The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America will hold its annual meeting in Chicago, IL September 15-17, 2015. The following report by Protodeacon Peter Danilchick was given during the fifth Plenary Session at the 18th All-American Council, GA July 20-24, 2015. It provides valuable insights into the Assembly’s work and accomplishments to date. An audio of the report, is available courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio. Protodeacon Peter’s report begins at 1:09.06 and runs through 1:27.00.
REPORT ON THE ASSEMBLY OF CANONICAL ORTHODOX BISHOPS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Protodeacon Peter Danilchick
Your Beatitude, Your Eminences, Your Graces, Reverend Fathers and Mothers, Brothers and Sisters: Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
Isn’t that amazing? Think about it. Jesus Christ assured us: where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there with them! That is an enormous comfort. But it’s also an awesome challenge. Jesus commanded that we should love one another and prayed to His heavenly Father that we should all be one.
This is the challenge laid down before the Assembly of Bishops, before the bishops of all Orthodox jurisdictions in the US, to be united in Christ as one body, loving one another as one, working together as one, as perfectly one.
His Beatitude asked me to come today and address you on the work of the Assembly of Bishops. I was asked to be truthful. And I will be, as God gives me strength.
I’ll describe the whats and whos of the Assembly. I’ll discuss unity—progress, issues as well as the next steps. I’ll finish with the role of the OCA in the Assembly, past, present, and hopefully future. I’ll try to go a bit quickly so we have time for questions.
Please note the disclaimer at the bottom. I’m presenting as an individual member of the OCA. As you can see from my Assembly Secretariat and several Committee positions, I am quite familiar with its workings. But my comments do not necessarily represent the positions of the Assembly. I also do not represent the OCA in the Assembly in any way. The Assembly is made up of Bishops. I am just their servant.
What is the Assembly About?
A little over six years ago, a Conference of the Heads of overseas Orthodox Churches was held in Chambésy, a suburb of Geneva, Switzerland, in advance of a Great and Holy Council of all the Orthodox Churches worldwide. To prepare for this Great Council, the Conference established separate Assemblies of Bishops in twelve regions of the so-called “Diaspora.”
It charged these Assemblies with certain tasks, to show forth and encourage the unity of Orthodoxy, to work together, and particularly to solve the canonical anomaly of multiple overlapping jurisdictions. The Assemblies were explicitly directed to prepare a plan to organize the Orthodox of the region on a canonical basis.
Our Assembly was originally composed of North and Central America. The Assembly requested a change to best respond to cultural needs and diversity in the regions. Last year, separate Assemblies were created for the United States and Canada. The Central American hierarchs were incorporated into the Assembly of Latin America.
The Assembly has met each year since 2010 in General Assembly, once in New York City, three times in Chicago and once in Dallas. Each time there were some forty bishops present representing all jurisdictions. The minutes of the recent Assemblies are available on the Assembly web site. Lots of information on that site. Please visit it.
As with any organization which only meets once or twice a year, the majority of work is carried out by committees with specific responsibilities. For our Assembly, there are 14 such committees.
Who is Doing What?
These fourteen committees are composed of Bishops, but they have with them over a hundred clergy and lay consultants. Terms of reference for each committee—what they should do, how and with whom to do it—were established early on. All of these descriptions are on the Assembly website.
There are three major areas of committee work: Foundational, Cooperative and Canonical Organization.
Foundational: On the legal front, the Assembly has been incorporated. By-laws have been established. Federal tax-exempt status has been obtained. Financially, a disciplined accounting system has been implemented. The accounts have been satisfactorily audited. We have secured the services of research coordinator Alexei Krindatch to better understand the issues facing the Church and communications officer Chrysanthe Loizos to better communicate with everyone.
Significant cooperative efforts have been made by many of the committees listed here. A few examples: the Youth Committee has brought together jurisdictional youth coordinators. A directory of monastic communities is available on the web site and a descriptive atlas is under development. Canonical Affairs has developed a parish directory for the web site and is working on a consolidated clergy database.
The canonical organization work is the most difficult and complex. The Committee for Canonical Regional Planning is charged with the formulation of a plan for the organization of the Orthodox in the United States on a canonical basis. The Committee for Pastoral Practice aims at addressing the pastoral challenges associated with such a plan. We’ll speak more abut these two on the next slides.
As with all organizations, committees progress at different rates. Many are working well. Others are struggling. Some need a push. Our Secretariat and its committee liaisons help to coordinate and move things along as best we can.
A lot of work is being done. But what about the bottom line of unity?
Is There Progress Towards Unity?
The answer to this question is yes on several fronts.
The Committee for Canonical Regional Planning has formulated planning models for canonical restructuring and administrative unity. The Committee’s lead proposal was called “Ecclesiastical Provinces and Ethnic Vicariates.” A number of provinces would be established—composed of individual dioceses—which would be headed by bishops with no overlapping territories: one bishop in one city. At the same time, ethnic vicariates coordinated by senior priests, not bishops, would ensure that the particular needs of ethnic groups were cared for.
If you would like more information on this model, you can go to the Ancient Faith Radio web site, search for my last name “Danilchick,” and you’ll be able to read a transcript of an interview by Kevin Allen of last February 2014 titled “Orthodox Unity: Bump in the Road or End of the Road?”
Our Committee also presented at the last Assembly in Dallas a separate proposal which would increase collaboration among various jurisdictional ministries and programs over a ten year period while maintaining existing jurisdictions.
The Committee for Pastoral Practice has surveyed the jurisdictions on their pastoral practices. It compiled a 192-page draft report on differences in jurisdictional practice. The Committee is now turning its efforts to proposing models for resolution of those differences. Five areas have been identified: Baptism/Chrismation/Conversion; Marriage; Confession and Communion; Holy Unction/Anointing; and Funerals/Memorials.
