Why the Universalist Orthodox Church?

I think a better question to start with may be why a non-canonical Orthodox church, or as some say, schismatic. This is a question I have asked myself during the process of deciding to go to the UOC. It is easy with these types of questions to give a list of faults and failures or to idealize a situation, and see greener grasses in another group. All groups have their ups and downs, failures, successes, and quirks. I have no illusions on this. Instead of a sort of ‘why that was bad and this is good’ type of narrative, I want to try and focus on the more salient points rather than a litany of supposed grievances, although that may be difficult. .

For review, I had been in the Antiochian church for years. In something like 2006 I was part of a group interested in founding a parish, chrismated in 2008, I took a step back in 2017 due to family issues and differences. I came back for a stent this last year. That is to say I have had some experience in the canonical church. Leaving was at once easy and difficult. Easy in that I think it was clear to me I believed in ways that were not inline with the canonical church’s vision and ethos. Difficult in that so much of our lives and spirituality are tied up in the Orthodox Church. So I think the answer to that first question starts with an admission I felt I had to do so. I had to.

This is an important distinction in order to head off an early misapprehension that people leave just to do what they want. That may be the case for some, but I have yet to meet any. If you want to just do what you want you will just leave all together, some do. I had heard that said about others who left. In frank terms I don’t think that many, if any, in the UOC or many non-canonical expressions of historical Christianity would really have formed or gone a non-canonical direction if they really felt they could stay. I am not saying there are not some jurisdictions that have formed for problematic reasons or turned into clergy clubs. I am saying people in the UOC and churches like it left because they had to do so. It is hard to word this well. Over all the canonical churches basically tell them to leave some times subtly, sometimes directly. Then these churches seemed shocked when they do.

I think the principle reason I felt I needed to leave the church was a basic ethos I have seen and felt in the church. I think the larger issues of LGBTQA+, women in sacramental ministry, and other so called ‘progressive stances’ intersect with this ethos. What is also forgotten are the areas of mental health, disability, and atypical persona. These groups get swept aside by this ethos as well. Well meaning priests who uphold the canonical stance on these issues who seek to minister to LGBTQA+ and seek to aid those with difficulty in the church because of others areas of need are hindered by this ethos as well. Priests and Bishops have written anonymously about the way many are being harmed by the church’s responses, and they aptly observe it it is Christian families, not the atheists, that tend to throw their LBGTQ+ children to the streets were they face further abuse.

I think a good example of this ethos would be the issues surrounding Fr Josiah Trenham (Archpriest). He has earned a place on the SPLC list. At the time of writing this there are some alligations of abuse. A summary of his comments at the World Congress of Families can be found here. While I think it a good example it is far from the only one or as isolated as I once hoped. His rhetoric, views, and rather toxic teachings have been condemned by some and lauded by others. I hear in him the fundamentalism and crushing religious aggression I (and others) fled from years and years ago. His prominent role in the AOCA plays into the issue. He has been censured (mildly) at times, however his views, materials, and status has remained, if not grown. Another taste here. Others that have come from the canonical church and the AOCA in particular such as Fr Joseph Gleason have expressed rather toxic and harmful views as well, Fr Trenham is not an anomaly.

I could list off priests and leaders from many jurisdictions and cite their toxic masculinity, homophobic and inflammatory rhetoric, and harmful views and treatments about a variety of issues. (On a positive note in my checking a couple of the more controversial examples have been removed – good on that podcast/blog distributor.) That isn’t quite the point. Any group will have problematic persons who’s teachings are an issue and even the best teacher and pastor will have their flaws and diverging points of view. That is expeted in some sense. The response to these things is an important consideration. The point is that these persons and movements keep coming and are defended, supported, and reproduced. The church seems to let it slide. What more concerning is that it seems to not only be the occasional mistake or temporary bad actor. It is a pattern, one that no one seems to want to do anything about. Finally even the most well meaning are often swept by this ethos especially in relation to those with other difficulties in being in church, intentional or not.

Compare that with the swift and relatively severe nature of the response to Fr Andrew Warwick’s expression of a pastoral response to LGBTQA+ persons and the message becomes clear. I have met and served with Fr Warwick (a lifetime ago) and to my mind is not outside the canonical church’s views on LGBTQA+. Quite soon after that article, Fr Warwick had to issue a retraction. This was followed by a letter from Mtr. Joseph to parishes that reasserted the churches resistance to progressive views. A response to my mind none of Fr Trenham’s behavior seemed to warrant. When I saw the retraction and accompanying commentary, my heart sank, as I sat in church and heard Mtr. Joseph’s letter read, my heart broke. Again we can makes lists of this and that infraction and such that would lead to more tension and scandalizing readers, that isn’t my point. The point is the example of inherent message and ethos. Toxic masculinity, homophobia, “tough it out” spirituality, and hyper conservative views are tolerated and even encuraged- a pastoral response, less so. Others have noted people are leaving the church over these issues. I am just another one of those.

