In Preparation for the AAC
by Fr. Vladimir Berzonsky, Parma OH
Upon reading the reports of the various Town Hall meetings that are intended to anticipate the
All-American Council in November of this year,
I should like to make several observations.
The first is that in so many cases when a hierarch of the Church was asked to respond to a question put to him, he remained silent. What’s new is this odd reaction from one whom it would be expected would be supremely prepared to “Give an account of your management [stewardship]” (Lk. 16:2).
Why is a bishop silent? Three possibilities:
He doesn’t know the answer;
The answer will incriminate him;
[And the most pernicious of all] He doesn’t feel that the questioner[s] have a right to a response.
I never experienced this before in my nearly half century of the priesthood.
I have known two periods of episcopal silence: When they couldn’t speak English, and when they all speak English but won’t [as at the AAC in Toronto, 2005]. And now we here again. The earlier bishops, through interpreters, responded to the at times crude, antagonistic comments from another era of laypersons. But they always gave some response to whatever was put to them.
I dwell on this silent treatment because it lies at the root of the alienation that has infected the relationship between the Holy Synod and the Church at large. The hostility in the atmosphere is almost tangible. It’s as if we were to exchange the opening prayer: “O heavenly King” with “Onward Christian soldiers marching off to war.” Truth is we are going to Pittsburgh as though to an obvious confrontation rather than the gathering of the brothers and sisters of Christ to do the Lord’s will in His Church. Brothers and sisters?
We aren’t even fathers and children.
Which leads me to my second observation: A powerfully charged condemnation of the attitude of the people of God against their episcopacy. As it’s been reported one prelate called it "patricide". I’ll explain why that simply is impossible.
First, the term comes from Freudian psychoanalysis. Dr. Freud, an avowed atheist, saw something that Christians term original sin, which infects and affects the psyche of modern human beings. He didn’t accept the Bible’s story. Instead, he went to Greek mythology to the tale of Oedipus Rex to find the source of guilt embedded in the souls of mankind. Oedipus as all know inadvertently killed his father and took his own mother as his wife.
Regardless of the feelings we have toward our episcopacy we don’t want them dead, not even expelled; rather, many if not most of us would say, “I don’t want the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his sins and be saved.” Through all the blogs on the web sites - even those of the most judgmental and offensive - wafts a strain of repentance, a song of forgiveness, and a desire that all will be embraced by the arms of love for one another. But that cannot happen, because in order for forgiveness to take place there must be contrition and repentance. Even God cannot forgive one who uses his freedom to deny his sins, which is an argument for eternal hell.
When we hear: “I have done nothing wrong,” we are bound to require proof. After all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are we infants or idiots to be addressed in this way? If neither, then a worse reason is evident. To the hierarchy we are not people in the real sense. We are objects, not persons. That’s the other reason why patricide is an illusion. To kill the father means that we have a father. If I sing “Eis polla eti despota” I can do so in good conscience, for I am praising a despot. Not a father. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen referring to Dan Quale: I’ve known spiritual fathers. They were good friends of mine. You are not acting like true spiritual fathers.” Metropolitans Leonty and Ireney, Archbishops John [Shahovskoy], John [Garklavs], Kiprian, Kirill and others were the same one-on-one for lengthy conversations as they were in session or in public. If anything they would treat those like me with more respect than I felt I deserved.
Theologically we all understand that our division from the Roman Catholic Church has to do with the addition of Filioque to the Nicene Creed. The subordination of the Holy Spirit to the Son of God is for us a diminution of Person, as Vl. Lossky put so well. If it is imperative that we uphold the presence of the Holy Spirit in ourselves, anointing the newly baptized at the same service so that they be considered to be persons even at a week or month, that precious gift “with all rights and privileges” in legal terms is obligatory for all to recognize. Those ordained are gifted with special graces and responsibilities here on earth. It’s not to be understood as a rank outside of personhood. By exalting yourselves you demean the fundamental unity of all others in the Body of Christ. What will it take for all of you to understand that? We have all read Alexei Khomiakov, Fr. Afanasiev and others who have discussed the Church as One.
Practically we who make our gift offerings whether they are considered assessments or free will offerings should have the joy that comes with tithes to the Holy Trinity via the Holy Church, rather than pondering over whether or not we really want to enable those who take those offerings not only without appreciation or gratitude, but who have abused those gifts given to God. When we have prelates acting like despots we feel like St. Alexander Nevsky taking tribute to the khan.
