The Orthodox Metropolis of Korea is a canary in a coal mine for the Orthodox Church.
What is happening there is a warning to all Orthodox but especially to bishops as “overseers” of the Church (Acts 20:28). What is happening there (and elsewhere) is a battle for the future of Orthodoxy being waged with equal parts shamelessness and sophistication.
It is a battle between canonical and uncanonical attitudes and actions; between preserving and upholding the Traditions of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and ignoring them for geopolitical purposes.
Let us set the stage.
The Holy and Great Council was held last year on the Greek island of Crete. Not surprisingly, it has generated much discussion within Orthodoxy and in the broader Christian world as well. There have been many books written, articles published, and conferences organized regarding the Council.
One of the its most ferocious and unforgiving critics is Peter Heers, an Anglican turned Orthodox priest. Fr. Peter presented a so-called “Orthodox Examination” of the Council at a March 2017 Clergy Retreat of the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia; the “First Hierarch” of this Diocese is Metropolitan Hilarion – more on him below.
The presentation has been discredited by many; yours truly wrote an article which described, in detail, “a number of erroneous declarations, misleading statements, false equivalents, and omissions.” This prompted Fr. Peter to join forces with another priest to write and publish a 15-page single-spaced rebuttal attempt (which I found both amusing and flattering).
I had no intention of responding since no good was likely to come of it; until, that is, I studied the must-read interview given by Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea. Originally published in Greek, it has now been translated into many languages including English.
Metropolitan Ambrosios, a bishop of the Ecumenical Throne and the only canonical Orthodox Shepherd of the flock in Korea, outlines with evidence and precision the uncanonical actions of ... Metropolitan Hilarion, a long-time schismatic clergyman before being embraced by the Church of Russia.
There are many – too many – ecclesiastical principles and Canons of the Church which he has disrespected and dispensed with to name. Arguably the most scandalous example from the interview with Metropolitan Ambrosios is the following:
To better understand the magnitude of the uncanonical actions of the former schismatic Metropolitan Hilarion and the responsibility of the Moscow Patriarchate for this big problem, I will also mention the following. On June 23, 2009, the former schismatic Hilarion came to Korea and “tonsured” the married Justinian an abbot, and his wife Eleni an abbess, thereby “establishing” two “monasteries”. One with an abbot who was previously defrocked, the “Hieromonk Justinian,” and the other with his wife as the abbess. An even more tragic fact is that the place where these two supposed monasteries was created was the shared house of the married couple! Thereby Metropolitan Hilarion is the creator of a world-first in Korea: one house with an abbot and an abbess without any monks or any nuns! I wonder how this dreadful situation is accepted by the Moscow Patriarchate and how they allow the sacredness of the priesthood and monasticism to be humiliated in this way.
Interestingly, but certainly not surprisingly, his (un)ecclesiastical actions in Asia are completely omitted in his official online biography. Let readers ask themselves why but more importantly let Orthodox bishops ask their Russian brothers why he remains in his current position.
When Metropolitan Ambrosios brought this specific question to a bishop from the Church of Russia who recently visited Korea (Archbishop Sergey of Solnechnogorsk), his response was: “We [the Moscow Patriarchate] tolerate them for reasons of oikonomia.” Only a perverse interpretation of oikonomia can justify Hilarion’s actions.
So, it is Fr. Peter, together with the strong support, assistance, and encouragement of Metropolitan Hilarion – who he was “honoured to stand before” in March – that apparently the faithful should look to for inspiration and direction on the most delicate and nuanced ecclesiastical issues of the day.
It is Fr. Peter who rejoices and leverages any opportunity to highlight and publish criticism of the Council from any monk of Mount Athos but who conveniently (hypocritically) completely ignores the Official Message from the Holy Community of Mount Athos regarding the Holy and Great Council.
