Another logical letter from Vic Downing...
Date: April 14, 2008
To: His Eminence, Archbishop NATHANIEL and His Grace, Bishop TIKHON
From: Vic Downing, Orthodox Christian, Member of Holy Resurrection Cathedral Parish Council
Re: Discontent in The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and in Alaska
CC: The Holy Synod of The OCA, Father Innocent Dresdow, et al.
Thank you for coming to Alaska and for inviting the comments of The Faithful, including comments from me.
My comments are offered with the highest level of respect and with the intention of contributing to the advancement of Orthodoxy in Alaska, beginning with your instruction to, and admonishment of, me.
All of us have contributed to the current acrimony and malaise in the OCA in general and in Alaska in particular. This amounts to nothing less than sin. Therefore, the solution is clear: all of us must confess, seek forgiveness, make restitution, and forgive.
I beg The Holy Synod to lead the way. Show us how to redeem the problems we have caused and the problems we suffer. Lead the way: be the first to confess and seek the forgiveness of each other one-on-one and privately and, if appropriate, seek our forgiveness too. Then inspire your priests to do the same and to call us to do the same. (Please do not accept the resignation of one or more members of The Holy Synod.)
Show us how God causes all things to work together for good (Romans 8:28)!
Here is a synopsis of the following pages:
His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI, has been a significant contributor to the problem in The OCA and Alaska … he is not the most significant contributor to the problem.
The principal symptom of the problem is publicly expressed discontent…and that is not the problem. The problem is the inability of clergy and laity throughout North America to submit cultural preferences to Orthodox standards.
Dramatic improvements in the Kodiak parish demonstrate that effective parish leadership can surmount OCA problems and problems in The Diocese of Alaska.
The solution to the problem in The OCA and Alaska has three parts:
Actions by The Holy Synod
Actions by parish priests.
Actions by lay persons.
His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI, has been a Significant Contributor to the Problem in The OCA and Alaska … He is Not the Most Significant Contributor to the Problem.
It is critically important to point out that His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI, has not even been accused of heresy or of any illegal activity. Nevertheless, His Grace has been a significant contributor to the discontent in The OCA and Alaska. Although not acceptable, this is understandable, when the following is considered:
Some of the actions of His Grace have been culturally insensitive, if not offensive, to various native Alaskans. This is (in retrospect) understandable: the various native cultures maintain an unspoken taboo on directly confronting or contradicting those in authority, while at the same time placing an unspoken premium on preserving practices of the past. As a result, the following has occurred:
Native Alaskans have been extremely reluctant and subtle in voicing the ways in which His Grace has offended them. When those offenses were voiced, they were voiced when those offended “couldn’t take it any more” and after it was too late to prevent deep resentments.
Because Orthodox practices are not identical with native Alaskan cultures, and because His Grace is determined to establish Orthodox practices, some of the decisions of His Grace have threatened the practices and artifacts of native Alaskan history.
The management style of His Grace is more characterized by “tell” rather than “sell,” “by-the-book” rather than “whatever-works,” and quick and decisive decisions rather than patient, consensus decisions. This style directly contradicts native Alaskan cultural preferences (as well as inclusive, democratic, Anglo-Saxon, 21st Century cultural preferences held by most in The Lower Forty-Eight).
His Grace is a tall man with a severe bearing who occupies a position of great authority and who is quick-witted and verbally adept. Those characteristics make him appear to be (or to be) an intimidating figure.
His Grace is not the most significant contributor to the problem in The OCA and Alaska. The following: taken as a whole, is the most significant contributor:
Because most native Alaskans maintain a virtual taboo on directly confronting those in authority, it has been the non-natives in Alaska and in The Lower Forty-Eight (e.g., Father Michael Oleksa, Mark Stokoe, Father Chad Hatfield, Father Alexander Garklavs, Father Paisius of Saint Innocent’s Academy, Paul Sidebottom, et al.) who have given a voice and political “muscle” to OCA and Alaskan discontents. Being products of their late 20th Century, Anglo-Saxon, cultures (i.e., democratic rather than hierarchical, evolutionary decision making rather than Tradition-based decision making, et cetera), these non-native organizers and spokespersons designed and executed the campaign against Bishop NIKOLAI (and now against The Holy Synod) in various public forums rather than according to historical, Orthodox practice. Those “solidarity” rallies, boycotts, and 21st Century editions of 1970’s Liberation Theology1 --no doubt, unintentionally—spread animosity throughout the OCA and fostered the chaos in which we now find ourselves.
