The Challenge of the Crisis
by David Barrett, CT
With the conclusion of the 15th All-American Council, the election of a new Metropolitan, and the caveats in place of promised full disclosure, reorganization, and steps to correct problems and re-earn trust, it might be beneficial for us to take a moment to examine the larger picture of this crisis we have endured, to see where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
The Essence of Crisis
More than thirty years ago, Fr Alexander Schmemann spoke of the essence of crisis. In the Appendix to his 1974 book, Great Lent, he made the following remarks (these remarks were also part of his Report on Confession and Communion presented to the Holy Synod of Bishops in February of 1971): “If, as some people seem to think, there is a ‘crisis’ – and all questioning, all deepening of spiritual awareness is always and inescapably a crisis – it is a good and timely crisis. And it would be wrong and indeed impossible to try to solve it by mere administrative measures, by decrees and interdicts. What we face today is a crucial spiritual question ultimately related to all aspects of our life and, I would add, to the very destiny of Orthodoxy in the deeply troubled ‘modern’ world of ours.”
In another article that appeared in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review in 1972, Fr Schmemann said, “Very few people, I am sure, would deny that the Orthodox Church is in a state of crisis; yet very few also are those, it seems to me, who realize that at the bottom of this crisis, as one of its main sources, lies the double crisis of theology and liturgy.” Fr Alexander then goes on in this article, entitled “Liturgy and Theology,” to discuss the brokenness of our condition in regards to an unhealthy pluralism and a divorce from the essence of the Church’s own theology. He goes on to say, “Theology is no longer the conscience and the consciousness of the Church, her reflection on herself and on her problems. It has ceased to be pastoral in the sense of providing the Church with essential and saving norms; and it has also ceased to be mystical in the sense of communicating to the people of God the knowledge of God which is the very content of life eternal. A theology alienated from the Church, and a Church alienated from theology; such is the first dimension of today’s crisis.” (emphasis in the original.)
These words ring even more true today than they did over thirty-five years ago. And it has been during these past thirty-five years that theology was alienated from the Church because the Church herself was alienated from her theology. Her day-to-day life, her function, was divorced from the experience of her theology in the liturgy of the Church. In short, our Church leadership did not only fail to live by the Gospel, it did not even consider the Gospel to be a point of reference. What finally broke the back of this burdensome camel of Soviet-like totalitarianism, skewed ethics and mutated ecclesiology was precisely the questioning that was initiated by faithful, courageous servants of God such as Protodeacon Eric Wheeler. This questioning was continued by steadfast servants of God such as +Archbishop Job, in his famous question, first asked three years ago this week: "Are the allegations true or false?"
A New Atmosphere, A New Perspective
A mutated ecclesiology has weighed down our Church for the last quarter of a century. This mutation consisted primarily of a skewed perspective regarding the episcopate, its function, and its relation to other clergy (priests and deacons) and the laity. It viewed the function of the bishops in terms of despotic intimidation and aggression. It viewed its relation to other clergy and, even more pronounced, to the laity in terms of an elitist clericalism. This served to divorce the bishops from the Body of Christ, to divide the membership of the Church into two opposing groups: clergy and laity.
It is essential to remember that the devil’s name in Greek, διαβολος, means “divider”. This division of the Body of Christ into two opposing camps is the work of the devil, is a betrayal of our ecclesiology, our nature and function as members of the Church, and is just as much a mutation as that of anti-clericalism. What is worse, this mutated ecclesiology was approved, promoted, and carried out for almost three decades. It fostered a breeding ground of closed-door secrecy, lack of documented records (to wit, missing financial information that precludes the possibility of an authentic audit), misuse of power, promulgation of lies, and abuse of people (the sufferings of the people in the Diocese of Alaska, to cite just one example).
As (then-) +Bishop Jonah stated on Tuesday night, 11 November, at the question-and-answer session of the 15th All-American Council, “I think history has given to us an inheritance where hierarchy has been completely confused with imperial aristocracy.” He further stated that “a culture of intimidation is alien to Christ" Unfortunately, this has been something that has prevailed in certain sectors, and still prevails, in certain sectors of the Orthodox Church. And this demon needs to be exorcised! Metropolitan Jonah himself referred to the culture of fear and intimidation that operated within the walls of the Chancery at Syosset; “A culture,” he said, “that was fundamentally sick.”
This newest (consecrated ten days earlier!) and youngest (age forty-nine) of bishops moved the hearts of the assembled representatives, clergy and lay, of the Body of Christ. Furthermore, by acknowledging the truth of the matter while simultaneously referring all to the Scriptures and the dogmas of our Faith, he brought together again the Church and her theology; he mended that brokenness and alienation of theology and Church! In short, he spoke with “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). He brought a new atmosphere and a new perspective to our life in the Church. More accurately, he restored the authentic perspective of our Holy Tradition. What is sad is that this atmosphere and perspective, so authentic to the true spirit of Orthodoxy, only seems “new” because it has been tragically missing from our midst for so long. And it was this restoration of the true, authentic perspective of the Gospel, which our brothers and sisters have been hungering for again for so long, that moved the assembly to present +Bishop Jonah to the Synod with the cry that he be our new Metropolitan...
The Deepening of Spiritual Awareness
So, where do we go from here? First of all, we need to use this crisis for the deepening of our spiritual awareness. We must begin personally, each of us within ourselves; then, we move, work, and encourage this deepening in our parishes, our deaneries, and our dioceses; then, we do so corporately, as a national Church, as the Orthodox Church in America; and, to the best of our ability, we extend this to our brothers and sisters abroad.
We need to remain watchful. We are thankful that the Holy Synod acknowledged the will of the people, the choice of +Bishop Jonah as Metropolitan. It is an essential start. However, old habits and old perspectives die hard. Before +Bishop Jonah spoke Tuesday night, other hierarchs addressed the issues in a spirit of levity and humor, deflecting from the seriousness of the pain, the suffering, and the sins of this crisis. They will need our prayers to not only embrace +Metropolitan Jonah as their spiritual leader, but, more importantly, to embrace his perspective of conciliarity, accountability, and repentance as the modus operandi of our Church! As our new Primate stated, these are qualities expected of all of us, bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people alike.
We need to remain prayerful. We work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Ph 2:12), combining prayer with fasting, almsgiving, and repentance. We then work out how to again work together, in conciliarity with one another, bishops with priests, deacons, and lay people, not in opposition, but in harmony with each other as people with diverse talents, gifts, perspectives, and opinions. +Metropolitan Jonah stated that, through this crisis, we have been broken into little pieces, and that it is now our job to put these pieces back together, and what will result will be even more beautiful than before. This sounds like the description of a diamond or some other gem, and, to appreciate the beauty of a gem, one has to look at it from multiple angles and perspectives to see the whole picture.
May we unite the personal cross each of us carries from this crisis, uniting it to the Cross of Christ, so that, in turn, we, too, may be resurrected to life eternal, first here in our Orthodox Church in America, and in the Kingdom of God to come.