Entering Holy Week and Bright Week

Although I do not think one needs to cease any and all internet communication during Holy Week and/or Bright Week, I think there can be benefits to reducing it at such times.  For me, personally, it will be a busy time.  So, we here at Red River Orthodoxy are going to take a break until Bright Week.  I don’t know for sure when the next post will be online–maybe Tuesday of Bright Week, or later.  I do not expect it on Easter Monday (Bright Monday).

I hope and pray that each and every one of us participates in Holy Week and Pascha/Easter.  Whether we tend to call it Easter or tend to call it Pascha, we should all call it the Gospel.  Whether we think our church(es) need to be more politically liberal or are disappointed our church(es) don’t speak out against “liberalism” enough, I hope we take time to encounter a King above all other earthly rulers.  However we look through our prism of the dark glass this side of eternity, what we are about to enter into should shape us deeply and profoundly.  Indeed, I hope and pray that the Good News of Christ crucified and risen will help each and every one of us look at all the issues discussed here thus far in a new light–the Light of the Resurrection.  For it is only in that Light that we can truly begin to see God’s handiwork all around us.

Converts and the Dangers of Abstraction

Though I loathe autobiography (as the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted, when asked about why he didn’t talk more about his own life, autobiography is a uniquely treacherous genre, and unless, he said, one has the genius of an Augustine, it is best avoided), and though even as a small child I wanted to defenestrate any teacher who made us get into groups and share our thoughts and (dread word!) feelings, and though I believe (as Evelyn Waugh puts it about the dowager empress Helena, in his hilarious historical novel of that name) that “a post of honour is a private station,” perhaps I might break all my own taboos in order to venture a few thoughts here to further the necessary and healthful discussion Fr. Oliver and many others have been having about the problems of converts and their practices in the Orthodox Church. Less windily, let me link back to the first post I wrote on here and talk about the dangers of abstraction and the importance of face-to-face encounters.

By the middle 1990s, it was clear to me that the beloved Anglican Church of my upbringing was in rapid and bewildering decline, with bishops plainly unfamiliar with the law of non-contradiction openly teaching contradictory things (cf. John Spong vs. George Carey on, say, the resurrection of Christ, the virginity of the Theotokos, and a thousand other things) and in general making a hash out of orthodox Christianity. With a real sense of sorrow I began to realize that such incoherence as I was finding was intellectually intolerable to me and so, following the logic Anglican bishops had themselves laid out in such documents as The Gift of Authority, I began to look around for doctrinal coherence and clear teaching, and found it in the bishop and Church of Rome: “The only see which makes any claim to universal primacy and which has exercised and still exercises such episcope is the see of Rome, the city where Peter and Paul died” as Anglicans and Catholics agreed as far back as 1976 .(I was aware of Orthodoxy, but never considered it a viable option because every Orthodox parish had an ethnic label stuck in front of the word “Orthodox,” thus rendering me, I figured, more or less ineligible or at least incapable of comprehending the liturgy as I did not then know Greek and do not now know Slavonic.)

I had two wonderful Anglican parishes in my childhood and early adulthood, and it pained me greatly to leave either of them: both were composed of warm, colourful, tremendously supportive people who had seen me through my own near-death as well as other terrible sorrows in the life of my family. Both, too, had given me a wonderful experience of liturgy with all the splendor and dignity for which Cranmer’s prose and the English choral tradition are justly celebrated. To trade all this for status as one faceless individual in some massive Roman Catholic parish, with hideously banal liturgy of the most unspeakable kind, was–almost–a bridge too far for me. But after making the fatal mistake of reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I knew there was no choice but to swim the Tiber (and then, as it were, the Dnieper), which I did.

I think I was rather obnoxious after that (from the peanut gallery: when are you ever not obnoxious?). It took me several years to realize but one summer I felt myself and my conduct severely convicted by reading a story the Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas tells of himself: after he went off to Yale in the early 60s, he returned home one summer to his working-class family and his brick-laying father and mother in Texas, who, for his birthday one year, gave him a gun. The sophomoric Hauerwas was aghast and instead of responding gratefully to a gracious gift given with love, subjected his parents to a lecture about the evils of violence. While he believed what he said was true, he hurt his parents because his speech lacked love, and thus, for a Christian, he failed St. Paul’s simple test: to speak the truth in love. Too much of what Christians read and write on-line fails this test, alas.

