Copy of Charles Ajalat’s Speech

June 20, 2009

                                               Charles Ajalat

                                                               St. Vladimir’s Seminary

                                     June 20, 2009 



      There are various events in the history of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese that are relevant to our common future.  The first bishop consecrated on American soil was St. Raphael Hawaweeny, a protégé of both Antioch and Moscow.  As Fr. Garklavs mentioned in his opening addressed, a great deal of independence was given to the flock he shepherded.  The Toledo-New York split and its healing also have lessons for us.  The reception of the Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Archdiocese, the centralization of authority in the Archdiocese, the historical independence of the Archdiocese from the Mother Church, the emphasis on discussing and trying to achieve administrative unity in North America, the attaining of self-rule and the visionary leadership in many areas set forth by our hierarchs, particularly Metropolitan Philip, and the implementation of those visions are things that may have something to contribute and to say to us, about our common future.

      In presenting my response to Metropolitan Jonah’s presentation, I would like to begin by making some preliminary observations and comments, some from the history of the Antiochian Archdiocese, before I present for purposes of stimulating discussion a proposal for a future administratively- unified Church on this Continent. While some of these preliminary comments are not directly related to the topic they are, I believe, important observations, especially in light of recent events.

      I will then go on to discuss what I see as being some key issues regarding administrative unity and offer one example of a solution, based on my experience working in the Church these last two decades. 

      As a disclaimer, although I am Chancellor of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, I am not speaking here today in my official capacity, but rather as an individual and lay member of our God-protected Church.  The ideas I am suggesting, although based on my experience, have been put together only in the last week.  They are intended mainly to stimulate further discussion rather than to suggest a sole solution.

      My first comment is that the future of the Orthodox Church in North America must ultimately be decided by those affected by it, and by those who know the local situation best, although a final outcome must ideally be concurred in by the Mother Churches.  It makes no sense, I submit, that conferees of the Mother Churches meet in Chambesy – as they did recently1 – to suggest a solution to the problem which some (still) refer to as the “diaspora” – without the full and hearty participation of the North American Churches.2  A top-down solution frankly cannot work practically and effectively if it is imposed on Churches like the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (Antiochian Archdiocese or AOCA), and the autonomous Romanian Archdiocese. 

      From Antiochian Archdiocese history in America, we can learn a great lesson here, if we will listen.  Our Archdiocese was split between two separate Archdioceses – a Toledo Archdiocese and a New York Archdiocese. This unfortunate situation was exacerbated, if not directly caused, by the fact that the Mother Church of Antioch previously addressed North American governance without consultation with the local church.  It was only when the hierarchs in North America – one of them a bold and courageous young leader, Metropolitan Philip – dealt with the issue of its disunity squarely and head-on that a successful solution – archdiocesan unity – was finally achieved.  Unity did not come as a “top down” solution, but rather from the other direction (i.e., bottom up) vis-à-vis the Mother Church.

      In the 18 years I have tried to help the Orthodox Church on this Continent make progress toward Orthodox administrative unity, I decided early on that it was neither enough to push from the top down from the hierarchs, nor from the bottom up from the laity, but that there was a need to push simultaneously from both directions.

      It is, however, a revealing symptom of the problems the Church faces here, that the primates of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), did not as a group request to participate in, nor did they participate in the pre-conciliar Chambesy meetings dealing with the so-called diaspora.  They were not asked for, nor did they discuss among themselves, or ultimately offer any solution(s) for the consideration of the Mother Churches about their future, even if they were not to be physically represented at Chambesy.

      Unfortunately, to this date the hierarchs of North America have not debated or negotiated what structure an administratively unified autocephalous Orthodox Church on this Continent might take.  Whether due to lack of desire; fear; a feeling that it is unrealistic; or that it is not their business and should be left to the Mother Churches; such reasons make no sense if the Orthodox Church is to thrive on this Continent.  Let St. Vladimir’s issue an invitation to the hierarchs here and abroad to a serious conference where they can hear presentations on alternative structures and the advantages and disadvantages of Orthodox administrative unity.  Let the hierarchs express their honest intellectual views on such issues, without publication or broadcast. 

