Unraveling the Episcopal Assembly
Ancient Faith Radio · June 10, 2010
In our continuing effort to keep you informed about the recent and on going work of our Hierarchs to bring about administrative unity, we present an extensive interview with Fr. Mark Arey. The discussion centers on the first Episcopal Assembly meeting in New York on May 26-28, 2010. You will hear first hand what took place behind the closed doors of the Assembly and how it impacts all of us for the future. Fr. Mark is the current General Secretary of SCOBA (the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America) and was the initial Secretary of the Assembly in New York. He was one of very few non-Bishops in the meetings.
John Maddex: If you’ve been following the Orthodox news, you’re aware of a very significant meeting that took place in New York on May 26th-28th of 2010. It was the Episcopal Assembly of the Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs of North and Central America. Now that’s a mouthful, and we’re going to try to unpack that for you, and let you know how significant this is as we talk with someone we have talked with in the past about these matters. He is Father Mark Arey. He has served as the General Secretary of SCOBA, which we have known as the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. He has also been the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Inter-Orthodox Relations Chairman, and he has most recently served as the Secretary of this first assembly, as we had mentioned earlier, the Episcopal Assembly of the Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs. So, Father Mark, with all of those hats, your head must be heavy today.
Fr. Mark Arey: No, actually it’s rather light. It is a delight to be with you, John, and with the faithful who listen to Ancient Faith Radio. I’m delighted to be with you. Just a slight correction: I was the secretary of the assembly only until His Grace Bishop Basil of Wichita was selected the secretary of the assembly, as a bishop, and I remain the secretary to the chairman of the assembly, Archbishop Demetrios of America.
John: And that will be an important point that we’re going to want to discuss because when we talk about Bishop Basil and his role as secretary, we want to describe what that means and what his role will be, but we’ll get there in a second. Let’s back up and talk a little bit more about this Episcopal Assembly. And remind people who perhaps did not hear our first special with you: Unraveling Chambesy. What led up to this Episcopal Assembly in May?
Fr. Mark: Well, as a good number of your listeners will remember: in Chambesy in June of last year, when the fourth preconciliar conference convened representing all the autocephalous Churches, they agreed to form these Episcopal Assemblies with two documents. One is called “The Decision”, and one is called “The Rules of Operation.” They are available online. And when Archbishop Demetrios who is the ex officio chairman, as the exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch, as the chairman of the assembly met with the SCOBA primates to discuss this—for lack of a better expression, an “evolutionary step” in inter-Orthodox cooperation and unity. They decided to call the assembly as soon as possible.
They selected, with the archbishop’s recommendation, the week of Pentecost. It seemed spiritually apropos, and it was practical in the sense that we did need months to prepare because this was not a meeting of SCOBA. This was a meeting of the Episcopal Assembly which is a different entity all together. You might recall there were SCOBA assemblies of bishops in 2006, 2001, and in 1994.
Fr. Mark: This is substantively different: meaning that it’s an authorized meeting, in a pan-Orthodox sense by all of the universal Orthodox Churches worldwide, and it has a specific agenda to fulfill, wheras the other meetings, not necessarily so. They were decided by SCOBA itself.
John: And if people would like a little more information about Ligonier and what happened back in 1994, I would encourage you to go back into our archives and listen to our “Unraveling Chambesy” special because Father Mark and I and others went a little deeper into that topic as we talked about what led up, then, to this Episcopal Assembly in May. So, just to get the order straight, the Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, the fourth one, was held in Chambesy, Switzerland in June of 2009 at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and the representatives at that point called for this first Episcopal Assembly. And the date, then, had not yet been set, but subsequently it was set for May of 2010. That happened in May, just several weeks ago, and we had a large contingent of bishops from North and South America to attend.
Fr. Mark: No, if I may, not from North and South America: from North and Central America. I might point out that in April, in the week after the Holy Pascha, the first one of the twelve Episcopal Assemblies around the world that were formed by Chambesy, Chambesy IV as you might call it, the fourth preconciliar conference, met in South America in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the cathedral facilities of Metropolitan Damaskinos of the Antiochian Church, chaired by Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico, who even though he’s in Mexico and Central America, he has jurisdiction in South America or part of it. And of course, the chairmen are decided, and the vice-chairmen are decided, by where you have jurisdiction. It’s possible to belong to more than one Episcopal Assembly, as you know from reading the documents. But that assembly already took place, so we are the second assembly to meet: clearly the largest with 55 of the 67 bishops who were possible. Unfortunately one of the bishops passed away during the period of invitation: Bishop Daniel of the Old Believers of ROCOR of Eerie, Pennsylvania. So it went down to 66, and then it went back, I think, to 67 with the election of Bishop Michael of the OCA.
John: Yes, yes, and by the way, I did misspeak when I said South America. I meant to say Central America, but it’s very helpful that you did talk about the earlier assembly that did take place down there, so that’s good.
Fr. Mark: That’s extremely important, and I’ll explain that in due time or now, if you choose.
John: No, sure. Go ahead.
Fr. Mark: Well, no, because there has been a feeling. We have three bishops, Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs, in Central America and Mexico. And by Central America, let’s be very specific. That’s south of Mexico and north of the Panama Canal.
John: OK, yes.
