Time for a Change
A Priest of the Orthodox Church in America
Responding to a reader Mark Stokoe wrote: “The bottom line is that given modern means of instant communication, we must as a Church, discuss and adapt to the new requirements of the age of Twitter and Facebook. A meeting every six months, followed by a cryptic press release, without context or background or supporting documents, may have sufficed in 1940; but hardly today. Today, the 1940 pace in 2011 just leads to frustration, complaints of “conspiracies”, inadequate communication, miscommunication and the like. I am not advocating the Church, or every Bishop, or priest, be on Twitter or Facebook - although would it necessarily be bad?- but the alternative is clearly not working for us well.”
I would add that in these trying times communication changes must include expanded numbers of advisors for bishops. Additionally there should be increased means and opportunities for hierarchs to speak amongst themselves as well as with the faithful -- one on one, and in groups -- on matters of crucial importance, to gain information and foster relationships. It is discouraging to think that in our day of instant communication some bishops might still be out of touch with their flocks, that they might be diagnosing ills in the Church, charting a course in their dioceses and as a Synod, without knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the Body. Say what we will about a previous Metropolitan but it was commonly reported that he answered his own phone. The Metropolitan and Synod have access to a Metropolitan Council and professional advisors. Bishops have access to Diocesan Councils. But is everyone communicating and above all, listening? That is a question that needs to be revisited time and time again, especially now. And do the bishops see a need to go beyond, outside, these structured groups to get a feel for the thinking of the Church today?
Furthermore, it is discouraging to think that during this difficult period there are parishes that have had no direct communication from their bishops on widely discussed matters. Communities rely solely on priests’ interpretations of events and private discernment as to whether to say anything at all. Meanwhile, every conceivable interpretation regarding the state of the OCA is put forth on a multitude of internet forums. A priest of the Diocese of the South wrote that His Beatitude visited the priest’s parish and home at least five times since Lent of 2008 and as early as spring and fall of 2010. His words signify a loving relationship between Metropolitan Jonah and that specific church. Yet sources indicate that there are parishes in the Metropolitan’s own diocese that have not yet had one visit from their bishop, a diocese which may be described as “Controversy Central”.
Of further concern are situations in which small groups of individuals secure inordinate influence on specific hierarchs, using that influence to push agendas and to isolate one or more bishops from additional counsel. A question I have been asked on occasion: why should a priest have to contact his bishop through a chancellor or dean who has the opportunity to see, then filter every message? Such a system is awkward at best when on occasion the message may address a specific problem that clergy have with the chancellor or dean.
Might we suggest that bishops make changes in communication that the Church desperately needs now and in years to come? That they become more accessible, sometimes against the counsel of their closest advisors? That they have a private email address through which priests may contact them? That during these stressful times they take time to visit and relate to parishes and priests as fathers? That they insure their clergy feel comfortable discussing sensitive matters with them, even when those matters relate to the episcopacy, without concern for reprisal, accusations of disloyalty, or uncertainty as to whether issues discussed privately will be shared with others?
In response to a comment concerning anonymous posts by clergy, Fr. Dennis Buck stated: “And, while you may justifiably fear the mightier-than-the-sword-pen (keyboard?) of one Mark Stokoe, I suspect that he is NOT in a position to affect your vocation, livelihood, the well-being of your family or even your ability to partake of the Holy Mysteries of the Church. Please review the previous (or is it still current?) brouhaha among our Antiochian brethren before faulting a priest for going anonymous.”
Fr. Dennis’ words remind us of where we are at, as a Church. Why is the Body of Christ in such a state that numerous clergymen, against their better judgment, feel it best to remain silent or anonymous when deciding whether or not to give a personal opinion about administrative irregularities? The ability for leaders to be genuinely open, even on secondary issues in a private setting, without the possibility of payback is lacking in the Church today. Perhaps this experience has always been a thorn for Christians and is inherent to any gathering of human beings. Be that as it may, isn’t it time we seriously addressed it, at least within the Body of Christ? I would never advocate a change to what belongs to the nature of the Church, but this issue and those mentioned above, remain constant challenges and temptations for any hierarchical Body. As such they must be revisited pastorally, over and over again.
Such matters, however, are not only for bishops to deal with. The internet provides ample witness to the problems we exhibit as a Body regarding issues of communication. Hierarchs can only do so much. Each person must account for his or her actions and words and find ways to discuss irregularities with others in a proper context, for the health of the Body.
For positive efforts that have been made along the lines of communication in the OCA we can be extremely grateful.
We pray that such efforts continue.