In looking back, I recall a distinct sense, for perhaps close to a decade, that any interactions with my former Anglican Church would somehow “contaminate” me and the “purity” of my safe, secure harbor (to use Newman’s term) in the Catholic Church, and so I stenuously avoided every Anglican Church and Anglican friend I could. (As Flannery O’Connor has put it, “snobbery is the Catholic sin”!) More than that, like Hauerwas, I indulged my fondness for polemics and rarely missed an opportunity in conversation and in print to slag my former home often in lurid terms bordering on the grotesque. At one point about a decade ago, it got back to me that some things I had written had caused real hurt to a number of people who found my attitude bewildering and did not know how to approach me to talk to me. I was taken aback and provoked to re-think an approach that seems very much to be in common with the kind of “sectarian” mindset that has been discussed on here previously.

I have moved away from that mentality not only because I think it is unworthy of a scholar and, perforce, a Christian to hurt others. It is, moreover, profoundly unhelpful and off-putting to others–counter-productive to one’s ultimate goal of trying to show everyone why they should become Catholic (or Orthodox). If this is the face I give to others–smug, self-righteous, gleefully indulging in Schadenfreude at every new revelation of Anglican craziness–then who is going to be attracted by that or persuaded thereby to embrace the faith and the Church? To put it in the most nakedly self-interested way: you are shooting yourself in the foot if your defense and promotion of Catholicism or Orthodoxy consists largely in running others down while also preening about with your head-scarves, prayer ropes/rosaries, icons/statues, fasting schedules, etc. (As Fr. Oliver has said, none of those practices in themselves are bad, but too often they fail to do what they should do because of our misuse of them.)

Rather than this sectarian-puritan mindset, which I would suggest is unhelpfully common among converts of all types, whose Pharisaical nature serves nobody well (and likely sets you up for stiff treatment before the “awesome tribunal of Christ” as we say in the Byzantine liturgy), I came to realize, as the late Lutheran-cum-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus put it, that one can and must see what good remains in one’s previous ecclesial home and not condemn it tout court. In other words, as Fr. Oliver recently put it, we must recognize and accept “honest historical continuity,” something Neuhaus winsomely described thus on his reception into the Catholic Church in 1990:

To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.

For a time I didn’t want to “travel together still” with Anglicans, but I came to realize, not least in face-to-face encounters with my somewhat upset and anxious maternal grandmother who thought I was rejecting the Anglican Church she loved and served deeply her whole life, that I was not rejecting her, or it, or anything that was good in our shared past. Indeed, it became apparent to me that to reject that past would make it almost impossible to have arrived where I did: without the Anglican upbringing, I would very likely have no faith at all today, and no membership in any Church. It is the honest, humble recognition of what we owe to others, and of how we have been shaped, that too often seems missing in convert narratives, whose strong bluster and zealously unbending defense of the truth belies a desperate insecurity.

In some cases (as in mine), I think patience and the passage of years allows one to mature and grow out of this attitude. In others, people need to be called directly to account by those skilled in the practice of an appropriate, healthy, mature, non-vengeful, non-sanctimonious “fraternal correction” that seeks only the good of the person and the Church, reminding the former that the good of the latter is not served by an uncharitable slandering of other Christians or an uncritical embrace of one’s new home.

The Side of American Orthodoxy that Orthodox are Loath to Admit

A recent Pappas Post article has highlight that 90% of people in America with Greek heritage are no longer Greek Orthodox.  It has been making rounds amongst Orthodox and seems to be stirring up some amount of surprise.  Frankly, I’m not so sure it should surprise us.  It may surprise us because in many Greek parishes Greek heritage is emphasized.  It may also surprise us because Orthodox literature since the 1980s has tended to overemphasize (in some cases simply exaggerate) the movement of converts entering into American Orthodoxy.  Converts have been a significant movement within Orthodoxy.  Given my most recent book on this very topic, I would be the last person to deny that.  However, if one reads the introduction even in there, one will realize that Orthodoxy brings in about as many as it loses.  Our growth, to be blunt, seems statistically insignificant.  That there is growth may be a good thing, but we also need to be honest about the losses.  So, if we’ve done our research, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of losses.

