Posts tagged Assembly of Bishops
Bishop Savas of Troas, the Director of the Office of Society and Culture of the Greek Archdiocese, is one of the most visible Greek hierarchs in America. Recently, he was interviewed by Fr. Christopher Metropoulos for the Orthodox Christian Network. To listen to the 17-minute interview, click here.
Click here to read all of OrthodoxHistory.org’s ongoing coverage of the Episcopal Assembly.
Editor’s note: On June 12, Ancient Faith Radio aired an interview I did with Bishop Basil of Wichita, the Secretary of our Episcopal Assembly. Recently, I learned that AFR produced a transcript of that interview. For our readers who might prefer text to audio, I’m reprinting that transcript here in full. I’ve made a few minor changes, mostly correcting spelling and punctuation (and if you find any additional errors, please let me know in the comments). To listen to the audio of the interview, click here.
Matthew Namee: I’m privileged today to be sitting here with His Grace, Bishop Basil of Wichita, the new Secretary of the Episcopal Assembly. His Grace has graciously agreed to sit down and chat with me a little bit about the Episcopal Assembly, the process, and his own impressions of it. Thank you very much for your time, Sayedna. First of all, could you tell us a little bit about what your impressions were of the meetings? What was it like to be one of the hierarchs there?
His Grace Bishop Basil: Before I do that, I just want to thank you for being interested in Episcopal Assembly. It’s been about two weeks now — two, two and half weeks — since the Episcopal Assembly ended, and the enthusiasm that was surrounding the assembly seems to have dwindled a little bit since the Assembly ended. I don’t know what it was that people expected us to do at the Assembly, but something very exciting happened. And I think it’s important that we do talk about it, and that the enthusiasm continue and that it builds. It was a very historic event in that — unlike Ligonier which was self-motivated. You know, that came from the bishops here in the United States and Canada at that time. We convened ourselves — SCOBA convened that meeting for us to define ourselves and to discuss our own ministry here.
The Episcopal Assembly is very different in that we were called to this assembly by the Mother Churches and given specific tasks. That was not self-driven or even self-motivated, and in that, it’s a very historic meeting. We’ve been sitting back for decades now waiting for the Mother Churches and in some instances even criticizing Mother Churches for being inactive or inattentive. Well, they’ve not been inactive or inattentive. They’ve been having their preconciliar meetings. Perhaps we were a little bit impatient with them. And now, the time has come, and they gave us very specific tasks. And it’s not just us in the New World that got the tasks. It’s all the Orthodox that are outside the “historic” geographic territories of the Mother Churches. So, all of the Orthodox in Western Europe, in the New World, in Australia, in Oceania, the Far East, have been given tasks by the Mother Churches.
The atmosphere, that first day, I think was a combination of excitement. We knew this was a historic event as we gathered. It was interesting because there were so many new bishops since our last gathering. Again, it was a SCOBA-sponsored event in Chicago, our last gathering, but so many new bishops since then have been consecrated or assigned here to this country. So we were busy meeting each other. What was evident besides that excitement of just meeting brother bishops was the goodwill. I think that’s a description that characterized the entire assembly for those two days. It was palpable, the goodwill. It didn’t mean there weren’t some rough spots or some levels of uncomfortability, I guess, because we were discussing very serious matters, but the goodwill was palpable. Everyone wanted this thing to work. Everyone was willing to lay aside their own agendas to see what the agenda was that the Mother Churches had presented to us, and it’s a very serious agenda that was given to us. So I think the atmosphere was wonderful. It was evident in the meetings. It was a little bit more staid in the meetings because the meetings, of course, were organized in a very business-like manner, but it was especially evident during mealtimes and during the breaks. The bishops delighted in being together and doing the work of the Church.
Matthew: You mentioned the agenda that was given, the purpose of the Assembly. Could you talk a little bit about that? What are we doing with this?
Bishop Basil: The Assembly has planned obsolescence in it. The Assembly will only last until the convening of the Great and Holy Council. I don’t even know if we’re going to incorporate ourselves legally. That wasn’t discussed, but I can’t imagine us having a need to legally incorporate ourselves when, God-willing, we’ll go out of business very soon. Again, that’s not within our purview to decide when that will happen.
