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Reflections On The Scandal

Just the Beginning: A Reflection on the

Ongoing Crisis in the Orthodox Church in America
by Fr. John Hopko

Thursday, June 28, 2007
Feast of Saints Sergius and Herman of Valaam
Eve of the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul


As many readers of this reflection know, I am the son of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko and the grandson of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. I have been deeply involved in the Church all my life, as have a remarkable number of the members of my extended family—for example, three of my brothers-in-law are priests, one of them a monk on Mount Athos. My wife, Macrina, like me, is a graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, class of 1990.
I worked at the Chancery of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) from August 1992 through July 2000, just about eight full years. I spent all those years in the Metropolitan’s Office. At first, I was an assistant to the Metropolitan’s Secretary, at that time Protodeacon Eric Wheeler. Then, after a few years, I was myself appointed as Secretary to the Metropolitan. I was ordained to the diaconate in May 1993, and served for seven years as one of His Beatitude, Metropolitan THEODOSIUS’ deacons.

In March 2000, I petitioned Metropolitan THEODOSIUS for ordination to the priesthood and transfer to an assignment as a parish pastor. My petition was blessed and I was ordained to the priesthood seven years ago on June 29, 2000, by Metropolitan THEODOSIUS and then assigned by him to Saints Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, Terryville, CT, effective August 1, 2000. I have served here with greatest gratitude ever since. The faithful people of this parish have given me so much more than I could ever repay.


I worked at the OCA Chancery for many of the years during which took place the financial improprieties now brought to our attention by Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, Mr. Paul Hunchak and others. Father Deacon Eric’s allegations, made public in November 2005, have served as the catalyst for the present and ongoing crisis we in the OCA are still haltingly and painfully working our way through over a year and a half later.
While aware during the time that I worked at the OCA Chancery that serious issues were being discussed and disagreed about and that high tensions existed, I was not fully informed about the details of the problems. Indeed, I have reason to believe that Deacon Eric (and Paul Hunchak, too), aware of my overly sensitive and very volatile personality, did not share with me the worst aspects of what was going on. Also, Deacon Eric and Paul were corporate officers of the Church (Treasurer and Secretary, respectively), and I was not. So, for me to actually come to know, rather than simply suspect, certain things to be true, the boundary of the “need (and right) to know” would have had to have been crossed.

In any case, even though I knew things were going badly, I was shaken when Protodeacon Eric was released from his position as Treasurer in September 1999. I also was deeply saddened when Paul Hunchak subsequently resigned as Secretary a number of months later. It was in conjunction with their departures from the OCA Chancery that I realized that I myself might better serve the Church in a capacity other than that of Secretary to the Metropolitan. At the time, Deacon Eric and Paul were my closest co-workers and best personal friends—Godfathers to two of my three children, the two that were born during my tenure at the Chancery. Sadly, as Deacon Eric, Paul and I were all leaving the Chancery, differences of opinion about how exactly to deal with and respond to what was going on strained and damaged those relationships.

As sad as I am about that, I am even more deeply saddened by the hurt this matter has wrought in the lives of these men and their families. For, in my experience, it would be harder to find any persons who worked more capably and with greater diligence than did Protodeacon Eric Wheeler and Paul Hunchak during their time at the Chancery. These men and those with them truly deserve to be heard if for no other reason than to allow us all to acknowledge their good service on behalf of the Church.

