OCA “Town Hall” Meeting Notes: Hartford, CT, July 23, 2008

The July 23, 2008, Town Hall Meeting at All Saints Orthodox Church, Hartford, CT, opened with “O Heavenly King.”

Meeting facilitator, OCA Secretary, Archpriest Eric Tosi, welcomed the participants and gave a background to the Town Hall Meeting process. He stressed that from the Town Hall meetings, the Preconciliar Commission is looking for concrete suggestions for the upcoming All-American Council in November. Fr. Eric outlined the ground rules that have been established for the meetings. Upon the recommendation of participants, the first question addressed was:

Question 1: What is the issue faced by the Church at this time; what went wrong?

What we have heard through the internet is that money that was directed to specific areas has in some way been misappropriated. This was the original issue: the poor administration of funds. Things have snow-balled now and it is hard to know what the issue really is. It is hard to know what is factual on the internet. The issue is what is going to solve the problem?

The real issue is bigger than we can deal with at an AAC. The real issue is the Church and the fact that we have all sinned. We are all in this together. People stay in the Church because they care about the Church, even if we disagree. Once we admit that we all sin, we can find a way to forgive through love.

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The big issue is two things that are connected: first, a massive failure of leadership – the leaders in our Church failed us, saying they were doing one thing and doing something else both through willful wrong-doing and through incompetence and ignorance. We have not selected our leaders well enough. Second, and related, the failure in leadership has resulted to this very moment in a situation where the central Church administration thought it was serving the Church when in reality the Church was serving the central administration. The reality of the Church was forgotten. The leaders became the served rather than the servants.

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The Church has been caught in a malaise for quite a few years. It involved the central administration, but it also involved the general membership. We forgot what the Church was about in the face of five-year-plans and All-American Councils. We have to embrace the zeal that was part of the Church when we became autocephalous in 1970.

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One of the things that I have faced that is breaking my heart in terms of my ministry, my family and my community is massive pain being felt by those who feel that they have been fundamentally betrayed by the Church to which they have sacrificed so much of their lives. In the midst of so much pain, it is difficult to address these people. From a pastoral perspective we cannot forget this.

A key question is, if there has been a massive failure of leadership under the current Metropolitan, why is he still in place? How can we say that there has been a change when the source of the failure, our current Metropolitan, is still in place?

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Scripture shows us that if sin occurs and is tolerated among God’s people there is wholesale defeat. This is being manifested in the OCA today. We can see the results around us which show individual sin was not limited to the person but affected everyone. There can be no true healing unless the confession of sin is not total. When information is withheld people lose trust; there is a power balance between those who know and those who do not. One cannot tell what is truth and fiction. The only remedy is to proclaim the truth. I hope all charges and allegations will be investigated fairly and the findings be released.

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I have been involved with the Church for over 70 years, including in diocesan administration. Are we creating a hell by these questions on money and misappropriation? What is this doing to the majority of the Church’s membership? If we continue this, what are we going to learn? A lot of bad judgments were made, but we have to go on. I cannot see prolonging this issue year after year. I don’t think there is any benefit to this. We are creating a hell.

==

I still continue to be so saddened by the behavior of leaders within our Church. But what saddens me more is the bile and evil and hatred which comes from the clergy and laity who present themselves as those who will save us and fix our problems. I believe that they have become as great, or greater, a problem to the Church with the evil that they spew day after day after day. Our leaders are human and what really breaks my heart is the ways they are treated with such disrespect. At a time when we should be working together many are taking a different tact. These people do not speak for me; they do not represent me. And this is what saddens me most.

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There are no checks and balances in the administration and it is not that people hate what is going on. People don’t like it, but it is not a stringent hate. Our Metropolitan, who was Treasurer, knows about these misappropriations and we need to know the truth. How can we trust the administration now after funds were taken from funds such as the Christmas Stocking Fund and the 9-11 Fund? How can we trust the administration now?

Question 2: What impact have these events in the OCA of recent years impacted you?

I believe there is great hope. When I was thinking about the total break down of central administration I thought: I wonder why the other disciples didn’t know what Judas was doing. I want to know why Jesus didn’t resign when Judas came forward. Remember what came out of those three days of total break down? We are now seeing openness like we have never had before. We have the hope that is illustrated from those days 2000 years ago every time we approach the chalice. We need to keep this in mind when we think about this.

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Our focus has been on the leadership of our national Church for direction in the face of betrayal. The other layer is our Church in the greater Orthodox landscape. At the AAC in 1999 we heard a vision of us living with our autocephaly: we cannot wait until the all of the other Churches around the world accept us as the autocephalous Church in America – we need to be that Church. The plates of Orthodoxy in North America are shifting and we are idling here in all of this. We are not taking care of the talent that we were given in our autocephaly. How responsible have we been in our dioceses and parishes living out our identity as the local Orthodox Church in this country to bear witness to people here? We need to return and pray about this talent and to renew our calling to witness in the greater Orthodox community that which has been instructed to us and to our care.

