On February 2, 2021, the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the West sent this letter out from Archbishop Benjamin. This originally appears on the Orthodox Christian site Monomakhos.com, and we are indebted to George and Gail Michalapulos for their dedication in running it.
We reprint it in full for the reasons of fairness in the midst of our criticism of this stance. We will offer commentary after the letter, but we hope our readers will read it through more than once, because we believe it reflects misdirection and lack of faith more than a deliberate act of anti-Christianity:
From: Diocese of the West Chancery <email@example.com>
Date: February 2, 2021 at 2:30:27 PM MST
Subject: Some Archpastoral Reminders
Dear Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers and Mothers:
Please find below a message from His Eminence, Archbishop BENJAMIN:
“Dear Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy of the Diocese of the West:
The Lord bless you.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Romans 15:1
I know we are all getting weary of the pandemic. And I am hearing that the directives I and the Holy Synod have mandated are “sliding” in some parishes. I also realize there are those who consider them intrusive and, for some very odd reason, “anti-Orthodox”. Perhaps it is a reflection of the great divide we are currently experiencing in America. For some among us, the wearing of masks and social distancing oddly have become symbols of where one stands politically, on the right or left.
Nevertheless, I write you today to remind you of the non-negotiable directives you and your flocks are required to follow:
1) Everyone present in the temple must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
2) Everyone must observe social distancing.
3) Should anyone who was present at a service acquire the coronavirus and test positive, you must suspend services for two weeks.
4) You have a blessing to use one spoon for Holy Communion as the virus is not food-borne. However, you may use multiple spoons should you feel it necessary for the “weaker” among your flock.
5) If I learn you are not strictly observing these directives and one of your parishioners dies of COVID 19, I will not hesitate to suspend you.
6) Those who refuse to follow these directives are to be denied Holy Communion until they agree to follow them.
Brothers, I am, as I noted above, keenly aware this is a problem for some of your parishioners who would like to make some sort of point. Nevertheless, these are not optional directives. And, even if they or you feel they are unnecessary, they will not hurt anyone and may well protect someone who is vulnerable. It is not about politics, but love and concern for the neighbor. Personally, I feel those who refuse to wear masks and socially distance are being selfish. You may remind everyone of the freedom that comes with obedience. Finally, you are free to blame me. “That horrible bishop makes me do it.” If one life is spared this devastating disease through these measures, certainly they are worth it.
Please be assured of my love and support for you and your flocks. With God’s help, we will see the end of this and life return to normal soon.
On a personal note, I have had my first round of vaccine and hope to resume my parish visitations beginning in late March. You may contact me to schedule an archpastoral visit if you like.
God bless you and protect you all.
With love in Christ,
Priest Andrew Smith
Administrative Assistant, Diocese of the West (DOW)
Orthodox Church in America (OCA)
Now, I have been absolutely against the notion of COVID-19 “restrictions” in God’s Holy Church. The social distancing, the requirement in some communities that everybody present including the priest must be masked, the little cup of vodka or the like to dip the Communion Spoon in after each person receives… all of it; I am opposed to all of this.
At the present time, in Moscow, most church parishes I have seen are operating at a near-normal level, with the only masked people being the retinue of church workers and some occasional parishioners by their own choice. However, the churches are jam-packed with people, so 6-foot social distancing is simply impossible in most cases – and nobody cares. For them, the issue of COVID is met with as much fear as one might carry for being hit by a falling airplane when leaving the church building – that is, not very much. In some cases there are parish priests that require the choir to be masked while singing. One of these is a group I am involved with. While I continue to support the choir with rehearsals and singing in other less restricted places, I will not sing at this parish as long as the mask mandate is in force. To do so would be to say I agree that there is something so frightening that I must wear a mask – and this is living a lie. Further, and probably more primary (for I am not a good Christian at all), I cannot breathe when wearing a mask, let alone sing. I would get nauseous and pass out rebreathing my own breath. So, I just don’t put myself through that.
I came to a strong stance against the COVID rules based on the example of my own priest and spiritual director who has also disregarded these measures, considering them utterly faithless.
He actually got COVID-19 and it hit him very hard, with two associated heart attacks and pneumonia in one lung. He is 82 years old. Both he and his wife got it, and got it from their daughter, who was also rather sick from it. His own words about it: “COVID-19 ain’t for sissies.”
Nevertheless, he recovered, and did not change his point of view about it one iota. While his convalescence from COVID has prevented a full resumption of normal services (this bout was very recent), he does what he can.
For him, life is about the pursuit of God and nothing else. In this fallen world, disease will necessarily come, as will physical death and decay. But his example both before, during and since his bout with COVID-19 says something very important:
This is not the one thing needful. It is merely a sickness like so many others. It is no excuse to stop one’s pursuit of salvation and union with God.
