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Orthodox Christian Laity 20th Anniversary Program: The Need For A Great And Holy Council

Metropolitan Christopher

November 03, 2007 Length: 45:28

Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Midwestern America
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Transcript Transcript

Father John: At this time we would like to invite to the podium, His Eminence, Metropolitan Christopher, of the Serbian Middle West Diocese, who is here with us today. 

His Eminence was born in Galveston, Texas. If you read his biography, on page 11, you will read that he is a metropolitan, a hierarch of experience. He is not a married hierarch, but a hierarch who was married, and whose presbytera has passed into the life eternal, but who has children and grandchildren, and so those of you who think that the rest of us who are celibate don’t have the answers, here is one with all the answers to all your questions.  (laughter)

His Eminence is very close to my heart.  He was one of my consecrators in 1980. He is one of those individual hierarchs who was at the Ligonier Conference. Those of you who have the video and are concerned with Ligonier will hear what he had to say then, and what he has to say now. He is a courageous bishop. He said to me when he came in, “I call a spade a spade.” So be prepared. 

Thank you, your Eminence.

Metropolitan Christopher:  Well, take off your shoes, loosen your ties, and sit back and relax, you will be here for while. (laughter)

Your Eminence, beloved reverend fathers, Mr. President, and Executive Director, OCL members and friends, Orthodox Christian laity, brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a beautiful scriptural quotation of our Lord’s words: “Whosoever would be first among you, let him be servant of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

May I first of all express my thanks for the kind invitation to be with you today, and to address you concerning a topic which has generated a good deal of discussion among the Orthodox for many decades now, and which, yet, remains nebulous?  Your work during the past 20 years has been fruitful in raising many challenging questions which must be resolved, in God’s time.

Your interest in the topic of the day is primarily one that concerns Orthodoxy in America, and more particularly, concerning the role of the laity in Christ’s Holy Church, and although you haven’t yet arrived at satisfactory answers to all of these questions, I congratulate you upon your 20th anniversary of sincere work, dedication and persistence. I pray that your numbers may increase from among all Orthodox jurisdictions, so that all of our Orthodox laity may become more edified concerning their importance and their role in the life of the Church as the Body of Christ.

We are a diverse people, with various ethnic heritage, we Orthodox in America, united in one faith by our service to God, and to the high spiritual values of Holy Gospel, by our worship, and the oneness of the Holy Orthodox faith, which we profess, and although we are ethnically, linguistically, politically, socially, and blessedly diverse, we believe as Orthodox Christians that we have been called into the community of the Body of Christ by the Grace of God in Jesus Christ, that we are called to serve God, as witnesses, disciples, servants and family—called to worship, to learn—to learn to serve, and to love. In everything that we do, we seek to be a great Orthodox Church, now, in every home, Diocese, so-called, our Orthodox jurisdictions in this land, not only after a Great Council is held to remind us of that fact.

And when I say that we seek to be the Great Church, now, please note that it is not an institutional reference, with one administrative center, secular business-oriented, administrative units, discipline and rules and regulations, which so many have placed a premium upon, but it is about the practicing, living Church of Christ. Remember, we exclaim at every Divine Liturgy, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith. Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise, O Lord, that we may sing of Thy glory. Keep us in Thy holiness.” We then conclude our worship service with the call for us to depart in peace and to beseech God to sanctify those who are believers, to give peace to His Church, the world, and to all of His people. So you see, it is about our Christian living, our Christian life and practice. 

I mean Great Church, in the Gospel sense. And here, I would add, take note, oh ye patriarchs and metropolitans, archbishops and bishops, and priests, and yes, all Orthodox Christian laity, boards and committees and so forth, in the gospel sense of, “Whosoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Do we need a Great and Holy Council to clarify who is the first amongst us in Christ’s Church? The Lord already made that clear to his apostles and to us.

I like the way this was beautifully expressed by a prominent civil rights preacher, and worth quoting: “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be, if you are going to be my disciple. You must be, yes. Don’t give up on this instinct. It is a good instinct, if you use it right. It is a good instinct, if you do not distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to be.”