So, what seems to be happening?  Well, one factor mentioned in the article was the high percentage of Orthodox marrying outside the Orthodox Church.  In America, marrying someone of another faith, especially of another form of Christianity, is quite common.  So that this happens shouldn’t surprise us either.  If one reads the article carefully, one will note that what starts out blaming inter-faith marriages turns into a call for Orthodox to make our parishes more open and loving to inter-faith families and to find a way to engage the contemporary world.

This is most certainly true.  My own anecdotal experience includes a similar observation.  I have filled in temporarily at various churches during my career, so I won’t say where I saw this, but I know of one church where several middle aged children dropped their elderly parents off for Liturgy.  They told me they left the Orthodox Church when they married Catholics because they felt Catholicism was more American.  If we Orthodox can set aside our triumphalism for a few moments, I think we’ll find that what is happening in such cases speaks to a truth.  I also think that we have before us the elephant in the room.  People are leaving our church and are leaving in droves.  My prediction is that unless we get another large convert movement into Orthodoxy, we will find our gains in the 1980s and 1990s were simply the “one step forward” to our “two steps back.”  We even have a seminary of a particular jurisdiction with a monastery and I have been told that in terms of numbers and participants, it is a shadow of what it used to be (even while still functioning well enough over all for the moment).  This is not just a Greek problem.  It is an American Orthodox problem and the solution is not to make Orthodoxy an increasingly niche religion.

One immediate response might be to instigate an ad campaign, along the lines of Catholic Come Home.  In fact, I have heard this suggested by both older priests and by Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy.  I’ll spare the reader my opinion on advertising church for the moment simply to say the Catholic ad campaign has not worked as intended.  A quick fix won’t work, especially since the problem hasn’t been an immediate and recent one.  As the Pappas Post notes, Greeks have been leaving since the early 20th century, but earlier on, immigration influx obscured this reality.  Nor is the solution going to be a political fix.  I am aware of internet bloggers who nearly equate Orthodoxy with a particular political party.  God forbid!

The solution is one that requires at least three things, I think:  prayer and fasting, a willingness to engage society rather than retreat from society, and deeply patient love, so that we love all around us and our fellow Orthodox and have patience for discernment as we move forward.  I have some concrete thoughts on various aspects, but I’ll end here, promising I’ll say more about American Orthodox pastoral realities in the future and inviting people to enter into a dialogue.  If you’re Orthodox, what do you think we can do that would truly address (and not retreat from) this problem?  If you are not Orthodox, what would you recommend?

Jesus Wept: or was He Merely Verklempt?

The church where my wife and I were crowned in marriage, St. Elias the Prophet in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, burned to the ground on Saturday morning. It was the only Boyko-style all-wood church in Canada, and one of only two of its kind in the world. It was consecrated in 1995, and was not only one of the most liturgically, architecturally, and iconographically beautiful temples in the world: it also housed one of the most wonderful communities in the world, large (but not overwhelming), diverse (in a good way), and healthy, without many of the pathologies I have seen in Eastern Christian parishes, both Catholic and Orthodox, in both Canada and the United States. The former head of the OCA in Canada, and one of her most distinguished priests (Archpriest Cyprian [Robert] Hutcheon) visited it some time ago and said it was a model for all Eastern Christians in North America, showing just what was possible. ROCOR people who once visited scoffed at the idea it was a horrid old “Uniate” place and insisted it must have been transplanted directly from Russia (or, perhaps, grudgingly, Ukraine) itself.

I have to confess that this news shook my wife and me far more deeply than either of us expected. That somewhat sardonic word made popular by Saturday Night Live sketches, verklempt, has described us all weekend–and we have not been to St. Elias in over a year! Being an academic, I cannot help but reflect on this reaction of ours, and in doing so noted that the Latin Church read the pericope of the raising of Lazarus this past Sunday (“Passion Sunday,” as the older Latin tradition used to call it), while the Byzantine Churches will do so this coming Saturday, before Palm Sunday. Perhaps the most consoling verse in Scripture is also the shortest and comes from this story: “Jesus wept.” He wept over the death of his friend Lazarus.

