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An Interview with His Grace, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff

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Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, Associate Professor in Systematic Theology at SVS, conducted the following interview on October 30, 2008.

Dr. Bouteneff: Your Grace, as an archpastor and scholar, with experience both within the Moscow Patriarchate and globally, you have reflected on a vast array of topics, many of which are now of key importance to us in the Orthodox Church in America as we prepare to meet in council and elect a new primate. While we in America reflect on the origins of our autocephaly, the recent scandal in our Church, and the challenges we face, how do you see a way forward for us?

Bp. Hilarion: I find it helpful here to recall the history of more than two centuries of Orthodox presence in North America. Orthodoxy came to North America from Russia through Alaska (which, as Governor Sarah Palin has recently reminded us, is “sort of near the eastern border of Russia”). The roots of Orthodoxy in North America lie with St. Herman of Alaska, who came to Alaska in 1794 and spent more than 40 years there, and St. Innocent (Veniaminov), the future metropolitan of Moscow. In 1872, five years after the sale of Alaska to America, the see of the Russian bishop was transferred to San Francisco. From 1898 to 1907 St. Tikhon, future Patriarch of Russia, governed the diocese. It was he who organized the all-American council of 1907, which renamed the diocese as the “Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in North America.” Thus began the future autocephalous American Orthodox Church.

Bp. Hilarion

Bp. Hilarion
of Vienna and Austria

But American Orthodoxy then quickly became multi-ethnic. Thus began a new, unique ecclesiological model that foresaw that bishops of different nationalities could act within one Local Church and on the same canonical territory, with dioceses being created not on the basis of territory, but ethnicity. Such a model did not correspond to the ecclesiology of the Ancient Church, but it was true to the new reality that emerged as a result of immigration to Europe and America. If events had continued according to the plan outlined by St. Tikhon, a Local Orthodox Church in America could have been created in the 1920s, headed by one metropolitan, under whom bishops of various nationalities would be in submission, with each caring for the flock of his own ethnic background, be it Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Antiochians, Romanians, et cetera.

However, as a result of the mass immigration of Greeks from the former Ottoman Empire to Europe, America, and Australia in the 1920s, metropolitanates of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were created on these continents. Moreover, the Patriarchate of Constantinople declared its jurisdiction over the entire church “diaspora” which, in their definition, included practically all of Western Europe, North and South America as well as Australia and Oceania. In North America, however, there already existed an Orthodox Church headed by a Russian metropolitan. Thus the creation there of a jurisdiction of Constantinople introduced divisions into American Orthodoxy, something that was exacerbated after the establishment of other jurisdictions.

In 1970 the Russian Orthodox Church, inspired as before by St. Tikhon’s vision of a single Orthodox Church on the American continent, granted autocephaly to that part of American Orthodoxy that was previously under its canonical authority. It was hoped that the Orthodox of other jurisdictions would eventually join this autocephalous Church, which received the name “Orthodox Church in America.” However, this has not yet happened, and in the Americas there are currently metropolitanates, archdioceses, and dioceses of several Local Orthodox Churches alongside the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

Within this situation, I believe that the uniqueness of the OCA consists in the fact that it is the first Orthodox Church on the American continent that has declared itself American. It is meant to be not one of the ethnic churches of the “diaspora,” but the national Orthodox church of the USA, Canada and Mexico. It is meant to be the living testimony to the universality of Orthodox Christianity. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware said, “The Orthodox Church is not something exotic or oriental. It is mere Christianity.” So, we can say to whoever wants to join the Orthodox Church: “You don’t need to be or to become Russian, or Greek, or Antiochian in order to be Orthodox. You don’t need to become exotic or oriental. You can be Orthodox while retaining your national and cultural identity.”

While being American, however, the Orthodox Church on the American continent must be able to pastorally assist all ethnic groups that need such assistance. This kind of receptivity, indeed, is part of the very American experience. The Church should also be able to react to new waves of immigration and incorporate new immigrants with their languages and cultures. The mission of the Orthodox Church in America with regard to the immigrants should consist not in Americanizing, but in Christianizing and “Orthodox-izing” them. Hence the need to be open to new possibilities offered by new immigration.

