Reflections On The Scandal
A Crisis of Truth
by Sine Nomine
For over a year now I have watched with heavy heart as this scandal has unfolded and dragged on and on.
I have read the comments coming from different perspectives, and have appreciated those that were thought out and balanced, even if I didn't always agree. Mr. Nescott won my respect from the earliest things I read about him. I have never met the man, but I have never had reason to believe that he was anything other than a man of integrity. He has raised some very fundamental questions to the Metropolitan Council that are ones that we all need to bear in mind: questions about truth, conflict of interest, and "the good of the Church."
I have observed this crisis (which, I believe, goes beyond the financial scandal) in the context of twenty-four years as an Orthodox Christian, living in various Orthodox communities, mostly OCA. Those experiences began in an ethnic Russian parish, the majority of whose members had fled the Bolsheviks. The priest had been forced to hide in a potato cellar for weeks. To a young American, who had been raised in the moral and intellectual ambivalence (rather chaos) of the Episcopal Church, this was a powerful witness. These people could tell me about real martyrs whom they had personally known; people who preferred death to suppressing the truth.
The crisis lies not in the moral failings of one individual, or even a few highly-positioned clerics at Syosset. None of us can claim to be without sin or temptation. None of us could honestly say that if we had that much money passing through our hands, we would never for a moment be tempted. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” says the Holy Apostle John. All the more this applies to temptation, for even the Incarnate Word was tempted, according to Scripture.
This crisis is about the suppression of truth. It is, as Mr. Nescott observes, about not wanting to face the truth and let it ride its course. He pointed to direct conflicts of interest that could have legal implications, but the conflict of interest occurs in anyone who prefers to see the truth suppressed, because it makes us look bad, because it tarnishes the image of the priesthood (or episcopacy), or the good name of the Church. This crisis is about people thinking that “the good of the Church” lies in ignoring, wishing away, or denying the reality of our situation.
As a seminarian at SVS in the time of Fr Thomas Hopko, I learned very well from him (he was my confessor) that facing the truth of our own reality is the ONLY path to genuine healing. In case nobody has noticed, that has been the message behind his reflections posted on this website. It’s not just a truth about individuals; it is a truth for us as the Body of Christ as well. We have been ailing with a moral sickness caused by the suppression of the truth, the refusal to accept the truth of our corporate reality, to face it squarely and deal with it.
The image of the Church will not be preserved or promoted by how many priests are ordained, or granting them, not the Unfading Crown, but temporal ones, in the form of jewelled crosses. Nor will an untarnished image even be celebrating in supreme grandeur and order the Holy Mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood. That’s what the Divine Liturgy is about – the Mystery of God’s infinite love for us shown in His broken Body and spilled Blood. It is the remembrance of the “saving commandment and all those things which are come to pass for us” joined to the offering of the most basic elements of our lives – bread and wine – with praise and thanksgiving.
We should be standing in awe of what we do there, as one friend so aptly put it. To worry instead about how the picture of a splendid Liturgy in someone’s mind will be tarnished is the depth of spiritual sickness. Worrying about how this crisis will tarnish anything, to the point of desiring to hide it or ignore it, that is the real crisis.
The Church has known scandals since Pentecost. Do we recall the couple in the Acts of the Apostles who held back in their offering, or the immorality in Corinth? The Church survived those things. The Church also survived simony, dead-hand ordinations, and every kind of Byzantine intrigue. We can survive those things, and we can survive a crooked lot at Syosset. What we cannot survive is the suppression of truth. That will kill us, morally, spiritually, and ultimately, perhaps even institutionally. That separates us from the only real meaning our Orthodox lives have.
As a little Episcopalian boy, I said to my mother that if Communion is not really the Lord’s Body and Blood, this (worship in church) is all a silly game, and I don’t want to play. I haven’t forgotten saying those words because I keep saying them. If our Orthodox lives aren’t about the Truth, be it personal, truth, historical truth, theological truth, every kind of truth, then we are just playing dress-up games.
Many have, I am sure for the sake of their own consciences, lamented calls for the punishment of those involved. I recall a Law Review article I read years ago (my mother was in law school while I was in high school) calling for the use of the death penalty as “vengeance” and saying that such vengeance was necessary to a moral society. I was aghast. Vengeance? Justice must never be about vengeance. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to seek out vengeance against Fr Kondratick or anyone else. If canonical and/or legal consequences are to be meted out, it must be in the humility that recognises that no one of us would not be tempted in a similar position. It must be for the sake of truth meaning something. It must be done with grief in our hearts, not anger. And no, I do not claim for a moment that I am living up to such an ideal, but I sure am reminding myself as I write this. It’s the best and the least I can do for the moment.
Nevertheless, I know that vengeance, or punishment tainted with vengeance, is just as sick as the suppression of the truth. Why? Because it’s not really about the truth, it’s about ourselves, our own personal feelings of hurt and betrayal. I don’t wish to suggest that such feelings are out of place, but I hope we aren’t going to punish anyone just to make ourselves feel better by getting them back. Due canonical and legal sanctions, should be meted out for the sake of facing the truth of our situation, to end the conflicts of interests, for the sake of the church. We do need to move on, to put this past us once and for all. We need to be able to trust our hierarchy so that the words of St Ignatius of Antioch will ring true, not hollow; so that we can find in them people who can truly “show us the way” and “help lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven,” as we sing to St Innocent. If we can’t do these things, we might be better off spending our Sunday mornings on household chores. I doubt my house is the only one that could stand to have a few more chores get done.
In the end, this reflection comes from that little boy I was, who didn’t want to play if church was just a silly game and not about something real, something I knew then, and still know today, is way beyond me. It comes from hearing Fr. Tom Hopko emphasize, as if no amount of emphasis were enough, the fact that we must face the truth of our reality or live life in the pig pen. (I dare say this whole matter makes his case for him.) It comes from seeing friends struggle with their faith in the face of seemingly mindless rituals, and seeing cradle Orthodox, responsible parishioners, not coming to church as a result of this crisis. Seeing people torn like that, I just want to cry.
I pray that the OCA, from the youngest child and oldest babushka to the Synod of Bishops, will choose to set aside all conflicts of interest in favour of the truth – for the good of the Church.
I wish everyone a blessed remainder of the Fast, and a truly joyous Pascha.
(Originally from California, Sine Nomine has been a member of the OCA for twenty-three years and holds an M.Div. and M.Th. from St. Vladimir's Seminary.)