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The major impact that the events of recent years has had on me is that I have lost trust in some of our hierarchs and clergy. I have thought that the presbyter and the bishop is someone to look to as an example of morality and Christian life. I am completely demoralized and confused when I look at the internet and see bishops being removed and presbyters being defrocked. This is deeply disappointing. I ask, “Is what they have done a Christian way of doing things?” What keeps me in the Church is my diocese because I believe that we are doing things right and I don’t want to look outside it.

Question 3: What do you see as a “best case” scenario for the Church?

In our parish we have the separation of the financial and the spiritual: the financial with the parish council and the spiritual with the priest. Perhaps we should have this in the central administration as well.

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My life wouldn’t be the same without the Orthodox Church. Part of leadership is measurement and acknowledgment of where we are. The OCA has been in a state of decline over the decades and we have ignored it. The issues of recent years are a blip on the map. Where will the Church be if we survive this? Will our children have a Church? Looking at the resources and energy to run the central administration of the Church we see that all Churches have similar demands. We are under attack. We are facing a darkness daily that is far greater than the issues we are talking about in the financial crisis in the Church. To combat this enemy, we have to have the humility to gather and say that it is finally time to come together – all the jurisdictions – and figure out how to form one Orthodox Church in America that can grow in this land.

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Our diocesan task force on Church growth delivered a report at the last assembly showing that the overall members of the diocese since 1990 declined by 38%. At this rate, by 2020 there will be less than 1000 people in our diocese. The real question is, with all that is going on in the national Church, how that relates to what we are doing in our diocese and our parishes.

This year our budgeted income in the diocese is $371,000.00 and our internal expenses are $119,000.00; $261,000 is sent to Syosset. In a best-case scenario either (1) the money sent to the central administration is used to build up the life of the local Church, or (2) we radically reduce the amount of money sent to the central administration so the diocese can use it to avoid the tailspin that we have seen over the years.

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In the Gospels our Lord speaks about pruning the vine to make it grow. It is my hope that we, by this crisis, are being pruned, that the Lord is using what is going on now to make us a better and more fruitful vineyard.

We also have to remember that the Holy Spirit always works in the Church. In the election of our current Metropolitan the Holy Spirit was in charge and it is up to us to discern where He wants us to go in the events in which we find ourselves, hoping that the Spirit is guiding us to a better future.

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The best case scenario would be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Even without that blessing, we can ask the coming of Christ into our personal lives and our life as the Church.

I have not followed this issue closely, but what I have heard did create some disturbing thoughts in me; for example, my family had reexamined our gifting to the national Church. There has to be trust reestablished in these areas. I do have hope that lessons can be learned from this and one lesson is how we are coming together tonight. This is very positive and the Church should be applauded for it; it is only sad that a difficult situation has prompted this kind of meeting.

I am originally from the diocese of the south and I question why cannot our diocese of New England experience the kind of growth that is being experienced by the Diocese of the South? At a national level the administration needs to see where Orthodoxy is growing and apply the lessons learned there elsewhere.

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It is time to rip off the band-aid, expose the wound – however difficult that might be – and heal it. We need to address this issue as the Church and determine what the truth is. Are we going to take care of this, or are we going to let the government and the lawyers do it for us? We need to address this scandal ourselves, and we cannot be told that it is being taken care of and, “Don’t worry.” We need to say, “Enough,” and clean our house, whatever that takes.

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There is no personal, private sin. We are tainted by the sins at the core of this crisis – lust, greed, and pride. Someone has to speak like the boy who saw the emperor had no clothes. It is time for the Spirit to course through the Church and to heal us. It is time for those who have sinned to repent and avoid the temptations that have corrupted them. Pray for the Church that it will be healed.

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St. Paul says that, “Perseverance builds character and character builds faith.” God works in everyone’s life, even when we feel that He is far away. Especially in the difficult times, God requires us to be humble and listen with faith. God says, “Look at Me. I am holding you. I am guiding you.”

We will never get a full understanding of the financial mismanagement at Syosset. Sometimes trying to get full understanding is like picking at the wound over and over again so that it stays raw and cannot heal.

If we look at our time of difficulty from the perspective of God we can still reinitialize our missionary and outreach work and this will help renew us. Fr. Schmemann used to say, “You don’t have the resurrection. What do you have?” We have the resurrection. Let us live it. Rather than coming down on our hierarchs, leaders and servants, let’s lighten up and pray for them. Let us take part in the Holy Mysteries, ask that we be built up, and live the reality of the Kingdom.

==

The best case scenario for the Church is that the victory was won on the Cross, and the issue is do we want to take part in the victory. The issue is what do we do while waiting for Him to come? I would like to make six specific points:

(1) Ask Metropolitan Herman to retire, because you cannot be part of the problem and part of the solution. Sometimes the best thing we can do to move something forward is to get out of the way.

