Source: Orthodox Christian Laity
Trying to Understand the Work of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops and the Antiochian Orthodox Reaction
In light of the aftermath of the meeting of the Assembly of Bishops September 2015, certain questions have been brought to mind about where we are at this point in time and how we got here. In an effort to help people understand the situation, we are responding to questions that have been presented to us. We hope that these questions and responses will help you draw your conclusions on the dynamics of Orthodox Unity up to this point in time.
- In your opinion, what is the number one reason for Orthodox Unity in the USA?
The number one reason for Pan-Orthodox Unity is to be able to present, in a unified way, the Apostolic Faith – the true faith – to all who seek Christ. Now we are fragmented. We seem to be many different faiths. We are not seen as one faith, even though the clergy tell us that we are united spiritually at the cup. The world sees us as fragmented, ethnic, cultural and not Christ-centered. After over 200 years in this country, the fullness of time is now for us to be administratively-unified, so we can fulfill our missionary responsibilities. The time and talent and resources of our seminaries and faithful can be better utilized to serve all the faithful and even the recent immigrants.
- What is the main problem caused by the development of parallel jurisdictions in the USA?
The main problem of having 12 parallel jurisdictions in one geographic area is that it is an uncanonical organization of the Church. The 14 autocephalous Patriarchs set up an Assembly of Bishops to face the uncanonical situation in America. How can we go on in this way? The Pew Research Study (America’s Changing Religious Landscape) shows that the Orthodox Christians – a wealthy denomination in the USA – is the least able to retain its faithful. This situation needs to be changed for the good order of Church governance. The Orthodox way is administrative unity. The Assembly needs to be the Synod for the American Church. The bishops need to declare themselves the Synod. They need to elect their head. Collectively, among 55 bishops, they have the opportunity to help the best leadership talent emerge. With the failure of the Assembly to develop a blueprint for unity, we already see rationalizations developing to preserve the status quo of disunity under the guise of establishing a new ecclesiology. I agree with the conclusion of Seraphim Danckaert in his brilliant piece questioning “A New Ecclesiology for the Orthodox Church” in which states: “There is a certain comfort in the knowledge that outside of the old country, Orthodoxy is like a Baskin-Robbins: which flavor do you like best? Division allows people to choose the kind of purity they prefer. Yet the (unintended) theological and spiritual implications of the “new ecclesiology” are profound. Justifying division in the diaspora on canonical and theological grounds introduces a new hermeneutics, which inverts the traditional Orthodox preference for patristic modes of life and prioritizes history over dogmatics. There are pastoral implications as well. Just as form follows function, the governmental structure of the Church influences its sense of calling and purpose. Prescriptively dividing the Church into camps reduces ministry to chaplaincy and mistakes catholicity for preservation. Even if such a Church provides a temporary firewall against the scourges of modernity, it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own inward focus.”
- Do you think administrative unity has broad or narrow Pan-Orthodox “grass roots” support, and on what do you base your answer?
My answer is based on the 28 years of existence of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL). We have conducted Open Forums around the country for 27 years in various cities on the topic of Orthodox Unity. Collectively, over the course of time, there have been dramatic changes in Orthodoxy in America and worldwide: the Ligonier Meetings, changes in leadership in the GOA, Antiochian Archdiocese, and the OCA….many national assemblies of these jurisdictions, etc. Every year, when this topic is mentioned at National Assemblies, the participants respond with ovations and thunderous applause. Our audiences have been microcosms of the laity that are in our parishes. These grass roots faithful have come and expressed their support for Orthodox Administrative Unity. From their perspective, they think that an administratively-unified Orthodox Church will help retain their children and grandchildren. The census statistics of all jurisdictions show that fewer people are baptizing their children in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is a no-growth Church. We have the same numbers today that we had in the 1920’s. The faithful and spiritually mature are ahead of the leadership. People in communities all across America band together and work in Pan-Orthodox ministries. In addition to Assembly-Approved Agencies such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) which the US government helped create – not the Orthodox Bishops, there is Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) and others. On its website, OCL has a feature, Orthodox Grass Roots Unity in Action, which highlights programs in local communities where Orthodox Christians come together to do the work of the Church. In Wichita, Kansas, there is an Orthodox Book Store that has brought many people to Orthodoxy – it is an outreach ministry. In Colorado Springs, Colorado and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, there are Orthodox Coffee shops. The laity has been apathetic and lacks knowledge of efforts on the national level, because the hierarchy during the 8 years of the Meetings of the Assembly of Bishops did not encourage the priests to discuss the work of the Assembly. The Assembly has been working in isolation apart from the rest of the body of Christ. The Clergy Associations did not discuss the work of the Assembly with the people, because the bishops did not instruct them to do so. The people in the pews are way ahead of the leadership in knowing and understanding the need for unity. They know that their stewardship gifts would be better utilized if there was Administrative Unity. We know that almost all the bishops fear the changes as do many priests; however, we have all witnessed the many priests that quietly support unity but will not do so openly. We feel that the majority of the clergy would welcome administrative unity.
