THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS:
IN THE WRONG PLACE IN EGYPT
by David Barrett
Recent events in our national Church have once again saddened all pious Orthodox Christians. The lifting of the leave of absence of the bishop in Alaska by the Synod of Bishops has left all of us gravely concerned regarding the fate of our brothers and sisters in that diocese. Returning that despotic and emotionally unstable bishop to his position of power and authority is akin to releasing a convicted sex offender into a school playground. The fact that all of this took place during the heart of the lenten season leads us to question the place where the hearts and minds of our hierarchy dwell
This coming Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, is dedicated to the memory of St Mary of Egypt. The Church commemorates this ascetic and repentant woman at the height of our spiritual preparation for Holy Week and Pascha. She does so because of the place where St Mary’s heart and mind dwell. That place is in Christ! Because of this, our Lord Himself has come to dwell in her, as He told His Apostles: “If a man loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (Jn 14:23). Following the example of the Theotokos (Lk 2:19), she kept His word, pondering it in her heart. As the hymns of this coming Sunday proclaim, “Accused by your own conscience, O wise one of God, you converted to a better way of life. Looking at the icon of the blessed Mother of God, you condemned all your past sins, O Mother Mary, and went to bow before the precious Cross” (verse 1 for St Mary of Egypt on “Lord, I Call”).
The hymns tell us that St Mary followed the narrow path (verse 2 on “Lord, I Call”). She cast aside her weakness and bravely fought the devil (“Glory” verse on “Lord, I Call”). She made the fruits of repentance grow for us (“Glory” verse on the Apostikha). The image of God was preserved in her precisely because she took up the Cross and followed Christ (troparion of St Mary of Egypt). This is the place where the hearts and minds of all of us, including our hierarchy, ought to dwell!
However, observing, according to our Lord, that a tree is known by its fruit (Mt 12:33), it seems that the hearts and minds of the Synod do not dwell in the same place with St Mary, but in a different place in Egypt: denial. There a quite a few factors that manifest this place of denial on the part of our hierarchy:
Denial: The long-standing misappropriation of Church funds was denied for some time. This is especially true regarding the present Metropolitan! Repeated attempts to deal with the problem on the part of the national Treasurer, the courageous Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, were shot down or swept under the rug. When the Protodeacon followed the commandment of our Lord concerning our brothers (“But, if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church.” [Mt 18:16-17]), the Metropolitan, in true fallen-world, corporate-American fashion, fired the whistle-blower!
Denial: The evidence shows that the misappropriation of monies had been going on for many years. Yet, when pleas for the auditing of accounts reached a feverish pitch, the audit was only allowed to go back for two years. One wonders what the Metropolitan was trying to hide from his tenure as the Acting Treasurer of the OCA, just a few years before the point of the audit!?
Denial: Cries for a full investigation into the matter by the faithful were answered on the part of the lone brave hierarch in our midst, Archbishop Job, who continually called for an accounting of the situation. When an investigative committee was formed (with Archbishop Job at the helm), and their work started getting too uncomfortably close to home, the Metropolitan issued one of his numerous gag orders. Frustrated, most members of the committee resigned, after which the Metropolitan formed another committee, more lame duck in its makeup. The remaining members of the Synod just quietly sat on their hands!
Denial: Meanwhile, the totalitarian, emotionally unstable, and grossly narcissistic bishop of Alaska accelerated his harassment and abuse of the clergy and faithful in his diocese (it seems he didn’t learn his lesson after being stuffed into the trunk of his car in Las Vegas a few years previous!). Flipping the love of God and common sense on their heads as one flips over an hourglass, this KGB-style hierarch physically and verbally assaulted faithful clergy and lay people, while, at the same time, tonsuring a convicted sex offender and zealously defending a seminary faculty cleric whose publicly alcoholic behavior on a Church feast day brought scandal and spiritual pain to the people of the region! These good people then cried out for help, in the same manner that the oppressed people of Israel cried out to their Lord while under the bondage of Pharaoh. Once again, the members of the Synod just quietly sat on their hands!
Denial: Desperately seeking help for their situation, these good people approached Archbishop Job for advice as to how to proceed. Without directly interfering in the affairs of the Alaskan diocese, Archbishop Job only advised them to speak with the Metropolitan. When the Cecesceau-like bishop of Alaska heard about it, he publicly ranted and called for the deposing of Archbishop Job, then verbally attacked him at sessions of the Synod, resulting in Archbishop Job prostrating himself before the offending hierarch. Once again, the remaining members of the Synod just quietly sat on their hands!
Denial: After finally doing the right thing in calling for a leave of absence on the part of the Alaskan bishop while an investigation took place, the remaining members of the Synod then threw rational thought totally out the window in restoring this man to his previous position of oppressive rule! At the same time, people who had been given the task of investigating the matter (Chancellor Garklavs) or were called upon to give testimony regarding the financial scandal (former Metropolitan Theodosius and Archimandrite Zacchaeus) were either ignored by the Metropolitan and refused a hearing (both to the Synod and the Metropolitan Council) or were (once again!) postponed indefinitely. Once again, the remaining members of the Synod just quietly sat on their hands!
Denial: Simultaneously, while allowing an abusive bishop to run rampant over his flock, some members of the Synod nit-picketly called for rescinding of decisions on the part of parish faithful who had the courage to withhold their national assessments until resolution of problems and good order could be restored! One calls to mind the admonition of our Lord that we will hear during Holy Week: “You blind guides, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Mt 23:24).
Denial: Beyond all the details enumerated here, a major aspect of denial on the part of the hierarchs concerns their perspective on the faithful of our Church. Their behavior and attitudes towards the people shows that they are about eighty years out of touch. They think that they are still dealing, for the most part, with uneducated peasant immigrants, whose simple piety led them to believe and swallow anything said or done by someone wearing a collar, and who would, in fear and trembling, prostrate before a hierarch in blind obedience! They close their eyes to the reality before them: that the majority of the faithful today are American-born, savvy, college-educated, and worldly in their perspective (eighty years ago, there was not even television, let alone the Internet!); that many of these people hold positions of distinction and responsibility in the business and professional worlds, who are well-informed (via their educations and their Human Resources departments) on how to handle problems, and, more importantly, on how to handle and treat other people in a respectful, dignified, and (from our perspective) Christian manner! Having seen and lived through similar scandals in our fallen society, these faithful are not easily swayed with Watergate-like responses (threats, intimidations, gag orders) to problems and abuses of power. In short, when an abusive bishop barks, these people do not automatically roll over, like a dog, on command! This denial of the reality of the faithful they are dealing with has led some bishops (not all!) to think that a word of oppression will silence the minions! Against an atmosphere of totalitarianism and oppression, the remaining bishops will do well to follow the example of Archbishop Job, who has consistently, both in New England and in the Midwest, operated in an atmosphere of conciliarity!
Denial: Finally, the behavior and decisions of the Synod reveal that, for the most part, they have failed to follow a even greater and divine example: the example of Christ! Our Lord said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors’. But, not so with you! Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves! For, which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But, I am among you as One Who serves!” (Lk 22:25-27).
May all of us, bishops, clergy, and lay people, remove our hearts and minds from that river in Egypt (denial), and place them, instead, where our beloved St Mary of Egypt placed her mind and heart, with our Lord, Jesus Christ, Whose Passion, Burial, and Resurrection we are soon to celebrate, manifesting the Kingdom of God on Earth, through His beloved Orthodox Church!
(David Barrett is a graduate of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has been a choir director in the OCA for thirty-three years, and is currently serving at Christ the Savior parish in Southbury, Connecticut.)