Every since this matter came to light in the fall of 2005, I myself have made a mess of trying to address it publicly, usually because I have found myself speaking from a place of unholy rage, rather than from a place of appropriately measured zeal. I must and do acknowledge my failings in this regard.
For example, last fall, on the floor of the Diocesan Assembly of the Diocese of New England that took place October 27-29, 2006, I tried to address the ongoing crisis and mishandled the attempt. What began as a legitimate effort to speak to the issues unfortunately degenerated into an unholy rant in which I lashed out at all involved on all sides of the issue. I hurt many people (including, unfortunately, His Eminence, Archbishop JOB) and am still trying to rebuild relationships with those whom I offended. In many ways, my intervention on the floor of the New England Assembly last fall was a selfish response to the ways in which this matter has, for nearly a decade now, personally affected me and people close to me. However, I was also reacting to what seemed to me at the time to be stonewalling and rationalizing on one side of the issue and self-righteous grandstanding and scape-goating on the other. This led me to suggest that all even remotely connected to this matter, myself included, both past and present, guilty or innocent, no matter what their present position on the issues, should recuse themselves, if necessary by resignation, because we are all “tainted” by the scandal. Then the Church could begin its life anew.
Unfortunately, the overwrought nature of my intervention obscured what I was trying to say, valid or not, and became a point of controversy in and of itself.
Previously, at gatherings of Connecticut Deanery clergy in the Nativity Fast 2005 and Great Lent 2006, I had lashed out verbally in a disturbingly uncontrolled manner at many of those involved, including Protopresbyter Robert Kondratick and the Holy Synod of Bishops. I said things on those occasions that might have been in essence truthful, and which in parts may well turn out to be prophetic, but the manner of saying those things was unacceptably crude and even profane.
To those who on those occasions were hurt by my words or, at minimum, the manner in which they were spoken, I again apologize.


I am writing now in response to my continuing and deepening conviction that this time of crisis is not just something to endure and put behind us, but rather is a profoundly meaningful opportunity for the Orthodox Church in America—an opportunity for repentance and renewal. We have been dangerously near to missing this opportunity and, even with the events that have taken place to this point in time, we are just at the beginning of what may be of real and true importance about all this.

For, as serious as the allegations that have been made are, and as much as they deserve to be fully answered, and as much as the perpetrators (plural, not singular!) of evil acts must be held to account for their deeds, these matters are, in fact, only symptoms of a much deeper and more dangerous disorder, a serious sickness. This hazardous condition, this illness, is the on-going mutation of the structure and mission of the church itself.

Indeed, when I worked at the Chancery of the OCA, even as I came to suspect things that I did not (to my enduring discredit) want to acknowledge and still really do not want to face or believe to be true, the greatest frustration I felt was the refusal of the “powers that were” to work in a way even remotely approaching the OCA’s reason for being as articulated by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Thomas Hopko and others.

Even at this moment—as much as we might hold out some hope for recent efforts to reorganize and restructure the OCA Central Church Administration and as much as we might also hold out some hope for the appropriate investigation of and response to the events that have served as the catalyst for these changes—we, perhaps, are missing a providential opportunity to do so much more, to do so much better!
In 1982, writing in his private journal (portions of which were subsequently published in 2000), my grandfather, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, wrote:

"Yesterday I received from the Chancery a thick package containing reports to the Synod of Bishops from the various departments, committees, treasurer and others. So we have apparently achieved what we were dreaming of. We have achieved the reduction of the Church to successful bureaucracy, administration, to a paper waterfall, all of it rather dull. Bureaucracy is costly (meetings, traveling expenses, secretarial expenses). So the pathos of this bureaucracy is mainly directed to its financial aspect. But financial techniques demand people, specialists in appeals and fundraising. Hence, one needs more money. A vicious circle—“bureaucratization of charisma.” After a breath of fresh air seemed to blow over our Church, normalization has begun."
(Entry of March 7, 1982)

And also this entry:

"What [is it that] occupies the centers of the Church, the Synods of Bishops, the departments, etc.? Church “affairs”—diplomacy, finances, the appointments and transfers of priests, etc. Hence, the bottomless dullness and poverty of the Church press, the reduction of the content of Church life to ceremonies, jubilees, meetings, etc.; a kind of game with wooden soldiers, beginning with the language of the Church—“of all America and Canada…” It would seem that these words should raise questions; unless explained, it sounds comical. But nobody laughs!"
(Entry of May 1, 1982)

Almost a quarter of a century ago, Fr. Alexander identified the problem of church administration, the problem that has only become much worse over time.
In my own words the problem is this:

The whole Central Church Administration of the Orthodox Church in America—including the Office of the Metropolitan, the Holy Synod of Bishops, the Metropolitan Council and its committees, the Chancery and its departments—has come to be a body requiring care and custody to complete its formal and all too often unnecessary human tasks, rather than being a true caretaker and custodian that serves to empower the Body of Christ to complete its substantial and necessary God-given mission. Rather than serving, the administration has come to require service itself.

