Protodeacon Eric Wheeler's
Letter to Ansonia
February 16, 2008
Archpriest Michael Roshak
Three Saints Orthodox Church
26 Howard Avenue
Ansonia, CT 06401-2208
Dear Father Michael,
The controversy Three Saints Church currently finds itself in cannot be easy for you and the parish community. I wish to extend my support to you and the faithful as you attempt to convey to Metropolitan Herman, through your upcoming meeting with Bishop Nikon, how woefully inadequate the leadership of our Holy Synod has been in dealing swiftly and fairly with this crisis that has plagued our church for over two years.
Unfortunately, the only step which seems to gain the attention of the church leadership is the withholding of funds – evident in the speed in which a meeting with the bishop has been scheduled.
You do not stand alone in feeling the pain and heartache that this scandal has caused. The present storm that your parish community is bearing witness and responding to is, and has been, impacting the life and work of our parishes of the Orthodox Church in America all across this country. The lack of guidance and direction coming for our hierarchical leadership is only serving to prolong the agony of this scandal, and I thank God for the bold steps that Ansonia and a number of other churches, and one diocese, have taken to gain the attention of our church leadership and force them to listen to the voice of the faithful.
Controversy is not foreign to Three Saints Church.
As a son of the parish, I witnessed many debates, disagreements and heated storms among the faithful, clergy and hierarchs. And this current controversy brings back many memories, and has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own experiences growing up in the Ansonia parish.
I have always felt a special connection to Three Saints Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Apostolic Church Incorporated, not just because it was the parish which nurtured me from infancy through my formative years, but because the new church and I appeared on earth in the same year. Each time I walked up the stairs to enter the church and passed the cornerstone which bore the year of my birth, I felt a strong connection to the institution which was my parish community -- a community of people seeking in their own way, comfort, guidance, friendship and love as they dealt with life’s joys, happiness, disappointments and sorrows, ultimately attempting to work out their eternal salvation.
I refer to the parish with its official title because it was indeed an institution. It was, during my youth, the second largest church in the Metropolia. We had a choice of an English liturgy or a Slavonic liturgy, both services overflowing with faithful; the size of the Church School rivaled my public school; house blessings were scheduled over a series of months; grave blessings went on for weeks after St. Thomas Sunday; the Church Choir visited our home and serenaded us with carols on Christmas Day (Julian Calendar); lent was a continuous series of memorial liturgies at which we made our annual confession and communion; Easter basket blessings were conducted on the hour from the end of the Holy Saturday liturgy until just before Nocturns – each with hundreds of people. The church was always open, and bustled with activity seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year. And, the person in charge of the entire operation was the senior priest.
When people would ask me why I entered seminary at age 17, I responded by saying that I wanted to become a priest. When they asked me if I had a special calling to the priesthood, I would not know quite how to answer their question. It was actually much later in life that I recognized that my desire to enter seminary was very much rooted in the example imprinted upon me by the senior priests in Ansonia as the CEOs of the institution or corporation which was my church – my vocation or calling was actually one of administration – the priest administered and ministered to the lives of the faithful within my vibrant parish community. And this desire to administer – to minister – to manage the affairs of the parish institution and its faithful, was what drew me to seminary.
Funny thing is I can never quite recall ever going to church to pray. I lived a block and half from the church and spent most of my free time, actually on a daily basis, at church, or at the church park. I learned about my faith in my eleven years of Church School; I learned church order and decorum from the weekly altar boy classes; I learned patience by attending hours long services in an unintelligible language; I was exposed to families’ celebrations and sorrows by serving as an altar boy at funerals and weddings; I learned the church hymns and liturgical rubrics at choir rehearsals; I mastered my three hundred word vocabulary of Russian in Russian School, I learned the celebration of fellowship in the Junior “R” Club; I learned the church hymns in Slavonic by attending the divine services; I learned the value of volunteer service watching my mother give of her time to the Ladies Aide Society, the Parent Teachers Organization, and any number of church events or programs intended to support the parish community. I even learned to swim at the church park. You can say that my prayer in the church was really part of the life I lived in the worshipping and celebrating community.
