A Time of Crisis and Opportunity

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah

The following is a portion of the opening address of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah to the OCA Metropolitan Council at their 2009 Spring Meeting, February 18, 2009

The past years have been a huge struggle and a time of cleansing and purgation, a true crisis in the sense of a time of judgment. The Orthodox Church in America has emerged from this crisis, realizing that much has to be changed and much has to be created anew in its internal structures. This is a time of immense opportunity. Not only did the inadequacies and sins of the past regimes create an impasse for the Church, and present it with horrific choices; but, these revealed the deeper structural flaws in the organization of the OCA that permitted and perhaps created the crisis to begin with. These include, but are not limited to, structures of accountability and delineation of responsibilities, which are not dealt with adequately in our current statute. This was complicated by a lack of appropriate leadership. As a result the central administrative organizations of the Church were thrown into disarray.

Most of the superficial problems have been dealt with, and a new administration is in place, new policies have been implemented to create structures of accountability, and there is new leadership. But the underlying issues of the inadequacies of our statute, and the confusion of responsibilities between the organs of our central organizations, constitute what our essential task is to address in the near future. There are also issues left over that are pressing, and we also need to address and resolve them, so that the Orthodox Church in America can move on and assume the responsibility of its mandate: to be the local indigenous autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America.

During our time of troubles, the national and international reputation of the OCA was severely compromised. Movement towards Orthodox unity in America was severely damaged, and the perception of the OCA as being a viable partner in any movement towards unity, or even a player, was compromised. Various other Churches expected our dissolution. But in the words of Mark Twain, “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated!”

Coinciding with this slide there has been a descent into deeper and deeper parochialism, and with that, congregationalism. This “hunker down” mentality really constitutes a loss in the catholic breadth of the vision of our Church.

The breadth of vision is the key to our renewal. During the crisis, the leadership of the Church, Episcopal, clerical and lay, became completely consumed with the “next issue” to arise, the next revelation of wrongdoing, the next betrayal or failure of some leader. The vision of the Church was buried in gossip and scandal, people became demoralized and disillusioned, and God and his Providence were forgotten. What is important to remember is that while these things did happen, evil as they were, it is the pastoral effect that must be addressed as well as the issues themselves. It is a tragic thing to see someone in a position of great responsibility fall; it is a worse thing to judge and condemn them, and then fall into resentment towards the institution and community which itself was the victim. It becomes a self-perpetuating vicious circle. What suffered is the Church as Church, as people lost sight of the Church as the Body of Christ, and instead became focused on individual members and their sins and failings. The bishops are not the Church. The Central Administration is not the Church; nor is the MC, the AAC or any other organization.

Rather, we all constitute the Church, together, in Christ by the Spirit. We who are broken and sinful, dishonest and corrupt people. When we lose sight of our own sinfulness, and start blaming and judging others, we have lost our Christianity. If we want vengeance and retribution, we trample on Christ and the Gospel. We cut ourselves off from God and from one another in a great orgy of ego gratification. “Everyone loves a dirty little sex scandal.” And scandals over money are not far behind. But does it not occur to us, as incensed as we are with self-righteous indignation, that all this is a distraction and temptation to betray Christ and betray ourselves as Christians? Temptation always presents this question: Will I act as a Christian, or not, in relation to this provocation?

If we have responsibility for the life of the Church, which we as the bishops and the Metropolitan Council as clerical and lay leaders do, we have to know about this stuff (Unfortunately!) in order to correct the problems. But if we allow ourselves to obsess about it, and especially in judgment and condemnation of others, we not only have forgotten our own sins and hypocrisy, but we will be blind to any constructive solution, any solution that is of God. Ultimately, all these problems came and were revealed as God’s Providence for us. They revealed weaknesses that needed to be addressed, and an opportunity for us to address them.

