Earlier this year, there was a battle-royal raging among the elites of my church, the Orthodox Church in America, over the leadership style of Metropolitan Jonah, the primate. A number of the bishops on the Synod were plotting against him, along with some key and vocal activists associated with the OCA old guard. I involved myself in the defense of Jonah, blogging under a pseudonym to prevent the chance that that controversy could bring negative publicity to my then-employer. I and the other bloggers were outed after a bishop accessed (probably illegally) the e-mail account of a friend and former pastor, and spent two months reading all the man’s private e-mails, including correspondence from me. The fallout from all that made me decide that I need to stay the hell away from anything to do with bishops, because there is nothing but trouble there for me. I never should have gotten involved, because it was all, in the end, pointless. I say that not to “re-litigate” that whole controversy — and if you wish to have that argument with me, I’m not going to post your comment, so let’s drop it — but only as way of background to what I’m about to say.
During all this, some of Jonah’s enemies within the OCA made accusations that he was going soft on priests guilty of sexual misconduct, and violating the OCA’s own policies in this regard. From my point of view, much of the evidence for these charges was cherry-picked and spun; it seemed pretty clear to me that people who hated Jonah for other reasons were trying to manufacture a case to get rid of him. That said, there were some instances in which Jonah’s leniency on sexually aberrant clerics was, in my view, indefensible. One that was public involved the enfeebled Archbishop Dmitri’s decision, under duress, to return to the altar a gay deacon in Miami who had abandoned his post and gone to California to “marry” another man. The deacon returned and took up residence with his old housemate, a retired Orthodox bishop, and asked to be reinstated. Jonah, as the Diocese of the South’s locum tenens, did not change Dmitri’s decision.
I told my wife Julie that as much as I cared for Jonah and wanted to defend him, I was troubled by seeing in him the same old patterns of clericalist softballing of sexually incontinent priests that she and I had seen among the Catholic bishops, and that ultimately destroyed our ability to believe as Catholics. Again, there was nothing remotely along the lines of the Catholic abuse scandal at issue, but I was seeing evidence that, however unfair the accusations against him from his enemies were, the Metropolitan was failing to take this kind of clerical corruption seriously enough.
Julie hit the ceiling. And when she came down, she woke up the next morning, put on her shoes, walked to the train, and didn’t stop until she reached the Metropolitan’s house in Washington, DC. She delivered to him some very stern words — in love, of course, but without fear or restraint. In short, she told the patriarch that he had better wake up and realize that his duty is not to coddle priests who can’t keep their pants up, but rather his duty is to protect the whole church. She told him that she and a bunch of other moms she knows are working their butts off to raise faithful Orthodox children, and when they see that bishops are so spineless as to go the extra mile to be considerate of the needs and wants of errant priests, it is an egregious insult to the laity. She ended by telling him, through tears, that the faithful need our bishops to be morally straight, and strong, and trustworthy, and they had better bloody well man up.
Julie arrived home after midnight, emotionally exhausted. I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder of her. She said the Metropolitan received her words kindly. I noticed that days later, he ordered that prodigal Miami deacon to be removed from ministry. Nothing happened, though, because by then Jonah had no direct authority over him (this because of Orthodox ecclesiology), and the bishop who did, Nikon of Boston, apparently had no interest. The deacon is still on staff at the Miami OCA cathedral. I don’t expect the bishops to man up. I quit expecting anything of bishops.
But you know, here’s what I wish bishops — Orthodox, Catholic, and otherwise — would get through their thick mitres.
Many of us parents are trying to raise children to be faithful to our churches in a secular, pluralistic age. As these children grow up, they will be able to entertain the thoughts of believing in other churches, in other faiths, or in no faith at all. If we’re serious about our Orthodoxy, or Catholicism, or Anglicanism, what have you, we will want our children to stay loyal to the faith. There are so many forces pushing and pulling them away from it. We’re living with it daily, and doing our best to build our kids (and ourselves) up in the faith: to know what we believe, and to be joyful in it. We need to be able to look to our church leadership with trust and respect. We don’t have a right to expect every bishop or priest to be a saint; we do have a right to expect them all to have basic integrity. And God knows we have a right to expect that if a clergyman has committed serious sins that compromise his ability to serve as a spiritual father, that the bishop will find something else for that man to do. Everybody who is repentant can be forgiven, thank God — but that doesn’t mean that every forgiven sinner has a right to serve as a priest or deacon.
When our kids get old enough to start questioning their faith, as most of them naturally will do, what will they think when they see bishops like Finn of Kansas City, who covered for a priest who possessed child pornography? What will they think when they see all kinds of lesser but still significant failures by church leadership? We will tell them that the failures of men do not obviate the truth of Church teaching, and we will tell them that the Church is made of fallen men, and we will tell them that they too are sinners. And we will hope that that will work. But we will know too that they are part of a generation that feels no loyalty to a particular church or tradition. Maybe the groundwork we will have laid in their childhood will stand them in good stead once they start to question everything they were taught. We have to hope so. What we could use, though, is strength, integrity, and consistency in the priesthood.
The bottom line: We should be able to tell our kids that Bishop N. and Father J. are reasons for them to remain in the Church, not to leave it.
Too many of us don’t have that now. And we don’t have that in part because you bishops place the perceived needs of yourselves and your priests above the needs of, and your responsibilities to, the whole Church. You too often act like you are the Church, and the rest of us are privileged to have the blessing of your company. In the Catholic Church, too many bishops act like they’re the district managers of General Motors plants circa 1960, when there was no competition. As Putnam and Campbell reported in “American Grace,” social science research shows that so many American Catholics are leaving the Church that if not for Hispanic immigration, Catholicism in this country would be declining as fast as the Protestant mainline. In my branch of the Orthodox Church, many of our bishops carry themselves as if they were going to have tea with the Byzantine Emperor after liturgy, when the truth is that the OCA is small and poor, and getting smaller and poorer, and more demoralized. And the Episcopalians — well, that mess hardly needs elaboration.
Look, I know not every bishop is a bad guy. Still, I think it’s safe to say that most — though not all! — of you bishops live in a churchy bubble. You are surrounded by sycophants and people who kowtow to you, and who never want to bring you bad news. The historian Barbara Tuchman, in “The March of Folly,” had this to say about the six Renaissance popes whose stupid misgovernment helped provoke the Protestant Reformation:
Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.
Nowadays, Your Graces, leaving the faith for another church, or no faith at all, has never been easier for Christians. Wake up. Man up. Can’t you read the signs of the times? Things are hard now for small-o orthodox Christians and our families, and they’re going to get harder. You are not helping.
Maybe if we had a lot more Honey Badgers saying so to our bishops’ faces, it would make a difference.