The 10th All-American Council
The 10th All-American Council
We have renounced disgraceful and underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God ... for what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor 4:1-2,5).
Brothers and Sisters of the Orthodox Church in America,
Discerning the will of God is in a sense the “theme” of every church council, from parish council meeting to Ecumenical Council. But every council also has some particularly urgent issue demanding attention, discernment and action at each particular time. For the Tenth All-American Council, the focus is “Our Spiritual Life and Ministry.”
This may sound rather vague, but it has to do with something not easily quantified: the quality of our community life. It involves more than just better organization and greater efficiency. Rather, it concerns how we relate to each other in the household of faith, how we listen and speak to each other, how we care for one another. The earliest community of Christians was “of one heart and soul” (Acts 2:42). What concrete steps can we take to move in this direction? This is the focus of the Council.
From the outset, however, we have to build trust that councils are worthwhile. The impression exists among some that such meetings—beyond their worship and social dimensions—are essentially a waste of time and money. Resolution after resolution is passed and yet, the perception remains that “nothing ever changes.” This may be one reason why many parishes sent no representatives to the last All-American Council. We must restore faith in words and commitments by being accountable for what we say and do. I will begin with myself.
My primary task as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America is to secure and express the unity of the church. I do this first of all by presiding over the Holy Synod of Bishops, whose spokesman I become within our church, as well as within the family of autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and in the world. I am in constant contact with all my brother bishops in the Orthodox Church in America, with my brother bishops and primates of other Orthodox Churches, and with the priests and the people. I visit parishes, diocesan assemblies, seminaries, monasteries, military chapels, and other Christian communities, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. I also visit our sister churches overseas (though these visits have been few in the last three years), and I receive visiting delegations from overseas as well as from churches in North America.
Within our Orthodox Church in America, I also chair the meetings of the Metropolitan Council and various church departments. I meet almost daily with Fr. Robert Kondratick, our Chancellor: from these meetings I learn of the calls, complaints and correspondence that come into the chancery from all corners of our church and from around the world; at the same time, I am aware of everything that issues from the central church administration. In various ways through visits, phone calls, letters and meetings I am daily exposed to bishops, priests, and lay people from every region of our church.
My point in telling you this is to let you know that I observe what is going on in the life of our church: “the good, the bad and the ugly.” It is from this perspective that I share with you the following observations, which I believe are, in substance, those of my brother bishops on the Holy Synod.
The Spiritual Life of the Community
Discerning and doing God’s will in the realm of parish life is the responsibility of every member of the community, and particularly of the parish priest and of those who are elected to serve on the parish council. Among our laity we have talented and hard-working people who bring their skills and gifts to enrich the ministries of the Church in music, education, financial management, counseling, and in many other fields. We have others who quietly but persistently find opportunities to visit, to give, to comfort, who raise their children to love and honor God, who in some way extend the love of God to all those with whom they work or socialize. These people are the heart of the many living and active communities in the Orthodox Church in America, communities where there is a warm atmosphere, where parishioners know each other as friends and enjoy each other’s company, where liturgical celebrations are alive, where real human needs are addressed, where people pledge themselves and their money to the church’s work cheerfully and with a sense of gratitude, where the children and youth are engaged in the life of the Church.
The most crucial task facing our parishes is to set the stage for growth and evangelism by strengthening the spiritual life of the individuals and of the community. Being firmly grounded in the love of God and of one another, we will be able as the Orthodox Church in America to accomplish His will without bickering, complaining or blaming. All too often, these negative qualities bring down a community, put it at odds with the priest, and cause dissension in surrounding parishes and in the Church as a whole. Distrust is kindled and it begins to bear bitter fruit in the life and ministry of the priest, undermining his effectiveness and threatening the spiritual well-being and ministry of the laity as well. This is indeed the crux of the issue at hand—our spiritual life and ministry. An old Russian saying puts it: “As the priest is, so goes the parish.” So allow me to take a closer look at our parishes by beginning with the clergy and then turning to the laity.
