Dr Meyendorff’s Proposal:
Is it enough?
by Archpriest John M. Reeves
State College, PA
“But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, … without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, … headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tm 3:1-5a)
The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America is perceived by many to be both morally bankrupt as well as functionally inept. Recently, Dr Paul Meyendorff suggested in a letter to the Pre-conciliar Commission (Read it here) that the entire Holy Synod should stand down en masse at the forthcoming All America Council. Diocese by diocese would be charged to vote for its particular bishop, whether or not to re-affirm him in office. He cites historical precedent for this having happened in the past, specifically at the All Russia Sobor in 1917-18. He believes that such an action “may now be the only way to restore integrity and trust.”
His is an intriguing suggestion in theory. Arguably, there would be statutory and canonical issues attendant upon implementing it. There would be institutional resistance, of course. However, that such a suggestion would be proffered by one of the OCA’s eminent minds demonstrates the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves as the Orthodox Church in America. Dr Meyendorff believes that such “steps will give us the opportunity to start with a clean slate.” His boldness is a welcome addition to the dialogue.
En masse resignations would be a powerful opportunity to begin anew. By so doing the bishops could, indeed, acknowledge in humility “their individual and corporate responsibility and guilt for what has happened on their watch.” It would be a good place to start: To acknowledge individual and corporate responsibility and guilt. However, without purposing repentance, it would only be a start. Confession requires repentance. Repentance requires a change in behavior. Without repentance, a confession is only an admission of guilt.
So, with respect, I would disagree with Dr Meyendorff’s proposal that individual bishops once having stood down from office might be afforded the possibility of “(re)-election”. A majority of reigning bishops served during most, if not all, of the “Kondratick-years,” 1987-2005. Most turned their heads, or averted their eyes, or closed their ears, or simply fell asleep, as far as we can tell, until one bishop, Archbishop Job, began to articulate, and then to importune, a simple question: Are the allegations true or are they false?
One bishop, at times alone, it seems, has been willing to stand against the rest of the Synod, imploring an answer. Still now, two-and-one-half years after the public revelation of the “original” scandal, the Holy Synod still appears reticent to act unless forced by the extent of publicity and/or the threat of litigation. Change for the better can come only when the entire culture of the OCA, including that of the Holy Synod, is changed. That must be the ultimate goal, not merely a clean slate, but a new slate.
What purpose would it serve now to re-elect, to re-confirm any bishop who was party to the Holy Synod’s culture of abdication of its collegial duty to rule well over the household of God? It would negate any possibility of a change for the better. It presumes a degree of willingness to change and an ability to function not warranted by past actions.
Should en masse resignations of the bishop happen, a minimum quorum of three bishops could be retained temporarily to serve as a provisional Synod. They would have to be those reigning bishops with the shortest tenure and consequently those least implicated in the abdication of their collective duties. They could preside over the reconstitution of the Holy Synod as new bishops were elected. Then they, too, should retire. Only then might the Church consider electing a new Metropolitan. Suffice it to say, there is scant prospect for this to happen.
Should resignations not prove forthcoming by November, the dioceses will bear responsibility before God, one by one, to seek to elect honorable men to fill episcopal vacancies as they occur. The bishops have not been the only ones in the Church to have abdicated responsibility. Local dioceses must accept their share of the blame. There is plenty to go around. Only with the passage of time, along with the evidence of mortality, might needed cultural change in the Synod be effected, diocese by diocese, bishop by bishop.
Thus, the culture of local dioceses must be transformed as well as that of the Holy Synod. Faithfully and in the fear of God, candidates must be scrutinized as if the salvation of souls in each diocese truly depended on it. Bishops answer before God’s throne for those whom they have offended and scandalized from the Gospel (Hb 13:17). Yet so must the dioceses answer for the men whom they elect as shepherds over them.
Certainly, the old culture of pre-selecting individuals for “consideration” by the dioceses will die hard. Old preferences in some quarters for bishops who are “controllable” will linger. Lists of “acceptable” candidates for election will still be circulated in an attempt to have more of the same. “Controllable” by whom and “acceptable” to whom, one wonders. It will be incumbent upon local dioceses to refuse to acquiesce to the old system, assuming greater responsibility in the selection process and consequently for a sorely needed cultural shift in the OCA as a whole.
The diocese is that locus where the people of God are the sine qua non of the Church catholic: not a bishop alone or the faithful alone, but a bishop surrounded by the faithful in Eucharistic life. This is where there must be the ultimate catalyst for change. This is where there is the greatest likelihood for change to take place.
While it might seem a novel thought, perhaps we should turn to the Scriptures themselves for guidance in this matter. One needs look no further than the writings of St Paul. Truly, this should be the authoritative guide for dioceses to begin transforming the culture of the OCA.
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (I Tm 3:1 ff)
In a single word, a bishop is to be blameless, above reproach in every aspect of his life. He is to be unimpeachable, evidenced by his behavior in his home, in the Church, and in the public’s estimation of him.
St John Chrysostom commented:
“Every virtue is implied in this word (blameless); so that if any one be conscious to himself of any sins, he doth not well to desire an office for which his own actions have disqualified him. For such an one ought to be ruled, and not to rule others…” (Homily X, On Timothy, emphasis added)
Some might protest that the Scriptures require too much of a bishop. Yet, these requirements are incumbent upon our presbyters as well. (Cf Titus 1) And it will require bishops (and presbyters) who are irreproachable, inculpable, exemplary to transform the whole culture of the OCA. It will not come about by maintaining lower standards. (We have been there and done that.) This is something which the Apostle expounds upon, specifically, as follows.
