On the Work of the First Episcopal Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of North America
by His Grace Bishop Maxim of the Serbian Orthodox Church
Recently a historic event took place in New York: a pan-Orthodox Assembly of the Fullness of God’s Church on the North American continent, represented by the Hierarchs of the local Orthodox dioceses. The most important goal of this body is to witness Orthodox unity in a “new world” and to secure a more effective organization of mission, witness and cooperation of the local Orthodox Churches in diaspora.
In accordance with the decision of the Fourth Pre-conciliar pan-Orthodox conference held June 6-12, 2009 in the Orthodox center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Switzerland, and at the invitation of Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the first Assembly of canonical Orthodox Hierarchs of North and Central America was held in New York May 26-28, 2010. Of sixty-six hierarchs of this region, fifty-five were present at this historic gathering.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios presided over this Episcopal Assembly, having Metropolitan Philip (Antiochian Orthodox Church) and Russian Archbishop Justinian (Moscow Patriarchate) as co-chairs. Bishop Basil of Wichita (Antiochian selfruling Archdiocese) was elected secretary. His Eminence Metropolitan Christopher of Libertyville/Chicago and His Grace Bishop Maxim of the Western American diocese represented the Serbian Orthodox Church. (The other three Serbian hierarchs here did not attend this historic event because of prior commitments).
It needs to be said that the entire gathering was held in a spirit and atmosphere of brotherly love, in the joy of the Pentecost Feast Day: Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, Syrians, Arabs, Americans, and Latin Americans, all together spoke with one mouth and one heart. Discussions about various questions and problems of the “diaspora” went on in a spirit of understanding, while Archbishop Demetrios wisely and capably led the gathering.
One of the topics which was repeated many times as a refrain during this threeday Assembly was the will and the wish of all participants “for the swift healing of all canonical anomalies which resulted from historical circumstances and pastoral necessity.”
Along with this the participants emphatically called to mind the contributions of the Primates and representatives of the Orthodox autocephalous Churches gathered at the Ecumenical Patriarchate from October 10 to 12, 2008 to confirm their “unswerving position and obligation to safeguard the unity of the Orthodox Church” (Chambésy Rules of Operation, Article 5.1a). A slightly different view was presented by Antiochian Metropolitan Philip, who questioned the necessity of jurisdictional connections with autocephalous Churches which are, as he stated, over seven thousand miles away and do not have any ties with the “new world”. This was an isolated opinion. If there was an opinion that it is only necessary to follow the Primates of the autocephalous churches, or so called “Mother Churches”, in spirit rather than in letter, Archbishop Demetrios gave a witty answer: “This would test the distinct American sentiment for independence and democracy.” Through this exchange of opinions the participants came to the conclusion that the relatively “young” American Orthodoxy has a need for guidance and help from the “mother Churches” of the Old World, Middle East, Bosporus and Balkan. There is the need for both dependence and a certain independence in making decisions.
During this gathering, and in conformity with the rules for regional Episcopal Assemblies brought forth during the Fourth Pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference, the following were established: A registry of canonical bishops (Article 6.1); a committee to decide the canonical status of local communities in a region which cannot be connected with (have no reference to) any of the Holy autocephalous Churches (Article 6.2); a registry of canonical clergy (Article 6.3); committees that will take on the work of the Assembly in addressing liturgical, pastoral, financial, educational, ecumenical and legal questions (Articles 11 and 12); a committee to plan the organization of the Orthodox in this region on a canonical basis (Article 5.1). In addition to the above, it was agreed upon that the Assembly establish and maintain a directory of all canonical congregations in our region.
A decision was also reached regarding the question of SCOBA. This Episcopal Assembly understands itself as the heir of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), and it has taken over all SCOBA agencies, dialogues and other services. Interestingly, the question of the OCA (the Orthodox Church in America, formerly the Russian Metropolia) was not discussed, but it has become clear that its “autocephaly” (given by a unilateral decree of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970) is understood only as autonomy. Even though the OCA’s autocephaly is not recognized by most Orthodox local Churches (including the Serbian Patriarchate), the fact is that her hierarchs at the Assembly enjoyed the same rights and honor as others. The order of seating at the Assembly followed the Diptychs (the established order of precedence of the ancient and newer Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches), so that the bishops of the OCA came after the Serbian and Romanian delegations (a representative of Georgian church was not present at this gathering).
Upon formal petition of the Hierarchs who have jurisdiction in Canada, the Assembly will send to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in accordance with the rules of procedure (Article 13), a petition that the current region of North and Central America be divided into two separate regions, of the United States and of Canada. In addition, upon petition of the Hierarchs who have jurisdiction in Mexico and Central America, the Assembly will similarly recommend that Mexico and Central America join the regional Assembly for South America. For example, Serbian Bishop Mitrophan, who has jurisdiction in both those regions, would become a member of both those Episcopal Assemblies. Canadian Bishop Georgije, on the other hand, will be a member of the Canadian Episcopal Assembly, given that he has no jurisdiction outside Canada.
In open discussions, one could hear opinions on various questions of importance for Orthodoxy: questions of liturgical practice, pastoral challenges, financial aspects, the future of educational schools and programs, ecumenical dialogues, as well as some other legal issues.
It was clearly established that the Episcopal Assembly does not have jurisdictional power; rather it is of a consultative character, although in some questions it naturally has authority (as in establishing and maintaining the previously mentioned registries of canonical bishops, clergy and parishes).
