During the week after Pentecost 2010, the Orthodox churches in America entered a new stage in their common life. Acting as the Exarch of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America convened the Episcopal Assembly for North America, as mandated by the conference of Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches held in Chambésy, Switzerland, at Pentecost 2009.
By all accounts, the Assembly succeeded in laying the foundation for a more coherent and collaborative ordering of Orthodox life and mission in America.
Bishop Basil [Antioch] and Archbishop Antony [Constantinople/Ukrainian] were elected Secretary and Treasurer, respectively, of the Assembly, joining Archbishop Demetrios, Chairman, and Archbishops Philip [Antioch] and Justinian [Moscow], Vice Chairmen, in the Executive Committee. The agencies and commissions of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas [SCOBA] were affirmed by the Assembly as efficient expressions of the common mission of the Orthodox Churches. Committees of the Assembly are in process of formation. It was proposed by consensus, and in consultation with hierarchs from Mexico and Canada, that the bishops in Canada form their own Episcopal Assembly, and that the bishops in Mexico join the Episcopal Assembly of South [Latin] America. Finally, it is anticipated that the entire Episcopal Assembly process will lead to canonical solutions to the problems of the so-called diaspora, in this way preparing for the convening of a Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Churches.
The successful beginning does not tell us very much about the road ahead. Obstacles are sure to emerge, while challenges with no easy solutions remain.
One such challenge is the place of the Orthodox Church in America in the Episcopal Assembly.
One-third of the Orthodox Churches recognize the autocephaly of the OCA. One-third are determined to reject this status. One-third take a neutral position. All the bishops of the OCA were full participants of the Episcopal Assembly, equal in this way to all the other canonical bishops. On the other hand, the OCA as a church was not seen at this time as a participating church.
It is difficult to describe the situation of the OCA in the Assembly as anything other than humiliating. This is so even though the Chairman and others did everything possible to avoid any words or actions that would be heard or felt as humiliating. The only adequate Christian response to humiliation is found in humility. And this was the response and attitude in which the OCA hierarchs were grounded. By this means they preserved dignity—their own dignity and the dignity of the OCA, as well as the dignity of the Assembly. By this, they contributed to the successful and hopeful outcome of the Assembly.
Another challenge ahead will be the question of movement towards the transformation of the Episcopal Assembly into a real Synod of Bishops for a united church. Will the experience of the Episcopal Assembly create such a deep sense of mutual trust and common mission that jurisdictional divisions within the Assembly will become relatively unimportant, and the common Orthodox identity in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church will become the priority?
Even the achievement of such love and unity will not be enough if we as Orthodox Christians fail to encounter and engage America—American society and American culture. It is possible to be united and yet self-satisfied and isolated. It is not enough to put “our” Orthodox house in order if this is an end in itself.
We are called to put our house in order to be true and adequate witnesses to Jesus Christ, to the Good News of Christ, and to the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. And to accomplish this in America, Father Alexander Schmemann told us many years ago that our Church is called to be truly Orthodox and truly American.