      No one, Mother Church or Local Church, should be afraid of such honest dialogue, which is an expression of true love for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church on this Continent.  When I went to the leading hierarchs and urged them successfully to hold the first Conference of Bishops, so-called Ligonier, a historic turning point for the Church on this Continent, I only wanted to see the hierarchs to get to know each other.  They believed, not unreasonably however, that if they were all getting together they should actually discuss their future in America. The over-reactions to Ligonier by some of the Mother Churches, I believe, were mistakes on their part, and created a significant set-back to the Orthodox Church worldwide for almost two decades, at a time when the world was (and is) changing at an amazing speed. The result has been to continue a relatively “invisible” Orthodox Church on the world stage, one which has relegated the Orthodox Church to a mere footnote status in world history. To proceed now with an ineffective Episcopal Assembly, as some sort of a stop-gap measure, without dealing with the major issues and agreeing perhaps on a strengthened worldwide role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the Mother Churches and simultaneously having all such Churches give maximal autonomy to their daughter churches would be (yet) another serious error in judgment.

      My second observation relates to the status of the episcopacy itself.  It has been said that the Orthodox Church has a “mixed Episcopal anthropology.”  The Protestants have a married clergy and married bishops.  The Catholics also have consistency:  a celibate clergy and celibate bishops.  We Orthodox, however, do not: we have for the most part a married clergy and celibate bishops.  Although inconsistency is not necessarily the crucial argument, Episcopal celibacy does raise various questions.  One of these is whether there is a sufficient pool of the most excellent talent from which to draw the Church’s future leadership in the 21st century.

      I will draw another example from Antiochian Archdiocese history, this one a bit more controversial. Archbishop Eftimios Ofeish got married, but for purposes of our reflection, one mistake may have been doing so without first properly preparing the faithful of the Church for such a change. So, for this reason among other factors, the Church did not accept his married episcopacy, even though the precedent for a married episcopacy traces itself to the earliest days of the Church.

      Is a married episcopacy appropriate or not in the 21st century?  I submit that St. Vladimir’s should issue a call to examine in a serious conference the wisdom or the lack thereof of a married episcopacy.

      A third comment I would like to make is that the lack of administrative unity, such as we have on this Continent, impacts the basic missions of the Church — evangelization and social action, or service to the needy among us.  To evangelize is to teach and live the good news of Christ; to have access to the fullness of true faith, which can only be found in His Church.  Loving one’s neighbor through social action is to obey the commands of God and to imitate the love of our God.  As the Church here is maturing, we have at least begun witnessing to the unity of the Church internationally and nationally through Pan – Orthodox service to our fellow man, through ministries such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and FOCUS North America (which is a new domestic Orthodox Charity, of which I happen to be the initial Chairman—I would urge you all to go to and watch the video of the social action here at home that is being accomplished by the new agency and its partners.)

      These common social action witnesses however are a partial, but ultimately insufficient witness of a unified Church to our fellow citizens.  When the society around us sees Orthodox Christian faith in action, which inspires this service to our fellow man among us, it simultaneously sees separate disunified “denominations.” (despite our words to the contrary).  In addition to the other problems, these separate “jurisdictions” contradict our witness to God as one, personifying unity, even in three persons. The Church on this Continent, with its present reality of jurisdictional division, obscures the unity of Christ’s Church, and makes the Church appear to be an association of ethnic enclaves and not truly the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” as it lives on this Continent.  These ethnic divisions present an obstacle to making the Orthodox Church accessible to North Americans.

      My final preliminary comment is that in order to truly “fix” the problem on this Continent, we need to put aside those things on which the major players are frankly not going to reach agreement! It is an undisputed historical fact that until the creation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in 1922, the sole Orthodox Christian hierarchy physically present on the entire North American Continent including the United States for a very long time was the hierarchy of the Church of Russia, whose successor is the Orthodox Church in America. The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, for practical reasons of self-interest is never going to accept that Russia did have, nor that the Orthodox Church in America now has jurisdiction over North America.  On the other hand, the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch, the Church of Russia, the Church of Romania, and/or others, are not going to accept as a matter of interpretation and fiat that Canon 28 gives the Ecumenical Patriarchate jurisdiction over North America.  These are the simple facts.

