

The past is often a prologue.  What guarantees do the average Orthodox laymen have that their jurisdictions will not be forced to succumb to ill-informed dictates down the road?  What guarantee do we have that any future dictates will not be ill-advised or that they are not delivered to us in a spirit of ill-will, that is to say, fervid anti-Christian hostility?  

In the business world, stability is prized above all else.  If the boards of directors of large corporations were as distant from their suppliers and customers as our bishops are from their flocks, they would soon go out of business.  Corporations have an amazing capability of learning from their mistakes and bouncing back.  That’s because the customer is their bread and butter.  They even have been known to make public apologies.  Sometimes they do this in a spirit of fun but correct their mistakes, they do.

Yes, I realize that the Church is not a business.  We know that.  But if our leadership class is this confused, this insular, this unresponsive, and this ecumenist, then why don’t our parishioners join any of the other Protestant sects that dot the American landscape?   

In any event, the purpose of the essay in question was to question the disconnectedness that exists between the American episcopate and their clergy and laity which only seems to be widening.  Hopefully, the bishops will learn from their mistakes or failing that, from thoughtful essays like the one in Orthodox Reflections.  The imperious nature of the episcopate does not inspire hope that this will be the case.  Still, we are Christians.  At the end of the day, repentance must be made for any number of things.  As such, it is my considered opinion that unless this changes, unless the bishops take stock of their mistakes and publicly repent of them, then Orthodoxy in America will wither on the vine.   



  1. Liberals don’t need a liberal church to teach them liberalism and liberals know it.

    That is why liberal Christianity is doomed to extinction, sooner or later. It is merely the process of shutting down the business, a long going out of business sale, if you will.

    • Gail Sheppard says

      Liberals don’t want to be taught anything. Their idea of teaching is to hear their own ideas expressed out loud.

  2. I just imagine them sitting at home continuously watching mainstream TV on a cathode ray tube TV and every time CNN comes out with another covid scare they phone the auxiliary asking if they can go on the internet (or however that works) to send an announcement to do whatever the CDC says.

  3. Antiochene Son says

    Therefore many of these coastal bishops are responsible for parishes of the hinterlands, which are hundreds of miles away. Under such conditions, it is hard to see how they could know what the pastoral concerns of their flocks could be.

    This is true even for bishops who DO live in the regions where their flocks are. The Midwestern dioceses of all the jurisdictions, for example, are huge and encompass many states.

    I don’t think the hierarchs should have blindly followed state rules on COVID, but even if they did, they were not able to offer any guidance at all in particular states, because they didn’t have the resources to research and understand each state’s rules. This led to churches giving the state a wide berth, ignoring loopholes and technicalities that could have allowed a more normal parish life. The phrase “follow the governor’s intentions” was thrown employed liberally whenever a loophole for religious worship was available.

    A bishop’s diocese should be confined to a single state. We have enough Orthodox bishops to give each state its own bishop, with extra for the populous states besides. But this would also mean, in most cases, less funds for their chanceries. A bishop may even have to sustain himself by being the actual pastor of a particular parish, in addition to guiding a dozen or so other parishes in his state. But that is what the episcopacy was supposed to be like.

    The bishop should be among his flock and the good shepherd should smell of his flock. Not descend from on high for one annual visit with no idea what’s happening, and a little cursory advice to the parish council at best.

    • George Michalopulos says

      AS, this is probably one of the best comments I’ve read in a long time. I’m glad especially that you point out why it is necessary for a bishop to be not only resident in a particular state, but whose authority should not exceed the boundaries of said state.

      It can be done. As you mention, according to ACOB’s own literature, there are 51 bishops in the US. Well, duh: there’s 50 states plus DC. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with a bishop being the rector/priest-in-charge of the local diocesan cathedral. If he has to travel to a city 50 miles away, then the Dean of said cathedral can serve liturgy.

      It ain’t rocket science.

