Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In Gratitude for Archbishop Job

Dear Parish Faithful,

As I was beginning to prepare a second chalice for Holy Communion at yesterday's Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Job told me that he was not feeling well, and therefore would not be able to distribute Communion. I believe it was a combination of a lingering cold and a feeling of being over-heated. Not quite sure how he was feeling at the end of the Liturgy, I cut short some of my prepared comments about his crucial role in our recent Church scandal, thinking the sooner he was off his feet, the better. Believing that this may have been his last pastoral visit to our parish before his retirement, I further believed that he deserved some open acknowledgment of his admirable stance. I wanted to articulate the collective gratitude of many of you who were also deeply impressed by his fidelity to the truth. Therefore, I would like to "fill out" what was only adumbrated yesterday as to how I understand that crucial role looking back at this recent sorrowful episode in the history of our Orthodox Church in America.

Our "time of troubles" can be dated to a three-year period between November 2005 - November 2008. The three letters of Archdeacon Eric Wheeler landed as a veritable bombshell of disclosure, as an endless series of allegations poured forth from this "insider source" from financial to moral corruption at the highest levels of the Church's administration. An array of Initial reactions covered dismay, denial and discouragement. However, strong expressions of frustration and anger quickly appeared as the investigation of the allegations was undermined by the same dreary institutional cover-up schemes that prevail in the "secular world." It was at this point, in a letter to Metropolitan Herman dated November 28, 2005, that Archbishop Job posed the question that cut to the heart of the matter: "Are the allegations true, or are they false?" That was the one simple question that needed to be addressed and answered. But first, that crucial question needed to be asked. And Archbishop Job was the one who asked it. For the next three years or so, that was the one question that inspired a host of concerned Orthodox clergy and laity to "fight the good fight" over issues of openness, honesty and truthfulness on behalf of the integrity of the Church. In fact, I believe we could say that the whole three-year "battle" was fought over answering that question. went online in January 2006, now encouraged and "protected" by His Eminence, Archbishop Job within the Diocese of the Midwest. But without the support of at least one of the Church's hierarchs, the quest for truth may have been impossible to pursue with any sustained force over a long period of time.

Sadly, His Eminence received no support on the Synod of Bishops. He had a sympathizer or two, but no "voice" accompanied that interior sympathy. The Holy Synod was protectively closing ranks, and Archbishop Job found himself on the outside of that inner sanctuary. He was breaking a long-standing code of "sticking together" with his brother bishops in a time of crisis, hoping to last out the storm through hierarchical privilege, appeals to authoritative fiat (which included "gag orders" to the priests of some of the dioceses), and obfuscation of the real issues. His darkest moment came when two of the bishops - Tikhon of the West (now retired) and Nicolai of Alaska (now deposed in disgrace) - moved to have Archbishop Job removed from the Synod of Bishops. No one spoke in his defense. Yet, he managed to "hold on" by not succumbing to what amounted to a bullying pressure to "resign." And he quietly continued to thrust forward his now famous question: "Are any of the allegations true, or are they false?"

Whatever his failings and flaws may be, His Eminence rose above them and fulfilled his episcopal ministry as "overseer" of his diocese, and responsible member of the Holy Synod of Bishops, by acting with openness and honesty. And based upon the teachings of St. James, we believe that one powerful deed can cover a "multitude of sins." On the whole - though there were some notable exceptions - his diocesan clergy rallied behind him with great respect and support. I cannot detect any questionable motives behind his words and actions. There was clearly no attempt at self-aggrandizement on his part. He was genuinely relieved when he was not elected the new metropolitan. He spoke often of acting "bound by conscience." There were probably some missteps along the way, but His Eminence remained true to the course set upon with his initial question. When the time comes - April 2011 - he can retire with integrity as a "good and faithful servant." Though in the "bigger scheme of things" this was a minor drama within the history of the Church and the contemporary North American religious landscape, being faithful over "little things" has far-reaching repercussions. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that one can take a stance that goes against the grain, but which can prove to be effective if pursued with faithfulness and perseverance. And that many Christian people are still interested in the truth(!), and not simply pragmatic non-solutions. While some of the key figures in this "ecclesial drama" have been either deposed or disgraced - or continue to disgrace themselves - His Eminence, Archbishop Job has risen in stature. In due time, good triumphs over evil.

As we now know, the allegations were true as revealed by the long-anticipated report of the Special Investigation Committee, released shortly before the All-American Council held in Pittsburgh in November 2008. With the election of Metropolitan Jonah a new era was hopefully inaugurated in the life of the OCA. However, a new set of problems continue to plague the OCA and is making "moving forward" very difficult. We are beset by staggering legal fees as the OCA is being sued by the Kondratick family for millions and millions of dollars. These fees are essentially consuming our funds at a rate that we cannot sustain. All departments have been frozen as our assessment money is being spent in an attempt at fending off these crippling suits. The word "bankruptcy" is now becoming more that a worried whisper. But that reality continues to stare at the OCA minus an effective strategy for the future.

How does one sue the Church and yet remain a faithful son or daughter of the Church? St. Paul admonished Christians not to take each other to court, but to even suffer wrong if necessary. I would like to share an edifying story that will provide a contrast to the contemporary spectacle of a member of the Church suing his own church in such a destructive manner. I grew up in the Macedono-Bulgarian Diocese. Our diocese suffered through one of the many dreary "splits" that marked the life of many ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions here in North America in the 20th c. It was essentially a "political" issue. We had a very humble priest who found himself being vilified and slandered from various quarters. Absurdly, even his wife's morality and fidelity were being attacked! He bore this with a Christ-like capacity to suffer through this with patience. It would have been incomprehensible for him to have sued the Church or to act in a retaliatory manner. Instead of burning anger and a desire for revenge, he never spoke ill of his abusers and essentially forgave them all in the end when he was completely vindicated. And remember, my former parish priest was not found guilty before a spiritual court and deposed from the priesthood. He was innocent. What could be a stronger motive, then to publicly fight to prove one's innocence? He will be remembered in a certain way, and the person trying to destroy the OCA in a vindictive spirit will be remembered in a different way - or perhaps ... forgotten.

By the way, His Eminence shared with me his wish to visit all of his parishes "one last time," if possible, before he retires. I hope that this proves to be the case.

Fr. Steven

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