A terrible tragedy happened 10 years ago this month known as the Ben Lomond Crisis. According to these re-published accounts, it was an event characterized by rigidity, intrigue and ethnocentricism on the one hand, and a defiance of legitimate episcopal authority on the other, which ruined Antiochian Orthodoxy’s best hope for a major influx of Evangelical converts. The “Orthodox Moment” among Evangelicals began and ended at Ben Lomond, California.
While there are undoubtedly conflicting versions of this event, here are two accounts of what took place in this historic turn for Orthodoxy in America.
From Ben Lomond Tragedy:
An account from 1998, November 26, 1998 (broken into paragraphs for easier reading)
The parish in Ben Lomond, CA was then the largest parish of the Antiochian Evangelical Mission. In 1997, it was a parish of about 1500. Saturday Vespers had about 200 attendees. The entire congregation sang as the choir. It has a K-12 school, a world class choir, a hospitality house (for visitors), programs for teens, and a publishing house, Conciliar Press, which the evangelicals brought with them. The parish allowed a highly respected spiritual father from Mount Athos to visit them and to hear confessions and give guidance. People began to fast and pray more.
The hierarchy of the Antiochian Archdiocese then forbade any Antiochian clergy or faithful to go for a confession to a non-Antiochian priest. Their practice of having a complete round of daily services, with Matins, Liturgy, Vespers, and everything else, all well attended, was considered bizarre and no longer normal. Moreover, they had some unusual liturgical customs and Russian customs in their services. Certain Arab ladies in the parish got the ear of the local Bishop and started demanding that the thing was getting out of control; a new leadership had to be installed at Ben Lomond.
The hierarchy instructed them that no Russian music was to be used; all music had to be from the simplified Antiochian music packets. Eventually, there was a huge parish meeting and the parish petitioned Metropolitan Philip to release them to the OCA (Orthodox Church in America). In response, the main priest who had years before started the parish from scratch and all clergy who were felt to support him, got a sudden fax from Met. Philip saying they were all defrocked immediately. They appealed to the decision to an Antiochian trial council. Then they were all excommunicated, some for a minimum of five, some for a minimum of three, years. The majority of them were treated as lepers. The building, all property, the school, all the bank accounts, were seized by the Archdiocese. The original parishioners became scattered, confused, and priestless.
The court decisions came in in favor of the Archdiocese. However, the remaining small congregation hadn’t been the primary financial backing, and couldn’t support the church as it was. It abandoned the school entirely and gutted or abandoned other things, and began selling property. The OCA eventually received a large number of the faithful, on condition they keep quiet, likewise forbidding OCA clergy from discussing it. The Jerusalem Patriarchate received the rest. The Antiochian Archdiocese considered suspending relations with both. To this day, there is an atmosphere of watchfulness over parishes becoming too much like Ben Lomond had been. The clergy remained persona non grata for years, even after the imposed period of excommunication, and some died as such. Recently, the rest were received back into the AOA or elsewhere. The remainder of the parish is still there, but it’s not what it was. Nothing in the AOA has been like it since.”
This is a slight revision of a text written originally in 1998.
Another account from Ben Lomond Tragedy
Sentinel New Report, August 30, 1998 (broken into paragraphs for easier reading):
Sunday August 30.1998
They worshiped together under the same gold dome for decades. Not anymore. They are a church divided. What started as differences over litugical style at the St Peter and St Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ben Lomond has snowballed into a bitter dispute over power and money. The imbroglio has led to massive dissension, ex-communication of priests, and uncharacteristic visits by sheriff’s deputies as members squabbled over ownership of icons. It has pit godchildren against godfathers, and neighbors and friends against each other. In one case, a husband and wife are on different sides.
The struggle has even spilled into the courts and resulted in a ruling that says the church’s roof and the rest ofits buildings no longer belong to the parishioners and priests who poured over 1$ million into the property over the past two decades. The court battle ended last week with the smaller, so-called loyalist faction backed by the New Jersey-based archdiocese winning. In a case that raised constitutional, property rights and seperation of church-and-state issues, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Samuel Stevens ruled that the church off Highway 9 and its rellated properties ultimately belong to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
“It’s really sad,” said Sophie Majmudar, a Ben Lomond resident who grew up in the church built now worships elsewhere because of the court order. “All our tithe money has gone into this property.” But even the winners weren’t cheering when the judge reached his verdict. “There is no great joy that we went to court,” said the Rev. David Barr, who was appointed to serve at the church in the spring after 10 of the longtime priests at the church were banished. “It’s a tragic division,” Barr said. “No one feels vindicated.”
The schism has left more than 300 Orthodox Christians without a house of worship. The group made up about 80 percent of the St Peter and St Paul membership. But because they chose in February to remain loyal to the clergy who defied the Archbishiop, they, too, elected to seperate from the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Damascus, Syria.