Even at this moment, huge efforts and tremendous resources are being poured into the Central Church Administration…to what end? Will what results from the present moment, from the present opportunity, actually serve the faithful people of the Church any better than what went before? Or are we “pouring new wine into old wineskins”?

Certainly, the Central Church Administration has necessary reasons to exist and function and the faithful members of the OCA must fund the legitimate work of that Administration generously, faithfully and without complaint. Indeed, I made that very point, loudly and clearly, from the floor of the 13th All-American Council in Orlando in 2002 when speaking in favor of the adjustments being made to the mechanisms by which the funding of the Central Church Administration takes place. I have been a supporter—a strong and vocal supporter—of the need to fund the valid work of the OCA Central Church Administration.
However, that being said, we are free to ask questions, make comments and express concerns about that Administration and expect that those questions, comments and concerns will be answered fairly, quickly, appropriately and comprehensively. In the past—and I know this from unpleasant personal experience—to ask questions or express concerns was to be labeled “not a team player.” Unfortunately, that might still be the case.

Nevertheless, some questions (listed in no particular order) which must be forthrightly addressed—but which seem only ever to be asked and never truly answered—are:

What activities of the Central Church Administration actually impact the life and work of the majority of the faithful members of the Orthodox Church in America in positive, measurable ways?

What are the legitimate financial needs of the Central Church Administration which must be met in order to allow it to fully carry out its legitimate functions?

Does the Central Church Administration of the OCA make the lives and labors of our parish clergy and their families easier? Is it a help to our priests and people, or one more nearly unbearable burden?

Do we, the OCA, need more than a dozen dioceses to serve a Church of less than 30,000 financially supporting members? Do we need more than a dozen bishops, especially in a time when the Central Church Administration itself notes that suitable candidates for the episcopacy are rare?

Is it a duty of the Central Church Administration to transmit and enforce liturgical and other so-called “norms” and “practices” from abroad? Is “that’s how they do it in Russia/Greece/Romania/Bulgaria/Albania, etc.,” considered an adequate answer to any question regard Church governance and procedure, liturgical or otherwise?

Why do we seem to be continuing in a direction where the approach of our bishops (and some of our priests and parishes), especially in the vital and central area of liturgical practice, seems to be reverting towards “old country” models?

Are the foreign travels undertaken by the Metropolitan and others actually necessary? Do those travels, combined with the hosting of delegations from abroad, actually accomplish fruitful and beneficial results equal to their financial costs?

Why do we have a “representation church” in Russia, especially when the style of that representation does not seem to represent the way we do things here in North America, but rather serves simply as another Russian Orthodox parish? (A brief visit to the “representation church’s” website makes that quite clear.) In this age of inexpensive and easy electronic communication are there not more efficient ways of doing things?

Why do we maintain a system of clergy awards and ranks that are unrelated to merit or position? (As more than one person has observed: We have a Church with more archbishops than bishops, more archpriests than priests and where it seems that every other monastic priest holds the rank of igumen or archimandrite, while often not even being the resident member of a monastic community, let alone its head. In addition, as many have also observed, just about the only criteria for recognition and advancement seems to be the passage of time.)

Why does the OCA have two major seminaries located within a three-hour drive of one another? Do we need and should we support three seminaries?

Is it necessary for so many parallel structures (missionary, charitable, youth-oriented, monastic, diocesan, administrative, educational, social, fraternal, etc.) to exist in North American Orthodoxy?

Why have we not followed up more aggressively on the issue of jurisdictional unity of the Orthodox in North America?

These questions are hardly new or original or the only ones to be asked—people have been asking these and many other good questions for years. Indeed, following the line of historical policies, I could (and actually many times did, when working at the Chancery) answer the above listed questions in a reasonably convincing manner on behalf of the Central Church Administration. I also know that although I used to work at the OCA Chancery I am now a parish priest and things look very different, and increasingly more different, from this viewpoint.

In the parish, the place where the overwhelming majority of the faithful members experience the Church, the strong feeling has developed that the OCA Central Administration exists not to serve the needs of the people in the parishes, but rather that the parish members are presently feeding a distant, bloated and increasingly out of touch and questionable central structure of administration—a central structure that includes as its primary body the Holy Synod of Bishops. This seems to be true even as the OCA Central Administration is undergoing reorganization and restructuring.