Fr. Mark: So that’s what it is, north of Panama. So, those three bishops, Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico, who is the senior in terms of the patriarchates, Metropolitan Antonio of Mexico of the Antiochian Church: he is the senior in the region in terms of longevity, for sure. He’s been there, I think, 40 years. And then Bishop Alejo of the OCA who is not in Central America but only in Mexico, and he was not in the South American Assembly. But Metropolitan Athenagoras and Antonio were because they also have—both have partial jurisdiction in South America in the countries of Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
So, in the South American conference, they voted, and they’re going to ask the Ecumenical Patriarchate through Article 13, a provision in Article 13 of the “Rules of Operation”, to include Mexico and Central America with them because of the cultural similarities, linguistics, etc at our Episcopal Assembly which Metropolitan Antonio was invited to. He did not come. He went to the one in South America, and he stated very clearly that he was in favor of Mexico and Central America going with South America, and he didn’t feel it was necessary for him to come, and he expressed himself in a very fraternal and respectful and constructive letter to the chairman. And his views were expressed on his behalf by his brother, Hierarch of the Antiochian Patriarchate, His Eminence Metropolitan Philip.
So, that was taken care of in the assembly, but it was very interesting that in the assembly Metropolitan Athenagoras, at the invitation of the chairman, made a report, summation, 10-15 minutes—it wasn’t any longer than that—on the South American Assembly, which led into the assembly’s own discussion of what is the nature of our region? Are we happy with the demarcation? And as it turned out, both Metropolitan Athenagoras and Bishop Alejo expressed the desire to take seriously the South American recommendation that Mexico and Central America—Mexico, as you know, is part of North America, legally and technically.
John: Yes, right.
Fr. Mark: That would go with South America. And that’s how the discussion started, and then it finished with a formal request from the bishops of Canada, which of course includes many jurisdictions that have a presence here in the United States, but also the Ukrainian Church of Canada, which I believe is the largest Orthodox body, in terms of faithful, in Canada, and the Greek Orthodox’s Metropolis, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Metropolis of Toronto and All Canada—that may be the largest, but between the two of them, they are the largest presence of Orthodox in Canada.
They have asked that Canada be separate, and that was also agreed to by all the hierarchs. They thought that the Canadians deserved their own regional assembly. If there are bishops, as in the case of in the Antiochian Archdiocese, Bishop Alexander of Ottawa whose jurisdiction is half in Canada and half in upstate New York, he would belong to both assemblies. And so, it all worked out actually. It was a very constructive and substantive dialogue within the assembly, but it does have tremendous implications because at the end of the day, it means that the bishops themselves envisage a Canadian Church and an American (US of A, American) Church. So that, in and of itself, is quite an interesting development.
John: Well, just talking about “region definition” is going to be an interesting discussion when the Episcopal Assembly here, that assembled first in New York and perhaps elsewhere in the future, as they start to discuss regions right in the United States. This is kind of a precursor of the type of discussions that are going to have to take place if we’re going to eventually achieve administrative unity in this country.
Fr. Mark: Oh, absolutely. That’s absolutely the case.
John: Well, let me ask this because some people are wondering when you have a gathering of bishops, you have metropolitans, archbishops, bishops…
Fr. Mark: Remember that metropolitan and archbishop means something different between different jurisdictions because in some districts an archbishop is higher than a metropolitan and in some, it’s the reverse.
John: Which is really my question. Canonically and historically, are all bishops equal?
Fr. Mark: Of course, bishops—the office of the bishop is the office of the bishop. The difference is what is the nature of his jurisdiction?
Fr. Mark: He might be an assistant bishop to a metropolitan or an archbishop as the case may be, and you might be a patriarch. [laughter] It’s a big difference between them, but they are still all bishops and all have the same apostolic “charism” if you will.
John: OK, and I think this is an important point. I think that sometimes, particularly those in the US, tend to think of corporate structure and where there is a pyramid of hierarchy, and you have a president, a vice-president, and divisional managers, etc, and in the Church, canonically and historically, there are bishops. And these bishops are equals, but we have a first among equals, and we have those who have been given jurisdictional authority among the bishops, and it’s just an important distinction to make I think.
Fr. Mark: Yes, and that’s why the invitation which was issued by chairman, the archbishop, was given to every bishop individually. The invitation to come to the assembly was not given for jurisdictions. They were invited as bishops, whether they were assistant bishops or ruling bishops or archbishops or a metropolitan like Metropolitan Philip or Metropolitan Jonah or Archbishop Nikolai, but they were invited as individuals precisely because that’s the nature of the episcopacy. They share in this together, but they came together so they were seated in the assembly in the only logical way they could be seated which is by diptychs and within the diptychs, by seniority.
John: For those who don’t understand the term “diptych” explain that.
Fr. Mark: The diptych is the order of the churches in the traditional Orthodox Church. Which is: the patriarchates first, the ancient patriarchates—and the order of the diptychs begins with the Ecumenical Councils. In the undivided Church, in the order of the diptychs, Rome was first. Old Rome or what they call elder Rome. And then came New Rome (Constantinople), which of course now, since 1054 we’re in the order of the diptychs. Constantinople, after Constantinople, Alexandria, after Alexandria, Antioch, then Jerusalem. And then those are what they call the “elder” patriarchs, patriarchates. Then the newer patriarchates which would be Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Georgia, then the Autocephalous Churches in their orders. If you’re testing me on the order of them, I’d have to look it up in a book.