And that, my dearly beloved, is what I mean by being a Great Orthodox Church, not only in our homes, our parishes, our jurisdictions, but also in America, and in all the world.

It is also we, the hierarchy, the clergy, and all of the faithful, who are challenged to understand what is truly meant by the concept of first among equals, among Christians, and especially among hierarchs, which seems to have taken center stage, like the quarrel which took place among the disciples. I ask you, “Wasn’t it enough for the Orthodox to have to debate this question with Rome for so many centuries, and now it appears that we need a Great Council to clarify it among the Orthodox?” And I hear referred, specifically, to the interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, what has been grievously distorted and has become a source of discord. There are no emperors, kings, sultans, dictators, or other religious or secular authorities, who by power of force, or the bestowing of titles, special privileges, powers, restrictions upon church bishops, who can abolish and/or create autocephalous churches to serve political purposes, or personal ambitions. The Church must stand firm and strong in resisting all such interventions from whatever source.

This question, naturally, has a bearing upon us in America, who have been categorized as Diaspora, as if we were waiting on the shores of the Babylonian rivers, waiting to return home. Is anybody here waiting to go back to the old country, from where your ancestors came? How many of you are yearning to go back? (laughter) I, for one, reject, categorically, being put in the category of Diaspora. I am an American. This is my country, and I’m proud of my heritage. (applause)

Not only that, I do not consider it a requirement for me to have a love and respect for my heritage, which I do love and respect. Our people do have a beautiful heritage, and it serves as a magnificent prism through which our people have expressed their Orthodox Christian faith, and I am proud of that heritage, but I do not feel that I have to be under someone’s foreign domination for me to have a respect and love for my heritage of my ancestors. (applause)

In so far as we are not waiting to return home, even the Zionist movement was based on that principle. When they re-established Israel, there would be no more Diaspora, they were going to all go back home. That, I don’t think, is the case amongst us. In the meanwhile, we are seen to be considered as lacking the maturity and the knowledge, so we need tutors from abroad to teach us how to govern our Church in America. I reject that nonsense, categorically. (applause)

Now, you may ask, then, “But what about the main topic, the need for a Holy and Great Council?” Having reviewed all the preparations that have been taking place over a number of decades, and the nature of the disputes which continue to fester, I am compelled to agree with the distinguished theologian, the late Archimandrite Justin Popovic, who wrote to the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Church, among other things, and I am going to quote him now:

“Most reverend bishops,” he said. “I cannot free myself from the impression and conviction that all this points (all those preparations and things that are going to be included in the so-called Council that is going to be held by all of these sub-committees and commissions) to the secret desire of certain persons of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, that the First in Honor of Orthodox patriarchs force its ideas and procedures on all the autocephalous Orthodox churches, and in general, upon the Orthodox world, and the Orthodox Diaspora, and sanction such a neo-papist intention by an ecumenical council. For this reason, among the ten topics selected, which have been, of course, subsequently variously altered and revised, for this reason, they have been inserted, indeed, as the first, just those topics that reveal the intention of Constantinople to submit to herself the entire Orthodox Diaspora, and that means the entire world, and to guarantee for herself the exclusive right to grant autocephaly, and autonomy, in general, to all the Orthodox churches in the world, both present and future, and at the same time to determine their order and rank at her own discretion. This is exactly what the question of dyptichs implies, for they concern not only the order of liturgical commemoration, but the order of preceding councils, and so forth. He further noted: “The fate of the Church neither is, nor can be, any longer, in the hands of a Byzantine emperor, and any other sovereign. It is not the control of a patriarch or any of the mighty of this world, nor even in that of the pentarchy, or of the autocephalies, understood in the narrow sense, because by the power of God, the Church has grown.

It has grown up into a multitude of local churches, with millions of faithful, many of whom, in our days, have sealed their apostolic succession and faithfulness to the Lamb with their blood. And new local churches appear to be rising on the horizon, just as the Japanese, the African, and the American, and their freedom in the Lord must not be removed by any Super-Church of the papal type, with reference to Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council, for this would signify an attack on the very essence of the Church. Without their concurrence, the solution of any ecclesiastical question of ecumenical significance is inconceivable, not to mention the solutions to questions that immediately concern them.”