The business that was given to us to attend to, the task that was given to us to attend to, first of all, was to define our region. As Father Mark Arey and others have already reported through various means, the hierarchs of Canada have asked that they constitute their own distinct Episcopal Assembly, and the hierarchs of Mexico, which is geographically part of North America, and those which have oversight for the nations of Central America have asked that they be attached to the South American region Episcopal Assembly which would then leave us just the United States as the Episcopal Assembly. So that was one task: to define who we are, just geographically, what that would be. Those recommendations or desires will be communicated by the chair of our Episcopal Assembly, which now is called the North American Episcopal Assembly to his All-Holiness. And what we expect will happen is that Canada will become a distinct Episcopal Assembly, and Mexico and Central America will be removed from the North American Episcopal Assembly, and according to their wishes, attached to the South American Assembly. So, that leaves us the United States. That was our first task.
But the ultimate task is to prepare the Orthodox of this region, now that we define, or hopefully will define just as the United States, to prepare the Orthodox Christians: that includes hierarchs and priests and deacons and sub-deacons and readers and laity, all Orthodox Christians of this region are to constitute itself as a canonical, single Church. And to use the language that’s been floating around our country for decades: an administratively united Church. That’s one of several committees that has been prescribed for us. Even the names of the committees — we certainly can add to the list of committees — but even the names of the primary committees had been given to us. These are committees that the Mother Churches want us to constitute: a canonical committee, a legal committee, and this committee that will formulate our plan, or our vision for what the Church here in this region — as I said by that time that should be defined as the United States, I’m expecting, what the Church here would look like and how it would function. So that when we do go, and all hierarchs of the world, of course, would be invited to that Great and Holy Council, that the hierarchs from America will have adopted through the work of a committee then presented to the entire Episcopal Assembly here that we all tweak and then finally adopt, our plan, then, we would submit then to the Great and Holy Council for what we see the Church in America looking like.
That’s a huge task! It’s something that Orthodox Christians in America — I would say the vast majority, I’m not so unrealistic to think that it’s 100 percent, but the vast majority of Orthodox Christians in America have been praying for, have been hoping for, sometimes have been working for, always talking about for a long, long, long time. It seems that it’s at the doorway. I don’t know, you know, we’re Orthodox. I’m not saying it’s going to happen next month or next year even, but it is closer today than it was yesterday. And as I said, what’s unique about this approach is that it’s something that’s coming from the Mother Churches themselves to us. It’s as if they’re saying: look, you have been asking for this. We’re getting ready to give you this, but before we give it to you, we would like to know, what is your plan? That’s really a very exciting kind of task that’s set before us. It’s a very sobering kind of responsibility and it’s one that will take prayer and thoughtfulness and patience, continued humility and goodwill, all of that, I think, topped by what covers all of that is that it’s going to require patience.
I think many people were hoping that great fireworks and beautiful things were going to be announced from our Episcopal Assembly in New York City, and it was a rather quiet meeting in that sense. We didn’t have huge announcements coming out, but it was our first meeting, organizing ourselves, getting officers, setting up committees. We couldn’t even finish committees because we need to define the committees before we can ask the men, the hierarchs, to volunteer for a committee. How can they volunteer for something that they don’t know what the committee’s responsibility is? So, we have to do very basic things, and we have to do it carefully as I said, prayerfully, and thoughtfully because this is laying the groundwork for a very profound event, and that’s in God’s time and certainly by his grace, the establishment of a canonically structured Church here in the United States.
Matthew: You’ve been mentioning the committees and obviously it sounded like there are several committees, not just the committee to look at the canonical administrative unity issue. Could you maybe talk a little bit about what these sorts of committees might be doing? I know you said you haven’t defined them completely.
Bishop Basil: We haven’t defined them at all. [laughter] We’ve got a list of the committees. I’ll tell you what happened during the meeting. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, who of course is the chair, distributed among all the hierarchs present a list of about the 10 committees that were prescribed the preconciliar meeting in Chambesy. As I said, that includes the Canonical Committee, the Legal Committee, the Pastoral Committee, things like that. They were the titles, the names of the committees, and each bishop was asked to select three that they would be interested in serving on, and to prioritize them. The committee you’d like to serve on the most, make it number 1, and then number 2, and number 3. I was able to do that, several other bishops were able to do that, but there were others of our brothers who asked questions like “what does this committee do?” What is the difference between a legal committee and the canonical committee? And they were taking it so seriously—and really I admire that in them—that they were hesitant to even prioritize their choices for committees until they knew what those committees were going to do.