I see many priests who love their vocation, who love their parishioners, who are trying to be genuine pastors to their people. They are not aloof, but visit and engage parishioners. They are practical and realistic pastors who know their parishioners and what they are capable of at a given time, yet who always set before them the full vision of the Church. I find priests who are serious about the Church, but good-humored, without pretense or affectation, without falsity or exotic excess, without self-promotion. I see priests who, in spite of sacrifices (and our priests make many sacrifices), convey joy by their presence alone. They are witnesses to Christ simply in the struggle they share with parishioners to live an Orthodox Christian life in this world, juggling the spiritual, emotional and material responsibilities of marriage and children, while at the same time being available to and caring for their parishioners. I know priests who approach human beings and the liturgy with the same attitude of care, reverence and awe for the mystery of God at work in both. I observe priests who take the time to listen as well as preach.
It is when I see this personal dimension that I am most encouraged—the priest who can embrace his parishioners, even the most “prickly” ones, or to whom people can speak openly, even about their criticism. I am especially happy when I see a priest in whom people can confide, who listens without judging, whose very presence speaks of Christ.
I rejoice every time I see a priest whose strength comes from faith in Christ and a disciplined spiritual life: personal prayer and solitude, scripture and spiritual reading, confession, attentiveness to preparing for and celebrating the services of the church. A priest who—in spite of temptations and weakness abounding in others and in himself —- loves God, loves the church, loves his people. A priest who, in spite of his own sins, knows that the power and presence of Christ is active within him for the benefit of others. A priest who does not feel obliged to be everything, do everything, control everything. A pastor who knows his own weaknesses as well as his strengths, who knows when to seek help, not only for dealing with parish situations or pastoral issues, but for his own personal life, who knows when he needs the advice and assistance of another priest, his bishop, or a counselor. Admitting his own limitations, he is willing to let others help, and can be tolerant of the weaknesses and imperfections in others. These are priests who are secure in their vocation and in themselves; these are priests who are not put off by either criticism or praise.
When I speak of faithful and effective priests, it is almost in the same breath that I must mention their wives, for I have seen how essential a faithful and supportive wife is to the priest’s ministry. It is often not an easy role. The role expectations come from parishioners, her husband and even herself, and sometimes these expectations conflict with each other. She and the children must cope with the stress of being looked to as examples of piety, obedience and self-control. She is sometimes sought for counseling and pastoral advice as much as or more than her husband. The clergy wife hears of parish conflicts often before her husband does, and she must endure painful and sometimes thoughtless comments from parishioners. If the family lives in a parish rectory, then the care and upkeep of the rectory, as well as the “fishbowl” quality of family life, often become sources of tension. As homemaker, she is often most directly affected by low clergy salaries and minimal raises. In the unpredictable and sometimes chaotic circumstances surrounding clergy transfers, she has to cope with her children’s being uprooted from friends and school, and she herself may have to leave a job or interrupt her schooling. There are so many understandable reasons for bitterness and resentment that we must marvel and give thanks for the many wives and children who remain faithful and joyful as they share in the ministry of the priest.
Now I would like to turn to the laity. I have already spoken of faithful and committed lay people as the backbone of our parishes: zealous and good-hearted, they desire to work for the welfare of the Church. More importantly, they are earnestly thirsting for Christ, seeking to discern his presence in their lives. I see men and women who are looking for direction in overcoming anxiety and the sense of being pulled in many different directions at once, who are seeking and struggling to pass on a living Orthodox Christianity to their children. I have seen people who are trying to center their lives on Christ and the Church, struggling to achieve their salvation amidst a torrent of competing priorities and responsibilities which come from living in a secular and materialistic society. They are good-willed people striving to make sense of their existence and to do good for the sake of others.
Many of our faithful lay people, like our clergy, are struggling to make ends meet and to cope with temptations and trials in their families. They undergo marital difficulties, troubles with children, employment problems, sicknesses and addictions. They are faithful Orthodox Christians whose first allegiance is to Christ. They strive to bear witness to the Gospel in their homes and in their work in the world—this is the fundamental and essential mission of the Christian laity. They are fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, friends and neighbors, laborers and lawyers, teachers and medical workers, those in business and various professions, who desire to bring to everyday life the love, truth, peace and joy of the Lord which they experience in the Church. They are also the men and women who care for the priest and his family, who observe his work, his effort and his sacrifice, as well as his faults and weaknesses, which they bring to his attention with compassion and mercy.
