"Discriminating against people based on whom they love is not Orthodoxy" Archbishop Elpidophoros of America discusses the Church's need for modernization and reflects on clerical responses to marriage equality in an interview with LiFO

"Discriminating against people based on whom they love is not Orthodoxy"

Archbishop Elpidophoros of America discusses the Church's need for modernization and reflects on clerical responses to marriage equality in an interview with LiFO.

By Giannis Pantazopoulos

May 12, 2024

The offices of the Archdiocese of America are located in an imposing building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City. As I ascended to the top floor, my gaze was captivated by a small Chapel, a spacious dining room, and numerous libraries housing historical ecclesiastical volumes. The labyrinthine spaces were adorned with impressive furniture, adding to the allure of the surroundings. The purpose of the visit is to meet with the man who leads the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America with 540 parishes, 800 priests, and about 1.5 million believers.

He is regarded as a pioneering, open-minded, and progressive hierarch, known for his bold initiatives and distinguished as a wise voice within the Greek Church. An illustration of his approach is how he participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration following the tragic murder of George Floyd. He manifested his commitment to science by promptly restricting parish activities at the onset of the pandemic. In the face of homophobic attacks, he stood firm in his decision to baptize children of a gay couple in Glyfada. Moreover, he unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, placing the responsibility for the bloodshed squarely on Vladimir Putin's shoulders. Since his enthronement in 2019, he has constantly favored unconventional actions and symbolic gestures; many of his initiatives and positions sparking debate, and eliciting both positive and critical responses on social media.

Throughout our discussion, I realized that the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America holds a profound belief in the fundamental freedoms of human beings. He is against insinuations and malice, and he views religion by its nature as inherently "activist." He envisions a different ecclesiastical discourse — one that is inclusive and anti-discriminatory. During our conversation, he was approachable, relaxed, and friendly. His office, adorned with a multitude of Byzantine icons, holds a pride of place for the portrait of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America presides over the Anastasi Service at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City. Photo: GOARCH/Dimitrios Panagos

In the following interview, he candidly discussed the need to modernize the Church and offered insights on the perspectives of clergy who opposed the marriage equality bill. He also responded to criticism from a portion of the Greek press, referred to the separation of Church and State (showcasing the successful example of the Archdiocese of America), and took a position on the protests concerning the pink flag artwork by Georgia Lale at the Consulate General of New York. He concluded by defining who is truly wealthy in our era, vindicated the relevance of faith in contemporary times for a young person, and elucidated why he leans towards the adage "believe and, even if not, inquire."

— How would you describe the era we are living in?

The current era is marked by rapid changes in all fields of endeavor. It is indeed striking how some individuals in today's world without even a basic relationship to nature or struggle with interpersonal communication skills. There is no doubt that our era is marked by incredibly rapid developments, to the extent that even the Church finds it challenging to talk about these developments. Of course, given that every religion is inherently conservative, it evolves and adapts slowly over time. However, as artificial intelligence continues to advance rapidly, it is certain that we find ourselves navigating uncharted waters. And it seems that technology is waiting for no one.

— Is there room for modernization within the Church?

Over the years, the Church has changed and we must say that it has evolved. Clearly, the principles of the Faith remain unaffected. Everything else, however, can be modernized. Certainly, some individuals become upset merely at the mention of the word "change." I maintain that the exercise of our religious duties cannot be threatened [by this], but rather can be adapted. That is, you change the way the truth of the Gospel is expressed. Clergy members require confidence and boldness to speak the language and adapt to the codes of communication relevant to each era and period. Otherwise, we risk marginalizing the Church and isolating ourselves from society. Consider that today, 70% of our marriages in the United States involve individuals who are non-Orthodox, and in many cases, non-Christians. Therefore, if we adopt a culture of exclusion, every year our flock will diminish. The Church, however, has always embraced and will continue to embrace all people. Everyone is accepted and welcomed.

