The Internet for the Non-teetotalers

The recent comments by the OCA bishops on social networking and the Internet as well as a few criticisms they proffered of the Internet at the All American Council give us all reason to consider the value of the Internet.   Today Mark Stokoe announced he was suspending publication of OCAnews.org, something he had been privately talking about for a very long time.

Perhaps the bishops will rest easy now; we will see how the antagonists of OCAnews.org react themselves since they justified their own publications as needed to counter OCAnews.   Will the end of OCAnews bring an end to Orthodox Internet wars as all parties declare the cessation of publication?  Or will some ideologically driven folk carry on with their ad hominem attacks?  Time will tell.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.”   (Proverbs 10:19)

Disagreement in the Church is nothing new – we can read about disagreements among the apostles while Jesus was still with them (which one of us is greatest?).    Disagreement is not always bad as it can help to clarify issues as certainly was done through the great theological debates which culminated in the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The Internet itself has become a jousting point for the Orthodox – an issue arguing over the means by which we can communicate.   Certainly part of the issue, which many would say is the very goodness of the Internet in dealing with despotic dictators, is the inability of the few to control the Internet (as well as who speaks, or how many speak, or what they speak about).  The Internet’s threat to democracy is also there as we can see in the presidential campaigns where lies, fabrications, disinformation and distortions about various candidates abound.  The Internet can challenge the despot’s control of information, but it can also flood people’s email boxes and minds with useless, wrong and harmful ideas.  So the good and the bad of  using the Internet are not readily separable.

Abraham Lincoln in a speech in 1842 dealing with temperance waxed eloquently about whether drunkenness arose “from the use of a bad thing” or rather “from the abuse of a very good thing.”

The same question is being asked about the use of the Internet by Orthodox Christians.   Some seem to want to make the Internet a bad thing from which ‘others’ should abstain.   After all, the Internet seems to be as addicting to some as alcohol is, and certainly it can lead to verbally abusive behaviors.    Yet Orthodoxy has not forbidden the use of alcohol to its members, even though its negative effects have been well known since the time of Noah.

The Internet itself is nothing more than a powerful tool for conveying information (or disinformation) to a large number of people, quickly, efficiently and often over great distances instantly.  Tools can build up the world or destroy it; they can be used to create beauty or make a mess of things.

Lots of people are killed in automobile accidents and yet our society is so structured that we can hardly survive without cars.   The Internet itself is often imaged as another highway, one which conveys information.  Highways are not without danger.  Parents warn their children about the danger even of crossing the street.  Yet we do not ban autos or highways or streets, for they all also are tools serving a purpose.

Perhaps the development of the Internet is something like  the discovery of the new world’s tobacco as described in the recent book by Charles Mann,  1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED.  Tobacco was hailed as something marvelous, enriching, and even healthy by Europeans and Chinese, leading to the addiction to the plant of millions and also to their early deaths.  It took many centuries for humans to come to a belief that the drug effect of tobacco was dangerous to our health.

Tobacco’s stimulent effect was at first largely thought of as quite useful, especially for soldiers.     The Internet is not quite the same as tobacco, it is a far more powerful tool that remains outside of our bodies.   In the hands of a carpenter, a hammer can be effectively used to build beauty.  In the hands of a murderer it can bash someone’s brains.  So too with other tools, the whittler’s knife, the doctor’s scalpel or the laborer’s shovel which can dig a well or a grave.

But the Internet remains a tool in itself neither good nor evil, but capable of being used for both and either.  Some might think it both the use of a bad thing or at best the abuse of a good thing.    God in His own wisdom endowed humans with free will and has put into our hands, hearts and minds the ability to create beauty, to co-create the world with Him, and to procreate life.   We also have the ability to choose rather to destroy and to bring about death.   The Internet does not change humanity.  We invented it and we are the ones who will use it for good or ill or both.  As Christ taught us:

 “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:35-37)

The Internet is a tool, it is humans who choose good and evil.  The good among us will make good use of the Internet.   The evil will make use of the Internet as well.   We will know them by their fruit.  And we will see as with tools, sometimes swords are made into plowshares and sometimes the reverse happens.  The same material can be used for helping bring forth life and for taking life away.  In this world we also are aware that sometimes swords are needed.