In regard to both the clergy and the laity, however, there is another side which I, and my fellow members of the Holy Synod, cannot ignore.
There are priests who bully, manipulate and intimidate. There are some who hide in the rectory and the altar, who use the theology and the worship of the church to erect barriers between themselves and parishioners, who make every issue a dogmatic issue, who hammer parishioners with Christ’s truth, but who cannot share His love. Some priests become impatient; they forget that the Kingdom of God is like a slow-growing seed. Others are uncomfortable with parishioners: they accept a “we-they” mentality; they are unable to love or forgive.
We on the Holy Synod see failing clergy marriages, requests for leaves-of-absence, priests leaving full-time parish ministry for full-time secular work or non-parish ministries. We also see distrust and competition, clergy alcoholism, and sexual impropriety. These are signs of a collapsing spiritual life and ministry, both personal and corporate. These are also signs of financial stress, discouragement, depression, and “burnout.” It is unfair to say—as I sometimes hear—that all this is simply the result of a priest’s own personal sin; often the whole community shares the responsibility for these unfortunate situations.
In all of our dioceses there are parishioners—and parish councils—who instead of assisting the priest in building up the parish, obstruct and criticize at every turn, making the pastor the scapegoat for all that ails them and the parish. They bully other parishioners, creating conflicts or inflaming them. They view the priest as a functionary, or as an employee, and not as their pastor and father, someone to be respected and cared for. There are people who don’t give the priest, or anyone else, a chance to make mistakes, to be human; who struggle against others rather than work with them; who are all too willing to give “helpful criticism,” but not to forbear, overlook, or encourage.
There are other parishioners who deplore and shun all conflict, and so leave the priest alone to be verbally attacked, or worse, to be bullied in the administration of parish affairs. This silence of the well-meaning can be just as damaging to a parish. I have seen parishes turned in upon themselves, seeking their own good and not the good of the Church as a whole, resenting or even rejecting their connection to the rest of the Church.
I am most concerned about the financial inequities I see from week to week, both within parishes and between parishes. On one Sunday I may be at a large, well-endowed city parish with thousands of dollars in the bank, while the next Sunday I may visit a mission where a priest holds a second job or must stay home to watch young children while his wife works to support the family, where the parish is struggling to pay him even a poor salary, where materials for liturgical services and religious education are lacking. I am always upset to see the distress in a priest’s life caused by financial problems. And it is all too frequent. Frankly, it is unnecessary!
It would be misleading to leave you with the impression that the condition of our Church depends solely on the character of the priest and the parish. I know as well as you that my brother bishops and I—in our dioceses and together as the Holy Synod—directly affect the spiritual health and morale of the Church. The Russian saying about the priest and the parish could be repeated in regard to the bishops and their dioceses. Our Church has an ancient tradition of “accountability” to one another as members of one Body, and we bishops are not exempt. In fact, that is why we cannot act independently of one another as we administer our dioceses. We come together as a Holy Synod precisely because the canons require us to be accountable to one another and to the Church in the exercise of our episcopal authority. I am convinced that it is only by being willing to account for our commitments and words that we will be able to restore trust in those words and exercise true leadership. Let us call each other into account; in turn, let us be willing ourselves to be called into account.
Mission and Unity
So far, I have focused exclusively on the internal life of our Church, but this is inseparable from our mission to “go and make disciples” (Mt 28:20). A strong community life that reveals commitment to Christ and to each other is only the most basic prerequisite for mission and ministry. Let us not ever forget that we were founded as a missionary church. Our holy bishops St Innocent and St Tikhon were motivated by this vision. Indeed, every generation of Orthodox Christians in North America has had leaders who—even in the midst of severe tests in our internal life—never lost sight of our mission to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in this land, inviting all people to discover in Jesus Christ the ultimate fulfillment of their spiritual longing. Without a sense of mission, our church life becomes self-absorbed and insular. With it, we are always fresh and invigorated.