We have to return to the vision of Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, present now, and coming again, that is at the very core of our life as the Church. To be an Orthodox Christian is to focus our lives on Jesus Christ, and to continue His ministry of love and reconciliation, the call to repentance and forgiveness. We are called to bear one anothers’ burdens—the burden of one another—and so fulfill the Law of Christ. The Lord calls us to patience and longsuffering, always going by the way of humility and love. This vision of Christianity must be at the very heart of all our decisions and all our lives, as Christians, and especially as leaders of the Church.

Revisioning the Orthodox Church in America

We have an enormous opportunity, and responsibility, to re-vision the structure and life of the Orthodox Church in America. While the basic elements are outlined in the Tradition, especially the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils and the Fathers, there are other elements that we incorporate as 21st Century Americans. Those essential elements from the Tradition are the Holy Synod presided over by the Metropolitan, a diocesan structure, and the canonical heritage. Other values critical to us, and partly coming from the Russian Council of 1917, are the participation of lay and clerical members in decision making. The Strategic Planning process on which we are embarking is precisely the process we are using to re-vision the Church.

Ultimately, we need to rewrite the Statute. The structures that were put in place and incorporated in the Statute reflected the life of the Metropolia and its early transition to being the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. When the Statute was written, the OCA consisted essentially of a single archdiocese, with three or four sub-dioceses, with bishops who were essentially auxiliaries. It was a fairly homogenous social and ethnic community located mainly in the “Rust Belt” between Chicago and New York, north of the Ohio River. Cultural ideas of egalitarianism, democracy and division of powers, as well as identity as a corporation, shaped the initial document. Transparency, accountability and “best practices” had not even entered the national debate.

The OCA has outgrown its previous structures. It has become a huge, diverse community stretching to every corner of the continent. It consists of 13 dioceses, each with its own life. It is largely a convert church, and has no social, ethnic or linguistic homogeneity—and is authentically local and indigenous, rather than an ethnic church. While culturally very North American (in its own diversity), the OCA can no longer be “one of the jurisdictions,” but rather has to develop its internal structures to measure up to the challenge of being the Local Autocephalous Church, inclusive of the tremendous diversity of our continent, but also respecting the uniqueness of each community and its needs.

The Statue itself and the organizations it creates have become obsolete. The AAC not only has become huge and unwieldy, and cannot effectively make most decisions; but the real underlying problem is that it compromises the diocesan structure of the Church, treating the whole Church as a single archdiocese with parish representation. The MC was initially the archdiocesan council, advising the one bishop with full authority, the Metropolitan. The central administration performs all the statutory functions of the Metropolitan Council; and then we wonder why there is conflict. The crisis created a power vacuum, which the MC stepped in to fulfill—a power gap previously filled by the Chancellor. But nowhere in the Statute is the MC given any authority as an organ of accountability; BUT neither is anyone one else specifically. Nor does the MC perform the primary role defined in the Statute: as the main fiduciary, to raise the money to support the life and work of the church. Because the leadership was dysfunctional, the Holy Synod abrogated its authority, and retreated into their own dioceses; the central administration grew to immense proportions and power, and both the Holy Synod and the Metropolitan Council rubber stamped the decisions of the CA, and abrogated their responsibility. Et cetera.

And so, my dears,” we have a mess. Not to even bring up any corruption.

So where do we start? First, we have to look at basic Orthodox ecclesiology. The Apostles invested the bishops with the leadership of the Church, through sacramental ordination. This is the principle of authority in the Church: sacramental responsibility. This sacramental responsibility is not only over what is “spiritual,” but the entire life of the whole Church, in every aspect, because even how we use our money is spiritual and sacramental. There can be no dualism between the spiritual and the material.

The real underlying question is the issue of leadership—primatial, Episcopal and lay. We need to examine the nature of primacy: how the episcopacy relates to the local church, and the interrelationship of the local churches within their province, and hence, the role of the Metropolitan as Primate. Central to this, however, is the nature of that relationship of obedience: of the presbyters to the bishop, and the bishops to the Metropolitan. Primacy is constituted by accountability and authority, in a relationship of obedience. This is Christian leadership. All of this is, ultimately, defined in the ancient Canons, and rooted in the Scriptures.