In Hungary, where I have been serving as a bishop for the last five and a half years, we have both Hungarian-speaking and Russian-speaking Orthodox people. But the diocese was initially devised as Hungarian and not Russian. Therefore one of the bishop’s tasks is to maintain its predominantly Hungarian character. For example, when I celebrate liturgy on Sunday in our Cathedral in Budapest, 90 per cent of service is conducted in Hungarian, and only 5 per cent respectively in Greek and Slavonic. On the other hand, I cannot overlook the needs of the Russian-speaking people. Thus, in the Cathedral we have some Slavonic services on weekdays at the request of our “Russians” (including Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldavians, and so forth). All priests of our diocese, with one exception, are native Hungarians. But, as far as I know, all of them (without any instruction on my part) use not only Hungarian, but also Slavonic and occasionally Greek in liturgical services.

I am not in a position to give a concrete advice, I am only saying that the shepherd, be it bishop or priest, must be sensitive to the needs of his sheep. This, I believe, was precisely the vision of St. Tikhon, when he dreamed of a united Orthodox Church of North America in which people of all ethnic backgrounds would feel at home.

Dr. Bouteneff: Orthodox Christians everywhere—and especially lately in America—have been seeking to identify the proper relationship between conciliarity and hierarchy, among bishops, clergy, and laity, on all levels of church life. How do you understand these relationships?

Bp. Hilarion: Here too, I would like to think historically, although in this case going further back, to the first centuries of the Church, which laid the foundations of an answer to your question. The Orthodox Church is “episcopal” in the sense that the primacy in each diocese belongs to the bishop. In the early Church, as we know primarily from St. Ignatius, the guarantee of the catholicity of each local Church, i.e. the Church of each local region, was the presence in it of a single Eucharistic gathering headed by the bishop as the chosen head of God’s people.

The supreme role of the bishop is due to the fact that he occupies the place of Christ in the Eucharistic gathering. It is this understanding that explains the fact that the so-called monarchic episcopate—one bishop in each Eucharistic community or Church—became generally accepted in the ancient Church.

Being the single leader of the Church of a given locality, the bishop nevertheless governs the Church not single-handedly, but in conjunction with the presbyters and deacons. The bishop does not possess ecclesiastical power or authority by himself, due to his ordination to the episcopate: he is a member of the local church community that entrusted him with this service. Outside the church community the bishop’s ministry loses its meaning and efficacy. And if he acts in an authoritarian way, if he does not consult clergy and laity before taking important decisions, if he acts on behalf of himself rather than implementing the desires of his community, then his ministry does not correspond to the norm.

It is clear that on the level of a diocese the primacy belongs to the diocesan bishops. On the level of a Local Church consisting of several dioceses, however, the principle of primacy gives way to collegial forms of government. In practice this means that the primate of a Local Church is the “first among equals” among the bishops of his Church: he does not interfere in the internal affairs of the dioceses and does not have direct jurisdiction over them, although he is granted some coordinating functions in questions that exceed the competence of the individual diocesan bishops.

Although the rights and duties of the primate vary in different Local Churches, there is not a single Local Church that accords him supreme authority, for it is the council that has always been the final authority. For example, in the Russian Orthodox Church dogmatic authority is granted to the Local Council, in which not only bishops, but also clergy, monastics and laity participate, while the highest form of hierarchical government is the Bishops’ Council. In the Orthodox Church in America supreme administrative power is given to the All-American Council.

Dr. Bouteneff: What was the role of the presbyters and the laity in the church governance?

Bp. Hilarion: Ancient church councils were in fact councils of bishops. Presbyters could participate in these councils only as proxies for bishops (e.g. legates of the Pope took part in Ecumenical Councils), and lay people participated only if they played special role (such as, the emperor who would convoke a council). However, in the ancient Church presbyters and laity took part in the election of the bishop. Therefore, while it was the bishop who represented a diocese at a council, yet by virtue of having been elected by the people of God he had legitimate right to represent the clergy and the laity. Nowadays clergy and laity in some Orthodox Churches take part in the election of the bishops. They also participate in various governing or controlling bodies.

To clarify: you find it appropriate that councils—including those involving the election of bishops and decisions about church life—be composed of bishops, clergy, and laity?