      I propose what should happen is that the parties agree to disagree and move away from historical jurisdiction claims and arguments and turn to the real issue at hand – how decisions will be made in the ecclesial assemblies (I use the term ecclesial assemblies to refer both to a Synod of a Church here and to the suggestion of Chambesy of interim Episcopal Assemblies.)  These real issues deal with (1) Mother Church control, or lack thereof, of daughter churches, (2) representation of the Churches in such ecclesial assemblies, (3) selection of the presiding officer of pan-Orthodox ecclesial assemblies, and (4) the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  How will Mother Churches make, for example, the Chambesy-suggested Episcopal Assembly free from foreign control, while keeping the local Churches free to do things independently, as the Church of Russia sees the recent Chambesy proposal?  As to representation of the Churches in ecclesial assemblies, will decision-making be based on representational control of ecclesial bodies by the local church(es) with the largest population(s)?  Will control automatically go to the historic Ecumenical seat? Or the key and controversial issue of the presidency:  Will the presidency be by election and merit?  Or will it be by rotation by the dyptichs? Will the presidency always (i.e. permanently) be the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?  Or, could a solution to the various problems, be a combination of vehicles?  The ultimate solution must be to devise a system which is fair, and where no one controls the outcome to the detriment of others, or to narrow interests.

      Autocephaly or Episcopal Assembly?

      It is to these questions we will shortly turn, after we look first at the two most likely vehicles for administrative unity:

       The first is having one autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America. presently; and the second is an interim solution, an Episcopal Assembly, like a beefed-up SCOBA, where each “jurisdiction” keeps its existing governance, but the Episcopal Assembly can make binding decisions for the North American Continent, without interference from overseas and later the Episcopal Assembly becomes the Synod of an autocephalous Church.  The only way this latter interim solution would work, in my experience, is if in addition to the OCA’s autocephaly, each jurisdiction participating in the Episcopal Assembly were given by the Mother Churches, to use Patriarch Daniel of Romania’s words, “maximal autonomy.”

      If there were to immediately be an autocephalous church on this Continent, there are also two possibilities for creating such a Church.  First, the OCA as an autocephalous Church (although not recognized as such by all of the world’s Orthodox Churches) could issue a new Tomos of Autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of North America, composed of, and based upon, the terms agreed to by those Churches, hopefully with the approval of the Mother Churches of such Churches here.  

      A few more words about this possibility are appropriate.  The granting of a Tomos of Autocephaly in 1970 by the Church of Russia to the OCA is an important, historic event that will inevitably help determine the future of the Church here.  Of course, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s position is to not recognize the OCA’s autocephaly although the Church of Russia does and has granted that autocephaly in the Tomos irrevocably. The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position is that the Mother Church of Russia cannot grant autocephaly without the blessing of all, or at least, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 

      Nevertheless, and based on the principle I proposed, of moving beyond unresolvable historic jurisdictional claims, the OCA is completely self-governing, and solely responsible for selecting its own Primate of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America — in fact, the very same Metropolitan Jonah to whose speech I am responding.  The OCA, thus, is alive and well, admittedly having survived some significant traumas.  The Tomos of the OCA, even more than then the OCA itself, perhaps provides the most important vehicle for a future administratively-unified Church on this Continent.  The OCA, as a de facto autocephalous Church, and acknowledged as such by certain other autocephalous churches, can itself issue a Tomos of autocephaly to a new Church in North America, which hopefully all others would join, but if all would not join, at least to all those willing to join.

      The second possibility of having an immediate autocephalous Church in North America is based on the fact that one cannot ignore the relationship of the agenda items of the Pre-Conciliar Conferences, that of the so-called “diaspora,” on the one hand, which topic was just dealt with in Geneva and the items of the December session of the Pre-Conciliar Conference, on the other hand, the items dealing with “autocephaly” and “autonomy.”  The second possibility for an autocephalous church in North America is for the upcoming December, 2009 meeting of the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Conference to go beyond what the Third Pre-Conciliar Conference suggested in 1993, and with the approval of the Mother Churches, to declare on behalf of all the Churches on this Continent that the Church in North America meets the “ecclesiological, canonical and pastoral conditions necessary for the granting of autocephaly” (III Pre-Conciliar Conference, Par. 3a).  Under the second possibility, the pre-Conciliar December conference would also recommend to the Mother Churches that the autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America be one autocephalous church composed of the autocephalous OCA and the other existing churches here, which would each simultaneously be granted maximal autonomy, while retaining ties to the Mother Church.  It would not be unreasonable for the Mother Churches to grant such maximal autonomy. After all, we already have on this Continent, the autocephalous OCA, the autonomous Romanian Archdiocese, and the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

      With such maximal autonomy, the Churches here, then, could prepare their people for full administrative unity and negotiate their union together, without looking over their shoulders. As with the willingness of Patriarch Daniel to grant “maximal autonomy”, the granting of self-rule or autonomy by the Patriarchate of Antioch to the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America was a historic step forward in straightening-out the uncanonical situation in North America.  Hopefully, it will continue to be a historic step in that direction.  We shall see how that plays out even assuming the Holy Synod of Antioch makes a decision that all non-metropolitan bishops are auxiliaries.