There is still much for us to learn about the Internet.   It is obvious that Internet etiquette has not been embraced by some Orthodox.   Some find it easy to hide behind anonymity in order to attack others, accuse falsely, and abuse people.

It is also true that the wrong reading of Scripture can lead to heresy, yet we do not ban Bibles nor their study.

Unfortunately, as some of the Patristic Fathers noted about commentaries on the Scriptures, sometimes writers demonstrate exacting precision (Greek = akrebeia) about how they interpret the text, but their conclusions are purely wrong despite their interpretive precision.    So too on the Internet people can be inaccurate in what they write even when they are saying precisely what they intend.

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14)

The Internet’s use requires much wisdom and discernment not to mention humility and love.  In the hands of the fool and of the wicked it will wreck sin and evil.  But it also can convey beauty and truth to the many.

Allegations and Accusations

 Allegations of misconduct of any kind by church officials often bring strong reactions from the public, the press and parishioners.  Some are scandalized, some angry, some sickened, some dismayed, and some disbelieve.

In the current age, the church must make response to allegations against its leadership regarding misconduct whether sexual, moral, financial, or pastoral.  Allegations when they are made cannot always be judged immediately as credible or not, and so investigations into allegations are needed, even if the allegations seem farfetched.  That is what a true investigation is supposed to determine.

Sometimes as soon as an allegation is made people take sides, either, on the one hand vindicating the accused declaring such an event could not have happened or is unbelievable because the accused is innocent, or on the other hand vilifying the accused as guilty even if nothing is proven.

In the church such allegations are painful and threatening partly because the church has a responsibility to minister to all parties – the victims, those reporting problems (whistle blowers), those asked to testify (witnesses), as well as all the  accused.  (Note: Victims are those directly abused, as well as the larger group of people who might be affected by the events whether witnesses, innocent bystanders, family members, fellow parishioners, etc).  The church and its leaders do not always know the truth of the events.  However, the church has to come to grips with what it means that allegations must be taken seriously, how to investigate allegations fairly and thoroughly, and how to minister to all the parties involved.  When both the accusers and the accused are members of the church, how does the church fulfill its responsibilities to all?

Recently allegations surfaced regarding Archbishop Seraphim of Canada.  One can see on the internet the strong emotional reactions to this from those who declare his innocence, to those who suspect truth in the allegations and from those who do not know what to think.

The church has an obligation and a responsibility to investigate serious and credible allegations, this most would agree with.   But these days, fairness and due diligence demand all allegations be investigated.  Obviously fairness is viewed very differently by those who allege themselves to be victims of abuse and by those who are the accused. 

Metropolitan Jonah has publicly stated numerous times that the church will have a zero tolerance policy toward sexual misconduct and that clergy will be defrocked for violating standards of conduct.  This stance itself means that allegations of sexual misconduct must be thoroughly investigated to determine what course of action the church must take.

An allegation is a statement most often from someone claiming to be a victim of abuse, against another person.  Allegations may also come from third party people who have witness or learned of an abuse.  An allegation does not mean the accused has been found guilty of anything; it is a statement saying that someone was or may have been wronged by another.

 Taking allegations seriously is important for any church since the very being of church as community is based in trust.  If people violate that trust for their own sinful ends, it is an evil.  Unfortunately not all people are equally capable of defending themselves from abuse, and so the church has to take an interest in protecting all of its members from abuse, especially those who might be termed, “the weak.”   Part of that protection involves looking at complaints of abuse, no matter who makes the allegation and no matter who is the accused. 

The church must take allegations seriously – investigate all serious complaints.   It has a responsibility to hear the cry of those who have been victimized by abuse, especially if it comes from church leaders.  Investigating all allegations protects both church members and church leaders.  If everyone believes a full and fair investigation will always take place, then people will trust the system to work and to work for them.