That wasn’t because they might sign up for a committee that they didn’t want to work on, that wasn’t the point. They wanted to be sure that they prioritized their choices for the committee that they wanted to be on the most, but they wanted that defined. That’s yet to be done. The archbishop is chair and the other officers of the Episcopal Assembly will, probably within the next week, or for sure within the next several weeks, have those defined and sent out again to all the bishops, now with brief paragraphs describing the work of each committee and then ask each bishop to prioritize their three choices.
Another important committee is the Pastoral Committee. And since the meeting in Chicago, we are aware of over 20 different issues that the various Orthodox jurisdictions handle very differently in this country, pastoral issues. They are, of course, tinged with canonical coloring, but we handle them very differently and create pastoral problems for the Church here in this country.
For instance, how do we handle marriage? Some jurisdictions recognize only marriages which take place in the Orthodox Church, others recognize every marriage, whether it’s a civil marriage or a marriage done in another faith group as well as those that happen in our own Church. How do we handle divorces? Some have that the actions of the civil court, civil decree of divorce, is sufficient while others have their own marital courts, church-run marital courts. What do we do about the reception of converts? Some baptize all who come into the faith, others receive some by chrismation, and even that is different because some do chrismation according to their koloyan on the forehead, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the lips, etc, etc, while other groups can receive a person simply by chrismation on the forehead, and it’s prescribed for that. Others simply by a profession of faith. What do we do when we receive clergymen most especially from the Latin Church, the Roman Church? Do we re-ordain or do we vest?
Those kinds of matters will be discussed in the pastoral committee. So again, it’s a very important work that has been set before us to do. The Legal Committee will not only help the Episcopal Assembly with its own legal work, but I think its first task will be to help the agencies of SCOBA reincorporate themselves. How will they legally now change themselves from being answerable to SCOBA, which really doesn’t exist anymore, to being answerable or having oversight given them by the Episcopal Assembly. One important thing I should say about these committees is that they will not just be constituted of bishops. You know, this is the work of the whole Church. The bishops, through the Episcopal Assembly, will establish the committees and will be the first to volunteer for those committees, but we’re going to need the help and the input of all talented and interested Orthodox Christians.
The Legal Committee is going to need attorneys, and it doesn’t matter if you’re ordained a bishop or a priest or a layman, we need experts in all of these areas: people, again, who come with goodwill, who come with patience, who come with humility to work for the accomplishment of that task. This is the work of the Church. It’s not just the work of the bishops. But as parents have to have themselves together before they can go to their children and make sure they’re both on the same page, a mother and dad have to be on the same page, we bishops who have been charged to be the overseers for the Church in this country, need all to be on the same page. Then we go to our flock, and not only ask and invite their participation, we expect it. It’s their Church like it’s our Church, together it’s our Church. But the bishops, like parents have to all be on the same page first. That was the purpose of that “closed” session of the Episcopal Assembly. It’s not that we did anything secret. It’s just that we needed to get our act together before we could go to the Church at large.
Matthew: You mentioned SCOBA. And SCOBA, as you said, is pretty much no more. It’s been superseded. Can you give us some thoughts about both the legacy of SCOBA and also what makes the Episcopal Assembly something much different than SCOBA.
Bishop Basil: At the Episcopal Assembly, His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese gave an overview of the 50-year history of SCOBA and its work. And when he was finished, I mentioned to the bishop sitting next to me, ”That was the best description of SCOBA I have ever heard.” What’s a shame is that it came at the demise of SCOBA. It was really a brilliant paper presented by Archbishop Nicolae. This is the 50th anniversary year of the establishment of SCOBA: the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. We were blessed, really, by the work of SCOBA. The work of the Episcopal Assembly was made quite easy by the 50 years that were used as preparation for that. We didn’t come together as strangers.
There’s a legacy of inter-Orthodox cooperation, not only with the goodwill among the bishops, but the actual incarnating of the work of the Church under the auspices of SCOBA, its various agencies, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, preaching the gospel, and etc, etc. The Episcopal Assembly, I believe, is the natural outgrowth of SCOBA or the fruit that SCOBA bore. They can’t exist together, and it’s not because one is good or one is better than the other, just that there was a time for everything, there was a season, and there was a 50-year season preparing us for this very sacred moment of doing what it was that SCOBA had hoped.