He mentioned this because there was no provision for anyone, even bishops, from this continent, to be participants in this so-called Council that was being envisioned, which is totally anti-Orthodox.

The problem of the Diaspora: The age-old struggle of Orthodoxy against Roman absolutism was a struggle for just such freedom of the local church as catholic and conciliar, complete and whole in itself. Are we, today, to travel the road of the first and fallen Rome, or of some second, or third, similar to it? Are we to believe that Constantinople, which, in the persons of its holy and great hierarchy, its clergy and its people, who so boldly opposed the Roman protectionism and absolutism of centuries past, is today preparing to ignore the conciliar traditions of Orthodoxy and to exchange them for the neo-papal surrogate of a second, third, or other sort of Rome?

He also pointed out, all of the Orthodox behold and realize how important, how significant today is the question of the Orthodox Diaspora, both for the Orthodox Church in general, and for all of the Orthodox Churches individually. Can this question be decided, as Constantinople or Moscow desires, without referring to, or without the participation of, the Orthodox faithful pastors and theologians of the Diaspora itself, which is increasing every day?

The problem of Diaspora, without doubt, is a Church question of exceptional importance.  It is a question that has risen to the surface for the first time in history, with such force and significance, for its solution there would be cause, indeed, to convoke a truly ecumenical council, in which all of Orthodox bishops of all Orthodox churches, would truly participate, and not through some committee. And that is precisely the rub. Father Justin caught what we Americans are very sensitive to, and that is, playing against a stacked deck. (laughter/applause)

Participation by delegations is a different ballgame altogether, because in Orthodoxy, allbishops, especially those who are diocesan and have a flock, have an equal right to attend and participate, as opposed to only titular bishops without flocks to represent them, and so on, and so on.

I know that all of this material cannot be covered in such a short presentation today, but I would like, at least, to refer you to his writings, especially his letter to the Holy Assembly of Bishops to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and also the letter written by his Holiness, Patriarch Alexy, to the ecumenical patriarch, His Holiness, Bartholomew. This is a recent letter, which I am sure you may have access to already. These documents are very revealing, and every layman, as well as members of the clergy, hierarchy and priests alike, should be aware of these issues.

Therefore, I am of the opinion, with Father Justin, that should this council, as envisioned, God forbid, actually come to pass, only one kind of result can be expected from it: Schisms, heresies and the loss of many souls. Considering the question from the viewpoint of the apostolic, patristic, and historical experience of the Church, such a council, instead of healing, would open up new wounds in the body of the Church, and inflict upon her new problems, and new misfortunes. This, I am certain you will agree, is something that the Orthodox Church, in today’s world, can do without.

So now what? What about the Church in America? Is not this our primary concern? Yes, there is hope, but your work must continue with courage, with faith, and conviction, concerning what is in the best interest of Holy Orthodoxy in America, and her holy mission. Since there will be, surely, bumps in the road—Ligonier-I and its aftermath became part of the history of the church in America—I do not need to tell you what the negative consequences were. However, it proved that the hierarchy in America, most of whom, although under the weight of a dependence syndrome, are aware of what must be done if the church is to grow and successfully adhere to our Lord’s grand commission given on Ascension Day.

That hope was strengthened at the recent gathering of bishops in Chicago, at which many of the bishops, for the first time, became aware of the numerous commissions and agencies of SCOBA, which are successfully carried out, even though not by some canonically administrative unit of the church, but through the media of love and brotherly cooperation. However, the laity are not yet as well informed as they should be, and this provides you with the opportunity to reach out on a grassroots level and provide leadership in this edification.

You, yourselves, have suffered setbacks, but you must remember that there are other factors which also must be considered. To better understand the prevailing conditions among the various Orthodox jurisdictions, you must not labor under the misconception that we are a divided church. We are one church, we are not a divided church.

