by Fr. Michael Oleksa
I have loved Alaska since the day I arrived on Kodiak Island nearly 40 years ago. I don’t think that is a secret within the Orthodox Church in America. I was recruited here by the Alutiiq village of Old Harbor, the oldest Orthodox community in the New World, and have researched the history, and studied the missiological principles that have guided the Church here for more than three decades. By now, I am the senior active parish priest in the diocese. So in such times of confusion or crisis, I feel obliged to offer my perspective for the Church’s consideration, hoping to achieve some consensus and formulate a common vision we can all affirm and embrace.
The Identity of the Alaskan Mission
When Gregory Shelikov recruited monastics to come to Kodiak in 1793, he had no idea what the long range ramifications of this mission would be. It is immediately clear, however, from the very first communications the Valaam monks sent back to him and to their igumen, they understood their focus to be “the Americans.” This was the exclusive term they used when discussing their flock. They were here to bring the fullness of the Gospel, the Orthodox Faith, to the people of America. On the Centennial of their arrival, Valaam published a book entitled “The Orthodox Spiritual Mission to America.” They did not at the beginning, nor a hundred years later, identify their task as transplanting “Russian” Orthodoxy, or language, or culture, to Alaska.
In fact, in the 1890’s, challenged by American Protestant invasion that was militantly assimilationist, a federally supported program to enculturate Alaska Natives, forcing them to speak English exclusively and convert to Protestant Christianity, Orthodox clergy here specifically renounced all association with cultural, social or political goals. They correctly noted that “European civilization is not nearly so Christian as many fancy.” They insisted that their focus was exclusively spiritual, and there was nothing “Russian” about their mission, except that Russia had been the birthplace of many of their leaders.
Alaskan Orthodox celebrate with pride services in a variety of languages. Church Slavonic may be included, but there has never been, until the last five years, any attempt to impose a “Russian” identity on the Church here. In fact, there is sufficient archival evidence to indicate that the clergy here have always refrained from identifying as “Russian,” even when they themselves were. This was necessary in the face of the American Protestant attacks on Orthodoxy as, precisely, a foreign, a “Russian” religion, to which they offered an “American” alternative. Our missionaries correctly insisted that the choice was between the True Faith and heretical sects, but this had nothing to do with national or ethnic labels.
St. Innocent’s recommendations to the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod state emphatically his vision that the transfer of Alaska to American rule represented a great missionary opportunity for bringing Orthodoxy to America, by appointing an English-speaking Bishop and clergy, translating liturgical books into English and ordaining American converts. The Church has always been, in the minds of her saints, in America for Americans, and needs to adjust her procedures and mentality, her style and her structures to accommodate this society, this culture, in this land, as She successfully did in Alaska. St. Innocent and St. Jacob’s success in Alaska offers a paradigm for the progress of the Mission across the continent.
This requires a deep knowledge, appreciation and love for the people and culture into which the Mission is sent. One cannot teach, sanctify or save what one does not love. We must embrace the place, the land, the people, the culture and present Orthodoxy as the fulfillment of what was already here, as the “rest of the story,” the completion of whatever has gone before. The Alaskan Mission studied and built upon the pre-Christian cultural attitudes, customs and foundations, so that Orthodoxy here was enculturated, became indigenous, within two or three generations. All that is being denied and renounced today as we are forced to rename ourselves “Russian Orthodox.” We are not. We are Alaskan Orthodox.
For the last five years, Alaskans have been repeatedly lectured on the correctness of all current Russian liturgical practices. Having defined us as “Russian Orthodox,” it is our destiny to replicate here whatever customs, practices, gestures, rules, disciplinary procedures, or attitudes prevail there, in “holy” Russia. The customs, traditions and practices that have organically evolved here, among the Native people, have no value or validity. We have been told that there is “no Alaskan style.” But our usages and practices have been developing for more than two centuries. Why should the Gospel be read twice, in Slavonic and then in English, as if our parishes had recently received a large influx of refugee Russians? Why should we sing the Lord’s Prayer twice, also in Slavonic, or repeat the prayer before Communion, as if there were so many newly arrived Russians in our midst. There aren’t any. The imposition of Russian practices and Slavonic language is purely artificial, an attempt to create a Russian identity in the one diocese where this is completely out of place. Alaska probably has the lowest number of Slavic Orthodox of any diocese in the OCA!
Certainly the way the new Russian Identity has been imposed presents another set of issues. None of us were consulted, no consensus was ever reached, our opinions were never solicited. If they had been, we would have, I believe, nearly unanimously rejected the move to identify Alaskan with Russian Orthodoxy. We do not believe for an instant that all things Russians are ipso facto “right” and all usages and practices Alaskan were in themselves “wrong.” Some of the “Russian” norms now required of us are not, in fact, truly Russian, but the personal preferences and whims of the bishop. But that is another matter.
St. Patriarch Tikhon was pressured during his tenure in America to create and impose a uniform ustav, but refused. He insisted, I believe correctly, that in America
many various national styles would need to flourish side by side, and that a wide variety of musical and liturgical styles would and should evolve here, until at some distant time American Orthodoxy would create a new synthesis, embodying the best from all of them.