I say this with regret, but I cannot tell a lie: The same things seem to be especially true when we encounter our bishops.

When a bishop comes to a parish or when we encounter the bishops at events such as All American Councils, not always, but all too often the strong impression is given that the hierarchs exist to be served rather than to serve. I say this with no disrespect for the office of archpastor, for which I have appropriate and fully traditional respect. I say this, rather, with sadness when I consider the situation into which we have placed our unfortunate bishops—they are forced (or at least expected) to play a role that is not real or valid in our time and place. For example, the Byzantine (and Ottoman!) trappings of the office, combined with the requirement to take monastic vows that are almost impossible to live out while being an active hierarch, conspire to just about immediately make our bishops seem unreal and out of touch. Just look at the face of a young person in your local parish church the first time they see the bishop arrive in full regalia and are told he dresses that way (mantia, klobuk, etc.) because he is a monk!

Particularly to be regretted is the role that the bishop seems compelled to play when visiting parishes or carrying out other public duties—almost like a character in a show. (I know this—I spent seven years as our primate’s deacon. In that role, I often felt like a bit player in a theatrical production.) The hierarch arrives, he presides, he leaves—he rarely truly encounters. While presiding at liturgy, the bishop does not see the real life of the parish. All too often, virtually everything that is usually and routinely done has been abandoned for the occasion of his visit—the quite artificial and aloof ceremonial of the “hierarchical visit” takes over. As a parishioner once observed about the bishop, “He comes, he often brings his own people to serve with and talk to, he ‘does his thing’ (and we help him do it, not always with competence or comfort), then he leaves and we breathe a sigh of relief.” Even our bishops and their aides sense this—a standing joke that I had as aide to Metropolitan THEODOSIUS was that the local clergy accompanied us to the car when we were departing to make sure that the bishop was actually leaving!

Our bishops are isolated from the faithful, even and, perhaps, especially when they come to visit the parish, for that is when the isolation is felt most poignantly. And I am not sure that many of the bishops are at all disturbed about being “set apart” in this way. Some may even feel that the office of bishop requires such distance. This is tragic.

I feel very strongly about this for I believe that the truly real “distance” that has developed between the bishops and the faithful has played a large role in both producing the present crisis in the OCA and preventing the timely and appropriate resolution of that crisis. An unreal way of living produces unhealthy results. Undeniably, when I worked at the OCA Chancery it was a place of isolation and separation, very much removed from the reality of Church life at the “grassroots” level. Many of us there at the time thought otherwise, but we were wrong.

All this might make it sound like I am preaching dissent in my parish and elsewhere. Exactly the opposite is the case. I have endeavored at all times to present the work of our bishop, our Primate, and the OCA as a whole, including the Central Administration, in as positive a light as possible. On the parish level, for better or worse, when unable to say something “nice”, I have endeavored to say as little as possible. Until recently, I promoted with vigor the OCA Annual Appeals and the various programs and activities of the OCA, such as the All-American Councils. The problem is that I now find this awkward and unreal. I want to be able, in good conscience, to stand up and support these things without feeling diffident. But right now I cannot.

The time has come, if our Church is to be what it claims to be, for deep and sincere repentance. As positive as some of the things that are happening now in the Church might be—such as the work being done to restructure the OCA Chancery—they simply do not go far enough. We must reevaluate ourselves in view of our core mission, vision and values. If necessary (and it probably is), we must change who is doing what, where, when, why and how, so that our Church might become capable of fulfilling its high calling. The example of St. John the Baptist is relevant here: some must choose now to step aside so that the greater good might prevail.

All of this, of course, needs to begin with me, in my heart, in my life. Repentance is a personal reality. Only a person can repent, not an institution. Each and every one of us needs to look deeply into our own person, prayerfully and honestly assess what we find there and then respond accordingly and truthfully, no matter what the personal cost. “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) and “Dying, behold, we live.” (II Corinthians 6:9)
With prayerful best wishes, I remain

Your sinful and unworthy servant in Christ,
Fr. John Hopko
Saint Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, Terryville, CT