There is a saying, “Every why has its because.” You know that all of our American-born people, of all of our jurisdictions, are descendants of immigrants, who came here, not as barbarians, but as baptized Orthodox Christians and members of Christ’s Church, from their homelands. They have established humble communities, and built the first churches here, often on their own, without mother church help and guidance. They practiced their faith through the prism of their Orthodox Christian heritage, traditions, and customs that were unique to them. They also provided welcome havens for subsequent waves of immigration, which still continue to this day.

So it would useful to review the studies dealing with questions such as cultural assimilation, Diaspora politics, and the cultural and religious ties which most ethnic groups still maintain with their homeland of origin. There have been major studies dealing with all of these questions, and since bilingualism is still very much with us, as well as family ties, traditions, customs, music, and so forth, all of this should be factored in, because our church communities have always, in America, been the focal point and preserver of heritage, as well as of the Holy Faith.

This will take time, and no decisions of any councils will change that fact for a long time to come. Striving to bring our Orthodox communities together is a noble cause, but the common American heritage, which we all share, is still not as strongly related to our church life, and heaven forbid that what is becoming acceptable America would become part of our church life. The source of the moral and ethical problems facing our nation, God forbid, that it remains far away from our churches and our communities. I would prefer our ethnic traditions and customs dealing with home and family and marriage, to any of this horrible corruption which can be the destruction of this nation.

The common American heritage that we share, then, is still not related to our church life, or rather community life, as the cultural heritage which provides our people a strong identity. So you see, my dearly beloved in Christ, be patient, and continue to edify with love and understanding, but in no way, with confrontation and disputes. Edify, and not dispute, with either church authorities or community leaders and organizations which are still meeting, all in good time, and with the blessings of God. May the Lord Jesus Christ keep all of you, in his loving care, and prosper you in all of your endeavors. Amen. (applause)

Father John: Some years ago I visited His Eminence when he was in Western Pennsylvania at Wexford, a beautiful place. I spent the night there and we talked, and I listened, and the very same pastoral problems that he experienced in the Serbian dioceses were exactly the same problems that I experience in the Romanian dioceses, which I am sure, in the Greek dioceces, Bulgarian, and so forth, we have the very same pastoral needs and problems. Thank you for your insight, Your Eminence, and we are very happy that you are here with us today. 

Now we will take questions for Father John, and His Eminence. Yes, Alice, please.

Alice: Good morning, Your Eminence. It is a pleasure meeting you this morning, and I would like to say, ditto, ditto, ditto, to so many comments that you made. I cannot help but highlight the fact that when OCL was formed I think the original founders kept the cultural aspect and heritage in mind. At no time was OCL thinking of total assimilation in the United States, because we have to recognize that culture impinges on our total existence, as well as religion. Perhaps the image has been out there, perhaps from some of our press releases, that possibly give that image, and if we have done that, we are sorry, because we do recognize the heritage and cultural aspects of all diverse jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church. I think most of us are sensitive to this, and fight very hard to keep that foremost in our deliberations.

But I have been a little challenged in recent months when I read something in one of these theological journals from Greece, from some theologian in the 1930s, indicating that we cannot really have an ecumenical council, technically, unless we have the Romans, the Protestants, all the Christian bodies worldwide, rather than just the Orthodox, because in the first seven ecumenical councils, it included the total Christian Church. Now, I hadn’t thought of that before, and I don’t even know what the thinking is on that in today’s market, shall we say, but I had never perceived this concept of ecumenical council being global, with all Christian denominations, not just Orthodox, and I was rather challenged, and I don’t have answers to this, because I really don’t know, and perhaps someone in the audience can discuss that.

Metropolitan Christopher: The Orthodox Church is the one Church that Christ had established. When we profess in the Creed, “I believe in one Holy catholic and apostolic Church,” it doesn’t mean that I believe in 860 churches, or actually, there are more than that counting all of these groups that you mentioned. They are not part of the Body of Christ. They were the ones who cut themselves off, for whatever reason. And that’s another one of the problems that have crept up in these preparatory sessions concerning an Orthodox Council, that is, this question of ecumenism, and what it means, and what are the implications, and how far some of the Orthodox churches have gone already in this type of participation with other Christian groups, in dialogues and discussions, and so forth, which now have gone even beyond discussing with Christians, but also with Moslems, and with Jews, and with Hindus, and you name it? Well, that is not what is meant by an ecumenical council in the Orthodox sense of the word, so nothing could be further from the truth, from whoever was expressing that as a requirement for an ecumenical council.

