May 11, 2006
The Orthodox Church is known to boast about the sensual beauty of its worship. All the elements of creation are forged into a divine and human ensemble which proclaims and reveals the Kingdom of new life. Who, especially among the Orthodox, can imagine Dostoyevsky’s words, “beauty will save the world”, not being somehow inspired by the transfiguring epiphany of liturgical beauty?
Given the inherent beauty of liturgical worship, what is to be said about the temptation to use beauty as a veil for sin and corruption? For six months there has been a justified and relentless call to probe into the allegations of financial malfeasance. The Orthodox Church in America is beginning to unravel a large and tight knot in which bishops, priests and laity are being seen as party to duplicity, deception and outright hypocrisy. Whether we are aware or not, all of this has an adverse impact on our worship.
All the words and texts that have been cleverly used to raise money for the Church have the liturgy as their context. “Accountability” and “Responsibility” have, over the years, become the key words and concepts for promoting a healthy approach to “Stewardship” and “Fair Share Giving”. Repeatedly we have heard from hierarchs, priests and laity that the giving of resources, including money, is biblically and liturgically based. It has rightly been stressed that the giving, offering and handling of money is a liturgical act. However, as the probe into possible financial malfeasance continues, many still are of the opinion that the problem is nothing more than poor bookkeeping. If this is indeed the case, how have the bishops together with the priests and laity of the Metropolitan Council allowed poor bookkeeping to go on for years, resulting in missing records detailing large cash disbursements, untraceable bank accounts and lost bequests? What does this say about the accuracy of reports presented at past All American Councils? This laissez-faire approach to the stewardship of money indicates how insensitive we have become when handling what belongs to God.
Behind the beauty of the liturgy lurks the temptation of worldly power. Moreover, once it is discovered that the liturgy can be used to generate money, its beauty can be used to seduce the unwary. When liturgical beauty is exploited in this way, then the Gospel is used to promote another kingdom ultimately opposed to Christ. Truth is exploited to serve lies. Vestments become veils of unconfessed sins. Light is harnessed to lead the innocent into the dark prison of spiritual emptiness. Like an icon covered with a metal riza, the liturgy is being covered with embellishments that undermine and distort its purpose. Imposed on the liturgy are the worldly adornments of success, power and bourgeois respectability. The beautiful image of the Church has taken on the distorted image of Madison Avenue.
From an historical perspective the sectarian rigorists were not completely off the mark. They reasoned that when the Church’s leaders are corrupt, the Church itself risks becoming corrupt. The rigorists sought to remain faithful to the dominical teaching that one cannot serve two masters.
That the Orthodox Church in America has over the past six months been rattled by internal accusations and counteraccusations points to a deep spiritual malady that has not been diagnosed and therefore continues to remain untreated. Being unable or unwilling to diagnose and treat the Church’s malady has rendered the beauty of the liturgy formal, static and opaque.
To resolve the current crisis in the OCA will first require a willingness on the part of all to acknowledge that it is derived from a serious spiritual illness that has affected every aspect of our ecclesial life including the liturgy. Given the gravity of the disease, recovery will be long and painful. Until a diagnosis is made we must be willing to recognize that neither counciliar debate nor hierarchical fiat will suffice for treatment since recovery will have to entail a change of heart and not merely a change in behavior or appearance.
How do we arrive at a diagnosis? It seems that the most direct way rests in answering the question Archbishop Job posed to the Synod of Bishops in October of 2005 -- “are the allegations [of financial malfeasance] true or false”? Unless this question is answered continued probing will only aggravate our illness while hiding its cause. Unless this question is answered, hope for recovery will remain a dream for the naēve.