The Ephraim Question

Author: Paul Cromidas
Date Published: 10/10/2003

Several months ago, the Greek-American newspaper, The National Herald, reported that the Synod of American Greek Orthodox bishops had expressed concern about Father Ephraim, and his followers. This former Athonite (Mt. Athos) monk has established some 16 monasteries in the United States since about 1989.

He is also known as Elder Ephraim. The news article stated in part : ”It has been said that some sort of fundamentalist movement with a cult philosophy has been advocated by the followers of Ephraim, and is having an impact among the clergy and theology students at Holy Cross School of Theology.” After that article, I urged, in a letter-to-the-editor, that there be an investigation. To my knowledge, there has not been any inquiry, nor has been any further news reporting on the subject.

When the new Metropolitan (Bishop) of the New Jersey diocese took office this spring, it was reported reliably that at his first meeting with the clergy, he announced that Ephraim and his followers were not welcome in the diocese and that the faithful should go to their own priests for confession. This diocese includes some 50 churches in five states. There has been no further confirmation or a denial of the Metropolitan’s statement. In the absence of any denials, one can assume there is some validity to the reports about the Synod’s concern and about the Metropolitan’s directive.

There was also the warning earlier this year from another bishop, Metropolitan Methodios of Boston. He was quoted by the Herald as saying: ”Neither is there a place in Orthodoxy for radical fundamentalism, religious fanaticism or cult leaders disguised as Orthodox sages.” ”Was he talking about the Ephraim situation? If not, who was he referring to?

Are these accidental words: fundamentalist and cult? Did the bishops wake up one fine day and decide to use them?

In a similar vein, in 1998, Metropolitan Isaiah of the Denver diocese issued a protocol to his priests titled: ”The Lord Does Not Want Slaves in His Kingdom”. He wrote in part:

”This spirit of blind obedience with the deadening of the free will is unfortunately being practiced among some of our people and even by some of our clergy. They will not do anything without first receiving a ‘blessing’ from their ‘spiritual father’. And if they have been convinced that the spiritual father is a walking saint, they will eat his unfinished food after the common meal and even consume other things which may have touched the spiritual father in some particular way. This is nothing more than idolatry. It puts God aside and constitutes the worship of His creature.”

He went on to say that: ”It may be that some of our people, by following the monastic rule in the outside world, feel convinced that they are becoming more spiritual. However, they are sadly mistaken: for the monastic, as a novice, is willingly obedient in order to determine if he wishes to live the life of a monastic. Once he is accepted as a monk, he must resume the use of his free will in conforming to the way of life which he has chosen. The laity, on the other hand, cannot use the monastery or the spiritual elder as one uses a horoscope, not functioning unless they receive permission.”

He concluded with: ”If there are members of the Diocese who have fallen into the error of negating their free will and being totally dependent on what their spiritual mentor instructs them to do, let them know that God does not want slaves in His Kingdom, but obedient children who constantly exercise their free will as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.”

Apparently he received some criticism, for he later wrote wrote: ”I am totally surprised that certain persons misinterpreted the encyclical and thought that I was criticizing our Orthodox monastics and specifically one or two of our Orthodox elders…I was clearly referring only to those followers who relax or negate their free wills.”

During the administration of Archbishop Spyridon, in a November 1998 article in the Herald, the well-known reporter-commentator, Theodore Kalmoukos, wrote:

”Fr. Ephraim who came to America under nefarious circumstances in the early 90’s first joined the Russian synod in exile after receiving a ‘directive’ from God as he proclaimed at the time. However, when he was threatened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate that he would be defrocked, he received another ‘directive’ from God and abandoned the Russians. Ephraim has established a string of monasteries in America and, through intense confessional activity, has created many personal loyalties.”

”Fr. Ephraim has significant influence in the administration of the Archdiocese. The current Chancellor, Fr. George Passias, happens to be one of Ephraim’s most loyal followers. Ephraim is also admired by the new President of the Theological School, Archimandrite Damaskinos Ganas, who, according to sources, wants to invite Fr. Ephraim to hear confessions from students.”

Do the bishops define the situation as being an issue between them and the Ephraimites only? It would appear so based on a decision at the September 2002 meeting of the Synod. According to the press release from the Archdiocese, it was decided that the committees of the Synod would be combined with the committees of the Archdiocesan Council, ”to provide for more input by members of the Council as well as to facilitate the implementation of decisions that are made in basic areas of the life of the Church.” But, the release went on to say that this would not apply to the committee on Monasticism. That apparently would be the bishop’s domain. It can also be noted that the currently disputed charter of the Archdiocese, ”granted” by the Patriarch in 2003, includes authority for the supervision of the monasteries by the bishops.

