Metropolitan Jonah - Unity in Our Time

Orthodox Christian Laity - Road to Unity

The 2009 Road to Unity conference held at Antiochian Village in October 2009.  The format was “conversational” in nature with panels, questions, and interaction between the attendees.

October 2009

Metropolitan Jonah - Unity in Our Time

OCA Primate Met Jonah gives the keynote address at the OCL Road to Unity conference.

October 30, 2009 Length: 38:10





Metropolitan Jonah: I think before the formal talk that I’ve prepared, I want to read a few passages from the Chambésy Communiqué, which has been talked about so much but hasn’t really been quoted. So I think it’s very important to contextualize so much of what we’re thinking about and talking about and working towards, as well as my own talk in light of these documents.

Now what Chambésy is, it’s the 4th Pre-Conciliar meeting, preparing for a Great and Holy Council, discussing various elements that have to be dealt with before the Council can actually come together. And one of these is the organization of the churches outside of the traditional territories, which is the new definition of diaspora. It was redefined.

So this committee was composed of bishops, who are also theologians and ecumenical officers and external affairs officers of many of the autocephalous churches, who developed these documents over the course of the past twenty-plus years. Actually, the Ligonier gathering was in accordance with Chambésy Conference, which had immediately preceded it.

But at that time, the churches did not really have a blessing to go ahead and actualize what Chambésy was talking about to its fullest extent. And now, apparently, that has happened. His Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch, has, over the past several years, convened synaxes of the heads of churches. Most of the autocephalous churches have participated; at least one didn’t.

But aside from that, we are the recipients of the collective wisdom, and really there is great collective wisdom here. And I think rather than try to undermine the documents or the process or anything else, it’s something that we can look at as a process. And that process actually gives us great freedom, even in the documents themselves.

For example, this is from the decision of the 4th Pre-Conciliar Panorthodox Conference, which met in June of 2009.

1. a) It is affirmed that is the common will of all of the most holy Orthodox Churches that the problem of the Orthodox Diaspora be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be organized in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church.

In other words, it’s time to get our act together. And the Mother Churches have given the blessing to their Daughter Churches to do that.

b) Likewise, it is affirmed that during the present phase it is not possible, for historical and pastoral reasons, for an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church on this issue, that is, the existence of only one bishop in the same place. For this reason, the Conference came to the decision to propose the creation of a temporary situation that will prepare the ground for a strictly canonical solution of the problem, based on the principles and guidelines set out below. Of necessity, this preparation will not extend beyond the convening of the future Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, so that it (the Council) can proceed with a canonical solution of the problem.

In other words, it’s a countdown as we were talking about earlier. It’s a countdown to the Council, which will give the final canonical resolution to the problem of all of the churches working together to resolve this issue of the canonical organization of the Orthodox Church outside the traditional areas.

And they do so by the creation of Episcopal Assemblies, and I’ll go into that later. But it’s in twelve different areas of the world where these Episcopal Assemblies will come together to essentially work out the structure, which they can abide with so that a canonical organization of the Church is put into place. This is the fourth paragraph:

4. These Assemblies, which are formed by the decision of this present Conference, have the responsibility to complete the regulation of their operation in the specifications approved by this Conference, and to apply this regulation as soon as possible, and certainly before the convening of the Great and Holy Council.

They’re pushing, and that’s something I think very much to our advantage. Now there’s also rules of operation of these Episcopal Assemblies, and you can download all of this stuff from www.goarch.org, the website of the Greek Archdiocese. I think the most interesting is this, Article 12 Section 1:

1. The Episcopal Assembly may establish its own Internal Regulations in order to supplement and adjust the above provisions, in accordance with the needs of the Region and in respect to the canon law of the Orthodox Church.

In other words, they’re not dictating the structure. What is a given in this, is the presidency of the exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And one of the things that I think is important is not to fight against this, because it’s the right and the prerogative and actually the responsibility of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to preside and to convene Pan-Orthodox gatherings. And the Episcopal Assemblies are Pan-Orthodox gatherings.

