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A Transfigurative Moment

In our National Capital Region, where I have lived and served for more than two decades, we’ve become accustomed, even resigned, to the refusal of numerous political leaders to accept responsibility for their actions. So often we hear, painfully, the weasel refrain, “Mistakes were made”—the verb in the passive voice clearly providing cover for unnamed perpetrators to hide and to escape the short arm of justice in Washington, DC.

If it’s frustrating for concerned citizens to endure such self-serving evasion, cowardice, and dishonor from their national leaders, then it’s extremely disheartening for the clergy and faithful of the Orthodox Church in America to witness our own bishops acting more like slippery politicians than worthy successors to the Lord’s apostles.

The recent “Pastoral Letter from the Holy Synod of Bishops” (October 9, 2008) was probably the last missive that they will publish prior to the All American Council (AAC) in Pittsburgh in November. That’s too bad for them and for us. Even the tepid repentance they offer is undermined by what they leave unsaid, and the whole affair augurs a potential disaster at the AAC.

To be sure, in their Pastoral Letter the bishops collectively “accept our responsibility for what has taken place”—namely, “the loss of trust, feelings of betrayal, division among brethren, and an increase in passion in the hearts of many.” The bishops also admit to having been “inattentive and negligent” and confess that they “have failed on many levels.” But that’s as far as they seem willing to go down the path of repentance: mere sins of omission. What about the Holy Synod’s sins of commission that cry out for justice?

Where is a confession of active collusion in the suppression of vital information, the false denials of wrongdoing by the now defrocked Rodion Kondratick and his minions in the Chancery in Syosset, and the dismissive treatment and personal abuse of the whistle-blowers and even those who merely raised questions about fiscal peculiarities and other miscreant behavior? Where is so much as a hint by the bishops of their collective shame over the enormities that they have aided and abetted, most egregiously the pilfering of special funds for widows and orphans, other victims of terrorist atrocities at Beslan and on Nine-Eleven, the survivors of the devastating earthquake in Armenia, or Bibles for the Orthodox faithful in Russia? Where is a genuine expression of remorse?

When the bishops “also acknowledge the reality and depth of the pain, hurt and confusion that have been endured by many of the clergy and the faithful of our Church,” I hear an echo of the Washington mantra: “Mistakes were made.” If the bishops are sincerely contrite for their particular roles in all of that “pain,” why can’t they bring themselves to state clearly, unequivocally, and with verbs in the active, not passive, voice that they are personally—not just collectively—sorry for the pain that they have inflicted upon the faithful? A truly profound, dramatic, vastly superior gesture would have included separate bullet paragraphs by each of the seven signatory bishops expressing, in turn, his remorse in the first person: “I apologize for my personal failures in the scandal, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.” Is such a request for a simple public repentance really too much to ask of our bishops?

No, but it may be too much to expect from them.

The “path forward” that they lay out in the Pastoral Letter is, astonishingly, equally distressing. The bishops call for “mutual forgiveness and reconciliation” as if we are, all of us in the OCA, somehow guilty of wrongdoing in the scandal. To be sure, the Holy Synod is not alone in their abysmal failure to exercise moral leadership in the present situation. There’s plenty of blame to share with the Metropolitan Council and, of course, the former staff at the Chancery in Syosset, including the two retired metropolitans. But the bishops’ attempt to implicate the entire Church reeks of disingenuousness—yet another breathtakingly irresponsible and manifestly unfair act.

I, for one, feel no guilt whatsoever for the rampant theft, deception, intimidation, extortion, blackmail, and other as yet unspecified crimes and immoral behavior that have scandalized the faithful in the dioceses and parishes beyond the fetid confines of the mansion in Syosset. And I’m quite confident that few of the other clergy or laity feel otherwise.

And yet the bishops urge each parish to stage “a ceremony of mutual forgiveness” prior to the AAC in November! Many local Orthodox churches already conduct such a service annually on Forgiveness Sunday—a meaningful, deeply personal, and spiritually rewarding act for most, if not all, of the voluntary participants. The Holy Synod is, however, practically mocking that authentic annual occurrence in a transparent attempt to deflect attention away from their own guilt and need for forgiveness by cravenly shifting the burden to “all of us.” Lest there be any doubt as to that strategy, consider their cavalier attitude toward the so-called Act of Repentance scheduled for the conclusion of the opening session of the AAC according to the proposed agenda: “There’s need, of course, for some expression of this at the All American Council as well . . .”

For a couple of weeks I’ve been calling the Chancery in Syosset, trying in vain to learn what kind of “act of repentance” we delegates might expect at the AAC. The bishops have now tipped their hand. Perhaps they envision a perfunctory kumbaya moment when everyone in attendance declares in the comfortable anonymity of the collective “we” his or her “guilt” and asks for “forgiveness” of one another for the crimes and immorality of the real perpetrators. Such a parody of true Dostoevskyan universal responsibility and forgiveness would, in the present circumstances, cheapen the meaning of forgiveness, undermine the pursuit of justice, and dishonor the participants, including the bishops themselves.

For the OCA to “move forward in this difficult time,” as the bishops put it so hopefully in the conclusion of the Pastoral Letter, they will have to demonstrate that they truly “get it” this time. Like the father in the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son, the clergy and faithful of the OCA are, I presume, eager to embrace our archpastors, forgive their “mistakes” and failures as spiritual and moral leaders, and “move forward” together—but not through an act of cheap grace without a particular, unequivocal, personal sign of remorse. The confession of the prodigal son himself might serve as inspiration: “I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:21).

I implore the Holy Synod of Bishops to transcend the generic collective approach in their Pastoral Letter and to take a radically different tack during the Act of Repentance at the AAC in November.

Three specific steps would seem to be in order:

First, that the Holy Synod consent to a rescheduling of the ceremony after the election of the next metropolitan to allow for an open, authentic, and free-wheeling but respectful discussion of the crisis and other pressing issues.

Second, that each bishop, in turn during the Act of Repentance, stand before the entire Council and express his personal repentance in the first person singular and ask forgiveness of the Church—not by mumbling some vague generalities, but rather by naming, boldly and courageously, all of the specific offenses of which he is personally guilty, holding back nothing and pledging neither to engage in those particular sins of commission nor succumb to the temptation to inaction in the face of manifest injustice or immorality.

And, third, that each bishop in turn—and the Holy Synod as a body—proclaim before God and the entire Orthodox world their intentions to rededicate themselves to act with integrity, to impose just disciplinary measures upon all of the perpetrators of the scandal under their hierarchical authority or to pursue justice in the civil courts if necessary, and to restore in full (restitutio in integram) all of the stolen charitable funds and the reputations and honor of those clergy and laity who have suffered unjustly at their own hands.
Then the bishops may expect, with a confident hope, the clergy and faithful in Council assembled to embrace them one by one, in a spirit of exuberant thanksgiving, even if the ceremony—and that plenary session of the AAC—should last for hours on end. That would signal the beginning of the reconciliation and healing for which we, all of us, fervently pray.

It would be a truly transfigurative moment.

[Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, PhD, is currently on active-duty at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, as a Chaplain (Colonel) in the US Army and continues to teach as a Professorial Lecturer in the University Honors Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.]



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