There are many many great priests, deacons, sub-deacons, servers , and persons in the churches and I would hate for my comments to overshadow the great work they do and the ways they have brought Christ’s healing and compassion to a broken world. I more and more think they do it despite the larger archdiocese and this ethos. Those were the folks that kept me there, kept me working, hoping, praying and involved in ministry. In the end, being a part of this church with this ethos and inviting others to it is a problem. Living in the sort of cognitive dissonance was harmful to me.

Like any other large group the canonical church has plenty of members and people coming in the doors (and many leaving as well) . All in all as an organisation LGBTQ persons, talented women leaders, atypical persons, those with special needs, and others not coming isn’t ‘hurting them’ in areas that are noticeable. And as much as there are pastoraly minded and affirming priests that do what they can to minister to and commune LGBTQ persons in their parishes those are limited and fragile agreements. Not a great situation for spiritual growth or a feeling of consistency. This again becomes true for others that the church isn’t comfortable with or that are an inconvenience. The standard response to LGBT persons is a perversion of a call to celibacy as well as a deep and often willing misunderstanding of what we currently understand about gender and sexuality. Many times those with mental issues are confronted with rather archaic views, ‘tough it out’ spirituality, or at times dismissal of the medications that are helping them cope. In a word, harmful. This is pattern is reflected with other vulnerable groups relations to the church in which the sort of ‘tough it out ‘ spirituality was the common prescription.

Over the years I saw glimmers that the Church would develop better options for LGBTQ, ordain women deacons, and focus on some social issues that seemed to be terrible oversights. I heard great priests speak on these issues in wisdom and I saw people doing great things for people, outpourings of love and healing. I saw parishes reorganize to focus on those who had the hardest time being and staying in the church. This issue here of course that these sparks were never to be a fire. Further, many hierarchs seemed at the ready pour buckets of water on any small flame.

In 2017 I stepped back from the church because I was spiritually drained from this. I had been living in a cognitive dissonance between my understanding and convictions on social issues, LGBTQ, and equality in ministry. That ran through me like a cancer. We also found ourselves in a difficult position after my son was born, one that made clear aspects of the canonical ethos had issues. In short we found ourselves one of those groups that found it hard to be in church, found it hard to explain what we were going through, and was prescribed the ‘tough it out’ solution. We asked for help but in the parish seemed very content with leaving it alone. Frankly, the church was not well equipped to deal.

We were not the only ones. We saw a couple other families fall through this cracks and either leave or only come a couple times a year as well. I was a sub-deacon and had been on parish council at the time and still could not get a workable solution. In the end other things seemed more important to the parish and it was on us to tough through it to stay. That ethos hit us close to home. I hear this more than I would like from others who have faded out of the church over this sort of ethos. For us, that ethos had contributed to ignoring what was a chemical and heath issue for my wife and that put an incredible amount of stress on me. I left the parish in 2017 and had my heart attack January 2019. The parish we were in is frankly a great place and after we left there was some reconciliation, learning, and a coming together on both sides. We eventually kept good relations. No hard feelings exist now. Because it is a good parish it did its best, but over all the damage is done.

What this situation and research showed me was a sort of ethos in parishes that via non-action vulnerable groups to sort of ‘opt out’ or ‘self select’ out until the church was a comfortable place. “We don’t need X because no one here is asking for it” We were… These parishes often make it clear via their actions and non-action that if you have X need go else-where. Never directly, but the message is in the form. Parishes then seemed to be shocked when people do as they are implicitly asking them to do. To be fair all parishes have to make choices with their resources, but it is our ethos that tends to guide us in the allocation and the weakest, the least of these, need to be the first to be addressed. This is more rare than I wanted to admit.

So, the theme here has been the ethos and I have given a few points that I think illuminate that ethos. The more concrete issues of the churches response and stance on vulnerable groups, LGBTQA+, and equality are important and frankly enough to make an exit, however it is the ethos that killed any hope of working in the church or with it on these issues.

I want a church that has the apostolic succession and tradition of the East. At this point in my life it is how I think , feel, and understand God. I value and believe the theology. And that is frankly why I cant be in the canonical church. The UOC is jurisdiction seeking to express the fullness of the Eastern Orthodox traditions, but do so in ways that are as inclusive as possible. That is what I think reflects God’s mission here on earth.

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