Parishioners have a habit of gossiping and are extremely reluctant to forgive offenses that are years or decades old (despite biblical mandates to the contrary).
The investigation of Father Isidore, et al., failed to protect the privacy of witnesses and their statements, and failed to conclude its work expeditiously or definitively. Consequently, parishioners assumed Father Isidore was guilty but was serving nevertheless; this resulted in the collapse of confidence in The Holy Synod.
The Holy Synod failed to explain the reversal of its decision regarding the forced leave of absence imposed on Bishop NIKOLAI; this bewildered clergy and laity alike and further undermined confidence in The Holy Synod. The reversal of the decision was not the main reason for bewilderment …rather it was that no biblical or canonical reason was given.
Father Michael Oleksa’s subordination of The Holy Canons to his “New Alaskan Canon”2 and the failure of The Holy Synod to admonish him sent a strong message that The Holy Synod no longer served as the protector of our Orthodox Tradition and was no longer in control of priests who threatened that Tradition.
When the Chancellor of The Holy Synod (Father Alexander Garklavs) publicly (on the Internet) presumed to speak for most of the clergy in North America, publicly indicted the decisions of The Holy Synod as “tragic,” and appealed to the clergy of Alaska to oppose the actions of The Holy Synod, and when The Holy Synod did not admonish him for doing so, it became virtually impossible to believe The Holy Synod was in control of The OCA.
When seminary professors (e.g., Father Chad Hatfield, et al.) publicly presented themselves as the directors of, rather than the servants of, The Holy Synod, and The Holy Synod failed to admonish those academicians, it became difficult for members of The OCA to believe The Holy Synod was in control of The OCA.
The Principal Symptom of the Problem is Publicly Expressed Discontent…and That is Not the Problem. The Problem is the Inability of Clergy and Laity to Submit Cultural Preferences to Orthodox Standards.
If publicly expressed discontent is the problem in The OCA and The Diocese of Alaska, then it would follow that the solution is the elimination of discontent… and that would argue for a church guided by public opinion and the lowest common denominator rather than by The Holy Scriptures and The Holy Canons. Rather than publicly expressed discontent, the problem is the unwillingness or inability of clergy and laity to submit their cultural preferences to Orthodox standards. The powerful difference between the cultural preferences of laity and clergy in the OCA and Orthodox standards is illustrated here:
Cultural Preferences Orthodox “Cultural” Mandates
Bishop NIKOLAI prefers to be unilateral in his decisions, directly confrontational, and quick in making decisions. This may be reflective of his ethnic, cultural background guided by his historical rather than regional view of Orthodoxy.
The “culture” of the Bible calls for “the first to be last,” “to serve rather than to be served,” and the fruit of the Spirit (e.g., patience, kindness, long-suffering, etc.).
Various native Alaskan cultures are deeply offended by confrontation, prize the preservation of harmony, and are dedicated to perpetuating cultural history. Further, these cultures correct offenses by temporary or permanent shunning of the offender. The “culture” of the Bible demands that we directly confront each other with offenses and that we persist in doing so, that we (like Saint Paul) become all things to all men for the sake of The Gospel, that we count our honorable history as “filthy rags” when compared with The Gospel, and that we forgive “seventy times seven times.”