Giannis Pantazopoulos with Archbishop Elpidophoros during the interview.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America with His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center for the Service of the Lamentations at the Tomb. Photo: GOARCH/Brittainy Newman

— You faced significant criticism for baptizing the children of a same-sex couple in Greece for the first time. Given all the discussion and media coverage surrounding the event, do you have any regrets?

First and foremost, it's important to clarify that we're discussing a baptism ceremony, not a wedding. When the parents asked me to baptize their children, it was my duty to do so, and I gladly accepted. After all, the godparents were Orthodox, and I had absolutely no reason to refuse. This novel argument and truly unbelievable criterion that some people put forward, namely, that we must discriminate against people based on whom they love, is not Orthodoxy; it can’t even be considered a humane stance. We cannot make anyone's sexual behavior and whom they love the sole criterion for their acceptance or rejection. These are unprecedented occurrences, and I would say that in Greece they are the result of an imported Western puritanism.

For example, they interpret original sin as sexual. If you read "Genesis," there is no mention of sex, nor is the original sin explicitly linked to a "sexual" act. Essentially, it was the rejection of God's authority in moral matters, an act of disobedience in His will; that is, a misuse of freedom of choice. We don't even know if it was an apple or a generic fruit, because it doesn't matter. The motive was egoism and ambition, neither sex nor love. Based on this guilty narrative, which has nothing to do with Christian teaching, some have built upon a merely puritanical construct, aimed at incriminating the sexual act and behavior, their argument to control people, projecting an inherited punishment onto them. Thus, this extreme occurrence reached Greece, where a person's sexual behavior becomes a criterion for any discrimination in various aspects of life, including the professional, social, and political spheres, and even within the Church. Such discrimination is utterly un-Christian. Moreover, Greek culture has never judged anyone based on their sexual behavior. We must condemn all kinds of violence, either verbal or physical, and deplore the hatred and prejudice rooted in the diversity of each person.

— Did the criticism and rumors about your trip to Mount Athos and its potential postponement due to potential non-acceptance bother you?

Criticism serves to improve us all, and it doesn't bother me personally. What saddened me was the distortion of facts, which also reveals the true intentions of those who protested. What we ultimately witnessed was a smear campaign bordering on sensationalism. I reiterate that all I did was baptize two children. And it is something that I would do again, without any difficulty.

I reiterate that all I did was baptize two children. And it is something that I would do again, without any difficulty. Photo: evbousis/Instagram

— On the occasion of the adoption of the bill on marriage equality, we heard inflammatory statements by Metropolitans such as that of Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia, who in his lengthy presentation at the meeting of the Hierarchy described homosexuality as an aberration, and said that "our biggest mistake would be to accept that homosexual acts, apart from mental disorder, are not a sin". What is your comment on this?

Look, I listen carefully to all the people who ask for my advice. But I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. Therefore, publicly stigmatizing anyone, I must confess, I consider it somewhat fascist. And these almost fascist behaviors are founded on incriminating our fellow citizens for some reason. We have witnessed such occurrences in history, such as with the Nazis, for example. This is an extremely dangerous mentality, manifesting itself in various aspects. See what is happening with the rising trend of anti-Semitism. How can we give the impression that the Church blesses, conceals, or tolerates such behaviors by remaining silent? This is a malignant disease, a spreading cancer that threatens to infect other parts of the body.

Today they may target Jews, tomorrow homosexuals, the day after dark-skinned people, and then blondes. Eventually, fascism will come knocking at our door, and we'll feel the cold metal of oppression at our necks. The level of anti-Semitism within a society is often viewed as a measure of its overall health. These are the ideologies that have stained Europe and the world with blood and have nothing to do with Christian theology, even if some try to hide their extreme ideologies under the cloak of Christianity.

— There were also some Metropolitans who argued that those who voted for the marriage equality bill should be banned from entering the churches. What did you think about it?