So this is not necessarily something that we need to fight him about. Somebody has to preside, and that has been decided at an almost universal context. However, how the assembly itself decides to structure its leadership is a different story. And that is something that will be up to the assembly. According to the rules of SCOBA, from its very beginning, the leader or the chairman is freely elected. We’ll see if this is something that carries over to the Pan-Orthodox assembly or the Episcopal Assembly.

I think the first thing that we need to look at, and I’m transitioning into my own talk now, is what do we want? Who are we? What are we aiming for? I would say the answer is a united, territorial, autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America—embracing all Orthodox Christians with a single synod and a single hierarchy.

This new American Orthodox Church would have its own primate and entirely govern its own affairs. It must respect the diversity of languages and traditions and the different historical origins and processes that have produced each community. Yet it must be something also that is uniquely American.

At the same time, this new American church must be missionary in every aspect of its existence: reaching out to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its Patristic and Orthodox integrity for the peoples of North America, incarnating the Orthodox Church in North America, and enculturating North Americans into Orthodoxy.

Our American Church must strive to reach out in integrity to all the surrounding people: creating schools, homes for the elderly, and other kinds of social outreach ministries. These ministries reveal that the Church cares for people, for everyone above and beyond its own.

Our American Church must observe the principles of conciliarity and participation by the clergy and laity and the decision making process, not only because this has become central to our experience of the Church in America, but also because it reflects our American worldview.

We have the responsibility to baptize American culture, North American culture, to utilize and sanctify the greatest virtues of our American people in the practice of Orthodoxy. At the same time, we have to live the Orthodox tradition to its fullest possible extent with the goal of bringing forth saints, people whose lives have been transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

Each church jurisdiction community has done this to its own degree individually. Now we must put it all together, keeping in mind the essential goal of the sanctification of our people, our communities, our nations.

Each community has something of utmost value to offer to the whole. Each community has come into existence in America through tremendous struggle, hardship, and sacrifice. All this has to be taken into account and valued and sanctified.

Now we have entered a new phase in the development of this American Church. This transitional period will be characterized not by SCOBA, but by Episcopal Assemblies and their executive Council as charted out by the Chambésy Pre-Conciliar Conference. But it is a transition that will lead us as quickly as possible to our goal of a united, autocephalous American Church.

While we might argue that we were not included in these discussions, the papers themselves contain an acceptable process that we can use during this transition. This is simply a process, and we can make the best of it. It will take us to our goal, but we have to make sure that we stay on course.

We also have to make sure that, not only are we guided by good will, but that we will accept the goal of full unity with one another. This is a real question, and this is part of the spiritual dimension of this. Because to do this, we have to accept one another. We have to be open to one another. We have to forgive one another. And we have to detach from so many things, which we have held as our own and share them.

I believe, as the Primate of the Autocephalous Church in America, that we need to cooperate with this process, and my Holy Synod is with me. It is an opportunity to realize that which is the core vision of the OCA in the first place and to go beyond it.

When the OCA received its charter as an autocephalous church, the Tomos, in 1970, it was put forth as a vision for a single Orthodox Church, incorporating all Orthodox Christians in North America—a single church, a single synod. It’s catholic vision to be the presence of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church for all people regardless of ethnicity or language is its essence. Anything less, an ethnic church, compromises that catholic calling and identity.

The OCA has been able to transcend ethnic limitations. It has truly become an indigenous, territorial church. However, it has not itself become the sole foundation for a canonical solution in North America. Even the Tomos itself, the autocephaly, is somehow incomplete. It’s full in relation to the Mother Russian Church but without the mandate to refuse recognition of other churches in our territory.

The autocephaly is itself a transitional status, until such time as all the other churches come together to actualize what was put forth in it as a vision. It can be argued that the Orthodox Church in America has historical precedence in North America as the heir of the Russian mission of 1794 and its successors.

However, as I have said previously elsewhere, I believe our role is kenotic—to eventually dissolve ourselves into the new and greater unity of an autocephalous church embracing all the Orthodox in North America. This cannot happen until all the other jurisdictions are similarly kenotic, also willing to dissolve themselves into the new reality.

The OCA is the forerunner of that new Autocephalous American Church. We have an important role to play as the one ecclesial body in this land that has become fully indigenous and has tried to incarnate unity and diversity in a catholic vision. SCOBA was unable to realize such a church on its own, as SCOBA is not itself a canonical entity.

