Bishop of Alaska, Chancellor
Decry Internet, “Enemies”
In separate addresses to the Alaskan Diocesan Assembly, held November 13-15 in Anchorage, Bishop Nikolai and his Chancellor, Archimandrite Isidore (Brittain), spoke more of themselves than of events in the Diocese. Railing against all those who have raised questions about their decisions or actions as “malefactors” and “enemies” who are “anti-Church”, both men offered explanations for the events of the last six months in what they complain is becoming an “anti-religious soap opera”. The Bishop cited his authority for his decisions - the Archimandrite blamed his alcoholism.
The Bishop Speaks
Bishop Nikolai began his speech by “acknowledging before you that the darkest days of my life were
experienced this last summer.” The Bishop blamed “unfounded accusations made against me and my
Chancellor and, indeed, the entire Diocese, distracted from the work that we are called to accomplish on behalf of God’s people in this corner of His Vineyard.”
In fact, the accusations were hardly “unfounded”. Paul Sidebottom’s allegations against the Chancellor have
been corroborated by multiple witnesses. The allegations made against the Bishop, on the other hand, were made by the Chancellor himself. (Read that story here.) Fr. Isidore , in fact, has never stated he did not make the allegations reported by Paul Sidebottom, only that, having been drunk, he was not responsible for making them. To claim as the Bishop does that the allegations were “unfounded”, therefore, is simply incorrect in regards to the Chancellor, and misleading concerning those made against himself.
The Bishop continued: “Much of this unfortunate situation was played out on the internet. Unfortunately, the internet, which can be used to accomplish so much good in our working for the Kingdom, has become a forum for all types of personal attacks and anti-Church propaganda, and has attempted to make the Church’s life and struggles into some type of anti-religious soap opera.”
Once again, the Bishop misleads. The accurate reporting of serious allegations made against the Chancellor and the Bishop in multiple official letters, by various authors, and the posting of those full, unedited documents is hardly a “personal attack”. Nor did Paul Sidebottom, Fr. John Dunlop, or Ben Ardinger personally attack the Bishop, or Archimandrite Isidore in either of their letters. (You can read their letters here) Finally, the reporting of an official Church investigation into the Chancellor’s activities can hardly be “anti-church propaganda” - unless of course one presupposes that any investigation into alleged misbehavior on the part of clergy is “ anti-Church”.
The Bishop continued:
“There were certainly many persons, maybe even some of you, who read the harmful and hurtful things being
said about me or Archimandrite Isidore or the God-loving clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Alaska.“
Here, too, the Bishops misleads. In no instance in any of the above stories were “hurtful” or “harmful” things
said about the “God-loving clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Alaska”. The allegations were reported against two men only - the Bishop and his Chancellor. Technically, one could point out that both are clergy in the Diocese. But it is the Bishop himself who distinguishes Archimandrite Isidore and himself from the rest of the clergy in the sentence. So to suggest, that the "clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Alaska" as a whole were in any way under question, is misleading. To identify himself as the Diocese, to conflate himself with all the clergy and faithful of Alaska is an old rhetorical trick.
He then makes an even more startling conflation: “Maybe some of you even chose to accept what you read as the truth. And the True Word of God was forgotten in the process”.
If this is the case, it is no wonder, therefore, that he liken those who question him as followers of Satan.
Or, in his own words:
“Fortunately the darkness of those days has passed and the light has again shown. Those very difficult days have passed but the workings of the evil one and those who choose to follow him still continue; the dark forces
of pride, envy and injury are still at work in the world. What can we do in the face of such dark powers? We
must be willing to gird ourselves in this battle and while we do so we must acknowledge that temptations will
always be placed before us. The evil one will always be at work to destroy. And there are those who will
choose for evil and there are those for whom sin is a conscious choice and way of life. But God’s mercy is
greater than the power of evil and the doors of repentance are open to all.”
Having conflated unquestioned obedience to Bishop Nikolai with the “True Word of God”, and questioning of any of his actions (or his subordinates in this case) with “the work of dark powers”, any dissent becomes a sinful “conscious choice” for “evil”. In this context the Bishop’s oft-reported demands for written letters of apology expressing “repentance” from those with whom he has become angry becomes clearer. It is a visible sign that they are no longer chosing “sin”.
