Address of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah at "Orthodoxy in America: Past, Present and Future" held at St. Vladimir Seminary, June 18-20, 2009.
The Great Council of 1917, and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church that it began, are aspects of the de-imperialization of the Orthodox Church and its canonical structures. This began a process of the transcendence of the imperial domination of Orthodox ecclesiology, which reigned from Constantine and Theodosius to Nicholas II, and the beginning of the adaptation to a new era in which the Church is independent of the state. This was the beginning of a new conciliar vision, which has developed significantly over the past century. What it did is to set up a new set of structural and canonical interpretations, demanding a worldwide rethinking of Orthodox ecclesiology.
The fruit of this vision, partially, is the Orthodox Church in America, and her autocephaly. The conflict with the old ecclesiological and canonical interpretations forms the context for the issues surrounding the acceptance or rejection of the autocephaly. This conflict is, however, also the fruitful ground for a creative resolution to the issues confronting the OCA, and the Orthodox Church throughout the world.
The Orthodox Church in Russia began preparing for a great Council over a hundred years ago, particularly in 1905. In the final decades of the Russian Empire there was a tremendous intellectual ferment among the clergy and intelligentsia of the Russian Church that not only sought a way out of the morass of the Oberprokurator system suppressing the Patriarchate, established by Peter the First, but that was also very much in dialog with the social, political and cultural developments of the time. The Russian Empire not only had tens of thousands of churches, and over a thousand monasteries, in its own territory, using Slavonic and a “standard” practice also taught in the seminaries and academies; there were dozens of missions to tribes of many languages, as well as extensive foreign missions, including that to North America. Each of these served in the local language, generated liturgical and catechetical material in these languages, and recruited and trained local indigenous clergy.
While most of the other local Orthodox Churches remained under Islamic domination and persecution, which virtually eliminated Orthodox theological education and suppressed intellectual life in the Middle East, the Russian Church on the other hand had tremendous freedom to begin to confront the new era. There were the issues of corruption in the schools and monasteries, and the role of the State in interfering with ecclesiastical appointments. There was the confrontation with Western ideas: nihilism, atheism, Marxism and communism, as well as Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, other ideas and trends such as Slavophile idealism (or should one say, romanticism) played a significant role in the development of Russian ecclesiological thought, with the concept of sobornost. A fundamental underlying issue was how the Church would live and structure itself without an overwhelming imperial context, particularly in the American Mission.
At the beginning of preparation for the council in 1905, there were few who expected the complete collapse of the imperial system, much less the persecution of the Church which followed. As the imperial system weakened, the theologians became more focused on the Church as the community of the faithful, as opposed to a strict hierarchical structure of authority paralleling and operating in symphony with the secular authorities. The bishops were asked to provide their ideas for the restructuring of the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the core of this process was St Tikhon, both as a young bishop in America between 1898 and 1907, and later as Patriarch of Moscow. He espoused this vision of a transformation of the Church into a number of new metropolitanates. He also endorsed the idea of the transformation of the American diocese into an Exarchate, with a level of conciliar participation of the clergy and laity, and reflecting the diversity of the national churches present in America. St Tikhon writes:
As to the see of North America it ought to be made into an exarchate of the Russian Church. The fact is that this see is composed not only of different nationalities, but also of different Orthodox Churches, which though one in faith each have their peculiarities in the canonical order, the office ritual and the parish life. These peculiarities are dear to them and altogether tolerable from the general orthodox point of view. This is why we do not consider we have the right to interfere with the national character of the churches in this country and, on the contrary, try to preserve it, giving each a chance to be governed directly by chiefs of the same nationality….In short, it is possible that there will be formed in America an entire exarchate of national Orthodox Churches with their own bishops, whose exarch is to be to the Russian archbishop.
