Monday, January 20, 2014

ROCOR and the Assembly of Bishops

There has been a lot of hand-wringing by commentators in other jurisdictions regarding the letter that Archbishop Kyrill wrote recently to Archbishop Demetrios, regarding ROCOR's view of how things should proceed in the near future, regarding plans for jurisdictional unity in North America.

Let me preface my comments by saying that I have no inside scoop on the deliberations of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops, and base my comments only on the feel I have gotten from talking to other ROCOR clergy and laity on these matters. I am also speaking only for myself.

First off, my take on one of the main points of this letter is that it seems to be arguing that in the "diaspora", i.e. in those parts of the world where there is not a recognized, established autocephalous or autonomous Church, the presence of multiple jurisdictions is not a canonical violation, in and of itself. It is an anomalous situation, but it is not the result of anyone thumbing their noses at the canons, and violating them. The Russian Church rejects the idea that Canon 28 of Chalcedon gave the Ecumenical Patriarch jurisdiction over all unclaimed territory in the world... which is a ridiculous interpretation, given the fact that Constantinople was then second among equals, and no one ever suggested that Rome, for example, needed to get the Ecumenical Patriarch's permission to evangelize the Germans or Scandinavians. In the history of the Church, missions have always happened when a local Church was in a position to reach out to a new area, and then did so, without seeking permission from anyone else. So long as they were not establishing parishes or dioceses within the bounds of another local Church, there was no canonical violation. And as a matter of fact, since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, almost all the missionary work of the Church has been done by the Russian Church... not because it had or claimed to have any special prerogatives, but simply because it was in a position to do it, and so did it.

Secondly, I think there are a lot of issues that are probably not being stated in public, because it would be considered accusatory for ROCOR to do so, but which nevertheless are serious concerns. For example, when the faithful of ROCOR look out on the landscape of American Orthodoxy, and see jurisdictions that have laymen in good standing, and even clergy, who are openly advocating for gay marriage, and proclaim that committed monogamous homosexual relationships are not sinful, this is a cause for great concern. Of course no jurisdiction has endorsed such ideas, but the fact that they are tolerated is a statement that is being made by their respective bishops and jurisdictions. We also see jurisdictions that have prominent clergy and laity that advocate various degrees of ecumenism that are abhorrent to the Orthodox Faith. We also see liturgical abnormalities that have become normal in many jurisdictions, as well as a lack of concern for basic standards of Orthopraxy. How serious these problems may be in any jurisdiction is something that can be debated, but it is simply a fact that these are issues that concern the faithful of ROCOR.

Furthermore, when we look at the shape that such a unified jurisdiction would most likely take, we have concerns. Given the current claims that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has made about its authority -- claiming a level of authority that is neo-papal, and prerogatives that threaten the integrity of every established local Orthodox Church (such as the claim that it could rescind past recognition of autocephly, unilaterally*); and given that the most likely arrangement for a unified American Church would be that it would be autonomy, but under the EP -- the prospect of finding ourselves under the authority of the EP is not something that would come without great concern. Even if the American Church were to be established as autocephalous from the start, the concern would be that this could be revoked at will, by the EP.

Some have responded to such concerns by saying that ROCOR should come along for the ride, to lend its help and influence to solve these problems, but the problem with that is that ROCOR is far smaller than the other major jurisdictions, and so it is not likely that it would have a great deal of influence under those circumstances. Also, I believe St. John Chrysostom once pointed out that it is far more likely that a healthy person hanging around a sick person which catch the sick person's illness, than that the sick person will catch the well person's health. This not to say that ROCOR does not have problems -- we certainly do. However, as things stand right now, I like the problems we have better than the problems I see in some of the other jurisdictions right now, and while I support closer cooperation, and increased interaction with other jurisdictions, I think we should not be in too big of a rush to move things along, and that in the mean time, we should all work on our short comings, in order to make unity not only more likely, but also more productive, and spiritually beneficial.

One other thing that has to be understood about Archbishop Kyrill's letter, is that it did not say, "Full unity... never". It basically said "Full unity... not so fast." One other area of concern expressed is that each jurisdiction has its own liturgical traditions and piety, and doing anything that would result in a forced homogenization of liturgical practice and piety, would be very damaging to our flock.

Also, many of the responses that I have seen to Archbishop Kyrill's letter, have claimed that the letter represents Russian ethnocentrism. However, Archbishop Kyrill expressed concerns regarding things that are "a matter of gravest spiritual peril to the souls of all our flocks in these lands, whether ethnically of Russian heritage or not..." And speaking as one who is not a Russian, I share those concerns. The idea that ROCOR is a Russian only enclave is belied by the many parishes, such as my own, that do the services entirely in English, and have only a minority of ethnically Russian parishioners (my own parish, with regard to adults, is about half convert, and half cradle Orthodox, and the cradle Orthodox, are a good mix of Arabs, Russians, Greeks, Poles, and Serbs. And the converts are fairly diverse as well).