John: I won’t hold you to it. [laughter]
Fr. Mark: Cyprus, Greece, Czekia, Poland, I’m probably missing somebody and I apologize: oh Bulgaria, obviously, I forgot about Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a patriarchate. My son-in-law is Bulgarian so I should not forget Bulgaria! My grandchildren speak Bulgarian, so I can’t forget the Bulgarians.
John: And we’re going to get to the definition of autocephaly and autonomous because we all know there is an issue that many, particularly in the United States, are interested in/concerned about and that is the status of the OCA, the Orthodox Church in America. But before we get to that, and that’s going to be a significant part of our conversation, of course, what was the goal of this assembly and do you feel that goal was accomplished?
Fr. Mark: Yes. First, I’ll answer the second half. Yes. It was accomplished. What was the goal? The goal was to establish itself, was to found itself. This was a procedurally foundational meeting. They had to do various things that, if you read the Rules of Operation, they were instructed to do: to establish a registry of all canonical Orthodox hierarchs, to establish a committee to investigate relationships with those who call themselves Orthodox but are not in communion with the Autocephalous Churches. And there are bishops—we have bishops and clergy in this country who belong to so-called Orthodox Churches that are not in communion with the worldwide Orthodox Church.
Well, what are they? Are they schismatics? Are they heretics? Are they fakes? And we don’t want them to confuse our faith because we have the privilege of living in this great land of America where with freedom of religion, you can call yourself the Pope of Rome if you want to. You may not be, but you can call yourself that. So, it’s important that our faithful know who’s who. And also, from a cooperative point of view, bearing a common Orthodox witness, working together in an educational situation for the whole ministries and the whole issue—and we can talk about this—of the agencies, and the ministries, and the dialogues of SCOBA and the representation of Orthodoxy in the ecumenical movement, to government.
All of these things are the substantive work of the assembly which has to embrace this. And I can tell you that the assembly—your listeners may not be aware—was held in private in the sense that unlike all of the other meetings, the SCOBA meetings, there were not observers, there were not advisers, there were only the bishops. The only other people in the room was the sound engineer because we had a microphone system, obviously with 55 people, you need microphones so people can be heard and recorded so we can have a transcript and create minutes of the meeting. I was in the meeting as the initial secretary of the meeting until the election of Bishop Basil, and I am the secretary to the chairman permanently, or as long as the chairman deigns for me to serve him. And I had an assistant secretary and we had an arch-deacon for the liturgical aspects which were minimal, but obviously, the bishops prayed together and chanted together, in a multitude of languages, which since it was Pentecost Week, so there were actually liturgical things to do as well in terms of prayer. But that was all that was in the room.
So, they had a lot of freedom to really discuss issues, and you can imagine that most of them had not met each other before. I remarked to the archbishop after the first coffee break on the first day, he said “well, what are you hearing, Father Mark?” And I said, Your Eminence, what I’m hearing is “nice to meet you.” Which I thought in and of itself was remarkable. Just the fact that they would come together and be together and get to know each other was something really to behold. It was substantive.
John: And probably more so in the coffee breaks and lunch times and meal times together were they actually in casual conversation together, instead of the meetings.
Fr. Mark: The actual social aspects of the assembly were extremely important. Some of the hierarchs themselves said it: having the dinners together where we purposefully arranged for them to sit with people that were not of their own background and jurisdiction, if you will. Mix them up. Allow them to interact with each other, and there was one moment on the first night at dinner which the archbishop hosted for everyone in a very beautiful restaurant in Central Park, where we were singing hymns from Pentecost in Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, English, and you had this sense that they were very pleased to be doing this, and that they liked being together in a real brotherhood of the episcopacy.
Very often, our hierarchs, and I can only speak for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, but I think it’s true of many of the presences in jurisdictions here, the hierarchs run from parish-to-parish. If you have 50 parishes, there’s only 52 weeks in a year, and they do a lot of visitation, and they don’t get a chance to be with their fellow hierarchs except maybe in their own local synod, two or three times a year, right? But to be with the entire brotherhood of the episcopacy who are, as St. Gregory the Theologios said in his great commentary “Pastoral Care”, the younger brothers of the elder brothers described, in the Levirate law, who must raise up children to the name of their dead brother or their brother who died for them. It’s really important for them to be together, and I think this assembly is going to be a tremendous opportunity, even when it divides from Canada and the US and Mexico and Central America go with South America. It’s still going to be a remarkably large assembly. America, alone, will be over 50 bishops.
John: I know part of the agenda had to do with just identifying who is and who ain’t in terms of canonical bishops and churches and clergy. Tell me about the work of establishing a registry of all of those details that need to be documented.
Fr. Mark: Well, this is obviously going to happen under the new Secretary of the Assembly, someone that I’ve only recently met, but I am deeply impressed with: His Grace Bishop Basil in Wichita who seems more than able to the task of creating a Secretariat for the assembly which will be able to do these things. Some of them will be done virtually. It had always been a dream of mine, as General Secretary of SCOBA, to have such a registry of canonical actions vis-à-vis priests that the individual chancellors could have access to on the web, and we could update so that everybody would have access to everyone else’s information.