At a joint meeting of the Holy Synod and Metropolitan Council after the blessing of food our prelate started to count the hierarchy present, setting aside chinaware, silver and linen napkins from the paper plates, paper napkins and plastic forks sufficient for the hoi polloi. When questioned about it by a lay delegate the latter, rather than receiving a sensible response (if such can be offered) was made to feel that he was a bumpkin who couldn’t distinguish the exalted from the inferior. Evidently he didn’t know his place. Our bishops consider themselves royalty, a people apart and above the ordinary. They expect and demand subservience like medieval sovereigns among serfs.
When I think of my father I realize that he, my birth parent Michael, never treated me in such a way as our hierarchy consider de rigueur. He would never lie to me, ignore me, abuse me, humiliate me, or treat me as an inferior. He would never rise and leave the family setting to go elsewhere, as happened in Toronto 2005 when the Holy Synod stood and marched out before the assembly like the Soviet Nomenklatura on May Day. My father respected me as a person if for no other reason than that we shared the same DNA. His blood was in my veins. And that was as long as he was alive. What should we think about those who nourish us from the sacred altar table? When Jesus uses an earthly family relationship He contrasts it to agape love of the heavenly Father. “You who are sinful know how to give good gifts to your children” (Mt. 7:11). If the crass behavior of our hierarchy is insulting and offensive to me, a birth Orthodox Christian, what must it mean to one who comes fresh from a contemporary American culture? What does the phrase: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1Pt. 2:9) mean to them?
I should think that the insights of Martin Buber, Vladimir Soloviev, Nicolai Berdiaev and others defining what it means to be a person and to have person to person relationships ought to be the norm for the people of God. If we are to function in the 21st century in the land of the free and home of the brave, we cannot abide 19th century attitudes of nobleman and peasant in our Church. Do they really expect us to bow and say: “I hear and I obey?” What shameful nonsense. It’s simply embarrassing to let others see the pomposity that infects our hierarchy. What happened to sobornost? Jesus was constantly developing intimacies with his followers: From “My Father” and “Your Father” to “Our Father,” and “Abba.” “I no longer call you servants…Instead I have called you friends.”
From disciples to apostles; from the 500 to 70 to twelve and from them three. So it’s self-evident that we cannot be charged with patricide if we have not fathers spiritually guiding us, but instead we are led by tyrants and despots. Perhaps the worst of them are since retired; nevertheless, I fail to imagine how the Church can possibly survive any more +Nicolais, or +Tikhons.
A year or so ago I had proposed that we have an enormous love-in, such as some monasteries, seminaries and many parishes hold on the eve of the Great Lent, gathering as one family of mutual compassion, forgiving all things, blessing one and all, asking forgiveness from one another unconditionally; but I realize it just cannot happen. We are not ready to become one in Christ. We have a chasm of vanity that precludes any such spiritual balsam of healing to take place.
I hate to think that Pittsburgh will be nothing more than Toronto Part II, where hostility, fear, intimidation and mistrust will hover in the air like a fetid odor. If so, it will include a pro forma agenda of self-serving reports that all is well, every day in every way every things gets better and better, then one brave young soul will rise, ask for the floor, squeak something in protest about the way things really are. He will feel the stares of fourteen eyes glaring, scaring, daring him to continue, until he reaches down to feel if his seat is still dry and collapses on his chair only to return to his home and sit by the phone praying it doesn’t ring. This is the diabolical condition of the once vaunted Orthodox Church in America. Take an example from Pope Benedict XVI with the canonical right of infallibility, yet who goes around the world begging forgiveness for the sins of pedophile priests past and present, sins that are not his. Or offending Muslim sensibilities, he establishes an organ to reach out and strive for improved understanding with that religious community.
You all, beloved Holy Synod members, on the other hand, respond with hostility and intransigence to a Church that is eager to forgive you if for nothing else, for real sins of mismanagement and failure to implement that great vision that inspired the Tomos of Autocephaly, watching as we suffer a leadership that is losing the Archdiocese of Romania and credibility with the Russian Orthodox Church and other major Orthodox jurisdictions within and beyond this continent.
The future of our precious and cherished Orthodox Church in America lies in your hands.
We who love the Church can only pray that the Holy Spirit will come and abide in you, cleanse you from all impurity and guide you to save your and our souls.