At the same time, we must recognize that our church community and our mission are not limited to North America. As Orthodox, we are part of a family of churches worldwide. At this critical moment in history, with the new conditions in Eastern Europe and the USSR, we are being called upon to help sister churches rebuild their life and carry out the Church’s mission in their own countries. Our thinking and budgeting for mission must include them if we are to be more than a “feel good” religious society for the mutual benefit of our own local members.
We must admit that the mission envisioned by St Innocent and St Tikhon is severely crippled by the lack of a united Orthodox episcopate on this continent. Orthodoxy’s mission in North America depends not only on the internal unity of the Orthodox Church in America, but on the unity of all the various Orthodox bishops and their churches. “Peaceful coexistence” may have had its place during the Cold War, but it is disastrous for the witness of Orthodoxy. My dream is that all the bishops of the Orthodox churches in North America will form themselves into a holy synod to lead the Church toward a united witness in and to North America. Once the bishops are together, and have a common vision concerning the mission of Orthodoxy, then the rest of the Church—the departments, boards, and commissions now doing parallel work in the different jurisdictions, and then finally the parishes —- can over time be fully integrated on a working level. This, of course, will take time, but we must begin now.
The first step towards a synod of all the Orthodox bishops is to have an initial meeting of all the bishops. We have pressed for this repeatedly, but the other churches are still controlled from overseas and so far have been unable to say “yes.” They are not free to negotiate their own future and the future of Orthodoxy in North America. Our plea to the mother churches is this: allow your daughters at least some limited autonomy and empower them to work for the unity of the Church in North America. Allow them to organize their life where they are. Allow them to be the Church where they are.
When we insist on unity and order we are sometimes accused of trying to “russify” the Church in North America. We cannot deny that the Orthodox Church in America is the daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church, but we can and do embrace and cultivate respect for a variety of languages, cultures and Orthodox Christian traditions. Unity does not mean uniformity; it means working together for mission, evangelization, and ecumenical witness. We must not wait for our differences to disappear before uniting our churches, because ethnic pride will continue to resurface in each generation and act as a source of division—if we allow it to do so. As yet another generation of Orthodox Americans is being raised ignorant of the unity and universality of the Faith, and as American society continues to be bewildered and distracted by the ethnic character of our churches, we as the Orthodox Church in America can only continue to press the message of unity and to build the body of Christ entrusted to our care, and to do that well. If, by the grace of God, conditions for inter-Orthodox unity change for the better, then we will be ready to make the most of these opportunities as “a people prepared” (Lk 1:17).
Let me return to the focus of the Council “Our Spiritual Life and Ministry.” We are all members of the Orthodox Church in America, but beyond that, in human terms, we are very different. Our ages, vocations and occupations, our financial, educational, ethnic and family backgrounds, our background in the Orthodox Church, our prejudices and personalities—all these can and do become sources of irritation, whether spoken or unspoken. But my hope is for our church life to be a calm haven where our commitment to Christ overflows into commitment to each other, where we can accept each other with all our differences, where we can admit our own weaknesses as well as the limitations of others and bear one another’s burdens, where conflicts and difficulties are admitted and resolved and not passed over in silence and allowed to fester, where we “speak the truth in love” without seeking to embarrass or embitter one another.
These are my observations and hopes, which I believe are shared by my brother bishops of the Holy Synod, regarding the “spiritual life and ministry” of the Orthodox Church in America. I am fully persuaded that unless we first address this issue, all our debates and resolutions on all other issues will ultimately be frustrated and unfruitful.
Brothers and Sisters, being mindful of my own weaknesses. I beg for your forgiveness, forbearance, and your prayers. I pray that these deficiencies will not in any way deter us from the tasks that lie ahead, but that God will transform our weaknesses into strengths.
Archbishop of Washington,
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
Primate, Orthodox Church in America