In the infamous Antiochian-Alexandrian divide over questions of Christology, I have long been firmly on the Alexandrian side. This is likely the result of my WASP upbringing in which icons of Christ the Pantocrator come naturally to my imagination, and in which displays of vigorous emotion were prohibited (as Florence King once noted, the only emotion a WASP is permitted to express is “mild irritation”). Jesus the king, impassable and unmovable, dignified in (indeed, because of) His immovable emotional equilibrium, is an image ready to hand. But Jesus the man with friends like us, Jesus the human being who went to stay the weekend with His friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, seems almost artificial to me, and certainly a “degradation” compared to His exalted nature as second person of the Trinity. So verses such as “Jesus wept” are crucial correctives for me, showing that He who was, perhaps, prepared for a few days of sitting back, eating some good food and drinking some fine wine with His three friends, finally succumbed to what He was feeling and chucked all the pious knowledge He surely had about the resurrection to weep with His friends over their common and bewildering loss. What a relief this Jesus is to encounter.

In seeing the “death” of a building, I know, having buried two of my sisters long before their time, all of my grandparents, and many close friends, that we are not in the same category and not mourning the same type of loss. And I know that Scripture tells us that “we have here no lasting city” and that we seek an age and place that is “to come.” And yet, we grieve anyway, and in doing so do not reflect a loss of hope, or an unhealthy attachment to “earthly things.” We grieve a real loss, even as we await an unimaginable resurrection. This is precisely the challenge, it seems to me, of a genuinely orthodox Christianity that avoids the allurements of a disembodied Gnosticism just as much as a monophysite approach both to life and to Christ where divinity resolves all the struggles of humanity in a neat and tidy way. It is not easy being both of this world and called to transcend it. I don’t know any of us who get that tension exactly right. And yet, without it, Christianity makes no sense.

Upcoming Ecumenical Orthodox-Catholic Service

For those of you in the Belmont California area, this may well be worth attending.  The service flyer makes this seem as though it is in the spirit of what we have advocated for here at Red River Orthodoxy.  Check it out!

Salutations to the Holy Cross 2014

Atheist-Orthodox Dialogue Post 2

In these essays, we post some thoughts from our conversation regarding “origins.”  From whence did we come?  Jon claims not to know but suggests science may yet determine a purely natural answer, with no need for a transcendent Creator: Where did we come from-1.  I claim that a belief in God’s creative act is not testable by science and that an inductive argument for a Creator is legitimate: Origins.


New Comments Policy

Due to some rather negative exchanges, including false accusations and ad hominem attacks, some threads in the comments have been deleted.  Likewise, all comments are now to be vetted before going up (if the system works correctly).  So, this means two things: 1) there may be lag time between when you write and when your comment is online and 2) if you’re not either making a point on topic that shows at least a basic level of respect and/or making an argument (and inductive arguments are fine, as are analogies, etc.–need not all be deductive) your comment will not go up.  Those who flagrantly violate this policy simply will have their comments deleted as a matter of course because my time is limited, as is that of my co-administrators.

Hypocrisy, Converts, and a Sectarian Journey

For today, I thought I would pick up where I left off in my last post.  In my last post, I mentioned that I would return to Owen’s insight that many who take up Orthodox practices become worse people, not better, and that seeing this can drive a person away.  I do think some Orthodox who take up Orthodox spiritual practices are the worse for it.  I also think seeing this in others and experiencing their judgment and fanaticism can drive a person away.

I would like to suggest that when it comes to Orthodox converts, the practices are often part and parcel of the package.  In my book Turning to Tradition I highlight how it is that American Orthodox coverts ironically portray that most American phenomenon known as restorationism in their conversions.  No, I’m not claiming that is true for 100% of all converts, but it has been true for the leaders of convert movements and those who were influenced and led by them.  That’s no negligible number.  Chapters four and five, which deal with the Evangelical Orthodox Church demonstrate this.  Once Orthodoxy becomes identified with that primitive Christianity that is to be restored or, as the converts soon come to conclude, found, the adoption of Orthodox practices go hand-in-hand with it.  In such cases, “Eastern” sources actually become an aspect to this restorationism–restoring what was “lost” by “the West.”  Think also of the various Orthodox converts who engage in syncretism of sorts before becoming Orthodox.  We start praying before icons before even becoming catechumens.  Or, maybe some of us start fasting and buy prayer ropes and such.  I can’t claim to have done all that but I will publicly admit that I did purchase an icon before we were catechumens and it hung on our bedroom wall.  So, I would caution against thinking people become Orthodox and then start adopting practices.  It’s often an organic, fluid process, and one that starts right from the time Orthodox Christianity is of interest (which is why we have Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, who use icons in their prayer lives even though they have no intention of “converting”).