His Eminence Job, Greek Metropolitan of Chicago, strongly emphasized that we Orthodox have a gift of dogmatic and liturgical unity that we already share, and that incidental differences: (customs, liturgical practices, language and similar things) need to be secondary. The fact that this assembly- conference, as every church assembly from apostolic times to this day, has its own controversial points need not discourage us; on the contrary, it should inspire participation and motivation. The use of the English language in services was also discussed, especially the focused on the variations in usage of the personal pronoun when directly referring to God.
in theological dialogue with heterodox and non-Christians was raised, and in the discussion which followed the answer was crystallized: the Orthodox Church, not being afraid of dialogue because it has Truth, enters into such discussions with the deepest conviction that faithfulness to her Orthodox Tradition and active ecumenical engagement are not incompatible with each other, but rather one demands the other.
The Serbian Orthodox Church views this regional Episcopal Assembly as something positive, as is reflected in the Communiqué from the regular Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church held in Belgrade from April 26 to May 5, 2010:
“The Assembly of Bishops heard and approved the following reports regarding the life of the Church over the past year period since last year’s meeting: … on the decisions of the Fourth pan- Orthodox Pre-conciliar conference in Chambesy near Geneva in June 2009 on the theme of a more efficient and organized mission, witness and cooperation of the local Orthodox Churches in the Diaspora and on the stand of the pan-Orthodox preparatory commission for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, held in December of last year also in Chambesy, on the manner of proclaiming church autocephaly and autonomy. In this context, the Assembly especially analyzed the status and problems of the life of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Diaspora and made appropriate decisions.”
Moreover, on the eve of the convening of this First Episcopal Conference of Orthodox Churches in North America, in the spirit of Pentecost, His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Irinej sent the Serbian hierarchs in North America his Patriarchal greeting for its successful work and for rich spiritual fruits of the descent of the Holy Spirit the Comforter to come upon all Orthodox in North America, calling them to take a part in this new Pentecostal work of historical significance. In the humble opinion of the author of this article, this conference is an excellent opportunity to clearly define a vision and establish a platform for the future of the Diaspora on a healthy theological and ecclesiastical foundation.
Here it is worthwhile to remember the visionary Saint Nicholai of Zicha and Ochrid, one of the first Serbian Orthodox laborers on the American continent. The most eloquent example of Nicholai’s openness and pan-Orthodoxy is his readiness to view the Serbian Orthodox Church in America in the context of the ancient orthodox canonical tradition and the wider, contemporary Orthodox context, as most eloquently witnessed by his words: “When, by God’s providence, the time comes for the realization of unity, it will be a joy for many. Undoubtedly, the primates and hierarchs of all of our Orthodox Churches, in Europe, Asia, Africa, guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, will show love and understanding, and give their consent and blessing for the establishment of one new sister church in America” (Bishop Nicholai, Collected Works XIII, page 565-572, Serbian text page 573-579).
The appearing of Episcopal Assemblies throughout the world (these gatherings have already started work in Europe) should not be understood pretentiously, nor should they be presented one-sidedly, but rather it is necessary to take into consideration the reality and need for ecclesiastical unity on a pan-Orthodox level in its totality. A correct interpretation of this ecclesiologically and theologically important attempt from Chambésy to accomplish a fuller unity, cooperation and catholicity (sabornost) on the territory of the diaspora only contributes to a stronger position of the Serbian Orthodox Church and to the avoidance of her marginalization in her future ecclesiological formation on the American continent. With this, above all, we must be mindful of the pan-Orthodox consensus expressed in Chambésy.
Participation in the Episcopal Assembly is equally faithfulness to the Pneumatological catholic (saborna) institution of the Holy Spirit who “gathers all into the bosom of the Church ” (hymn for Vespers on Pentecost). In this way we show faithfulness to the Apostolic Orthodox Faith, which obliges us to contribute “to this common work of addressing the pastoral needs of the Orthodox who live in our region.” By working together through this forum our Serbian Church also has the opportunity to witness to its specific and particular place in the Orthodox family of America.
Regarding the equal dignity and particular gifts which each nation brings the Church, Archbishop Demetrios wisely said: “In Pentecost, we celebrate the call to unity for all human beings through faith and obedience to the one Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, in Pentecost, we celebrate the refreshing reality of the diversity, wonderfully manifested in the extraordinary fact of the proclamation of the one Gospel in many languages as a result of the advent of the Holy Spirit.” Alluding to the reality of Orthodoxy in America, he added:
“As we behold the event of Pentecost, we observe that the multiplicity of languages used by the Holy Apostle in proclaiming the single Gospel is not a cause of confusion or conflict, but a reason for thanksgiving and celebration. The one Gospel does not obliterate linguistic, ethnic, or cultural differences and particularities. The Gospel is clearly a call to unity, but as our history of 2000 years demonstrates, it does not cause an eclipse of the diversity within the Church. And this speaks directly to our case today.”
The hierarchs have called the clergy and faithful to join them in these efforts “to safeguard and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church in this region and her theological, ecclesiological, canonical, spiritual, philanthropic, educational and missionary responsibility.”
The Assembly concluded its work by serving the Divine Liturgy on Friday, May 28, 2010 in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York. During Liturgy prayers were offered for the eleven reposed victims of the ecological accident in the Gulf of Mexico, for the consolation of their families, and for all those who are afflicted by this catastrophe.
Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Western America