Archbishop Benjamin, on the other hand, has an extremely compromised view of this situation, as apparently do almost all the hierarchs and most of the clergy in the United States, and even Orthodox communities around the world. Even our own Patriarch, Kirill I, has said things not dissimilar to some of what Archbishop Benjamin says in his letter, though to Patriarch Kirill’s credit, he also seemed to be somewhat more honest about the terrible contradiction that COVID regulations put upon the faithful of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church.
I do not want to say this as a mean spirited polemic against the Archbishop; I know him and I like him very much, but I have to stand by the conviction that was instilled in me and say that his stance is wrong.
He is right about a few things as far as they go: the COVID situation is radically politicized in the United States and some Western countries (less so in Russia). We could tell what people are Trump supporters by their no-mask normality, easily discernible from the mentality of those following Joe Biden, who wore a mask when there was nobody around him, and did it for television appearances and all manner of demonstrative actions to show “this is a serious matter”. Archbishop Benjamin may well be speaking tongue-in-cheek to say he does not know why this is politicized.
Anybody who is a serious Christian can see it quite clearly: The dividing line runs right through the heart of each person and his or her relationship with God.
It is not enough to say “Christians do not believe the virus is important enough to do all this.” That is generally true but it is simplistic, because it is also evident that many people who confess themselves as Christians DO think masking is important, and for them, the sincerity seems to be as real as mine is – to not wear the mask is to risk the lives of others, and isn’t it not Christian to not care about your neighbor?
And even the quote that Archbishop Benjamin opens with speaks quite clearly, “We who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15:1).
If there is any reason to follow such lunatic directives it is encompassed in this verse; it would be wrong, for example, for non-maskers to berate maskers for ‘lack of faith’. This was referred to elsewhere in Romans also, particularly regarding fasting. Some people can do quite radical fasting, some cannot, or do not understand the benefits or need of doing it. Yet many of these same people devote their lives to the Lord wholeheartedly to the limits of their strength. It would be wrong to abuse them for not being where my spiritual director is, for example.
For that reason, although I refuse to mask in Church, I don’t tell anybody else what they should or should not do. That is not my business.
However, I believe that God is the sole arbiter of life and death, and given the absolute insanity of COVID restrictions, the Church’s participation in them is essentially dishonest. In my view, when we are in the presence of God, we ought really not be lying in any way. For me, then, to act like the directives are actually useful in stopping the virus is a lie, and I cannot participate in the Church telling a lie to her people.
Where Archbishop Benjamin appears to missing the point is precisely here – what is honest and what is not, what is pastoral care and what is not?
He never addresses the facts that
(1) we know that masks don’t actually help stop transmission of the virus.
(2) the virus is now endemic and has been shown to be highly resistant to heat, cold and other things – it had its first wave in the spring to summer and the second much bigger wave in the winter, but while winter continues for another two months, the virus spread rate has drastically slowed:
(3) The only apparent difference between most countries and states that applied restrictions and those few that did not, is that the unrestricted jurisdictions seemed to have a bit more accelerated rate of transmission earlier, but have fundamentally been at more or less the same percentages of transmission, or even less, that countries that applied draconian restrictions.
These are all the physical and physiological issues that the directives given to church communities do not address. The others include the fact that most places of business ARE open, receive far more people in them per week than a given church building might, and some of the most filthy people – drug-users – are freely going to buy their stuff from pot stores… while access to the one place where people ought to be united – in prayer – is being cut off to millions of people.
The other issue is that a person giving himself the label of Christian does not say much. With 37,000 distinct denominations, all with different sets of beliefs ranging from very traditional to very permissive – including support of drug use and homosexual marriage (both absolutely against any ancient Christian or Jewish teaching) – it is possible to say you are “in” while being functionally completely “out” of the real authentic Christian community.
Even some Orthodox Christians, who pride themselves way too much on their Church’s authenticity (it is) will often shut you down when asked about the things they do and support which flout the teachings and instructions of the Man they give lip service to as Saviour. Still others do not understand their faith enough to really know what is right or wrong, and lack discernment to see. Such people can be pushed any way the Church hierarchy says, as long as they internally agree with it.
However, being a real person of faith in God means doing things we do NOT feel comfortable with much of the time. It means doing things that seem illogical, impossible or just plain insane. Abraham was told by God, no less, to offer his only son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. Moses was told to defy the leader of Egypt, presumably a man he considered a brother having grown up in his household, and to lead some 450,000 people out of Egypt. Many times we are directed to do things that are not easy, do not make sense “in the world” and we do them in faith that this is what God wants of us.
Our good archbishop either forgets this or ignores it, and unfortunately, his words are only echoed by almost all of his colleagues across the United States. From his “reasonable” approach come the most severe and shocking threats against his priests like the one about suspension if someone from a parish dies of COVID-19. How easy would it be for a parishioner who does not like his priest to slander him right out of service, possibly permanently? After all, no restrictions are going to be sufficient to stop COVID any more than they would stop the advance of the common cold.