The Bishop continued:
“Our Orthodox Church in America is plagued with this, too, and Alaska continues to be the target of those
malefactors wanting to destroy the good work which the Lord has blessed us to accomplish here instead of
continuing to build for God’s glory. “
Few escape the Bishop’s charge of sinful actions. Apparently, all those who have criticized the OCA or its hierarchs during the scandal these past two years are “malefactors”. Even more surprising is the claim that the OCA scandal is really all about Alaska.
The Bishop makes this clearer as he continued:
“The Church in this land was established through the sacrifice and suffering and commitment of those who have gone before us and has even been sealed by the blood of martyrs through their martyric deaths. Today we are called to do the same. We are called to sacrifice, making holy what God has given us. We are also called to die to ourselves and to root out our pride, envy and self righteousness. I ask forgiveness and apologize that you have become victims in this battle against me and my very episcopate.“
In a few sentences the Bishop has distilled the scandal that “plagues” the OCA of which Alaska is a part, into
a battle against Alaska, its clergy and faithful alone; and then redistilling it , yet again, as a “battle against me and my very episcopate." Alaska may be the largest state in the Union - but the world is clearly getting smaller for Bishop Nikolai. It is “us” versus “them”; and “us” narrows daily. In the end, there is not even an “us”, it seems. There is only the Bishop. It is a very unique ecclesiology, and even more unique psychology.
Here I Stand
That being said, the Bishop apologizes for nothing he has done. He stands firm as he has in the past, confident
in all his actions in the past two years: seizing the OCA’s Alaskan Lands, seizing the late Lydia Black's archives for his own museum, publicly criticizing Metropolitan Herman for terminating the former Chancellor Robert Kondratick, firing Mark Harrison for writing on the internet, firing Paul Sidebottom after he made charges of sexual harassment against +Nikolai’s Chancellor, dismissing Ben Ardinger for questioning the Sidebottom dismissal, refusing, along among the Bishops, to sign Best Practices.... The list goes on.
So the Bishop continued:
“But I also ask you to understand that I will not change my direction in keeping this land Orthodox and in
maintaining our Orthodox Faith, Life, and Traditions as we have received them from those who have gone
before us. Neither will I compromise in dealing with those who are working against us in preserving our
heritage and maintaining this vision. It was Almighty God, speaking through His Church who placed me here as your Spiritual Father and Archpastor. I take this very seriously and will until my last breath.
While to some I may be a symbol of controversy, to most I am the symbol of our faith as it stands true to how we are called to live it and make it more present, more visible to the world. Believe me when I say that I am very clear about Who is in charge of this church –
Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ!”
The Bishop is certainly a symbol of controversy to some - but the claim that “for most I am a symbol of our faith” is surely debatable outside of Alaska. Not that a poll on the subject would matter. The Bishop has made it very clear, as if any doubted, that he speaks with the authority of Almighty God. And as the Bishop further makes clear in his subsequent remarks, it is only what it is in his mind that matters. Even as he describes the ”darkness” of the past months he makes it clear he is “chosen”. He continues:
“During the dark days of the recent months, one morning I opened the newspaper and read an article about Mother Theresa and her own days of spiritual darkness. It was a consolation to me and from these deep and dark days I came to a closer relationship with Almighty God through the intercessions of His Holy Mother, something that I had fallen from because I was too busy. There is never so little time as there is for more prayer and time with Him and those whom He has chosen. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. And there is nothing like darkness to bring us to our knees."
+Nikolai on Isidore
Having presented to the Assembly an icon of himself as martyr, praying on his knees, the Bishop then rises to defend his Chancellor, Archimandrite Isidore, whose life, the Bishop decries, has been “smudged with rumor, hearsay, innuendo and destruction.” He continued:
“I thank Almighty God for the return home of my Chancellor, the Archimandrite Isidore. His life has been be smudged with rumor, hearsay, innuendo and destruction. There were times in the last six months that I feared for him because of the direction that some were taking to destroy him. The only sin he committed was asking for help as he faced his own personal darkness and expecting to be treated honorably by others within the Church. However, our Church did not act honorably toward him; this included some bishops of the Church. Even some of you did not act honorably toward him and treat him with the dignity, respect, and the love that he has shown to so many of you in times of your own personal difficulties. Some were willing to stand in glass houses and cast stones; not even simply a first stone, but even a second. Who would be left in our Church if we discarded everyone who sinned? "
This is absurd. In fact, there have been no rumors. Accusations against the Archimandrite were made in an
official letter to the Metropolitan, a letter which was subsequently published on this website after the Synod, at the urging of Bishop Nikolai, failed to launch an investigation as was required by the OCA’s own standards. If any Bishop failed to act honorably it was +Nikolai by excusing the alleged bad behavior of his
Chancellor for more than a year. It was certainly not those who attempted to act honorably by invoking the Standards for Sexual Misconduct the OCA adopted years ago.
