8th Annual Assembly, October 2017, Garfield NJ

On January 30 the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America announced the release of a study entitled “Orthodox Christian Churches in 21st Century America: A Parish Life Study” by Alexei Krindatch, the Assembly’s research coordinator. The announcement includes the link for both the 4-page Executive Summary and the 163-page Full Report.

Yesterday I had a look to see if the report had a). anything to say about the growing spectre of white supremacy in the American Church (it doesn’t), and b). information useful for a conference paper that I might propose, tentatively entitled “Orthodox Ecclesiology vs. Lived Experience: Some Thoughts on the Ethnic Fragmentation of the Orthodox Church in North America.” What I found on the latter topic was frankly shocking. 

On page 2 of the Executive Summary my eyes fastened on this sentence:

A significantly higher percentage of American Orthodox priests (71%) than bishops (58%) envision the future of Orthodoxy in America in the form of an administratively united Church.

On page 45 of the Full Report we read the following statement:

In the Antiochian Archdiocese, there is a discrepancy between the attitudes of priests and hierarchs towards Church unity in America. 78% of AOCA parish clergy support the creation of an administratively united Church in comparison with only 28% of AOCA bishops [emphasis mine].

These statistics stand in sharp contrast to the following from the About page on the Assembly’s website:

The purpose of the Assembly of Bishops of the United States of America is to preserve and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church…. To accomplish this, the Assembly has…as an express goal…the organization of the Church in the United States in accordance with the ecclesiological and the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

…[T]he Assembly is a transitional body. If it achieves its goal, it will make itself obsolete by developing a proposal for the canonical organization of the Church in the United States. […T]he Assembly of Bishops will then come to an end, ultimately to be succeeded by a governing Synod of a united Church in the United States.

Herein lies the question that cries out for an answer: How can 42% of the Assembly’s member bishops, and a whopping 72% of the bishops of one of the two most evangelism-minded jurisdictions in the US, reject the Assembly’s goal of a canonically organized territorial Orthodox Church of the United States?

These statistics may explain the surprisingly small number of bishops in the photo above. As reported here by the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, a mere 32 bishops attended the October 2017 Assembly. I believe (but cannot now locate my source) that there are between 50 and 60 Orthodox bishops serving in canonical jurisdictions in the United States. 

The situation in Canada is much worse. Here in Toronto alone, I can count 9 or 10 canonical bishops off the top of my head—some of them resident somewhere in Canada, some not—who have one or more parishes under their omophorion. The bishop of a canonical old calendar diocese once informed me personally that it was absurd (his word) for a member of his flock to attend—even as an occasional visitor—divine services in the parish of a canonical new calendar diocese: to be clear, we are talking about parishes in two jurisdictions which are in full communion with each other. 

We hear rumours of the existence of an “Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of Canada,” which perhaps (or perhaps not) meets annually. The website of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto lists the member bishops of a “Canadian Conference of Orthodox Bishops (see the PDF for the full list); whether this is one of the episcopal assemblies established by the 4th Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in June 2009 in Chambésy, or some other organization, remains unclear. Google shows no trace of the Canadian bishops ever meeting or engaging in unified activities of any kind. A few years ago a photo of such a meeting appeared on the website of the Greek Metropolis, but I have not been able to find it again since the first time I saw it.

If an Assembly in fact exists in Canada, it is to be noted first and foremost for its invisibility.

I have no concluding remarks. Rather, it is my hope that sharing these facts will generate a robust debate among our bishops, clergy, monastics, theologians, and lay faithful on both sides of the US-Canada border.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. American-born and a long-time resident of Canada, he maintains a deep interest in social, political, cultural, and ecclesiastical developments on both sides of the border.