According to court documents, the dispute began brewing last year when members of the local clergy disagreed with the wishes of the archbishop, known as Metropolitan Philip. “Ten of the twelve priests at the church and more than half of the deacons did not agree with the archbishop’s proposed changes, which ranged from where the priest stood and the style of singing to shortening the service,” members said. To the so-called dissidents, the changes amounted to a move away from the more traditional, conservative style they had been practicing for years. “He (Met. Philip) wanted to make it more compatible with American culture,” Majmudar said. “American people don’t want to stand for hours. THey want to get home and watch their football games.”
To the so-called loyalists, the proposed changes boiled down to simply following the orders of the head of the church they chose to join. “What mattered to me was having a loving spirit and order under the bishop,” said the Rev. Kent Washburn, one of the two priests who decided to stay with the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
In February, the larger group of parishioners and clergy requested a split. The priests asked to be “released” from the Antiochian Orthodox Church so they could start another parish under the Orthodox Church in America, which is more aligned with Russian practices. But instead of getting “released”, some of the priests were ex-communicated while others were suspended from the priesthood. The disciplinary action, which is under appeal to the church’s Spiritual Court in Syria, came after the priests openly defied the archishop in February. The act of defiance came after the archbishop announced he was transferring one of the priests, a founding father of the Ben Lomond church, to Chicago. “We knew it was not a routine transfer,” Majmudar said. “They just wanted him out of the way.”
At a Feb. 12 meeting, a priest, who was one of the leaders of the dissident faction, publicly criticized the auxiliary bishops and the archdiocese. According to court documents, he also refused to obey the archbishop’s order to have a dean of the region chair the meeting. Within two days, that priest and the priests aligned with him were immediately ejected from the priesthood – a move which made any other branch of the Orthodox Church leery of accepting them. If a branch such as the Orthodox Church in America welcomed the so-called dissidents, they were at risk of being cut off from the powerful – and rich – archdiocese. As a result, the dissenting priests and the majority of the congregation that supported them, felt almost churchless. But the dissidents believed the Ben Lomond sanctuary they had acquired and renovated with their own money and hands still belonged to them and they refused to give up their church.
The roots of the Ben Lomond church date back to the late 1970’s when several local evangelical parishes joined together. They later bought the church building at 9980 Highway 9, joined the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and erected the gold dome that has become the church’s defining feature. On the Saturday that the archbishop disciplined the priests, members of the dissident group wrested control of the church property by changing all the locks. So on the next day, the day of worship, no one conducted services there – not the ex-communicated priests nor the ones who were locked out. Instead, parishioners got onto Highway 17. One group headed to an Orthodox church in Saratoga and the other to a church in Cupertino. And in another ironic twist, perhaps instigated by a heavenly power, the sparring sides were forced to wait together as a road crew cleared a toppled tree off the highway. “Instead of worshipping together, some rotten tree fell over the highway and we were caught in traffic,” Washburn said. “There we were looking at each other, shaking our heads ruefully, to see ourselves in such a state.”
For weeks, the dissidents would not let the loyalists back into the church. Then Metropolitan Philip and the archdiocese went to court. They successfully convinced a judge to order the dissidents to let the loyalists back into the church. Then, on March 13, they sued the leaders of the dissident group, claiming the church property belonged to the archdiocese and not the local church corporation. The property in dispute was worth morth than $1.5 million , attorneys in the case said. It included the gold-domed sanctuary, classrooms for a 100-student parochial school, a fellowship hall, an office building in downtown Ben Lomond, a barn, two houses for the priests and a small publishing company.
The case, which went to trial last week, featured testimony from canonical experts, leading theologians, and specialists in church and constitutional laws. Attorneys for the archdiocese contended the Ben lomond church properties implicitly fell under the control of the archdiocese when the group elected to join the Orthodox Church. “It is an indivisible part of the whole church,” said James Hyde, a San Jose attorney. The dissidents “have a right to leave, but they can’t take the property with them.” Attorneys for the dissidents argued that the local church never signed any papers handing control of the property to the archdiocese. “It doesn’t say anywhere in the record that it was being held in trust for the archdiocese,” said Austin Comstock, a Santa Cruz attorney. “They bought some of these properties even before becoming part of the archdiocese, and they bought it with their own money.”
After a three day trial, the judge issued his ruling, Aug 20th, agreeing with the plaintiffs. Upset over the decision, members of the dissident group went to the church that same day and tried to grab vestments and icons they firmly believed belonged to them. A sheriff’s deputy was called out to help settle the civil dispute. Several days later, someone in the dissident group again tried to take an icon. Deputies were called out a second time, and then the loyalist group changed the locks to the church.
UPDATE: Additional Account from Conciliar Press here.
UPDATE: See Also the Orthodox Wikipedia account here.