The church was not a part of my life; it was not my religion or religious identity, it was not something I did on Sunday mornings – the church life, my life in the Orthodox Church at Three Saints parish, my belief in God as the creator of all that which is good, the one who so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son into the world to die on the cross for my eternal salvation, was my entire life. And the indelible memory of this life – this life which is instilled in my very being to this day – is what makes me want to work to reclaim my parish, my church, my Orthodox Church in America, from those who have used and abused the canons, teachings and resources of the church for their own gain and self preservation.
I am in no way trying to romanticize my youthful experiences growing up in Three Saints Church. For a period of time, my mother would return from church every Sunday in tears, due to her emotional involvement in the parish controversies. Every aspect of the life of the worshipping community that we take for granted today in our Orthodox Church was a hard won battle in the life of the Ansonia parish – the use of English, frequent communion, evening pre-sanctified liturgies, the use of the revised Julian calendar, the role of the parish council, the priest as the chief shepherd of the parish resources, general confession, midnight Easter Liturgy were all accomplished through much turmoil, controversy and tension. The combination of the stubborn Russian ethos, the New England congregationalism, the post-Kedrovsky .parish corporate structure and the shear size of the congregation served to create at Three Saints an extremely vocal parish, which knew how to express the opinions and ideas of its faithful to the church leadership in a very forceful manner.
At the same time, I always knew that the fight, or rather struggle to move the parish community forward, would result in a decision which would lead people closer to their Orthodox faith, and ultimately towards their eternal salvation. I knew this because of the beauty of the church I grew up in. At first glance, the large grey concrete structure that we call Three Saints Church is traditionally Orthodox in its architecture, with its footprint in the shape of a cross, its golden cupolas and glistening three bar crosses. And yet, at the same time, it is uniquely New England, with its pointed steeples and large open nave. Every inch of the large cavernous interior is covered in splendid and inspiring iconography. Every aspect of the church’s structure is of the finest quality. It always amazed me, and continues to amaze me, that given the countless numbers of opinions coming from the faithful of the church, with the ability to turn any decision into a controversy, that a consensus of opinion was reached with regard to the construction of the new temple. Add to this the influence that western art and architecture still had on the construction of Orthodox temples during the 1950’s, it was truly a miracle that the faithful of Ansonia were able to build such a magnificent structure, all for the glory of God.
Today, we find ourselves in a different church than the one I grew up in – an entire generation has been raised in Three Saints Church since my departure. But, what hasn’t changed is the presence of controversy in the lives of the faithful of the Ansonia community. In the midst of this ongoing scandal in the life of the Orthodox Church in America, Three Saints parish has placed itself into the crosshairs of controversy by taking the bold step of withholding its assessments from the national church pending the completion of the work of the Special Investigation Committee and the issuance of a full report to the entire body of believers.
I am still not convinced that the withholding of assessments from the national church is beneficial to the future work of our Orthodox Church in America. I have known Father Alexander Garklavs, our chancellor, since our days together at seminary. He is a good man who struggles daily with the pains this scandal is causing our church. I have met Father Tassos and Father Jarmus who labor at Syosset, seeking to serve the needs and fulfill the demands of our national church. These men are not a mirror image of the administration of the past, but rather, a team seeking to re-build our church, from the ashes, for future generations. And in order to re-build our church – our autocephalous Orthodox Church in and for America – the administration needs resources – the very resources that are being withheld.
On the other hand, what is EXTREMELY clear to me is the fact that without the bold step of the withholding of assessments taken by the Diocese of the Midwest and the numerous parishes throughout the country, including Three Saints Church, no one in church leadership, especially within the Holy Synod, would be listening to the concerns of the community of believers.
It took Bishop Nikon less than 24 hours to schedule an archpastoral visit to Three Saints Church upon learning of the parish’s decision to withhold assessments – our parishes and pastors throughout the country should be so lucky to see a bishop so quickly when other more pressing issues of concern arise within the worshipping community.