There are different types of councils. In the Russian Church, for example, the supreme authority in theological and dogmatic matters belongs to the Local Council, which consists of bishops, clergy, monastics and laity. It is this body that elects the Patriarch. The supreme authority in administrative matters belongs to the Bishops’ Council, which is convoked every four years. Between the Councils it is the Holy Synod, presided by the Patriarch, which has supreme authority in administrative matters. Only bishops participate and vote in Bishops’ Councils and sessions of the Holy Synod. However, a good number of clergy and laity are invited to participate as experts in various fields. So, the decisions of the Bishops’ Councils and the Holy Synod are based on the expertise and wisdom of people in all areas of church life, lay and ordained.

Dr. Bouteneff: Would you make some further general remarks on the role of the non-ordained in church life?

Bp. Hilarion: The people of God includes both ordained and non-ordained members, and all of them constitute “the royal priesthood,” of which St. Peter spoke in his epistle. The division between those who are teaching and those who are being taught, between the initiators and those who are being initiated, between ordained and non-ordained is alien to Orthodox theological tradition. This division derives from medieval scholastic thought and from the arguments between Roman Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation.

Nowadays the ordained and non-ordained alike may teach theology in schools, seminaries and faculties, may preach in the church and do many other things. Many leading theologians of the two preceding centuries were lay: remember Khomiakov, Lossky, Evdokimov, to name but a few. The only thing that is reserved to the clergy is the celebration of the services and sacraments. But the presence and active participation of the laity is as important as the presence of a celebrant. The Divine Liturgy, for example, is a “common act,” in which the laity participates through prayer, singing and, most importantly, through Holy Communion.

Dr. Bouteneff: How do you see the relationship between the bishop and the clergy of a diocese? Would you comment on this from your personal experience?

Bp. Hilarion: I believe that the bishop should be both the father and a brother of the priests of his diocese. Unfortunately, this does not happen very often. If a diocese is too large or a bishop too busy, it is difficult to establish a kind of family relations built on mutual trust and love. I have seen, however, a very inspiring example of such relations in one American diocese: the Diocese of Wichita of the Antiochian jurisdiction of North America. I was a speaker at their annual retreat and was able to observe their life for several consecutive days. I must admit that I had never seen such a strong bond of friendship and spiritual love between the clergy and their bishop. Since then I have regarded Bishop Basil of Wichita as a model of a true shepherd.

In my diocese in Hungary I inherited a rather difficult situation. My predecessor was not on good terms with some of the clergy, and there were lots of tensions. When he left and I came, my first meeting with the clergy was a “listening session:” I listened to a long list of bitter complaints. I was asked to change many things immediately, but I replied that I would need time to make my own evaluation of what should be done. Then I just observed and learned for about a year before I started to implement certain changes with the consent and approval of the clergy. I also had many encounters with the priests, both with all of them and with each of them separately. I am glad to say that we were able to create a community that now lives like a family. All of our clergy (with one exception) are native Hungarians, yet I believe they wholeheartedly support me as their bishop. When relations are based on mutual respect, trust and friendship, the ethnic factor either loses its importance or disappears altogether.

Dr. Bouteneff: The heads of Orthodox churches met recently in Istanbul. Their common statement accounted for the need to address “the canonical anomalies… in the so-called diaspora.” The OCA was naturally not there, as our autocephaly goes unrecognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. What do you see as the contribution, the role, and the position of the OCA on the global Orthodox scene?

Bp. Hilarion: I believe that the granting of autocephaly to the OCA was a prophetic action of the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the most important features of the OCA in 1970s–90s was its high reputation throughout the world, perhaps especially through the great missionary work of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and its most notable personalities, such as Fathers George Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff. While the OCA remained unrecognized by Constantinople as an autocephalous Church, its merits in mission, education and evangelism were recognized throughout the world. In other words, its fame was to a significant degree dependant on the personalities that represented it internationally. It is felt that after the untimely death of Fr. John Meyendorff the reputation of the OCA began to steadily decline. Indeed, the recent turmoil dealt a very serious blow to its fame. Great efforts will be needed to restore its credibility in the Orthodox world.

Before the 1990s the OCA had very close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. During the past 15 years or so these relations have declined somewhat. I cannot list all the factors that contributed to this estrangement, but I believe a certain lack of leadership and vision was one of the causes. The Russian Church was the Mother Church for the OCA, but in 1970 it became the OCA’s sister. But until the OCA’s autocephaly is universally recognized it will still need its former mother, at least as a kind of backup force. It is clear to me that there is nobody else to actively defend the OCA as an autocephalous Church. And there is no way back, since autocephaly cannot be revoked by the former Mother Church. Thus, I believe, special efforts need to be made in order to restore trust between the Moscow Patriarchate and the OCA.

