The Conciliar Structures of the Orthodox Church in America

A Time of Crisis and Opportunity: Part II

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah

The Mission of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, as the local Body of Christ (for/on) the North American Continent, is to be faithful in preaching the fullness of the Gospel of the Kingdom to all peoples of North America in fulfillment of the great commission of Jesus Christ to “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all [things that He has] commanded”: so that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, that all may become communicants of the Orthodox Church, that Christ’s way of sanctification, theosis and eternal life may be revealed to all.—His Eminence, Archbishop Job of Chicago and the Midwest

The Calling of the Orthodox Church in America: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.

  • Mission/Identity: We are the presence of the fullness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, incarnate as the Local, Indigenous Territorial Orthodox Church in North America, embracing all Orthodox Christians regardless of any ethnic, linguistic or cultural distinctions. We are essentially a missionary Church, striving to bring the full integrity of the Gospel of Christ to all the people of North America, so that they may come to the unity of the Orthodox Faith and communion of the Holy Spirit, in the One Body of Christ.
  • Core Values:
    • The Gospel of Jesus Christ
    • Missionary
    • Diverse & inclusive
    • Multi-cultural
    • Multi-ethnic
    • Multi-lingual
    • Non-Colonial
    • Non-Diaspora
    • Ascetic
    • Monastic
    • Sanctity

There were a number of issues raised in response to the previous Address to the Metropolitan Council of February, 2009. These include:

  1. Fear of exclusion of lay and clergy from decision making, conciliarity
  2. This is a “power grab” by the hierarchy
  3. What happens when the Metropolitan abrogates his responsibility?
  4. The future and role of the Metropolitan Council
  5. The future and role of the All American Council.
  6. How do we know that anything has really changed? With the OCA in general, and the Holy Synod?

It is clear that we need to change the culture of the OCA. We need not only to change how things are done and attitudes and values. Rather, we need to change the culture and structure of the organization so that the established flow of relationships and information grows and expands. I believe that we need to do this so that we can further develop the life of the whole Church, and facilitate participation by more and more members of the Church in the process of real conciliarity.

There is a very damaging false notion that the lay people are separate from the clergy, and that the clergy are different from the laity. This is not the case! The clergy are simply those laity invested with a particular scope of responsibility by the whole Church, in a structure of accountability. In particular, the presbyters and deacons are accountable to the bishop for their stewardship of the life of the parishes. However, all members share responsibility for the Body, but have differing levels of accountability. The priests and bishops are accountable for each member of the Body by their ordination. Each member is important. Each member has a voice, and must be heard.

There are two related attitudes that constitute baggage from the past, temptations which have afflicted the Church and distorted its life and indeed, its conciliarity. Both stem from an abrogation of responsibility. Clericalism comes from an abrogation of responsibility by the laity for the affairs of the church, with the clergy taking over all functions; even the loss of the traditional ministerial role of the diaconate and pastoral role of the episcopate, with the concentration of all “ministry” in the presbyters, is a kind of clericalism . Trusteeism comes from a refusal of the clergy to accept their responsibility for the more mundane aspects of the life of the Church, which was then seized upon by lay leaders. This resulted in the priests being responsible for what happens in the altar; the parish council for everything else in the church. Both result from a breakdown of conciliarity, in which the integrity of each area of responsibility in a structure of accountability is critical. Conciliarity can be partially defined as shared responsibility with distinct levels of accountability. In both reductions, authority becomes identified with power; there is tremendous resentment and mistrust of the others by the persons disenfranchised. Both the clergy and laity need to recognize their areas of responsibility, and support one another in the exercise of that authority. The rector of a parish, or the bishop of a diocese, has complete responsibility for every aspect of the life of the community under his care, liturgical, spiritually, financial, legal, and administrative. But he cannot do it alone; it has to be done in cooperation with the laity, who are empowered with responsibility for certain areas by delegation.

The image used by St Paul of the body is very valuable in approaching this: the eye is not the foot, which is not the hand; there are parts more or less presentable, more or less private. Yet it takes all the parts working together, doing what they are supposed to be doing, and all have to be united to the Head, to Jesus Christ, the real Leader of the Church.

