Metropolitan Jonah: This past year has been very significant for the Orthodox Church in America as we stand on the brink of changes in the structure of the jurisdictional system and indeed, the dawning of the possibility of a real unity within the greater Orthodox community. The Episcopal Assembly began that process of coming together which presents us with the necessity for a plan to unify all the Orthodox in North America by the time of the next Great Council which is posited for early in 2013.
At the same time, the Orthodox Church in America has been engaged in the process of strategic planning: coming to a self-understanding of its own internal structures and the direction it needs to go. Yet, this plan is written not only in terms of the existing OCA, but is a vision for the whole Church in North America drawing on the tradition and the particular contributions that the OCA has for the whole American, North American, experience. Particularly, this has to do with a vision of conciliarity on a broad level that is an essential element of our experience of the Church. Conciliarity refers to the Church meeting in Council, initially with the Synods of Bishops. It has come to mean a broader participation by clergy and laity in the decision-making processes of the Church and their inclusion in various levels of councils.
In the OCA, this would refer to parish councils, diocesan councils, the Metropolitan Council, and above all, the All-American Council. These institutions and their level of authority are unique to the OCA, though they’re based on the Russian Great Council of 1917. They have become integral to how we understand and operate as Church. As we consider how to come together with other Orthodox communities and where and how we as the OCA fit into the greater scheme of the Orthodox world, there are new aspects of conciliarity that we need to consider.
The OCA was given autocephaly 40 years ago, giving it administrative independence from its Mother Russian Orthodox Church. That act established the canonical relationship with the Mother Church and defined the OCA in relation to itself. However, the autocephaly itself causes many problems as it saw in the reactions of the other churches. What is important to understand is that the Orthodox Churches are not totally independent, self-sufficient entities that have absolute autonomy. I think this is kind of a projection of our political understanding on ecclesiology, and it’s wrong. Rather, the Orthodox Churches exist in mutual interdependence, a unity in communion in which each has to take account of the other. We see this in the microcosm of Orthodoxy in North America. So also is it on the international scene. That mutual interdependence in communion is what conciliarity is, and there are conciliar structures on all levels.
Autocephaly is a status within this system that prescribes a set of relationships with the other churches that, of necessity, must be entirely mutual. By unilaterally granting autocephaly to the OCA in 1970, those relationships were only partially established. By some in the Greek world, they were categorically rejected and some of the churches are ambivalent. This played itself out in the exclusion of the OCA from the Executive Committee of the Episcopal Assembly in its non-recognition by Constantinople of having the right to vote as an Autocephalous Church.
In other words, we’re being severely challenged. Until last year, there were no protocols for the granting of autocephaly or autonomy. In fact, the canons do not even deal with these categories. Those protocols do exist now, written by the Chambesy theologians, and our situation is anomalous. Just for review, the Chambesy theologians are a group of major theologians, mostly bishops, who were authorized at a synaxis, a meeting or synod, of all of the patriarchs, all the heads of the Autocephalous Churches, except one, in October of 2008, which authorized these theologians to meet and to create protocols for the Episcopal Assemblies, for autocephaly and autonomy, to deal with the diptychs in preparation for a Great Council. Those theologians met at Chambesy, which is the center owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate near Geneva, and there is a tremendous kind of authority given to these meetings basically because they were authorized by the whole synaxis of patriarchs.
In regards to the protocols regarding autocephaly and autonomy, when a regional church is granted autocephaly, it’s proposed&emdash;let’s do this. When a mutual church is granted autonomy, a Mother Church can simply grant autonomy to one of its archdiocese and simply notify the rest of the Church. When a church wants to grant autocephaly to one of its archdioceses, the procedure is quite different. It proposes the autocephaly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate whose job it is to build the consensus of the rest of the Church. So that ultimately the tomos of autocephaly is signed either by all the heads of all the churches, signifying a universal agreement to it, or by the Mother Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch on behalf of all of the rest of the churches. In other words, it’s a completely mutual agreement of the whole Orthodox world on the autocephaly.
Our church, in a sense, if you want to put it into the context of those protocols, is in process. It was proposed. Some of the churches have accepted it, some of the churches are thinking about it, some of the churches have not accepted it. So it’s a process. We’re in process. On the other hand, I think we can see also that our situation is somewhat anomalous. When a regional church is granted autocephaly, it normally includes all the Orthodox Christians within its boundaries within that church. That was not the case, obviously, with the OCA where only a portion of the churches in North America received autocephaly. The implication of autocephaly is that the universally recognized autocephalous church in a particular region becomes the criterion of canonicity and any other bodies within that region must submit to it. This has obviously not happened, and the other churches have reacted variously to our autocephaly.
I think another effect is that the OCA, while becoming independent, became self-absorbed. We became not a little triumphalistic and arrogant. We did not take into account the necessary conciliar dimensions of our autocephaly, either on the local level or on the international level. We discounted the other Orthodox communities in America expecting them to submit to us, and we tried to persuade the other churches to accept our autocephaly even if it was anomalous and problematic. None of this was helpful. The situation in the world was also something radically different 40 years ago when then autocephaly was given. It was the height of the Cold War. It was the time of active persecution of the churches under the Communists, and there was no free interchange between the churches. The autocephaly marks a beginning of an ecclesiastical self-consciousness of the OCA as a uniquely North American church, but it has now also 40 years of additional maturity.