      The alternative idea to these two possibilities of having an immediate autocephalous church here is very similar to the second possibility for an autocephalous North American Church.  That alternative idea is that North America could have an Episcopal Assembly, an interim status “on its way” to being an autocephalous church as was reported Monday has been proposed at Chambesy. The idea of the Episcopal Assembly over the course of the pre-Conciliar Conferences, however, is that the Episcopal Assembly must have the authority to make binding decisions on the Assembly without foreign interference so that it would work more effectively than SCOBA. We haven’t seen the details of the documents, but one wonders whether there is any significant change other than to suggest making the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s representative the President of such Assemblies, an issue we will discuss later.  To make such an Episcopal Assembly not only effective but acceptable to all of the Churches here, the Mother Churches would not only need to have an elected presidency but need to make their daughter churches here, simultaneously with the creation of the Episcopal Assembly, “maximally autonomous.”  This does not seem to be the intent of the recent Chambesy recommendation. 

       Rather, statements from the Church of Russia regarding the current pre-conciliar conference seem to indicate that at best the Episcopal Assemblies may only be an association of Churches and not the type of interim Episcopal Assembly that can be effective.  Moscow has said:  “The powers of Episcopal Assemblies neither allow the interference into the eparchial jurisdiction of each bishop, nor limit the rights of his Church—most notably the right to maintain direct contact with international organizations, public authorities, civil corporations, the media, other (Orthodox) Churches, civil institutions, and ecumenical organizations, as well as (contacts) with other religions.”  This is not an example of getting the North American Churches to focus together on this Continent without interference from abroad.

      As with Russia’s position, similarly many question whether Constantinople can realistically grant any kind of quasi-independence to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to make an Episcopal Assembly effective, since if Constantinople gives up control outside of the Mediterranean, it only has a few thousand direct faithful in Turkey. Based on my decades of experience with SCOBA my personal judgment is that the only way the Episcopal Assembly idea can work effectively, for example, is with the OCA as an autocephalous church and the other North American churches as maximally autonomous members of this Episcopal Assembly. For this to happen I believe something like the following would have to happen: all the mother churches simultaneously confirm a strengthened role for the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the time it gives maximal autonomy to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and its other jurisdictions in North America. 

      Otherwise the recent recommendation of Chambesy will be no more than the ineffective existing SCOBA with a recommendation the Ecumenical Patriarch’s representative must preside, rather than as currently exists under the SCOBA Constitution, an election or rotation by the dyptichs.  Such a recommendation will not, in my view, solve the important canonical question of governance in the so-called diaspora.  Also, my recollection from having been present at one of the earlier pre-conciliar conferences, although I may be wrong, is that the Holy Synods of the Mother Churches would need also to vote to agree with the pre-conciliar conferees for any recommendation to be that of the Churches.

      When I helped set up agencies under SCOBA beginning in 1991, 18 years ago, such as IOCC, OCMC, encouraging OCF, creating a Liturgical Commission, etc. I thought the hierarchs would see the benefits of action together in a way that would spur them to pursue administrative unity.  This did not happen.  Hopefully the documents from Chambesy will give more hope, but absent seeing them, unfortunately many have pessimism of whether any serious progress toward solution will be accomplished by an Episcopal Assembly.

      An Episcopal assembly may be a good solution if these real issues were resolved and each Mother Church granted its daughters full, true and irrevocable autonomy; or the visionary form that the Romanian Patriarchate is willing to grant, “maximal autonomy”  and if the president of the Assembly were elected and there was appropriate representation of the Churches.

      Notwithstanding the fact that under the right circumstances an Episcopal Assembly might work, the best way to allow Orthodoxy to thrive in North America is to have the Ecumenical Patriarch agree to a new Tomos of Autocephaly that would also be issued by the Orthodox Church in America in its autocephalic capacity.  The new Tomos would also be negotiated by and agreed to by the jurisdictions here, of course, in addition to having the agreement of the other Mother Churches. 