Conciliarity does not mean democracy. Its Russian root concept, Sobornost, refers to both conciliar structure (councils) and catholicity—wholeness or integrity. That can only happen when each element of the conciliar structure has integrity of its own life and ministry, and each is working in the proper order to build up the whole. Each area of responsibility has to be functioning for it to participate in the whole. Thus the bishops have to take full responsibility and be accountable to one another and to the Metropolitan, as well as to the Body, for their stewardship of their diocese or area of responsibility. The Metropolitan has to accept full responsibility to maintain the unity of the whole, both of his Synod and of the Synod with the other Churches. The Metropolitan has to be accountable to the Synod for his stewardship of the office. Each order or function of the Church, the diocesan councils, Metropolitan Council, and the periodic All American Council, must be accountable to the structures above it in responsibility: the Diocesan Council to their Diocesan Bishop; the Metropolitan Council and Synod to the Metropolitan, and Metropolitan to them.

For some people, “obedience” is a scary word, because it has been much abused. But the word “obedience” is integral to the life of the Church, and to the Gospel. Jesus was exalted above all others because of his obedience (Phil 2:5-11): “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself,... humbled himself… and was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The same passage is read for many feasts of the Theotokos, extol her for her obedience. “Be it unto me according to your word” is the ultimate expression of free, voluntary obedience in love. Obedience is not about power and control; it is about communion, synergy, and a voluntary assent to cooperation. If it is about power, coercion and the like, it is distorted. Jesus is the ultimate example of obedience; wives are called to be obedient to their husbands; and we are all called to submit to one another and be obedient in love to those who have to give account for us (Hebr 13). In a diocese, the priests are in a relationship of obedience to the bishop, similar to the monks to the abbot in a monastery. The bishops are in a relationship of obedience, though slightly different, to the Metropolitan. This relationship is the primacy of leadership.

In the Orthodox Church, the bishops were entrusted by the Apostles, by virtue of their ordination, with the greatest degree of responsibility for the whole Church. An individual bishop is accountable for the people and their lives in his diocese. It is a holistic responsibility for every aspect of the life of his communities and for the lives of the members of his diocese. This does not mean power and control, but rather accountability, and the maintenance of a unity of mind and vision throughout the Church. It means that a bishop must know his priests and people, and actively build and maintain consensus with them. This pertains not only to doctrine and practice of the Faith, but the unity of a community gathered in love.

If a national local church (whatever you would call the ecclesiastical province that has autocephaly or autonomy) is a federation of dioceses, each diocese has to be an equal partner in the community. The primate is elected by the other bishops as its leader and particularly as the one who is accountable for the whole, and for its unity. The Metropolitan is accountable to the bishops, and the bishops to the Metropolitan. He is first among equals; but he bears a unique responsibility and accountability to maintain the unity and obedience with his Synod; as well as unity with the rest of the Churches world wide.

In the Orthodox Church in America, the current Statute envisions the Church as a single Archdiocese, with the Metropolitan as the single fully empowered bishop, and the other bishops as glorified auxiliaries. It does not adequately develop its vision of the dioceses. In other words, the existing Statute envisions complete centralization. I and the other bishops believe we need to decentralize, by emphasizing that the real life of the Church is on the diocesan level. The diocesan foundation of the life of the Church is not policy or philosophy: it is the structure that is at the heart of the canons and the apostolic teaching. The greater the decentralization and upbuilding of the life of the various dioceses, the greater will be the opportunity for authentic participation by more laity in the direction and decision-making, as well as ministries, of the Church.

In other words, we are talking about a major shift in the culture of the OCA: from centralized and dependent on “Syosset” for all leadership, to decentralized and looking to the local bishop to empower ministries to serve the particular needs of each region.

The Metropolitan and Metropolitan’s Office

This decentralization does not mean weakening the Metropolitan’s Office by strengthening the dioceses. Rather, for authentic accountability, we need a strong Metropolitan; but we also need strong dioceses. Does that mean a massive staff and development of all programs in New York? Not at all. Rather, what needs to be strengthened, and what has failed almost completely in the last decades, is that the Metropolitan needs to be the point of accountability for the Diocesan bishops. The Metropolitan is the one leader of the Church, elected both as president of the Synod by the Synod, but also by the whole Church in Council. While not above other bishops, he is elected to be accountable to the rest of the Church for the other bishops as Synod and the life of the whole. He is to represent it internationally and ecumenically, with an overarching ministry of unity. What is the ministry of unity, but to facilitate conciliarity on the various levels of the life of the Church. More on this below.