- There are common objections to administrative unity I have heard from clergy, laity and hierarchs. What do you think?
We the faithful who have laid the infrastructure of the Churches within the larger jurisdictions now in the 5th and 6th generations in the USA and who know that the Orthodox Church is in this country for over 200 years, understand that Orthodox Christianity in America is mature and able to be the sister Church to the Churches that were established within the borders of the Roman Empire. We know that the Orthodox Christians of America built the infrastructure before there were ethnic archdioceses…a phenomenon of the late 1920’s. American Orthodox preserved Orthodoxy in Russia, Eastern Europe and Constantinople in the 20th century. They sent the bibles to Russia during the iconoclastic history of the Church with atheistic Communism. Patriarch St. Tikhon served in Russia after the revolution, having served first as Archbishop in America. Anthenagoras was elevated to be Patriarch after a successful tenure as Archbishop of America and with the help of the American Government. Our American seminaries are excellent. We can train our own priests. We have excellent educational materials for the young and incredible books written on the faith in English. The early hierarchs of various jurisdictions who were here in the 1920’s, St. Tikhon, Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis, and St. Raphael Hawaweeny, all called for an autocephalous American Church. The major jurisdictions were semi-autonomous until the last 20 years. Since the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, the old world Patriarchs have tried to reassert themselves in the Church of the USA. The ethnic-centered, club-centered, preservation-centered attitudes are being perpetuated by recent immigration, the hierarchy, and those they appoint. We also have the influence of a monasticism that is irregular in its formation. If we want to be a meaningful Church in America, we need to become self-governing and elect our own Patriarch – the time is now. If this does not happen, the Church’s population will continue to shrink. Fewer people will choose to be Orthodox.
- Why would a volunteer Episcopal Assembly not work?
We had the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops (SCOBA), and the bishops were discontent. A volunteer meeting of 12 separate administrative leaders who take orders from abroad will not work to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful in the USA. As we see from the Assembly, they reached no consensus. The bishops need to bite the bullet and declare themselves a synod and elect their head and move forward. The Church is not a colony. It is organized in a geographic area to meet the spiritual needs of the people in the area. Most members of the Church are born in America. How can people who are born here be members of a Church that sees them as people of a diaspora? In the colonial era, the great powers never thought the natives were mature enough to govern themselves. The people took control of their destiny and moved ahead. The apathy of Orthodox Christians relates to the organizational structure of the Church.
- Were you surprised by the Antiochian position statement delivered at the recent Episcopal Assembly, where they rejected the idea of administrative unity in the US?
I was shocked. The Antiochian Orthodox Church has been a leader and advocate for Orthodox Unity for more than three decades. How could all those years of work be set aside and negated within a two year period? Disputes between Patriarchs in foreign lands and misinformation on the motives of the Ecumenical Patriarch are not valid reasons to put aside the work of the Assembly of Bishops that has been taking place for 8 years. Metropolitan John, who was Metropolitan of Europe, was well aware of the content of the Chambésy Protocol and signed it on behalf of the Patriarch of Antioch. The 2008 Chambésy Protocol establishing the Assembly of Bishops worldwide was 20 years in the making, and the 2009 meeting was the 4th Chambésy Meeting. Everyone present knew what they were signing. How can you change the rules at the end of the process? This action makes the case for Unity and Autocephaly for the American Church more evident. The foreign interests that dominate our Church need to be set aside. Only the American Bishops can do this. They need to act. A unified American Church may not be the will of the old world Patriarchs, but it is God’s will; and the bishops need to do God’s work.
- What do you think is behind the position and new statement?
