On July 20 the website and Facebook page of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America showed their first sign of life in six months. Six months! The new post consists of nothing more than a new directory of clergy brotherhoods and lay organizations.
Prior to four days ago, the Assembly had posted nothing on either platform since January 30: not a Lenten greeting, not a Paschal greeting, and most certainly not a response to our White Supremacy in the American Orthodox Church: An Open Letter to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America of January 22. Its most recent “Pan-Orthodox News” is over a year old.
(By contrast, the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a beehive of daily activity. The social consciousness of the USCCB boggles the mind.)
The Assembly’s January 30 post contained the sobering news that almost half of our bishops in the United States reject the goal of a united Orthodox Church organized in accordance with the canons along strictly territorial lines. The percentage of dissenting bishops skyrockets to 72%—nearly three-quarters—in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. We reported on this here: please take the time to read it.
Why does this matter? 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.
SOME RANDOM FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE ASSEMBLY
Partial Timeline of the Assembly
- In October 2008 the Synaxis of the Heads of all the Orthodox Churches, held at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, called for “the swift healing of every canonical anomaly that has arisen from historical circumstances and pastoral requirements, such as in the so-called Orthodox Diaspora, with a view to overcoming every possible influence that is foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology.”
- In June 2009 the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, held in Chambésy-Geneva, established assemblies of bishops in the regions of the “so-called Diaspora,” and charged these assemblies with certain tasks, including “the preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the Region on a canonical basis.” Originally the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America were grouped together to form a North American Assembly.
- In September 2009 the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) met to discuss the establishment of an Assembly of Bishops.
- In May 2010 the Assembly held its first annual meeting, dissolved SCOBA, and requested that the Mother Churches authorize a separate Assembly for Canada, and that Mexico and Central America be moved to the South American Assembly.
- 2010 and 2011 were marked by the formation of a Secretariat and several committees and programs.
- 2012 was marked by several committee meetings and Assembly communications on various matters.
- In March 2012 the Canadian Conference of Orthodox Bishops met in Toronto, about which no information at all seems to be publicly available.
- 2013 saw significantly less activity than the preceding years.
- In March 2014 the Holy Synaxis in Constantinople created separate assemblies for the hierarchs of Canada and the USA, while the Mexican and Central American hierarchs were incorporated into the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of Latin America.
- In April 2014 the name was changed to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.
- The Assembly has added nothing to its Timeline since 2014.
- There is no publicly available evidence that the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of Canada has ever met. The report of one meeting posted some years ago on the website of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto seems to have been removed. The Canadian Assembly has no website or any other discernible online presence.
THE COUNCIL OF CRETE
The 2016 “Holy and Great Council” of Crete issued “The Orthodox Diaspora” among its official documents. While we strongly urge you to read it thoroughly for yourself, we identify some of the more salient points:
- To speak of the Church “in diaspora” constitutes an ecclesiological heresy of the greatest magnitude. If the Orthodox Church is not continuously making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them, we cease to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and become an ethnic club instead. It is of the essence of the Orthodox Church that both our modus operandi and modus vivendi—indeed our very modus essendi—consist of being the-church-of-where-we-are, not the-church-of-where-we’re-not, the-church-of-somewhere-else, or the-church-outside-of-somewhere.
- “The Orthodox Diaspora” makes decisions for the Church in the United States with a mere handful of US bishops taking part; and these, mostly from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, two from the Romanian Orthodox Metropolia of the Americas, one from the Serbian Orthodox Church in North America. The Patriarchate of Antioch—and therefore the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of America—was absent. The exclusion of an episcopal delegation from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) among the signatories of this document is patently absurd. Africa supplied more signatures than the United States to decisions directly impacting the life of the Church in America.
- The heresy of ethnophyletism as a model for church governance remains in place, until further notice, “for historical and pastoral reasons…until the appropriate time arrives [read: never] when all the conditions exist in order to apply the canonical exactness.”
- The president of the Assembly is ex officio each region’s highest ranking hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The full significance of this fact becomes clear in the next section of our article.