If we keep this in mind, I think it is fair to say it is not necessarily the practices themselves, but the way in which they are being utilized in conversion journeys that become problematic.  When various assorted practices become identified with the essence of the conversion itself, then there is a natural set up for the practices to lead to all kinds of arrogance and judgmental attitudes.  Further, in such cases, the more a person does them, the worse it would get as it would tend to reinforce those vices.  Something similar happens with regard to the whole notion of “feeling spiritual” or trying to see the “divine light.”  It becomes a downward spiral.

So, although I do not think the problem runs as deep as Owen (for I don’t think the practices themselves are inherently bad—my words, not his—my extrapolation–so maybe I misunderstood him), I do think he has placed his finger on something important.  Now, please bear with me in this.  Part of what I’m doing in these posts is trying to express and respond to how certain spiritual peculiarities are often connected to a journey that is (or at least becomes) inherently sectarian.  This is not easy, but I have seen the two go hand-in-hand too often, so that is the part of Owen’s post that resonated with me.  It’s there in our American Orthodox history and it continues today.  Some day, I need to sit down and do a more serious outlining of this phenomenon.  With that said, I think there are several lessons to be learned from all this:

1) One shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy because some (or even many) converts (and “cradles”!) are getting all harsh and anal retentive about spirituality and utilize Orthodox praxis as a means to differentiate themselves from the rejected other.  That’s dismissing the whole for the part.

2) At the same time, we Orthodox (especially us clergy) absolutely need to change how we are bringing in converts.  When we encourage the quick adoption of Orthodox practices, we are often encouraging a path that will lead  to spiritual destruction, not health.  It actually IS worse for a convert-to-be to take on fasting and the Jesus Prayer as means of creating a new identity right from the get-go, especially when that identity uses Orthodox praxis as the basis for differentiating him/herself from the rejected other.  Potential converts and catechumens need to be talked through this and guided through this.  Perhaps the principle of 1 Corinthians 3:2 should be in play here:  give potential converts and catechumens and new converts “milk” (that is, what they need to nurture their faith in Christ) before giving them “meat” (that is, the various liturgical and spiritual tools they can use to further their spiritual life in Christ).  They will have already begun picking up and using those tools, so we need to slow them down and show them proper use and discuss misuse.  They need to see that these are tools, not essential markers of identity change.

3) How to guide such people?  Well, for starters, we clergy need to deemphasize the “trappings,” if you will.  We need to quit acting like those practices are the essence of Orthodoxy.  For example, the more we ourselves look like social odd balls, the more we reinforce that creating an Orthodox identity means becoming a social and spiritual odd ball.  We also need to encourage converts to keep the spiritual practices they had that do not contradict Orthodox dogma, not just tolerate that those practices might continue, and certainly we should not castigate those practices.

4) It follows, then, that we should emphasize some things.  What should we emphasize?  Well, I think we can emphasize honest historical continuity first and foremost.  This would do two things: a) give us something positive to proclaim, for we can trace a spiritual path back to the Apostles in a direct way, but b) that path is a meandering one, one that has changed during the course of the centuries, so let us not try to restore some past glory, whether that be the eighth century or the nineteenth or twentieth.

5) We should also emphasize beauty as a means to deeper communion with God and greater love for humanity.  The Byzantine liturgy is a beautiful work of art and is something we should emphasize as people seek to enter our church.  Furthermore, we should highlight how it connects us to God and proclaims the Gospel of Christ.  In so doing, it inspires us to virtue and therefore builds a parish community and makes us mindful of our neighbors around us.

6) We should emphasize theological and relevant homilies.  Priests should cease having filing cabinets with the homily for that Sunday in them.  I’ve seen this—more than once.  Be engaged!  Work at developing a new homily every time!  Make them real teaching moments.  This also means homilies should not drone on about “the uncreated light” (heard this) or politics (heard this too), but be morally and culturally engaged (without being moralistic or too given to or against pop culture–I’ve heard all that too).

