Kuskokwim Clergy Call On +Nikolai To Resign
• Metropolitan Herman In Call to +Nikolai Suggests “Leave of Absence”
• +Nikolai Refuses, Downplays Dissent
In a letter dated February 24, 2008, signed by the Yup’ik clergy of the Kuskokwim Deanery located in southwest Alaska, six priests and one deacon joined their clergy brethren across the state in suggesting to the Synod of Bishops that “the most reasonable end to all the ugliness” is for Bishop Nikolai to “resign as Bishop of Alaska.”
Sources close to Syosset report that the Metropolitan has telephoned the Bishop of Alaska and suggested he take a “Leave of Absence” until order can be restored in the Diocese. + Nikolai refused, downplaying the growing chorus of clergy and lay voices crying out for help, suggesting it was the work of a few “dissidents”.
The Kuskokwim Deanery Letter
According to specialists in Alaskan native cultures, the Yup’ik are among the most long-suffering, patient and non-confrontational native cultures in the state. They rarely speak out against injustices: they bow their heads and endure. Yet the Yup;ik clergy, young and old, met this weekend in Kwethluk to take action to resolve the crisis of the Alaskan Orthodox Church. The clergy unanimously accepted a draft of a letter to the OCA Synod of Bishops composed by Fr. Martin Nikolai. Many are reported to be writing additional personal letters of their own, both to the Bishops as well as to the OCA Chancellor, Fr. Alexander Garklavs.
The extraordinary deanery letter reads:
We are the clergy of the Kuskokwim Deanery; Archpriest Phillip Alexie, Archpriest Martin Nicolai, Priest George Berezkin, Priest Yago Steven, Priest Alexander Larson, Priest Vasily Fisher and Deacon Yako Fisher.
We gathered at the St. Nicholas parish in Kwethluk on February 23 for a deanery meeting and we talked about what has been happening and perhaps, to get a sense of direction of what we could do.
We are unhappy about all that has been brought to light, the controversies of last year and the unrest of the Church in Alaska. The clergy and many of the faithful are not ignorant of these things. We want peace in our beloved diocese – we have no other home.
We realize that as long as this is going on, we will lose some members. Some of the clergy will remain, for sure, but some, like Protodeacon George, will no longer want to serve the Church under you. There are now some clergy who are afraid to voice their concerns and true feelings to one another and are not united in mind and heart. Most of us are like Fr. Yakov, who, during his presentation at the Assembly in November, was shaking in fear and nervousness…and we laughed about it. To serve in fear, rather than to serve in faith and love, is not Orthodox. When we do that, we instinctively stay far away from you and try our best not to deal with you. Now you know why most of us hardly called you to greet you on feast days. Only when we were prompted, some of us started to contact you.
As it is now, we are concerned for the future of the Church, the diocese and her faithful in Alaska. What will become of us if this does not end soon? Unchanged, it will continue to be an unhealed wound.
Therefore, we would be so bold to offer the most reasonable end to all the ugliness and begin to build up again, and that is for Your Grace to willingly resign as Bishop of Alaska.
We affirm that each bishop and presbyter, wherever they serve and no matter how they have served, always leave behind good things along with the bad. If you should leave, we will continue to hold on to the good things you have given us, and you will be remembered with gratitude, even if not expressed openly.
And no, you will not be running away but you’ll be putting into God’s hand to do whatever He wishes for the good of His Church in this diocese. If not for anything else, do it for love.
Asking for your Archpastoral prayers for us prodigals,
Your unworthy priests,
Archpriest Phillip Alexie
Archpriest Martin Nicolai
Priest George Berezkin
Priest Yago Steven
Priest Alexander Larson
Priest Vasily Fisher
Deacon Yako Fisher”
The Chancellor of the Alaskan Diocese, Archimandrite Isidore (Brittain), meanwhile, has been contacting clergy to stem the growing expressions of outrage. He tried, but failed, to dissuade the Yup’ik priests from meeting to adopt their letter. He tried to intimidate Fr. Peter Askoar, one of first priests to speak out, by offering Fr. Peter’s parish to another priest. (Read Fr. Askoar’s letter here.)The priest to whom the parish was offered refused. Fr. Isidore then invited all Alaskan priests to Anchorage for a series of two hour deanery meetings to be facilitated by someone appointed by the Bishop on March 4th, to be followed by a meeting with the Bishop himself on March 5th.
