At The Point Of No Return
by Mark Harrison
Over the past few weeks the outcry from Alaska has been swelling, receiving attention not only within the Orthodox Church in America, but also in the secular press. Paul Sidebottom's termination was but the first, albeit the most dramatic, of a series of actions that have all the characteristics of retaliatory strikes on the part of Bishop Nikolai. There is no credible evidence in the open to support a different interpretation of these acts. I am moved to express my support and admiration of all who have spoken out in recent days. Most especially, I cannot help but take pride in my former students. I find myself in awe of Fr Vasily Fisher's most recently published letter in particular.
When Fr Chad Hatfield took the office of dean a sense of family began to develop at St Herman Seminary. There was a vision among us of what the seminary could become: an undergraduate seminary with true academic standing. Paul Sidebottom's formal work at the seminary, aside from teaching and assisting the dean (both full time jobs of their own), was to coordinate efforts to secure accreditation. My own work in the library was one component of that plan. Backing us, we had a strong Board of Trustees, each of whom brought key expertise and was firmly committed to the same vision and confident in the ability of the faculty to make it happen. As a community we were also committed to the vision of all of the great saints who struggled to plant the Orthodox Faith in this land and its culture. I cannot count the number of times that Fr Chad spoke at lunch (our community meal) of the legacy of those great saints and of the opportunities that lay before us.
In my first year, an article appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror about the missionary efforts of a Baptist minister in town, who was travelling to villages, specifically targeting Orthodox. A phrase jumped out at me from his description of Orthodox in that article: "religion and ritual" in the context that the only thing the Orthodox Church provided was (dead) religion and (empty) ritual. I cited that article in my Homiletics class, and emphasised the importance of not making your opponent's case for him. At present one of the specific complaints is that the services in the Diocese of Alaska, as a result of Bishop Nikolaiís decrees, are joyless and tedious - exactly that that Protestant minister claimed. Indeed, Bishop Nikolaiís policies are making that man's case for him.
But there is something else that proves that man wrong in the end: the courage of Alaska's priests to speak out. From the time that I met him, it was clear that Fr Alexei Knagin (whose interview with Mike Rostad of Kodiak was published yesterday) was not a man to stand by and let the Baptists, the Salvation Army, Native New Life, or any other group prey on the Orthodox faithful. On many occasions Fr Alexei referred to the Good Shepherd, who knows His sheep and they know Him, as opposed to the other pseudo-shepherds, who are but hirelings who flee when they see the wolf coming. These priests are proving themselves to be true shepherds, not just hirelings, and that is to their eternal credit. Fr Vasily Fisher, like Fr Alexei, was from the start one who showed powerful devotion to the faith handed down to him and spirit that would not be daunted. He was not about to let make the enemy's case for him.
Likewise, Fathers Alexander and Elia Larson and all of the rest, clearly took to heart the personal lessons they learned in seminary, not just the academia. Each of these priests is proving that, in spite of Bishop Nikolaiís deadening policies, genuinely personal and invincible Faith is alive in them and among them, and actively at work. God willing, with their care, the Orthodox Faith will keep burning in the hearts and souls of the faithful; but this will happen because of their martyr-like examples, and in spite of the bishop's insistence on some arbitrary, supposedly Russian model of 'true' Orthodoxy; a model whose very authenticity is dubious, to say the least.
On the opposite side of the coin are those clergy who have become spiritually and psychologically enslaved, voluntarily or involuntarily, knowingly or unknowingly, to Bishop Nikolai. They shall go nameless. God knows who they are, and by His grace, may they soon see the terrible straits they are in, break free, and find their way Home. These men, along with Bishop Nikolai himself, need our prayers as much as, or even more than the heroes, albeit for different reasons.
Others have observed that when Bishop Nikolai was first sent to Alaska, he was greeted with open arms and with high expectations. When I moved to Alaska, I saw Bishop Nikolai as a man of vision, one who would get things done. Indeed, there are many positive accomplishments that I could point to, and this is no doubt why so many of us held out for so long, trying to ìlet it goî when the bishop was harsh with us.