Alice: What is the role of SCOBA in today’s world? I personally have been very hopeful that some of our problems in the United States would be resolved via the group, SCOBA, as being one of our biggest hopes for the future, and what role can OCL play with SCOBA?

Metropolitan Christopher: SCOBA is exactly what the name says: A Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. Since we have a multiplicity of jurisdictions, then each of these jurisdictions agree together to get together and to form this conference, for mutual cooperation and mutual help, in order to, wherever it is possible, collaborate.

For example, one of the earliest commissions was the OCEC, the Orthodox Christian Education Comission, because it became necessary after World War II, with the baby boom, so-called, for the church schools, and we appropriated, unfortunately, the use of the words Sunday School, which should have been Church School, and God forbid, Sunday School, which our people were seeing how Protestants do this on Sunday, so they would take their kids to church and, in those days, a lot of our churches still had basements underneath the church, and children were relegated to the basement and never invited to the banquet upstairs in the church.

And we raised a generation of ignoramuses, (laughter) because they knew nothing about the church, and they did not experience the Holy Liturgy, and they did not experience what was most important in the life of the Church. And it was an effort to produce the type of curriculum, which should have been done, but because our people began to imitate, and this so-called assimilation, monkey-see, monkey-do, you know, “The Protestants are having big successes, their churches are overcrowded, their parking lots are full every Sunday morning, they must be doing something right.”

So, it was a rush to try to bring Christian education to our children, but it was confined to coloring books and spending the hour when they should have been at worship together with their parents, 15 minutes to prepare the stuff, 15 minutes of classwork, another 15 minutes, but they had to be finished in time so if they were dropped off in front of the church by their parents who didn’t come to church, but just let them off there. Or they came with their parents, and would go home with their parents, and they came to get a Christian education, but at the same time, they were missing from what is the most important Christian educational experience, the Holy Liturgy.

So, we have undergone a lot of these trials and tests, and the various jurisdictions continue, nevertheless, even though a joint curriculum was prepared, individual jurisdictions say, “Well, we need some additional curriculum material to deal with our own heritage questions.” But the OCEC curriculum is still functioning today, and when the bishops saw that we can collaborate in that respect, then other commissions were gradually added.

Then the age of dialogue came into play, and then the World Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches, and that became a whole new area of contention among many of the Orthodox churches. Should they participate or should they not? Or are we to be considered, really, a backward church, that we have to be brought up to date, that we have to be reformed, to conform with modern-day life and modern-day society? Well, I am not sure that we really want to conform to society in this world of today. So, I went the long way about answering your question, but I hope I did.

Father John: I am not sure which to respond to, because there were, of course, several questions. One of them was: Why is it that the Orthodox Church, from 33 A.D. to the present, has had so many difficult times? Probably we could return to that. I am an historian, and it would be tempting to give you an entire course in Church history that would take you from the first century to the 21st century, and I hope you have sleeping bags and other things, because we would be a here a long time if I answered all of that.

Let me just make one remark on the subject of SCOBA, and mostly by way of additional information. It certainly didn’t spring out of the blue. There were several activities, and I think, especially, of the work of Metropolitan Anthony Bashir and the Antiochian Archdiocese. It is very important that ever, and always, we call for Orthodox unity and Orthodox cooperation.

His Eminence was mentioning several of the initiatives and activities that brought Orthodox together, the Orthodox Christian Education Commission, for example. What is really very striking is that in several cases, these inter-Orthodox collaborative, tranjurisdictional, cooperative efforts, preceded SCOBA. What was important, however, and it is easy to forget the legacy that we have from so many people, is the initiative of His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos, who, when forming SCOBA, issued invitations, not simply to the churches that he got along with, but also, for example, to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, ROCOR, to the Ukrainian jurisdictions, across the line, in an effort to bring Orthodox together in a practical, pragmatic way, without first insisting on presentation of credentials. That these bodies didn’t participate at the time was because they did not want to participate in a body that might be dominated by communists. But the thing is, it was important, and I think it is important for future consideration, that the invitations be offered as widely as possible, rather than as narrowly as possible, so that people can, at least, get to know each other.