One of the complaints voiced by some clergy and laity is that the Ephraimite confessors have focused on sexual matters. A member of a group visiting an Ephraimite monastery reported that the monk-confessor had a lengthy list of questions, most of them of a sexual nature, and gave severe penances even to married couples, with the penances being longer for the wives. In the evening, the men and women were separated to hear different speakers. The one who addressed the women berated them about being sinful, as women, and that their only virtue was in bearing children. If true, is this an example of the ”fundamentalism” that has been referred to? In view of what has been learned these past two years about the clergy abuse problem , particularly in the Catholic church, the monks’ pre-occupation with sexual matters could indeed be seen as a form of sexual misconduct.

Is the concern about Ephraim and his monasteries a territorial or ”turf” battle, as well as one of sacramental rights? Do the parish clergy and bishops feel that the monks are developing a following among the faithful and that a kind of encroachment is taking place? If the New Jersey announcement is accurate, it would appear so. It is also ironic that the Ephraim monasteries do not appear to have money problems, while the Greek archdiocese does, and at any given time, parishes are without priests. At the 2000 Clergy-Laity Congress, Metropolitan Anthony of the San Francisco diocese responded to concerns expressed about Ephraim by saying he was chairing a committee of the synod that was looking into the matter. If there has been a report by this committee, it has not been shared with the faithful.

Archbishop Spyridon apparently tried to define the respective roles at a retreat for clergy in March of 1998, held at the Ephraimite monastery in Florence, Arizona. It was for the clergy of the San Francisco diocese, according to the archdiocese press release, and Metropolitan Anthony and 58 priests were present. The theme was the ”relationship of monasteries to the local bishop and to the local parish”. The release said that the priests had ”lengthy open dialogues” with the Archbishop, and that he stressed the value of all three orders in the Church, clergy, laity and monasticism. He was quoted as saying:

”Spiritual therapy is indeed the primary role of Monasticism. It is precisely this role that renders Monasticism friendly and, so to say, popular, at certain levels of the Church, because it does not elevate Monasticism above the other orders in the Church.” Just what was meant by spiritual therapy was not explained. One can hope that confession-by-list and the group sessions mentioned above would not be examples of such ”therapy”. In any case, the current atmosphere would suggest that perhaps, in some circles, monasticism is being elevated above the other orders of the church. Have the Ephraimites not ”kept their proper place”?

A message that appeared on the Internet in 1999 may provide a clue or two. It was apparently from an Orthodox priest in Arizona, and said, in part:

”My situation has progressed with the mission group here and there is new pressure on me to be in a more ‘regular’ situation. Let me explain. There are about a dozen convert families here who float between all the ‘ethnic’ churches because they are zealous for traditional spirituality and get impatient with either the closed minded ethnic dominance or a ‘modernized’ and enemic version of Orthodoxy. So these people spend a lot of time at Fr. Ephraim’s monastery in Florence and take seriously the advice of their spiritual fathers there. They have committed themselves to starting a new mission parish that is traditional, not dominated by one ‘ethnic’ flavor, doesn’t have the old world parish politics, has services every day, does outreach to young people, helps bring new converts deeper into the church, etc., etc. They are withdrawing from the Greek, Antiochian, OCA and ROCOR churches to begin this new mission, and are doing it under the guidance of the monks at the monastery.”

(Note: OCA is the Orthodox Church in America, and ROCOR stands for Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, two other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States).

While the charter mentioned above calls for monastery oversight by the respective diocesan bishops, Ephraim’s accountability is not clear. Who is his superior? Does he report to another elder on Mt. Athos? To Patriarch Bartholomew? To Archbishop Demetrios? Or to one of the American Metropolitans, depending on which monastery he’s visiting? Does he have any accountability to the Greek-American Orthodox faithful, as he moves about the country ”in this world, but not of this world”, as the definition of a monastic goes?

There is a wide spectrum of feelings about Ephraim, among both clergy and laity. On the extremes, some view him as God’s gift to Orthodox spirituality in America, while others see him as a cult leader who should return to Mt. Athos.

One thing is apparent: an explanation from the American bishops about the Ephraim situation is long overdue. It should not be treated as a taboo subject any longer.

Paul Cromidas Dallas, Texas