Given the ‘divide and conquer’ techniques already attempted, and fearing that, in the words of one invitee, “it smells like an ambush”, the Yup’ik clergy of the Kuskokowim have made it known they will not attend. As they have already called for the bishop to step down, and believe that is the only viable solution to the problem, there is “nothing more for them to discuss”.
More Letters To the Synod
The outcry is not from the villages alone. Fr. Elia Larson at Sitka’s St. Michael’s Cathedral is reported to have written a letter, as has the Juneau priest, Fr. Michael Spainhoward. Following OCANEWS.org’s recent publication of his essay “Alaska Today’, Fr. Michael Oleksa of Anchorage stated:
“I have received dozens of telephone calls and hundreds of e.mails in prayerful support of what we are doing. All we have done, however, is tell the truth as we have known it, but been afraid to speak until now.
I have urged the clergy to write and to tell the truth, noting that we have nothing to fear compared to the confessors and martyrs of the past. No one will torture us or murder us. We are not in danger of being burned alive or thrown to wild beasts. We might get a nasty letter from a nasty man. Aren’t we men enough to take that? Of what can the Holy Synod be afraid? Bishop Nikolai has no moral authority here.”
Not just clerics are speaking out. In a letter of solidarity to the “Long line of beloved Alaskan Clergy”, retired Alaskan Superior Court Judge, former member of the Alaska State Human Rights Commission, former regent of the University of Alaska, former board member of St. Herman’s Seminary, and Altuiiq elder Roy Madsen and his wife Linda write: “We STAND with you as ONE in this terrible time for Orthodoxy in Alaska and for all OCA members across the country who seek accountability. ” (Emphasis in original)
The Madsens continued: “We have seen the same disrespectful and hurtful treatment by Bishop Nikolai toward the Kodiak parishioners, toward St. Herman’s Seminary staff, professors and students, as you describe occurring in the villages and cities throughout the Alaskan Diocese…. ”
Sadly we have stopped attending services at Holy Resurrection Cathedral, as injustices continue to be denied and unresolved, and discussion is not allowed. All is NOT well. You are probably already aware that Kodiak parishioners have been denied the sacrament of Holy Communion for such things as:
not apologizing to the bishop after he ordered a woman out of the cathedral, in front of all present, for trying to explain the bishop’s words to her hard of hearing companion;
another for supposedly ignoring him by not attending the annual Pilgrimage to Spruce Island,
another for having been married in the local (Bulgarian) St. Innocent’s Academy chapel after being refused the sacrament of marriage at Holy Resurrection — her home parish.
In Cordova, a parishioner (through the bishop) was refused the sacrament of marriage in her home parish, therefore got married in a Protestant service!
It is still an unexplained mystery why funeral services for the loved Orthodox and famed anthropologist Dr. Lydia Black (of Blessed Memory) had to be conducted in a Lutheran Church here by a Bulgarian Orthodox priest instead of at Holy Resurrection.
A St. Herman’s Seminary student was expelled because he refused to apologize for ‘looking’ at +Nikolai while serving with him at the altar. …
We believe Ben Ardinger, one of the most faithful and long serving members of St. Herman’s Board of Trustees, was fired most likely for questioning the wisdom and propriety over the ‘elimination’ of Associate Dean of Students Paul Sidebottom’s position at the Seminary, whom we now know has filed a federal complaint against +Nikolai with the EEOC after waiting in vain 9 months for a just internal investigation.
We believe in Paul Sidebottom’s truthfulness and strong commitment to the Seminary. What could be more revealing than allowing Fr. Isidore, the accused/abused offender, to be 1 of 3 voting on the Executive Committee to eliminate Paul’s position, notwithstanding the ‘reasons’ given, as well as retaining Fr. Isidore as Chancellor while in alcohol rehab?
Then there is the Protodeacon in Anchorage who was given the ‘choice’ of resigning or being deposed, then threatened with a spiritual court when stating he could not in good conscience serve with a tonsured reader convicted of statutory rape/child molestation. We are well aware of the role and honor bestowed on a Reader in the Alaskan Diocese, especially where there is not a resident priest.”
