12th All-American Council
July 29, 1999
Your Eminences, Your Graces, Reverend Fathers, Honored Guests, Brothers and Sisters, dearly beloved in the Lord:
Christ is in our Midst!
It is a great joy for me to look upon this gathering and to know that the Holy Spirit has indeed brought us together for the building up of Christ’s Body in this great land of North America.
Being in America, the Orthodox Church has virtually an unprecedented opportunity to witness to and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As I mentioned in my homily this past Sunday, we must never cease offering thanks to God for the freedom America offers our Church. In spite of its powerful and ever-seductive temptations, the American experience challenges the Church to cast off the heavy and blinding veils of formalism, ethnicism and ignorance. America provides a context in which the Orthodox Church has the opportunity to engage the culture without having to cease being faithful to its Apostolic calling and Orthodox theology and spirituality.
Yes, the Orthodox Church in North America finds itself in a new environment unlike other environments that have kept the Church restricted for centuries. Yet, who among us this evening can deny that the Church has not been able to utilize, to their full extent, the gifts and opportunities made possible by our culture. We are not a state Church. We are not a Church in captivity. We are not a Church burdened by a culture, riddled with centuries of intellectual and creative stagnation. Nevertheless, as we come to the close of the 20th century how can we not help but see and feel that the Orthodox Church has closed itself off from properly using the opportunities God has offered us.
Tragically, as we come to the end of the 20th century, the Church in America continues, for the most part, to identify itself mostly with the past. At times, it continues to act as if it is still a part of non-existing empires. The result of this orientation has been a self-imposed captivity to formalism, ethnicism and ignorance.
Because of this self-imposed captivity, Orthodox Christians in North America remains divided. And while many Orthodox hierarchs throughout the continent speak of the challenges and opportunities of the next century, we must confess that we have barely begun to recognize and respond to the challenges and opportunities of this century. Our disunity continues to hinder an authentic and vibrant Orthodox presence in North America. Consequently, as a Church, we have not been able to articulate a comprehensive response to the issues of modernism that have emerged over the past five hundred years. The scientific, industrial, religious and political revolutions have had a direct impact on the Orthodox Church worldwide. The reactions to these revolutions have driven the Church into an isolated corner which has prevented it from creatively dialoguing and impacting modern culture.
The time is now for the Church to cease reacting out of fear and ignorance. It must begin to respond with the mandate and vision of the Gospel. It must speak with a clear, compelling and sympathetic voice to the questions and issues of the day. We owe this response especially to our youth who will not and should not tolerate answers and attitudes that lack the conviction and authority made possible by the sanctifying Spirit of Almighty God. Our youth will not and should not tolerate the voices of fear, suspicion and prejudice. These voices have been allowed to speak for too long. These voices have fostered the sin of disunity which has diminished the ministry of Christ in North America.
Ecclesial disunity must be exposed. No longer can it hide behind the empty rhetoric that promotes a reality that does not exist. References to “eucharistic concelebration,” “pan Orthodox cooperation” and “the sharing of a common theology” can no longer disguise the ecclesial and hierarchical disunity of the Orthodox in North America. Such ideas and concepts can no longer veil the fact that the status quo of Orthodox Church life in North America is not only abnormal but contradicts and undermines our Orthodox ecclesiology and the very Gospel we have been commissioned to proclaim. The time is now for all the Orthodox in America to state with one voice that the status quo of the Church is unacceptable!
Almost 30 years ago the Russian Metropolia of North America received a very precious and powerful gift. The gift I am referring to is autocephaly. For 30 years our church in America has humbly persisted to call upon the mother Churches of the various ethnic dioceses to recognize the need for one, local, canonical Orthodox Church in America. With this call we have tried to show that our autocephaly was a necessary step towards rectifying our relationship with our mother Church, the Church in Russia as well as a first step in achieving ecclesial unity in North America. For 30 years our autocephaly has been questioned and not fully recognized. At the same time, however, our autocephaly has also gained the unofficial recognition and admiration of those within the ethnic dioceses and their mother Churches who acknowledge the need for one Church in America.
The polemics against a self-governing Orthodox Church in North America have, over the past 30 years, fostered a world-wide division on how autocephaly can be granted. These polemics hav e also undermined and distorted Orthodox ecclesiology and weakened a united Orthodox witness in North America. In addition, these polemics have led to the undermining of the Holy Spirit who is the source and sustainer of all ecclesial life. Thus, when we refer to our autocephaly we refer to a reality that does not emerge from a narrow and particular reading of canon law but from the activity of God’s Divine Spirit. And therefore our canonical autocephaly stems not from the letter of the law but from the law of the Holy Spirit which is the law of Life, of Truth, of Creativity, of Love, of Unity.
It is the law of the Spirit which provides the foundation and support of Orthodox ecclesiology and therefore the focus for interpreting and implementing the canons of the church. It is the law of the spirit which purifies the mind and heart, enabling the Church to reside in the communion of love and truth.
As we come to the close of the 20th century, I again call upon His All Holiness Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW I of Constantinople to preside in love, and pray that he will encourage the other mother Churches to recognize that the Church in North America must be one and self-governing. I am convinced that only through the law of the spirit will the primacy of love prevail for the true upbuilding of the Body of Christ in North America.
While our autocephaly has been scrutinized by canonists and Church historians—while it has been questioned by the ancient patriarchates—our church continues to sojourn and witness in America. Indeed, the Holy Spirit cannot and will not be stifled by those who seek to maintain the unfortunate status quo in America. The Holy Spirit will not tolerate anyone seeking to maintain ecclesial division. Thus we, as a self-governing Church, will continue to work towards Orthodox unity. As a self-governing Church we will continue to share the legacy of the Holy Spirit with all who yearn for regeneration and transfigured life.
Sojourning in America, our Church has been sealed with three remarkable gifts that witness to the law of the Holy Spirit. The first gift is the community of Saints. As an autocephalous Church we offer the world the glorified saints of America. The blood of martyrs, the kenotic love of the righteous, the courage of the humble and the prophetic vision of missionary hierarchs bear witness to the simple fact that the providence of God has placed the Orthodox Church in this land. Yes, the providence of God is responsible for our being here. And it is the providence of God that will forever refute the concept of an Orthodox “diaspora.”
The second gift that seals our autocephalous Church is our contribution to the renaissance of Orthodox theology and spirituality here in America and throughout the world. Our Church has played a significant role in bringing theology and spirituality back to the living waters of liturgy, Scripture and the Church fathers. Because of this renaissance our Church has and will continue to engage in ecumenical dialogue. Because of this renaissance, sustained by the Holy Spirit, our Church does not fear to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ anywhere and everywhere.
The third gift we have been sealed with is the call to be a missionary Church in America. Even when our Church was weighed down by the aftermath of the Russian revolution there were those clear and vibrant voices that never abandoned the evangelical and therefore missionary mandate of the Lord. As an autocephalous Church we must see ourselves, our parishes and our dioceses, as centers of missionary activity. As a missionary Church we are not permitted to repeat the mistakes of the past associated with ethnic identities. Our Church is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Our doors are opened to all people.
The Holy Spirit beckons us to go beyond the familiar—beyond the status quo. Yes, the Holy Spirit causes us to experience the discomfort of the unknown and the unpredictable. In the unknown the Church is called to live and overcome all fear. In the unknown the self-governing Church in America will proclaim, with one voice and one heart, Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.