A Time to Give Thanks
by Fr. Michael Oleksa, Anchorage Alaska
For several months in 2008 the Diocese of Alaska became the focus of controversy, conflict and crisis, summoning hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Orthodox Christians across the continent and around the world to prayerful concern and action. That crisis has been resolved, not without trauma and tribulation, in a way that restored Alaska to peace and harmony.
We should all give thanks to God, and thank God for each other. No one accomplished this alone. The problems in Alaska were discussed, debated and ultimately decided by the entire Church in a way that could only be attributed to the Holy Spirit guiding and acting through all Her members.
Let Us Recall
The crisis erupted when one deacon was unfairly suspended and threatened with further disciplinary action. For speaking a simple truth to his bishop, the man was facing permanent removal from his ministry. Alerted tot this injustice, a few scattered priests decided to appeal to the Holy Synod on behalf of this man. When their letters were published on the web, they faced probable suspension themselves. But before this could occur, a larger group of Alaskan clergy, an entire deanery, wrote their own appeal to the Holy Synod. The numbers were still small, growing from one to three to seven. This was enough, however, to attract the attention of the entire Church.
Faced with the probable retaliation from their bishop, these clergy braced for the worst, remaining in constant contact, again using the web, to assure each other of their love and support. Their motto became “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” The Prebyterium was reborn.
Clergy across the USA and Canada, and even from abroad, offered their support. Hundreds of emails and letters, telephone calls and faxes arrived in support of the Alaskan clergy. The parishioners in most of the Alaskan churches stood in solidarity with their pastors, encouraging them and taking even firmer stands against what became identified as racism, “russification” and injustice. Learning that some parish clergy might be dismissed from their positions, priests in Finland offered to collect funds internationally to support any who suffered financial hardship because of their courage. Clergy and laity across America began insisting to their diocesan hierarchs that they intervene.
And they did.
To be sure, the path was not smooth or direct. The bishops wavered in their resolve at one point, but the clergy and laity from across the entire country, with the unanimous support of the Metropolitan Council, convinced them to reconsider. Neither one nor many nor all the priests together resolved this crisis. Neither one nor many nor all the laity together resolved this crisis. Neither one nor many but all the bishops together finally resolved this crisis, but not without the insistence and support of the clergy and laity. It was the Church, acting with “one heart and one mind,” speaking with “one voice” that intervened and ended the intolerable situation in Alaska. No human being, no single individual or group, engineered this. We have witnessed in the Alaska Crisis of 2008 the action of the Holy Spirit in true conciliarity, inspiring, enlightening, guiding and energizing the entire Church.
God Is With Us!
Here is the paradigm for future action. We must restore not only the structures but the spirit of Conciliarity across the Church, at all levels, parish, diocesan and national. We must seek the Will of God, not through procedures nearly so much as through people. The attempt to deflect criticism and avoid intervention in Alaska relied legalistically on supposed “canonical precedents.” Our Autocephaly allows the Holy Synod of our Church to act in the best interests of the Church, regardless of whatever the Church at another time and in another place has decided. We are not bound by “canonical precedents” set in fifth century Byzantium or seventeenth century Russia. We are free to act according to the needs of our own Church, here and now, to preserve and defend the essential doctrines and dynamics of the Orthodox Faith.
The problem was not about procedures, but people, people loving people. And when the Law of Love is violated, no “canonical procedures” can justify the continued violation of that Law. The “Alaskan Crisis” was about love. The canonical principle that arose from it had been obvious but never before articulated in the life of the Church: A bishop should love his people and the people should love their bishop.
We need only to recall the wonderful passage in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, to justify all that occurred during the “Alaskan Crisis.” Therein lay, as they say, the bottom line. “If I have not love, I am nothing.” Speak in tongues, perform miracles, give all your property to the poor, raise the dead and without love, all the “canonical procedures” become meaningless, pointless. All the ceremonies, rituals, vestments, miters and thrones lose their value, and in fact, condemn us in our hypocrisy.
The “Alaskan Crisis” has reminded us of these essentials.
And for all this, we should rejoice and give thanks, to God and to each other. The one deacon, the three and then seven priests, the outcry of the laity, all this would have been ineffective in themselves without the encouragement and prayerful support of the entire Church. Had we not been autocephalous, the crisis could not have been resolved as it was, for even our bishops collectively would not have had the authority to intervene. The whole case would have been referred abroad to a synod that had little or no knowledge or empathy with the Alaskans. Thank God for Autocephaly! It is still His Gift to us, to the Orthodox Christians in North America, and to all the people of this continent.
The “Alaskan Crisis,” it seems to me, in retrospect, should inspire and energize us as we approach the coming All American Council. God has reminded us that He continues to be with us, continues to guide and protect us, to grant us His Wisdom, emboldening us to speak the Truth in love to each other for the good of the whole Church. We can, when the Holy Spirit acts in and through us, speak with one heart and one mind and one voice, when we are not seeking our own will, advancing our own agenda, seeking our own advantage, but working conscientiously for the well-being and building-up of the Church. And we have been given the freedom, and therefore the responsibility, to do exactly that, not for ourselves alone, but the renewal, the sanctification and salvation of this land and all its people.
Let us give thanks to God for the “Alaskan Crisis,” and learn its lessons, prayerfully preparing to gather as the Church in America, seeking a unity of mind, precisely as the Autocephalous Church, following the pattern and learning from the experience of these last five months, confident that as the Holy Spirit has guided us in the past, God will continue to bless and inspire us now and into the future. Perhaps we have lost our way, forgotten our identity, been distracted from our mission. It is time to find our way, reaffirm our identity and resume our mission, not just for our own salvation, but the salvation of this land and all its people.
Let Pittsburgh be the place where we rediscover and reaffirm who we are, why we are here and where we are going. We are not a colony of a foreign church, seeking to duplicate here what the Mother Church elsewhere can do much better at home. We are not an ethnic club, seeking to preserve Old World customs, languages or cuisines. We are not in exile from somewhere else, a Diaspora that needs direction from a distant homeland.
We are Orthodox Christians in America, convinced that America needs Orthodoxy as the fullness of her Christian vocation, that without Orthodoxy, American Christianity and America herself will remain unfulfilled, and the world, the whole planet will suffer from America’s spiritual deficiencies and “incompleteness.” Do you what to be “whole,” the Lord asked the paralytic. We must address this same question to our country, and offer them the completeness, the wholeness of the Orthodox Faith, not to preserve any ethnic heritage, not to replicate an ancient but alien cultural tradition, but to save this country from its own blindness, to raise it up from its own weakness and paralysis, to make America “all that it can be,” sanctified by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in His Holy Church.
We are few. We are poor. We are divided. But so were the Twelve Apostles. We have much work to do. But let us start in the love that binds us together: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.”
To the extent that we are not fully united in that faith and love, let us repent. And to the extent that we are bound already together in that faith and in that love, as the “Alaskan Crisis” has revealed that we can be, let us give thanks.