SCOBA, again, was self-constituted. It was the bishops themselves, the primates of the jurisdictions here in the United States and Canada, the goodwill that they had one for another. So there’s a big difference between the constitution of SCOBA and how it was constituted and established and the Episcopal Assembly. The Episcopal Assembly is compromised of every Orthodox bishop, just not the primates, or the prime bishops of the jurisdictions. We had 55 in attendance, or was it 56? The number is a little bit confusing. I think 55, where the maximum that would’ve been SCOBA members would’ve been eight of the eight jurisdictions. SCOBA also allowed for proxies to attend, so for instance if Metropolitan Philip could not attend a SCOBA meeting, he could send Bishop Antoun or myself or Bishop Joseph or anyone of our bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese to represent that jurisdiction, our jurisdiction.
There are no proxies on the Episcopal Assembly because we don’t represent jurisdictions. We’re there because we’re bishops, and only a bishop can be a member of an Episcopal Assembly. We’re not representing jurisdictions. We received invitations, not as members of a jurisdiction but as Orthodox bishops. We bless the memory of the founders of SCOBA. They were brilliant men, people with a lot of foresight for what the Church should be in this country, people like Metropolitan Leonty and Archbishop Michael of the Greek Archdiocese, and others. They foresaw and worked for the day that we’ve come to now, and we bless their memory. We thank those who were their successors in SCOBA who worked right up until the moment of the assembling of the Episcopal Assembly, but there’s something new now, and it’s the fruit that SCOBA bore.
Matthew: We’ve heard various things, reports, about the Executive Committee of the Assembly, but my understanding is that the voting is actually done by the whole Assembly. Is that right? The Assembly itself is where the power lies, essentially.
Bishop Basil: The word “Executive Committee” was not even mentioned. You didn’t hear those words at all during the whole Episcopal Assembly. What constitutes the members of the Executive Committee—there’s a lot of speculation and a lot of talk going on about it, but those words were not even mentioned at the Episcopal Assembly because it is so secondary. Its importance is so secondary, or even tertiary to the work of the assembly and its committees. Unlike what we Americans generally think of as an Executive Committee being just the officers, the chair, the vice-chairs, the secretary, and treasurer, that’s not what the Chambesy document defines as the Executive Committee. It’s that: it’s the officers, but then the heads of the Mother Churches representatives in this country. So that those who are not officers—for instance, Metropolitan Christopher is the senior hierarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, he’s not an officer of the Episcopal Assembly, but as the senior hierarch of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, he would be a member of the Executive Committee. But it’s really just for consultation, no decisions will be made by the executive committee, everything has to be referred back to the Episcopal Assembly. That’s why I believe it wasn’t even discussed at this meeting at all.
I don’t want to say it’s not important because it did come from Chambesy so I assume it has some function, but you know, in the age of teleconferences and everything, we can have an Episcopal Assembly just at the drop of the hat, doesn’t mean we have to travel anywhere. All we need is telephones or a computer, and we can have the entire Episcopal Assembly. Times have changed. The voting, that’s another interesting thing that did not happen at the Episcopal Assembly. There were no votes. Everything was done—it was supposed to be done by consensus, asking everyone, how does this church feel, how does this church feel? There wasn’t even any voting by consensus.
We were of such one mind that everything was done unanimously. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios simply asked if there was any objection to the item being discussed. If there was no objection, there was no need to even ask for a consensus. Everything was done unanimously. It was really a very God-blessed assembly, a fruitful time together. It’s by God’s providence, I believe, honestly, that it was convened during the week following Pentecost. As I said, the goodwill was palpable. The love was palpable, the joy was palpable, and those are gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew: At the Assembly, you were obviously elected Secretary, and I have understood that you’re not just taking notes and minutes of the meeting. You’ve got a bit more of a role than that. Could you talk about your role and then the Secretariat that you’ll be working with?
