Interview with Bp. Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

Reflections on the American Orthodox experience by foreign leaders are often interesting. Sometimes they are even insightful. That’s what we see in the recent interview with Bp. Hilarion of Vienna and Austria conducted by Dr. Peter Bouteneff, Associate Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York. Discussion ranged from the American jurisdictional divisions, proper ecclesiology, the failure of ecumenical initiatives, to Bp. Hilarion’s musical compositions (The Passion of St. Matthew).

Some highlights:

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?

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.

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.

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?

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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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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