June 22, 2006
Much is being said in the course of the present discussion on this site and elsewhere about the crisis of our autocephaly. A widespread concern is that since we appear to be unable to govern ourselves in a responsible manner, which is becoming more and more apparent as the reports of the proceedings of our governing bodies are made available, we are therefore only pretending to be a truly autocephalous Church. But is it just our failing structure that is a problem?
It has become painfully obvious that our accounting crisis is but a symptom of a much more serious disease. No longer can we ignore the feeling that we are failing as a Church on a major scale. The OCA of the 1970s was a Church with a vision. Its unique position among the Orthodox Churches as a Church unencumbered by either state allegiance or state persecution, its multi-ethnicity, its unprecedented in recent history wealth of theological thought, all appeared to give it potential to lead a renaissance of the Orthodox faith. For the first time in centuries, building upon the legacy of the All-Russian Council of 1917/18 the Orthodox Church in the person of the OCA was taking on matters of great ecclesiological importance. Restoration of liturgical dialogue and true Eucharistic communion between clergy and laity, expansion of the ministries of laity and women, ecumenical dialogue, etc., - all that has been on the table and in the works. Almost 40 years later, what have we become? What do we see when we look in the mirror?
In the course of the last several months we have asked for, and we are beginning to receive greater transparency. As could be expected, the emerging truth is in no way comforting. Various reports, among them the minutes of the session of the Holy Synod and the addresses of the Metropolitan and Acting Treasurer are being officially published. Sadly, what they show, first and foremost, albeit in different forms, is the division of our body and the contempt of our hierarchs for the faithful.
In the minutes of the Synod, “business as usual” reporting is in the language and style that reminds those of us of the Soviet background of the “Pravda” newspaper’s reporting of the Plenary Sessions of the Communist Party.
We are also continually being chastised for our apparently inappropriate and overreaching curiosity. The minutes record displeasure expressed by one of the bishops about the “negative character of the internet information” without specifying which particular internet postings are being criticized, thereby creating an impression that it is the circulation of information itself that is a problem. And, fresh off the press, Metropolitan Herman in his address to the Metropolitan Council refers to the “web sites of questionable nature” and scorns “the right to know”, “freedom of information” and, of course, that accursed word “democracy”. Certainly the Church is neither a democracy nor autocracy. It is hierarchal AND counciliar, and rather than one side excluding the other both are dependent on each other.
Unfortunately, this attitude of contempt is deeply rooted in our traditional Orthodox culture. The widespread apathy of the faithful as well as the guarded attitude of many clergy appear to be the direct result of what may be one of the greatest chronic ailments of the Orthodox Church – the centuries-long traditional separation of clergy and laity. That separation, greatly enhanced and emphasized by the physical barrier between the nave and the altar, and the transformation of the liturgy from a live dialogue into the de-facto parallel “clergy” and “laity” liturgies, has served to create a culture whereupon the Orthodox faithful are brought up to believe that the laity have no place in the “higher” dealings of the Church, and that the clergy operates on a different plane of existence. I grew up in Russia, where this culture in the Church remains to this day virtually unchallenged. Respect for the cloth has with time morphed into idolization of the clothed, and the faith in the reality of operation of the Holy Spirit in liturgical practice has become equated with the faith in the infallibility of the clergy.
Yet in contrast my experience in the OCA has led me to believe that by and large our Church, building on the energy of the Orthodox renaissance that after the Council of 1917/18 had made its way into Western Europe and North America, managed to foster true ecclesiastical communion of all its members - clergy and laity, Jew and Gentile. It also seemed to me that our ecclesiology had restored the harmony of its hierarchal and counciliar sides working in communion rather than in opposition. Hence it could be expected in such a Church that our respect for our hierarchs would be based on love and trust as St. Paul described to the Ephesians, akin to that of the early Church in the teachings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, where the unity of the bishop with his flock is in essence the manifestation of the unity of Christ with the Church as His Body.
Unfortunately that trust must be greatly damaged if, instead of rejoicing in the Metropolitan’s strong emphasis on his Primatial responsibilities and in effect a repeated promise “to take care of things”, there is a feeling of primarily being told to “shut up and stop meddling.” The Metropolitan appears to address the division among the members of the Holy Synod, yet the emphasis again is on the dissemination of information being the greater evil than the reported evil – the division in the body of the Church - itself. Once again we are reminded of obedience to the hierarchal structure of our Church (notably without as much as a reference to its counciliar side), as opposed to the “by the people and for the people” principle of a democratic state, and both the Metropolitan’s and Fr. Kucynda’s addresses in many instances appear patronizing and even threatening.
Altogether, the reaction of our governing body seems to follow closely in the footsteps of the Roman Church of the recent past, where the hierarchy labored hard to instill in its community the idea that exposing sin would do greater damage than the sin itself, and that obedience was supposed to be absolute. Yet were we not commanded to “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11), and told that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15)?
I would like to pause on the last quotation from St. Paul. Did we somehow manage to forget that the Church is based first and foremost on love? Its hierarchal structure as well as its counciliar nature have love as their foundation – firstly, love of God for His creature, secondly, creature’s love for God the Creator, and thirdly, mutual love of creatures as images of God, love as Light original and love as light reflected. “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son…”, and Peter confessed by love, and Paul knew that without love, we are nothing and may as well not be. True obedience as well as true governance are only possible through love, as anyone with a simple experience of a happy family life would ascertain.
Without true, Christian love the Church becomes just another institution, obedience turns into slavery, and governance becomes dictatorship. No beautiful words, no aesthetic and sensual pleasures of beautiful rites will mask the emptiness of the house without love. We may be frightened into submission or disciplined into silence, but we will then cease to be the Church – for the time being, at least…