Despite +Nikolai's efforts to dismiss, cover-up and derail an investigation, one was launched when Sidebottom’s letter became public. An official investigation is hardly "innuendo ”, nor was it launched on the basis of “hearsay”. Sidebottom’s written allegations of public drunkenness, of inappropriate behavior before, during and after church services, have been corroborated by multiple witnesses in Kodiak. That is hardly “hearsay”.
As for “destruction”, this is where the Bishop is not just misleading, but outright lying. The OCA’s insurance has paid for much of Archimandrite Isidore's treatment for six months in a first-rate, top-notch treatment center that specializes in clergy rehabilitation. How is this “destruction?” The Church has not stripped Isidore of his priesthood, nor even suspended him, but placed him a leave of absence pending an investigation into the events that occasioned his entering into treatment. These are appropriate responses given the situation - hardly “destruction”. For the Bishop to publicly state that the Archimandrite was thus “discarded” is beyond misleading - it is just a lie, and an ungrateful one at that.
Halfway through his speech, the Bishop turns to the Diocese:
“Having spoken about the recent darkness and difficulties, I want to review the life within our Diocese that has been so blessed by God. The life of our Diocese has been extremely blessed. I am still hopeful to live and share these blessings with you for many years, by God’s grace and through your holy prayers.“
The Bishop then thanks several people individually for the work they have done for the Diocese, and outlines his plans for a pilgrimage site in the Anchorage area. He introduces his new effort to begin tithing throughout the Diocese. Finally he discusses St. Herman’s Seminary, which stands by all accounts in disarray; having recently lost most of its faculty, with only 12 students, and forced to borrow money to stay open.
+Nikolai on St. Herman's Seminary
The Bishop paints a quite different picture, though:
"A bright gem within the crown of our Diocese is St. Herman Seminary. We are blessed like no other diocese in the Orthodox Church in America to have our own seminary. A place where we can train men and women to serve the Church in Alaska .When I arrived in Alaska there were two students coming to the fall semester and I traveled with Father Isidore
to the villages and we found potential students and started that first year with ten. The faculty was sent from the diocese to teach and that is what we are doing today. The rumors and unfair criticisms of my leadership and care for the seminary are simply absurd. I have always been committed to keeping the seminary open and have from the very first day when I decided that no student would pay tuition.”
The Bishop then makes an interesting claim:
“In addition, it is the finances from friends of mine, personal contacts outside this diocese that refurbished
those buildings that were in terrible disrepair.
Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding - this was my initiative and by God’s Grace that it was achieved with workers and teams from outside the diocese, not from our own diocese and not from anyone even in Kodiak.”
In short, it was the Bishop who gathered the students and the Bishop who raised the money - and from his own friends - to repair the Seminary. It is the Bishop who teaches, the Bishops who leads St. Herman’s - not the Diocese, not even even locals in Kodiak. Others are simply there to support him. Or as he puts it:
“The entire Diocese remains grateful to those from outside who have shown themselves to be supportive of the good work we are accomplishing here for the glory of God. My thanks and gratitude is extended most particularly to the Priest John and Matushka Bea Dunlop whose hard work and commitment to the vision of the seminary kept its work going until my arrival, and to this very moment they are the mainstay of this institution."
Once again a revealing sentence. The Dunlops have worked at St. Herman’s for more than 10 years - but their purpose, as expressed by the Bishop, was to “keep it going until my arrival”. It is perhaps worth noting that it was this “mainstay” of the Seminary, to use the Bishop’s word, Fr. John Dunlop, who referred to living in the Diocese as living behind “an Iron Curtain of Fear” under Bishop Nikolai. (Read that letter here) And it was he and who corroborated the “malefactor” Paul Sidebottoms’ “innuendo” concerning Archimandrite Isidore. Not that Fr. Dunlop is in immediate danger from the Bishop for telling the truth; as the Bishop himself was forced to admit, Dunlop is the last faculty member left at the school....
The Bishop concluded by thanking others:
“I mentioned that it was several people from outside the Diocese whose work and contributions have improved to the quality of life of our students and their families and who enabled the seminary to continue even in its lowest moments, and we are indebted and grateful to all those many benefactors throughout the years who supported the seminary and who continue to do so. “
One assumes the Bishop includes Ben and Hazel Ardinger among these benefactors, whose thirty years of service and support for the students, staff and facilities at St. Hermans made Ben worthy of removal from the Seminary Board for asking a question?
