“All of our Demons are Grey”
Placing the Questions Arising from Autocephaly, Self Rule and the Episcopal Assembly of North American Bishops in a wider context.
by Nicholas Chapman
In 1986 I made my second visit to the Soviet Union and was able to meet with the Orthodox dissident and writer Vladimir Zelinsky. In relation to the situation of the Church in that country at that time he made a statement that has remained with me ever since. On many occasions it helped me when struggling to come to terms with human frailty as seen in the life of our Church. His simple statement: “All of our demons are grey.”
Another equally simple, but profound statement (I am unable to site its source) is “The Church is a sacrament with institutions and not an institution with sacraments.” This draws us to the understanding of the Church as first and foremost the mystical Body of Christ, uniting heaven and earth, where we as its present earthly members have to struggle for salvation. In so doing we should understand that all of our institutions are but means to an end:the summing up of all things in God, through Christ, by the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
As we all engage in this struggle for salvation it is important to remember, “All our demons are grey.” That is to say, we do not seek to divide the members of the Church on earth into “goods guys and bad guys.” The truth is that to one degree or another we all are both: We love God; we seek to serve Him and to keep his commandments. But at the same time we struggle against the passions which wage war in our hearts and which can deceive us into thinking that a cause we pursue is godly when in fact are goals are motivated by pride and vanity. Hence the repeated use of the Prayer of St. Ephraim each year during Lent as a means of cleansing our hearts to receive the Lord’s Pascha.
As I write there is animated debate about the meaning of “Autocephaly” and “Autonomy/Self Rule” and to what extent these concepts are meaningful for Orthodox Christians living in modern America. These issues are not insignificant as good government in the Church should be an instrument of peace bearing the fruit of salvation. But as we struggle to understand where the local church is to be found (Parish/Diocese/Metropolitan Province/ Autocephalous national Church etc.) we must retain a sense of proportion and flee any tendency to form political factions and to superimpose secular politic concepts (liberal v conservative, democrat v autocrat, American v foreign) on our life as the Church.
It behoves us all to learn mutual respect: “ Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” (Exodus 22:28, Acts 23:5) This is not to write a blank check for bad behaviour. It is possible to strongly and vocally disagree and protest an action of any member of the Church that is contrary to the Tradition. But this can and must be done in a way that stills upholds the dignity of an office given by God and only if our aim in so doing is to bring salvation and to keep the Church in the way of peace.
In the past twenty years I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many of the Bishops of the Patriarchate of Antioch, both in America and the Middle East. They, like all of us, are not without theirs flaws and varying human weaknesses. As is well known, the Patriarchate is centered in Damascus, Syria and as such the Bishops there face a constant challenge of sustaining the outward life of the Church in a very complex political and religious environment. In many ways there struggle is more difficult then that faced by the Russian Church under the Soviet regime. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Moslems and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise amongst them. The government is however controlled by members of the Alawi, a religion that traces its origin to the residents of the area at the time of Alexander the Great, before the birth of Christ. They have absorbed influences from both Christianity and Islam. The present political reality is that as a minority the Alawi rely on the support of the Christian minority to control the Sunni Moslem majority. If US foreign policy were to turn again to the “regime change” in Syria and seek to remove the Assad family (who are Alawi) from power this could also be the end Orthodox Church life in Syria and Lebanon. The example of Iraq is chilling: before the US invasion in 1993 there were five thousand families in the Antiochian Orthodox parish in Baghdad. By late 1996 there were fifty. So in terms of the life of the Church in the Middle East a voice to the US foreign policy establishment is of much greater consequence than money and such a voice will be deemed stronger if it can be seen to come from one united Archdiocese.
