LET GOD ARISE !
We are faced by a scandal. In some quarters, a scandal means everyone being shocked by some secret that got out. There is loss of reputation and embarrassment. Public opinion is stirred up. Essentially, a cover-up had failed. It is not that anyone necessarily cares about what had happened, but that the thing is known. The eleventh commandment, cynics would say, has been violated: Thou shalt not be found out.
In the life of the Church, however, a scandal is something far more terrible. Its origin is in genuine evils that Christians should care about and not tolerate; but what makes it specifically a scandal is the added potential of wrecking the faith of believers. A scandal is something we do that is not only sinful but which also places a stumbling block in another’s path, our brother or sister for whom Christ died. This is most serious, since, please God, we may repent of our sins, but how can we repair the harm we have caused others?
A scandal caused by Orthodox is a wounding of the Church. In the present situation of the OCA, what do we feel? Or rather, what should we feel, what should our appropriate response be? I think this is a crucial question for us Orthodox Christians, since the Church, by all accounts, is being tested--and not just the OCA. This must mean that our faith is being tried. As gold is tried, our true metal is being shown at this time. Our response will reveal how deep our Orthodox life really goes.
I believe that our first response needs to be grief. Grief that terrible things have happened within the Church over many years. Grief that the spiritually weak may be losing their faith. Grief that non-Orthodox may be discouraged from coming and seeing the beauty of Orthodoxy. Grief, too, that many Orthodox may start to think that things in the Church are, when push comes to shove, no different from things in the world. This grief is an active suffering. It is a spiritual task. It is the mourning that our Savior blesses. It is a sharing in Christ’s grief, the tears He sheds over Jerusalem, His beautiful city. We need to read the Lamentations of Jeremiah and weep.
This blessed grief will come from a place of love and suffering, as must also any valid attempt to put things right. We will want to reach out in some way to the people whose lives have been crushed. We will also want to take the sin on ourselves. If our brother has sinned, will we not want to bear it for him, or at least with him? How could we leave him alone in his fall? If there are things seriously wrong, do we not in some way all collude to make these things possible? We will say, I am responsible, I have sinned more than any man. That, surely, is the Orthodox way. Only from that place can there be any hope of remedy, of doing what is truly needed to put our house in order. We ask God to make the evil be good by His goodness: should we not want to do the same thing ourselves, if our prayer is real?
I think we need to make sure that our response to the scandal comes from zeal for the Church. During these months we are in great danger! In his recent Reflection, Father John Garvey has warned us about the “spiritual sickness” of those who enjoy being in the right. As the grievous events unfold day by day before our eyes, how easy it could be to fall into a kind of “Watergate” mentality! We could be overtaken by a mere group dynamic, and run the danger that we will feel a whole lot cleaner when the guilty have been exposed and purged. And in the long run, I fear that the real test we are facing is not so much the deeply sinful things which are being investigated and which, perhaps, cannot be undone, as how we choose to let them affect us. When the dust settles and, please God, there is some kind of resolution, I fear that we could find ourselves in a situation which has serious and harmful consequences for the future life of the Church. History abounds in cases in which the reform of abuses has gone on to create a worse monster. It seems to me that we already have the potential for two major dangers, which, however, can be averted if they are recognized for what they are.
The first potential disaster would be the importation into the Church of a secular ethic. In today’s world, when there is a malfeasance or something goes wrong, the response is to ensure that it does not happen again by tightening up on procedures. Thus in future people will have to go through the correct channels, there will need to be improved checks and balances and greater accountability, and certain paperwork will absolutely be required. We have already seen the hiring of expensive lawyers. The sad fact, of course, is that a sacred trust has been broken. The need for good accounting practices is clear. No one would question it; yet we cannot place all our hope trust in Best Practices. The needed reforms will involve more men behind desks and more special committees…The problem is that none of this, in and of itself, can prevent dishonesty. And then there is the larger risk which is entailed in all bureaucratic solutions: the erection of an all-powerful system in which the individual is disposable, subjected to the machine or to the whims of officials. From an Orthodox perspective, is not one of the most worrying aspects of today’s secular world precisely its impersonal quality and its de-personalising tendency? The challenge for the OCA must be to restore trust. Beyond that will lie the task of improving administration without falling into a mere corporate ethic, or into a kind of papal style of centralised government--both of which are foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology and to the mystical meaning of hierarchy
I think the second danger facing us is a cynical, iconoclastic reaction to the revelations. If it is true that corruption is being concealed behind sacred things, we may be tempted to disrespect the sacred things themselves. The very opposite, of course, should be the case! If, God forbid, a temple is made the occasion of sin, we are grief-stricken, we pray for it to be cleansed, and we rededicate it--and, surely, we rededicate ourselves! I think the difficulty for us today is that we are living in a world where nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is reverenced. It is not easy for people to go against the flow of secular life--for example, to kiss the hand of the hierarch or priest, to feel awe before the holy icons, to place themselves within sacred tradition and truly follow Christ in the Orthodox way. If trust is broken within the Church, we can get terribly discouraged. Our mind can be poisoned, which is surely the hope of the evil one. We are, perhaps, tempted to think it was all a sham. We may find ourselves thinking: it’s really all about money and power, like everywhere else. We may easily fall into a Nestorian view of the Church, seeing only its secondary, organizational, aspect as real. God forbid, we may end as cynics, and scoff at sacred things. Is this not a big spiritual challenge for many, both those whose lives were crushed and the rest of us who are following the crisis? I think we have to be very careful! Even when scandal is given, we must not let ourselves be scandalized. We cannot blame other people for how we respond to their actions, however wrong they may be, however much they may provoke us.
There is an authentic Orthodox protest, and it comes from zeal for Orthodoxy. This holy anger has arisen at different times in the history of the Church. It happened, for example, during the reign of the Iconoclastic Emperors and, again, in the rejection of the false union of the Council of Florence. It comes from a true sense of responsibility for the state of the Church. We see it in the lives of many of the saints. It is a plea that God may arise and purify us, the sons of Levi, so that our offering may be acceptable. It is also a prayer that He be merciful to us in His dread visitation and give us all time to repent. If, as some have said, the scandal has revealed the existence of a degree of shallowness and formalism in our Church life, perhaps this has come to light now so that we can seek conversion, and enter with all our heart and all our mind into the true form and beauty of Holy Orthodoxy.
Priest Paul Burholt
(Fr. Burholt is priest-in-charge of a mission station "Protecting Veil of the Most Holy Theotokos" in Kerrville, Texas.He is professional counselor and psychotherapist, working locally in a group practice mainly in the area of marriage counseling.)