(Read that story here)
The Bishop ends:
“But we must also acknowledge that we, within the Diocese, have an obligation to support our seminary.
We cannot rely on others to keep those doors open. The time has come for us to acknowledge the blessings we
have been given and to live the life we have been taught to live and to make holy what was created by God.
We must rise to the occasion, stand tall, and accept the responsibility to support the seminary and the diocese.
We will live our life according to what we receive from tithing and we will flourish.
Glory to God! “
Fr. Isidore’s Address
If the Bishop’s address was singular - singular in its continuing distortion of the facts and in its presentation of the Bishop as being the sole referent for all events in the Diocese and even the OCA scandal itself, the Chancellor's address to the Assembly by Archimandrite
Isidore was almost as strange.
The Chancellor, like the Bishop, begins with himself:
“I consider it a special blessing from God that I stand before you today. As you all are aware by now, for nearly the last six months I have been in a residential rehabilitation facility for clergy suffering from the disease of alcohol addiction. These months have been for me a life-changing process whereby I have been able to truly recognize that my condition is not unlike diabetes, or Parkinson’s or any other chronic, progressive and fatal disease. Glory to God: the good people of the facility where I have been helped me to learn how to manage my illness so that I can now return to my work with renewed vigor and dedication. I come back to you healthy, strong and ready to take on the challenges placed before me with the help of Almighty God and the support of you, my Archpastor and my Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ. Many of you may be wondering: how do we treat him now? Must we walk on eggshells in his presence for fear that we will ‘set him off’ or cause him to drink -- let me clarify for you that this is my illness and I alone am responsible for its management; You, dear brothers and sisters, have only the obligation to treat me with love and to respect my position as chancellor to His Grace, Our Bishop.”
Echoing the Bishop, the Chancellor blames Satan and the “spiritually sick” on the internet for attacking not only him, but the Bishop as well. And, following the Bishop, he identifies himself with the Diocese, conflating the two, such that he claims questions about his actions are ultimately an attempt to wage war against the Diocese and the St. Herman’s. He states:
“If any of you have followed the internet over the past months, you are aware as I that Satan has taken
advantage of my illness as an opportunity to prompt the spiritually sick to attack me in my infirmity; to use the
circumstances of my active illness as an opportunity to attack our Bishop and ultimately to wage a war against
this God-loved Diocese and our Seminary.“
The Archimandrite then offers a most strange and revealing apologia for the origins of this “war”.
“I deeply regret the circumstances of the events of May which prompted my decision to enter treatment. First, I regret from the bottom of my heart the agony of soul this situation has caused our Bishop, my spiritual father. If I could undo one thing and one thing only, it would be to undo the worry and suffering my addiction has caused you, dear Vladyka. For this, I ask your forgiveness. I also regret the worry, inconvenience and pain it caused my brother clergy: in particular Fr. Innocent Dresdow who went out of his way to care for me during that last phase of my active illness. He showed compassion without agenda. His actions prove to me the dedication with which the clergy of this diocese embrace their pastoral responsibility. It is heartbreaking for me that the last phase of my active illness became an opportunity for the powers of evil to align themselves against the church and to cause turmoil in the lives of those I truly love. “
Fr Isidore apologizes - but it is a curiously detached apology for the “circumstance of the events”, not for his
actions. The only action he apologizes for - and this “from the bottom of his heart” - is “for the agony of the
soul” he has caused the Bishop. If he “could undo one thing and one thing only” it would be to “undo the
worry and suffering his addiction has caused the Bishop.” For this, he asks the Bishop’s forgiveness. The rest, all that is recounted by Sidebottom and Fr. Dunlop, is passed over in three words: “worry, inconvenience and pain”.
He then returns to the earlier theme - that his own heart is broken that “the last phase of my active illness” became an opportunity for the “powers of evil to align themselves against the church”. Worse, it caused
“turmoil in the lives of those I truly love”. That the Chancellor is speaking of the Bishop here, there can be no doubt, for he continues:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters: You should also all understand that I did not drink to escape or cope or ease my suffering or to deal with any abuse which my enemies so ludicrously allege.”