      Such an option is impossible unless the Mother Churches are willing to give up direct control over the Churches here and unless the Churches here are willing to focus together on North America, making a conscious and serious attempt to make North Americans aware of the Orthodox faith, making it accessible to them, and helping extensively our brothers and sisters in need on this Continent.  Ultimately, some or all of the Churches here may have or develop such a focus and they will probably be the Orthodox Church of the future on this Continent.

            Evangelism v. Continued Immigration. Such an unresolved scenario on the national level of having an ineffective Episcopal Assembly would lead to continued stalemate; and those churches who do not embark on a serious, sustained major campaign for evangelism and bring new faithful to the Church may decline proportionately and those who do such evangelism increase proportionately.  Emphasizing evangelism is one additional contribution of the Antiochian Archdiocese to the future of the Church here. For example, this weekend, an experiment has been undertaken under the auspices of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Orthodox Vision Foundation.  Pursuant to a massive media campaign, hundreds of non-Orthodox people will be attending a two day seminar in Oklahoma City, making the Orthodox Church available to them. In the last six weeks leading up to this weekend, there have been many hundreds of radio and internet radio spots, tv spots, newspaper articles and ads, billboards, 700 yard signs, , etc.  This media advertise a website “” which invites them to register on the internet site to come to the seminars to learn more about the historic apostolic Orthodox Church.  If they come to some or all of the two days by the two Orthodox speakers and are interested in exploring further, they are invited to join the inquirers classes, and if further interested, the catechetical classes. If this experiment is successful, and hundreds have already registered, not to mention those who will show up at the door, this campaign could be exported to many more cities and tens of thousands of Americans of non-cradle-Orthodox background may be able to enter the historic Orthodox Church.  The effort is costing $50,000 sponsored by Orthodox Vision Foundation and the Antiochian Archdiocese.  It resulted from calling together 7 key evangelists to develop together a strategy to see how we could use modern media to make people aware of the Orthodox Church. 

      Many of those who I asked to the meeting were from the former Evangelical Orthodox Church, which was received into the Orthodox Church through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  They have been a fresh force in the Archdiocese and are part of the contributions from the Antiochian history that may be helpful to the future. But a few of their specific contributions include such projects as Conciliar Press, Ancient Faith Radio, the Orthodox Study Bible, etc.

      Those jurisdictions, on the other hand, that don’t reach out to non-cradle-Orthodox Americans, will ultimately, without massive immigration, grow smaller in relation to the jurisdictions that do (as the current demographic projections confirm). And if those jurisdictions do engage North America and make North Americans aware of, and invite them to, enter the historic Church, they will change.  They won’t, God willing, change in doctrine and worship but ultimately insistence on the forms of governance that will come from large numbers of non-cradle and cradle Orthodox born in America is a different view of governance than those that the Mother Churches have.  With time, items like the issues discussed below and other suggestions for solution for the purposes of stimulating discussion, will arise.  We are seeing the beginning of it in many jurisdictions in just the last few years. Let the discussion begin and may it be to God’s glory.

      Going back to the options suggested: Whether under a new autocephalous church or with an Episcopal Assembly, the approach must be to solve the issues of foreign control and the problem of getting the Churches here to focus together primarily on North America.  To do so probably requires three things:  (1) dealing with the issues of representation in ecclesial bodies; and (2) selection of the presidency of the ecclesial body, and (3) while granting the churches other than the OCA here maximal autonomy, helping the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church throughout the world to agree on a strengthened role for the Ecumenical Patriarchate internationally that is not dependent on having significant faithful in the “diaspora”.  We will take these issues in turn.

      Representation on Ecclesial Bodies. In what few discussions anyone has on the subject of administrative unity, the problem of representation is discussed less forthrightly than the issue of the presidency of ecclesial bodies. Discussions on the entire subject are nearly non-existent, I believe due to the unwillingness of all the hierarchs to forthrightly have such discussions.  Representation refers to whether voting of a North American Synod or Episcopal Assembly should be based on “sovereignty”, i.e. jurisdiction, or based on population; or a combination of the two.  In the United States, in terms of population, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has roughly one-half of the faithful.  In the world, in terms of population, the Church of Russia has significantly over ½ of the faithful.  Does having more faithful mean that a greater voice should rightfully be had?  On the other hand, is the opposite true?  Should sovereignty or jurisdiction dictate the “voting power?”  The Albanian Diocese in the United States, for example, is under the Ecumenical Patriarch.  It has one of the 10 seats on SCOBA even though it has only two parishes of the 1800 canonical Orthodox parishes in the U.S. Without an iota of disrespect to the Albanian Diocese, does this make any logical sense? Especially when you consider that the huge bulk of Albanian-American Orthodox are under the OCA, and such Albanians have no representation on SCOBA except through the OCA?