(2) We have a moratorium on the making of bishops until we have a large pool of candidates. There are no valid candidates right now. We’re better off with no bishops than bad bishops. The Antiochian got by for years with one bishop and one assistant.

(3) Total transparency in every aspect of the Church, not just finances. “We are as sick as our secrets.” If you are doing something that you would not want to tell anyone else about, why are you doing it?

(4) Reexamine what it means to hold to our tradition. We are addicted to tradition with a small “t” at the expense of being faithful to Tradition with a big “T”. We are crazed with this and we are incredibly ignorant about our Tradition.

(5) Respect education and learning, rather than honoring the “ignorant holy man.” There is a long tradition in the Church of education and learning. We have to fight ignorance.

(6) We have to do whatever is necessary to achieve Orthodox unity in North America, because unless we are united we will fall. The only people who can solve that problem are our bishops. At some point they just have to do it; the lay people are more than willing.

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My vision is that in ten years we will see an AAC that is one-day long and half of it is Liturgy. Second, that we see Town Hall Meetings all across the country where we are talking about mission and Church growth. Then we will know that the wound is healed.

Question 4: How can we address your concerns at the AAC?

As a priest when you come to me for confession, I don’t want to recreate your sin in me. I don’t want full disclosure but I do want an honest sketch of what happened. I want to see this at the beginning of the AAC with an act of forgiveness. Something has to happen that is real and tangible, but that does not allow us to enter into the sin.

==

We have to make changes to the OCA Statues, because it is good but full of holes that people can take advantage of, as this situation has shown.

(1) Eliminate the permanent positions of Primate, Chancellor and Treasurer. Position of Primate should be held by each member of the Synod for a term, not for life. The Chancellor and Treasurer should be elected either by the AAC or Metropolitan Council. I would also like to rename the Metropolitan Council and even say change the name of OCA to “American Orthodox Church” to show that we have started with something new.

(2) Incorporate work of the OCA Organizational Task Force into the Statue.

(3) Duties of auditors should be established and be people trained for the work they have to do. Part of our problem is that the auditors did do their work properly. The auditors should also have access to financial records of all monasteries and seminaries.

(4) The Metropolitan Council should follow their mandate in the statute and not just be “yes-men” for the Metropolitan.

(5) Each diocese should have one bishop and if a bishop is not available we should go beyond the OCA to look for bishops. And each bishop should be responsible for one diocese only.

(6) A task force should be set up to revised the Church’s Statues and present for approval at the 16th AAC.

(7) Pass the following resolutions:

  • Ask the Holy Synod to retire the Metropolitan;
  • Reprimand Metropolitan Theodosius;
  • All hierarchs should apologize to the Church at large for allowing the problems to happen and benefitting from them;
  • Each diocesan assembly should have a secret vote of confidence in their diocesan bishop;
  • The Metropolitan Council should consider all law suits and investigations carefully taking into account the time and costs involved and whether they will be of ultimate benefit or detriment;
  • Move out of Syosset because it now has a marred history.

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We need to have outside auditors to avoid a conflict of interest. Also, all financial people in the dioceses and the Church should be bonded.

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One approach to addressing our Church’s challenges is structural, establish standardized behaviors and activities. Another approach is the relational approach, which is sorely missing from the life of the Church. What if at the AAC we spent time asking our levels of administration, diocese and institutions asked, “How can we help you?” Each diocese could gather in a similar fashion and have a brother bishop moderate this discussion. And then to hear from our Holy Synod of Bishops – to often at our AAC’s we do not hear from our bishops. We could hear what things are working well and what things are not working, and at the same time to really pray for our bishops. If we do not deal with each other in a relational way, no amount of writing and statutes will help.

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I would like to see this AAC look at the expansion of liturgical roles for women in the Church.

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It is important for us to remember that as important as effective administration is, it does not make the Church. What make the Church is what we do – in our families and communities. The AAC involves what we do as a national Church. A draft budget – showing what we do – should be released as soon as possible, with concrete objectives that drive that budget.

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Before the AAC we need to unite in prayer. We will accomplish nothing good if we do not prepare ourselves through prayer to attend our work. These prayers should be published – a prayer for the AAC, petitions during the Liturgy, prayers to say together – for use throughout the Church, and if not throughout the Church, at least as a diocese. In this way we are calling on the Holy Spirit to lead us and are not being lead by our own opinions.

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When I converted to Orthodoxy I was invigorated. When I went to my first AAC I was amazed at how elaborate the venue was. I walked away disappointed by the opulence. It is important to gather together, but when we have such financial problems both in our Church and our homes we have to streamline our expenses and cut back the pomp and circumstance and give these funds back to the churches. Also I saw people working together, but decisions were already made. We are all separated and we all have to unite and this will only happen if we are good examples. We lead by example and this has to start at the top, cutting back and working together for the benefit of the Church.

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In response to a question about whether the Church still has discretionary accounts, His Grace Bishop Nikon said that the Metropolitan has one and that it goes through the Treasurer and is audited.