The dual election of the Metropolitan gives him a unique capacity among the bishops, as he is chosen as the Primate. Primacy means leadership, but also the responsibility of accountability. Primacy, leadership as first among equals, bears the responsibility to maintain canonical order within the Synod, and accountability of the bishops for their stewardship of their office. If a bishop loses the ability to lead through age or illness, or abuses his authority, or is credibly accused or falls into a state of immorality demanding canonical action, or is derelict in his duties, it is the Metropolitan’s responsibility to investigate the situation on behalf of the Synod, and to call that bishop to accountability. If the bishop in question is the metropolitan himself, then the next senior bishop of the Synod bears that responsibility. The canons are clear: bishops alone judge bishops. These structures of accountability are essential if the Church is to maintain its integrity. The bishops, in turn, are responsible to maintain canonical order and integrity among their diocesan clergy.

There are certain ministries that can only be effectively accomplished on the level of the Metropolitan’s Office: the calling of councils, Synods and church-wide meetings; the oversight and administration of theological education and training for ministries; administrative matters relating to churches and clergy, such as health care, tax status and pension; the facilitation of relations with other churches, both jurisdictional and inter-church ecumenical; and the communications that facilitate the multiple levels of relationship. These ministries require competent professionals to do the work needed to facilitate, empower and coordinate the various ministries within the dioceses. And it is this office that maintains the Orthodox Church in America in relationship with the other Orthodox Churches, the ministry of unity.

Diocesan Ministries

There are common ministries that must exist within each diocese: missions and evangelism, charitable outreach, youth work, religious education, and so forth. The Metropolitan and his office are given the task of encouraging the bishops to develop these active ministries within their dioceses, and to function as the coordinator and resource center for those ministries. However, those ministries have to be done on a local, diocesan level, not from a central office.

In other words, how is some ecclesiastical bureaucrat in Syosset supposed to know how to evangelize and establish a mission in Louisiana or Oregon? Or work with a native village in Alaska? Or renew a dead parish in the Monongahela Valley? Or establish a homeless shelter in Kansas City? Or how to serve a whole native people that converted in Mexico, who don’t even speak Spanish, let alone English? These concrete ministries can only be done on a diocesan level: locally. Each diocese needs to develop the kind of outreach ministries necessary to fulfill the particular local needs that it encounters.

This is another aspect of a major culture shift: rather than simply being focused on developing parishes, according to a particular model, we must look at the diocese, to a large extent, as a collection of particular and diverse ministries. The greatest proportion of these will indeed be parishes; but there are a multitude of ways for a parish to exist and minister to its congregations. We have to embrace diversity of ministries and needs, and move beyond the idea of homogeneity of practice and form. Homogeneity is a characteristic of American denominationalism; we don’t need it. For example, a parish might focus on Georgian, Mexican or Romanian immigrants, with specific language needs and cultural particularities. Or the ministry might not be a parish at all: a homeless shelter, an OCF chapter, a monastery, a battered women’s center or a cohousing community for widows. The bishop is, by virtue of his office, the one who blesses all these ministries, and without his blessing, they cannot call themselves Orthodox. These can only be done on a local level, on a diocesan level. There can be sharing of information and experience between dioceses; but the ministries are going to be particular to their place. Some places will have a succession of different ministries, as one community dies out or moves along, and another moves into its place. Only on the local level can the Church be responsive to the particular needs of its communities.

As the local Church, as the diocese develops its life and programs, the greater the need presents itself for dialog and conciliarity on the diocesan level. As the various ministries grow and develop, then it would be appropriate for them to be represented, somehow, on the Diocesan Councils—which are the most important organs of conciliarity on the diocesan level. As the dioceses become more and more diverse, the task of conciliar dialog and consensus building will be greater and greater. This will demand more of the bishops; but in turn, it will involve more clergy and laity on an ever increasing scale. This already exists in the South, the West, and Canada; as well as to a great degree with the Midwest and the Romanian Episcopate.

Another major culture shift is to open the Synod itself to bishops sent from other Churches, and actualize itself as the basis of unity in North America. Thus, the vision is to “open up” the Synod to representatives of foreign churches who send bishops to North America to care for their nationals and immigrants, and yet, have them sit on the same Synod of the Orthodox Church in America. We already have three non-territorial dioceses; what needs to happen is to provide greater integration and cooperation, both on the local level between individual bishops, and on the Synodal level as a whole. In turn, the foreign bishops can represent the OCA to their mother churches, and their Synods to the OCA. This then becomes a model for Orthodox unity in North America, with a single Synod of Bishops that respects and preserves the diversity in unity of the whole.