Did you see how the cancer I was telling you about is progressing? Do you see that when you release something, it tends to move forward on its own? The abscess must be cut and we must set a limit, because it is very likely that as a society we will be in danger. It is clear, therefore, that in the Church there is no room for fascist behaviors.

— Reactions also surfaced regarding your remarks during the meeting with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Greece, Dimitris Koutsoumbas, concerning the separation of Church and State.

First of all, let me tell you that I gladly welcomed the General Secretary of the Communist Party, as I always do with other political leaders who visit me from our country. Of course, in any case, I try to focus on common points of interest. The Church's message must promote unity, and we cannot cling to the outdated notion that the Church and communism can have no relationship at all. This is completely obsolete. As you can see, we would not discuss theological issues with Mr. Koutsoumbas; I preferred to expound on issues related to social solidarity, human rights, justice, and peace. On these matters, we find common ground with the Left, as we share a humanitarian perspective.

I conveyed to him that the key to the success of our Archdiocese lies in the meaningful involvement of laypeople in decision-making processes, as well as in all administrative and financial oversight bodies, rather than in mere ceremonial roles. This approach proves beneficial because it diverges from the traditional notion that laypeople are merely believers merely adhering to directives from church leaders. Instead, it emphasizes their active involvement and respect within all governing bodies, fostering a collaborative relationship between clergy and laity within the Church.

In America, the structure of the Archdiocese's parishes differs from that in Greece. Here, communities grant laypeople full participation, including the right to vote and decide on administrative and financial matters at all levels of the ecclesiastical organization. Obviously, I did not recommend Greece to follow our example. I simply reflected on our experience, which could serve as proof that the Church and the State could be completely separated without impeding the progress and prosperity of the Church.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros America with with US President Joe Biden. Photo: The White House/ Courtesy Goarch

— For some in the Greek community abroad, you are deemed as a persona non grata. How do you explain this?

It would be curious indeed if I put myself out in the public sphere in order to be liked by everyone. There are people who are unhappy with me, while others offer constructive criticism, and still others critique me out of selfish interests. I must say that I do not intend to succumb to these interests and expediencies that are completely foreign to the principles of the Church. At the same time, I do not intend to become an instrument of interests, so I endure the consequences. However, there are only a few of those you have mentioned and their loudspeakers are mainly aimed at Greece. We're talking about certain media outlets attempting to paint a different picture than what someone living in the United States might perceive.

Since the period of the pandemic, fake news was circulating, because I had taken a stand in favor of science. I had stressed at the time that we had to follow a health protocol. We restricted the churches ourselves; we did not expect the state to tell us to do so. We recommended the faithful to wear face masks, we issued a circular urging them to be vaccinated, while we stressed that a place can be sacred, but it does not mean that it is sterile. I have undoubtedly ruffled some feathers within conservative circles, particularly those influenced by the anti-vaccine ethos. It is understandable why such reactions arise.

— What are your thoughts on the recent exhibition by artist Georgia Lale at the Consulate General of New York? The display, featuring her pink flag artwork, sparked significant political reactions, as Lale aimed to symbolically address the growing prevalence of femicides.

I visited the Consulate General and viewed the artwork, and to be honest, it neither offended me nor did I perceive it as a disrespect to the Greek flag. Moreover, there is a prominent painting titled "Exodos" by the renowned artist Christos Bokoros, featuring the Greek flag, displayed prominently at the Presidential Palace and accessible to the public, yet it has not stirred up controversy like this artwork has. I am not an art critic, but I am confident that Consul General Dinos Konstantinou also respects our national symbols. All this uproar was unjustified. Looking back, I believe the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also recognized this and made efforts to lower the temperature.

— What was your childhood like?

I was born in Makrochori, Constantinople, and grew up in a multicultural and multilingual environment. A painful moment that I will never forget is our uprooting from Constantinople, when the situation had become unbearable for the Greeks.

