To Those Who Have Been Scandalized
by Fr. Paul Gassios, OH
About a month ago I had a conversation with a parishioner about her childhood memories of going to church and how the current scandal in the central administration of the OCA has caused her at times to question the substance of them. She spoke of her many positive experiences growing up in her OCA parish and particularly the holiness she felt or experienced when she went to the monastery or when a certain bishop visited the parish. She particularly mentioned the bishop who she experienced to be a holy man.
In light of the current situation where long term corruption and abuse of finances has now been confirmed, was she duped? Was that holy experience of hers real or was this bishop no different than the rest?
Let us assume the worst; what if this bishop was a corrupt person? Was her memory and experience she had with him a farce? This is an important question. An important issue at stake here is what makes the Church “Holy”? How do we address this question without making excuses for wrong doing when it occurs in the Church, the harm it brings to Her members, and addressing those who have committed wrong?
There are several scripture verses I want to discuss in order to address the above.
“And He (God the Father) put all things under His feet (God the Son, Jesus Christ), and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
This quote from Ephesians best defines what the Church is. When we say we believe in “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” we need to understand that what makes the Church One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic is Jesus Christ. His life, His holiness is what constitutes the Church. A similar thought is further echoed when deacons, priests, and bishops are ordained in the Church.
The ordination prayer always begins with the following words: “The grace divine, which always heals that which is infirm, and completes that which is lacking, elevates through the laying on of hands…” (followed by the name and office of the one to be ordained). In this ordination prayer we are calling upon the grace of the Holy Spirit to fulfill and complete what is lacking in us. I also take it to mean that we should never understand the Church to be based on the sum of its parts. It is not about our personal righteousness and holiness it is always about the holiness and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Furthermore anyone who dares to approach the altar to be ordained as deacon, priest, or bishop must come being mindful of what is lacking and infirm in them. I will talk more about this below.
Getting back to the parishioner and her childhood memories of church, I would submit to you that the experiences she had of holiness at the monastery or when the bishop visited were real and not a farce. This had everything to do with who Jesus Christ is. I believe she experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit working in her to reveal our Lord Jesus Christ to her. Could it be this had less to do with what kind of life the monks in the monastery lived and who the bishop was? Did it have more to do with what she was seeking?
St. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the “love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39). Think of the many saints such as John Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor who suffered injustice at the hands of those leading the Church. Were they abandoned? On the surface it would seem so, but in time they were vindicated and canonized as saints. In the book of Numbers Chapter 22, God spoke through Balaam’s donkey. If God can do that, isn’t possible he can even use sinful people to speak through? So for those who have quit attending an OCA parish or have left the Orthodox Church because of the bad behavior of our church leaders, I would ask you to reconsider that decision. At least consider another Orthodox parish if not the OCA. Why? Because if you desire and seek to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead, that journey can still be made no matter how holy or corrupt a particular deacon, priest, bishop, or lay person is.
Having said this, one must not take this to mean that it doesn’t matter what a particular deacon, priest, bishop, or lay person does in the Church. We also hear from our Lord in Matthew: “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!”(Matthew 18:4-7)
Betrayal is a terrible thing. But it never comes at the hands of a stranger or an enemy. In these cases there is no trust and one knows what they are dealing with. Betrayal is always the result of a relationship where there was trust and it was betrayed; as a song by a contemporary Christian singer puts it “only a friend can betray a friend.” When trust is abused in the Church, when we deny, cover up, or minimize sin, it is a betrayal. The betrayal lies in deceiving people as to who we are.
In this scandal there are several things that have troubled me. It bothers me that the two metropolitans and a former chancellor of our church who we now know played a major role in the corruption and abuse, have not come forward to acknowledge the role they played in the OCA scandal, and the specific things they did to contribute to it. Instead, our former chancellor has sued the OCA, one metropolitan had a costly party thrown for him at an All American Council praising what a great leader he was, and the other metropolitan was thanked for his many years of service after being granted retirement.
Secondly, I am disappointed with how the bishops in the Holy Synod have acted over the last three years when first presented with substantive information of wrongdoing by a credible source, a former treasurer of the OCA. They did nothing and gave no public support to anyone who sought to get answers and to determine if the accusations were “true or false.” Instead those who sought answers had their character attacked, were intimidated to be silent; facing possible consequences of being denied Communion, or other Episcopal discipline.
Two retired bishops and the former chancellor acted to have a bishop removed because he sought answers to the truth of the accusations. Our former metropolitan earlier in the year stated the Dioceses of the Midwest, and Western Pennsylvania were doing the “work of the devil.” The chancellor was deposed for his wrong doing by the Synod but initially the archbishop from the Diocese of the South was unwilling to release him back to the metropolitan so he could face spiritual court. The only public response of the Synod to other bishops who did wrong or scandalous things was to allow them to retire (with no clarity as to consequences they may face for their behaviors which did bring harm to those who did trust them to oversee the Church). It seems as if none of the retirements were linked to any wrongdoing when the Synod did issue their decisions.
What needs to happen to build upon the hope for better days the release of the Special Investigation Committee report brought to the OCA? I say “hope for better days” because for the first time we hopefully became willing to face the reality of who we are: A people who are infirm and lacking in many things, a people who are willing to admit their sin and maybe take responsibility for the wrong that has been done. It is only when we come to this point that we can then call upon the grace of the Holy Spirit to fill us and heal us of what is infirm in us and complete what is lacking in us. What needs to happen is that we need to stop hiding and denying sin, and speaking of sin in generalities, openly facing it as Zacchaeus did in the gospel of Luke, Chapter 19: 1-10. He did everything he could to eliminate obstacles to seeing Christ, and when Christ saw him and invited Himself to his home, Zacchaeus joyfully received Him into his house, repented and said he would act in a specific, public manner to atone for the specific wrong he had done. Jesus then went on to announce that “today salvation has come to this house.” The Synod of Bishops needs to take the lead and model this example of Zacchaeus for us.
But I also realize that whether they do that or not, doesn’t change the fact that I need to act in this manner. We are at the threshold of entering into something life saving and liberating! Do we have the courage to walk this path?
When we think about who to elect as metropolitan at the upcoming Council in Pittsburgh, we need to elect someone who knows their sin, and knows their weaknesses and is actively doing penance for them; not someone who would say, “I have done nothing wrong or I would never do anything like that.” We don’t need a strong leader we need a leader knows what is weak in him that God’s strength would be manifested in him. Those who say they have no sin will never know “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” That person will never come to understand that the Holiness and Catholicity of the Church is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. The encouraging thing in all of this is thank God for those who know this. The ability to grow and mature in this Truth is not based on trusting in “in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” To those who have left the Church because of this scandal I appeal to you to draw near to our Lord Jesus, and He will draw near to you.
Don’t give up because Our Lord Jesus Christ has not given up on us.
(Fr. Paul Gassios is the pastor of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Rossford, OH. Located near Toledo, it is in the Bulgarian Diocese of the OCA.)