The autocephaly was right for its time, but the times have changed, and there are new demands on us. We’re being called to enter in to the greater conciliar dialogue of the churches in a way that has never existed before both on the local and the pan-Orthodox worldwide levels. And how we understand our autocephaly, or have we have understood our autocephaly, has become an obstacle rather than an aid to our participation. Over the next several months, the bishops and other leaders of the Church will gather to discuss the question of how to proceed. Nothing has been decided as of yet. But if we are to be full participants in the Episcopal Assembly process, we will have to alter our position.
We will have to decide some key value questions: whether participation in the movement towards Orthodox unity in North America is more important to us, or whether we simply stand fast on our autocephaly, our institutional identity, even to the point of exclusion. We need to evaluate whether unity with the other communities will foster or hinder our missionary task. We have to evaluate what kind of context and direction for the future will best foster that mission.
Whatever the particularities, we remain steadfast in our vision that the only acceptable solution for North America is a fully inclusive, united autocephalous Church with a single synod of bishops, electing our own bishops and primate, and controlling our own life. We will remain committed to a vision of conciliarity, of catholicity on all levels, affirming that all Orthodox Christians should have a voice in the life of the Church. We are absolutely committed to the vision that our task is missionary, to bring the gospel to Americans, and to incorporate Americans into the communion of the Orthodox Church.
There is a very important spiritual dimension in all of this that we must not neglect. It is easy to get caught up in the political and institutional ideas of what to do or not, but the real task is spiritual. How do we grow through this process? How do we become more authentically Christian? The answer to that is that we need to repent and live in a state of repentance. Repentance is not about just feeling sorry for our sins, much less feeling sorry for ourselves in some kind of guilt trip. Rather, repentance is the basic attitude of the Christian, to be renewed in the transformation of our minds as St. Isaac the Syrian unpacks the word “metanion”, to be renewed in the transformation of our minds. Our minds and hearts are transformed by conforming more and more to the image of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and becoming like him.
In relation to the task of entering into a deeper unity, there are several points in which we need to repent and be transformed. First, we need to drop the triumphalism and the arrogance that isolate us from our brother Orthodox in this continent. That does not mean that we’re not thankful for the gift of autocephaly given to us. Rather we must see it and ourselves in the larger context of the whole Orthodox community, not only in relation to ourselves. It is an expansion of our sense of ourselves, our self-concept. It is not “us” and “them”, our people and their people, but rather simply, us. Elder Safroni wrote of the expansion of our personal “I” (like me), a concept that I learned from an elder living on an island hermitage on Valon(ph) when I visited him.
We have to grow beyond ourselves. That “I” refers not just to myself, but myself includes all those whom I love, all those with whom I am united. A husband and a wife expand their personal self-concept to include both of them and then their children: one mystical body. A monk might include all the brothers in his monastery. A priest might include all those in his church, a bishop, all those in his diocese. Part of this is the mystery of the recapitulation in Christ as one mystical body. But the local saint may include his whole city, his whole nation. The great saints included the whole world. Our Lord Jesus Christ incorporated the whole creation into himself and brought it to salvation thereby.
How? By love. By loving our neighbor as our self. We are called to expand our self, our “I”, to include the Greeks, and the Antiochians, and the Serbs, and the Bulgarians, and all the other Orthodox on our continent. They are all nash. (Applause) They are all ours. The only criterion is Christ and his love. We must further embrace the way of repentance by living in humility. By embracing the kenotic way, the ascetic way of self-emptying and self-denial, we must, like Christ, empty ourselves, of our self. We cannot focus on our own egos demanding our own way. Rather, we enter into the communion of the whole body seeking only God’s will for the Church and not our own. The mission of our Church is essentially kenotic. The OCA exists not as the final solution to Orthodox unity in North America. Rather, our mission is to bring about that unity and to blend into it. In other words, it is not about our power and control of others to make them to submit to us. Rather, we all enter together into a new unity. The current organization is not an end in itself, rather it is a model and a type of what we believe should come. In this way, our vocation is not only kenotic but prophetic as well.
When I was a student at St. Vladimir’s in the days of Father Alexander Schmemann and Father John Meyendorff, one of the things that struck me most about them was that they were truly catholic in their vision. Orthodoxy, for them, was not some kind of ethnic religion for a specific few. Rather, it was the fullness of the gospel, the fullness of Christ for everyone and everything. The catholicity of their vision was expansive, and they would identify with the Greeks and the Russians and the Serbs and the Arabs and everybody else. Orthodoxy is universal as well as whole. They could embrace the fullness of the diversity within the unity of the Church without divisiveness or separation.
I’ve always aspired to that breadth of vision because it is something essentially Orthodox. It is essentially catholic. Our church in North America is incredibly diverse. On a typical Sunday in the OCA, the liturgy is being celebrated in at least a dozen languages, some of them European, some Native American. Our church is composed of dozens of ethnicities and reflects the diversity of our three countries. Already we have grown beyond a narrow, ethnic self-definition. Indeed, most of our bishops and priests and half of our people are converts. But we are called to grow still further, and to incorporate all the other Orthodox into our hearts. Only when we do this will our mission be truly fulfilled, that we become one Church in North America. (Applause)