Bishop Basil: I’m sort of discovering day-by-day. Yeah, the first three officers, the Chair and the two Vice Chairs were done by the diptychs and the presbeia or the seniority within those diptychs, so that the first church among the diptychs is the Church of Constantinople, and the first hierarch of the Church of Constantinople became the Chair. That’s Archbishop Demetrios. The second church in the diptychs is the Church of Alexandria. Well, we don’t have that in America, so they went to the third church in the diptychs which is the Church of Antioch. Senior hierarch of the Church of Antioch in the new world is His Eminence Metropolitan Philip so he’s the first Vice Chair. After that comes Jerusalem. We don’t have Jerusalem in this country. Next in the diptychs comes the Church of Russia and the first hierarch of the Church of Russia in this country is the newly appointed Archbishop Justinian. So he was second Vice Chairman. So the first three positions of the officers were done by the diptychs or the order of the Churches, and by the presbia, there’s seniority within those diptychs.
The other two officers, the Secretary and Treasurer were done as we would do, like Robert’s Rules of Order, sort of an American style. The Archbishop made a nomination, Archbishop Demetrios nominated myself to be Secretary. It was seconded by Metropolitan Philip I believe. The Archbishop asked if there were any other nominees, and not being any other nominees, I was elected by acclamation. The same thing happened for His Eminence Archbishop Antony of the Ukrainian Church. He was nominated by Treasurer by Archbishop Demetrios. He was seconded, again I believe it was by his primate, Metropolitan Constantine, and the Archbishop asked if there were any other nominees. There were none, and he was nominated by acclamation.
The responsibilities of the Secretary are more than just taking minutes. That would be nice if it were just taking minutes. [laughter] I understand, and I’m understanding more and more every day that it will — its prime responsibility of the office is to oversee a Secretariat and an entire staff, whether it’s one or two or three persons. It certainly won’t be an enormous Secretariat, but that does the work of the assemblies, that spurs on the work of the committees. It seems that which will be communicating not only among the hierarchs itself, keeping the hierarchs informed of the work of the assembly that is being accomplished, but the entire Church involving all the clergy and lay people, setting up a website, making sure all the documents that have been issued for or by the assembly are available for everyone to see so there’s no secrecy in anything. Because again, it’s the work of the Church, the body of Christ, which is all of us. Certain tasks, again, were given to the assembly by the preconciliar committee in Chambesy, and the Episcopal Assembly gave it over to the Secretariat to do that. We’re going to have a database of all the Orthodox hierarchs in America which doesn’t exist right now. That will be easy because there’s like 55 of us.
The more difficult is going to be a common database for all of the Orthodox clergy, the higher clergy, the priests and the deacons. That’s something that needs updating, probably weekly, not only because of deaths but because of new ordinations, because of suspensions, because of depositions. And beyond that, we were mandated to create a list of all the Orthodox congregations, all the Churches and missions, and that’s another thing that will have to be updated rather frequently. Hopefully not because anything is closing, but because new ones are being established all the time. That’s all the work of the Secretariat, not the Secretary (me), the Secretariat. [laughter] And it will be daily work because I honestly believe that we have not a lot of time to get all of this accomplished.
As I mentioned earlier, once the Great and Holy Council is convened, the work of the Episcopal Assembly and all of its committees really is done. At least that’s the plan now, and not our plan, that’s the plan of the Mother Churches, but at that time, various either autocephalous or autonomous Churches will be established in these now Episcopal Assembly regions, that’s what we’re called now, around the world and that those hierarchs which prior to that moment constituted themselves as an Episcopal Assembly will become a Synod.
That’s what’s foreseen, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that time whether it one year or whether it’s 10 years. That’s what’s on everyone’s mind. How long of a timetable do we have? I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone knows. Whatever it is, it’s shorter than we thought it was because the Mother Churches are moved now by the Holy Spirit. The time is here, and the time for us talking about it and complaining “how come it’s not happening”, and everything that’s been going on for these past decades here in America, it’s not time for that anymore. It’s time for all of us to get the work and do it, and again, to do it with goodwill and love and patience and humility.
Matthew: Thank you very much, Sayedna. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to offer before we close this interview?
Bishop Basil: I’m so excited about this. Really, I’m very excited, and I hope our clergy and people can be joyfully excited with their hierarchs. We need everyone to help in this. As I said, the bishops now have met. We’re all on the same page. We might not know all the writing on the page, but we’re all on the same page, and we’ll discover what’s written on that page as time goes by. I have my diocese in conference next week. The very first evening I’m going to share all of this with our clergy and more. Your questions were rather specific. I have more things, even, about the Episcopal Assembly I’ll share with all of my clergy and their wives that very first evening, inviting their help and their participation, their ideas, the offering of their talents.