Unfortunately, those positives were cancelled out as it became obvious that his harshness was not merely occasional, but rather a routine, 'equal opportunity' affair, aimed not only at inferiors, but even at his brother bishops; and it was public as well as private. More and more we saw others being hurt, not just ourselves. Those present, and they included the seminary's Board of Trustees, could hardly forget the day that Bishop Nikolai ordered Olivia Brisbane to 'leave the church' when she was actually doing him a service - passing on his sermon to her hearing-impaired brother. It is one thing to 'let it go' when it is one's own hurt, but to ignore the suffering of others is unconscionable, and that, I have no doubt, is what has led the clergy of Alaska to speak out.
Those of us who have lived under Bishop Nikolai's rule have seen the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus played out over and over again, almost literally, with Bishop Nikolai vested in robes of fine purple - not to mention gold and silver, while doing such things as scolding a priest for going to hear the last confession of a dying woman instead of attending his tea party.
Bishop Nikolai may call these priests 'dissidents' but they are only dissidents in terms of his tyranny. They are more aptly described as proponents of a vibrant, healthy, joy-filled, Orthodox Faith and Life.
With the ouster of Fr Michael Oleksa, and Cliff Argue standing down from the Board of Trustees as his term expires, two more nails have been driven into the coffin of the vision we held.*Accreditation is dead. God bless Fr John and Matushka Bee Dunlop for their twelve plus years of endurance, but they cannot do the job alone, and they are the last credible faculty left and the seminary lacks the solid Board of Trustees and financial backing that would be needed. Furthermore, it is more than amply evident that accreditation is not a priority with Bishop Nikolai, that what wants is a school where he can have the control he needs in order to train up clergy according to his own vision, not according to academic standards. God willing, one day the Board of Trustees will be reconstituted and the vision will be renewed.
In the meantime, the loss of St Herman Seminary as a blossoming undergraduate seminary should alarm all of us because it is a symptom of the wider problem we are all seeing. What will happen now? Bishop Nikolai is trying to dig in and hold his control, keeping the status quo, but the status quo is lost. One way or another, there will be change. It is now inevitable. We have reached a point of no return. The question is, what will the change be?
Whatever decisions are made, I dread to think of what the legal consequences might be with respect to church lands in Alaska - including church buildings and priestís residences. In spite of the inaction to date, I am trying to keep up hope that the Synod of Bishops will hear the pleas of the clergy and faithful of America's mother diocese and will find that they have no choice save to remove Bishop Nikolai, recognising that it is not just the welfare of the Diocese of Alaska that is at stake but the entire OCA. What moral credibility will they have if they choose to allow Bishop Nikolai to continue, or return to, his reign of terror? Although suspension while matters are investigated will be a definite step in the right direction, it will only be one step. I pray that whatever actions will have been taken on the part of the Lesser Synod by the time this reflection is published, they will be the beginning of a serious, thorough examination by the full Synod of Bishops of the enduring pattern of behaviour of Bishop Nikolai:
Repeated abuse of clergy and laity in one form or another over the course of a number of years
Continuing acts of retaliation even when faced with a federal lawsuit for retaliatory discrimination
Balking and minimising the problem when the Primate suggests that he voluntarily take a leave of absence, an option far short of being suspended
Serving with a Reader convicted of sex offences only days after he supposedly concurs with the suspension later and subsequently states to the press that he makes no apologies for having tonsured the Reader.
What do these publicly documented facts suggest?
Would he simply stop when slapped on the wrist?
To believe that would be akin to Neville Chamberlain's belief that Hitler would stop his aggression with the Sudetenland. For the sake of the faithful of Alaska, and for the sake of the continuity of the Orthodox Church in America, our hierarchs must resolve to take action to bring about a permanent solution that will bring healing to the Diocese of Alaska, and, by extension, at least some healing to the OCA as a whole.
Subdeacon Mark Harrison is a Former Librarian and Instructor at St Herman Seminary
* Since this article was written on Sunday, March 2nd, Ms. Margaret Pysarchuk and Fr. Philip Alexie have both resigned from the Board of Trustees of St. Herman's Seminary.