So that in the case of a question about this clergyman or that clergyman, or can we transfer him, or has this one been suspended, or is there a problem here or there, we would know instantaneously. These are all—we have the technical skills to do this. I mean, the technology exists, but we need a central clearing house, if you will, and that’s what the Secretariat, I’m sure, will be. I mean, in many ways, the Secretary of the Assembly of bishops—the analog would be the General Secretary of SCOBA, but I would say the secretary would be larger than the General Secretary of SCOBA. I’m very pleased to have worked myself out of a job is something I like to say. [laughter]
John: So before we even discuss the OCA issue, since you brought up the secretary and Bishop Basil, what is his role, and what is the scope of his authority?
Fr. Mark: Well, he’s an officer, obviously, of the assembly. Remember, the assembly is, by nature, transitional and temporary. Meaning, it will be dissolved when the bishops are called to the Great and Holy Council. Even the chairmanship, the two vice-chairmen, and the vice-chairman and the chairman are all ex officio in the order of the diptychs. Which would mean the chairman is the Archbishop Demetrios of America, the first vice-chairman is Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese because he’s next in the diptychs. Next in the diptychs is Archbishop Justinian of Naro-Fominsk which is the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate. These are the vice-chairmen. They’re ex officio. The selection of the secretary, Bishop Basil of Wichita, and the treasurer, Archbishop Anthony of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America, was done by the assembly unanimously. Everything that was done in the assembly was done unanimously. There was not a dissent on any occasion.
John: That’s significant.
Fr. Mark: I think it’s extremely significant. And the Secretariat is in the process of being formed. I mean, some of the—and that’s Bishop Basil’s purview, and I’m going to be working with him because some of the aspects of SCOBA have got to go into the new Secretariat. So, we’re in a transitional phase of a mapping out the exact scope of work, if you will. Remember, all of this is new, and it’s a work in progress at the moment, and I hope people will be patient with us a little bit. We need some time to do all of this. Hopefully, over the summer, we will be able to put together—and I’m sure under His Grace’s guiding hand and with the goodwill and the cooperation and the blessings of the chairman, Archbishop Demetrios, we will put together a Secretariat that will be quite functional and very useful to the work of the assembly. It’s not a synod. It’s not a definitive answer to anything.
What it is, is that it’s a process-oriented forum for the bishops to find solutions to our canonical issues that divide us. We’re not divided in faith, but we are divided in some canonical issues. The overlapping of jurisdictions, the replication of titles, the differences of practices that we are doing over serious canonical issues, in some cases reception of converts just being one. So, there are things that we need to address and this is a forum which is process-oriented wherein we can address them through committee work, through study, and hopefully come up with solutions that will be blessed by the Great and Holy Council so that we can have a permanent resolution to the canonical anomalies that exist in our region, which looks like it’s going to be the USA.
John: Well, OK, let’s get then to the issue that I know is on the minds of a lot of our listeners. A large percentage of the Ancient Faith Radio listeners are members of an Orthodox Church in America parish, OCA. Perhaps, some of our listeners don’t realize that the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly by Russia, by the Moscow Patriarch, many years ago, but that autocephaly is not recognized by all of the patriarchs. Would that be the best way to describe it?
Fr. Mark: Yeah, well, the Metropolia, the former Metropolia, which was granted Tomas of autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970 and was renamed the OCA, the Orthodox Church in America. The only churches that recognized the autocephaly of the OCA are those churches that were basically, in 1970, still under the sway of the Soviet Union at that time, in the patriarchate of Bulgaria, the Church of Poland, the patriarchate of Georgia, at that time part of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Church of Czekia, and of course the Moscow Patriarchate itself, obviously.
Those are the only Churches that recognize the autocephaly of the OCA. The other patriarchates have never recognized it. And bottom line is: Metropolitan Jonah is not commemorated in the diptychs of the other patriarchates. He’s not commemorated by the patriarch of Serbia, he’s not commemorated by the patriarch of Romania, by the patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Church of Greece, Church of Cyprus. We’re not speaking about autonomous Churches now. The autonomous Churches are a different issue.
John: And I think it’s important to state very clearly that we’re also not talking about canonical Churches. The OCA is canonical, right?
Fr. Mark: Oh, absolutely. To say it very plainly, the bishops, hierarchs, were all in attendance, and I’d like to say this first before I say anything else about the situation with the OCA. The participation of the OCA at the assembly of bishops was highly constructive, particularly from Metropolitan Jonah and from other hierarchs of the OCA. Not everyone, now speaking generally about all 55, not everybody spoke, OK? Not everybody said something. Everybody had an opportunity to say something, but not everybody chose to. But all of the dialogue and the substantive remarks that were made were all—everything was constructive. In fact, everybody’s comments were constructive, even when they disagreed about something, they were still very constructive and respectful and fraternal in their demeanor.
