DEPROGRAMMING THE ANTIOCHIAN CONVENTION
Last week, I spent a few days wondering if I was in a cult.
I’m back home now on my cozy front porch after spending last week as a first-time lay delegate to the Antiochian Convention in Palm Desert. My wife has attended several of these in the past in her capacity as, first, the president of our parish’s Women’s Group, and then as an Antiochian women’s officer from the Diocese of Miami and the Southeast.
She had some idea of what to expect. In my role as a marketing professional who tracked, with more than just a personal interest, the unfortunate events of the past decade in the GOA and the OCA, I thought I did, too.
Boy, was I wrong.
Why do I suppose what I saw was cult-like? First, a little background.
I’m in my early 50s. An ex-”Methobapterian”. Anyone who grew up non-Orthodox in the spiritual ferment of the 1960s and 70s knows of what I speak. If the name Larry Norman rings a bell, welcome to my past. My formative spiritual years were spent in college in the mid-70s, involved first as a student and then lay staff with Campus Crusade (no, I wasn’t part of the EOC group, but more on that later) and Worldwide Discipleship Association. While in graduate school, I helped start a campus ministry for a local church. Then moved on to work as writer/editor of a magazine for Walk Thru the Bible ministries for a few years while also serving in singles ministry with one of the first evangelical church growth megachurches, Perimeter Church (PCA) in Atlanta, in the early- and mid-80s.
After leaving Atlanta to take a job in marketing communications, my soon-to-be-wife and I found the Holy Orthodox Faith. First Divine Liturgy in December “88, chrismated on Holy Saturday 1990. Our parish is one of the original EOC churches. We love it. Being away for any amount of time only deepens our love for the parish. Now that our kids are teenagers, we love holding the next generation of babies and chasing the toddlers. We pray our own four children will find godly Orthodox spouses.
But what does this have to do with cults, you say? Well, after a few years at our parish and getting to know folks better, I began to notice and learn some things that I hadn’t picked up on earlier in our journey to Orthodoxy. I began to describe it this way: “We are so glad we didn’t discover Orthodoxy here five or ten years earlier, because we might have run screaming the other way.” Nobody disagreed with me. It was apparent there had been collateral damage, casualties and walking wounded on the EOC journey to canonical Orthodoxy.
I remembered what a seminary-trained evangelical friend of mine had said when he heard we were becoming Orthodox: “You know, the New Covenant Apostolic Order (an earlier name for the EOC) came within one millimeter of being written up as a cult by the Berkeley Spiritual Counterfeits Project.” I understood immediately. During my college years, I had repeatedly bumped into various cults or cult-like groups that wandered onto or near the Furman campus. The Way International. Moses David Berg and the Children of God. Watchman Nee and Andrew Murray groupies. All sorts of charismatic splinter groups. I had read the late Francis Schaeffer’s pamphlet, “The New Super-Spirituality.” Walter Martin’s “Kingdom of the Cults.” Jonestown happened not long after I graduated.
These groups all shared, to some extent, several characteristics. A strong, charismatic leader. Unquestioning obedience. The willingness to sacrifice all for the group. A ginned-up fundraising apparatus funneling straight to the top. An attitude toward women I will charitably describe as curious. A painful, often demanded, separation from friends and family that cemented ties within the group itself.
By the time we got to our parish, most signs of that, except for the psychic damage, had gone the way of all flesh. Thankfully, our parish has moved on to engage the true “phronema” of Orthodox spirituality. Rare has been the week since our entry into the Church when one of us hasn’t looked at the other and said, “I am sooo glad we’re Orthodox.” I’m sure many of you understand.
It’s been harder to say that the past several months. After last week, it’s virtually impossible.
Was I staring at a nascent cult of +Philip?
Forgive me for being blunt. I have never met His Eminence, never even been in his presence before last Thursday. I had no real axe to grind with him before the Feb. 24 decision and I thought that was moving toward a less bumpy outcome in recent days. But here I was, sitting smack dab in the middle of the ballroom. Table 40. Center aisle. If a video or picture of the assembly ever shows up, I’m the balding pate in the bottom middle.