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I am a recent convert to the Orthodox Church. As a child I was brought up in a Church that disintegrated rapidly when the bishop left and took our funds with him. I went to other Churches and watched them disintegrate was well. Finally I found the Orthodox Church and felt abundantly blessed. Please don’t let it disintegrate

In his concluding comments Bishop Nikon thanked the faithful for coming. “We are the Church,” he said, “We are here to face and fix the wrong.” He said that there is currently a crisis and there will be others, but our Church will stand until the end of time. He continued by saying, “We say that we don’t trust the administration. We should be saying, ‘We don’t trust the previous administration.’ New people are there, coming into an adverse environment and trying to rectify what went wrong.”

He concluded by saying, “We were all betrayed, but that does not stop us from being the Church. We cannot allow ourselves to fall short of being the Ark of God in the world, of being living icons in the world.” He said that he was honored to serve as hierarch of the Diocese of New England and to have this opportunity to come together as Church to help guide us back to our vision and our responsibility.

The meeting closed with “It is truly meet.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Orthodox Church in America 15th AAC, Town Hall Meeting Notes, Town Hall Meetings

2 responses to “OCA “Town Hall” Meeting Notes: Hartford, CT, July 23, 2008

  1. Comment submitted by email by Deacon Ambrose Powell, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, Claremont, NH:

    On the Theme: “Members of One Another”

    Introduction

    I would like to thank His Grace Bishop Nikon, Chair of the Preconciliar Commission, and all of the members of the commission as well as the Holy Synod. Thank you for conceiving of the Town Hall meetings and for your dedication of energy, time and resources necessary to schedule, prepare and summarize the meetings, in advance of the November All-American Council November 10 – 13, 2008, in Pittsburgh.

    Because our Lord has said: “Do not worry about tomorrow. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” I am glad for the Town Meetings. The Town Meetings allow a response today; they allow a discussion to begin today, so that we may face the troubles we face, and that we may face them together.

    Also, I thank those responsible for the choice of theme for the All-American Council, the theme that we are “Members of One Another, in Christ.” The theme reminds me to regard my brother and sister the right way, the Orthodox way, and approach the issues of the day together. Our unity comes not according to our own terms, but is God-given.

    These Town Meetings may serve as places for us to gather, from different parts of America and Canada; and I hope that from each place we may walk together to the All-American Council, united. Though the trust of a few has been abused, and the hearts of many are bruised, we must walk, together.

    Gifts and Gratitude

    The Preamble of the Agreement on Autocephaly provided “…that the continued growth and well being of the faith in America will be promoted through the autocephaly… .” Almost 40 years ago, autocephaly made possible for us the opportunity, structure, and place for people of this land to experience “life and growth and spiritual understanding.” It is time to look upon the gift of autocephaly with deep and enduring gratitude.

    A High School valedictorian looked out at his audience and proceeded to share a very simple, vivid story of living gratitude. His story was about a man who was driving at dusk. He spotted something out in the middle of the frozen lake. This man stopped his truck and took out his rifle and flashlight and began walking to see what it was. He soon discovered that it was a deer, in fact a buck with a large rack. This man thought that the buck would provide many dinners for himself and his family. But the buck was pitifully stranded on the ice. Its legs were spread out. The buck was unable to stand up because of the slippery surface. The man looked at the buck and bent over it and said, “I am going to help you.” This man laid down his rifle and then sat down with his back against the body of the buck, and he began pushing the buck, sliding it ever so slowly across the frozen lake until finally reaching the edge. There the ice was rougher and there was snow. The buck was able to stand up. Off the buck walked, towards the woods. But before entering the woods, the buck stopped and turned and looked back at the man. It was a long look. It was as if the buck understood the man had done something beautiful, unselfish. Then, after the long stare, the buck turned and entered into the woods. The valedictorian said this was what it was like for him at the moment of his speech to look out at his parents and grandparents and all those in the audience at graduation and give a long look of gratitude for the kindness and generosity given to him, with the knowledge that he would be moving forward and, in a certain sense, carrying them where they could not go without him. Those responsible for autocephaly helped us to the place where we can rise up and begin to walk and make disciples of this nation.

    Problems, Consequences and Responses

    The past loss of money from the central administration is a quake that has set off a tsunami of distrust. All the more reason for us to be the city set on a hill. We need to move to a higher ground.

    The problems before us are like a low pressure. When low pressure forms, it always attracts the approach of high pressure. The low-pressure and the high-pressure inevitably compete for the same space. Winds form, sometimes with rain, sometimes with lightning, and other times with the destructive force of a Hurricane Katrina.

    The disciples on the boat with the Lord at sea faced a sudden storm. For them, there was no warning. The storm was about to destroy them and their boat. They turned for help. They turned to the Lord. They woke Him. The Lord gave the words of faith. The Lord calmed the sea.