      Of the 10 SCOBA seats, 4, a full 40% of them are under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate — the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; the Carpatho-Russian Archdiocese; the Ukranian Archdiocese; and, the Albanian Archdiocese.  This is, at least, somewhat similar to the percentage of faithful they actually represent.   The 40% of the vote in SCOBA, however, combined with the insistence of the Ecumenical Patriarch as primus inter pares that it must chair all SCOBA meetings (a position not accepted by the SCOBA Constitution, or all other jurisdictions); and the funding of SCOBA by the GOA in its own self-interest; all these, allow or give the appearance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate having practical control over SCOBA.  Apparently the Moscow Patriarchate feels the same regarding the “French SCOBA” noting that the presidency under the Ecumenical Patriarchate “inevitably raises tension and discontent” because the head of such SCOBA is “more concerned with interests of the Church which he represents” and election of the head of the French SCOBA “would provide him more legitimacy.” These types of perceptions, whether true or not, go contrary to the principle I have suggested is very important in the governance of the Church here and abroad, that everyone feel that no one group is in control of the others fate.

      So, with respect to the representation issue alone, how can we possibly balance the twin factors of population and jurisdictions in a North American ecclesial body?  The answer may be to have two bodies.  This brings to mind both the Council of 1917-18 where two bodies were also created but it also brings to mind St. Tikhon’s comment to his Synod in 1905 that the “peculiarities of the new world” must be taken into account in structuring solutions.  Our peculiarities include differing churches of different size, ethnicity or jurisdiction, and one or more may be under one patriarchate, one may be autocephalous and others may have autonomous or nonautonomous relationships with their Mother Churches.

      Perhaps the answer to balance the twin factors of population and jurisdictions in some general senses is to structure the Church here with two ecclesial bodies. The first body could be a General Assembly which could include some North American bishops and other jurisdictional representatives (we’ll discuss this later) with voting based generally on population. The second body could be an Executive Assembly based on one vote per autocephalous church (not based on North American “jurisdictions.”).  This leaves open the question of the composition of the General Assembly and the relationship between the two Assemblies, issues to which we now turn.

      The General Assembly raises the question that was involved in some of the discussions leading up to the Council of 1917-8 and one that raises its head today:  what is the role of the laity, the royal priesthood?  The Council of 1917-18 created a Local Council, the highest authority, and it was composed of clergy and laity.  This history regarding representation also raises the issue of the sacramental priesthood and the priests’ relationship to the episcopacy: subordinate agents or conciliar co-workers. Or as discussed in the parish reform in Russia of 1917-18 are priests “extensions of the hierarchs or not”? I would suggest both the royal priesthood and the sacramental priesthood should be represented in the suggested General Assembly.  Whereas I submit the laity should not control ecclesiastical decisions, the conciliar nature of the Church and today’s environment means they must have a significant role for the Church to fully be the Church.  There is no inconsistency to say where the bishop is, there is the Catholic Church, and to simultaneously recognize that the royal priesthood of all believers and the sacramental priesthood must be part of the Church’s conciliar decision-making.  Primarily lay Boards of Trustees work well for institutions like St. Vladimir’s Seminary, FOCUS North America and IOCC, where raising funds is an essential function in addition to setting governing policy.  However, rather than be on western-style boards of trustees, I would suggest that the laity should be part of a mixed General Assembly composed of three groups: bishops, priests and laity (which should perhaps each be one-third of the total representatives). Clergy—bishops and priests—would, thus, have 2/3 of the seats.

      In such a General Assembly, as well as in an Executive Assembly, a system can be devised in which no jurisdiction automatically controls or monopolizes, and yet those jurisdictions that are currently most powerful will have their role and voice respected.

      The number of total seats for a jurisdiction in the General Assembly, would need to have some relationship to population, while taking into account the desire to have no one jurisdiction control or monopolize just because of its own current population, or to control in conjunction with the seats of its sister jurisdictions under the same patriarchate.  Thus, for example, those jurisdictions under the Ecumenical Patriarchate could have 47% of the seats, there could be say another 47% for Russia, the OCA and the Antiochian Archdiocese, and 6% (or more, adjusting the other numbers downwards) for the smaller jurisdictions.)3  Further so that no one Patriarchate always had automatic or even almost-automatic control, voting in the General Assembly, when there is not a consensus, should be by 2/3 approval, a proposal relatively consistent with the canonical desire for unanimity and conciliarity.