7) Develop and maintain social ministries and get new converts to engage in them.  Ours is a hurting world, a world in pain.  Ours is a world in which we are seeing the middle class shrink, in which the disparity between wealthy and poor is increasing at an increasing rate.  St. Maria of Parish is an example to keep in mind here.  If our faith does not do this and does not emphasize this, then we run the risk of the devil actually rejoicing in all our prostrations, prayer ropes, vigils, distinctive appearance, etc.

If we do these things, it will help converts and potential converts put things into perspective.  They will come to see fasting and Orthodox prayers as things that are to lead us to Christ.  They will realize they can enter into Orthodoxy without feeling compelled (or even implicitly encouraged) to adopt the “look” of a monk they are not.  They may be less judgmental because they will have found the Jesus Prayer and fasting and prayer rules to be things that are tools, not things that must be legally kept, much less things that are markers of “the truth faith” against the heretical, evil heterodox.  After all, vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and the liturgical calendar were made for humanity, not humanity for vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and a liturgical calendar.

A Quick Addendum for the Weekend

A clergyman I respect sent me a private message in which he said 1) the essay on abuse was largely spot-on but 2) still came across a bit as a solution searching for a problem.  I think this is good feedback and so I am going to take a huge risk by opening up a little in public (and God help me if this turns out to be cyber-suicidal).

Part of what lies behind my call to an engaged and non-abusive Orthodox Christianity would be three factors.  First, without getting into details, ’cause I know that WOULD be cyber-suicidal, let me just say that Orthodoxy, including the priesthood, has been a long and very very hard path.  I’m sure this plays a role.  Second, I have friends and colleagues that I have seen hurt and wounded and some of them burnt out while others have all but been run out.  I know this sounds offensive to some, heck, maybe even most, I don’t know, but I really, truly do think we Orthodox have some serious dysfunctions and I don’t think we’re being honest enough about them.  Third, I’m from a part of the country where openness and honesty are highly valued and problems are often solved collaboratively (even when a hierarchical structure is in place).  I have to tell you, I’ve seen very little of that in Orthodoxy–very little–and so I’m sure this is a factor as well.  So, although I admit there is a lot more work to be done and some groundwork for the previous post could have been helpful, know that it didn’t come from nowhere.  It was born out of over a decade of ministry and what I have seen and experienced during that time as well as trends I’ve seen and even historical work I’ve done (for the sectarianism is something one can find there too).

I appreciate all the comments and I’m very thankful for the hard work from Brandon, Dn. Nicholas, and Adam, not to mention our guest posters.  I think we’ve got a good thing started here at RRO and I hope to see it continue.  Stay tuned!  I have another post scheduled for Monday.

Abusive Hierarchy and Breaking Orthodoxy

Many have seen the series “Breaking Bad.”  I’ve only see parts of a couple episodes.  It never stuck with me, but the premiss is simple enough:  a man (chemistry teacher) is driven to desperation to “break bad” and start making meth.  In the last two days, there have been three posts that come together in my mind that relate to people who “break Orthodoxy” or leave for another expression of faith:  Fr. Richard Rene’s post looking at why some leave Orthodoxy, Adam DeVille’s post regarding bishop qualifications,  and Owen White’s response to Fr. Richard.  The first two may be seen on this website.  Owen’s post may be found here:


There are elements of all of this that need to be unpacked and so I thought I’d write this post as a way of unpacking (a little) a couple dimensions relating to scandal and abuse with regard to Orthodox hierarchy.  It is difficult to think of something more comical, silly, or downright strange than Orthodox hierarchy, from priests to bishops.  Honestly, let’s be real about it.  It is.  I’m not ripping on hierarchy per se (for I am in the military, after all).  What I am saying is the presentation and modus operandi of Orthodox hierarchy (at least in America and the West) is greatly problematic and does relate to why people leave the Orthodox Church.