Bishops must be moral sexually:
The specific scriptural reference to good morals is that a bishop is to be the “husband of one wife”. Explicit in the apostles’ practice was that the shepherds of the churches were to be above reproach in terms of sexual morality. They thereby would be models to their flocks. (Implicit was that the bishops were monogamous heterosexuals.)
Absent enough monastic communities in America to form many men monastically for the episcopate, it might be wiser for us to select primarily widowers as bishops. This would not obviate every problem, but it certainly would cut down on some of the more flagrant ones.
(It is not the purpose of this article to argue for restoration of the married episcopate, if only for the impracticability (and improbability) of its restoration in the short run.)
Bishops must be temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable:
This speaks collectively about a bishop’s emotional and mental well-being. Psychological assessments are available to help in the Church’s process of discernment for all members of the clergy. Psychological evaluations of future seminarians have now been mandated by the Holy Synod. Future candidates for the episcopate need to undergo the same scrutiny.
Bishops must be able to teach:
The chief obligation of Orthodox bishops is to teach and defend the faith. This is without dispute. On the one hand, ability to teach is not necessarily dependent upon or even evidenced by degrees earned. Yet, higher clergy must have higher educations, whether possessing terminal degrees or not. Advanced theological training of potential candidates for the episcopate must be required, not merely “recommended”. Our standing in world Orthodoxy is otherwise compromised.
Bishops must not be addicted to alcohol:
Families dealing with alcohol and/or chemical dependency, and the behaviors which may accompany it—deceit, denial, co-dependency, manipulation, rage, abuse, to name a few--are dysfunctional families to lesser and greater degrees. The Church family is not, somehow, magically exempt from this effect when spiritual parents are alcoholics or otherwise chemically dependent.
“Christian compassion” should not be misused or misconstrued when selecting individuals to oversee the Church. It should not cloud judgment about the lack of fitness in Church leadership for those suffering from any type of chemical or alcohol dependency. Addiction, quite bluntly, is an impediment to ordination, both scripturally and practically.
Bishops must not be prone to anger:
St Paul says specifically that “no striker” should be considered for the episcopate, that bishops not be prone to anger. Obviously, alcohol dependency and violent outbursts, even physical violence, can go hand in hand. But violent, excessive anger can stand alone. Overall restraint and emotional stability is required for anyone who would lead another to Christ, much less lead the Church. This complements temperance and good mental health noted above.
Bishops must not be lovers of money:
“Lifestyle issues” do not revolve merely around sexual appetites. As the Apostle warned St Timothy, it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, (not sex). (I Tm 6:10) So, flamboyance among any of the clergy is reason for great sadness. Modest behavior and modest lifestyles must be expected of the ordained. Fondness for banqueting and being feted, for personal possessions, or for rank and prestige are but indicators of hirelings. True shepherds live in the fields with their flocks. They know that they depend upon their sheep as much as their sheep depend upon them.
Bishops must manage well:
Equally important to St Paul was the bishop’s ability to manage his personal affairs in his own household. In short, how was his family “turning out”? If he could not make Christians at home, he should not be expected to make them any where else.
No one should deny that administrative ability is requisite for those who head dioceses, the bishop’s household writ large. Numerous canons about the administrative responsibilities of bishops underscore the need to select those who “manage well.” To do otherwise is to opt for more mismanagement by default at the very least.
Bishops must not be novices:
St Paul speaks of a prohibition of “novices” though he does not mean “youth” per se. He prohibits the selection of “neophytes,” the choice of unbaptized St Ambrose later on not withstanding. The point is this: Bishops must have proved themselves previously: capable presbyters, ministering well over local communities. Such wisdom, and consequent humility, takes time, usually much time to acquire.
Bishops must have a good testimony outside the Church:
In short, we, too, need to select bishops whom those in the world know to be moral, to be upstanding, in a word, to be “Christians.” Chrysostom noted that the Apostles and the martyrs gave no cause for public scandal or arrest because of personal conduct. The content of their preaching got them arrested, not their deeds. Proclaiming the Gospel got them notoriety, not vice; and even the heathen knew it. (Chrysostom, Op cit.; Cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp ) Our needs are no less great.
One is hard pressed to argue that any one of the above qualifications is dispensable. These, indeed, are minimums, bare minimums, but they are God’s minimums. We must settle for nothing less. We ignore them to our own peril. We observe for ourselves the result when we do.
Finally, St Paul warned St Timothy of the danger of having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Tm 3:5a) Can we not say that we find ourselves in such a situation at present? Having had a form of godliness as the autocephalous OCA, we certainly have denied that power. We have sought form over substance and appearance over content. We have wanted acceptance before man rather than blamelessness before God. In the long run we have demonstrated our inability, our failure to govern ourselves. We find ourselves bankrupt spiritually. Having had a reputation that we are alive, we are about to die. Will we repent? (Cf Rev. 3:1-3)
For the OCA to become whatever it is that God intends for it to be, our bishops must be reflective of a new mind, of a new vision, of a new and upright Spirit in the Church in America. In a word, they all must be blameless. They all must be holy. Whether by mass resignations or by attrition, our work is cut for us. Our culture must be changed. But it will only be changed at the top once we have begun those changes from the bottom up. Demanding holiness of ourselves first, let our work begin in earnest.
These are perilous times, indeed.
(Fr. John Reeves is pastor of Holy Trinity Church in State College, PA, a member of the Metropolitan Council, and a former member of the Special Commission.)