In his own field of work each of these bishops is to be independent, but the affairs which concern the American church in general are to be decided by a general council, presided over by the Russian archbishop. Through him will be preserved the connection of the orthodox church of America with the church of all the Russias and a degree of dependence of the former on the latter. We also must keep in view that, compared with the life in the old country, life in America has its peculiarities, with which the local orthodox church is obliged to count, and that consequently that it ought to be allowed to be more autonomous than other metropolitan districts of Russia… (Archbishop Tikhon, in the Russian American Messenger, pp.68-70, 1905.)
These paragraphs form the basic vision statement for the development of the Church over the next century. In his answer to the Synod regarding his vision for restructuring the Russian Church, St Tikhon further delineates how the North American see would be composed of dioceses, with both a local see and title, and a specific mission to particular ethnic groups: New York for the Russian churches; Alaska for the natives and resident Russians; Brooklyn for the Syrians; Chicago for the Serbians; and an undecided future see for the Greeks.
Equally important in this document are St Tikhon’s words in relation to conciliarity, lay participation:
If laymen take part in the see assemblies they will be something like church conventions customary in America, amongst the Episcopalians for instance. These conventions have general sessions, in which both the laymen and the clergy take part, and also private sessions reserved for the discussion of purely ecclesiastical affairs by the clergy alone. This participation of the lay element would give to the function of church life the character of a council, and also would tend to enliven it. (RAM, p. 75)
The councils and life of the Russian Missionary Diocese in America, and its successors, would embody the themes sketched out in this statement, with full lay and priestly participation on all levels of church life. This is the incarnation of sobornost, conciliarity.
It is in this context, then, that the concept of sobornost, which means both catholicity and conciliarity, became a dominant theme in the rethinking of Orthodox ecclesiology. The unity of vision and life are focused in the whole community of the faithful, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and structured around the Eucharist. From this developed, later in the 20th Century, Eucharistic ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of the Local Church. This theological movement was fueled by a patristic revival, which began in the mid-19th century with the translation of many texts of the Fathers into Slavonic and Russian, and a Eucharistic revival championed by such figures as St John of Kronstadt. No longer were the lay faithful simply passive subjects to be ministered to, but active participants in the life of the Church. Thus, the stage was set for the inclusion of the clergy and laity in the decision-making processes of the Church, which are of the essence of sobornost, a true conciliar process. This became the foundation for the Great Council of 1917, and the development of new institutions incorporating lay and clerical participation, previously reserved to bishops and imperial officials. While some of these institutional reforms were not able to be implemented in Russia due to the Revolution, they were implemented in the Russian mission in America—which later became the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.
The missionary vision of the Church grew at the same time as the development of the ideas of sobornost and the ecclesial integrity of the local Church. While some of the internal missions in Russia retained a political component—to integrate people into the empire by forming them in an Orthodox identity—some of the missions had no political content, or lost it along the way. Of course, there were political implications. The stated reason for sending Fr. Junipero Serra, in 1775, to establish the Spanish missions in California was to keep the Russians from taking California. When the Russians established their farthest outpost in what is now Sonoma County, Northern California in 1812, and began their mission work among the native peoples there, they did not so much seek to integrate the natives into a Russian political identity, as simply to convey the Orthodox Faith. St Innocent later visited the colony in 1842, and subsequently the Spanish missions in the Bay Area. Soon after this, any political content was lost.
The missionary vision was simply to incarnate the Gospel of Jesus Christ by bringing people into the Orthodox Church. Such was the mission to America, especially after the sale of Alaska. The vision of St Innocent for the establishment of the diocesan headquarters in San Francisco at the time of the sale of Alaska focused on converting Anglo-Americans to Orthodoxy through serving and teaching in English. The initial Valaam Mission in Kodiak had the same task: to make Americans (this time Native Alaskans with their respective languages) Orthodox Christians, and establish the Orthodox Church in this land with a native clergy.