Here are some things that I think would help facilitate Orthodox unity in North America:

1. Obviously, the problem of laity and clergy promoting anti-Orthodox agendas needs to be taken seriously. If those jurisdictions want unity, they need to see these things as threats to that unity, and they need to deal decisively, and publicly with those individuals.

2. Since the EP is likely to be a big player in an unity in North America, it needs to cut out the neo-papist rhetoric, and renounce the notion that it could rescind unilaterally any autocephalous status of a local Church... because if it doesn't, that really means that any agreements that would be reached about the nature and status of a united American Orthodox Church would not be worth the paper they were written on. One other thing that would help, in my opinion, would be for the EP to move operations to Mount Athos, much as the Patriarchate of Antioch moved to Damascus. If we had a future EP that was a respected Athonite elder, I don't think any pious member of any jurisdiction would have any difficulty entrusting themselves to his authority. Being under a primate that must be approved by the Turkish government is not something that the faithful of ROCOR want to see.

3. Since there is a diversity of liturgical traditions in North America, some guarantees will need to be forthcoming that would safeguard local parishes from having a bishop from another liturgical tradition, coming in like gangbusters, and facing them to conform to the tradition of the Bishop's preference. One way would be to simply put such a guarantee into the charter of the Church, make it unchangeable by any entity, other than a super majority of the parish. There could also be commissions for each liturgical tradition, that would oversee liturgical publications, and deal with matters of a purely liturgical nature if some controversy were to arise.

I am in favor of unity in America, under healthy circumstances. We should pray for that to come to pass, but if American Orthodox unity means that advocates for gay marriage will have free reign, and liturgical abnormalities will become the norm, then I pray that jurisdictional divisions in America will continue until Christ returns. However, if we all seek to embrace the Tradition of the Church, and to remain faithful to our doctrines, unity will happen one way or another, because real unity naturally comes from a unity of Faith.

p.s. One thing I should also add is that most of the clergy that I have met from other Orthodox Jurisdictions are pious and committed men, and so I don't want anyone to think that I do not hold a great many clergy and laity from other jurisdictions in very high regard. If every jurisdiction emulated the best examples of clergy and laity found within them, we would have unity in very short order.

*"This threefold primacy translates into specific privileges, such as the right of appeal and the right to grant or remove autocephaly (for example, the Archdioceses-Patriarchates of Ochrid, Pec and Turnavo, etc.), a privilege that the Ecumenical Patriarch exercised even in decisions not validated by decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, as in the case of modern Patriarchates, the first of which is that of Moscow" ( Met. Elpidophoros of Bursa, First Without Equals). It should be noted that the EP actually threatened recently to remove the autocephaly of the Slovakian Orthodox Church, because of some perceived slight, despite the fact that it was the Moscow Patriarchate that had granted them their autocephaly.

Update: Nathaniel McCallum has written a post entitled:  ROCOR Says Overlapping Dioceses are Canonical: An Ecclesiological Analysis.

Nathaniel goes down a number of rabbit trails in terms of the canons, in his attempt to refute the idea that the current situation we have in North America is not a canonical crime. However, ROCOR’s interpretation of the canons seems to be pretty similar to all the other local Churches who have established parishes in North America. After all, the Russian Church was here first. Every other jurisdiction that is here now, interpreted the canons to mean that they could establish their own ecclesiastical presence in North America, to meet the needs of their people who had come here. The fact that no one has been brought up on canonical charges when you have a 100 years worth of people doing something is a good sign that no one thinks the canons are being violated. Now is the situation an anomalous one? Yes. But no one has set out to violate the canons, in this regard, in any of the legitimate jurisdictions we have in North America.

Obviously the situation with the Church in Cyprus is not exactly analogous, but for a reason that Nathaniel did not mention. North America is not a recognized autocephalous Church. Even the tomos of autocephaly received by the OCA, while it granted the OCA independence, provided for the continuation of a presence of the MP in North America, and stated that it did not imply that the other jurisdictions in America were uncanonical — and so really, it was never autocephaly, in the full traditional sense.

Generally speaking, the canons address situations in which you have recognized autocephalous Churches, and thus speak of how they should interact. There is not a lot in the canons about how unclaimed  territories should be handled. But the history of the Church has been that local Church who were in a position to establish Churches in a new area, simply did so. The immigrant history of America is unprecedented in the history of the Church, and so what has resulted was not foreseen or specifically addressed by the canons. And so to speak of this situation as a violation of the canons is simply unfounded.

