Fr. Michael Oleska, dean of St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, writes that self-governance of the church also has an important practical dimension: corrupt bishops can be removed through the combined action of priests and laity. Self-governance in other words provides an essential check and balance that is lacking in the monarchical model of the episcopacy that emerged under submission to the Ottomans on the Byzantine side, and under submission and dependency on the state on the Russian side.
The past leadership of the OCA invoked this putative authority to intimidate priests and laity who refused to accept the rampant corruption that afflicted the OCA. In the GOA, the monarchical model has been imposed in greater measure ever since the Bishops were elevated to Metropolitans and the dioceses began to function as fiefdoms of Constantinople. This late development has its committed defenders as well (see: GOA Deacon responds to Dn. Eric Wheeler) although the reasoning never seems to get past the finger-wagging at those who dare challenge the implicit notion that the Metropolitans are infallible.
Our tragic situation in Alaska was resolved when a few clergy on the Kuskokwim River appealed to the Holy Synod of the OCA to alleviate their plight, the unkindness and insensitivity of a ruling bishop who was treating them and their culture with pronounced disrespect, imposing on them, precisely, an alien so-called “Russian” identity and trying to mold and direct them toward becoming replica parishes of his own concept of a “Russian Orthodox” ideal. The Holy Synod hesitated. Then more clergy and eventually hundreds of laity united in “one heart and one mind” emphatically expressed their desire for an appropriate investigation of the situation. There were actually two such visits, two reports, the first prepared and presented by the Chancellor of the Church, which was never received or published as the Primate refused to accept it, and the second prepared by two members of the Holy Synod, which was accepted, resulting in the “retirement” of the Alaskan hierarch.
Had we not been self-governing, had the few “dissident” clergy appealed to the Holy Synod as our Yup’ik priests did, my apprehension would have been that they would have been quietly silenced–suspended or deposed–by a foreign synod which had no direct experience of nor sympathy for the plight of the Alaskan Native clergy or people. But because we were self-governing, the persistence and courage–not only of the hierarchy but especially of the clergy and laity speaking with one voice, ultimately triumphed in a way that would have been inconceivable in any other Orthodox body in North America.
This was not a victory for any particular “party” or “faction” within the Church, but the manifestation of the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring the entire Church across the entire continent. It is precisely this ability to deal with our own issues and problems as we ourselves know and understand them that is the gift, the blessing of Autocephaly.
And we would rejoice if all the existing jurisdictions on this continent enjoyed the same internal freedom, responsibility and authority to govern its own household, to resolve its problems and deal authentically with its challenges. We have no confidence that there is such expertise or knowledge anywhere else, that there are omniscient and omnicompetent hierarchs in Europe or Asia who would understand our situation and our cultural ethos sufficiently to deal effectively with our problems.
The claim that Constantinople enjoys this status canonically and historically would only make sense to me, frankly, if the Holy Synod there were truly “ecumenical,” that the Holy Synod there was not an exclusive Greek body. All of the attempts to redefine the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople will fail outside the Greek-speaking world as long as it remains an exclusively Greek Institution. Let the Ecumenical Patriarchate become truly inclusive and we might have some confidence in their ability to guide and speak on behalf of World Orthodoxy.
Years ago, theologians at St. Vladimir’s proposed that the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate be restructured along lines similar to the UN Security Council, with permanent members, like ambassadors, from the other Patriarchates sitting as members of that Synod–a “seat” for the Patriarchates of Russia, Georgia, Romanian, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc. So that, acting together, each “ambassador” expressing the position of the Church he represents and arriving at a consensus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the Chairman of that Synod, could, being truly ecumenical, speak on behalf of the entire, world-wide, Orthodox Communion.
We do not need an Orthodox Vatican, a Greek Papacy. Frankly, if that is what we want, we could much more quickly and expeditiously, simply unite with Rome: their Vatican has 1000 years experience on running an international institution. We have little confidence that the Phanar will ever be able to duplicate the efficiency of the Roman Papacy nor respond to the local needs in various parts of the world. Our historical Orthodox response to this issue has been to de-centralize ecclesiastical administration, and that is what all the autocephalies in our Communion MEAN.
I am eternally grateful for the autocephaly of the OCA. It has allowed us to function in a conciliar fashion, with the whole body of the Church participating that the move toward greater centralization in a foreign Patriarchate would never have allowed.