While an investigation into clergy sexual misconduct is ongoing, there are many temptations of passion that can affect the membership of the church: anger, judgmentalism, impatience, unbelief, despondency.   It is a time for prayer, and waiting on the Lord to reveal the truth.    

Archbishop Seraphim of Ottawa on Leave of Absence

There is no joy in reading news like this, but in as much as I serve on the  OCA’s Metropolitan Council and also do work with a committee forming the sexual misconduct policies for the OCA, I think it important that we all see a certain maturity happening in the OCA in grappling with these issues, in forming policies to deal with such allegations, and in enforcing those policies.  It has been a slow growth and learning process for the OCA in dealing with these issues.  We can hope that this public admission of allegations and an investigation is a sign that there has been a real change in the corporate culture of the OCA.

Archbishop Seraphim of Ottawa on Leave of Absence

Posted 10/03

SYOSSET, NY [OCA] — The Lesser Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, meeting at the OCA Chancery in Oyster Bay Cove, NY, September 21 – 24, 2010, heard an official report that police in Canada have received a complaint alleging misconduct committed by His Eminence, Archbishop Seraphim of Ottawa and Canada some 30 years ago.

An investigation is now is progress.

In response to this, Archbishop Seraphim requested a leave of absence.

On behalf of the Holy Synod of Bishops, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, made the following statement: “I have blessed the Church’s Office for Review of Sexual Misconduct Allegations to work in conjunction with the Canadian police authorities and to comply with the Orthodox Church in America’s policies and procedures in order to obtain the necessary information needed to bring about a proper resolution. We offer our heartfelt prayers to the Great Shepherd and Healer, Our Lord Jesus Christ, that all parties involved in this will be blessed with God’s peace, love and healing. During Archbishop Seraphim’s leave of absence, His Grace, Bishop Irénée of Quebec City will function as the Administrator of the Archdiocese of Canada.”

Freedom of the Press and Accountability

I was listening to National Public Radio and heard Audie Cornish’s interview,  Helen Thomas Marks 50 Years at the White House, with 89 year old Journalist Helen Thomas who was part of the White House press corps for many years.

I found Ms. Thomas’ comments about the press, and the presidential candidates and then presidents’ reaction to the press to be interesting and insightful to how some in the Orthodox world have reacted to OCAnews.org.

Thomas said that presidents “hate the press really. They need the press during a campaign and they really work to get their attention. But after, once they’re in the White House the iron curtain comes down. … Presidents don’t like to have news conferences. They’re president.  How dare you question them or their motives?”

Candidates pursuing office cannot ever get enough press coverage or attention.  Candidates in office hate the press for questioning them or holding them accountable.   It is apparently a trait of leadership, even religious leadership, for as we have seen bishops too do not like to have to defend or explain their actions or inertia and resent being questioned, feeling that the “hierarchical principle” means they are not accountable to anyone for what they do or don’t do.

And while that attitude may have worked well in traditional Orthodox cultures where information was almost completely controlled by the ruling few, it does not fit well in the American context.  Thomas’ attitude though very well reflects the common American attitude that the freedom of the press guarantees us a right to know.  What does the press have to do when presidents refuse to explain their decisions or resist having to give an account for their actions?

“… you have to struggle harder to convince them that this is the country with freedom of the press and every public official is very accountable. Everything they do is accountable to the American people and that’s why were there.  We’re the watchdogs.  And I think everything belongs in the public domain practically, except for where the atomic arsenal is.”

That is what church leadership also has to remember about being the Church in America, rather than in some “traditionally Orthodox country.”  We are a country that values the freedom of the press and which believes every public official is accountable, and that the citizenry should be informed about what leadership is doing.  We see our bishops as public figures, not as the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain, ordering us to pay no attention to what they are doing but only to obey them.   This is part of the tension Orthodox leadership feels in our country.  If we are going to be the Orthodox Church in America, rather than say a Diaspora Church Abroad, we have to find the way to deal with American attitudes toward accountability, hypocrisy, integrity and transparency.