And this, I believe is at the center of the controversy that the Orthodox Church in America currently is enveloped in – the bishop is no longer a member, or even remotely connected to the parish community – there is something drastically wrong with the current practice of our ecclesiology when the bishop has no real knowledge of his flock.
I sat in on the sessions of the Holy Synod’s bi-annual meetings and recorded the minutes for close to ten years. I witnessed first hand the transformation of the use of the term conciliarity, understood as a form of church governance integrating the hierarchs, clergy and laity, into a form of monarchical governance by which conciliarty is established first among the Holy Synod – all for the good of the church.
We are witnessing the devastation of the Diocese of Alaska as a bully mandates that 19th century Russian rubrics be practiced in the worshipping communities – rubrics that are totally foreign to the church in Alaska – and no one has the ability to step in and just say "Stop!".
We hear accounts that Archbishop Job had to prostrate himself before Bishop Nicolai because he dared to counsel a priest in Alaska on how to deal with the tyrannical actions of his hierarch – and the Holy Synod mutely watched as this took place.
We witness our Holy Synod claiming the authority to handle the affairs of the church, and yet I have not seen one archpastoral decree accepting responsibility for the current mess we find ourselves in. Our Holy Synod, under the leadership of Metropolitan Herman, has removed itself from the worshiping communities, has claimed despotic powers of authority based upon a Byzantine style of leadership, and expects us to continue to support this charade through the payment of our assessments.
And for this reason, I support the solution proposed by Dr. Paul Meyendorff that the Metropolitan and the entire Synod of Bishops submit their resignation and finally acknowledge their responsibility and guilt for what has taken place within our Orthodox Church in America.
Bishop Nikon would best serve our church by listening to what the community of Three Saints parish has to say – not one word should be discussed about the issue of withholding assessments. It is after all an action taken out of frustration – frustration that the faithful are not being heard or listened to by the Holy Synod of Bishops. By listening to the community, by attempting to answer the questions on the minds of the faithful of Ansonia – the same questions on the minds of the faithful throughout the country – the link or bond between hierarch, clergy and laity can once again be established. But the key to a successful and productive meeting on February 24th is “answering the questions of the faithful”.
We have watched as Robert Kondratick has been stripped of his priesthood, his reputation and his legacy. But, I will be the first to step forward and state that he should not be the sacrificial lamb that will allow our church to put this all behind us. Metropolitan Herman was informed of all the financial improprieties in 1999 – why didn’t he take any action?
Bob Kondratick served Metropolitan Theodosius and worked to spare the church from scandal – why has no action been take against the former Metropolitan?
I have probably been the only individual to address the issues of morality among members of our Holy Synod with our current and past Metropolitan’s – why has no action been taken to at least investigate my claims?
Why has the report on the original investigation by Proskaur Rose, which cost us a nice chuck of assessment money determining whether or not my charges were true or false, been released to the church at large?
As Bishop Nikon prepares for the meeting of February 24th, and the opportunity to listen to the community of which he is the archpastor, he has a number of choices. As a member of the Holy Synod, he can provide the answers to these questions which may be held in some secret file cabinet maintained by our Holy Synod, to be released when they determine it will be for the good of the church. In this manner, he will satisfy the cry of the faithful for answers, guidance and leadership.
Or, after listening to the faithful community of Three Saints parish, and being unable to provide the answers to their questions, determine that something is drastically wrong with the manner in which our church leadership – specifically the Holy Synod has addressed this scandal. If he determines that the Holy Synod has been negligent in leading our church on the path of our healing – a decision already reached by Archbishop Job and the Diocese of the Midwest – he can join the Diocese of the Midwest in realizing that the only way to elicit change and force an answer to the questions being raised by the communities throughout our churches in North America is to endorse the withholding of assessments.
Thank you, dear Father Michael, for allowing me to reflect on my early church experiences and express my frustrations in watching this scandal unfold into its third year. May we pray that we may once again return to the day when our parishes were truly vibrant, active and serving communities and that our Orthodox Church in America may return to its calling and mission of being a church in and for America.
With prayerful wishes for a most productive meeting, I remain
Your friend and supporter,
Deacon Eric A. Wheeler