We were a very poor family. When we came to Greece, we had to rebuild our household. I recall my parents, who toiled endless hours in a country they did not know well, striving to provide for me and my siblings. At least I lived in a time when we had direct contact with nature, and I made strong friendships because then you could spend more time with your friends. Essentially, our bond with one another was vital, including physical expressions of emotion and contact.

I have always been fascinated by Theology and Byzantine History. Thus, I graduated from the Theological School of Thessaloniki in 1991, and two years later I completed my postgraduate studies at the Philosophical School of the University of Bonn. There I met Metropolitan Augustine of Germany, who is the one who inspired me to serve the Church. Of course, my other benefactor is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America with children at the Saint Basil Academy Christmas Show. Photo: GOARCH/Brittainy Newman

— When faced with life's challenging questions, is religion the easy answer?

There are no easy answers. It depends on us, on our disposition at the moment. Christianity reminds us that many of the answers can be found in love. It is the only link to perfection. And I say this because people today seek to take a pill for everything. They are afraid of pain. However, pain accompanies all individuals throughout the course of their earthly journey. Everyone experiences fear, pain, and death without exception. Therefore, without love no one can discover wholeness. Otherwise, we become unhappy, isolated, and are unable to coexist with others.

— If a young person were to ask you why they should believe in this day and age, how would you respond?

First of all, I would tell them that no one is obliged to believe. And then I would remind them that, since nature abhors a vacuum, if they do not believe in God, something else will inevitably fill that void, but it may not bring them true happiness because it will always leave them feeling incomplete. As you can see from our conversation, I advocate for believers who are not merely passive but rather conscious.

— What do you say to those who feel defeated by life?

I understand that someone may feel disappointed or hurt. But they must not feel defeated. Faith in God is a channel that will help them overcome difficulties.

— What is the profit of one's passions?

For me, passions are like wounds that leave their marks on our bodies. The more wounds you have, the harder you have fought, the more experience you gained that reflects your fighting spirit. Defeat belongs to those who give up and yield to their wounds, not to those who persevere and learn from their mistakes.

Self-reflection, through repentance, forgiveness, and confession, is built-in to the life of the Church. For example, during the Easter season, some may have struggled to adhere to their fasting goals, and others may not have fasted at all.

Our spiritual stock during this time is not solely determined by the quantity or quality of food consumed. Instead, our investment in the "bank of faith" is likely honored by the quality of our charity and the quantity of love we extend to our fellow human beings.

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America at the Twelve Gospels Service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York. Photo: GOARCH/Brittainy Newman

— How would you describe a truly rich individual of our time?

That is a great question. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” says the Gospel. Let each individual reflect on where they truly place the treasure of their heart. Is it in financial assets, real estate, vehicles, or the material world at large? Probably not. Because, as our people wisely say, the poor give you more than the rich. The truly wealthy are those for whom money holds little significance.

I always recall the carved saying found in many Eastern homes: "Today it belongs to me, tomorrow to another, and never to anyone." In our lives, we are stewards, not owners. The modern people of the Western world have turned individualism into ideology, and identified happiness with success, wealth, and every kind of material possessions. Worthy of admiration are those who are not the powerful and glamorous. Rather than the so-called "influencers" and celebrities who make noise, it is the silent and unseen who are the ones who offer selflessly and passionately for the common good.

— Are you closer to: "believe and, even if not, inquire,” or "believe and do not inquire"?

This phrase, "believe and do not inquire," is not found in any verse of Holy Scripture. It is a common saying that does not resonate with me, and its usage is not aligned with Christian teaching. As for me, I am inclined to thoroughly investigate all matters.

— What do you consider most important in life?

To find balance within oneself, to be at peace with oneself and with others. And I believe that this is achieved when you have managed to be useful to society as a whole. Our development reaches its fruition when we embody virtues such as patience, tolerance, humility, generosity, and forgiveness.

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