So, that being said, the presence of the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church in America was not on their basis of an autocephalous Church, clearly. I mean, that has to be understood. If in fact, it was on their basis of being an autocephalous Church, the meeting would’ve been chaired by Metropolitan Jonah because he would’ve been the only autocephalous head in the room, but he was not there as an autocephalous head vis-à-vis the assembly per se. He was there as an invited canonical bishop as all the bishops were invited, all canonical bishops, and they were there to participate. And I think their participation clearly is a constructive sign for the future because they’re not recognized as an autocephalous Church by the majority of the Orthodox Churches in the world, and yet at the same time, they’re clearly, if not the second, the third largest Church, in terms of numbers of faithful, in the United States. And they were, I think, nine or 10 of the 55 bishops.
John: Well, yes, and if you just look at the United States, and that’s kind of the lens by which many of us—it’s the only lens we have. It’s a restricted lens, and we should widen our lens for sure, but if you just look at the United States, the three largest Churches are the Greek Archdiocese, the OCA, and the Antiochian.
Fr. Mark: That’s correct.
John: And the Antiochian Archdiocese does recognize the autocephaly of the OCA. Am I correct?
Fr. Mark: No, it does not.
John: Metropolitan Philip does not?
Fr. Mark: No, the Antiochian Patriarchate does not. You have to understand that when you recognize autocephaly the only person who can recognize the autocephaly is the patriarchate. We may recognize them as their own self-understanding, but the Patriarch of Antioch, His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius does not commemorate Patriarch Jonah when he celebrates the liturgy. That’s the definition. That’s what has to be clarified. It’s one thing to respectfully recognize the OCA as a self-governing body and the elected Metropolitan Jonah, etc, etc. We all do that. Nobody doesn’t do that. Nobody doesn’t recognize him in that way.
But autocephaly, in Orthodoxy, is a particular thing, and as a particular thing—because with all due respect for Metropolitan Philip, I’ve never heard Metropolitan Philip say that he recognizes the autocephaly of the OCA. Perhaps he said in the sense that he recognizes their understanding of autocephaly, but if we, as a priest I will tell you this, if I recognize the autocephaly of the OCA, I would be bound, canonically, to join them. He would be my autocephalous head because he’s in this territory. I mean, you cannot be an autocephalous head of the territory—if you’re truly autocephalous, you’re the only jurisdiction there. Only the head of an autocephalous Church reads the diptychs. Let me give you an example. Whom does Metropolitan Philip commemorate in the Divine Liturgy?
Fr. Mark: Of course, he commemorates his patriarch. He doesn’t commemorate any other autocephalous head, but whom does Patriarch Ignatius, His Beatitude, commemorate? Well, he commemorates all of them, you see? All of the autocephalous Churches commemorate everybody else. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew commemorates all of the autocephalous heads. That’s what we call the diptychs, “in the order of the diptychs.” When His All-Holiness commemorates he begins with Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, etc. When Moscow begins, he begins with Constantinople, Alexandria, etc. They skip themselves, and then they go all the way to the end. And in the five cases that I mentioned: Moscow, Bulgaria, Georgia, Czekia, Poland, they also commemorate Metropolitan Jonah because they recognize the tomos.
John: Right, and so, in Moscow, and forgive me for belaboring the point, but in Moscow, they would recognize Metropolitan Jonah there, right?
Fr. Mark: Absolutely.
John: They would’ve done that when His All-Holiness Bartholomew was there celebrating the liturgy?
Fr. Mark: No. Not in the presence of His All-Holiness, no. The diptychs were read according to the person with seniority. The senior’s diptychs were read. They would have to commemorate according to Constantinople because he’s senior to His Holiness Patriarch Kirill.
John: So, let’s go back to the Episcopal Assembly itself and the participation of the OCA. Metropolitan Jonah was there, all of the OCA bishops were there.
Fr. Mark: Yes, they were. We waited to invite Bishop Michael until he was ordained a bishop, but he was there.
John: Yes, yes, I saw his name. I was pleased to see that. And so, functionally, the autocephaly was not an issue because it was not a time to declare or not declare whether the OCA was autocephalous or not.
Fr. Mark: It’s not an issue of the assembly.
John: And I think that’s an important point to make because while we can get exorcised about the past and what happened and what didn’t happen and what should’ve happened and what shouldn’t have happened, now we’re talking about the future.
Fr. Mark: That’s correct.
John: And in the future, the OCA is every bit a part of the Episcopal Assembly, and the voting is, as you had stated to me in our first special together: every bishop gets a vote, is that right?
Fr. Mark: Yes, although in this particular assembly they voted with unanimity. When there was no objection, that was considered a unanimous consent and they moved forward. I think that we’re going to see the Episcopal Assembly—as you know in the Rules of Operation, they can have what’s called internal regulations. And they’re going to have some internal regulations, and we’re going to work on fine tuning the operation of the assembly as we go on. But it needs to be stressed that the OCA was there as participants and members of the assembly.
Now, it is also true that the Executive Committee, which is the first hierarchs of the jurisdictions of the Mother Churches, is not an analog of SCOBA. Therefore, because the OCA is not a jurisdiction of a Mother Church in its own self-understanding, but is, in fact, a Mother Church and because three jurisdictions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Church of America, the Russian Church, and the Albanian Diocese, all those four were members of SCOBA. They’re not members of the Executive Committee.
John: So, Metropolitan Jonah is not a member of the Executive Committee?