Many of the Antiochian Bishops in the Middle East have received theological education in the West and also have an excellent command of the English language. Their love for God is genuine and they strive to serve the Church.When the question of some form of autonomy for the Archdiocese in America was first broached some years ago they sort to respond to this in a positive way, taking into account the state of wider Orthodox life in America, including the autocephaly of the OCA. The best model for a greater independence of the North American Archdiocese was seen to be that of an ancient “Metropolitan Province” with a local synod of Diocese Bishops governing in harmony with their ruling Metropolitan. At that time the only living example of this was the Archdiocese of Akar that transcended the Syrian Lebanese border. The Metropolitan of Akar at that time was Paul. Another Bishop of the Patriarchate resident in Syria described him and his two Diocesan Bishops to me as “a saintly men who did not love power.” When Metropolitan Paul reposed the situation changed and has become a source of conflict within the Patriarchate. I would conjecture that they also see the North America Archdiocese as failing in this regard: in both cases the response has been to drop the model of Metropolitan Provinces. So notwithstanding the real canonical difficulty with the idea of a Diocesan Bishop ceasing to be so without any evident wrongdoing the challenges now faced in America is to actually learn to live the originally intended model. This will surely entail great humility and repentance on the part of all. We must learn to prefer one another in love and trust that our God is “a God of Faithfulness and without injustice.” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4) If we were truly to entrust all our concerns to the Lord we may be surprised how He can act in our midst.
When considering the question of greater self-government for its North American Diocese the Holy Synod of Antioch was also cognoscente of the autocephaly of the OCA. The short work entitles “Toward an American Orthodox Church” (Alexander Bogolepov, SVS Press) was consulted. This was written in 1963 and seeks to make a canonical case for what became the autocephalous OCA. The Antiochian Bishop’s discounted the idea of creating a fully autonomous Church on the same territory as another body claiming full autocephaly.
The OCA must now face its own spiritual struggle as it confronts the gap which exists between its own self understanding of the autocephaly granted it and a number of factors which lead to questions regarding this self understanding. These include, but perhaps are not limited to:
A newly developing understanding of the origins and development of Orthodox Church life in America which call into question the idea that Orthodoxy in Amercica was originally one unified Church within the wider Russian Orthodox church. The end of the division in the Russian Orthodox Church between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad: the latter has always understood the Metropolia/OCA to be a schism from the ROCOR. The lack of universal recognition of the OCA’s autocephaly by other local Orthodox churches who have all maintained separate church structures within the canonical territory of the OCA and show no sign of abandoning these.
The recent decisions of the inter- Orthodox meetings in Chambesy, Switzerland, particular as regards to how a church can be recognised as either autonomous of autocephalous. The OCA’s Tomos of Autocephaly clearly does not meet these standards. The sudden change in the relationship between the Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchates, which in turn may well be founded on the changing Orthodox demographics within Turkey where Orthodox Christians of Russian origin now probably outnumber those of Greek background by a factor of at least ten to one.
The story in Genesis of Abraham and Isaac may be instructive for all Orthodox Christians in North America at this time: Isaac was the long promised son given to Abraham and Sarah by God. God then demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Abraham was humble and did not question God. He was willing to make the sacrifice. This brings the first mention of the word “worship” in Holy Scripture and as we know Orthodoxy can be understood as “right worship.” So to sacrifice is not to deny that the object of the sacrifice is in itself a good thing and even the promise of God. But through obedience we become true worshippers: Orthodox Christians in deed not only name.
There may well be those who aim to control the process of the creation of a real Episcopal Assembly and Secretariat for their own less than righteous aims. But St. Paul rejoices that the Gospel is preached even when “some preach Christ out of selfish ambition.” (Philippians 1:17) Nevertheless he rejoices that Christ is preached. Likewise we can rejoice that all of our Bishops have assembled together and seek to do all that we can at a local level to actualise the reality of our one Orthodox Faith and Church. Surely if we confront all of our injustices and lack of mutual understanding with love, respect, much prayer and humility then we can grow together as one Church in North America. We must remember and learn to pray the words of the Psalmist: “
“Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a smooth path, because of my enemies. Do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence. I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. (Psalm 27.11-13)”
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer NY, August 2010
Nicholas Chapman worked in number of roles for the Orthodox church in the former Soviet Union. He was involved in the formation of the Antiochian Deanery in the UK. He presently lives near and works at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York.