      The selection process for each of the bishop, clergy and lay members of the delegations of a Church to the General Assembly should be election based on talents, resources and merit as opposed to status.  As we have seen in organizations like FOCUS North America and IOCC, such pan-Orthodox governing bodies soon learn to think of themselves as Orthodox Christian first and secondarily as being from different ethnic jurisdictions, and amazing results ensue.  As in such bodies, the election of the presiding officer of the General Assembly must be based on merit. IOCC, for example, has had Antiochian, Greek and Serbian chairmen of the Board of Directors and IOCC has, in the name of the Church, served those in need throughout the world to the extent of over $300 million in 17 short years.  FOCUS North America has the promise to do as much or more domestically.  Elections based on merit, in my view, are surely the right way to go. Factors that may rightfully dictate that one group or another should have more of a say can be dealt with through representation, not the presidency of the ecclesial body, and perhaps through strengthening the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position vis-à-vis the Mother Churches internationally while it simultaneously gives maximal autonomy to its jurisdictions here.

      If there were two bodies for Orthodox Church governance in North America, the General Assembly and the Executive Assembly, and the General Assembly were structured as suggested above, what then would be the composition of the Executive Assembly?  Just as the General Assembly is based more on population, the Executive Assembly, based on the existing organization of the Orthodox Churches, could be composed of 1 member from each autocephalous church; namely, the primate or Exarch of the patriarchate.  There would under such suggestion, thus, in an ecclesial body in place of SCOBA, be 7 members:  the primates or exarchs from Constantinople, Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the OCA.  Voting, where not by consensus, could be by majority or possibly 2/3 majority.  No church or block would have a greater say than any other block; provided the presiding officer was elected based on leadership merit. With no one jurisdiction controlling, and assuming the members had the interest of the entire Church at heart, the Executive Assembly members if autocephalous or maximally autonomous would also come to think of themselves as Orthodox Christians first, and not just representatives of their jurisdiction. If such a system produced too much fear of loss of authority in the hierarchs; perhaps, for example, two to four of the members could each be given a veto power, similar to that of the United Nations Security Council.

      The Presidency of Ecclesial Bodies. The issue of the presiding officer has been a divisive one in SCOBA.  The Constitution provides for rotation according to the dyptichs; but it has in practice devolved into an election of the presiding officer.  However, SCOBA in its history of electing presidents due to the insistence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as an informal and non-binding matter, has given deference to the largest and wealthiest North American jurisdiction, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.  To avoid the control factor that stifles the effectiveness of discussion regarding administrative unity and to make the ecclesial body, whether a Synod or an Episcopal Assembly most effective, the presiding officer should be elected on the basis of the members’ view of the potential president’s individual leadership talents. There also should be terms and term limits.  For example, the President perhaps can serve only one three year term. This protects everyone’s desire to not have any one group be in control.

      It might also be meritorious as well to consider that during the initial period of such new bodies, both the General Assembly and the Executive Assembly, after discussion, would vote on sensitive issues, or perhaps even better, all issues, by secret ballot, to lessen the influence of parochial considerations, fear of reprisals, etc.

      Centralization. What decisions, then, would be taken by the General Assembly and what decisions would be taken by the Executive Assembly and what is the relationship of the two bodies?  What decisions are done by whom would have to be worked out but the second question raises the crucial issue that often plagues the Church—how much centralization of governance is appropriate?  Both the OCA and the GOA (at least at the North American level) have a decentralized governing structure and the AOCA has always had a more centralized governing structure.

      Centralization provides efficiency and the greater the centralization the more unified the decision-making.  On the other hand, decentralization provides ownership which if there is a conciliar spirit, provides unity in a different way.  The problem is that often there is not a conciliar spirit among humans, even Christians, and believe it or not, even Orthodox Christians, notwithstanding the biblical and canonical admonitions to the contrary. 

      My experience in the Church leads me to believe that a certain amount of centralization during this period of transition for the Church may be appropriate, if the control of the Church is in North America and not overseas, and if there are some checks and balances.  If these were the case, the Primates and Exarchs of the Executive Assembly should have a somewhat centralized authority over the General Assembly, but the Executive Assembly should also be accountable to the General Assembly.  Just as an example, perhaps significant authority should be in the Executive Assembly (for example perhaps even the right to create dioceses and initially assign and transfer bishops) subject to being overridden by 2/3 of the General Assembly.