The bottom line is ROCOR has some concerns about the proposals for a quick integration of the jurisdictons, and those concerns will have to be addressed in order to bring ROCOR and the Russian Church into agreement. However, ROCOR is not stating a categorical opposition to jurisdictional unity, with ROCOR included, as ever happening. It is just opposed to such a union as things stand, and under the current proposals on the table.

Many will have seen the video of the meeting that was held in Cleveland to discuss the Episcopal Assembly, in which Protodeacon Peter Danilchick spoke. However, I spoke with Bishop Peter, who was also there, and he said that there were comments that were edited out of the video… and one of them was a question in which someone asked if America had a future as an autocephalous Church. Bishop Peter answered that yes, it does, however, he listed a number of things that he thought would need to happen first. Metropolitan Savas, said “No”, but that rather the American Church would be autonomy... under the EP — and that is a future that, as things stand, I would not want to see come to pass.

Nathaniel also uses two arguments that are unnecessarily inflammatory: 1. He tries to taint ROCOR's position with the charge of Ecumenism, and 2. He suggests that ROCOR is only taking this position because it is carrying water for the MP. Were it not for the modernistic and ecumenistic elements present in some of the larger jurisdictions in North America, there would be a lot less caution on the part of ROCOR. The views expressed by Archbishop Kyrill bear no resemblance to the Protestant notion of an invisible Church, because if it did, we would not care whether someone was a member of a legitimate Church or a vagante jurisdiction… but obviously, we do. Furthermore, I have not gotten any sense from anyone in ROCOR that ROCOR is being forced into any position by the MP. However, making these kind of charges is an attempt to open the wounds received during the fight for reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate, when those who eventually went into schism claimed that we would just be stooges for the MP and that we were giving up the fight against ecumenism, and we were thus now ecumenists ourselves. The relationship between ROCOR and the MP has actually been a very good one, and the MP has been very careful not to interfere with ROCOR or to come off as heavy handed, even in some cases where they might have had a good argument for doing so, had they been so inclined. ROCOR is very clear on its stance on Modernism and Ecumenism… and were this only true of all the Orthodox in North America and their respective mother churches, we would have no serious obstacles to a united Church in North America. ROCOR is not denying that a unified American Church is what we should have, and would like to have, under the right conditions. However, one does not have to be willing to accept a hasty union, under whatever terms might be dictated by the EP, for that to be so. There are worse options that not having jurisdictional unity, and one would be losing the purity of the Faith. St. Mark of Ephesus said that there can be no compromise on matters of the Faith, and there are matters of the Faith that are at issue.

ROCOR simply is not going to be rushed into a quick union, on the EP’s terms, without their concerns being addressed, and all the ramifications being given due consideration. However, ROCOR reaffirmed in this letter that it intends to continue to work with the Episcopal Assembly processes. On the other hand, Antioch has completely withdrawn, in order to Protest the Jerusalem Patriarchate having established a parish in Qatar… and yet there are no lengthy responses that I have seen taking the Antiochians to task for their actions… but leaving the Episcopal Assembly altogether obviously makes coming to some eventual agreement are less likely than taking the position that certain issues need to be dealt with first before an agreement can be reached. So rather than expending all this energy giving ROCOR grief for its epistle, I would suggest expending energy dealing with the issues that have been raised, and working patiently to come to an ultimate agreement that it likely to work well, and takes the legitimate concerns of all local Churches into account.

Update 2: Nathaniel replied: "And my argument is: 1. The failure to fix it right now is, according to the Fathers, a greater risk to our salvation than any particular terms we might find objectionable.2. The idea that we don’t have to fix it right now is fundamentally the same theological move as the Protestant notion of the “invisible Church” which undergirds the ecumenical movement."

My response: Satire alert....

If you so strongly believe that we should fix it now, how about starting with the OCA, which has not one, not two, but three ethnic dioceses that overlap all of their other dioceses. Fix it now, Nathaniel… show us how it is done. How about starting with an article entitled “The OCA believes parallel ethnic dioceses are canonical.” And then when all the Bulgarians, Albanians, Romanians, and the rest of the OCA are living happily ever after, then let’s get the EP to do the same, and fix the parallel Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian and Greek dioceses. Once we have seen all that work, then we can have the quick establishment of an autonomous American Church, under the Moscow Patriarchate, since the Russians were here first. Fix it now, Nathaniel. Then let’s all agree to do it the way the Russians want it done. It’s that simple! Problem solved. Now let’s fix the Calendar problem — everyone goes back to the status quo ante. Problem solved. Now what’s next?