The OCA plays a special role in American Orthodoxy. Through its participation in SCOBA it is already involved in fostering pan-Orthodox unity on the American continent. I believe that one day, sooner or later, there will be a united Orthodox Church of America that will embrace all currently existing jurisdictions. It is clear, however, that there is a long road ahead, and on this road the OCA, which is already constituted as an autocephalous Church, may assist other Orthodox Churches in identifying themselves as parts of all-American Orthodoxy.

Dr. Bouteneff: Many times, you have reminded ecumenical gatherings of the important witness Orthodox Christians make in the theological, moral, and ethical spheres. Do you believe that ecumenical dialogue holds promise?

Bp. Hilarion: After more than thirteen years of intensive ecumenical involvement I can declare my profound disappointment with the existing forms of “official” ecumenism as represented by the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and other similar organizations. My impression is that they have exhausted their initial potential. Theologically they lead us nowhere. They produce texts that, for the most part, are pale and uninspiring. The reason for this is that these organizations include representatives of a wide variety of churches, from the most “conservative” to the most “liberal.” And the diversity of views is so great that they cannot say much in common except for a polite and politically correct talk about “common call to unity,” “mutual commitment” and “shared responsibility.”

I see that there is now a deep-seated discrepancy between those churches which strive to preserve the Holy Tradition and those that constantly revise it to fit modern standards. This divergence is as evident at the level of religious teaching, including doctrine and ecclesiology, as it is at the level of church practice, such as worship and morality.

In my opinion, the recent liberalization of teaching and practice in many Protestant communities has greatly alienated them from both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. It has also undermined the common Christian witness to the secularized world. The voice of Christendom is nowadays deeply disunited: we preach contradictory moral standards, our doctrinal positions are divergent, and our social perspectives vary a great deal. One wonders whether we can still speak at all of “Christianity” or whether it would be more accurate to refer to “Christianities,” that is to say, markedly diverse versions of the Christian faith.

Under these circumstances I am not optimistic about the dialogue with the Protestant communities. I am also far less optimistic about the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue than my beloved teacher Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. In my opinion, the only two promising ecumenical dialogues are between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, and between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox families. While there are well-known theological differences between these three traditions, there is also very much in common: we all believe in Christ as fully human and fully divine, we all uphold the apostolic succession of hierarchy and de facto recognize each others’ sacraments.

But even with regard to relations between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, both Eastern and Oriental, we need new forms of dialogue and cooperation. It is not sufficient to come once every two years for a theological discussion on a topic related to controversies that took place fifteen or ten centuries ago. We need to see whether we can form a common front for the defense of traditional Christianity without waiting until all our theological differences will disappear. I call this proposed common front a “strategic alliance” between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. I deliberately avoid calling it a “union” or a “council,” because I want to avoid any historical reminiscences and ecclesiastical connotations. Mine is not a call for yet another “union” on dogmatic and theological matters. I am rather proposing a new type of partnership based on the understanding that we are no longer enemies or competitors: we are allies and partners facing common challenges, such as militant secularism, aggressive Islam and many others. We can face these challenges together and unite our forces in order to protect traditional Christianity with its doctrinal and moral teaching.

Dr. Bouteneff: As an author of many scholarly publications, including groundbreaking reflections on theological education in Russia, would you please comment on how academic work informs faith, and how faith informs scholarly work?

Bp. Hilarion: I don’t think that every church leader has to be “an academic” in the technical sense of the word: to spend time in libraries, doing research and polishing footnotes. Yet I do not share the opinion that church leaders do not need to be good theologians. The great Fathers of the past were all theologians, even if hardly any of them was “an academic.”

I was recently in Toronto and, among other things, gave a lecture on the theological education in the 21st century. I argued, in particular, that one of the major problems of contemporary Christianity is the divorce between theory and praxis, between faith and knowledge, between theology and life. Nowadays knowledge about theological subjects does not necessarily presuppose faith. You can be a “theologian” and not belong to any church community; in principle, you do not need to believe in God to receive a theological degree. Theology is reduced to one of the subjects of human knowledge alongside with chemistry, mathematics or biology.