And the very next night, I’ll present the thing to the work of the Episcopal Assembly in my assessment of it to our entire diocese, to all the lay people, from church-school children all the way up to senior citizens, parish councils, ladies groups, teen groups, choirs, so that everyone in our diocese will be apprised and will have the invitation to help in this. I hope everyone accepts the invitation. As I said, when you accept though, you have to come with goodwill and patience and love and humility. This is an offering to the body of Christ, and we need to do it with pure hearts, with joyfulness, and with a spirit of sacrifice.
Matthew: Sayedna, thank you so much for your time and for telling us all about the Assembly. And we will look forward in the coming weeks and months to getting more information and seeing the website that the Assembly will launch and learning more about what we can do to help the work of the Episcopal Assembly.
In the closing years of the 19th century, a number of Roman Catholic leaders in America were accused of a heresy called Americanism, and Pope Leo XIII wrote an apostolic letter specifically denouncing elements of this teaching, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. Americanism was essentially the emphasis on American political values over against the Roman Catholic political tradition, which was at the time at least distinctly uneasy regarding political positions such as the separation of church and state, freedom of the press, liberalism (in the classic sense) and the individualism which so marks American culture in general. While the episode in Catholic history was really quite minor, what was at stake was the question of religious identity in American society. It was probably not until the election of John F. Kennedy to the American presidency that Roman Catholics came to feel that they had finally come into their own in America, despite their presence on the continent for nearly as long as the English Separatists who founded the seminal colonies of American national life.
In our time, it would be regarded as absurd that anyone would accuse American Catholics of heresy over a devotion to such staples of American political values. Setting aside for the moment the controversial peculiarities of modern American Roman Catholicism even within the wider Roman communion, it must be admitted that the “Americanists,” such as they may have been, have essentially won. Few American Catholics would say that one cannot be fully American and yet fully Roman Catholic. There has come to be no contradiction seen between these identities. (For an example of a rather less successful merger of such values, one need only look at the liberation theology of South American Catholic Marxists.)
Like those Roman Catholics living in 19th century America, for Orthodox Christians living in 21st century America, the question of how exactly one is to be faithful to one’s communion in this particular place is again paramount. Though the debates about Orthodoxy’s history, present and future in America range widely—from canons to language to proofs to corruption to double-dealing to controversial candidates for the episcopacy or canonization—the question at the heart of all these debates is really this: What is our identity?
One attempt to grapple with our past and our future might also be termed Americanism. Unlike those 19th century Roman Catholics, however, modern Orthodox Americanists (not to be confused with Orthodox Americans) have chosen different elements of American identity with which to interpret and (I would argue) distort not only our history but our faith.
Perhaps the clearest and most troubling such element is the spirit of legalism which pervades Americanist readings of our history, accompanied by their prescriptions for our future. The narrative typically follows this shape: Because the Church of Russia was the first in America (in Alaska, 1794), it gained immediate rights to the whole continent. Thus, when in 1970 it granted autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (the Metropolia), which subsequently renamed itself as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the exclusively legitimate Orthodox Church for America finally was born.
There are numerous problems with this narrative even on purely “legal” grounds: Does jurisdiction in Russian Alaska automatically extend to the entire continent, under the control of multiple colonial powers at the time? Did the Russian Metropolia even view itself as exclusively legitimate prior to the establishment of other jurisdictions in America? What does it mean that the Metropolia granted canonical release to the Antiochian parishes operating on its territory? For the purposes of ecclesiastical annexation, do the canons actually allow for appointing bishops outside one’s canonical territory? (The opposite, really.)
But the issue here is not really all these legal grounds. For one thing, it is anachronistic to read our history in this fashion, since there is no indication prior to about 1927 that anyone was making the claim that all Orthodox in America had been united under the Russians, that the Russians enjoyed an exclusive, universally acknowledged claim over the whole continent, or that the Metropolia ever really regarded the other Orthodox in America outside its jurisdiction as illegitimate, uncanonical, etc. But now there are some commentators saying precisely all these things, some even going so far now as to claim that all those outside the Metropolia’s jurisdiction were really not Orthodox. Such a claim, if true, would render most Orthodox Christians currently in America bereft of the sacraments.