Freedom of the press means that organizations which claim to be public are also open to scrutiny by the public and even to investigation by concerned reporters.   The OCA’s adoption of “Best Practices”, clergy sexual misconduct policies,  and other measures of accountability may seem foreign to the Church in traditionally Orthodox countries, but if we are not to remain a foreign Diaspora in our own country, we must be prepared to open our administrative practices to public scrutiny.     If we are the Church, we have nothing to hide and everything to reveal.  If we are not trustworthy, having integrity, as well as transparent and open to inquirers, then we have little to commend us to this culture.  The ever expanding media outlets – the Internet, WebPages and blogs, require integrity, openness, trustworthiness.  In fact that is all that commends us or anyone on the Internet.  Either we will be open and truthful and people will see us as such, or they will quickly marginalize us by looking for other sites on the web for spiritual nurture.   The Church grew rapidly in its early centuries because of its “witness” through the lives of its membership.  That sense of our being trustworthy witnesses to the Kingdom is an essential part of evangelism.  The American reliance of a free press may help restore within the church a sense of the importance of being reliable witnesses to the Kingdom.

Some may say that the Church existed long before ideas of the freedom of the press came around and did just fine without such freedom and/or reporting.  The Church has successfully managed to incarnate itself into many different cultures in the world.  In each culture the Church preserved its unchanging message by recognizing the differences in cultural attitudes and then adapting itself to these differences.  Whether the Church was under the pagan Roman Empire, Orthodox Byzantium or Russia, under Islam, Communism or settled in “the West”, it has adapted itself to the cultures in order to preserve the Gospel unchanged.  The freedom of the press is part of cultural background of America.  It is not inconsistent with the Gospel and can in fact help us maintain and prove our trustworthiness as witnesses to the Gospel.

OCA Membership Numbers: Would a Name Change Help?

“The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2).

Churches – both individual congregations and entire denominations – from time to time are faced with shrinking memberships.  There are all kinds of ideas about how to reverse declining numbers, but one novel one is simply to try changing the congregation/denomination’s name.  The 8 June 2008 edition of  The Washington Post, “Shrinking Flock Examines Its Identity”   examines exactly the idea of a name change as a step toward reversing membership loss.   “Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country, whose 16 million membership has declined in recent years, has hosted church-naming seminars asking the question, ‘To Baptist or Not to Baptist?'”   And apparently a national survey shows that a number of churches are trying the name change “in an attempt to fill pews.”   

I can’t help but offer the sardonic comment, “gee, I wonder if the OCA has considered a name change? Maybe that would help solve its problems.”    And those who follow the scandal closely might remember the brief moment in which “Syosset” suddenly was using Oyster Bay Cove as its city locale.   So maybe the idea is not so far-fetched.   

Even if you white wash a tomb, it is still filled with dead bones says Jesus. 

The old mantra at Syosset as the solution for every crisis used to be “increase the assessment.”  It never solved the problem of scandal or declining membership, but some must have benefitted from this for they kept offering this “solution” year after year.  The assessment climbed and the membership numbers shrank.  Well, that should at least have translated into more money to serve each continuing member for ministry, right?    That doesn’t seem to have happened but the OCA did employ an ever increasing number of people who were involved in the fund raising arm of the central administration even as membership numbers plummeted.  Fortunately (what an appropriate word in this case!), the scandal did reveal the fallacy in this logic.

Looking for simple solutions to declining church memberships is always tempting.  Change, and true in-depth soul searching and reflection are such hard work and often so unpleasant.  Sometimes they reveal that “we” are the problem and that means we will have to change ourselves. 

Roger Oldham, vice president of convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention commented, “One hundred years ago, when people moved to a new area, they were looking for the name brand they were accustomed to. Now, people are looking for genuineness and transparency. Not a particular label.”

Genuineness and transparency.   Hmmmm.  I wonder if the metropolitan and the Synod of Bishops have ever considered that as a way out of the scandal and a way to address the OCA’s declining membership?