    But we are not in that boat, and we are not on that sea. We have landed. We live on this continent. The Lord gives us His wonderful counsel. Let us remember the Lord’s words:

    “Therefore, whoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” (Matthew 7: 24 – 27)

    What is the house of Orthodox faith in America to look like? “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127) Let us face our weakness and our losses and, like Nehemiah, build with the strength. Let us recommit ourselves to doing the work in which the Lord will be well pleased.

    Issues Presented

    We are disturbed and challenged in ways that could not have been anticipated at the beginning of autocephaly. Nearly 40 years ago, there was an expectation of prosperity. Now, there is a protracted investigation of lost money. Then, there was anticipated growth. Now, many parishes are in a free fall of membership. Then, a paradigm of diaspora prepared to yield to administrative and ecclesiastical order consistent with the Church on this continent. Now, instead of giving to this land, some have plans to be given unto to other lands, like Romania. All this is occurring almost 40 years after autocephaly.

    Then the issue was: Will there be an Orthodox Church in America?

    Now the issue is: Will Orthodox Church in America fulfill its mission?

    The Importance of Direction

    Jesus asked the two blind men: “Do you believe that I can do this?” They answered: “Yes, Lord.” They were healed, according to their faith. But when the Lord sternly warned them not to tell anyone, they disobeyed. While still believing, they disobeyed.

    None of us wakes up in the morning and decides: “Today, I will disregard the Lord, and today I will not keep His commandments.” God forbid. Believing like the healed blind men, however, we can behave as if we know better than the Lord.

    Some will say, half jokingly, “Real men don’t need directions.” This leads to conversations under stress:

    “Dear?”

    “What?”

    “Uhm. ……….. Uhm….. Dear?”

    “What is it?”

    “Uhm………… do you think……. I mean, do you think that we…”

    “What?”

    “Well, Dear, all I’m saying is, do you think that we kind of — do you think that we should –”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “… stop and, … stop and……. “

    “What?”

    “….get directions?”

    Is not this the same sort of stressful conversation among the hearts of laity and clergy? Let us admit our own need for direction.

    Jesus said: “My Father is working and I am working.” We do well to put on the mind of Christ, and to say: “I hear the word of God and I am doing it.”

    The Lord’s Great Commission

    Christ gives His Great Commission. Instantly we are members of one another. He says it in very easy to understand directions:

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) and “into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) and “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”(Acts 1:8).

    Then and now, our Lord gives us one Great Commission: Go and make disciples of all nations.

    Mission of the Orthodox Church in America

    The Mission of the OCA “is to be faithful in fulfilling the commandment of Christ to “Go into all the world and make disciples of all Nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….”

    The Lord’s Great Commission is described in the Mission Statement on the OCA website as the “commandment” of Christ.

    The Lord does not tell us to go and make members, or colonies, or deals.

    He tells us: Go! Make disciples!

    Immigrants, Generations & Converts

    We have come from different backgrounds and we have different experiences, yet we are members of one another. Some are monks, some missionaries, some priests, others refugees and immigrant workers, others are born here, some first generation, others converts and children of converts. All are Orthodox Christians in America.

    Our obedience to the Lord’s Great Commission does not depend upon how we arrived in this country. How we arrived in this nation, whether by birth, or by land, by sea or air, is not the question.

    We arrived in different ways, at different times, under different circumstances. But we are here for a common purpose.

    Let us look back and celebrate how we arrived, but let that look be for a purpose. Let us look back, but then let us commit ourselves to set our gaze upon America and ask “Why?” “Why have we arrived here?” “Why do we live here in America?”

    St. Paul’s Embrace of Athenians

    In his preaching, St. Paul told the people of Athens that the “unknown God”, to whom they had built a shrine, is not unknown:

    “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to the unknown God. Therefore, the one whom you worship without knowing, him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” (Acts 17).

    Like St. Paul, we are believers, bringing the Gospel to a people. We enter the culture. We do not impose or promote a culture from another nation. We neither point at the ignorance, nor pound our fists at the errors, nor withdraw from the inadequacy of the culture. St. Paul was a citizen of Rome; but in Athens he was a Greek.

    We are Christians in America, and we are Americans.

    Like St. Paul we offer ourselves as the salt of the earth, as the city set on a high mountain that cannot be hid, as the lamp that is lit and set on a lampstand, to enlighten a people and a land with the light of Christ.

    Making Disciples in America

    It is one thing for us to speak the language of English. This much we do. That is good. But it is another to speak the language of the nation’s soul.

    What is American citizenship, American nationality, and what are the “objects” of American worship?

    It’s been said that the essence of this nation is a dream. It is a results-oriented dream. It is an American dream that in this land all races, ages, nationalities, beliefs, ethnicities, colors are not only created equal but that all persons will live as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    Americans wrote the Constitution to establish checks and balances, rights and security. Yet more than 200 years later the U.S. Supreme Court still splits on Constitutional interpretation. Americans engaged in the Civil War to save, preserve and confirm the union of the nation; and in 2008, the Democratic Party has nominated a black candidate for President. Yet, there still lingers a problem of racial divide. Americans have practiced civil disobedience, participated in labor union negotiations, written laws against discrimination in the schools in the workplace and in places of public accommodation. Americans are committed to the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, the struggles and conflicts continue to this day; and there seems no end to the amount of proof that there is still inequality.