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. (Hebr. 13:17)

I believe that the starting place to understand all this is to understand authority and obedience as responsibility, rather than as “power.” Any reduction to “power” is by definition, corruption. Accountability in relation to responsibility is a core element in obedience. Various areas of responsibility are given to the different offices and organs of the Church by the canons. The question is, how are they invested with responsibility and for what, and to whom they are accountable? Accountability is intimately linked with responsibility; the structures of accountability are built as structures of obedience. Then we have to look at the nature of the support of the whole structure: first, financially, with the flow of money and resources; then, the flow of responsibility and accountability in relation to the organs of advice and consensus.

Bishops and the Metropolitan

34. The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account to him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent. But each may do those things only which concerns his own parish [diocese] and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him, who is the first, do anything without the consent of all, for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit. (Apostolic Canon 34)

The basic unit of the Church is the diocese: the bishop surrounded by the presbyters, deacons and faithful. The bishop has responsibility for the whole body, and sacramentally recapitulates it, and all ministries flow from the bishop. This is the literal meaning of “hierarch”—the “source of all priesthood.” The presbyters and deacons, in particular, as well as all the faithful, are in a relationship of obedience to the bishop, and accountable to him for their service within the Church. The bishop has a double accountability: to the clergy and laity of his diocese; but also to the Synod which elected him and its head.

The Synod of bishops of a nation is the “Local Church.” They bear responsibility for the oversight of all the churches in their care. They have the responsibility to elect and install new bishops where there is a vacancy or need. They are the point of accountability for each other. They elect as president of their Synod the bishop of the metropolis or “mother city,” as Metropolitan Archbishop.

The Metropolitan bears the responsibility to maintain unanimity and consensus among the bishops in all matters affecting the life of the Church as a whole, and is the point of accountability for the bishops; while he in turn is accountable to them. This is a relationship of obedience, accountability in mutual love and respect, for the responsibilities given. The Metropolitan has the responsibility to relate his Local Church to the other Local Churches, and maintain unity and communion. This “ecumenical level” is the highest level of accountability, as it is the final court of appeal. The Metropolitan is a diocesan bishop, as are all the others. Thus all the bishops of the Synod bear an equal responsibility, as well as an equal ordination. The one thing that distinguishes the ministry of the Metropolitan is his primacy: his responsibility to be the point of accountability, with the other bishops in a relationship of obedience. There is no “super-bishop” or ordination over that of bishop.

Regional Council of Antioch: 9. The presiding Bishop in a metropolis must be recognized by the Bishops belonging to each province (or eparchy), and undertake the cure of the entire province, because of the fact that all who have any kind of business to attend to are wont to come from all quarters to the metropolis. Hence it has seemed best to let him have precedence in respect of honor, and to let the rest of the Bishops do nothing extraordinary without him, in accordance with the ancient Canon of the Fathers which has been prevailing, or only those things which are imposed upon the parish of each one of them and upon the territories under it. For each Bishop shall have authority over his own parish, to govern in accordance with the reverence imposed upon each, and to make provision regarding all the territory belonging to his city, as also to ordain Presbyters and Deacons, and to dispose of details with judgment, but to attempt nothing further without the concurrence of the Bishop of the Metropolis; nor shall he himself, without the consent and approval of the rest. (p.228)

There is a fundamental difference in primacy between a diocese and a synod. In a diocese there is a distinct difference in responsibility and structure of accountability because the levels of ordained responsibility are unequal. In a diocese, the bishop presides by virtue of his ordination, and all the clergy and people are accountable to him for their stewardship; as well as he to them for his leadership. In the Synod, it is a community of equals, all bishops, though the Metropolitan has primacy.

