Bishop Jonah Addresses Questions and Concerns
November 12, 2008 Length: 31:05Newly consecrated Bishop Jonah is the Bishop of Fort Worth and Chancellor of the Diocese of Dallas and the South.
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, 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 could look at them together and consider what we are doing together as the Body of Christ in America, as according to the calling that we have been given 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 of the Holy Fathers, the traditions of the Holy Fathers, that have been given to us and all 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 and the statute.
From a lot of the preconceptions that float around in our culture about how organizations operate, a lot of the 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. Sometimes some of our bishops, Bishop Benjamin in particular, like to joke about it. What happens to a guy— 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. As Americans and, 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 in the dioceses of the Metropolitan among the Synod.
What is the metropolitan? He is the chairman of the Synod. The leadership of the 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’re not going to go very far. And, in fact, you’re likely to get thrown out, because you’ll get into all sorts of problems. I think that that form of leadership is over. 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’ve been for the past 12 years. It doesn’t work, obviously, on the diocesan or on the national level. Our leadership is leadership from within. 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. It has to be a voluntary cooperation, and obedience within that context is not some guy who can lord it over you and make you do what he wants you to, and you’re 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— but everything goes smoothly. 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’s not about obedience to Jesus Christ and the gospel, what are we doing here? What are we doing here? The gospel has to be first and foremost above every other consideration, and 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. 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 work out our disagreements – God knows, and 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, with this as our basic principle, how do we look at some of these questions? There are several that I cannot address. I have been consecrated as a Bishop for, what, ten days? So I’m 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. I thank God for that.
So, the first question, it rather follows from what is communion in love and respect trying to work toward 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. And this demon needs to be exorcised. Intimidation, fear, is never appropriate. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re 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’ve had plenty of it, I’ve had more than I ever want to think about, and I resolved that never, ever, would I allow myself to fall into such a thing, because power corrupts. That power needs to be renounced, because it’s 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 in regards to the passions— anger, bitterness, resentment, vengeance— it’s all selfish passions. Whenever we are possessed by those passions, we need to sit down and shut up, because all we’re doing is sinning and compounding our sin by the words that come out of our mouths. It’s so important for us to keep watch over ourselves, to keep watch over our words and keep watch over our thoughts. Because, if we’re possessed by anger, by judgment of someone who has sinned— have they sinned? Obviously. Have you sinned? Obviously. How can you judge? It’s the same kind of hypocrisy that St. Paul condemned. The elder who founded the hermitage in Point Reyes, Fr. Dimitry Egoroff, 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 Investigative 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, a 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.
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’s 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 could have that, build that community of love and respect, seeing how our passions have distracted us from that living communion with God and has turned us against one another, have created all sorts of hostility between— well, we just saw it— between the body of the All-American Council and the Synod of Bishops— I heard boos, right?— between the Synod of 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’s on an interpersonal level, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 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. 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? So, what is the essence of the Gospel? It’s repentance and forgiveness. And what is that repentance? It’s 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. That is a constant process for every single committed Christian. It’s 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 born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us. By forgiving, we’re not excusing the action. We’re not saying that Kondratick was right to loot the Church. We’re not saying that Metropolitan Theodosius was right to abdicate all of his responsibility to the bottle or whatever. We’re not justifying anything. What we’re saying is that 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.
The Holy Synod needs a chance to function normally with a leader who is engaged, who is not drunk, who is not preoccupied, with someone who is engaged, who is engaged in building that synergy and building that communion. It’s not about just that particular Metropolitan or that particular leader. It’s about every single one of us. You, all of you here, you’re the leaders of the Church. Every priest here has probably dozens or hundreds of people who look to you. Your authority is based, is 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’s not power.
So we look at some of these questions. Was the Holy Synod leaderless? Yes, for thirty years. For thirty years, Metropolitan Herman and Metropolitan Theodosius. We need to give them 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’re Americans and we have cast that off. We don’t need a foreign despot. We are the only non-state Orthodox Church. In other words, we’re 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 are you going to do with your part of that responsibility? Maybe you haven’t been entrusted with the leadership of a parish. Maybe you’re not a priest. Maybe you think, “Oh, I’m just a housewife.” What incredible responsibility you have to your children, to your friends, to your neighbors, to the parish— incredible responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ by how you love and respect one another.
If you’re 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 twenty-two year old brother who happened to decide to go out river rafting on the Spring thaw, thinking of course as a twenty-two 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’s an awesome mystery. It’s 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 bitterness and show love for one another, show respect for one another, 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’s your personal last judgment or the general one. This is the scriptures. This is the reality of this great mystery of our union with Christ.
How do we reestablish trust? There’s only one way. It’s to choose to love. It’s the only way. There’s no other way. There’s no organizational methods, no kind of business practices we can invoke, no corporate ideologies. None of that. If we’re 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 all to our 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 can have a nice organization, but who cares? Who cares, you know? We can have all the nice rituals, but to quote Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, “Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross so we can have nice rituals.” It’s not about religion. It’s about our souls. It’s about our salvation. It’s 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 a forfeit. So I think that I have addressed most of the questions on here. Please forgive me.
"I am a teacher in bush Alaska and live far from my parish (I have to fly there). When I have had a hard day at work, hearing the hymns of the Church or some thoughtful reflection really helps my refocus."