Thirty years later, the new bishop assigned to America, Tikhon, was faced with a different situation. The Church had begun to grow decisively in the continental US and Canada.1 It continued to change dramatically over the course of the next decades. The number of the parishes and their affiliations grew and multiplied with each successive wave of immigration. The effects of the collapse of Russian imperial support (and that of the Russian Missionary Society), following the Revolution, were financially devastating. With this period came a very different mission for the Church in America: to deal with the immigrant communities and their particular needs. The Mission in America lost its missionary focus, and instead was engulfed with immigrants, the churches acting as reference points for the maintenance of cultural identity and solidarity. Each group had its own particular needs, its own language, its own customs and traditions. St Tikhon wrote of the need to have particular ministries to each group, respecting their cultures, within the unified archdiocese. While this remained possible, the political and economic realities ended up with each group withdrawing into itself, and the vision of unity—which had been realized to a large degree—was lost with the missionary imperative. Even the Russian Mission itself lost contact with its Mother Church, which was descending into the abyss of grievous persecution and martyrdom. In 1924, the American Mission proclaimed itself temporarily autonomous, and in canonical contact with the Synod of Russian Orthodox Bishops Abroad.
We won’t go over the sordid details of the intervening decades: schisms, the Living Church, lawsuits, fights, and all manner of division. It was not until the end of the 1950’s that the Metropolia began to regain its missionary vision, and to move beyond the needs of reinforcing immigrant identity. It began to come to maturity as a local church, no longer looking outside of itself for its identity. It began a new phase in its existence, as it developed into an authentically local Church, embodying many of the elements of the reforms of the Council of 1917, and yet incarnating them in a uniquely American way. It began to fulfill the vision of St Tikhon, as a foundation for the unity of multiple ethnic churches within a single synod of bishops, in the context of the mission to bring Americans to Orthodoxy.
Beginning in the 1950’s, with the renewed contacts with the Russian Mother Church, the Metropolia began to come to a new self-consciousness, under the influence of Fr Georges Florovsky, Fr Alexander Schmemann and Fr John Meyendorff, and others, from St Serge in Paris transplanted to St Vladimir’s in New York. They were the main fathers of the patristic revival, and the proponents of Eucharistic ecclesiology, and the ecclesiology of the Local Church, which came to dominate Orthodox dialog and ecumenical discourse. The latter two were also among the main architects of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America. Beginning their contacts with the Russian Church at ecumenical gatherings, they worked for years to prepare for a rapproachment with the Mother Church. This culminated in 1970 with the granting of autocephaly.
The new OCA represented the maturation of the Mission into a Local Church. In the newly created Orthodox Church in America, all the themes of the past came together: a united multi-ethnic church with a single synod of bishops; a church focused on being the local Church for North America, without a formal reliance on any Mother Church; a missionary church, dedicated to becoming the Presence of the One Holy Catholic Church in America, for all people, races and nationalities; it had no national identity save American, while not repressing any ethnic identities. The new OCA existed outside any imperial context, free from government interference and support, More than this, the OCA embodied the principle of conciliarity, of clerical and lay participation in decision making, with the institutions of the All American Council and Metropolitan and Diocesan Councils, outlined in the new Statute.
Several different motivations are stated by the Russian hierarchy in the Tomos for granting the autocephaly: for the welfare of the whole Orthodox Church; to try to help remedy the situation of ecclesiastical pluralism that existed, and to further ecclesiastical unity; and to bring the former Russian Mission, then the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Metropolia, into normal relations with itself as Mother Church. The Tomos recognized “as good for Orthodoxy in America the independent and self-sustaining existence of said Metropolitanate, which now represents a mature ecclesiastical organism possessing all that is necessary for successful further growth.”
It can be asserted that the Tomos also recognized that the autocephaly was not “final,” but in some way relative. I quote: “The newly established local Orthodox Autocephalous Church in America should abide in brotherly relations with all the Orthodox Churches and their Primates as well as with their bishops, clergy and pious flock who are in America, and who for the time being preserve their de facto existing canonical and jurisdictional dependence on their national Churches and their Primates.” The Tomos does not allow for the full consequences of autocephaly to be proclaimed, that all other churches on the territory of the OCA are thereby uncanonical. Rather, it allows for the preservation of their ties to their mother churches until such time as all can be brought into a new unity, a single Church for America.
