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.