To summarize: The major culture shifts needed in the OCA are decentralization and strengthening of local leadership, Episcopal and lay, and hence the upbuilding of the dioceses; a change in the institutional expressions of the conciliarity, the All American and Metropolitan Councils to reflect the Church as a federation of local churches (dioceses), united under one Synod with one Metropolitan. This is simply rooted in basic Orthodox ecclesiology. We must build an accountability structure within the Synod, which has not existed; but also build in an institutional process should that accountability structure fail. We must transcend the sense of homogeneity that has dominated the OCA, and embrace multiple diverse expressions of Orthodoxy within it. Our unity is not in uniformity; our unity is in the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One Bread and Cup, respecting the legitimate diversity of expressions.

The Bishops and the People

Part of the dynamic currently is that the Synod is coming together as a community as never before. This is due to the personalities in the past, which prevented a sense of community. Now that has changed. And within that, there is a new sense of mutual accountability and co-responsibility for the whole Church. It is simply the Orthodox Faith and Tradition that the bishops bear the ultimate responsibility for the life of the Church. But they cannot and do not bear it alone.

There is no such thing as a bishop (or priest) without a flock. Without his flock, a bishop has no authority, because he has no responsibility. Bishops who are auxiliaries, retired or are without a flock are respected, and can serve as bishops; but they have no power to act on their own, but only with the specific request of the diocesan bishop. Only in relation to his own flock, and synod, does the episcopacy of a bishop have meaning. While the ordination of a bishop comes from the grace of the Spirit, it is always in relation to his particular community. A bishop can do nothing in another diocese without permission from the local bishop.

The point of all this is that if the diocese is the primary unit of the Church, the whole life of the Church depends on the relationship of the people of each diocese to their own bishop. St Paul envisions this as a unity of mind and heart, with common service together to those in need, celebrating a common Eucharist, an authentic community gathered in love. This unity of life has a mystical reality: the bishop is the sacramental recapitulation of the community. But, this in turn has to have a basis in experience: the unity of the community comes from the bishop’s active ministry, and involvement in the lives of his people, their consensus, and following of the bishop’s leadership. In other words, the community is gathered in love around their bishop, who in turn loves them and cares for them. The two movements are both critical: the love of the flock for the bishop—and hence, obedience and cooperation; and the love of the bishop for the flock—seeking to fulfill their needs by empowering ministries within the Body. The two must be absolutely complementary, a synergy.

The bishop’s leadership is crucial. It is what holds a diocese together, unifies it into one body, and fulfills it as the Church the Body of Christ. Otherwise, you may have an efficient organization, but it is not the Church. Ultimately, it is the bishop’s ministry, and the grace which flows from it, that transforms a community into the Church. The bishop is the criterion of ecclesiality.

There is no leadership if people don’t follow. And there is no leadership if there is only domination and subjection of others. Christian leadership is always about building synergy, communion in love. Obedience is an expression of that synergy, communion in love. It flows from responsibility and accountability, and a sense of mutuality.

Hierarchy is primarily about a distribution of responsibility, and is a structure of accountability. The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical church par excellence! It has nothing to do with dominance and subjection; but rather, with shared responsibility in a structure of accountability. The bishop is within the Church, not over it. Hierarchy is about the facilitation of conciliarity. Hierarchy provides the context for people on every level of responsibility for the life of the Church to exercise their ministries together, communally. It brings forth and employs the “diversity of gifts” coming from the one Spirit.

The organs of conciliar leadership that have evolved in the Orthodox Church in America are: parish councils, diocesan councils, the All American Councils, the Metropolitan Council. The ultimate model of conciliarity and conciliar leadership is the synod of bishops. This synodal/conciliar model is reflected up and down, as it were, in the levels of Church organization. Because the diocese is the basic unit of the Church, indeed is the Local Church, Diocesan Councils have an essential role. The Synod of Bishops is the sacramental type of all councils, the recapitulation of all the dioceses in the Synod. All other councils within the Church have to reflect this essential diocesan structure of the Church, and the conciliar structure that constitutes it.

Diocesan Councils

Historically, the presbyters constituted a council around the bishop, a parish or diocesan council. Contemporary Diocesan Councils, with Diocesan Assemblies, are the means whereby the presbyters and lay leaders make the needs within the community known, and where the bishop works to build consensus and empower lay leaders to serve those needs. While the means is partly financial administration, the diocesan councils are the real organ of conciliarity within each local church. The bishop leads and proposes, the Council discusses and comes to consensus, and then cooperates to fulfill the needs of the church. When it works, there is wonderful synergy, and the Church’s needs are fulfilled; when it doesn’t, the whole diocese grinds to a halt. It takes as much work from the bishop as from everyone else to come together, discern God’s will, and implement it through consensus and cooperation.