      • Of course there’s no problem with the bishop being the pastor of a particular parish. That’s the way it was in the beginning. It wasn’t one bishop per state, it was one per city. I’ve struggled a lot with St. Ignatius’ call for the necessity of the episcopate, as well as the need for our obedience to them, while seeing how dangerous unquestioning obedience to them can be. But this is a key difference: the office is not the same as it was 1900 years ago. Bishops are over huge territories. I’ve heard the objection that it doesn’t matter how big the territory is, they’re still a bishop. But I believe it does matter when it causes a fundamental disconnect between the bishop and his flock and does not allow for a truly pastoral relationship. Our bishops have become simply a series of occasional letters without any recourse to discuss our concerns. You can’t have a healthy relationship that way. I know. My wife and I were 2000 miles apart for almost two years before we got married. And even though we talked on the phone every day and visited each other every few months, it still strained our relationship. After being together, face to face for almost 8 years, it’s almost hard to believe it was ever different.

        • It’s also very very true that being a bishop in a traditional Orthodox land where nearly ALL of his flock is of one cultural background is probably far easier than being an Orthodox bishop in the United States, where the flock is culturally all over the place.

          Important to stress that humans were never meant to live like most of us live in America. Humans are meant to live in fairly small, culturally homogenous communities. America’s “melting pot” only worked when it was overwhelmingly a “melting pot” of different kinds of northern European Protestants or liberalized Catholics, who generally all watered down with each other anyway.

          America has become a complete mess. Lip service is paid to “Diversity is our Strength” because no one knows what else to do, so they utter platitudes — the mess, though, is not fixable.

          Cultural worldviews that are completely at odds with each other cannot coexist peacefully – one will eventually dominate the others. Non-Christian worldviews aside, I would argue that among those cultural worldviews that are the most incompatible are Orthodox Christianity and secular post-Protestant Western culture — very, very incompatible.

          I don’t know how American bishops deal with trying to pastor everything from recent Serbian immigrants whose culture breathes Orthodoxy all the way to secularized, porn-addicted adults who are searching for Christ. I think the answer is that, aside from the rare Saint-bishop, shepherding becomes simply very difficult.

          The best bishops and priests, in my experience, are those with the deepest humility, who are keenly aware of what they are and are not good at, and who are not afraid to do their best but ultimately let Christ be in charge. That’s my chief beef with the Greek Churches in America, for example — they shove Greekness down everyone’s throats and seem very fearful of humility, of simply being the Church and letting Christ be in charge.

          • I agree with you partially. I am a second generation Serb. I think thats why the various ethnic jurisdictions help ease the overwhelming disparate groups here be pastored to more effectively. I see no issue with Greek, Serbian, Russian, etc. churches existing alongside each other in the States. Let converts go where they are most comfortable. America’s obsession with autocephaly is a basic inability to accept realities of human nature. The ultimate proof that we are centuries away from an independent church here is that it was the OCA that was on par with the GOA in terms of covid tyranny. Their hierarchs are all American born and educated, not captive to a foreign patriarchate.
            The real lesson from COVID was how spiritually immature this nation is. It wasn’t just bishops, it was plenty of priests and laymen on the ground. Face facts. We have grandiose fantasies of converting America to Orthodoxy, gaining autocephaly, but at the end of the day we can’t even defend the Holy Eucharist.
            Forgive me everyone for my bitterness, but I am indeed bitter. Pomjani.

            • Antiochene Son says

              Perhaps the multi-jurisdictional situation that enables us to “vote with our feet” is precisely the thing that allows the situation to continue.

              If each state had its own bishop, the Orthodox population overall would be a lot less governable, which means less prone to going along with modernist nonsense. If there is nowhere to run, people would finally fight.

  4. Would they land via helicopter in a hostile area under threat of bodily harm to minister us if we needed it? I wonder. God bless this Serbian patriarch !

  5. “Instead of asking the priesthood –the men on the ground who are most connected to the laity–they talk only to one another.”

    Typical bureaucrats. Worthless, except for ceremonial purposes and photo op’s.

    I suggest we follow sound business practices. Instantaneous communications and faster travel have made for efficencies in the way things are done. “Leadership” and “support structures” need to be trimmed accordingly. REDUCE staff (ecclesiastical bureaucrats, i.e. bishops & their associated baggage.) Allow for an increase in staff ONLY where the number of churches is growing.