Mainstream, North American culture calls for inclusiveness, democracy, public protest, suspicion of authority, self-determination, innovation over tradition, and short-term satisfaction over long-term honor. This has been indicative of recent protests and campaigns waged on The Internet and elsewhere in Alaska and The Lower Forty-Eight. Some are concerned that the silence of The Holy Synod with regard to these protests and campaigns signals The Holy Synod’s adoption of this culture. Although the Bible is inclusive relative to sin and salvation (e.g., all fall short of the glory of God, and God loves the world), equally inclusive of women as well as men (e.g., we are neither male nor female), and inclusive of all ethnicities (e.g., we are neither Jew nor Gentile), the Christian “culture” is decidedly exclusive (e.g., Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life). Likewise, the Orthodox “culture” is exclusive and hierarchical (e.g., The Eucharist is only for the Orthodox, only men are priests, and church leadership is espiscopal as opposed to congregational in its polity).
Dramatic Improvements in the Kodiak Parish Demonstrate that Effective Parish Leadership Can Surmount OCA Problems and Problems in The Diocese of Alaska.
Kodiak is “Ground Zero” for recent discontent in The OCA and Alaska:
On the evening of April 5, 2008, in the balcony of Holy Resurrection Cathedral, during services, a very large, Orthodox man who frequently advocates the expulsion of Bishop NIKOLAI hit a small, pre-teenage, Orthodox boy from a family which refuses to boycott Holy Resurrection Cathedral… and hit him so forcefully that one lens was forced out of the boy’s glasses frame and the frame was bent. There was no provocation and there was no apology.
Kodiak in general and Holy Resurrection Cathedral in particular are a mix of several native Alaskan cultures as well as Anglo-Saxon cultures like those found in The Lower Forty-Eight.
Clergy associated with the seminary were split on whether or not to commemorate Bishop NIKOLAI during the Holy Synod’s call for a forced leave of absence.
Father Innocent continues to be accused of kowtowing to Bishop NIKOLAI.
Prominent persons who left (some would say, “are boycotting”) Holy Resurrection Cathedral from several months to several years ago, continue to post provocative messages on websites.
The Holy Synod’s “administrator” investigated Kodiak first and most extensively.
Nevertheless, consider the following factual evidence of the ways in which the parish in Kodiak has thrived during the most recent 12 months:
There has been a steady stream of Catechumens
The first purely Orthodox “12-Step” program in Alaska was launched
The youth group has grown dramatically
Two Bible study groups have operated weekly
A weekly “Fireside Chat” with Father Innocent has been well attended
There have been many Cathedral-Seminary social events that have been very well attended
Post-Liturgy meals are now standing-room-only
The Sisterhood has expanded
The rectory has been renovated
The parish hosted the pilgrimage
The bookstore has been revitalized
And the parish has gone from several thousand dollars in debt to several thousand dollars “in the black.”
What did the parish in Kodiak do to grow and thrive in the midst of unintentional and intentional assaults and an incessant diet of bad press?
The priest of the parish refused to gossip or speculate on controversial events… even when he was the object of accusation and slander. Furthermore, in the strongest possible terms he admonished us to refuse slander, to directly confront (per Matthew 18:15 ff.) those who have offended us, and to forgive endlessly.
The priest of the parish took personal responsibility for his shortcomings and, where appropriate, did so publicly.
The priest of the parish personally led the parishioners in specially scheduled and very prolonged vigils and chanting in front of the relics of Saint Herman.
The priest of the parish gave us the biblical mandates and precedents for tithing.
The priest of the parish never failed to teach the parishioners that difficulties in life are used by God for our salvation, that we should thank God for them, and that we should take personal responsibility for our reactions to them… principal among which are prayer, confession, and participation in The Holy Eucharist.
The priest of the parish confronted Bishop NIKOLAI directly, respectfully, and successfully to discuss issues of disagreement and offense. (I personally witnessed this.)
On multiple occasions at least one lay person from the parish (namely, me) confronted Bishop NIKOLAI directly, respectfully, and successfully to discuss issues of disagreement and offense.
Bishop NIKOLAI has on several occasions encouraged and admonished me in ways that were direct and sometimes painful and always pastoral and biblical… and largely because of that investment he made in me, I continue to be an enthusiastic Orthodox Christian.