In order to realize the vision of an autocephalous, united Church in North America, each of the other communities will have to be freed from jurisdictional ties to their Mother Churches, in order to join into the new American Church.

Thus, a transitional phase in which the various churches retain their ties and their identities and yet can begin the process of immigration was necessary. The Chambésy accords make this possible. The Chambésy documents from the Pre-Conciliar Commission, which by agreement of most of the autocephalous churches, was convened to prepare for a Great Council. The final Chambésy meeting is going to be convened this December to discuss autonomy, autocephaly, and the dyptics.

The Episcopal Assemblies are given the task to convene and decide, in each region of the world, how they’re going to create canonical order within their own region, in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology—in order that these be canonically recognized and the issue resolved before or at the Great Council. The mandate is to do this as quickly as possible; I believe that we are up for the challenge.

The following are aspects of what I believe will be the challenge of growing together into one American Church. Much of this comes from the experience of the OCA, which has confronted many of the same issues in its own history. The creation of canonical unity in America can be accomplished quickly if we are all of goodwill and determined to do it.

The greatest challenge will not be to simply create a list of cities and states and assign a bishop to each region without overlapping jurisdiction. What is necessary is to think outside the box and to use our collective creativity to find a way to come together in a new canonical structure that respects the diversity and fosters unity.

The great challenge will be how to respect the diversity of traditions and nurture it, while at the same time creating a flexible structure that will also nurture missions and outreach to the various populations of North America.

The churches of the Old World were far more homogeneous than anything here in North America, except perhaps for the Russian Church. Even Alaska has four, very distinct, Native American nations—different languages, different cultures, completely unrelated except for their Orthodox faith. That diversity has to somehow be reflected in the structure of the ultimate resolution or at least provided for in a transitional way.

Part of the challenge is simply to be together—to work together, to pray together, and for our children to grow up together, our seminarians to study and pray together, and our people to marry one another. There’s a gradual process of integration that will take generations and will eventually result in a completely unique American Orthodoxy. But what is necessary now is to discern how to come together so that these other processes can take root. They have long ago begun, but now we need to give them a chance to really take root.

Historically the vision of St. Tikhon, of a multi-ethnic synod, should be considered. To a degree the Episcopal Assembly will incarnate this as each jurisdiction maintains its own integrity, until such time as they are ready to resort the bishops so that there are no overlapping jurisdictions. However, I would suspect that a multi-ethnic structure might be a permanent, or at least a long term, feature of the American Church, long after fulfilling its canonical autocephaly.

The experience of the OCA is that there is a need for particular ministries that cut across diocesan lines in order to serve particular populations with particular needs, especially language and culture. The OCA has a double structure: territorial dioceses and non-territorial dioceses.

The non-territorial dioceses are designed as ministries to particular ethnic communities to accommodate their needs. Eventually, it is hope that there will be only the local territorial dioceses, while each community maintains its particular customs. This kind of structure could be useful in dealing with particular communities within the greater Church.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is the resolution of how to come to unity as the question of conciliarity. This word is universally used but differently defined. The traditional, canonical use of this concept is in relation to councils of bishops.

However, especially under the influence of the 20th century Russian émigré theologians and their many students, conciliarity has taken on a different sense—that of the broad inclusion of the laity and clergy and councils and decision making. This also includes the theology of the local church as defined within Eucharistic ecclesiology, also a product of the same school of thought.

What is problematic in this is that there are different attitudes of the relationship of the local churches, however defined to one another, and of the concept of primacy. There are also differing presuppositions in relation to the conciliar institutions surrounding the various levels of hierarchy.

What is obvious to me is that we will need to provide institutions for the clergy and laity to have a voice in the life of the Church, to contribute meaningfully to decisions, and to participate in leadership. It is important that councils not become too unwieldy in size and composition, but that they be designed to be most effective, there need to be both local diocesan as well as national council. They’re integrating factors and can pull together disparate elements of the Church into a crosscutting body.

The OCA has several levels of councils, and while our All-American Council is under examination to see how it may be made more effective, the Diocesan and Metropolitan Councils are solid bodies that have an active role to play.