Thus, the OCA’s charter and vocation is for it to disappear: it is kenotic. Either it is to become the basis for the unity of the rest of the Churches in America; or it must enter into a new organization that will be fully autocephalous. We await this day, eagerly, so that the mission of the Orthodox Church and the proclamation of the Gospel are no longer compromised by the scandal of disunity.
I stand before you, gathered here, in great humility, as the ‘least among equals’, the youngest head of the smallest and youngest autocephalous Orthodox Church in the world.
No bishop of the Orthodox Church works alone; each is sustained and aided by a structure, developed over centuries, and implemented in any given place in accordance with the realities of the life which God gives us. This structure has to be capable of existing in a very wide range of different circumstances, as evidenced by the history of the Church. There have been times of plenty and times of famine, times during which political systems have been friendly and supportive, and others when they have been downright hostile and injurious to everything for which the Light of the Gospel eternally shines. As these changes have occurred, the Church has found the need to make laws and rulings, to protect the integrity of the life of Church under all circumstances. These rulings, or Canons, are a treasure-house of experience, which enlivens and enlightens each new situation which the Church, in Her life, faces in every age.
Like every Orthodox bishop, I accept all the Holy Canons, traditions and practices of the Holy Orthodox Church, without reservation, since they are the expression of the life of the Church in any given place. They are not so much THE life of the Church (which is the Proclamation of the Gospel Itself), but rather they create the sacred space within which the life of the Church can flourish. Far from being rigid, legalistic and restricting, the application of the rulings of Holy Canons has, over the centuries, shown them to be capable of allowing for change, and adapting to new situations, whether political, philosophical or geographical. This they do since the Church, constantly and naturally, interprets their meaning and significance to reflect the reality of each age. To restrict their meaning to the reality of long-dead political systems, and lost empires, even those during which the Body of Christ flourished and grew, is to do a great disservice to the power of the Holy Spirit to “effect the change” which is the very essence of our Life in God.
The Canon is embodied in a vast amount of writing ranging from the Holy Scriptures themselves down to the decisions of local councils in our own day. Different Canons reflect the different eras which led to their creation, and together they outline the Church’s experience of the working of God in Her life, throughout the generations. Individual Canons, specific in detail and seen and understood within the of the entire Corpus of Canon Law, lend themselves to the formation of “canonical principles”, more general in detail, which in turn govern our life.
One canonical principle in particular is plainly and singularly vital in the life of the Church and can be stated as follows: the fullness of the Church is present, in its completeness, where a rightfully-appointed Bishop celebrates the Divine Liturgy together with his presbyters, deacons and the rest of the People of God. It is this divinely-given ‘pleroma’, the actual presence of God among His people, which embodies the fullness of the Gospel, and expresses itself, in each nation, as “One”, “Holy” and “Catholic”. To accept anything less is to betray our calling, to ignore the words of Christ, and to rationalize our human weaknesses. This is the principle of the Local Church.
“Local Church” has many implications, in different contexts. Some use it in relation to a diocese, some in relation to a national church; it can also be used in relation to any Eucharistic community such as a parish. What is important for us is that the “local church” is not understood as deriving its legitimacy by reference to a remote point, patriarchate or church, that is the criterion of catholicity. It is the integrity of the Local Church, itself, the bishop and the people of a particular place celebrating the Liturgy-- and its communion with the whole body of surrounding local churches that forms the ultimate criterion of catholicity. The canons protect and help these local churches relate to one another.
In North America there are at least three distinct systems of ecclesiology and canonical interpretation that are incarnate as ecclesiastical bodies.
