Whither the OCA?
Archpriest John M. Reeves—State College, PA
Arguably the OCA has been short of effective leadership for a very long time. Absent the charismatic presence of Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, the OCA has floundered, virtually rudderless over the last quarter-century. Fr Alexander’s vision of a fully functioning, self-governing, unified Orthodox Church in North America not only has yet to be realized but somehow seems more distant and, perhaps, harder to attain.
In many ways, Fr Alexander was the leader, par excellent, of the Orthodox Church in America, both before and after the delivery of the Tomos of Autocephaly in 1970, and until his death in 1983. For a period of time, he perhaps was the single-most influential figure in American Orthodoxy. No other single individual did more to bring English-speaking Orthodoxy to the States, or to shape the minds of a whole generation of those in the Church. His writings and his vision were far ahead of the curve. Willing to see things yet to be accomplished, he dared to challenge. And he prodded a generation with the urgency of such a theological mandate. Such is the case with visionary leadership. Such is sadly lacking in our Church life today.
For the OCA, there did not follow an Elisha to Fr Alexander’s Elijah. We can debate whether this should have or could have been or would have been another theologian or a single, stellar member of the hierarchy, or the Holy Synod corporately. The fact is this did not happen. In the inter-regnum following Fr Schmemann’s earthly departure, the bureaucracy of the OCA was developed into an end, in and of itself. Not only does nature abhor the vacuum but a fallen nature will tend fill it with the mediocre, the banal, if not the downright corrupt.
It is much like the life-cycle of a parish which believes that it has accomplished its goals. A sense of satisfaction sets in. “Mission accomplished” becomes both the parish mantra and its life-style. Attention begins to paid more often to maintenance than to mission. The fact that mission brought the parish into existence fades as an operating principle. The best that can be done is to proclaim one’s accomplishments. All too soon, such a parish starts looking at the past as its best days and most of its time is spent keeping up appearances. The status quo ante becomes the benchmark. The golden age arrived: Then it passed. We can only imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear. Implicitly, bit by bit, the past dominates the present to the point that the future is not only unplanned for but feared.
Absent visionary leadership, the OCA’s descent into organizational decline, then chaos and possible criminality, became institutionalized. It is expressed thus in the Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18).” Here, the writer speaks not merely of vision in a temporal or secular sense. He speaks of vision in the prophetic sense of the word, just as there was a time in Israel when there was no vision. (Cf, I Kings (I Sam) 3:1). It is this lack of a certain vision, the lack of a prophetic leader to articulate it, which cloys our response to the pressing issues at hand.
In his recent “Open Letter” to this forum, Fr Thomas Hopko, seems to me to acknowledge much of this predicament: “We cannot keep trying to put ‘new wine into old wine skins.’ We cannot keep trying to force or cajole or shame our leaders and our people into doing things that they don’t want to do.” Indeed, we do seem to have official leaders who do not lead and shepherds who do not shepherd. The Apostle would call these “wells without water.” (Cf II Pt 2:17) Thus, it is no wonder that blind eyes are turned away to corruption, to sin; and deaf ears, to the entreaties of faithful people.
Yet, far from this being a call forward, I detect in the article a call to retreat to a model of church life so evident in America prior to the establishing of the OCA. Thus Fr Thomas continues: “We can only love them and leave them to do what they think best while we give ourselves fully to finding and fostering a new generation of Orthodox Christian leaders who believe in the Gospel and struggle to interpret the complex history of Orthodoxy in the eternal light of Christ…” .
Perhaps, I have misunderstood, but loving our leaders and leaving them to do what they think best is part of the problem, not the solution. Leaving them to do what they have thought best has left them to do what they could get away with doing, suffice it to say. For, once we have knowledge of sin, those of us “who are spiritual” must seek to restore those who are fallen to God’s grace. (Cf Gal 6:1) By denial we participate in their sins. By uncovering them, we can expose that sin to the Light so that we all might be healed.
However, in this process of fostering a new generation of Orthodox leaders, Fr Hopko’s “we” seems to exclude the hierarchs. At least that inference can be drawn. Father concludes: “Let us all start by doing what we can as individual believers, families, monasteries and local communities. Let’s leave all the rest for now. And let’s let those responsible for those aspects of church life, for whom we pray and whom we obey and support to the extent that we can, do what they think best, remembering that we will all answer on the Day of the Lord for what we have said and done.”
If so, such a (semi-)autonomous parish life would be a further betrayal of true Eucharistic existence. For, our bishops must be more than dispensers of Holy Chrism and functionaries at ordinations. They must truly be the sign of the Church’s unity and its fidelity to the Gospel, in deed as well as in form. Else, we become sheep without shepherds; and sheep without shepherds soon die. How can we form new Orthodox leaders, which presumably would include bishops, without the example of godly, to be sure, bishops who would be as Paul was to Timothy? And yet again, this begs the question as to why the post-Schmemann generation seems so bereft of Christian leaders of moral clarity, of simple back-bone in the first place.