This diocesan structure is particularly important in the OCA because of the tremendous diversity within each diocese, not to mention the whole Church. The diversity of communities and ministries has the bishop as its point of unity, and works out its daily life in the community represented by the diocesan council. The acceptance and fostering of diversity in the ministries and communities of the Church is essential for its growth.

The All American Council and Metropolitan Council

While it is true that the Canons do not envision councils of clergy and lay representatives meeting with bishops, the experience of the OCA has shown that councils reflecting the whole community of the Church are essential to its life in the contemporary world. The historical foundations of the AAC and MC lie in the Russian theologians who designed the Great Council of 1917. These decisions, while shelved in Russia due to the Communist period, were applied by the Orthodox Church in America in its canonical structure. They resonate with the culture of the Church in America. Indeed, as 21st Century Christians in the West, it is difficult to comprehend the life of the Church without participation by the laity and the clergy in decision making on most levels of the Church’s organization.

One of the most glaring problems of the current Statute is how the All American Council is currently constituted: it currently actualizes the Statute’s vision of the whole OCA as a single Archdiocese. Similarly, the Metropolitan Council is envisioned as continuing the work of the AAC between sessions, but also reflects the vision of the Church as a single archdiocese. The AAC, in particular, regards each parish as if the Metropolitan were its bishop, and the dioceses are not reflected at all. The MC, as the old Archdiocesan Council of the Metropolia, includes members elected at large at the AAC in addition to specifically diocesan representation, and now generally excludes the hierarchs. Neither body reflects the diocesan character of the Church.

One way to slightly modify the AAC to give it a more diocesan character, and to make it more effective, would be to change the representation from parochial to diocesan. Either a diocese would elect a given number of representatives to the Council; or the diocesan council, with the deans, would be designated as the representatives to the All American Council. Reducing the AAC from 900+ to less than two hundred people would make it much more effective in dealing with administrative issues, and enable representatives to work together to support and share ministries and other resources throughout the Church. It would also focus the work of the All American Council on the business of the Church, and it could be accommodated at far more modest expense. The expenses of the delegates would be paid by their respective dioceses. This type of council would meet every three years. While there would be a social component to it, the main social/educational/fellowship events would be conferences and conventions that do not focus on business.

What would give the new AAC its diocesan character is that it would not only be composed of diocesan representatives, but it could be structured with a double voting structure, so that each diocese would have one vote, as well as each delegate. This would force the discussions to be focused within each diocesan representation, led by their bishop; and thus build the community of the diocese while also building the greater community of the Church. Similarly, this would force a greater sense of accountability of the bishop to his diocese, and of the diocesan representatives to their bishop, in the task of building consensus and community.

A second type of All American Council, a Great Council, would be convoked to elect a new Metropolitan. This would include much broader representation, from each parish, though it would retain the same diocesan structure of the regular AAC. The Russian equivalent, to elect a Patriarch, takes candidates nominated by the Holy Synod, and then it is the Council that elects; the OCA version is just the opposite.

Pastors’ Conferences and Clergy-Laity Conventions: Crosscutting Relationships

It is very important, however, that the Church gather together to discuss issues and for the people to get to know one another across diocesan boundaries. This could be done with annual gatherings, alternating pastors’ conferences and Clergy-laity conventions, which would be open to all members of the Church, and would focus on education and fellowship, youth events and the sharing of information about ministries. While these Clergy-Laity Conventions would not have a business component, they could also be designed to pay for themselves, and be events that people would look forward to. The Pastors’ Conferences in particular could be used for continuing education, and the building up of the relationships of the clergy across diocesan lines. Both types of meetings are valuable to build and maintain a common vision across the whole Orthodox Church in America.

The Metropolitan Council and Metropolitan’s Office

The Metropolitan Council, as an advisory board to the Metropolitan, and a Board of Trustees for the corporation of the Orthodox Church in America, is an important element in the life of the Church. Perhaps the main difference that I would suggest is that representatives be strictly diocesan, rather than having a number of delegates at large elected at the AAC. The MC continues the work of the AAC between sessions; but also is the chief administrative support body to the office of the Metropolitan.

The officers of the Church are ex officio members of the MC, but are also extensions of the MC to assist the Metropolitan as the full time administrative staff. The MC are fiduciaries, who accept responsibility for the life and work of the Church, and who themselves work to support the Church in its various tasks. But, given the diocesan focus, the MC would need to keep in mind not only issues affecting the whole Church, but the common ministries and activities between dioceses.