There is also another divorce: that between theology and liturgy. For an Orthodox theologian, liturgical texts are not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. Liturgical texts have been accepted by the whole Church as a “rule of faith” (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries. Throughout this time, any erroneous ideas foreign to Orthodoxy that might have crept in either through misunderstanding or oversight were eliminated by church Tradition itself, leaving only pure and authoritative doctrine clothed by the poetic forms of the Church’s hymns.

To rediscover the link between theology, liturgy and praxis, between lex orandi, lex credendi and lex vivendi would be one of the urgent tasks of theological education in the 21st century. The whole notion of a “theology” as exclusively bookish knowledge must be put into question. The whole idea of a “theological faculty” as one of many other faculties of a secular university needs to be re-examined. The notions of “non-confessional,” “unbiased,” “objective” or “inclusive” theology as opposed to “confessional” or “exclusive” must be reconsidered. I believe all this applies both to the European and the North American situation.

Dr. Bouteneff: Your musical compositions, inspired by scriptural, patristic, and liturgical texts, have received high acclaim. Would you comment on the influence of music in your life, including your spiritual life, and on the relationship between faith and culture?

Bp. Hilarion: Music has played very significant role in my life, though my involvement in “practicing” music was not always as intense as it is currently. I studied music from the age of 3 to the age of 20, and music became a part of my nature. Music was meant to be my profession, but at the age of 20 I entered monastic path and decided to dedicate my life to the service of the Church. I took things rather radically and decided that, since I must renounce the world and the only thing that connects me with the world is music, so I have to renounce music. This is what I did. For several years I did not allow myself even to listen to music, not speaking of playing or composing it. Eventually, when I became less radical, I started to listen to the classical music again.

But it was only relatively recently, in June 2006, that I began to compose music again, after an almost 20-year break. I began with the Divine Liturgy, which I composed in 10 days, while traveling from Moscow to Budapest and then from Vienna to Annecy via Geneva. Some pieces were composed in airports or on the plane. For example, the Beatitudes were composed in Sheremetyevo airport, “Holy God” on the plane from Moscow-Budapest, some litanies in Geneva airport, some other pieces in Annecy during the sessions of the WCC Faith and Order Commission. Then in August of the same year, when I was more or less on holiday in Moscow, I composed the “All-Night Vigil.” And then, on 19 August, while I was driving from Vienna, where I celebrated the Holy Transfiguration, to Budapest, where I was to celebrate the memory of St. Stephen of Hungary on the following day, an idea occurred to me to compose the “St. Matthew Passion” using the Bach model but filling it with Orthodox content. On my way back from Budapest I began to compose in my head the early melodies. It took me three weeks to compose about 80 percent of the music. I then left it aside for a couple of months, after which I returned to it, added a few pieces and made a thorough revision.

The “muse” then disappeared for a while in order to return on 30 January, when I was walking along the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament and suddenly began to hear the music of “Glory to God in the highest.” In three months, on 30 April, the “Christmas Oratorio” was completed. There was then a break for more than one year until I went to Finland for a short holiday in August this year. I spend there one week, which resulted in a choral symphony on the Psalms. This is my short musical biography.

When I rediscovered music at the age of 40 I saw it not only as an interesting and inspiring occupation, but also as a strong missionary tool that can be used to preach Christ. The significant element of my two major compositions, the “Passion” and the “Christmas Oratorio”, is the reading of the Gospel. Music “illustrates” the Gospel so to speak, helps the listener emotionally and spiritually to live through the story of Christ’s life and death. I also found out that there are things that you cannot transmit to other people through the language of words, while you can communicate them through music. Music is a different type of language, with a more direct and intimate access to human heart.

Music and other arts, as well as culture in general can bear Christian message. Pavel Florensky noted that the word “culture” derives from “cult,” which points to the cultic, sacred nature of the culture. In modern time culture is very often transformed into anti-culture and instead of carrying spiritual message becomes a tool for driving people into passions, depression or aggression. I believe that the Church needs to build bridges between itself and the world of art and culture by exporting its own cultural richness and by positively influencing secular culture. We have a great deal to offer to the people not only inside our Church but also outside it. A dialogue between the Church and secular culture is one of the missionary imperatives for the 21st century.

Read the entire interview on the website on the St. Vladimir's Seminary (new window will open).

Posted: 03-Nov-2008



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