By George Matsoukas, Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Laity
Behold how good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity — Psalm 133:1
During the week following Pentecost, May 26-27, 2010 sixty five Orthodox Christian bishops, who have their sees in North and Central America, have been invited to gather at the Helmsley Park Hotel. The bishops will convene as the Episcopal Assembly which is an interim-transitional governing body of the Orthodox Christian Church in this New World territory. The purpose of the Assembly is to begin the process of developing the foundation for a canonically ordered unified Orthodox Church in the Americas. The blueprint that they develop for a canonically United Church will require more than this initial meeting. This process must eventually involve the whole body of the Church including clergy and laity. The final product, fashioned through a conciliar process and representing the work of the people of God will be presented for approval by the Great and Holy Council of all Orthodox bishops. This Council is part of the process of Orthodox Christian renewal and will be convened in the near future. This first meeting of bishops is a step in the process of developing working relationships with each other, asking the appropriate questions, defining the geographic territories of the Church, identifying resources available to them and setting up the appropriate committees.
This first Episcopal Assembly is different from other meetings of Orthodox Bishops such as the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas SCOBA or other Episcopal Meetings because this meeting has the blessing of all 14 Old World Primates of Orthodox Churches. It is the result of the Synaxis of Orthodox Primates that met in Istanbul/Constantinople October 2008 in response to the call of His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. At that time the Primates declared that canonical order needs to be established in the so called Diaspora. In Orthodox Christianity all of us are in a Diaspora waiting to go home to the Lord. This unfortunate term has been used to describe people not living in traditional Orthodox lands – i.e. lands beyond the Old Roman Empire. Orthodox canonical order relates to the fact that there should be one bishop in one city. All 14 old world Primates signed the document authorizing the establishment of Episcopal Assemblies that will take place in the New World, Western Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. The Episcopal Assemblies are meeting with the blessing of all the Primates.
In June and December 2009 representatives of these 14 Old World Primates met in Chambesy, Switzerland. These meetings were convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch and chaired by Metropolitan John of Pergamon. The results were the Rules of Operation for the hosting, conveying and carrying out the work of the Episcopal Assemblies. Hosting an Assembly is not an easy matter for the North and Central America. This Episcopal Assembly brings together 65 bishops from 14 different jurisdictions, who are of different ethnicities, cultures and nationalities spread over an enormous land mass, many of whom have not met each other before, who are mostly extensions of their mother countries and not autonomous, who are governed by church “protocol.”
Notwithstanding these challenges we are confident that the imperative to Unite will overcome any differences because these bishops are all Orthodox Christians and are guided by the Holy Spirit. They reflect the realities of a multicultural Orthodox Christian faith – the Apostolic faith established at Pentecost in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. They are the survivors of persecution, extermination, secularism, phlytism. “Their faith, even if it is as tiny as a mustard seed will make all things possible.” Matt. 17-20. They have been charged to create Canonical order which will lead to a glorious transformation of Orthodox Christianity in the New World.
The Rules of Operation require the conveners of the Episcopal Assemblies to be the representative of the Patriarch of Constantinople and if in some land he is not represented, the Order of the Diptychs will be followed and the convener is the next in rank as a matter of Protocol. In the New World we are blessed to have such a worthy leader in the person of Archbishop Demetrios. He personifies the Fruits of the Holy Spirit and will be able to assist and inspire his brother bishops to work in a conciliar manner. His coordinator is the indefatigable Father Mark Arey SCOBA Coordinator. He is working with selected members of the SOCBA planning committee to bring the First Assembly to a successful beginning. The Episcopal Assembly will meet on May 25-27 and will decide what administrative structure will be used for their future meetings when they meet on May 26-27. The Episcopal Assembly replaces SCOBA which is now disbanded. The Episcopal Assembly will decide how to integrate SCOBA agencies in the transformational structure.
What can we expect from the Episcopal Assembly? The Episcopal Assembly is not a business meeting. It is the bishops of the Church doing the work of the Church. The bishops of the New World Territories, North and Central America, will demonstrate to the Old World Primates that they can work together in a mature manner to establish a canonically united Church. If they cannot work together, then the canonical order will be imposed by the Old World Primates. The Plan they create will be presented to the Great and Holy Council for final decisions. It should be noted that the Rules of Operation call for the agenda of the meeting to be approved by the Assembly. Matters related to canonical order will be decided by consensus and each jurisdiction will have one vote. For example if 10 bishops are representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate they will all reach a consensus amongst themselves and cast one vote on the matter before them. The whole body will meet yearly or more frequently if they decide more frequent meetings are necessary. The Executive Committee will meet every three months and whenever necessary at the invitation of the Chairman or at the written request that shows cause of one third of its members.
Between now and the convening of the Episcopal Assembly it is recommend that you familiarize yourself with the primary documents associated with the meeting. They are:
- Press Release pertinent to the October 2008 Meeting of All the Primates at the Ecumenical Patriarchate;
- The Two Chambesy Documents: The Decision and the Rules of Operation June 6-13 2009;
- SCOBA Encyclical February 21, 2010 issued on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
These documents are posted on the OCL web site www.ocl.org. You may also want to read the OCL publication “Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church-When and Why” available on line at Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble. The 1994 publication “Project for Orthodox Renewal” available from Light and Life includes a comprehensive chapter “Orthodox Unity.”
It should be noted that 10 Bishops of the South American Church met April 16-18 in San Pablo Brazil. The host was Archbishop Damaskinos of the Antiochian Archdiocese. The meeting focused on the adoption of a Spanish version of the documents of Chambesy and presented the situation of each Orthodox Church in South America. The Assembly establi shed an Executive Committee.
It is the duty and responsibility of the faithful – clergy and laity- to look beyond their local parish interests and be concerned with the renewal process taking place world wide in the Orthodox Christian World. The faithful parishioners – the royal priesthood -need to be aware of what when, where and how the Assemblies respond to the challenges placed upon them. They have the responsibility t ask questions of their bishops and provide them with input. The renewal of the structure of the Church impacts each and every one of us and cannot take place without our input and involvement. We are experiencing and living through the first steps of renewal of the Church in one thousand years. This is the opportunity and challenge of the laity and the clergy as well as the opportunity and challenge of the hierarchy.
What can we do? How can we help? I suggest that the first step of meaningful involvement includes praying for the Holy Spirit to enlighten our bishops to do what is best for the renewal of the Church in the New World. The petitions regarding this Episcopal Assembly that have been included in the Divine Liturgy of the Churches within the OCA are excellent prayers that we can pray everyday until the work of the Assembly is completed and the Great and Holy Council is convened. They are:
V: That the Lord may grant our Hierarchs gathering in Episcopal Assembly to grow in wisdom and strength, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to increase in love for each other, deepening Christian fellowship so that conciliar decisions may build up a canonically united Orthodox Christian Church of the Americas, let us pray to the Lord.
R: Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!
V: That their work may be guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit of unity and love, of compassion and mutual respect, inspiring each to contribute what will build up the Body of Christ, may move us all to rejoice in the full unity of the Church, let us pray to the Lord.
R: Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!
V: Furthermore, we ask that God bless the work of all His People, uniting them for the building up of His Holy Orthodox Church of the Americas, let us pray to the Lord.
George Matsoukas is Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Laity