All of a sudden I felt like I was, in the words of the Beatles, “Back in the USSR.” Visions of old CBS news footage of Communist politburo meetings were dancing through my head. Brezhnev presiding over double rows of apparatchiks looking out sternly at the rest of the party members. Award after award for meritorious service. Fawning gifts and checks to the leader, ususally immediately regifted by the leader on some internal department deemed worthy of recognition. Interminable droning reports. The occasional burst into song to commemorate the leader, led by longtime sidekicks. Paeans of acclamation, not to our Lord Jesus Christ, but to +Philip. The rehabilitation of those who had fallen out of favor – yes, Dr. Joe Samra, I had heard you were on the outs with His Eminence, but now he has personally re-appointed you to the Board of Trustees. I heard how the leader singled you out for reapproval.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Holy Orthodoxy or the Archdiocese itself is a cult. But something much like it does exist. This cult of personality emerges fully at the national convention. It’s fed thru the year by The Word magazine, the Order of St. Ignatius ceremonies, parish banquets and other outlets.
The leader wants to fully rehabilitate Demetri, but some people are getting in the way. Many also want an audit. This upsets the leader more than anything else – challenges to his authority and accountability as leader of the group. And the higher the authority that challenges him, the quicker and harsher the retribution. A classic hallmark of a cult. Dr. Geleris, an Order of St. Ignatius member, was cut off mid-sentence. Same with a diocesan bishop by a chancellor. My wife, a mere lay delegate, was allowed to keep talking, at least for a few minutes. It explains why our other hierarchs and clergy are so hesitant to speak up. All hell could have broken loose. In some respects, I wish it had.
It’s more than politics. It’s more than cultural. It’s more than misrepresented canons and poor ecclesiology. I’ve read all the arguments. I’m looking at all the ingredients of a cult. Brethren, it’s scary. And it has to stop. Now.
What can we do?
I have several suggestions and/or thoughts:
1. Stop feeding the beast. No more money. No more time. No more praisefests. No mas. Just say no. No more “pay, pray and obey.” But do pray for our Archdiocese.
2. Be prepared for irrationality. Once people begin to refuse the “requests” of the leader, things begin to destabilize. In a hurry. People get mad. Surrogates lash out. You saw (or heard) that at the convention. You’ve read it online on certain blogs. What are these people thinking? Supporters think they’re going to lose their security blanket and start all sorts of shenanigans. The world as they have fabricated it is coming to an end. Be very prepared.
3. Keep a life preserver handy. Maybe not so much for you, but for someone you love who has drunk too much kool-aid over the years. Don’t argue. They’re already terrified. Some have grown up knowing nothing more secure than fear. Be gentle. Love. Show that you really, really care. Take them by the hand and lead them out to a safe place. Help then breathe fresh air. They may, slowly, start blinking like a deer captured in the headlights of truth.
4. Don’t blame. Beg forgiveness, repent, for not acting sooner. We all need to confess. We all have let it go on for too long. We’ve all been charmed by someone at some point in our lives. If it’s been happening for over forty years, whose fault is it?
5. Deprogramming will take far longer than anyone thinks. Just look at Iraq. After all the systemic abuse, did any of us really think it would go smoothly? There are still walking wounded from the EOC days over twenty years ago. I know.
I’ll stop there. The whys are not so important as the whats and the hows right now.
Anyway, that’s how I saw it from Table 40.
Brethren, I hope I never see it again in my Archdiocese.
And to the beloved khouriya (who shall remain nameless) who called it like she saw it...this one’s for you.
(Mickey Hodges holds a Master of Arts in Classics from Vanderbilt University. Hodges also translates ancient Greek and biblical texts (particularly Byzantine liturgical hymns) for the Orthodox Church, including parts of the recently published Orthodox Study Bible (Spring '08/Thomas Nelson). In the past, he has served on the boards of Mid-South Christian Services and the Dyslexia Foundation of Memphis, as well as on the parish council at St. John Orthodox Church. He is currently on the board of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (ocf.net).)