Bishop Jonah’s Address to the AAC on 11-11-2008
November 30, 2008 § Leave a comment
Christ is in our midst.
One of the reasons the Holy Synod wanted to postpone the answering of these questions was in order to give it more serious consideration and so that we could come up with a conciliar answer to these questions. But part of that discussion that we had, was that I would try and set out some theological principles which underlie these questions, so that we can look at them together and consider what we are doing together as the body of Christ in America according to the calling that we have been given.
We have been given (a calling) to be the very presence of the one Holy Catholic Church in America –constituted by the Gospel, constituted by our faith, constituted by the canons, the canons of the Holy Fathers, the traditions of the Holy Fathers… and all of those traditions that have been passed down to us.
Because, ultimately, what I see in many of these questions, and from the results of the Town Hall meetings, is a plea from the church for teaching — to be taught.
What is the ecclesiology of the Church?
How do we understand how the Church is supposed to operate?
Who are we and what are we trying to do?
And we have to be able to separate what is going on in the Orthodox Church in America according to the canons and the traditions of the Statute from a lot of the preconceptions that float around in our culture about how organizations operate. A lot of these very notions are distinct.
We are a hierarchical church, but what does that mean?
I think history has given to us an inheritance where hierarchy has been completely confused with imperial aristocracy and sometimes some of our bishops, (Bishop Benjamin in particular likes to joke about it.) you know, what happens to a guy if you put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine Emperor and you tell him to live forever? You know? (Laughter from audience)
I would assert first and foremost as Orthodox Christians our leadership, the leadership of the Church, that element that comes from above, is the divine element. But the leadership that is within the Church, the leadership of bishops and the dioceses of the Metropolitan among the Synod –because what it the Metropolitan? He is the chairman of the Synod. The leadership of a parish priest in his parish: If you sit there and you lord it over your parishioners that “I am the priest and I can do whatever I want and I can spend the money however I want without accountability and without…” you are not going to go very far. In fact you are likely to get thrown out because you will get into all sorts of problems. And I think that form of leadership is over. (Applause )
That form of leadership is over, obviously, as you all know, within the parishes. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in a monastery where I have been for the past 12 years. It doesn’t work, obviously, on the diocesan or on the national level.
Our leadership is leadership within; and underlying this is the essential theological principle that is in every aspect of our theology. It underlies our soteriology, it underlies our Christology, it underlies our ecclesiology — and that’s the principle in the word of St. Paul of ‘synergy’, of cooperation.
And it has to be a voluntary cooperation. And obedience, within that context, is not some kind of, some guy, who can lord it over you and make you do what he wants you to and you are going to get in trouble one way or another. Obedience is cooperation out of love and respect. Monasticism is the sacrament of obedience. You see what it is, incarnate, when you experience that communion of a brotherhood, with its spiritual father, in a spirit of love and respect.
Everything goes smoothly and boys will be boys, you know? But not everything goes smoothly. And what happens when that love and when that respect break down, when the passions enter into it, when jealousy comes in or anger or bitterness or resentment or revenge? It all breaks down.
On a broader level our whole life in this Church together is a life of ‘synergy’, a life of voluntary cooperation, a life of obedience to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel. If it is not about obedience to Jesus Christ and the Gospel (then) what are we doing here? What are we doing here?
The Gospel has to be first and foremost above every other consideration. It is the canon by which we measure ourselves.
So when we look at our ecclesiology, when we look to see what the Church is and what the Church can be — because it is always in that process of becoming – it is always in that process of entering into that divine synergy which is nothing else than the very process of our deification together as one body with one spirit, with one heart, with one mind. And it’s a mutual decision to cut off our own will, to cut off our own selfishness, to cut off our own ideas, to enter into that living ‘synergy’ which is communion; otherwise, our Eucharist is a sham and we are alienated from Christ.
If we are not at peace with one another — now that doesn”t mean that we cannot, you know, work out our disagreements, God knows as Orthodox we love to fight, right? But we need to work it out so that we can enter into that living experience of communion in cooperation and mutual obedience and mutual submission in love and mutual respect.
Now this, with this as our basic principle, how do we look at some of these questions?
