A Church’s Repentance
by Peter Bouteneff
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
Amidst our crisis, one thing cannot be contested:
the need for repentance.
Of course, repentance is a fixture in Church consciousness no matter what is going on. Here, however, we are talking about something more extreme: we have to repent for being complicit in a culture of malfeasance, one within which millions of dollars were misappropriated or embezzled.
The All-American Council will need to feature acts of repentance that will be appropriate to the different levels of responsibility. As that is being planned, here are one person’s reflections on some of the factors to bear in mind:
1) The Theological Context
The Church — when we understand it as the Body of Christ, the perpetuation of the Incarnation — is holy and sinless. Understood in these terms, it is impossible to say that the Church sins, that the Church must repent. Yet in so far as every member of the Church sins, and groups of people in the Church sin corporately, it is a part of the Church’s life for us to regularly acknowledge sin and repent of it. In the case of the present crisis, we are talking about sins committed in the name of the Church, and sometimes even in the belief — right or wrong — that it was for the good of the Church. The character of this repentance, therefore, must be both personal and ecclesial, i.e., pertaining to each person and to the body of persons that has been mired in sin. By sinning in this way, we have failed to be Christ’s body. We must ask to be “reunited to the Holy Flock,” to quote one of the prayers read at confession.
This repentance has to be led by the Church’s leaders.
Which leads us to the next point.
2) The Complexity of Authority
Anyone who has been or is in a position of authority can understand how complex it is to exercise it in the fallen world. It can seem impossible to take a single step without sinning, without disappointing, offending, or devastating someone. It is in that spirit that so many of those who have been accused of malfeasance, or those who defend them, speak of what was done as being “for the good of the Church.” However, at this stage, where we are aware of the sheer scale of misappropriation of funds, we have long ago tipped the scale beyond acceptable complexity. No ends justify these means. So arguments from moral intricacy, or even from ignorance (the sheer number of agenda items at a Synod meeting, etc.) are no longer acceptable, not without an acknowledgment that there was also genuine sin involved.
Yet there is more complexity to reckon with, even if it by no means does away with the urgent need for repentance and change: just as it would be simplistic to dismiss the scandal or to place it at the feet of one or two individuals, it is also terribly wrong to speak of anyone involved in it as irredeemably, or undifferentiatedly malicious. The same people, the same culture that saw millions of dollars misdirected also did countless acts of good for the Church, some invisible and some visible, many were genuinely selfless. Any of us who have seen these men operate – Metr. Theodosius, Metr. Herman, Fr Kondratick, and others currently on the dock – have known their prayerful, pastoral, creative, and loving dedication to the Church. That, very strangely (but not uniquely), apparently went side-by-side with the grave malfeasance committed during their tenure. It is deeply perplexing, but it is so, and can’t be discounted as we meditate on this situation.
And again, it doesn’t get anyone off the hook from repentance, and the need for personal and ecclesial redirection.
3) Full Disclosure
Many have demanded 100% disclosure of the wrongdoings and of the destination of misappropriated funds. This demand comes partly from the sensibility that there is no genuine reconciliation without full confession of truth, and partly from a healthy (American) culture which values transparency. But in the extreme this can devolve into the unrealistic expectations of an unhealthy (internet) culture that is accustomed to instant access to all information for everyone. We have to reflect on how much disclosure is realistic or necessary, and to whom. For one, given how much paper shredding has gone on in the initial stages of this crisis, and how widespread the profligacy became, we have to admit that a whole lot of that money is just plain gone, and nobody will ever know where.
But I also believe that not everybody has to know every last detail. It’s hard to know how much disclosure, and to whom, would be enough for there to be real repentance and real reconciliation, and I don’t propose any answer. I only want to put the question before us.
What’s easy to know is this: the Holy Synod, who are in the end responsible for the Church and all that has gone on within it, have to acknowledge the full gravity of what has happened. They have to make it clear to us that they (now) know the whole picture, and more importantly, that they take spiritual responsibility for it.
4) The Role of the Holy Synod
The Holy Synod is responsible for what happened. If any member of the Synod did not know about the culture of financial malfeasance, he should have made it his business to know. Whatever the complexities – and we’ve acknowledged some of them – the Synod is where the buck stops, and the Synod has to be the primary locus of repentance. Here again, they have to acknowledge, as a body, that they know what has gone on. And they have to ask forgiveness for their part in it. They simply have to. Whatever language they find – and the legal implications will need to be considered too - they will have to find something meaningful and credible. In doing so, they will become real leaders, and lead us in the corporate repentance we all must undergo.
In doing so, they also have the opportunity to place the OCA in the virtually unique position of a Church that didn’t simply sweep its scandal under the rug, as several sister Orthodox Churches have done in dealing with their respective scandals in the past decade. This could be an inspiring step forward, and the beginning of our Church’s coming of age.
5) Can This Actually Happen?
In some ways the signs are not hopeful. Many if not most of our bishops still don’t believe that they were in any way responsible for what has gone on. Furthermore, many if not most of our bishops are of a culture where leaders and father-figures simply don’t say they’re sorry, perhaps out of fear that their flocks would be confused, or even begrudge them for showing that apparent “weakness.” (Dear Fathers in God: do it right, and we will see it as strength. You have to trust us in this. And remember that we love you and need you.)
But it’s not just an old-world mentality; it’s also basic human fear. That may account for why, thus far, we’ve heard almost nothing but a repetition of the story of the primordial sin in the Garden: it wasn’t me. ‘It was the serpent’ (the internet). ‘It was the woman you gave me’ (name your scapegoat). Everyone has denied guilt, or has told us that it was “for the good of the Church.” But even if direct responsibility has pointed in many directions, we are still talking about a Synod that failed to lead the Church, failed to do so in a manner that listened to the flock — failed, in other words, at the conciliar hierarchy that we say is definitive of the Church. (If we need any more evidence of this continued malfunction, let’s recall March 27, 2008.)
As a body of persons, the Synod can change. And it must. Aside from needing a new leader, it needs to collectively lead a change in Church culture, of which admission of guilt and repentance is the beginning. As Christians we have to be open to the possibility that this can really happen.
The AAC will be decisive. Can the Synod own up to the past, both distant and recent, and beg the forgiveness of its flock? Can they do so in a manner that will cut us to the heart, blow us away by its genuineness? If they can, they will help us see our own sins too, and lead us to engage, together, on a road of repentance, where all that needs to be acknowledged gets acknowledged, where God forgives, and where we can begin to rebuild mutual trust.
In all of this we just might begin to regain what has long been smothered: the bold and creative vision on which the OCA was founded.