The Episcopal Assembly, and Beyond- Metropolitan Jonah
The Orthodox Church 9-Spring/Summer 2010
The Episcopal Assembly, and Beyond
The Episcopal Assembly has come and gone. Many people put enormous
amounts of hope in it, but wonder what exactly happened at it. Given the fact
that there was little or no secular coverage, and minimal coverage or even
comments from the participants following the
Assembly, it seems like little was
Perhaps the greatest and most important aspect of the
Episcopal Assembly, not to be undervalued, was that
it brought together most of North Americas Orthodox
bishops to meet and begin to speak to one another, in
a constructive way. Certain organizational issues were
discussed, such as dividing the North American Assembly
to three separate assemblies Latin America,
the US, and Canada. Committees were discussed, and
volunteered for. The ministries of the Standing Conference of
Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas were discussed, and
the Assembly recognized itself as SCOBAs successor. There was
a common recognition of the need for coordination in many
pastoral areas sharing lists of disciplined clergy, the status of
parishes and clergy, and so forth and the need to create and
finance an office to handle such work. A statement was issued.
But some of the glaring underlying issues were not discussed,
despite an undercurrent in the Assembly, such as the position of
the Orthodox Church in America and the nonrecognition of its
autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and allied Churches;
the multiplication of bishops with the same See, by both the Greek
and Antiochian Archdioceses and the OCA; the plurality of
jurisdictions; and so forth. The contentious issues were not given
voice, as perhaps it is too early to publicly address such issues
before mutual trust is established.
As His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek
Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who chaired the Assembly,
put it, this Assembly is not a small claims court. In fact, His
Eminence was masterful in avoiding any contentiousness, and
kept the meeting moving in a very deliberate way. He deserves
an immense amount of credit for keeping things together and
moving, in a most gracious, constructive and refined manner.
Of course, we also have to be grateful to him for keeping the
OCA at the table, despite some powerful objections.
Perhaps the most important issue is what was not addressed
the vision for the future which remains the central question.
Save for the one committee tasked with preparing a plan for unity,
to be presented to the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council
(whenever that is to occur), the range of vision present in the room
could be characterized as, on one end, a new context of pastoral
cooperation on pressing matters, to a unified Church (on the other
end [of the room]). While we would all agree that we need to
cooperate and indeed there are many common issues what is
most divisive is precisely the question of where to go from here, and
how to get there.
Different models of unity. It was most apparent that
there are also two or three very different models of how a
unified Church could be organized, if current organization is
any context for such speculation. About half the bishops in the
room were subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate: the Greeks,
Ukrainians, Carpatho-Russians, and the EP Albanian bishop.
This constitutes a model of unity, already existing among those
jurisdictions, where each of the various groups has a relatively
autonomous local Synod, but is directly under the jurisdiction
of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In fact, the Greek Archdioceses
Metropolitans each sit in rotation directly on the Synod of
Constantinople. The non-Greek EP bishops are titular, with real
flocks but without American Sees. On the Assemblys Executive
Committee, all these bishops would be represented by the
Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch. How much actual
interaction and coordination exists, I am not sure, other than
that they do not form an American Synod together.
The second model present in the room was that of the OCA:
a fully united, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural autocephalous
local Synod, conscious of being the Church in America, with
a mission to all people within our territorial boundaries. The
OCA has already been granted autocephaly complete
independence from its mother Russian Church; it would be
necessary also for each of the other jurisdictions to be released
from and by their Mother Churches to join into such a unity.
In the OCA, there is a single Synod with its Primate, the
Metropolitan, who is the reference point for the unity of the whole.
A third model, if it can be so called, is the status quo: a loose
cooperation of exarchates from Old World Churches, mainly
concerned with consolidating and serving their own people
This was what SCOBA tried to consolidate, to no end.
The first two models are quite distinct. The first considers
the Ecumenical Patriarch is the point of unity, though there
remains a degree of jurisdictional autonomy. In the OCA model,
the Metropolitan and united Synod within the territorial
boundaries of North America are the point of unity. With the first,
the canonical identity of the Church is derived from its
relationship to the Patriarchate in Constantinople; with the
second, the canonical status may originally have come from the
mission sent by the mother Church, but it is now rooted in the
reality of the Local Church and its local Synod. The first model
preserves separate identities for each jurisdiction; the OCA
model demands deeper integration and cooperation. With the
first model, all major decisions are made in Constantinople,
including the election of bishops; with the OCA model, all
decisions are made locally and on a conciliar basis with the
participation of the clergy and laity.
Another major issue is the nature of the OCAs autocephaly.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, while recognizing the canonicity
of the OCA and its hierarchy, refuses to recognize its
autocephaly. For this reason, the EP chose to exclude the OCA
from the Executive Committee, though it recognized and seated
our bishops as canonical hierarchs. While this makes no sense
to us, we accepted it, as we believed it is better to attend in
humility than to boycott the gathering. We also hope that this
will be corrected in the future.