There are several that I cannot address. You know, I have been consecrated as a bishop for what – ten days? (Laughter)
And, so I am rather new to this august group of bishops –each one of whom I profoundly respect, profoundly respect — and I see each one in their own uniqueness, each one with the gifts that they have to offer, and thank God for that.
So, the first question, it rather follows from what is a communion in love and respect trying to works towards synergy. A culture of intimidation, is alien to Christ. Unfortunately, this has been something that has prevailed in certain sectors and still prevails in certain sectors of the Orthodox Church. This demon needs to be exorcised. Intimidation, fear, is never appropriate.
Now that doesn’t mean that you are not going to get a rebuke. Because what father doesn’t, out of love, rebuke his children? Even the scriptures say so: “God chastises those whom he loves”, but for our life in the Church to be controlled by fear and intimidation — and I had plenty of it, I had more than I ever want to even think about…. I resolved that never, ever would I allow myself to fall into such a thing, because power corrupts, and that power needs to be renounced, because it is only in our powerlessness, it’s only in our weakness that we can allow ourselves to become vessels for Jesus Christ — the ultimate image of whom is the ultimate in weakness surrendered dead upon the Cross.
We need to be able to speak our minds, but we need to do so in a sober way. Sobriety is just not about the use of substances. Sobriety is in regards to the passions. Anger, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, it’s all selfish, passions. And whenever we are possessed by those passions, we need to sit down and shut up — because all we are doing is sinning and compounding our sin by the words that come out of our mouths.
It is so important for us to keep watch over ourselves, to keep watch over our words and to keep watch over our thoughts. Because if we are possessed by anger, by judgment of someone who has sinned…
Have they sinned? Obviously.
Do you sin? Obviously.
How can you judge? It’s the same kind of hypocrisy that St. Paul condemned. The Elder who founded the hermitage at Point Reyes, Father Dimitri, of blessed memory, had a saying which I think is of the greatest value to us. As a fundamental spiritual principle “You must mercilessly persecute hypocrisy within yourself.” “Mercilessly persecute hypocrisy within yourself.” If we can do this, as a community, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will shine through us.
The SIC [Special Investigations Committee] report, if you look at it in a certain way, basically said that the last two Metropolitans were corrupt, that they had abrogated their responsibility of leadership on all levels. So, is it a wonder why the Synod, being leaderless, would not function as well as it should?
Is it a wonder? Because of the culture — that only a few knew about – of fear and intimidation which operated within the walls of the Chancery in Syosset, a culture which was fundamentally sick, and that has been removed. Thank God! Thank God! (Applause)
And so the bishops attended to their dioceses; and I think we all know how much in each diocese we love and care and respect our bishop. The problem is not in the dioceses, it is not in the parishes. The problem was in Syosset. The problem was in the Chancery, and because of that absolute vacuum of leadership in a sick, dysfunctional situation the church was looted. It was an expensive lesson, a very expensive lesson.
And I don’t think that in any way, shape or form that the next Metropolitan who will be elected from among this group of men is going to in any way, shape or form let down the confidence of the Church, if he knows that we are operating in an atmosphere of love, of respect and of hope.
If we can build that community of love and respect, seeing how our passions have distracted us from that living communion with God, have turned us against one another, and have created all sorts of hostility between — well, we just saw it, between the body of the All-American Council and the Synod of the Bishops. I heard boos, right? Between the Synod of the Bishops and the Metropolitan Council — talk about a sick dysfunctional situation! Why? Because, our passions have gone awry. Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It’s over. It’s over. Let it be in the past, so that we can heal.
When we maintain resentments in our souls — and it doesn’t matter whether it is on an interpersonal level, it doesn’t matter whether it is within a parish, within a family, between friends or within the Church, on the largest level. If we maintain resentments within our soul, it’s a cancer that will eat away our soul and destroy us as persons. And it will destroy that community which we have with those other persons — and who do we resent the most but the people that we love the most?
And so, what it the essence of the Gospel? It is repentance and forgiveness. And what is that repentance? It is to see that these things have become distractions for us, that they have become ends in themselves and that we have lost sight of God and to turn back to God.