In his post, Fr. Richard did not get into this aspect but it is true.  This can be a factor on the ground in parishes.  Priests can, at times, be abusive (primarily emotionally and verbally, I’m not suggesting it is common for priests to get physically violent).  This can happen.  I think priests actually have to fight this temptation because we often see ourselves as the “answer man” of our community and, to be fair, a good number of parishioners also see us this way.  Also, some priests have so bought into the notion of “hierarchy,” that they operate their parishes as mini-fiefdoms.  Some priests express this by micromanaging every little detail in the parish.  Or a priest might not trust parishioners with any real sense of leadership.  Some priests might even see some of their parishioners as “the enemy,” inasmuch as parish life revolves around a priest-versus-paying (or not) laity.  To be fair, I’ve seen laity whose behavior all but forced some priests into that position, so the problem with fiefdoms is not just centered on the priests.  Other ways a fiefdom can happen is the priest controls all the decisions.  One of the worst ways one can have a fiefdom can be abusive use of the sacrament of confession and spiritual guruship (if I may so coin such a term–I’m sure someone already has anyhow).  This can be seen when priests overemphasize the teachings of Ephramite monasteries and begin to dictate sexual behaviors within a marriage–and I don’t mean deal with pornography and adultery, but literally dictate parishioners’ sex lives.  A priest is responsible before God for the ministry of the parish but that should not entail mini-dictatorships.

And, lest the reader think I’m picking on priests too much here, the bishops can do this 100 times worse.  Again, I’m not saying they all do this, what I’m saying is it can be expressed at a greater magnitude when it does happen because it directly affects so many people all at once.  Furthermore, there is little recourse except to pressure the other bishops to do something, and that pressure normally has to be removing funding.  With no emperor to counterbalance abusive bishops, the laity’s pocketbook seems to be the only counterbalance we have.

Another way priests and bishops can be abusive, however, is by leading poor lives.  Many Orthodox priests have crashed and burned.  No, not the majority, but a significant enough of a minority that anyone who is Orthodox knows a few stories (if not more).  Priest X stole money, slept with so-and-so, is an alcoholic, etc.  We all know this stuff.  It abuses people because it sets such a scandalous example.  No, it’s not a direct abuse (at least not physically and not when a parishioner is not the one the priest slept with or stole from) but often such priests act and behave in ways that take advantage of parishioners’ charity and that is a form of abuse.

Another way that Orthodox hierarchy is “abusive” is that it abuses the notion of hierarchy in the first place.  Hierarchy should allow for push back.  Hierarchy should be engaged and relevant.  Orthodox hierarchy is, too often, neither.  Push back has been met with anger and retaliation, especially from bishops.  Examples of this are not hard to find, much as I wish they were.  Oh, we have some good and loving bishops and have had such in the past, but we have also had more than our fair share of hardliners, who interpreted push back as threats (for if not a threat, why retaliate?).  When it comes to being engaged, so as to be effective, ask yourself: how often do my bishops seem to “get” the modern world?  Sadly, this could be asked of priests, too.

When converts first encounter some of these abuses, they normally write them off.  Oh, this doesn’t happen much or you cannot judge the whole by a small part.  I agree one shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy by a small part of its membership, but over time, the examples of abuse can become disconcerting and then later disgusting and overwhelming.  When that happens, some will leave.  Although Owen said he did not disengage from Orthodoxy because of the scandal of Metropolitan Philip’s behavior, some people do, and Owen did note that Orthodoxy did not seem to produce the kind of people its theology suggests it should. I think this latter aspect is actually just a side affect of abuse.  If we’re behaving in ways that actually make us worse (as Owen suggests) then we are abusing the faith once delivered.  I think Owen is right that getting too caught up in hyperdoxy can make a person worse.  Of course, Schmemann said this before Owen, so I hope Owen didn’t surprise us on this score.  Indeed, if a problem noted by Schmemann is still present, and present among converts to such a degree, what can be done?  Must we always be stuck with abusive views of hierarchy?

Well, I guess if the poor will always be with us, so too will the hyperhierarchical hyperdox, but as with poverty, we are still called to strive against it and do battle with it.  So, I’d like to make the following highly controversial suggestions for what we laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can do:

1) Get a hair cut.

Yes, you read that right.  Get rid of the Turkokratia Trappings.  The Turkish Empire no longer exists but its ghost continues to haunt the Orthodox Church.  The Turkokratia Trappings need to go.  Fathers, no more bowling in your cassocks.  Let’s cut the pony tails and get rid of the long beards hanging from our chins.  Prayer ropes are for prayer time.  There are other colors to wear besides black.

