Source: Orthodox Christian Laity
by George E. Matsoukas
In 2008, a Meeting of Patriarchs of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches convened in Switzerland under the auspices of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and charged the Bishops, in the lands outside of the traditional Roman Empire, to meet together in Assemblies of Bishops. The purpose of these meetings of Assemblies of Bishops is to develop blueprints to establish canonical order within their geographic areas. The Churches in these areas have Bishops of different Orthodox Christian groupings overlapping in the same geographic areas. There is no comprehensive directory of priests. There is great duplication of administrative and educational services which dissipates the stewardship of the laity. The missionary mandate of the Church is subjugated to the idea of the Church as an ethnic, cultural preservation society for food, dance and social activities. The statistics of the Church in the United States show that there are less Orthodox adherents than there were in the 1920’s. The spiritual needs of third, fourth and fifth generations of Orthodox are marginalized. The focus of the Bishops still remains on new immigrants now coming to the U.S. from former communist lands. The lands outside of the former Roman Empire are blessed to be within pluralistic societies, without established state churches, and contain multi-cultural Orthodox Christian traditions. The Bishops must address these realities and bring together – within one administrative and self-governing Church body – these traditions, and make Christ the cornerstone of the blueprint.
The Assemblies of Bishops worldwide have been meeting almost in secret for nearly five years now. There is little progress in building the blueprint for a unified Orthodox Church in the United States to report. Four years ago, the Assembly of North America requested that Canada and Central America be made separate Assemblies, and it has taken the Patriarchs four years to address this issue. In March 2014, the Patriarchs once again met, this time in Istanbul, and fast-tracked the convening of the Great Council of Orthodox Bishops for the year 2016. They expect blueprints from the Assemblies of Bishops worldwide by the first quarter of 2015.
Where are we, from what we know about the work of the Assembly? The Antiochian Bishops have been withdrawn from the work of the Assembly since February, because the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem are in disagreement, both claiming the country of Qatar within their respective jurisdictions. Supposedly, because Patriarch Bartholomew was unable to help resolve the conflict, the Patriarch of Antioch withdrew all bishops under his jurisdiction from participation in the worldwide Assemblies. How smart is that action? Bishop Basil of Wichita, KS was the competent chairman of the Secretariat of the U.S. Assembly, and he is not participating. This is a major setback for the American Assembly. The Youth Commission established by the Assembly to bring all youth of all jurisdictions together met in February. There was no bishop to meet with the Youth Commission, because the Antiochian Bishop Thomas, who is chairman, was withdrawn, and other bishops were not available. One step forward and two steps backward is the way things are going at this moment.
The Committee of the Assembly of Bishops on Regional Planning presented its overview to the Assembly at the fourth meeting of the full Assembly’s 2013 Fall Meeting. They presented options, and hopefully they will present one concrete blueprint at a future date. The Assembly web site reports that the options that were presented include: “Restructuring Models: The Committee discussed different potential approaches for the ecclesiastical governance structure in the USA, ranging from unified canonical restructuring, to transitional ethnic reunions, an expanded operations role for the Assembly, and to maintenance of existing overseas jurisdictional authority. A restructuring model for the formation of “ecclesiastical provinces with ethnic vicariates” received general approval. However, other approaches will also be presented to the Assembly IV for discussion – together with this particular restructuring proposal.”
The Bulgarian and Patriarchal Russian Bishops, representing their Patriarchs, made it clear at that Fall Meeting, following the report of the Regional Planning Committee that their Patriarchs are not in favor of a unified Orthodox Christian Church in the United States. The Patriarchs are worried about their immigrant constituents in the United States who do not want to separate from their ethnic origins. It should be noted that these two groups have new ties with Orthodox Christian History in the United States since the fall of Soviet Russia. They have not been part of the American experience for the last two hundred years. Sadly, this lack of experience is not a consideration in the organizational affairs of the work of the present Assembly. The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has been an essential part of the history of American Orthodox Experience and which oversees the greatest Orthodox Christian Seminary in the western world, has a back seat to the work of the Assembly of Bishops. The Assembly is organized according to the order of diptychs of seniority of the Patriarchates, and by not being included on that list, the OCA is relegated to the end of the line.
The greatest undercurrent hanging over the Assembly here in the United States and worldwide is the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the whole process. Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, is professing to be the universal authority of Orthodoxy worldwide. The Ecumenical Patriarchate wants world-wide political recognition as the overseer, feeling that this status will give it leverage in the struggle to survive in Turkey. Greek interests worldwide are supporting the Patriarchate on this issue and are the advocate for this status for the Patriarchate. The self-governing Patriarchs are sympathetic to the Patriarchate in Constantinople and regard him first among equals but not first over all of them. They have a more collegial understanding of his role. They do not want their faithful to be under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. How do we break this Gordian Knot?
In reality, all of these factors relate to the Assembly of Bishops in the United States. Right now, the Assembly is stymied by old-world disagreements among the Patriarchs themselves. The bishops are thwarted by the claims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the interests of the 14 Self-Governing Patriarchates. The U.S. Assembly must make it clear to the Patriarchs that they need to resolve the problems of their relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarch and themselves in order to proceed with creating good order in their own territories.
What is the Assembly in the United States to do? The U.S. Assembly needs to: create and present the blueprint for the Church in the United States that serves the spiritual needs of this geographic area and the faithful therein; be ready with that blueprint so that it is presented to the Committee working on the Great Council; and, in finalizing the blueprint, base it on reality and not mythology. The history of the Church demonstrates that refusing to change and move ahead can be a heresy in itself. As Victoria Clark states in her excellent study of Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo, “WHY ANGELS FALL,”: “The Orthodox East will have to cut away the crust of kitsch that has been doing such a fine job of concealing its spiritual treasures from the world. The heinous religious nationalism, with its persecution and martyr complexes and longing for death and suffering, that targeting of enemies and dangerously emotive habit of spinning pretty patterns from the past – mythologies instead of histories – will have to go.” It is the duty of the Assembly of Bishops in the United States to let go and take stock of its own realities:
- Unity under Constantinople is unacceptable to the Patriarchs and heads of self-governing Churches.
- The status quo is unacceptable, because it is uncanonical. The present state of the Church cannot continue as is.
- The Patriarchs want unity but not under Constantinople.
- Constantinople needs to act as the collegial mediator and facilitator of an open process, not dependent on its needs for survival, but on the spiritual needs of the faithful.
- Autocephaly for the Church in the United States is the status that all can agree upon. It is the only canonical and viable alternative. This reality needs to be factored into the blueprint for the Unified Church in the United States.
George E Matsoukas is Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Laity. He is author of A Church in Captivity: The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, reviewed in The National Herald in February 2010, and available at amazon.com.