  6. As such, it is my considered opinion that unless this changes, unless the bishops take stock of their mistakes and publicly repent of them, then Orthodoxy in America will wither on the vine.

    No, Orthodoxy will endure. The faith belongs to everyone. Maybe you will have priests holding secret liturgies in someone’s basement because the parish went bankrupt or the bishop put a padlock on the door. But the Church cannot be defeated. The bishops do not hold the faith alone.

    • George Michalopulos says

      You are correct, Austin.

      Still, what you describe is the worst case scenario. There’s no reason at present why we should head for the hills. We have talents, we have the light, yet we bury them under bushels.

      For that alone, we will be judged.

  7. Lack of communication? Definitely. Lack of communication with God, i.e. prayer, that is.

  8. George Michalopulos says

    This is interesting:

    Looks like the Catholic Church doesn’t agree with President Xiden. I wonder what’s the “back story” on this?

  9. Has anyone researched why during the process of the Reformation the people that sought reform did away with a lot of the hierarchical overhead?

    • “Has anyone researched why during the process of the Reformation the people that sought reform did away with a lot of the hierarchical overhead?”

      You’ve asked that question, or effectively that same question in different threads. Also other leading questions such as about religious titles like “father,” that clearly are meant to have a Protestant answer. It is like an Orthodox person lurking on a Protestant board and dropping disingenuous questions like, “Christ said His Church wouldn’t be overcome by the Gates of Hell. Why did it need to refounded 1500 years later, by a bunch of guys who couldn’t agree on anything, practice or doctrine? If Rome wasn’t the Church, where was the Church from Constantine to 1500?”

  10. Hey guys. I hope you don’t mind me touting another Orthoblog on this one, but this article was too good not to pass on:

  11. Today, my parish priest, a pious and devout Orthodox man, quoted a line which has been buzzing in my ears for weeks. He said, “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” His parish consists of a very few people, almost all of them elderly. I believe, at age 70, he is the youngest among them. He lives in a rural area surrounded by Mennonite communities, none of whom consent to be vaxxed. He thinks they are the problem because they are distrustful of the government. I know, looking at county data, that no one in the area has been hospitalized with covid or has died of it in almost a year. He has not performed a funeral for any of his parishioners since the “plandemic” began. Glory be to God! These facts do not persuade him that the unvaccinated are blameless. He is also unmoved by the facts that these “vaccines” are produced using aborted fetal cell lines.
    This conversation has left me shattered to the core. Instead of relying on his own observations and experiences, he regurgitated a key governmental propaganda slogan, “A pandemic of the unvaccinated.” The same words, the same silly phrases…bolt the door, Mariah.

    • Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster says

      Katherine, it may be time for you to shake the dust from your sandals and find a more hospitable and reasonable parish priest and parish until the Holy Spirit overcomes the prelest in your current setting.

      • Thank you, Father. May I ask where you are? Who is your Bishop? Travelling is a little difficult right now. But that word, prelest, is exactly right. It seems almost impossible these days to have a respectful, open discussion about anything.

        • Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster says

          Katherine, since my retirement in 2019 as Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary (ROCOR) in Jordanville, NY, I’ve been back home with my Matushka and extended family in northern Virginia–this time to stay, God willing. I am also considered “Retired, Attached” to my former parish of six years–St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Stafford, VA, close to Quantico USMC Base–whose rector is none other than Metropolitan Jonah, former primate of the OCA.

    • It never ceases to fascinate me (in an extremely sad and tragic way) how quickly and easily these narratives, these “talking points” are imbibed by many of the very clergy who insist that Orthodoxy is the true Faith.

      The very clergy who day after day, week after week, year after year rigorously follow the rubrics, read the prescribed prayers, sing the prescribed hymns, call upon us to look to the Saints as our guides, urge us to be at as many services as possible, and decry conformity to this world as great sin…

      It is as if none of it has any bearing on real life – that for them Orthodoxy consists of going through all the “right motions.”

      Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
      And seeing you will see and not perceive;
      For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
      Their ears are hard of hearing,
      And their eyes they have closed,
      Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
      Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
      So that I should heal them.

  12. As a convert from RC to OC, it is just so depressing to hear this.