Fr. Mark: No, he’s not a member of the Executive Committee because he’s not a jurisdiction. In his own understanding, he’s a Mother Church. The Executive Committee, though, is not—and I think I really need to make this clear to your audience. The Executive Committee of the assembly is not an analog of SCOBA by any means. The Executive Committee is not that, to put it bluntly, important. What is important is the assembly itself. The assembly makes the decisions, and the assembly will form the committees.
The Executive Committee is simply a means of creating continuity between assemblies. It’s impractical to do this more than once a year. The only way I could see us doing this twice a year, from a practical point of view, and I’m speaking to you as the person who did, with the blessings of Archbishop Demetrios, I was in charge of the logistics of the assembly.
John: And you survived!
Fr. Mark: Well, yes, thankfully. [laughter] By the grace of God and the help of many, many good people behind the scenes. And I want to make a point too. A lot of people have said that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese paid for the assembly. That’s not true. The assembly was financed by two main sources: some was Pan-Orthodox money that was raised outside, by my office, so there was Pan-Orthodox participation, and some of it—the majority of it—yes, came from a grant. Not the general operating budget of the GOA, but a grant from the Leadership 100 Endowment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to my office, which had not been spent. So, at the last moment, we found we had a nice sum of money that was undesignated but nevertheless could be used. So, we were able to fund as a result of that.
John: OK, and thank you for your patience in letting me push a little bit on the OCA issue because, as you can imagine, that is a point that many people are concerned about and wonder about.
Fr. Mark: Well, and I want to stress, if I might, because I really had great appreciation for Metropolitan Jonah’s public statements, which have been numerous, on what he’s referred, if I may paraphrase it, as the “canonic”...
Fr. Mark: Nature and purpose of the OCA. And I think he has spoken both eloquently and poignantly. It’s very clear to everyone that all of the other jurisdictions are not going to break away from their Mother Churches and join the OCA, to be very blunt about it. That’s not going to happen. Honestly, that was never going to happen, but it’s certainly not going to happen. But if we’re going to be very blunt about the assembly of the 55 bishops there, 28 were of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Over half of the bishops in the room were of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the largest jurisdictional presence in North America, by far, in terms of bishops, in terms of faithful, in terms of communities. Because even though someone else may have “more parishes” or more missions than we have, if you look at the size of the parishes and the numbers of faithful, it’s a different ballgame altogether.
Nevertheless, we are all there as brothers in Christ. We’re all there working for the same goal, and I think that the OCA’s participation needs to be commended, and I know that for some people, it might be frustrating in the sense that they have not seen maybe the vision of a single autocephalous Church achieved through the paradigm that was established by the Tomos in 1970, and I sympathize with that frustration. We all have frustrations in life about lots of things. But the reality is that the OCA and Metropolitan Jonah, in particular, have chosen to participate and to join their brothers in Christ and to be one Church, and I think that that needs to be highlighted, commended, and prayed for because I myself found in the room a lot of mutual respect.
At the beginning, there might have been some moments where you were wondering who was going to speak first, and when someone flipped their mic on, and they said their name and said “I have something to say” that maybe a few eyeballs looked at them like “well, what is he going to say?” There were some moments. I would be disingenuous to say that there weren’t. But I have to say that everyone was respectful, fraternal, and by the end of the assembly there was a genuine sense that we were all here for the same reason. And we may not know each other, but it’s time that we got to.
John: And it’s got to start someplace right?
Fr. Mark: It’s got to start someplace in a substantive way. Some people would say it started in Ligonier and then it was interrupted. Well, anyone can say what they want to say. The reality is: this is the process that has been embraced and fostered and nurtured by the Autocephalous Churches. This is not a volunteer situation. All of the bishops know that they need to be there, and I think the attendance itself indicates that—I mean we had about as full attendance as you can get. If it wasn’t for illness and for some bishops being kept on the rosters of active bishops even though they are too ill, it’s actually just an honor being given to them. But nevertheless because they’re still listed as active, they must technically be invited even though they might never come. The truth of the matter is, just about every bishop came except for about two or three. And that’s astonishing.
John: Yeah, it is.
Fr. Mark: When I compare it to Ligonier, there were 29 bishops at Ligonier. 29. We had 55.
John: So, Father Mark, what is the “endgame”? When you think about more—and there’s going to have to be more Episcopal Assembly meetings, and so much has to be worked out and arranged and thought through, five years, 10 years, 25 years from now, what is the endgame for this?
Fr. Mark: Well, the endgame is very clear. It’s the Great and Holy Council. The Great and Holy Council has to be convened. And when it is convened, the assembly will come to an end, and the bishops will join the greater assembly of the Great and Holy Council and present to the Great and Holy Council their plan from each region for how to canonize the Church in the region.
John: And from that, a Synod will be established?
Fr. Mark: Yes, or I shouldn’t say what will be established. What will be established, hopefully, will be the recommendation of the bishops. Will it be a transitional phase, will it be an autonomous Church, semi-autonomous Church? Will they propose an autocephalous Church? I mean, there are people who think there’s only one answer to the question. There are numerous answers that are possible, and the bishops themselves said—and I think that especially your lay people who listen to your broadcast need to hear this. The bishops themselves said that we are going to need the involvement of lay people, of experts. We’re going to have to reach out throughout the community. I’ve called on the Orthodox Theological Society of America months ago. When I agreed to speak at their last meeting, I said please send me a list of your expertises and your experts.