Second, what was also very striking, returning to an earlier subject, the bishops who assembled in Chicago relatively recently, learned of all the many agencies and activities of SCOBA, and I think it is important that all of us be familiar with these, as well. But again, it is important to keep in mind, most of these agencies and commissions developed before they were authorized, or before they got any kind of blessing, and imprimatur, and authorization from SCOBA. It was the initiative of clergy and laity that formed the OCMC, initially in the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, and then on a pan-Orthodox basis. It was the initiative of laity, especially, and also of clergy, that formed the IOCC, International Orthodox Christian Charities. So also, the work of OCF movement was not initially a top-down structure that SCOBA commissioned, and then eventually people implemented. Rather, it was, again, a grassroots movement.

I think it is very important for all of us to remember the important role for unity that inter-Orthodox cooperation, for authentic expression of Orthodoxy, that lay people, that clergy, have. We cannot expect bishops gathering together, whether simply heads of jurisdictions in SCOBA, or in fact, all the Orthodox bishops in America getting together at Ligonier, then pause and take many breaths and spend many years before there is another plenary gathering. We cannot expect all the initiative to come from our hierarchs. We have a responsibility here also, and the fruitfulness of our work will be what then receives the blessing, and the continuation, and the strengthening, that SCOBA can provide for it.

Questioner: This question is for His Eminence. Your Eminence, I was very enlightened by your comments about unity of the Orthodox churches. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in the little town of Ferrell, Pennsylvania, where there was a very strong Serbian community and I grew up with many, many Serbian friends, and now I live in Cleveland, Ohio, where again, there is a strong Serbian presence and very many friends in the community, and I have always been impressed about the independent-mindedness of the Serbian community, to put it mildly. They are very independent-minded. I had come away with the impression that if we ever got to this autocephaly situation, or autonomous situation, that they would be the last ones to join. Am I right or wrong?

Metropolitan Christopher: Well, like I said, that would depend. (laughter) If it is an authentic council, where everybody participates without a stacked deck, that is one thing. But to participate with a stacked deck—no way. People like to think with their own heads. I once heard a bishop, at his enthronement, publicly state, “I promise blind obedience.” Now, I have never heard such a stupid thing come from the mouth of anyone, but to hear it from a bishop making such a proclamation…(applause).

The Lord has bestowed us with minds. We are created in his image. He doesn’t forbid us to think. We are required to think, to use our minds, and not to follow blindly, because with the blind leading the blind, they both fall in a ditch. (laughter)

The Serbian people are the same as you would find in all other ethnic jurisdictions. Because of the ties, and the recent number of waves of immigrants, all of the immigrants to our different groups did not come about at the same time, but unfortunately, in those countries abroad, every 15-20 years, there is some sort of a catastrophe that triggers a mass exodus.

The earlier migrations were economic, for the most part. But subsequent to that, there were also those who were fleeing conditions under which they were living—political conditions, social conditions, and so forth, and World War II produced an awful lot of displaced persons in prisoner of war camps, who refused to go back to their homeland because the West and the Big Three committed all of Eastern Europe, most of the Orthodox countries, under the atheistic governments of communism. They didn’t ask those people if they wanted to live under that type of a situation, but they divided up Europe as if they owned it, and those people were condemned to over 50 years of servitude, and so forth, in which their faith was constantly being tested, and decimated, and restrictions, and so forth, and so on. Well, you know the history of what happened up until the fall of communism, but the West was largely to blame for that.

Well, you asked about the time, and I’m telling you how to make a clock, but just to let you know that the Serbian people are no different from all the rest of the people who like to think with their own heads. Once you begin to think with somebody else’s head, and follow blindly, you are in trouble.


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