    This nation’s hunger and thirst for righteousness is yet to be filled. Its citizens agree that such a dream demands fulfillment. But there is disagreement on how that shall happen.

    There is a risk that the Orthodox faith somehow fails to speak to this nation and fails to be heard by this nation. There is a risk that the faithful divide themselves over money or ethnicity or territory.

    Spiritual Antarctica

    In Antarctica there is a carving out of territory for America, and this territory for Russia, and this territory for Sweden, and so forth.

    In Antarctica there is no nation, no peoples of that land.

    The land is not united but divided — territorialism over, of all things, ice!

    Traps and Boxes to Contain and Capture Faith

    The Orthodox are under tremendous pressure to remain silent about their faith. Why? Is it because public school textbooks rarely mention Byzantium or the Orthodox or the Great Schism? What if the silence persists? What voice and image will be noticed?

    The Roman schism has a new symbol. A century later, there is such a thing as the Popemobile, a Mercedes ML 430 worth half a million dollars. Its main feature is a “six-foot-tall glass enclosure built to showcase the pontiff.” The glass is double-pane and bulletproof. http://www.newsweek.com/id/132074 Just look at this man from the Vatican, who came to America and traveled the streets of Washington and New York, in April. Stepping inside the box, he could not be embraced, safe in the box he could not be crucified with Christ, behind double-pane glass he could not be struck even on one cheek. Deceit coaxed this man in a box, and then paraded him like a prize captive in the streets of America. All he could do was put on a smile and wave.

    There is a box for the Orthodox as well. It is a box big enough with doors wide enough for the Orthodox clergy and Orthodox faithful. That box has very attractive colors and doors. The box for Orthodox doesn’t allow outside domestic American light to come in or foreign light to go out. Once in the box, you can view the world in only one direction – backwards. You look to the past, to where you once lived or where your family once lived. But there’s no view of the future. You can’t see ahead, because you are going nowhere. You are in a box. And deceit has made the mission to America among the captives, invisible from the streets of America.

    The film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is full of symbolism, the symbolism of ethnicity. A woman from a large Greek family has a non-Greek fiancé. Before the wedding, he consents to be baptized. Ian is bathed in olive oil, then immersed by a priest three times in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is wearing a cross. He stands in the church, hair still wet. He looks at is fiancé and what does he say to her? Does he say: Now I am illumined, justified, washed? Does he say: Now I am crucified with Christ? Does he say: Now I am born again? No, he says none of these. He says: “Now, I am Greek.”

    I asked for directions to Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Meriden, Connecticut in order to attend the OCA New England Diocesan Assembly in October 2007. “Do you know where Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church is located?” The bystander was friendly, and was willing to help with directions. The bystander asked me a question, however: “Do you mean the Russian church?”

    How many in villages in this land look from the sidewalk and say: “That’s the Greek Church,” or “That’s the Serbian church,” or “That’s the Romanian church,” and so forth? The Tomos of Alexis in 1970 speaks of this problem: “In the last few decades she has sorrowfully witnessed the unfortunate appearance there of a pluralism of ecclesiastical jurisdictions, ….”

    We say at Pascha: let us embrace each other. But is it an embrace with the past, with ethnicity, with nationality? I cannot unite with Jesus if the Son of God insists on saying to me: I am Israeli-Orthodox. Our Lord says no such thing. Our Lord says with open arms: I am the way, the life and the truth. Our Lord says: I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.

    Are we not “Members of One Another, in Christ”? Greek in Orthodoxy must be Orthodox. Romanian in Orthodoxy must be Orthodox. Orthodox Christians in America must be OCA.

    Prioritizing Concerns

    So, let us prioritize our concerns and issues.

    We already have protections for finances and spending in place. The risk of repeated abuse is in check.

    I welcome the work of investigation of past loss, so long as it is intended for truth, not condemnation. Our Lord did not say to the sinful woman: “Oh, that’s okay, nobody has to know the truth about you.” Nor did He say “I condemn you and cast you out.” Rather, our Lord said to her: sin no more. There was truth. But, the truth was revealed in order to bring forgiveness. And forgiveness defeated separation of one person from another. Therefore, there is value in the work of the investigation committee, because we need truth, so we may remain obedient to our mission.

    But let us think of what level of attention we give to the past financial loss. Jesus knew Judas was an embezzler. Judas took money from the box, proportionately more than the scandal of our time. Economic betrayal it was. But did Jesus stop to teach best practices and fiscal responsibility to his disciples? Did the apostles later file suit papers, Peter et al vs Estate of Judas Iscariot for multiple counts of fraud and embezzlement, seeking trial and compensation from the courts of Rome or Jerusalem? The loss of money could not touch Jesus and His church.