We’re going to need the whole body of the Church to put forth its best effort to do this. I mean, the day of armchair strategists and bloggers who have opinions about how the Church should be run are over because now it’s time to do the work. We can no longer talk about oh well—it’s like the disciples sitting in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, and they’re worried about who brought the rabbi something to eat, and he says look up, the fields are ripe for the harvest, you guys. I mean, it’s time now to do the work, and the question will be: is there a real willingness amongst the faithful and the clergy to roll up their sleeves? I’ll tell you, as someone who had the privilege, and I consider it a unique privilege to be in the room with those bishops. They clearly are willing to roll up their sleeves. And that may surprise some of your listeners, but that’s the truth. I can bear witness to it.
John: But while that happens, Father Mark, and the work is begun, when you talk about the armchair quarterbacks, the bloggers, etc, don’t we need that as well? Don’t we need the pushback, the questioning, just kind of the issues being discussed openly by all Orthodox people?
Fr. Mark: I have no problem with open discussion. What I have a problem with is those who set themselves up as their own fourth of state, to be the critique of all Orthodoxy and to be the critique of the “Old World” Patriarchates and for people to say well no one understands—you know, this sense of divisiveness that I sometimes sense out—and I’m not saying everywhere, but I do sense it from time-to-time. That the people who want drive opinion—I don’t think you can take the model of the political world and superimpose it over the body of Christ.
As I said before, neither is a corporation an analog, neither is it a political. We’re not setting up a government. This is not a “say-ocracy”, this is the body of Christ. It needs to function in an Orthodox way, a canonical way. And everything, if one reads The Decision and the Rules of Operation and the whole process by which we’ve come to this point, it’s extremely canonical and Orthodox. And for some people, that might not be satisfactory, they want what they want when they want it. And you know, I remember that we belong to a 2000-year old Church. People say, well it took a long time to get from Ligonier to New York, you know, so to speak. Well, 16 years in the life of a church is not very long. And we can’t just assume we know “why” everything happened the way that it happened.
I mean, I don’t mean to sound glib about this, but there’s a time for commentary and there’s a time for responsible work. And I think the time now is for more work. Commentary? I guess we’ll always have people who want to comment on what the Church is doing, but to me, get out into the vineyard, roll up your sleeves, and start working. And that’s what we need to do, not just comment about the work of others. It’s easy to criticize. It’s always easy to criticize, especially when you’re not responsible at the end of the day. So, I don’t know what to say.
My sense is that you’ll see coming out of the assembly over the next six months a real push for involvement, a real embrace, a reaching out to the faithful of America saying “we need expertise.” One thing they’ve already said they’ve desperately needed expertise on, clearly, is a Legal Committee, legal advice, because there are legal issues to all of these things. To give you an example, just from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, I think the budget of the Archdiocese of America is around $20 million dollars, I think. That’s the operational budget for the archdiocese and for the metropolises across the country, the bishops and the chancelleries and everything else, the youth ministry, the internet ministry; we need all these things together. My office, everybody. But if you actually put together the budget of the parishes, we’re talking a quarter of a billion dollars. I mean, these are huge sums of money. There are issues of accountability and transparency. There are issues how 501 (c)3 not-for-profits charitable trusts, which is what parishes are, they’re charitable trusts, how they’re run, how they’re accounted for.
There are whole vast issues, and I’ve used this image before with people. We’ve existed like silos for generations. Each jurisdictional presence has done its own thing in its own way. We have different pensions, different funding, different endowments. Viva la difference at one level, but at the same time, if you’re going to make all of these things work either as a single unified administration, or in concert as you move towards a single unified administration, all of these things require an enormous amount of study and preparation, just from a legal point of view. Where are you going to incorporate it? It’s not impossible. I was talking with the chief legal counsel of Coca-Cola whom I met in my travels, and he said don’t worry Father, we have a million employees in 200 countries. It can be done. I said well thank you. I have his card too. He said he would help me if we needed any help.
John: You may want to keep that handy.
Fr. Mark: I do, actually. But at the same time, we have our own entrenched interests. There are the issues of the continuing presence of Mother Churches in the United States. Will there be metochia, will there be representations? How will all of these things work? It’s not as easy as it sounds, and it’s not impossibly difficult either. All is possible to those who believe, so. I believe that this can be done. I think it has to be done with responsibility. That’s why I made my comment about the commentators. It’s easy, from the outside, to look in and say oh, why don’t you just do this or why don’t you just do that?
John: One thing that might help and I’m sure you’re planning to do something like this is in order to be as transparent as possible, where will people go to know that they are getting accurate information and they know what’s needed? You talked about a Legal Committee, and I’m sure there are many other task forces that are going to be needed. Will there be a central location, a website?
Fr. Mark: Yes, absolutely. We’re in the process, as we form the Secretariat, we’ll form the website. Part of this is delayed necessarily by waiting for the reallocations of the region. I mean, in a sense, if we’re going to set up a website, we want to set it up for the American reality, but we don’t have the authority to divide ourselves. We only have the authority to make the recommendation. There’s no thought that we won’t be divided, OK? It was unanimous. The bishops want it, and this is certainly something that will be recognized by the Mother Churches, and I’m sure we will get the divisions that we want. But nevertheless, that has to come into play. We’ll make all of the preparations so that we’re ready to go. That there will be a central, in a sense, clearing house for information and for feedback, and for people to volunteer, and for people to check in and say I’ve got an idea.
