On Thursday morning, there was hope that the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America would exercise its leadership and formally address the concerns of the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Alaska. The plea of the clergy had been heard, and an investigation had been conducted by the chancellor of the National Church. The leadership of the Synod would deal with the needs of the clergy and faithful of Alaska as well as the health and salvation of their brother bishop. After close to two and a half years of watching our Holy Synod fail to adequately address our public scandal, there was a strong belief that they were finally prepared to do the right thing within the Diocese of Alaska. Unfortunately, today, we have been reminded that Synodal leadership is nothing more than an oxymoron.
The Bishop of Alaska had refused the directive of the Holy Synod to take a mandatory leave of absence and somehow convinced the Holy Synod that the school bully did not need a mental health time-out. Not one member of the Holy Synod had the leadership skills to convince Bishop Nikolai that he really had to take a good hard look at his management style, listen to the will of his clergy and people, take advantage of his leave of absence for his own salvation and begin the process of repairing the damage that has been done to our church in Alaska and throughout North America. The Metropolitan’s words to the clergy of Alaska that “they have nothing to worry about” today seem reminiscent of George H.W. Bush telling the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein after his defeat in the invasion of Kuwait.
The temper and vindictiveness of the Bishop of the North is nothing new to anyone who has spent time in his presence, including members of our Holy Synod. By his own account, during his days in Las Vegas he was shanghaied by several husbands of the women that worked for him. He was severely beaten by them and abandoned in the trunk of his car for the abuse they perceived he inflicted upon their wives. Pretty severe! But, anyone who has witnessed Bishop Nikolai lose his temper, or experienced his condescending wit and attempts at discipline through mean-spirited humor can envision how this could have occurred.
His return to Alaska, with the promise that he will be a good boy, is like sending the wolf back into the henhouse.
While watching this unfold, we must admit that the Holy Synod has lost an understanding of our faith as something truly organic to our nature – that living quality which separates our faith from the legalistic approach of the Church of the West. They have lost the ability to live the practicality of our faith, and instead choose to hide behind the letter of the law quoting canons in their defense. They have made our faith into a religion – something they perform and not something they live. They no longer view our life in the Church as a way to live our life here on this earth. It is no wonder that they cannot hear, or rather, have lost the ability to hear the pleas of the faithful to heal our church.
Our Holy Synod, to which we look for leadership, has enveloped themselves into their own little world which rules through Byzantine despotism, educates by way of demanding adherence to the rubric and abdicates responsibility with an air of Russian fatalism when a decision cannot be reached. The suffering our church has been forced to endure over these past years is a direct result of the lack of leadership provided by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America.
Even though the bishop is clearly recognized as the head of the Church, leadership comes from the combined work of the faithful, clergy and hierarchs. The autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America, the liturgical and Eucharistic revival of our Church, the break from clericalism to conciliarity, the move to conduct services in the vernacular of the people involved the dedicated work and leadership of lay men and women, clergy and hierarchs. And during these turbulent times in the past history of our church, the role of our seminaries, through the writings, preaching and teaching of its faculty, provided our church, and our hierarchs, with the tools needed to lead our church from the Metropolia – a church cut adrift by the Orthodox world through the circumstances of history – to the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America – the church which caused the Orthodox world to take notice during our first decade of existence.
The calculated attempt of the Holy Synod to create a conciliarity in and among its brotherhood, to the exclusion of the rest of the church, has helped create the mess we find ourselves in. Today, our seminary faculty do not involve themselves in the very fight to reclaim an understanding of concilciarity within our Orthodox Church in America. If Fathers Schmemann, Meyendorff and Borichevsky were with us today, they would be at the forefront in putting our autocephalous church back in order. Where is the leadership from the very institutions tasked with creating the future leaders of our Church?
We had looked to the members of the Holy Synod to deal with the devastation in Alaska -- the land which gave birth to our Church in North America. Conciliarity was at work when the clergy of Alaska voiced their concerns to the Holy Synod. Conciliarity was at work when the Holy Synod acted to address the issues that were so clearly expressed in the words and letters of the clergy and faithful. But for some reason, this conciliar process was hijacked when the Holy Synod met alone without the imperative guidance of the rest of the Church.
Our church is broken, and it currently requires all its faithful, clergy and hierarch to participate in its rebuilding if we are ever to flourish in this land. We will witness the demise of the Orthodox Church in America unless our seminary faculty begins providing us with an understanding of an ecclesiology befitting our high calling as a Church in and for America. We will once again be cut adrift by the Orthodox world unless we stand up and demand that the Holy Synod break down its false aura and take the entire church into consideration in its deliberations. And, if the experiment of autocephaly does fail, it is what we deserve if the clergy and faithful stand by without voicing their concerns to their bishops. So dear friends, let us continue to voice our concerns for the upbuilding of our church in and for America!
Deacon Eric A. Wheeler
(ProtoDeacon Eric Wheeler, a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary, served the Church for more than 20 years in various positions at St. Vladimir’s, as Secretary for Metropolitan Theodosius, and later as Treasurer of the OCA. His 2005 letter to Metropolitan Herman, later sent to the Synod of Bishops, and finally to the Metropolitan Council, was crucial in making the OCA scandal public.)