Now, Fr Hopko indeed goes on to encourage us to follow our bishops, save in heresy and immorality. But surely, immorality includes more than sexual sins. The canons of the Church indicate that financial rectitude in personal and ecclesiastical life is requisite of the all of the clergy. If we insist that we indeed are a canonical Orthodox church, then let the canons be enforced. Immoral clergy (hierarchs as well as presbyters) must be removed, whether they are thieves or fornicators; whether adulterers or drunkards, whether gamblers or usurers.
In short, our bishops must be held accountable. And when they prove unable to hold one another accountable, the whole body of the faithful must faithfully and firmly demand accountability. Though the sacramental ministrations of immoral clergy are indeed “valid”, immoral clergy rob themselves of God’s grace in their own lives and consequently they can and will lead their people astray. It does matter what our hierarchs do in their personal lives, as much as it matters what we do in our own; even more so, for they shall give account before God for our souls. (Hb 13:17)
There is, too be sure, much historical evidence that Orthodoxy has been found in retreat, or at least hunkered down, for much of its existence. Fr Thomas himself supplies an ample historic review. But such retreat and entrenchment was always occasioned by outside forces beyond the Church’s control. This current scandal is not. It is of our own making. Hence, we must not become victims of historical determinism and use it to justify our lack of ability, our fear, or our simple unwillingness, to function in the present. Our own history, while explaining much, must not be used to dim our own eyes to the possibility of the future and what God calls us to become, rather than to remain.
Merely doing what we have done before and hoping for different results is naïve. It will take leaders whom God raises up, not self-perpetuating oligarchs, whether hierarchs, presbyters or lay committees. It will take a Church wherein the vox fidei is neither muted nor feared, where the Holy Spirit is truly believed to be at work on both sides of the iconostas, even when First Hierarchs are chosen. It will take hierarchs who do not lord it over their flocks but are examples to their flocks. (Cf I Pt 5:1-4) It will take presbyters who do due diligence to the calling wherewith they have been called. It will take laity who courageously supply vision and leadership when our bishops are weak and indolent. It will take all of us, together, in Christ to be the Church. Above all, it will take visionaries, both clergy and lay who, having set their hands to the plow, do not look back over their shoulders, lest they be unworthy of the kingdom of God.
Should we “work together patiently and charitably” to disentangle ourselves in the midst of “the tremendous complexity of our present situation”? Yes.
Should we “make our views known and offer our suggestion about proper action, forcefully and firmly, without demonizing or ridiculing those who disagree”? Yes.
Should we “always remember that those who disagree with us are as strongly committed to their understanding of things as we are”? Yes.
Should we “meet regularly with those whom we believe are building up the Church and fostering its God-given mission”? Yes.
Should we obey our leaders who disagree with us, save in heresy and immorality? Yes.
Should we give to the various Church ministries as we are led, but “give only what we are obligated to give by statute (emphasis added) to other ecclesiastical offices and institutions”? Yes.
Should we “work on ourselves to be faithful Orthodox Christians in word and deed”? Yes.
But we must never retreat into isolated existence from one another or from the episcopate. Such retreat, such isolation would be the abdication of our responsibility before Christ to bear witness in this world to God’s rule over us. Atomism, in any form, is always sin.
Surely the Church, which will judge angels, must learn to judge its own actions and find the courage and the humility to repent of its shortcomings, its failures, and its sins in its members. (Cf I Cor 6:3). Is there not one wise among us? (Cf I Cor 6:5) How often are we reminded that repentance is no mere confession of sin wrought out of pangs of guilt but truly a change of mind, of heart, of will and of action? Thus, first of all, we must all repent. It will not be enough to find out “who did what with what (or whom) from where”, even if misdeeds someday are willingly confessed. It will not be enough to forgive and forget. It never is. We must all repent of having let this come to pass.
Bishops and other clergy, administration and other staff, elected lay delegates to church councils and committees and all the people of the Church:
We must repent!
We must all change!
We must all be changed!
We must all be transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”. (Cf Rm 12:2)
We must “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” ( Cf Eph 5:11).
We must redeem the time because the days are evil.
(Cf Eph 5:16)
Simply put: Keep doing what we’ve always done and we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got. Neither can we go backwards to the future. Old answers will not suffice for new results. Yet, we cannot wait passively for another anointed leader to rise up. We must look expectantly ahead. There can be no retreat, no hunkering down, if we are truly headed towards the Kingdom of God.
The ultimate Church model for our way forward will be that found in the Church in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost. It is the model of the Church at work and at prayer, continuing faithfully, steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (community), the Breaking of Bread and the prayers. It is a Church where there is concord, all things being held in common. It is a Church which truly takes cares of all the needs of its people. It is a Church which has one heart and one mind, proclaiming Christ boldly in the Temple daily. It is a Church in which decisions are made mutually under the guidance of the Apostles (and by extension, their successors) to the end that the apostolic work of prayer and the word is not impeded by issues of maintenance. It is a Church that has favor with the all the people. And it is a Church to which the Lord is adding daily those that are being saved. (Cf Acts 2:42-47; 6:1-7)
Our “leaders”, both lay and clergy, have fooled themselves. They have fooled us, as well. Shame on them!
But we have fooled ourselves, as well. So, shame on us, too!
And if we are fooled again, shame on us all. Shame on us all, indeed! For, we are in this together. And we will either perish together or be saved together.
This is no time for the hand to say to the foot, I have no need of thee.