I want to contrast the way the institutional Catholic Church is struggling to deal with its problem bishops, versus the way the Orthodox Church in America (my church) has done it recently. It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but I probably need to: this is not an argument for why Orthodoxy is more true than Catholicism. It is only a comment about administration.
A church is both a human and a divine institution. Because of its human element, there will always be sin among its people, including its leadership. As the famous saying goes, if you find a perfect church, join it, but know that the minute you yourself walk in the door, it will cease to be perfect any longer. It is hopelessly unrealistic to expect that the clergy of any church will always be free from sin. What matters is how those in authority deal with that sin once they become aware of it. The Catholic scandal is not really over priests molesting children, but over bishops who became aware of it refusing to deal effectively and justly with the sins and crimes.
When I joined the OCA, it was embroiled in a very serious scandal at its summit. The then-Metropolitan, one Herman, stood accused of fraud and corruption, possibly criminal. As I understand it, the scandal was primarily financial, but it was a messy one indeed. There had been longstanding attempts by concerned laity and priests to compel the Holy Synod to deal forthrightly with this cancer growing in the church, but they kept kicking the problem down the field. Whether out of weakness, naivete, loss of nerve, or whatever, the Synod of Bishops, who had the authority to act, did not. Meanwhile, the laity and some prominent voices in the clergy grew ever angrier.
Note well: they did not want to change church doctrine. They wanted rather the Metropolitan to live by church doctrine, which included not committing fraud, and involving the church in potentially criminal activity (btw, the OCA just released the executive summary of its own investigation into Herman’s corruption). They kept up the pressure in a direct way. The church really was coming apart over all this, and over the inexplicable paralysis of the Holy Synod in the face of Herman’s behavior. And then, at an anxious All-American council of bishops, priest and laity called to elect a new Metropolitan, the newly ordained Bishop Jonah was told he had to address the assembly. He had three minutes to prepare.
If you go to this item on my old Crunchy Con blog, you can find your way to an audio link of the speech Jonah gave that fateful night. I remember standing in my kitchen in Dallas listening to it. Jonah, who had only recently left the monastery of which he was abbot, spoke with a gentle but firm voice, but he said things that that landed like thunderclaps. He said the two previous Metropolitans were “corrupt,” and had “raped the church.” He said that the OCA had been without leadership for 30 years. He said that had to end, and it was going to end. He said that if the church is only about beautiful liturgy, nobody should care about it. And then he said:
“Authority is responsibility. Authority is accountability. It’s not power.”
A friend of mine in the audience said as he spoke, you could feel the atmosphere in the room changing. Suddenly, people had hope, and could see the way clear. Shortly thereafter, his brother bishops elected him the next Metropolitan.
He has had a very, very difficult time trying to clean up the filthy messes his predecessors left. But his view of the primate as a servant of Christ and his people, and not as an enabler of episcopal power exercised for its own sake, and in service to lavish episcopal lifestyles, was not only the correct one, but had the power to renew a church in despair over decadence among its bishops. Jonah spoke the truth — and it changed everything. But if his were only words, and had not been accompanied by the Synod, under fire from the laity and the lower clergy, forcing Herman to resign, they would likely have made people cynical.
Words and deeds. Humility. Authority inseparable from accountability. That’s what a true servant-leader of mine or any church should be about. With great power comes great responsibility.