Since it is clearly true that the Kodiak parish has thrived in the midst of the difficulties of the past several months and has done so despite the strong connection between Father Innocent and Bishop NIKOLAI which was built by the critics of Bishop NIKOLAI, we can have confidence that every parish in The OCA can thrive… even under today’s circumstances.
The Solution to the Problem in The OCA and Alaska Has Three Parts
Actions by The Holy Synod
Actions by parish priests.
Actions by lay persons.
Actions by The Holy Synod
Please lead the way by showing how to seek forgiveness, make restitution, and forgive:
Please seek the forgiveness of each other in a series of private, one-on-one meetings. (Although you are godly men, certainly there must have been regrettable encounters between each of you over the past months that are worthy of this.)
Please, as a whole Holy Synod, consider how you may have fallen short in your management of the myriad of issues that have befallen The OCA during the past year or so. Please consider seeking the forgiveness of your clergy and the rest of us, even though those shortcomings were not intentional.
(In my opinion, the resignation of any member or all of The Holy Synod would be a disastrous decision of the highest order. (1) It is not canonical: there is provision for deposition for heresy and illegal behavior, but not for imperfect management; (2), such a resignation sends the message that humility and forgiveness are less preferable than re-organization; and (3), you would have taught us that The Church is a corporation and not the miraculous, redemptive Body of Christ.)
Please inspire your priests to follow your example (see # 1).
Please don’t lump all your observations of current problems into one category. Instead, please segment your observations into the following categories:
Allegations of heresy or illegality against any clergyman, especially any bishop
Examples of cultural insensitivity or offense experienced directly by any person at the hands of any clergyman, especially any bishop
Examples of allegations of cultural insensitivity or offense experienced indirectly by any person at the hands of any clergyman, especially any bishop
Examples of harsh or ineffective management/leadership “style” or performance associated with any clergyman, especially any bishop
Examples of the ways in which the intended and unintended actions of lay persons have contributed to the current discontent
Based on an assessment of all of the above, please take action that is explicitly aligned with The Holy Scriptures and The Holy Canons.
Actions by Parish Priests
Follow the example of seeking forgiveness, restitution, and forgiveness demonstrated by The Holy Synod.
Call your parishioners to the same actions (see # 1).
Seek and submit to all direction from the bishop of each diocese and The Holy Synod that is explicitly in alignment with The Holy Scriptures and The Holy Canons
Actions by Parishioners
Follow the examples of seeking forgiveness, restitution, and forgiveness demonstrated by The Holy Synod and the parish priest.
Seek and submit to all direction from the bishop of each diocese and the parish priest and The Holy Synod that is explicitly in alignment with The Holy Scriptures and The Holy Canons
I am an older man (nearly 60 years of age) who has spent more than 30 years advising senior leaders of major corporations in North America, throughout Asia and in Western Europe. I am not given to hyperbole or to rash statements.
If the current discontent in Alaska and throughout The OCA is handled as it would have been handled in the first 500 to 1000 years of the Church, the following will occur:
There will be strident public outcry from many who will view such actions as regressive, undemocratic, legalistic, culturally insensitive, and impractical; i.e., neither “modern” nor “enlightened.”
The integrity and the viability of The Orthodox Church will, once again, have been saved from compromise, convenience, cultural relativity, and ultimately from heresy.
And if The Holy Synod leads the way by demonstrating how to seek forgiveness, make restitution, and forgive, then the strident, public outcry will quickly cease and be replaced by tears of repentance and gratitude, and the integrity and the viability of The Orthodox Church will have, once again, been saved.
I beg The Holy Synod to continue the godly tradition of its predecessors. Pay the price now to secure the future of Orthodoxy in Alaska and North America by showing us how to seek forgiveness and how to forgive and by proceeding in explicit alignment with The Holy Scriptures, The Canons, and the wisdom of The Fathers… and I beg you to make that alignment clear and understandable to all of us.
Finally, I am eager and I welcome the admonishment and instruction of any member of The Holy Synod as well as that of my priest. My salvation depends very much on clear, direct, criticism, instruction, prayer, and encouragement by godly men who are immersed in The Holy Scriptures and The Tradition of The Church.