The Madsens then directed their words to the priests they have known through their thirty years of caring for students at St. Herman’s:
“Since the 1970’s when St. Herman’s Seminary relocated from Wildwood near Kenai to Kodiak we have watched you come from the remote villages: young, old, single and/or married with families, to learn to protect the Orthodox Faith you hold precious. You went about learning of Christ’s Church, usually in your second language, not first. We prayed, sang, ate, laughed and cried together, and later we said goodbye to you as you left Kodiak to assume your full life serving God and protecting His People, a life of more sacrifice than we know. We have never stopped loving you, and you have never stopped inspiring us, by your faith, commitment, sacrifices and generosity. We thank you for your fine examples of courage and perseverance. We are grateful for your love and prayers, and we miss you, each one of you, over these many years. May God forever watch over and protect you.”
And then they turn to the Bishop, and to the notion of ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse: “…. This is a perfect portrayal of what is taking place in our Alaskan Diocese when it describes a person such as a bishop or priest who uses his official capacity to coerce compliance with his wishes by parishioners, who by imposing his own personal opinions as church doctrine and policy resorts to such power plays as threats, intimidation and punishment, to insure that his views prevail in a conflict of opinions. The article goes on to address the treatment of members who become alienated because of conduct of this nature and who are labeled, as in our particular situation, troublemakers, agitators, even ‘enemies’. We are among many in Kodiak who pray for “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” as stated in I Timothy 3:4-5.”
The Madsens conclude: “Thank you, beloved Alaskan Clergy, for your courage, and may all American Orthodox Faithful truly STAND BEHIND YOU AND TOGETHER AS ONE. Holding all of us in our prayers through Jesus Christ.
Roy and Linda Madsen”
In response to the cries from Alaska, the OCA released the following official statement on Saturday, February 23rd. It begins:
“The OCA Chancery is receiving mail and e-mail from clergy of the Diocese of Alaska. There are indications that serious issues exist that may need to be addressed. His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman is aware of the situation and has been in touch with His Grace, Bishop Nikolai and members of the Holy Synod.”
Now comes reports of phone calls between +Herman and +Nikolai. Given the Bishop’s refusal of a leave of absence, there is no doubt that Alaska will be at the top of the Lesser Synod meeting scheduled for next week, on March 4th. That meeting is traditionally held only to plan the agenda for the Spring meeting of the full Synod (this year in May). While the Lesser Synod currently includes Metropolitan Herman, Archbishops Seraphim & Job and Bishop Tikhon, it is not unusual for other Bishops to attend as well when circumstance or proximity allow.
The Price of Failure
The ‘serious issues’ acknowledged by Syosset make it clear to many clergy and laity in Alaska that there is no going back to the silence of the past six years. In their opinion, the Synod must now intervene and remove Bishop Nikolai, voluntarily or involuntarily. Based on past experience, they fear it is only a matter of time before +Nikolai begins to retaliate against the two-thirds of the priests in the Diocese and the many laity who have spoken out. Should that occur – as it has in the case of Fr. Askoar – the OCA faces the very real possibility that clergy and parishes in the diocese of Alaska will petition to leave the OCA to find a jurisdictional home where their personal and culture integrity will be respected. As one priest warned: “We won’t sit quietly by and watch as, one by one, our brothers are threatened, abused or removed from the clergy.”
Could Alaskan priests and parishes really leave the OCA? The question, given the growing number of bitter complaints, is not idle. Legally, the Bishop owns many of the churches in Alaska – but not all. In Russian Mission, the diocese owns the land on which the village itself stands. But the Bishop could hardly evict the whole town – and it is unlikely the Bishop could come into a Yup’ik village like Kwethluk or Napaskiak and start removing icons, lamps or chalices. The people would not allow it. Only in the cities could he demand that the clergy leave their rectories and their empty churches to him — in Kodiak, Kenai, Anchorage, Unalaska, Sitka and’s oldest diocese, further challenge the historical and spiritual foundations of the OCA, and most importantly, alienate its first members.