As already mentioned, other committees are working to increase cooperation and mutual efforts. Among the leaders are Youth, Agencies, Monastic Communities, and Canonical Affairs. These are critical activities to bring us together in a spirit and a reality of working together in love.
What are the Major Issues?
Frankly, we are at a crossroads with our planning for canonical restructuring. Assembly decisions are made by consensus. Everyone must agree. The Church of Bulgaria, the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR have officially advised their disagreement with proceeding right now on any plan for canonical reorganization in the USA. In fact, there is a real concern that this could imply a veto on any other jurisdictions even working together on such planning. Hopefully that will not happen.
The Bulgarian Church has stated that it wishes to maintain its patriarchal jurisdiction in the USA. The motivation for this is the pastoral care for their estimated half-a-million Bulgarians in this country. They do not believe that proper ministrations could be provided without the direct supervision of the Bulgarian Church. Recent informal communications indicate that other jurisdictions may feel the same.
The Russian/ROCOR position is that more time is needed to develop common bonds and that it is premature to work on canonical reorganization before resolving divergences in pastoral practices. Such pastoral practices include fasting, reception of converts, inter-faith marriages, Confession and preparation for Holy Communion. A major stumbling block could be the ecclesiastical calendar issue. They do strongly maintain that efforts continue to express the unity that we already have.
Last October, the Assembly Chairman, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Archdiocese, requested all jurisdictions to officially comment on a plan presented by the Canonical Regional Planning Committee. Only three jurisdictions responded—the Bulgarians, MP/ROCOR, and the OCA. There are some seven other jurisdictions—no response. It is hard to have a dialogue when the other party is silent.
The Assembly Executive Committee, which also includes the primates of all jurisdictions in the USA, was recently invited to Constantinople to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch. The Antiochian representatives were absent. This is a concern to many of us. As you all may know, the Patriarchate of Antioch has broken communion with Jerusalem over the issue of who has jurisdiction in Qatar. How this will impact us in the US is anyone’s guess. We hope and pray that the absence of the Antiochian hierarchs that we experienced last year will not be repeated. Bishop Basil is the Assembly Secretary; Bishop Thomas is Chairman of the Youth Committee; Metropolitan Joseph is Chair of Pastoral Practice. These are all critical jobs; these are all critical people—we need them.
So—we have lots of issues that need to be worked upon. What’s next?
In less than two months, the Assembly will convene its sixth general meeting in Chicago.
- We anticipate that the major concentration will be on two areas: Youth and the plan forward for canonical organization.
- We look forward to increased cooperation among jurisdictional youth workers, perhaps leading to regional and national youth events.
- On the canonical plan side, we are working to see what can be done to achieve consensus, taking into account pastoral practices, more cooperation on ministries, and a look at at how restructuring might be accomplished on a regional basis.
The decisions reached at this Assembly meeting will be fed into the next meeting of the Preconciliar Commission for the Great Council.
The Patriarchs are expected to meet early next year in final preparation for the Great and holy Council to be held next spring at the Church of Saint Irene in Constantinople.
What is the Role of the OCA?
The OCA has consistently contributed to the work of the Assembly. It has participated in all committee work and the meetings. You can read the names of the OCA bishops and consultants to the committees listed in Father Leonid Kishkovsky’s external affairs report. Every committee has at least one OCA bishop or consultant.
The OCA presented a positive position on canonical restructuring in its paper of this March, which I hope you all read on the OCA web site. The OCA made what I consider to have been an enormous leap of faith, confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and trust in its fellow Orthodox bishops of whatever jurisdiction.
It recommended to start with the creation of a canonically and administratively united local Church. This Church would be led by a functioning local Synod. That Synod, in council, could then deal with issues of pastoral praxis and care of ethnic groups.
The OCA has enjoyed having such a local Synod for forty-five years of our autocephaly. However, as others in the Assembly have pointed out to me, because of our ethnic (or non-territorial) dioceses, Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian, we still have the canonical anomaly of overlapping hierarchical territories. We have been made aware of special agreements and there may also be possible special circumstances that we are not aware of. But, one thing is certain, we need to act as one Church, with neighboring territorial and ethnic parishes acting in complete unity, with their bishops of one mind and judgment. Make no mistake—people are looking at us.
Now—what can we all do, bishops, clergy and laity?
First and foremost, we need to actively seek opportunities to be with and to work with other churches. This needs to be at the top of our own planning lists. We need to coordinate Bishops’ calendars—to ensure multiple opportunities each year for the bishops of all jurisdictions to celebrate together, even shutting down a parish for a Sunday so that all might worship the Lord together in the same place. We need to step up participation and leadership in local clergy associations. Ensure that you invite all other local jurisdictions to workshops and retreats. Don’t just rely on e-mail and flyers. Call up people you know in other parishes and invite them personally. Cooperate in pan-Orthodox ministries like IOCC, OCMC and OPM. Support your seminaries in their active service across jurisdictions.
Lastly, speak your mind and express your heart to the Bishops, not just the OCA but others especially. Tell them how much you want unity. If you haven’t told them, they probably don’t know. They need to hear you. And—most importantly—we need to pray for the Bishops fervently, that through them as our shepherds, we may all become one. Paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy, ask not what our bishops can do for you; ask what you can do for your bishops. In the Old Testament, when Moses battled Amalek, Aaron and Hur, when Moses’s arms got tired, lifted up his arms so that Moses could continue to bring the grace of God upon the people of Israel. We need to lift up the arms of our bishops. They have an incredibly difficult job to do.
That’s all I have to say, Brothers and Sisters, Fathers and Mothers. Any questions?