We can follow restrictions and still pray and follow God. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that a large body of “Church leaders” completely forsook their faith in God, lied to their priests and the faithful, and in so doing, endangered their flocks.
How would it have been if instead of the current “bow down to COVID” restrictions, we had had some sort of real pastoral care, like this:
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Please be in Church as much as possible to pray that our nation and our people are delivered from this pandemic. Many people have succumbed to it, and it has been a test of our faith and hope in the Resurrection itself.
The world teaches that this life is all that matters. It tells us that preserving that life is the highest and most noble ideal, and it plays with a Christian teaching of ‘love thy neighbor (and thine enemy) as thyself’ in a very twisted way. Nobody really knows how to deal with COVID-19, and we have to face this, but we have to be honest with ourselves very personally about where we stand in our faith in God and His promises of eternity for us.
Some of us are not able to really get this idea very well – in fact, I would even venture to say most of us do not have trust and faith that these promises are even true. That is fine. Keep coming to services and keep praying and you will eventually be shown how true the Orthodox Christian faith really is. If you feel that wearing a mask protects you when you come to church, then, wear a mask! We will not berate you for it. However, we also ask that nobody who wears one berates people who don’t. Each of us reflects his or her faith through their actions and some of us are simply not concerned about the virus. Maybe there is something to be learned from that, and at the same time, those who are not worried about it must be loving to those who are. This is love, dear ones, just as you would work to bring any friend or loved one afraid of something through that fear to faith, so it is with COVID-19 and the government regulations.
We stand in faith, not in fear, in the presence of the loving God the Father, his Son our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our God is one, and it is he in whom we trust, and strive to trust.
Let no one speak or act judgmentally towards one another over this issue. It will pass like all other crises have. But instead, let us use it to pray more, to receive Confession more deeply, to receive Holy Communion more often than ever, to get our hearts, minds and souls right with God before the Dread Judgement we all must face. In all these things, love one another as Christ loves us. That love is very different from the “love” the secularists are trying to impose on us. For them, love is not going to Church. It is isolation, fear, estrangement. None of these are in Christ. Let us remember this.
May God bless and be with you always.
How would it be if we had received such a message? I am sure a real God-fearing person would have written one much better than this. I am far from being able to speak with the confidence that some very holy men and women have done, but this is more like what they might say than what the globalist seculars tell us. They would have us cower in fear. And in what is a terrible tragedy, most of the Church authorities went right along with the globalist godless people. One wonders why.
Archbishop Benjamin, in particular with his mandate that no one is to receive Holy Communion itself if they disagree with the directives(!), has crossed a line that ought to meet with an “ANAXIOS!” (not worthy!) response. Since when does a matter like an illness gain more power than repentance and eternal life?
This directive is wrong.
So is the one of people reporting on priests and parishioners who don’t follow the directives. That smacks of the Nazis and of the informers to the KGB and GRU in Russia’s Communist darkness. It has nothing to do with Love, Life and God himself.
My spiritual father noted that there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth at the Judgement over this issue. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church as a whole and the laity have historically been the correction against bishops gone wild as I believe the American hierarchy and most others have also done.
Archbishop Benjamin is not a bad man, but he is immersed in a context dominated by fear and leftism. Look where his home base is! He needs a lot of prayer and in my opinion, he needs his diocese to reply to this with one voice, “Vladyka, you are wrong about your directives. We cannot accept this as the will of God for the people in His Holy Church. Your concern for people is noble and genuine but you have ignored the facts that (1) this life is not the only life; it is preparation for Eternity, (2) only the Lord decides who lives or dies, and (3) liberals, even those who call themselves Christian, often do not really believe in the Resurrection. Therefore, they are terrified of death and will gladly accept any and all measures to stay alive in this world, in the far less Holy pursuit of the acquisition of toys and trinkets to make them feel powerful and immortal.
“Our Lord never taught us to be anything like this. We do not have a death wish, but if we are to be truly serving God, fear of anything in this world – including disease and death – is secondary to fear of failing the Judgement. We must be true. True to the Lord, and true with and to one another. The issues with COVID-19 and its accompanying directives are that those directives are not based in honesty but in wild speculation that we have already seen is not borne out in science. Masks do nothing to restrict the spread of the virus, and the virus is endemic. People get it because they get it. It is around to get, just like the common cold. As believers, it is clear that we should not lie about our faith. While it would be equally wrong to impose a NO MASK restriction on the faithful, some of whom are weak and not able to have faith in the manner which I described before, it is certainly promulgating a lie to associate masking up with salvation.
Once again, the order that people be denied Holy Communion for not following Covid edicts completely crosses the line. Christ never commanded such a thing in His Church, nor would he, especially as shown through history in far worse plagues than this one.
My prayers are with you all, and remember, pray for Abp Benjamin. He really needs it.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.