ARCHONS OF THE ECUMENICAL PATRIARCHATE
In May of this year, Steve Efstathios Valiotis received an honourary doctorate from Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline MA. In his acceptance speech he called for the autocephaly of the American Church—a presumably uncontroversial remark, ecclesiologically and canonically, especially given the stated purpose of the Assembly of Bishops over which Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese presides.
The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle-Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America—a male-only lay organization of honourees designated by the Ecumenical Patriarch—issued a swift condemnation of Valiotis’ remarks as an attack against the Ecumenical Patriarchate:
The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, express their concern and disappointment that at the commencement exercises at our beloved Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, the reported public discourse included sentiments against the Mother and Great Church of Christ, as well as inopportune references to ‘autocephaly’ for the Holy Archdiocese of America. As any cleric or layperson should know, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is an Eparchy of the Most Holy Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — the First Throne of the worldwide Orthodox Christian Church — and as such, has its ecclesial, canonical, and liturgical bases rooted in the Vineyard planted by the Right Hand of the Lord through the First Called Disciple, the Holy Apostle Andrew. All of the Hierarchy, clergy, and laity of the Holy Archdiocese owe their allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and we, the Archons, express our deep concern that while one spoke against the Mother Church, no one seems to have spoken for Her.
We pray earnestly and with every good intention that such foolishness not afflict the Body of the Church any longer, and that all of us, clergy and laity, remain steadfast to the Mother Church of Constantinople with gladness and gratitude for the blessings She has bestowed, with blood and tears, upon Her children in this great Land of Freedom and Promise. [See full report in The National Herald.]
Do the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its American Eparchy—the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese—support the normalization of the Church’s organizational structure in America, or do they not? The answer becomes considerably less clear, considerably more disheartening.
A WAY FORWARD?
The Council of Crete’s recognition of “historical and pastoral reasons” that make a quick transition to a canonically organized American Church—one bishop overseeing all the parishes and institutions of a given, territorially delineated diocese, regardless of the ethnic make-up of his various parishes—as a near impossibility is not unfounded. In the United States and Canada does a Russian parish want a Ukrainian bishop, a Ukrainian parish a Russian bishop, a Macedonian parish a Greek bishop, a Greek parish an African-American bishop, an Aleut parish a Latino bishop? These questions are as embarrassing as they are heartbreaking, but they are the reality in far too many cases.
However, does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition? Can we not take the long view, transition in stages, lay the foundation for a goal that may be a generation or two or three away?
Here’s what we mean:
First, the ill-conceived notion of regarding the Orthodox Church in the US and Canada as two separate ecclesiastical entities should be reversed. For the most part, the two countries share a common language and sufficiently similar culture. Yet the Canadian Church should enjoy wide autonomy within an autocephalous North American Church. The primate of the North American Church might well be a Canadian bishop.
Second, the reunified Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North America should declare itself an autocephalous Church, form a Holy Synod consisting of every diocesan bishop in the US and Canada, and elect a Patriarch. We need no one’s “approval” to do this but our own. The other Patriarchates around the world will simply have to learn to deal with it—and quickly. They rely on us on multiple levels, and will continue to do so.
Third, at the parish level nothing changes for the foreseeable future. Each parish continues to worship in its accustomed language(s), to follow its accustomed calendar (i.e., Old or New), to be overseen by its accustomed bishop. Diocesan borders might be redrawn as a goal for the future, but not enforced until it seems good “to the Holy Spirit and to us” to do so. Yet there should be broad agreement within the new Holy Synod that bishops with parishes in the same territory begin to concelebrate as often as possible in each other’s parishes; and more importantly, that the new Patriarch devote the first several years of his primatial ministry to visiting and concelebrating in every parish of the US and Canada.
Fourth, the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of North America should devote its energies to reconciling with uncanonical Orthodox groups who have separated for political reasons, but whose doctrine and praxis are otherwise sound.
Of course, much more needs to be said. We invite you to share this article widely, and to contribute to the discussion by submitting an article or letter to the editors.