The first of these is the Russian canonical and ecclesiological tradition, which has led to the basic vision of the conciliar Local Church. This was the context of the foundation of the Russian Mission to Alaska of 1794 and its missionary imperative. The Russian Church, especially under Bishop Tikhon in America, developed a working model of multi-ethnic cooperation and vision of unity, which was renewed and reformed by the Council of 1917. While the Russian Mission in America struggled with the influx of immigrants, and the temptation to remain an ethnic sect, it overcame these and began to realize its identity as an indigenous Orthodox Church for all North Americans, thus coming to actualize the fullness of catholicity. This maturity bore fruit as the autocephaly of the OCA. The mission had become a local church, with all the resources to perpetuate itself and the mission of Orthodoxy, free of any imperial or government entanglements or interference. It embodied and incarnated the conciliar vision of the Church, incorporating laity and clergy into the process of decision making, and thus became a living experiment in the Orthodox world of conciliarity and the de-imperialization of the Church.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate espouses another system of canonicity and an ecclesiological vision, which it extended to North America in the 1920’s with the establishment of the Greek Archdiocese. (There were various parishes here under its jurisdiction, and/or that of Athens, before; but there was no organized Greek hierarchy in the US until the early 1921.)2
I will not venture to define their system, other than their conclusions in relation to the OCA. It does not accept the status of the OCA as an autocephalous church, in regards to how they define autocephaly. This is by no means universal, contrary to their claims; nor is their interpretation of the canons universally accepted. The basic argument is that they do not recognize the right of the Russian Church to grant autocephaly to its mission; and they claim universal jurisdiction over the “diaspora.” In fact there are some who would claim that the initial Russian mission was uncanonical in the first place, as it did not come with the authorization and under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. While some accept their claim of jurisdiction over the “diaspora,” other Orthodox Churches do not. Whether right or wrong, it is contended.
The Orthodox Church in America has never been under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, or any other Church but the Russian Church, for the past 215 years, and operates as a fully canonical autocephalous Church under the canonical tradition of her Mother Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church in America is not a church of the “diaspora,” but a local indigenous territorial Church. It is not an ethnic Church; it is not the Russian Church in America, but the mature outgrowth of 175 years of Russian missionary work in America. The Orthodox Church in America fully affirms the primacy of the Patriarch of Constatinople. We reject, however, the canonical interpretations that compromise our canonical tradition.
Through the 1920’s the Russian Mission formed the basis of a united canonical Orthodox Church in America. The Antiochians, Serbs and Albanians, were all originally a part of this united Church, though we certainly admit that many Greek churches were not. Though these groups eventually developed their own hierarchies sent from their mother churches, they did not subordinate themselves to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in this continent. Neither did the Romanians and Bulgarians, most of whom joined the OCA with most of the Albanians.
The groups that split from the Russian Mission, mainly in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, the Serbians and Antiochians, and the other churches that then established jurisdiction here, can be seen as operating on yet a third model of canonical interpretation and ecclesiology—in which each patriarchate has the right to care for the people of its own nation wherever they may be “in diaspora” regardless of the existence of a territorial canonical church. This nationalist or ethnic model presumably works until the people have been indigenized, in the US usually by the second or third generation, by which time they have lost their “ethnicity.”
With the Russian and EP models, at least the integrity of the local territorial church has some meaning. The third model does not seem to respect that. This is perhaps the greatest canonical problem.
We could debate the merits of the renewed conciliar ecclesiology of the local church, and the system of canonical interpretation of the Russian Tradition, compared to the interpretation of Canon 28 of Chalcedon by Constantinople, but this would miss the fundamental point: they are two very different systems, operating on different sets of presuppositions. Both of these systems evolved in an imperial context. The situation of the 21st Century, with all empires long gone, presents a new context for the life of the Church and new canonical interpretations regarding its organization. This is neither an historical issue, nor ultimately an issue of interpretation, but of presuppositions. We, all Orthodox in North America, seem to be caught between Moscow and Constantinople. And as is often the case when there is an impasse, the resolution resides in a new, third way.
And so what is required, I believe, is for our best theologians to sit down and work out a system that is universally acceptable.