What is most troubling, however, is this dedication to legal technicalities. It is certainly a major facet of American life that we like to get the legal authorities involved at the drop of a hat, so much so that, even when we are not actually involving the police or the courts, we still think and speak in such precise technicalities. Even if this anachronistic narrative of our history were actually defensible on purely canonical, legal grounds, this spirit goes wholly against the spirit of the Orthodox Christian faith. We were not appointed by God to be lawyers for His Kingdom, but rather “able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Reading history in order to find ammunition for “claims,” etc., is basically a Westernization, a distortion of our church life along lines foreign to our basic ethos. It is what Fr. Georges Florovsky would have called a “pseudomorphosis” (a term he used when referring to the distortions which accrued in Russian theological life as a result of the “Western Captivity” which led up to the Bolshevik Revolution).
While it is surely an American thing to call out the lawyers and pull out the law books in order to adjudicate nearly every dispute, this is not the content of our Orthodox Christian faith. If we wanted to be Christian legalists, we would find no better home than Calvinism, a theology designed by a lawyer.
A dedication to “the letter” typically leads to sectarianism, the rigid sense that one particular ecclesiastical faction is right while all the others are wrong. At the foundation of this sensibility is also a historiographical problem, the identification of a sort of “golden thread” which stretches unbroken from some favored moment (e.g., St. Herman landing in Russian Alaska) to the current day. The favored sect is the sole lens through which this history is read.
The theological problem at the heart of this side of Americanism is the refusal to look into the faces of fellow Orthodox Christians and see the Church. This ideological approach to faith is the same one which gives rise to totalitarianism in politics, which always necessarily follows a dedication to ideology. What is most important is the transcendent narrative, not the other person. That is why the other can be dehumanized and demonized, and insulting epithets can be hurled at church leaders who do not represent one’s preferred sect. In politics, this leads to persecution, but in ecclesiology, this leads to schism.
I believe that one of the major elements in the Americanist approach to our history and our future is precisely the schismatic spirit, the one that prefers to be “right” rather than to love, the one that makes demands and sets exclusive terms rather than taking every opportunity to work together and sacrifice for the other. This attitude has been rarely more evident than in the recent Internet storm over the newly formed Episcopal Assembly, which it seems can only be up to no possible good. I very much believe that the Americanists want it to fail in its task. I’m not really sure what they would put in its place, however, other than an entirely unrealistic expectation that the overwhelming majority bow to the small minority of their favored “jurisdiction.”
But all our “jurisdictions” must die in order that our Church may live. We cannot become one Church for America without all giving up what we are in order to become what God has called us to be: a single testament to the Orthodox Christian faith. I cannot see any workable solution which would not require the disbanding of all our current “jurisdictions.”
As an example of the demonization typical of the sectarian spirit, many Americanists will point to the controversial claim of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to jurisdiction over all the diaspora (i.e., all areas outside universally acknowledged canonical territories) based on Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council. It is true that such a claim is almost never taken seriously except by Constantinople itself. Yet while Constantinople’s claim is raged about, few of the Americanists, who typically have a much greater affection for Constantinople’s main rival of Moscow, will criticize the much broader claim made by Moscow in its very Statute:
The jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church shall include persons of Orthodox confession living on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan and Estonia and also Orthodox Christians living in other countries and voluntarily joining this jurisdiction. (emphasis added)
Not only does Moscow define its jurisdiction primarily as one over “persons” rather than simply over geographic territory, the very wording of its Statute permits Moscow jurisdiction everywhere in the world, limited not only to specific territories and the diaspora, but even theoretically to within the territories of existing Orthodox churches.
This disturbing, universalist approach to ecclesiology, with some variations, is not exclusive to Constantinople and Moscow, however. Contrary to the canons, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and even the OCA also maintain parishes outside their officially claimed canonical territory. This anomaly is rampant, and almost no Orthodox church in the world is innocent of it. We have indeed seen the enemy, and he is us.
The problem of nationalism in Orthodoxy throughout the world is of course also rampant and its sins well-known. For Americanists, it is most often expressed on grounds which are basically Orthodox—a desire to be shepherded by local shepherds—but the expression of those grounds often takes us into a rebellious and nationalistic direction. So-called “foreign” bishops are rejected (which discounts missionaries), total local independence is assumed to be the norm at all times (which discounts the numerous centuries throughout Church history in which various churches were dependent for lengthy periods on “foreign” administrations far away). The ultimate desire of Americanist nationalism is that our bishops would simply thumb their ecclesiastical noses at the “foreigners” in other lands and declare us immediately to be an independent, autocephalous church. As precedent for such an act, they correctly point to when this has happened before.