Underlying the nonrecognition by the EP of our autocephaly
are several major issues, all related. The first is that they did not
grant it, nor did they accept Moscows right to grant it. Second,
they have a substantial presence here, parallel to the OCA; that
presence, the Greek Archdiocese, is their largest constituency,
and it does not work to have another jurisdiction on the
territory of an autocephalous Church. Third, when autocephaly
is granted, it is normally to a Church that embraces all Orthodox
Christians in a given territory; the OCAs autocephaly was given
only to one jurisdiction among others regardless of the fact
of the OCAs seniority in North America, which should have been
the canonical basis for all other Churches. If they were to
recognize the OCAs autocephaly, they would be forced
canonically to release their jurisdictions to the Local
Autocephalous Church. In short, the situation is very complex.
The Chambésy meetings, which set the protocols for the
Episcopal Assemblies, have also now set protocols for the
granting of autonomy and autocephaly. Autonomy can be
granted simply by a mother Church to one of her archdioceses,
with the other Churches being informed of such action.
Autocephaly, however, is proposed by a mother Church to the
Ecumenical Patriarchate, which then gains the consensus of all
the other Patriarchates for it. The Tomos given is then an
ecumenical document, signed by all the Churches. This
establishes the new autocephalous Church as universally
recognized, so that all the Churches would relate to it as an
autocephalous Church, and it would have a universally accepted
place in the diptychs the ordering of the Churches. This
protocol makes sense; however, it is not retroactive. Were it
retroactive, the OCA would be in a situation of having been
proposed to the universal Church, and in the process of reception.
Currently, five Churches accept the OCAs autocephaly; five
reject it, and four are noncommittal. What is not defined is the
status of such a Church while in process of acceptance.
Where do we go from here? It is clear that the faithful of
the OCA want Orthodox unity a united Synod of Bishops in
America making its own decisions and guiding the life of the
Church in America. We want to elect our own bishops and
metropolitan, and we want conciliar clergy and lay participation.
We also believe that many other Orthodox Christians in America
share this same vision of the Church. As the OCA, we are not
about to surrender our autocephaly, because it is an essential part
of our identity; but we will merge it into another, larger
autocephalous structure, when that time comes.
We hope that this Assembly could lead to a Pro-Synod, in
which all bishops come together and act as a single Synod,
dealing with issues and problems that arise, perhaps even
assigning bishops to areas where there are none, addressing
overlapping jurisdictions, and building the foundations for a fully
autocephalous Synod. In the meantime, each Church would
retain its relationship to its mother Church. Its Primate would sit
on the Executive Council of this Pro-Synod, but also represent it
to its mother Church, and its mother Church to the American
Pro-Synod. This is rather out of the box thinking, but that is
what our anomalous situation demands. When the time is right,
each American exarchate would be given independence from its
mother Church, a single Tomos of autocephaly would be issued
from all the mother Churches, and a Primate elected and
universally recognized. The OCA would fully participate in such
In the meantime, we are who we are. We know ourselves to be
the heir of the Russian Mission of 1794, the work of Saint
Innocent and Saint Tikhon, Saint Raphael and the blessed
Sebastian Dabovich, Saint Alexis Toth and Saint Iakov of Sitka,
Saint Nikolai Velimirovich and Saint John of San Francisco.
We are maturing as a local Church in America, with seminaries
and monasteries, hundreds of churches, and a tradition of
Orthodoxy already ten or more generations deep. More than half
our laity and most of our priests and bishops are converts to
the Faith. We come from dozens of ethnic origins, and all races.
We are truly a local indigenous Church, the fruit of the original
Mission as well as the immigration and return of Uniates to
Orthodox Christianity. And we received the gift of autocephaly
and are striving to live up to it.
Our mission is to openly embrace all others, to bring the
light of Faith and the Good News of repentance and forgiveness
to all those around us, to baptize them into the Orthodox
Church, and to share with them our incorporation into the Body
of Christ. We must embrace our fellow Orthodox Christians,
leaving aside all that divides us, and finding the unity of the
Faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit that unites us in
Practically, we can share many things between our parishes,
across all jurisdictional lines. Youth groups and activities are a
major opportunity. Clergy Brotherhoods can become effectively
pro-deaneries or pro-dioceses. We can share health and pension
programs, insurance plans, and other such things. We can
cooperate in the support of monasteries, seminaries and
charitable works, which transcend jurisdiction.
But most of all, our task is to focus on the one thing needful:
the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the task He has given us
to actualize our unity: That they may be one, as we are one;
I in them, and Thou in me, that they may be perfectly one, that
the world may know that Thou hast sent me [John 17:21].