That is the vision we have been forced to abandon against our will, in the name of obedience.
Obedience is the chief concern and the most often preached topic in Alaska, for it is in obedience that we are being asked, no forced, to accept the “corrections” and “guidelines” as well a the decrees periodically issued by the bishop and chancellor. Obedience in itself is, first of all, not a spiritual gift. The Holy Spirit brings love, joy, peace, self-control, but not obedience. Obedience is a means to an end, and a very useful, even essential means, provided one has found a loving spiritual father whose guidance one freely accepts in full confidence that all that whatever the elder commands is not for the elder’s benefit or satisfaction, but for the one’s own salvation. A monk entrusts himself to a “master” who so totally loves him that he can accept every request and order as if from God, knowing that the spiritual father would die for him, would sacrifice himself for him, and would never act in any way to hurt or harm him, mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Obedience in itself, however is neutral. Blindly obey and conform to every wish of an evil person and you will become evil. Faithfully obey and conform to every dictate of a saint, and you will become saintly. Obedience in itself can be dangerous. Every Nazi war criminal used “obedience” to some higher authority as the excuse for his demonic behavior. Blind obedience to hierarchial leadership would have led Orthodox Christians into Arianism, Nestorianism, Monotheletism, Iconoclasm and Uniatism. The Church has never demanded that the clergy and laity abandon their own God-given intelligence, suspend all judgment, and blindly obey any human leader or leaders. Freedom, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, is the very image of God in human beings. Our ability to think, reason and choose is the very essence of our humanity.
True Christian obedience is freely given because of the bond of total love and trust between the novice and his spiritual guide. It can never be demanded, enforced or imposed. Using anger or the threat of anger to control others is neither traditional monasticism nor even Christianity. The Devil seeks domination and control. The Evil one demands total submission. Christ grants us full freedom.
As Father Alexander Schmemann once said, “If God were interested in imposing His Authority on us, He never would have come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.”
Yet the whole diocese, the clergy and many of the laity, have cowered before the bishop in fear of arousing his ire. We are bullied and threatened, verbally abused and insulted, suspended and deposed into obedience. The seminarians at Kodiak are lectured on the necessity of total and unquestioned obedience to the Bishop as if to Christ Himself.
The identification of anyone or anything with God is the very definition of idolatry. To equate any human person’s word or will, priest or patriarch with God’s, is a dangerous confusion. I would call it “episcopolatry,” the worship of bishops, the confusion of the bishop’s word and will with God’s Word and God’s Will. It is a heresy that needs to be further analyzed. It is perhaps more widespread in Russia than any other country I have visited.
It is precisely the Russian tendency toward authoritarianism that disturbs us most as the Russian Church is held before us as an ideal we need to emulate. It was, rather, the Russian Church that rediscovered the principle of sobornost, of conciliarity, in the Orthodox Tradition and reaffirmed it. It was on this basis that the Orthodox Church in America drafted and approved her constitution, affirming and implementing the decisions of the Moscow Council of 1917, even when in Russia itself these decisions were never fully implemented, in the face of the bloodiest persecution the Church has ever endured.
Certainly the abuse of Episcopal authority, the temptation for the hierarchy to behave in dictatorial and abusive ways, created the environment in which Bolshevik propagandists could agitate successfully for the murder of all clergy, whether personally guilty of such inappropriate and unchristian behavior or not.
How else can one explain that, for the first time in history, the clergy who were murdered, tortured and exiled in Russia were the victims of baptized, chrismated Orthodox laity? The Russian Church is reluctant to consider how her own shortcomings and sins may have provoked much of the violence against her, the world’s most fearsome persecution of any Church, not perpetrated by “pagans” or “infidels” but by her own sons and daughters. Certainly there was something deeply wrong, within the Church and not just outside Her, to produce the ferocity of hatred and violence from which the Church suffered at the hands of her own children. Why should we today, a century later, in another land, living in very different social, political, economic and spiritual conditions, seek to emulate, to restore that mentality and that system here?
We are already producing laity who dislike, reject and even hate the new identity, the new authoritarian mentality, the entire system which has been imported and imposed in the name of the “correct” the “right” and the “true Russian Orthodox” way. And some of the requirements, such as the demand that clergy wear their cassocks everywhere in public at all times, are rather inconvenient and impractical in villages without paved roads or sidewalks and no indoor plumbing for doing laundry. Everyone who has visited Russia knows that priests there almost never appear in public in their cassocks, but we are told we are being molded to fit their patterns and practices, which is simply untrue.
Has anyone, any clergy or laity, in public or private, raised any objections? Perhaps they have, but we have not been informed of it. They were rebuked, punished, silenced. There is a revealing story about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s response to an American journalist who submitted a question at a news conference, when Khrushchev was touring the USA in 1959, asking if Nikita was so opposed to Stalin’s policies, why hadn’t he denounced them much sooner. Khrushchev angrily pounded the lecturn and demanded that the reporter who had had the gall to raise such a question stand and identify himself. When no one dared rise, Khrushchev calmly noted “That’s what I was doing!”