    Fruits of Our Faith

    What will be the fruits of our faith, of our All-American Council, of our response to the challenges we face? What is our mission? Solvency? Stability? Legality?

    What of Faith, Hope and Love? Are we teaching these to our nation? Are we speaking and living and giving these to our children?

    Father Arseny was pulled into a conversation among political prisoners. What do you think Pop? What is the explanation for the Stalin government which executes thousands of clergy and imprisons tens of thousands? How do you see it, that the people allow their own bishops, priests and deacons to be arrested and send to forced labor and malnutrition and execution. He answered by identifying not an outward enemy. It is not the government to blame.

    “Children of priests became atheists and revolutionaries, simply because they had seen in their families lies and a lack of true faith. Long before the revolution priests had already lost the real right to be the shepherds of their people, of their conscience. Priesthood became a profession. Many priests were atheists and alcoholics.

    [Discussion of monasteries omitted]

    “We did not raise our people right, we did not give them the basis of strong faith. Remember all this! Remember! This is why the people were so quick to forget all of us, their own priests; they mainly forgot their faith and participated in the destruction of churches, sometimes even leading the way in their destruction.

    Understanding all of this, I cannot point a finger at our authorities, because the seeds of faithlessness fell on the soil which we ourselves had prepared. And from there comes the rest: our camp, our sufferings, the wrongful deaths of innocent people. But I will tell you in all sincerity: whatever happens in my country, I am its citizen. As a priest I always told my spiritual children that it is our responsibility to defend and support our Fatherland.”

    Father Arseny,1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, pages 56-57 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1998).

    Father Arseny used the term Fatherland to describe the land where he lived. We are talking about the land where we live, and that land is not the land of Russia. It is the land of America.

    Martin Luther King Jr. described our Fatherland this way:

    “…that’s why I tell you right now, I’m not going anywhere. They can talk, these groups, some people talking about a separate state, or go back to Africa — I love Africa it’s our ancestral home. But I don’t know about you. My father and my great-grandfather did too much to build this nation for me to be talking about getting away from it.”

    “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” Sermon by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., August 27 1967 (A Knock at Midnight, Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, ed.s (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 1998),

    At the 13th All-American Council, July 2002, then-retiring Metropolitan Theodosius reflected upon all his years of ministry and said these words in his homily:

    “As the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America we are commissioned by Christ himself to free the society in which we live from the slavery of sin and lead IT into the new life of righteousness. We are commissioned by Christ himself to interact with a complex culture that is still unfamiliar with the creative and liberating power of the Gospel.”

    Can we not see and preach on those things most treasured in America, those “objects” of worship, those identified in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Jefferson and every signer of the Declaration confessed with their names that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are gifts “endowments” specifically from God “their Creator”. Can we not reveal to Americans who their Creator is?

    Who will make disciples of this nation? Will government? Will the military? Will Hollywood? Will the great universities? Will the Humanists? The Unitarians? The Mega-churches and their rock bands and big screen televisions?

    Suggestions For Action and Change

    Here are some suggestions:

    1. Consider preaching periodically outdoors. Did not the apostles preach this way? Beginning on Pentecost 3,000 souls were converted from Peter’s morning address in a public place. For the apostles, even preaching in temples and synagogues was a form of preaching to a forum of unbelievers and adversaries and seekers.

    2. Consider putting an invitation in front of the church announcing all are invited to coffee hour. State the time of the preaching and the time of the coffee hour meal. Make sure it is stated that both are freely given. It is one thing to stand behind a serving line of a soup kitchen, where tables and counters separate server from served. It is one thing to write a check to support the work of others, where a check separates payor from payee. Gifts of assistance and gifts of money are good and honorable. Yet it is quite another to invite the poor to your own house, to seat the poor at your own table, to share with the poor your own conversation. But did not our Lord say to do this? When you invite to a meal, include the poor. “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

    3. Pray and fast for the sake of our communities. Let us not develop false hope of drawing the community off the streets and into a parish membership. Our mission is not to increase membership. But rather, having prayed inside the church, having received Holy Communion together in the church building, let us eagerly await with joy the words of the liturgical dismissal “Let us depart in peace” and enter the community as believers, just as the apostles, not seeking anything to gain but serving and showing compassion in prayer, in persistence and confidence in the presence of the Lord.

    4. Peter’s mother in law was healed of a fever by the Lord. We conclude that St. Peter was married. We conclude there was no allegiance to a law of celibacy as a condition to Episcopal office. St. Paul described celibacy as voluntary, never mandatory. It is better not to marry, he said. But “better” means if you cannot live single, then it is better not to. The office of bishop requires only that one be in control of his house, including his own children. The bishop is to be “the husband of one wife” and “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (1 Timothy 3:2-7) Especially in America, marriage is in need of strengthening. Consider allowing married men to serve as bishops.

    5. Consider whether it is harmful to promote a North American church to make disciples of three nations: America, Canada and Mexico. It may be wisdom to accept “one nation, one church,” not “one church, three nations.” It may be sound to change OCA to AOC and likewise encourage a COC and MOC.