But with modern communication and travel, “foreign” bishops are not so foreign as they once were. In the past, a unilateral self-declaration of autocephaly was much more practical than it is today, due precisely to these same factors. Though uncanonical, it is now much more possible to have an international, worldwide jurisdiction answering to a single synod. What Rome declared de jure and enforced with anathema has now become de facto for ten Orthodox jurisdictions which operate outside their traditional and/or self-defined territory (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and the OCA).
Yet with such unilateral self-declarations of autocephaly in the past, the driving factor was practical: the need to form a local, self-sustaining common church life. What we have now is numerous overlapping networks of self-sustaining church life, bound together internationally by easy communication and speedy travel. Globalization has taken a toll on our Church life, permitting it to become distorted beyond the essentially localist approach witnessed to in our canonical tradition, where decisions made by leaders had to be lived with by those leaders. They were shepherding their neighbors.
If we are to regain our localist sensibility for church governance, then we cannot rely on a means which was supported by a different technological age. The unilateral declaration of autocephaly is impractical in our time. Why? It’s because there are already existing international networks for American Orthodox Christians to fall back on. This is why the formation of local networks is so critical. This is why our mother churches have mandated the formation of the Episcopal Assemblies.
It may well be that the Assemblies are just a power grab by whatever jurisdiction we hate the most. But even if that is true, what is happening at them is the formation of a common local identity.
The Cure for Americanism: The Common Identity
All of this fractiousness may be cured by looking no further than our common Creed, which attests to our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As Orthodox Christians living in America, we have no path to unity—indeed, no path to our own salvation—except through love. We must look at one another’s faces and see the Church there. When we cease to do so, we have become sectarians and schismatics.
All of the history of Orthodoxy in America is our common history. It does not matter which “jurisdiction” we are in. The saints, the sinners, the laity, the clergy, the successes, the failures—all of these are mine. All of this history is our history. It is not the history of Russians or Greeks or Syrians or converts, etc. It is the history of the Orthodox. We need to learn to say with St. Raphael of Brooklyn, “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.” He didn’t just tolerate these other people; he identified himself with them.
Many of these elements of American culture that I call “Americanism” and that are at odds with our faith also are now characteristic of other cultures throughout the world, and we can see their ill effects in other Orthodox churches, as well. Claims and counter-claims, legalism, sectarianism and nationalism are all major pastoral problems plaguing Orthodoxy worldwide, and no doubt we would have a more peaceful and united presence in the world if we could shed these sins. American culture has much that is worth preserving and enhancing, but as truly Orthodox Christian Americans, there are some elements of that culture that need not preservation, but repentance.
We have an opportunity in our time to put aside all of our claims and sectarianism Phariseeism, to see one another as fellow children of God, and to build a common church life. We’ve come a long way, and at least to me, it seems that the future is starting to look a lot brighter.
I really cannot wait to see where we go from here.
[This article was written by Fr. Andrew S. Damick.]
Today, SOCHA Associate Director and Wichita native Matthew Namee, in his capacity as an Ancient Faith Radio correspondent and podcaster, interviewed His Grace, Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita, the newly elected Secretary of the Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America. Bp. Basil is heading up the Secretariat for the Assembly, and in this interview he talks about what that means, as well as his own impressions and experiences from the Assembly.
Listen to the AFR interview here (32 mins.).
The OCA’s Diocese of New York and New Jersey Communications office has released an interview with their new hierarch, His Grace, Bishop Michael (Dahulich) on the recent Episcopal Assembly:
I also think that Saint Luke, the first iconographer, who—when he paints the picture for us in the Book of Acts of the works of Saint Peter and Saint Paul who were so different in their personalities and their mission—finds unity and that which is common in the Holy Spirit, Who guides the Church. If Saint Luke were painting the icon of our Assembly, I think he would see the same thing here; for him it would be an icon of unity in diversity because he believed so strongly that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church, in spite of what we do as humans: in spite of Judas Iscariot, in spite of Ananias and Sapphira, in spite of Simon the magician … all of whom are referenced in the Book of Acts. So he would see our Assembly, I am convinced—and I see it—with great hope in our unity within diversity.
Read the rest here.