The clergy and the laity here are like that cowering newsman. We have not dared stand, for fear of being rebuked, humiliated, jailed, “executed.” There is not much use losing one’s place, one’s dignity, one’s ministry for nothing. If we are going to be punished for daring to disagree with the new Russian identity that has been imposed, the new Russian style autocracy that has been imposed, the new police-state terror that has been imposed, we will have to do so together.
Some are reluctant to disagree or oppose the Master in any way, falsely assuming that “Vladyka” indicates total control, as a slave master appointed by God. But our “master” is supposed to indicate a maestro, as the conductor of a symphony orchestra, who brings us into harmony with each other, as we produce beauty, joy, peace, love, kindness, gentleness, the Gifts of the Spirit. We do not know with any certainty how our brothers feel, because we need to be careful to whom we express our real thoughts or feelings. We have the sense that some clergy are spies, reporting, tattling to the bishop. If they catch wind of any criticism, any “plots” against the Throne, any subversive Disobedience, there will be negative repercussions..
We know that some closely attached to the bishop totally believe in his policies, and fully support, in obedience, his every directive and dictate. They claim to love him, and seek to fulfill his will as if it were Christ’s. But we see him attack, abuse, insult, harm, wound, hurt others each day. Any one can be grumpy, speak with irritation or anger, at one time or another. Here, this behavior is not a matter of mood, but of orientation and deliberate policy. Anger in Alaska is a means of control, the way in which we have been silenced, coerced, manipulated and emasculated. We are certain that even those close to the bishop are not blind to this, cannot have missed the many painful, unkind encounters, the shaming and cruel treatment so many have received from Our Leader.
We have priests who have been abruptly transferred or dismissed from their parishes because they upset the bishop, even unintentionally. We have priests who have been denied permission to leave their parishes to attend funerals for their immediate family members. We have priests who regret ever having been ordained, and we have matushki who fear for their husbands, resent the way they themselves are coerced and bullied, and who dread any contact with the bishop.
He has an incredible capacity for unkindness, but kindness should be the easiest of all the virtues to fake, if one had to. Love and patience, humility, or self-control are probably hard to falsify, but kindness should be one attribute one might, at least, pretend to have. We are fearful of his unkindness.
Our People have a history of patience and longsuffering. Our priests love their flocks and their communities. When it was only they who knew and suffered, they were willing to endure. But these attitudes, procedures, behaviors and rules by now have filtered down to effect many laity. We find fewer at services. We receive fewer donations. We hear of entire families refusing to participate or support the parish or the diocese. When the bishop comes, attendance drops. The priests are not the only ones who are afraid.
We are micro-managed more than any clergy at any time in any diocese anywhere. We feel distrusted, that we cannot make normal pastoral decisions ourselves. Only the Bishop Himself can make what, in any other diocese, are routine pastoral decisions, even though the local priest knows the situation and the individuals involved and the bishop has no direct knowledge. We are forbidden to move about our diocese, and our wives are told that they cannot leave their parishes without securing the bishop’s permission. I have received memos insisting that I have no right to move about within the city in which I live, except to go to church and back, the equivalent of house arrest.
The bishop has forbidden us to baptize children who have not been given Orthodox Christian names. We have parishioners going to the Catholic Church to have their children Christened. Some of the directions we receive make little or no pastoral sense, but we are afraid to disregard them, for fear of being “reported” and incurring the ire of the hierarch. We live in fear more oppressive than what I knew under Soviet occupation during the Cold War in Czechoslovakia. For most of my brothers, this is a new and terrifying condition. For me it is too reminiscent to accept.
The Chancellor and newly appointed Rector of St. Herman’s Seminary had his meltdown last May. None of us blame him. We do not know how he could tolerate living under the bishop’s direct control day in and day out for years. We would have had a breakdown long ago. During his hours of intoxication, several reliable witnesses heard him speak of how intolerable his life had become, how he could no longer endure the abuse, how he wanted to escape. All this he denies now that he has completed rehab, but none of us believe he has always been alcoholic. We believe his position and proximity to the bishop has “driven him to drink,” because we know it would us! We empathize with Fr. Isidore, but his return has confirmed that he will obey and conform to the bishop’s agenda and ideology, and in this he has isolated himself from the rest of us who sought to support and befriend him. This is a tragedy for him and for us all.
We would implore the Holy Synod to conduct a sincere and thorough investigation of that incident, not because it has serious legal repercussions, though it does, but because it allows a window into the deeper and more tragic reality that is the Diocese of Alaska today. We feel imprisoned in our own country, incarcerated by rather than liberated by our priesthood.
We simply ask to be heard. We beg you to give us a voice once again. We have no where else to turn. If you will not invite us to testify, to speak of our own lives, and the spiritual, moral and one might add theological health of our diocese and seminary, we will be forced to retire into that silence once more and endure the retribution that will follow for our daring to speak at all.
May God have mercy on us all.
The unworthy archpriest
Michael J. Oleksa
Feast of Orthodox Theology
Three Hierarchs 2008