Part of this consideration is the role of dioceses versus the role of central administration. How much is the life of the Church diocesan-centered? How much is centralized? This is particularly in relation to ministries and programs. However, it also relates to leadership itself within the Church.

How bishops are elected, how the primate is elected, are matters of conciliarity. So also, people want a voice in the day to day life of the Church. In the OCA, the Diocesan Assembly nominates a bishop to be elected by the synod. The All-American Council nominates a candidate to be elected by the synod as Metropolitan.

The people of the Church are likely to give up a voice in the election of their leaders, so the Metropolitan Council, far more than a board of trustees, has an active role to play in the governance of the Church, particularly in the area of budget and thus certain kinds of policy decisions.

They also play a role in assuring, not only financial transparency, but policy compliance. The world that we now live in, as well as the need to come together in unity, means that we must become transparent both to those around us and also to one another.

It will be critically important from the very beginning of the new structure that the primate be freely elected by the whole Church. While the exarch of the Ecumenical See may have chairmanship over the Episcopal Assembly, it will be extremely important to transition to a freely elected chairman, perhaps even before full autocephaly. This has been a part of the SCOBA constitution since its inception.

For Americans, it is the election that gives legitimacy to the officeholder. Thus, not only the bishops but also some kind of Great American Council will have to be convened for such an election with lay and clerical participation, perhaps as nominating the candidate, beyond that of the synod itself that does the canonical election.

There are certain crosscutting institutions that are critical to the life of the Church—monasteries and seminaries, as well as social outreach institutions. Monasteries are points of unity in which people from many churches, jurisdictions, backgrounds come together, work on a single project that is outside of themselves, and pray and worship together. They are living examples of the united Church.

They are also the places where the monastics attempt to live the Orthodox tradition in its fullness; where what is experienced as “Orthodox culture,” albeit rooted in particular cultural or national traditions, whether Greek or Russian or Californian. The monasteries incarnate that maximalist vision, which inspires people to deeper spiritual commitment. They also product men who can become candidates for the episcopacy.

Seminaries and theological academies are also crosscutting points of unity, bringing together people from all corners of the Orthodox community who are trained in a common vision and formed in common as servants of the Church. The greater the integration between institutions, in terms of vision and content, as well as shared programs where the students get to know one another, live with one another, and build relationships that last for decades. This is one of the most powerful ways of building the unity of the Church.

Social outreach institutions are also ministries. They unite people from many different backgrounds and jurisdictions and join them together in a single vision and task. That’s the end of my prepared remarks. What I would like to emphasize is, it is most important for us to have the will to come together, to let go of all of those structures that are familiar.

For the priests, that’s hard because you’re used to particular diocesan structures, and you know who your boss is, and you know who you can get this out of or that out of. You’re used to having a particular position in a deanery or in a diocese.

For the laity, there’s not going to be a whole lot of difference in the experience. But for the clergy, it will be radical. And for the bishops, even more so. I don’t know how the whole organization will come out. But I am certainly hoping that I have a chance to make a major contribution to that, personally.

I believe the Orthodox Church in America, because of its unique history in this country, trying to sort out being a multi-ethnic, multicultural entity, that also is and has been completely devoted to missionary outreach and is itself composed of more than half converts, has itself become the real foundation for a model of the eventual unity of the Orthodox Church in North America.

How we go about that with the Episcopal Assemblies is going to be very interesting. There are those who are not willing or not ready to give up their ties to their Mother Country, and then there are some of the Mother Churches.

One of the things that we constantly have to take into account is that some of the Mother Churches are asking us, “How are we taking care of their people who are in this country” and “Are we providing them adequate services according to their own tradition, so that they can remain Orthodox and retain their Orthodox identity?”

We just had, most recently, the Georgian Churches asking us this. And that’s got some very unique elements to it because how many Americans speak Georgian? Georgian isn’t related to anything. [mild audience laughter]

So we have a huge task ahead of us. One of the things which most encourages me, about having come here, is to see a community of people who are gathered, who are completely committed to Jesus Christ and to the Orthodox Church, who are willing to use their time and their talents for the upbuilding of the unity of the Church and to work together with the bishops and the priests to build that unity. This is something incredibly beautiful, and I’m profoundly honored to be here and to be with you. And what I’d like to do now is entertain any questions.