    6. Consider greater emphasis upon life of the diocese.

    7. Consider more precisely defining the role and expectations and service of a Metropolitan and Metropolitan Council.

    8. Consider once per season assigning deacons to visit, serve and even periodically preach within other parishes of their Deanery or Diocese. The visitation of the bishop is impractical beyond annual travel; but by his deacons, the parishes see the reach of their own Deanery and Diocese.

    Setting Priorities

    The Israelites faced many Philistines, but David confronted their Goliath. Once energy was poured into the right challenge, other challengers took to flight and ran. What is the right challenge for us?

    Hot Topics and Not Hot Topics

    Tied to a public dock was a large, white, private yacht. Its immense size and sleek design was a show of private wealth and luxury. It was trimmed with chrome, teak wood, and oversized radar. It was a party boat. There was a party going on. People were snacking and drinking and talking on the decks of this large yacht. Some were waitresses and waiters. But one particular member of the crew was a cook. The cook was a very friendly cook. He wasn’t limiting himself to the private guests either. He was engaging the public there on the dock. He offered any one a chance to try one of his peppers. He had a very engaging accent, and a very attractive personality.

    “You want to try a pepper?”

    “Okay,” someone would answer. Others paused, just to watch. Into the mouth of the volunteer went the red hot pepper. No sooner did this volunteer begin to chew, his shoulders lifted up, his face winced, his mouth opened. His hand rapidly fanned air towards his tongue.

    “It’s no hot!” said the cook. The cook handed him a glass of water. The volunteer could not speak.

    “It’s no hot!” The cook said again.

    Then the cook took one of his own red hot peppers, dropped it in his mouth. He said it again: “It’s no hot!”

    Then he ate 2, 3, 4 more red hot peppers.

    At first, people thought: “He’s concealing his pain. It’s burning him. He’s lying about his pain.”

    But that theory was unsupported. His eyes didn’t water. His voice remained very relaxed. His face was happy.

    Then only one conclusion remained: that this man had a joy for food – and not only joy but a tolerance of heat.

    The topics of financial crisis, the decline in membership, the planned departure for the lure of nationalism or ethnicity, are like red hot peppers. To some, if swallowed there will be tears, choking and thoughts of walking away. But we are members of one another, in Christ. We have a love of life and a certain tolerance of worldly heat. The three youths preserved by Christ could say of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, like that cook: “It’s no hot!” But let us the faithful say even more. We can say what is hot. We can say: “What is hotter than the burning inside the hearts of Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus?” We can say: “What is hotter than tongues of fire which rested atop the heads of the Apostles?”

    Conclusion

    The Orthodox are commissioned to proclaim the good tidings as preached by the Holy Apostles, and to make disciples. In this land, in our time, Americans are wondering about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But they are worried about what this means in times of housing, health care, rising prices, times of war, times of terrorism. The people want to know what this means in terms of how to raise children, how to deal with the Internet, music, video games. The people want to experience abundance and freedom and fulfillment. It is in these times that America’s hunger and thirst exists, in this land, in this culture.

    What does the American need? He needs someone to comfort him, enlighten him, pray for him, pray fervently, incessantly for “abundance of the fruits of the earth and for peaceful times”, and to pour out his heart for his good and all his household, for the glory of God. He needs someone to come to him and reveal to him and fulfill what is in his heart’s desire.

    He needs the Church, the one Holy and Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church in America, to come speak of the fulfillment of the words in America “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and to reveal the Giver of these gifts.

    Let us preach the Lord’s Gospel to persons, fulfilling and transcending the American dream, because we are called to do so. We are called by our Resurrected Lord to be the Orthodox Church in America.

    ———————

    NOTE: “[there is] …tremendous potential of American Orthodoxy if it learns how to transcend all division, all provincialism and self-centeredness and to fulfill its God given unity. As to the non-Orthodox, it may help him to discover right here, in his own state or city, a spiritual tradition, a teaching, a life which, from now on, is to become an integral and active part of American destiny.” Schmemann, Alexander, Dean , St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, from Preface from Guide To Orthodox America , St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, N.Y., 1965, pp. 5-6

  2. Reader Stephen Bradford

    Last Wednesday, in Hartford, I participated in a truly remarkable experience. In my lifetime, I’ve been to too many “town hall” type meetings–on church growth, stewardship, lay ministry, just to name a few. But this time, we, clergy and laity together, reflected positively on how to make our church whole again. I came away from that encounter feeling justified, unlike previous ones where I felt frustrated.
    This is the conciliar dynamic that has been missing from our Church for too long. We need to see the whole picture and be able to take our places in that picture.
    It is my hope that if anything comes from the AAC in Pittsburg in a few months, it is just that: a re-awakening of our call to be witnesses to Christ and the 2,000 year history of HIS Church. That is what our continent is hungering for, and that is the business we should focus on.

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