I know this suggestion will receive a lot of push back.  That’s OK, and some of the push back will come from clergy I consider friends and I truly respect, but I do mean this.  I think we make a mistake the more we show, by our dress and appearance, that we are different and strange.  I am fully aware that some will say looking odd leads to conversations about the Gospel.  I’m sure it sometimes does, at least when someone is brave enough to ask what church you go to or why you look so weird, but I find I have conversations about Christ and church without needing to look bizarre.  We need to be engaged, so that we will be heard.  Are we dressed to be engaged or dressed to look out of place?  This applies not just to clergy, but to laity and especially converts.  Schmemann too had picked up on this, with converts seeking to look like monks.  It’s not good and it’s not healthy and, I believe, encourages a guru approach to hierarchy.

There are two items of Turkokratia that also need to be rethought.  First and foremost is the hierarchical liturgy itself.  Really, people, the bishop is not an emperor.  Brandon Gallaher has, in fact, spoken to this in his article, “Ecclesiology and Episcopate in a Post-Secular Age.”  We have applied secular symbols of power to our bishops in a liturgical context.  A second item is venerating priests and bishops.  This is a serious thing.  Look, I get that it is sort of like the salute in the Air Force and you do it to show respect to the office, and not the officer per se.  I get it.  We venerate the office of the bishop/priest and not the priest per se.  However, I am aware of this being abused and to be blunt, every time a priest or bishop assumes this is how he is to be greeted, there’s a serious, serious problem.  Dn. Nick has commented on this in a  recent book chapter on pastoral principles.  I’m glad he has.  To be clear, if priests want to have an “image” or an icon of themselves to keep in mind, they should look at the icon of Christ entering Jerusalem.  We take center stage there, brethren!  We’re the ass!  Yep, there we are!  We need to keep this in mind.  We bear Christ.  So, I propose we rethink how respect is shown to the sacerdotal office.  Do people really need to be kissing our hands all the time?  I prefer a handshake and direct eye contact and a polite hello.  What if we tried that more often?

2) Get a “secular” job.  Look, the future of Orthodoxy in America is small parishes.  We need to rethink how we are holding diocesan meetings.  I’d like to see census numbers.  I bet most priests are working and use vacation to attend church gatherings.  That will become more common.  The notion of “chapel” will become more important and “mission” will change by definition.  The more we encourage this, the more grounded our hierarchy will be.  St. Paul made tents.  The rest of us can do something too.

3) Require regular psychological testing for clergy across the board.  Do it before seminary and do it before ordination.  We have nothing to lose and sanity to gain.

4)  Stop trying to make the parish into a monastery.  Married people have sex.  It’s a good thing.  They should confess pornography and fornication and adultery, but let’s not micro-manage the rest.  Likewise, quit trying to do 100 extra services and then complain about lack of attendance.  The parish will never have high attendance rates outside of Sunday morning.  Here in the upper midwest, Wednesday night runs a close second–not Saturday night (unless we’re talking about Catholics hoping to golf or fish or just sleep in on Sunday morning).  Doing too many services actually burns out clergy (and key laity).  Of course, if we follow point 2, we will address this to some degree anyhow.

5)  Bishops and priests need to see their jobs as facilitators.  Everyone has a gift (and likely giftS) of the Spirit.  We should act like it.  We should discern their gifts and find ways to help them flourish.  We are not the know-it-alls.  We do not have all the solutions.  Our parishioners are talented.  Goodness, a priest doesn’t even NEED to be the ONLY one who ever gives sermons or teaches adult education or even catechesis.  And parish councils should be real councils.  There are parishes where there are councils by name only.  That’s wrong.

6) Accept and welcome push back.  Bishops and priests should not go into retaliation mode or “woe is me” victim mode.  That’s beneath the dignity of the office.

7) Be brave and Christian enough to give push back.  Too often priests act as silent sheep in the face of bishops’ behaviors that most priests wouldn’t do.  Of course, if we’d all get “secular” jobs, this might help give us freedom here too.  But really, my fellow ministers in Christ, we should be standing up for the flock, not cowering before tyrants.  I’ve seen the latter.

8)  Bishops and priests need to have identities, friendships, and hobbies outside their parishes.  There must be more to Fr. X than “Hi, I’m Fr. X” or Fr. X is mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

These eight steps won’t cure everything, but they would be a start.  We have abusive hierarchy.  Our abusive clergy and scandals do cause people to leave.  It happens.  I believe most of our clergy are good at heart but we need to fess up.  We need to take ownership and we need to do what we can to correct it.