I have no problem—and I don’t think anybody amongst the hierarchs, I’m no hierarch, but amongst the hierarchs, they’re looking forward to input. The bishops themselves are overworked, to be honest with you. So they’re going to need all the help—and I’m not just talking about prayer, I’m talking about literal help. Volunteers. And we’re going to have to fund all of this, and it’s going to cost some money. And they, themselves, have addressed that in terms of we need to fund this, and we’re hoping—I personally, I am amongst those who believe that for a serious pan-Orthodox effort, I think there’s a lot of money that will fund it. I think that people will support it with their time, with their treasure, and with their talent. I have no doubt, and this is a serious endeavor. This is not just something to pacify everybody while we delay.
My own sense of history as you know as we were having the Episcopal Assembly in New York—your listeners may be aware of the reciprocal visit of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Patriarchate of Moscow and a very extended visit. And out of that has come some good news. Nothing overly dramatic, but at the same time, the atmospherics of pan-Orthodox cooperation on an international level—I’m speaking from my 31 years in the priesthood—seem to be at an all-time high as far as I can tell. And I have no inside information. I just look at what’s going on on the internet with everybody else. But they seem to be at an all time high. I, myself, would not be shocked if we start moving towards a Great and Holy Council within the decade, myself, and that will impact tremendously on the assembly. I can tell you this much. In my opinion, if a date is set for the Great and Holy Council, you’ll see the assembly meet more than once a year because there will be a certain acceleration. They have to finish their work.
John: So, is that a possibility that a date would be set?
Fr. Mark: I think all things are possible. I mean, I’m just saying that certainly the atmospherics for it seem to be much better than they’ve been in a very long time, let’s put it that way. And there seems to be a very warm and fraternal spirit floating about the Autocephalous Churches these days. So, that is a very important ingredient to any calling in the convening of the Great and Holy Council, which I’m presuming will be done by his All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
John: And so, you’re saying let’s see if a date can be put out there and work backwards from that?
Fr. Mark: No. I’m saying the assembly has to embrace its work, full steam, full-speed ahead on its work. There’s a lot of work to do. But I’m saying that because of the atmosphere, we don’t have time to waste in terms of getting the work done. We have to apply ourselves. And I think it’s a whole new level of enterprise because most bishops, to be very frank with you, have enough to do taking care of their own diocese or metropolis. So now, we’re asking these bishops to get together, to work together, to form committees, work with interested and competent laymen and clergy, and to move the process even farther. I mean, that’s a lot to ask, but I have to tell you, they are ready to embrace this. In my opinion, we are going to move forward.
One of the things that SCOBA could never do, and I say this will all respect for SCOBA because SCOBA has been our pan-Orthodox vehicle for 50 years, but SCOBA was never an assembly of bishops. It was a limited grouping of first hierarchs, and not necessarily of everybody, and there were proxies. And it had a different way of functioning. Whereas the assembly of bishops is a much, in many ways, a much more Orthodox model in that it involves all of the bishops. You have a much larger pool of talent, and you get them interested because whatever reality is going to emerge out of the Great and Holy Council, I’ll tell you this much, all of these bishops are going to be part of it. So, they are now what I would call, to use the expression, stakeholders. And I think our faithful and our priesthood are also stakeholders, and I think that the bishops are going to want to make them feel like stakeholders.
And I think you’re absolutely right, John, transparency and accountability are two of the hallmarks that get you stakeholders and allow people to invest in the process and invest their hopes. I think I said to you from the very beginning—I think I said it to you, I know I’ve said it to a lot of people: raise your hopes and lower your expectations out of this meeting. I would say that’s exactly the case. If everyone expected there to be an instant solution to all of our problems, that’s a very immature view of the historical reality of the Church. We simply can’t solve things with the snap of our fingers. However, I think there is a very good reason to have very high hopes coming out of this assembly.
John: And we will all look and wait with great anticipation of various items of news and interest that are proceeding from this event. And I hope, Father Mark, that you will consider this an open invitation to stop by anytime and update us even though you’re working yourself out of a job, I’m sure you’ll still be very intimately involved, and we would love to just keep our listeners informed on what’s happening and how they can help and how they can pray.
Fr. Mark: And let me thank you, John, because I think you give a great service to the Church. Ancient Faith Radio gives a great service by providing this information, and I just ask you and your listeners, be a little bit patient, let us get our start up, give us 90 days to get it together because we’re all now—not scrambling, but we are organizing in a very systematic way. And I believe that as things proceed, there will be plenty of time for input, and I’m always delighted to speak with you and your faithful.
John: You’re very kind, and I might mention that as a follow-up to today’s interview, we’ll be having an interview with His Grace Bishop Basil, the Secretary of the Episcopal Assembly just elected, and he will be talking with our correspondent, Matthew Namee, about what we can expect from his office in the days ahead. So, look forward to that, and we’ll be promoting that as well on Ancient Faith Radio. Father Mark, thanks again for your time.
Fr. Mark: Thank you, and God bless you.