I, as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and again please bear in mind the kenotic vocation of the OCA, as well as of my own role, have the unique privilege of leading a Church which is not only thoroughly and indelibly Orthodox, but one which is also thoroughly and indelibly American, a fact that allows us to feel blessed, since America is not one tribe or race, but the voluntary union of all the peoples who have come to live here. In this miracle of symbiosis, there is much to be improved, but there is also much which is right, wholesome and of good report. The spirit of our nation proclaims that there is no such thing as a second-class citizen, that each citizen has the right to participate in government, and that each citizen deserves the right to exercise his or her choices freely, according to law.
It is the task of the Church in this country not only to offer the life of the Orthodox Church to the American people, but also to bring to the practice of Orthodoxy all that is best, all that is valiant, all that is most noble, in our American life.
We are very willing to work with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other churches to resolve the issue of Orthodox unity in America, and earnestly desire to resolve any obstacles. But we will not surrender our integrity as a local territorial indigenous church. We have a kenotic vocation; but that only opens out into a more fully catholic expression of an indigenous local Church. I earnestly hope that we will all, eventually, come together to fully incarnate the one Body of Christ here in this land.
It is the prerogative and responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to convene the churches to resolve this issue of unity in the Diaspora, so called. This needs to be done both on the international pan-Orthodox level, as well as within America and each region of the so-called “diaspora.” As long as the mother churches agree to let their extra-territorial dioceses go, then the EP can convene them in each locale, so they can determine their own future, and the structure of their new local churches. Eventually these new churches must be universally recognized as fully autocephalous. But the conciliar principle must be followed: every community must have a voice in its own destiny. Otherwise, the result will be illegitimate, and be rejected. This will lead to only greater division.
Ultimately, but hopefully not eschatologically, the only acceptable resolution is a fully autocephalous united Church in North America, embracing all Orthodox, and freely electing its own hierarchy and, in time, its own patriarch. We stand for conciliarity, the participation of the whole body of the Church in the life and decision making process of the Church. This is very American, but it also resonates with the ideal of sobornost that inspired St Tikhon and the renewal of the Russian Church by the Council of 1917. This is the vision of the OCA, and of many other Orthodox in America. Only for this vision would the OCA surrender its own autocephaly, to joyfully meld into the fulfillment of that vision which was given with the Tomos in 1970.
Many in this continent are not ready to give up their ties to their mother churches. Many of the mother churches are not ready to give up their ties to their American missions. Episcopal assemblies are fine, though we believe their president should be freely elected. But they are not synods, much less autocephalous churches. Perhaps the time has not come to move beyond this point.
If as the OCA we are to renew Patriarch Tikhon’s vision, there is a way to build a provisional unity between all the churches in this country that are ready for it, and yet to maintain a real link with their mother churches. Our canonical situation is unique in history. It demands a creative solution.
One possibility might be to “open” Synod of the OCA to include canonical bishops who preside over American archdioceses of foreign churches, and thus to begin to create a united Synod of Bishops in America. These bishops would be members of the Synod here; they would represent us to their mother churches, and their mother churches to us. A council of Metropolitans of the various archdioceses would be formed, as well as a general synod of all bishops, with the possibility of organic growth. Once all Orthodox come into agreement, it could be restructured as an American Patriarchate, and territorial lines drawn. The presiding bishop would be freely elected, and perhaps rotate.
Whether this is possible or not remains to be seen. But let us explore all possible avenues, with the best minds working at the task together in free and open discussion. Only in this will we be able to move forward in the mission to which God has called us. Let us build a community of love and mutual respect, because the Church can only be incarnated in a spirit of love.
In the meantime, let us strengthen the bonds between ourselves. Local clergy associations are an excellent way to overcome the division of jurisdictions. They provide a context of common activity and build the communion between the churches on a grass roots level. So also it is very valuable for the bishops of each region to come together to serve the Liturgy and discuss common issues.
If certain of our jurisdictions should wish to join together, before all can come into unity, it is a good and wonderful thing that contributes to the unity of the whole. For example, if the OCA and Antiochian Archdiocese were to joing together, or rather to come back to their previous unity, who could dare object?
Most of all, let us keep Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen, before our eyes, in our minds and our hearts, as we seek not to build up institutions and organizations, but the very Body of Christ, to the glory of God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
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