It is Fr. Peter who happily re-publishes unreliable reporting bordering on propaganda about the supposed ceasing of commemoration of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew by Athonite monastics but who conveniently (hypocritically) completely ignores official communiqués to the contrary including by the Romanian Skete of St. John the Forerunner (Prodromos) of Mount Athos.
The reality, however, is that his criticisms and Moscow’s welcoming of Metropolitan Hilarion are only two pieces of a much larger puzzle.
The intention of some is not just to sow discord but it is to undermine the Four Ancient Patriarchates – and especially the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – in order to reorient the traditional authority and ecclesiastical privileges within the Orthodox Church. An ongoing example of this type of operation is taking place in Korea.
The Orthodox Metropolis of Korea operates under a canonical structure consistent with the practice of the early Church. According to the Canons there should not be more than one presiding bishop in one city (or territory), which is currently the case in Korea despite attempts by the Moscow Patriarchate to shoehorn its way into that country.
One of the six issues on the agenda of the Holy and Great Council was the Orthodox Diaspora; although a topic for another article, resolution on this issue is not in the strategic interest of Moscow and likely one of the real, albeit undisclosed reasons for its non-participation in Crete. All fourteen Autocephalous Churches (and there are only fourteen of them) have agreed to create Episcopal Assemblies in order to allow for an appropriate – and canonical – solution to be reached in the Diaspora. Korea has not been identified as one of the thirteen regions precisely because it has no need of an Episcopal Assembly since there is already a canonical structure in place. Let Orthodox bishops ask their Russian brothers why they are violating the boundaries of a well-established ecclesiastical region, contrary to pan-Orthodox decisions.
One way the Moscow Patriarchate attempts to expand its reach is through the use of Russian embassies and consulate offices. In his interview, Metropolitan Ambrosios details an insightful encounter with Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev); following a World Council of Churches General Assembly in Busan, Korea, Ambrosios invited Hilarion to concelebrate a pan-Orthodox Divine Liturgy in the Metropolis of Korea’s parish in Busan. He declined and instead, “the Russians conducted the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the hall of the Russian Consulate with a “parish” of only five or six Russians!”
This is not an isolated incident but instead the Moscow Patriarchate’s international modus operandi; let readers ask themselves why and let Orthodox bishops ask their Russian brothers why they often choose – or are directed to follow – ecclesiastical isolationism rather than fraternal cooperation. As most Autocephalous Churches work to find solutions in the Diaspora, Moscow at times carries on in the opposite direction, recently announcing, for example, a new administrator in Italy (a region, together with Malta, identified for an Episcopal Assembly).
Then there is the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Great Church of Christ (η Μεγάλη του Χριστού Εκκλησία). Through its historic and martyric witness, it exemplifies St. Paul’s words to the Hebrews: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (13:14). As I have written elsewhere, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s spiritual maturity cultivated over 1,700-years gives it the experience and wisdom to act in a balanced, prudent, and far-sighted manner.
It does not behave hastily, searching to find any way to advance its strategic position, as it could, for example, in Ukraine. It gives of itself, and like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is patient and forgiving; it is ready to welcome with open arms all who desire to protect and promote unity and the God-pleasing advancement of the Church Universal.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate preserves Orthodox unity in humility; like St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to do, it does not look only for its own interests, but also for the interest of others (cf. Php 2:4), be they vulnerable populations, worthy organizations, Autocephalous Churches, or the environment – God’s creation.
Although it is first, Constantinople is still only one of fourteen; therefore, it is incumbent upon all Orthodox, and especially its bishops, to address with discernment uncanonical actions and attitudes, in order to avoid the possibility of division and schism. The Holy and Great Council in Crete set the foundation for the future of Orthodoxy consistent with the saving faith of the Fathers; however, disagreements and challenges persist. One battleground is in Korea; similar to other situations, including in different parts of Asia, uncanonical practices for geopolitical purposes are trying to be advanced. All Autocephalous Churches have a duty to respond and speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) – the future of Orthodoxy may depend on it.