Repentance also means conversion; it means transformation of the mind. And that is a constant process for every single committed Christian. It is a constant process that we have to engage in both personally and corporately. And when we engage in that process we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have borne within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us. And by forgiving we are not excusing the action, we are not saying that Kondratick was right to loot the Church. We are not saying that Metropolitan Theodosius was right to advocate all of his responsibility to the bottle or whatever.
We are not justifying anything.
What we are saying is: “My reaction is destroying me, and I need to stop it.” If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it, and move on. (At this point many in the crowd rose in a standing ovation.)
That sounds like Chicago over there. Obamamania?
The Holy Synod needs a chance to function normally with a leader who is engaged, who’s not drunk, who’s not preoccupied, with somebody who is engaged, who is engaged in building that synergy and building that communion and working . And it’s not about just that particular Metropolitan or that particular leader, it’s about every about one of us. And you, all of you here, you are the leaders of the Church. Every priest here has probably dozens or hundreds of people who look to you. And your authority is based, it’s founded on that responsibility to convey the Gospel, to convey the message of Christ — 95% by your actions and by your attitudes and 5% by your words.
Authority is responsibility. Authority is accountability, it is not power. (Applause)
So we look at some of these questions: Was the Holy Synod leaderless?
Yes, for 30 years, 30 years (under) Metropolitan Herman and Metropolitan Theodosius.
We need to give them (the Synod) a chance, with the full complete voluntary, willful support of the church. Let them and help them bear their responsibility, so that you can bear your responsibility.
Hierarchy is only about responsibility. It’s not all this imperial nonsense.
Thank God, we are Americans and we have cast that off. We don’t need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox Church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox Church that does not exist under the thumb of a State, either friendly or hostile.
So the Church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately.
What are you going to do with it? What you are going to do with your part of that responsibility? Maybe you haven’t been entrusted with the leadership of a parish. Maybe you are not a priest. Maybe you think, “Oh, I am just a housewife.” What incredible responsibility you have to your children, to your friends, to your neighbors, to the parish! What incredible responsibility, to bear witness to Jesus Christ by how you love and respect one another!
If you are a priest, think of the responsibility that you bear as the spiritual father for your parishioners. One of the hardest things that happened in my ministry was the death of a 22-year-old brother who had happened to decide to go out river rafting on the spring thaw thinking, of course, as a 22-year-old would that he is immortal. As his spiritual father I knew the sacrament — this mystery of spiritual fatherhood – because, after his death, there were times when I knew I was standing before God with him at the last judgment pleading for his soul. As priests, you have the same responsibility: To stand at the last judgment before the throne of God with those whom God has entrusted to you. It is an awesome mystery. It is an awesome thing. And as Bishops, think of that responsibility….
We need to come together, in love and respect — to be willing to put aside the anger and the bitterness and show love for one another, show respect for one another, recognize, recognize the awesome responsibility of those who will give account for your souls. We will stand before God for you at the last judgment, whether it is your personal last judgment or the general one. This is the Scriptures, and this is the reality of this great mystery of our union in Christ.
How do we re-establish trust?
There’s only one way. It’s to choose to love. It is the only way. There is no other way. There’s no organizational methods, no kinds of business practices we can invoke, no corporate ideologies, none of that.
If we are Christians, we have the choice: Do we choose to enter into the love of Jesus Christ for one another — including our hierarchs, including our priests, including those who have betrayed us, including those who have failed us miserably, including those whom we judge and criticize and — all to own damnation?
We have to choose to love, we have to choose to forgive; and this is the only way, if we are Christians.
Now, we could have a nice organization, but who cares? Who cares? You know? We could have all the nice rituals, but to quote Father Alexander Schmmeman, of blessed memory: “Jesus Christ did not die on the cross so that we could have nice rituals.” I’Õs not about religion. It’s about our souls, it is about our salvation, it is about our life, our life as one body united by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ sharing his own relationship with the Father. If we choose that, everything will be clear. If we choose the other, things may be clear too, organizationally, but our salvation is forfeit.
So, I think I have addressed most of the questions on here. (Another standing ovation.)
Please forgive me.
(This transcript was provided by Dn. Ambrose Powell and edited in this form by Mark Stokoe.)