Questioner 1: What is the attitude of the Moscow Patriarchate towards the unity of the United States?

Metropolitan Jonah: The Russian Orthodox Church is completely supportive of the process of unity within North America. The Russian Orthodox Church, of course, supports the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America, and maintains that our autocephaly should be the basis of that future unity in North America. And I think there are a few other people here who would also agree with that, just from what I’ve heard in the conversation today.

But they’re also very realistic and know that the situation is very complex. But they stand fast behind us as friends and support us in our working together with the other churches to build that unity. My own experience there was I was treated as the Primate of a local, autocephalous Church, which is quite an experience when you’re standing on the same cathedra as an equal to the Patriarch of Moscow.

It was even more humbling in Georgia, because he is a living saint. And Patriarch Kirill is new but also a wonderful friend. Now this would not necessarily be my experience were I to go to Constantinople. On the other hand, from my short discussion with Patriarch Bartholomew the other day, I anticipate that when I do go to the Phenar, I will be warmly received.

And as I said, it’s my intention to try to find a way to work with them. Because the reality is, they need us. It’s one thing to have the Greek Church in America agitating politically on behalf of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but what if it was the whole Orthodox community, standing up in front of the U.S. Congress, and saying we need you to protect them? It’s a powerful thing.

This is the kind of thing that we need to do. We need to stand up for the rights of the Palestinians together as an Orthodox community, not just the Antiochians. We need to stand up for the rights of the Egyptians and the Coptic people and the Sudanese Christians who are being so brutally martyred. We need to stand up in all of those places where our fellow Christians are being so brutally martyred and persecuted, and we can do that much better together as united Orthodox community.

Questioner 2: What about ROCOR?

Metropolitan Jonah: The role of ROCOR in this is not really well-defined. ROCOR is still hesitant to enter into the greater milieu. They have not worked out their own issues with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which are also very complex.

And even now with the OCA, even though ROCOR is fully and integrally a diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate, there is a Joint-Commission between the ROCOR and the OCA to try and resolve any kind of historical differences from the past.

ROCOR is in a very different kind of situation, than the OCA. ROCOR is a broadly international organization and only part of its constituency is in North America. They had parishes in South America, many of which are in schism right now. They also have a large constituency in Australia, in Canada, and in Western Europe.

It’s a very different kind of ecclesiastical body than the OCA, which is a local, territorial Church. Right now the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate is a priest, Father Alexander Abramov, who is the rector of the 97th Street Cathedral in New York.

How that will eventually play out, in relation to ROCOR and in relation to their representative, who would be in 3rd place in the Episcopal Assembly, which would be very strange to have an archpriest in that instead of a bishop, I’m not sure. One of my hopes is to sit down with Patriarch Kirill in December and to work through some of these questions directly.

But ROCOR is coming into its own in a very different way. Like so many Americans, even though they have a strong ethnic identity, they go over there and they realize, “Uh-oh, I’m really American,” and so I think is going on with ROCOR. And a lot of them realize they have a lot more in common with the OCA than they do with the Moscow Patriarchate.

So it’s going to be a very interesting time for them. Though I have to say I have a wonderful, close relationship with Metropolitan Hilarion, and a ROCOR bishop served at my enthronement. It was the first time in 63 years that ROCOR hierarchs had served with Metropolia OCA hierarchs.

Closing Statement: Your Beatitude, on behalf of the community here tonight, we thank you for your presence and for your words and for your kindness in answering many questions. I’m sure I see that there are many more. As a sign of our breaking bread this evening and of our fellowship, we’d like to have a photograph now with everybody present here so that we can memorialize this new Ligonier.

Blessed is God who nourishes us with His grace and His love toward mankind; who gives us His fellowship with the Holy Spirit and the Father; who promises us in this life, His life everlasting and the illumination and the life to come, to be together with Him in His presence, breaking bread in the eternal resurrection. For we offer glory together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, unto the ages of ages, Amen.

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