A Light Shines In...Whether You Like It or Not

The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Church bodies in North America.  It comes out the Russian Church, and has a complex and rather interesting history.  But, as with Orthodox Christianity in general on this side of the Atlantic, the OCA mostly kept a low profile in the religious landscape.

In 2006, a blog representing a group called "Orthodox Christians for Accountability" appeared on the internet.  This blog, which was later revealed to be run by an Orthodox Christian lay person named Mark Stokoe, made allegations that senior officials of the OCA had been involved in financial improprieties.  Later, the allegations expanded to include claims that those financial issues were tied in with sexual behavior by high ranking clergy.  The blog did not simply make allegations, however; it included documents that supported the claims.  These allegations ultimately led to the resignation of the head bishop of the OCA and a formal investigation and accounting.  In time, the blog provided a forum for high ranking figures in the OCA to weigh-in on the controversies,  and continued to cover events occurring in the OCA (and other Orthodox jurisdictions) in the aftermath of the crisis.  OCANews.org was highly controversial within the OCA, and led to the creation of other OCA-related internet sites offering alternative views on church events.

The story of OCANews.org is relevant not because it shows a scandal in the Orthodox Church; certainly, no religious institution is free of these kinds of problems.  The story is relevant because it revealed a scandal that in all likelihood would not have come to light without the existence of modern communications technology.  In fact, one of the key revelations of OCANews.org was that the financial and sexual issues had been covered up since the 1980s, and the site claimed that there were active efforts made to keep things under wraps.  By distributing documentary evidence to anyone with a wi-fi connection, keeping it under wraps was not an realistic option.

In Chuck Klosterman's new book, he devotes a chapter to what he might call "the villains of the internet"--Julian Assange, Perez Hilton, and Kimdotcom.  They are villains, in Klosterman's view, because they take decisions out of the hands of everyone else.  There is a complex and interesting debate to be had about how to properly balance between transparency and privacy.  But people like Assange and Hilton make that discussion irrelevant, because they are going to release the information they have whether people like it or not.

Klosterman calls these people villains because they are releasing information as part of an ideological program of transparency above all.  That may be true, but there doesn't have to be singular figures like Assange in order for transparency to be the order of the day.  Transparency is one person with a grudge and an internet connection.  All it takes for the secrets of an organization to be revealed is a secretary or low level employee who decides that people should know about what's going on.

OCANews.org is a lesson for all religious institutions (really, all institutions, period).  Calling for "greater transparency" by a religious institution is silly and irrelevant--it's like calling for gravity to work.  Religious institutions will be more transparent.  The question is whether the institutions will embrace transparency and try to manage the new reality, or whether they will wait for the next OCANews.org to spill their secrets.

Keeping things secret?  The best funded spy agency in the world can't keep a low level contractor from releasing extremely sensitive information to the public.  If the NSA can't keep secrets, what makes Diocese X or Megachurch Y or Synagogue Z think they can keep things secret?


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