      Wealth as a factor in the roles of the various jurisdictions has been alluded to and perhaps should be taken into account.  One jurisdiction should not pay for the Synodal or Episcopal Assembly activities and though paying for noble reasons of unity, thus have more of a right to claim control.  The better route if all felt ownership in the ecclesial body would be for the new ecclesial entity initially to be financed by the raising of funds independently from faithful major pan-Orthodox donors including laity serving as representatives in the mixed General Assembly.  Such laity, in providing such funds, would need to be willing simply to advance the interests of the entire Church, without any other agenda.  With time, and success in its actions, funding from the broad base of faithful in the Churches could fund the new ecclesial entity.

      Relations between North America & the Mother Churches.

      North America is influenced by the lack of agreement on governance at the level of world Orthodoxy.  Let us first consider briefly the situation of the Mother Churches.  Again, the issues of representation and presidency are key.  As to representation, in world Orthodoxy, the “block” under Constantinople (Constantinople, Alexandria & Jerusalem [both of which should have indigenous Primates] Cyprus, Greece and Albania) is headed in each case by ethnic Greeks.  These Churches constitute 5 of the 13 autocephalous churches recognized by Constantinople, or almost 40% of such autocephalous churches. This 40% voting is disproportionate to the approximately 10% of the world’s faithful these Churches represent. 

      As in the suggestion regarding the North American situation, in the world Orthodox situation, population, history and autocephaly need to be recognized, but without guaranteeing automatic or near automatic control to any block.  The Mother Churches could consider a similar solution to that proposed above for North America: a General Assembly of mixed bishops, clergy and laity based generally on population, but without control by any one group; an Executive Assembly based on independent autocephalous churches, but perhaps with a 2/3 requirement to prevent anyone having control; elections of the presidency based on leadership merit that would have to be consistent with the strengthening of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as discussed below; and an Executive Assembly having centralized authority but subject, by a 2/3 vote, of being overridden by the General Assembly.  Under such a scenario, for example, as suggested for North America, although the Church of Russia has more than 50% of the Orthodox population worldwide itself, it could have less than 50% of the seats, taking into account any churches under its direct influence. If the Ecumenical Patriarchal jurisdictions are 10% of the faithful, perhaps they could have 20-25% of the seats in the General Assembly.

      Strengthening the Role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Simultaneously with  the Mother Churches Granting Their Daughters Maximal Autonomy.

      Although beyond the scope of a full exploration here, it is not reasonable to ask the Ecumenical Patriarchate to give maximal autonomy to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese without strengthening permanently the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in world affairs, as a center of unity for all the Orthodox Churches.  If done in the right way and in combination with the representation issue discussed above, all of Orthodoxy could become more unified, more visible, and most importantly much more effective in the world of the 21st century to the benefit of all.  One of many suggestions might be to have the Ecumenical Patriarch not be Presiding Officer of the Executive Assembly or if you will the Chief Executive Officer, but be the Chairman with a role structured partially like that of the President of Greece, but perhaps with a legislative veto power over the Executive Assembly and perhaps other special powers, to strengthen his unifying role for all the Orthodox.

      Again I challenge St. Vladimir’s to structure a private conference with a few scholars, key persons and especially key hierarchs from here and abroad to explore, without publicity, many different alternatives.  These conferences can be one of your gifts to the Church.

      Impact of Such Changes on North America.  How would new structures such as those suggested above domestically and internationally affect the North American Church?  There would be no fear by any, domestically or internationally, that others would control them and their self-interests would lose out. If criteria were worked out among the major Orthodox Churches, where no one of them had control, yet they had appropriate influence and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were strengthened while granting maximal autonomy to the daughter churches, the entire Church as well as the world, would benefit.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate would fulfill its vision of being a truly unifying force in the Orthodox Church.  The Church, particularly with respect to working in unity for the transformation of lives through evangelism and social action, would gain new respect and influence in the world. 

      But much more importantly, the Orthodox Church would witness to the role it was given by our Lord as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the body of Christ.  The Orthodox Church would be seen for the true pearl that we know it is spiritually and doctrinally.  This pearl has been obscured for way too long by the ecclesiastical organization of the Church.  It is time for this to change.  It is time for the Orthodox Church, strong and united, to take its role in the world of the 21st century and not be satisfied with its current status as a mere footnote to world history.

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