Once again, Paul Sidebottom, the former Dean of Students at St. Herman’s, the victim of Fr. Isidore’s alleged sexual misbehavior, the man fired by Bishop Nikolai for reporting it, is a “power of evil aligned against the church”. More importantly, it is not difficult to understand now why the Archimandrite denies the allegations he made that the Bishop beat him, in light of his declaration of continuing love for the Bishop in the preceding sentence.
The Archimandrite explains it this way though:
“I drank because I had become an alcoholic. First, as a young man, I found the bottle. I found it was something that made me feel good. I continued, to differing degrees throughout my life from the age of 18 to have that bottle. Over time, however, the tables turned and eventually, the bottle had me. I lost my freedom to choose between it and God, it and those I love and it and those who love me. In the addicted, alcohol develops its own independent existence within the sufferer and begins to demand that he preserve alcohol’s existence at the cost of all else. In my life, periods of inactive or non-drinking alcoholism would be met with benders, binges and ‘sneaks’ --- one sip here, one sip there -- ever consumed between drinks for when the next would be. I would think to myself: It won’t hurt if noone notices. I am convinced that alcoholism is truly a disease which convinces
a person that he is not sick. Yet, in a moment of clarity, on the eve of the anniversary of my monastic tonsure,
God inspired me to reach out to Him, to admit my powerlessness and to ask my spiritual father for help -- a help he gladly gave."
The Chancellor continues:
“I am not sharing this synopsis of my illness to entice you to commiseration, rather, I come before you to make sure that you all know that there is no shame in repentance. The only shame in illness comes when we refuse the help offered to us, when we refuse to allow the hand of the divine physician to work for the betterment of our soul and body, when we refuse the support of those whom the Lord places before us to bring us to a life promised by him. Jesus Christ tells us that he came to give us “Life more abundantly.” Repeatedly our Lord expresses a central truth -- that we are healed from our infirmities by faith, not only our own faith, but the faith of the church as well. Think of the woman suffering the hemorrhage. Think of Jairus’ daughter. Our Lord, faced with all manner of sin and disease, makes it very clear, when he says to the woman who was caught in sin “neither do I condemn you” that the key to our forgiveness and healing by the Lord is the repentance that comes from our hearts and a decision to place our will and our life into His divine care.
Indeed, why share all of this with you? I want you to know, those of us who sit up here know what kind of
suffering alcoholism causes in the lives of our people, because it has touched our life too. I know what each of you who suffer this illness goes through. And although Vladyka has much experience with alcoholism among the children of his diocese, both laymen and clerics, he also knows the intimate pain of having such a disease under one’s own roof and the powerlessness one feels to help when faced with such tragedy. My brothers and sisters: I want you to know that you don’t have to hide, you don’t have to avoid help, you don’t have to suffer -- there is a way out from the darkness of this illness and though that way out is initially paved with pain and difficulty, particularly as we deal with this regrettable consequences of our illness, the Lord promises that those who rely on him and trust him will have life and have it more abundantly. Believe the Savior’s promises!
Abandon yourself to Him, accept your powerlessness to this malady and reach out to us for help. Encourage
your faithful to do the same. No one is beyond helping -- no one is unsalvageable."
The Chancellor then turns to the Diocese:
I would like now to move to the subject of the Diocese. As you heard from His Grace, this year of 2007 has been a truly difficult one. We in the administration have all suffered both as a result of my illness and absence,
but in no way would I ever suggest that I was indispensable for the Diocese -- God doesn’t need any of us in order to make the Church thrive. Yet, my rehabilitation and return promise that my renewed strength can be channeled into my work with increased dedication.
The Chancellor then discusses various ways to improve communication in the diocese. The Chancellor did reveal one significant change, though, that will be taking place:
“As you may be aware, His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI has suggested that I move my office from the residence to our diocesan property at A Street where a comfortable office has been set up for me. There are numerous advantages to this: it will give the diocese more visibility and will make it easier for me to conduct diocesan business and coordinate meetings. It will allow me to help in the oversight of the Diocesan Museum and Holy Trinity Chapel. It will also allow me easy access to the downtown venues to participate in activities in the community for which an Orthodox presence is needed. I want to make very clear to you, brothers and sisters, my illness and the subsequent treatment for it, has not left me in shame or wanting to hide my head, rather it has left me with a burning in my heart with gratitude to our Lord and a desire to tell the whole world what good things God has done for me.“
The Diocese of Alaska Assembly concluded November 15th. Transcripts of the complete texts both the Bishop’s address and the address of the Chancellor may be found here:
The Assembly of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania Assembly meets this Friday and Saturday, November 16-17th.
- Mark Stokoe