Further impressions from the Episcopal Assembly

Some more impressions, not terribly well sorted:

One thing that struck me about the event was its lack of staff. Normally, these kind of big church events are swarming with photographers, porters, subdeacons swirling about, etc., but this one was rather decidedly subdued. I was there to help one of the bishops, along with one other cleric, but most of the bishops had absolutely no staff with them at all. There was also very little support staff for the event in general. Most things were taken care of by the hotel staff in their usual capacities (wait staff, food service, maintenance, etc.). I didn’t see anyone else with a camera besides myself and the few taking shots with cellphones here and there. This event did not really present the appearance of much of an “event.” It was all so routine, orderly and low-key that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had to remind himself that history was really being made.

One thing that seems to have generated some discussion here and there online is the apparent seating order during the meetings. While getting worked up about that strikes me as fairly petty, a close look at the order reveals that the officers were seated at the head table, followed by the bishops arranged by jurisdiction according to the diptychs, then arranged internally according to seniority. This put the OCA bishops at the ends of the tables (not with the Moscow bishops, by the way), which is exactly where they would want to be. So, whether you accept the OCA’s autocephaly or not, they were precisely where you’d want them to be.

Abp. Demetrios, who freely mingled and circulated with all present, was clearly looked to as a primate. I do not know what is in his heart, but he seems to me a serious, down-to-earth man with dignity and focus. He was quite obviously respected by all present. This was apparent everywhere he went.

Bp. Basil was indeed elected Secretary, as I wrote yesterday (but had not confirmed), and Abp. Antony was elected as Treasurer.

There was not politicking going on in the halls and at meals. There were just men working together. It was all almost routine, not particularly energetic. They were clearly comfortable with each other. This comfort and familiarity were evident this morning at the Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan. I’ve been to liturgies where everyone was formal and stiff and concerned with what everyone else is thinking, but this was not one of those. These bishops were calm, prayerful, relaxed, and I was personally very deeply moved to stand in the altar with them as they received Holy Communion. There was nothing formal or perfunctory about it. It was really communion in every sense.

In speaking with a friend in the priesthood, he interpreted this apparent brotherhood very positively, saying that this may represent another step in the formation of a mutual identity. That interpretation certainly fits with everything I saw.

This was not an event with “drama,” or, if there was any drama, any symptoms of it were completely absent in the halls, at meals, in church, etc. I think those interested in some sort of major declaration, some dramatic moment, will be disappointed. One thing I noticed is that there were some other priests there on the sidelines, as I was, some of whom have been working toward events like this for many decades. What I noticed of them (and one in particular whom I admire; no guesses entertained—he’s not a man of any fame, but he has been quite instrumental) was that they were also relaxed, enjoying themselves (more than the bishops were, probably because they didn’t have to sit through the meetings!), and in good spirits. To me, that the real foot soldiers, mature engineers, and genuine architects of our coming unity (and it is coming, by the way; God will not be long mocked) are hopeful and satisfied means that a significant line has been crossed.

In historical landmark terms, SCOBA is now over. (Matthew Namee called Abp. Nicolae’s speech a “eulogy to the death of SCOBA.”) It served its time, and it’s now been superseded by something much more significant—all of our archpastors (not just certain ones), all encouraged to be present and working together by our hierarchies across the oceans. No matter how one may choose to read the politics of all that (even quite cynically), that all these men were present together in the same room and are now beginning the actual process of forming committees to work together on practical problems means that a mutual church life is being formed. This development is of no lesser historical importance than a dramatic declaration. Indeed, it is much more significant, since it is far more likely to have a lasting effect.

I went into my small part of the Episcopal Assembly a bit hopeful, certainly aware of the historical significance, but without any big expectations. I came away with more hope, and a strong feeling that things are moving smoothly, methodically, and very much in the right direction. The words from the official statement I think summarize what I saw quite well:

…we are inspired by our leaders, the Heads of all the Orthodox Churches throughout the world, who proposed that which we painfully yearn for in this region, i.e., the “swift healing of every canonical anomaly” (Message of the Primates 13.2). We are also grateful that they established a fundamental process toward a canonical direction and resolution.

May it be blessed.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention earlier was that apparently Jesse Jackson (yes, that one) showed up last night. (A couple of witnesses told me this, but I was not there.) He reportedly tried to hobnob with some of the gathered hierarchs at the hotel restaurant at dinner, but didn’t really make much headway.

2 Replies to “Further impressions from the Episcopal Assembly”

  1. A number of years ago — 1999, I think — I was at the Antiochian Archdiocese national convention in Chicago, and I remember that Jesse Jackson attended the Divine Liturgy that Sunday. So, this wouldn’t be the first time that he showed up unannounced at a big Orthodox conference.

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