The Synaxis of Bishops met in Istanbul in 2007 and 2008. When the Synaxis of Patriarchs was held in 2008, they were all present. They signed the documents that were 20 years in the making to establish good order in governance in the churches beyond the boundaries of the old Roman Empire. The representatives knew what they were signing. The Orthodox faithful in America have been waiting for canonical order/unity for over 200 years. The US Assembly is the largest in the New World and Europe. This Assembly (USA) is seen as a model. Events in the Middle East are tragic. The persecution of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Albania, are tragic and mind boggling. The reaction of the world to the persecution of Ancient Christians who have lived in their land for 2000 years is not worthy of the situation. Orthodox in the US, at the OCA American Council, spontaneously raised funds to be sent to help the Patriarchate of Antioch. The Archons of the GOA have donated funds. All Orthodox People in the USA have been praying for those clergy and laity held hostage by ISIS. As tragic as this situation is, the work set before the bishops in 2008 has a different focus and a different challenge. Reasonable and healthy people can chew gum and walk at the same time. For whatever reason, the Patriarch of Antioch has chosen to reverse its position on Unity in America. This is unacceptable, unworthy and inexcusable. The two issues are separate, and two different peoples are affected. The Orthodox in America are mature and need their own self-governing Church to function as a Church. The work of the Assembly of Bishops makes it clearer than ever that we need to be a self-governing Church. The beleaguered ancient Patriarchs of Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem would all be better served if the Churches in the USA, Europe, Australia, Canada, South and Central America were autocephalous. These Churches would not abandon their mother. When you grow up, you leave your mother’s house – that does not mean that you abandon your mother. You love your mother, and through stages of development, that love grows in many ways. You respect your mother. In time, you may be able to help your mother if she needs your help. Shoring up the unity of one parallel jurisdiction to the detriment of the other jurisdictions is not unity. Is Antiochian Unity of greater importance than American Unity? The interests of the Ancient Patriarch of Antioch would be better served by a unified, autocephalous Church in the USA.
- An excuse for not wanting unity presented to the faithful of the Antiochian Orthodox Church is that it is a unity under the Ecumenical Patriarch.
This is not true. The Ecumenical Patriarch was a convener of the Synaxis of Patriarchs in 2008. This is something that was in the works for 20 years before 2008. The Patriarchs all signed on to establish the Assemblies of Bishops, and they knew what they were signing. They set the rules. Canonical Unity for the Church in the USA means to be autocephalous and self-governing, electing its own head by its own synod. The synod is the Assembly. This is unity. There is no outside, foreign Patriarch telling the bishops in America what to do. They rule in their geographic area in synergy with their clergy and laity. The Chambésy protocols got the ball rolling. The Patriarch showed great respect for the process. When the US Assembly asked to separate Canada and Central America from the Assembly, the Patriarch did not decide the issue. He sent the request to the other Patriarchs, and it took 2 1/2 years to make the change. He waited and built consensus. Archbishop Demetrios who is the chairman of the Assembly, did all he could do to include the OCA in the process. No canon written disqualifies him from being the chairman. This is another excuse for discrediting the hard work of so many. I sought a canonist’s opinion on the argument put forth by Antioch, that an Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch cannot conduct the meeting. Rev. Dr. Alexander Rental replied: “I want to be clear that exarchs as emissaries are not an Eastern Apostolic Nuncio; they are still bishops with very real local sees. What might be confusing is the practice of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has been to give titles to bishops in the so-called Diaspora not of the major Western cities, but of the countries. So for example Met. Gennadius is of Italy and Exarch of Southern Europe; Gregorios of Thyateria and Northern Europe and Ireland; Emmanuel of France (Gaul) and Exarch of Europe. In the same way, Abp. Demetrios is of America and exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All of these bishops are bishops of a territory, with the canonical rights and responsibilities, and have the added honorific of Exarch and Ypertimos.” Archbishop Demetrios let all the bishops have the opportunity to speak freely. The Secretariat Committee under Bishop Basil kept the work of the Assembly moving forward. The committees especially Pastoral Practices and Regional Organization, did excellent work. We hope the proceedings, committee reports and minutes will be made available to the clergy and laity. This meeting is eight years of our history. Many people and organizations donated funds for this process. We want to read about what happened.
- Is the “re-set” position of the AOCANA a turning point against unity?
The position of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (AOCANA) is another obstacle that will be overcome on the way to Unity. Administrative Unity is God’s will for the Church in the USA. Withstanding the new ecclesiology, the Church is where the bishop is. There is one bishop in one city. The Church is the body of Christ. It is not an ethnic, cultural or preservation society.