The Metropolitan’s ministry is to hold the bishops to accountability in a structure of obedience that is by its very nature love and respect, unanimity and synergy. The Metropolitan’s leadership arises through building consensus, rather than authority over the other bishops. Decisions are communal, by consensus; and the Metropolitan cannot act alone. As a bishop sacramentally recapitulates his diocese, so also does the Metropolitan recapitulates the Synod, personifying it and speaking for it. The Metropolitan cannot intervene in the affairs of another diocese, unless there is a canonical issue; then that intervention is his responsibility on behalf of the Synod. A diocesan bishop is accountable to the Synod for his stewardship of the diocese, because he is given that responsibility by them in election and ordination in a relationship of obedience. That structure of accountability is personified in the relationship of obedience to the Metropolitan.

A bishop’s authority comes from his responsibility for his own diocese; the metropolitan’s authority is within the Synod. The parishes relate to their own bishop, as their point of accountability in obedience. The bishops relate to one another in the Synod as the structure of accountability in obedience to the Metropolitan. But, the Metropolitan, as metropolitan, has no relationship to either the parishes or the clergy directly, other than those in his own diocese. This is very important, especially in regards to the flow of resources.

The Metropolitan’s responsibilities, as primate, are in maintaining unity among the bishops of his Synod, and resolving whatever decisions need to be made on a Synodal level, and whatever issues directly affect the whole Church. The primacy also demands that the Metropolitan relate his Synod to the other Local Churches, maintaining recognition, contact, and communion. This would include, in our contemporary situation, relations with other jurisdictions in America, as well as with the other Autocephalous Churches. Thus, all matters related to the transfer of clergy between Churches, jurisdictional disputes, and so forth, are the purview of the Metropolitan. It is also within his purview to convene the Synod, councils and church-wide conferences; oversee church-wide ministries such as theological education; and oversee economic matters such as tax status, legal matters and insurance which affect the whole Church. The Metropolitan oversees matters dealing with bishops, including election, placement, accusations, investigations, transfers, and canonical actions.


The bishop is entrusted with responsibility for every aspect of the life of the Church, including full authority over the material goods and finances of the Church.

Apostolic Canon 41. We ordain that the bishop have authority over the goods of the Church, for if he is to be entrusted with the precious souls of men, much more are temporal possessions to be entrusted to him. He is therefore to administer them all of his own authority, and supply those who need, through the presbyters and deacons, in the fear of God, and with all reverence. He may also, if need be, take what is required for his own necessary wants, and for the brethren to whom he has to show hospitality, so that he may not be in any want. For the law of God has ordained, that they who wait at the altar should be maintained at the altar’s expense. Neither does any soldier bear arms against an enemy at his own cost.

As this reflects the practice of the 4th Century and before, the later canons bring up the practice of a steward or economos, essentially chancellor or treasurer, to assist in the management of the affairs of the diocese. This is the beginning of diocesan administration other than through cathedral deacons and presbyters.

Chalcedon:26. Since in some churches, as we have been informed, the Bishops are administering the ecclesiastical affairs with the services of a Steward, it has seemed most reasonable and right that each and every church that has a Bishop should also have a Steward selected from its own Clergy to manage the ecclesiastical affairs of that particular church in accordance with the views and ideas of its own Bishop, so as to provide against the administration of the church being unwitnessed, so as to prevent the property of the same church from being wasted as a result of such stewardless administration and to prevent any obloquy from attaching itself to holy orders. (p.84)

In the Orthodox Church, according to the Canons, all responsibility rests ultimately on the bishops: spiritual as well as financial and organizational. They may and should designate people to handle such affairs, both for the sake of ability to administer and to guard the reputation and integrity of the bishop. This is where we can begin to see the foundation of the central and diocesan administrations, as well as the Metropolitan Council.

Vision for Today and the Future

The OCA is the heir of this ancient tradition, and structures its life accordingly. However, over the past decades, this system broke down to some extent because of personalities involved, and to a great extent because it went out of balance. The dioceses, to a great extent, did not take on the full responsibility for their own lives, and the Metropolitan and his staff took on the role of an archdiocese—or rather, continued it according to the existing statute. In the meantime the life of the Church grew and developed, dioceses were formed that assumed responsibility over their own lives—“sovereignty.”

