Reflections On The Scandal
Caught in the Crossfire
Priest Basil Biberdorf, The Woodlands, TX
Some respondents at OCAnews have recently suggested a new approach to the financial crisis in the Orthodox Church in America: the withholding of all contributions, including contributions to the local parish. This is quite a turn of events, in that it marks a change of tactics. The logic appears to be as follows: neither the Metropolitan nor the diocesan bishops have heard our plea, nor have they reacted to the precipitous drop in appeals giving, nor have they reacted in response to a large diocese's withholding of assessments. Therefore we will further increase our pressure by withholding from our parishes. Such a reaction is a recipe for destruction.
No evidence has thus far arisen that would implicate any parish or parish clergy in this scandal. Rather, the parishes and parish clergy of the OCA stand in the controversy’s crossfire. The bulk of money given to a parish stays in the parish. While I chafe at the situation in the Diocese of the South, where parishes contribute the OCA assessment on top of a ten percent tithe to the diocese, the parish still retains 85 to 88% of all monies given. Those funds accomplish the work of the Gospel through supporting the preaching of Christ in the community, compensating the parish priest, building and maintaining buildings, purchasing materials to assist in the education of our children, and supporting missionaries here and abroad. If the parish has no income due to our attempts to influence His Beatitude or any other hierarch, then our preaching of the Gospel is greatly compromised.
Further, the harm falls disproportionately on the parish priest, whose salary and benefits are the only budget items considered "flexible." The mortgage holder for the parish expects to be paid regardless of our scandal, as do the power, insurance, and telephone companies. Paying them is an inseparable part of any mission. Universal withholding, however, would punish the parish priest, his wife, and his children, none of whom bear responsibility for this crisis. It would punish those who have walked away from highly compensated positions in order to serve others. Moreover, it punishes those who have never known a high income, who have instead devoted themselves to the preparation for, and undertaking of, service to God from the beginning, often leaving seminary with debts exceeding $30,000, to be repaid from a modest parish income, for the sake of bringing the message of life and salvation to others. “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” (1 Corinthians 9:11)
Universal withholding sacrifices the ability to proclaim the Gospel. For the sake of $105 per adult member per year, advocates of universal withholding would deprive the parish of the thousands of dollars that a typical working American (or Canadian) should be contributing annually. As I have said elsewhere on this site, the parable of the tares and the wheat is most appropriate:
Another parable put Christ forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Matthew 13:24-30)
Withholding from the parish in order to protest against Syosset destroys the wheat along with the tares by seriously hampering the proclamation of the Gospel. If the local community withers, how will this proclamation, especially in the Eucharist, take place? "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14)
We should all pray and work for a God-pleasing resolution to this scandal. A God-pleasing resolution necessarily includes the public repudiation of sin and the application of canonical penalties prescribed by the Church. However, it also means that the spirit of compassion and forgiveness should rule in our hearts. Compassion, after all, is what our Lord showed us, in abundance beyond measure. We cannot let the sin of others lead us to the still greater sin of preventing the preaching of the Gospel. Having been forgiven so much, dare we demand every penny from our brother? Dare we who have heard and benefited from the treasure of the Gospel refuse to share it with others? (c.f., Matthew 18:23-35, with an emphasis on the last two verses.) How can we share the Gospel when the material things needed to do so are purposely denied?
Finally, no one should take an individual clergyman’s public silence as a sign of indifference to this affair. I know many priests who have written to, and spoken forcefully with, their bishops, and continue to do so. However, if the problem is one of poor hierarchal oversight or bad episcopal decision-making, the solution is not in overthrowing the hierarchy of the Church but in encouraging and facilitating a renewal of courage, wisdom, humility, and prudence among the bishops. The faithful are encouraged to voice their concerns, forcefully but respectfully, to their bishops. The faithful should not seek to undermine the episcopate as a holy institution, for that would only further deprive the world of the Gospel. (It is not for nothing that bishops are ordained with the book of the Gospels held over their heads.)
Pray for those you feel are in error, pray for your own discernment, and pray that we not be overcome by misplaced anger masquerading as righteousness. Support your parish, financially, as it carries the good news of Christ into the world.
Priest Basil Biberdorf is a parish priest at St Cyril of Jerusalem Orthodox Church in The Woodlands, Texas