What we need now is for the dioceses to develop fully, and each to take on responsibility for itself. Each diocese needs to develop its own programs, funding, and missionary outreach. At the same time, the Metropolitan’s Office must focus on the things that are in its purview, and leave the dioceses to handle their own business. Clergy matters, internal OCA transfers, local ministries, youth programs, development of missions, charitable and evangelistic outreach are all the responsibilities of each diocese and its bishop.

The Metropolitan’s Office has the responsibility to take care of the administrative tasks that affect the whole church. The Office of the Metropolitan, perhaps a better name than “central administration,” is called focus on coordinating diocesan programs for ministries, as well as the intra- and inter-Orthodox relations that are necessary, and develop programs that benefit the whole Church. This requires a staff, as prescribed by the Statute. How large a staff is a different question. Clearly the 37 people on staff, more employees than all the dioceses put together, and a bigger budget than all the dioceses put together, was excessive. How large that staff should be also depends on how much the dioceses are ready to assume their responsibilities. This is not possible until the dioceses are adequately funded.

Another element is the place of the All American Council. The All American Council, as a legislative body per the 1971 Statute, does not work. The AAC does not reflect the diocesan structure of the Church. It treats the whole OCA as a single archdiocese, with one bishop. This is simply not the reality. While the value of lay participation in decision making is almost universally accepted, the scope of the council is too large to allow for meaningful discussion, especially as it effects the life of each particular diocese. The council allows for no contact or discussion, much less constant interaction, of the bishop with the delegates from his diocese. But especially problematic is the fact that the Council treats each parish as belonging to the greater OCA, rather than its own diocese. As a result of this unwieldiness, the Metropolitan Council has taken on the legislative function of the AAC.

The Metropolitan Council is structured like a board of trustees, according to the laws of New York State, where the OCA is incorporated. There are two issues here: the administration in the Metropolitan’s Office performs most of the statutory responsibilities of the MC, while others are done by both. Many of these functions, book- and record keeping and coordination, can only be done by a standing administration. The main fiduciary responsibility is in fact given to the Metropolitan Council by the Statute, both for budget as well as for raising funds and supporting the work of the whole Church. Even this was taken over by the Central Administration of old, by a Development Office. The Metropolitan Council needs to turn its attention and considerable talent to the challenge of raising financial support for the Church. There are two elements in this: a development function for donations, trusts, bequests and so forth; and a church-wide rethinking of support, based on the principles of percentage giving or tithing. More later on this.

The second structural issue, however, is more problematic. The laws for religious corporations pertain primarily to parishes, and not to the structure of a synodal Church. On the parish and diocesan levels, the rector and the bishop have full responsibility and accountability for use of resources, and the bishop in particular canonically. In a parish, the Parish Council, led by the priest, has the responsibility to manage the financial and material resources of the parish; in a diocese, the Diocesan Council, led by the bishop. As long as the presiding clergyman is the president of the Council, there is no problem: the Council has the responsibility to assist the priest or bishop in the administration of the material resources as trustees.

The Synod, however, and the Office of the Metropolitan as the organizational recapitulation of the Synod, is different. While the MC started out as an archdiocesan council, with the above function, as the Church has grown into a fully functioning Synodal structure, the structure of the MC has to change. It is the bishops who bear the primary fiduciary responsibility for the Church according to the Canons. The MC shares that responsibility, but on a different level. The Metropolitan and Synod have to approve or can veto decisions of the MC; the Metropolitan cannot veto decisions of the Synod.

This can be resolved in that it must be made clear in the new Statute that the bishops, collectively as the Synod, bear the main responsibility and accountability for the material resources, as well as the spiritual life, of the Church. The MC executes their decisions, and administers the resources of the Church, providing for its maintenance and ministries; but it does not have the same level of accountability as the Synod itself, nor can it make decisions independently of the Synod and/or Metropolitan—which is already clear in the existing statute.