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The Episcopal Assembly: Hopes and Realities

by V. Rev. John H. Erickson

Delivered at the Orthodox Christian Laity Annual Meeting
Salt Lake City, Utah
October 15-16, 2010

In June 2009 representatives of the fourteen universally recognized Orthodox churches gathered at the Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, near Geneva, Switzerland. This Fourth Preconciliar Commission meeting issued an official decision concerning the so-called diaspora, which - among other things - affirmed the churches’ desire “to resolve the problem of the diaspora as quickly as possible... in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church.” The decision deemed “an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order” impossible “for historical and pastoral reasons.” Instead, to “prepare the ground for a strictly canonical solution of the problem,” it mandated the creation of Episcopal Assemblies in various regions of the diaspora. As a supplement to this decision, the Preconciliar Commission also issued a set of “Rules of Operation for Episcopal Assemblies in the Diaspora.” (For the documents in question see

The Chambésy decision initially received mixed reactions here in North America and elsewhere. Some lauded the bold leadership role taken by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in persuading leaders of the other Orthodox churches to address the issue of unity. Others voiced fears that the Chambésy decision effectively submitted the entire diaspora to rule by Constantinople. Still others claimed to be taken by surprise by the decision and questioned the need for such an assembly in North America, where SCOBA already exists and has accomplished so much. Often overlooked was the fact that the 2009 Chambésy meeting simply picked up where preparations for a Great and Holy Council had broken off in the late 1990s. It simply gave official sanction, with very few changes, to texts originally developed between 1990 and 1995.

In any case, the decision announced at Chambésy thus far has led to the convocation of Episcopal Assemblies in seven of twelve designated regions, among them North America. You are all aware of the unprecedented gathering of this North American Episcopal Assembly last May. Its sessions were for bishops only, so - apart from some published speeches and the final communiqué - we know little about the bishops’ deliberations. Several participants have described the occasion as warm and cordial, a welcome opportunity to meet face-to-face with colleagues in episcopal ministry. And so on. As so many small town society page newspaper articles used to put it, “A good time was had by all.”

Now, however, the euphoria is fading. Rather than enthusiasm to get on with the many tasks mandated for the Episcopal Assembly, one senses frustration at the slow pace of even getting organized. As envisioned in Chambésy’s “Rules of Operation for Episcopal Assemblies,” much of the heavy lifting is supposed to be done by committees composed not only of bishops but also of qualified clergy and laity. At its May gathering, the Episcopal Assembly agreed to establish twelve committees: Canonical Affairs (to maintain registers of canonical bishops, clergy and parishes), Theological Education, Monastic Communities, Liturgy, Finance, Legal Affairs, Pastoral Practice, Canonical Regional Planning, Military Chaplaincy, Youth, Ecumenical Relations, Church and Society. Of these, several - the last four named - clearly are intended to assume responsibilities once filled by SCOBA committees. Several others are to focus more specifically at advancing Orthodox unity in America in tangible ways, in fulfillment of the mandate given at Chambésy. For example, Pastoral Practice is supposed to address differences and inconsistencies in such matters as reception of converts, marriage, and clergy discipline. Canonical Regional Planning is supposed to formulate a plan to organize all the Orthodox faithful of the region on a canonical basis for presentation to the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. (According to some sources, this Great and Holy Council will be meeting early in 2013, so the committee obviously has a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it.) The “particular importance” of this committee was even singled out for comment by Patriarch Bartholomew to in a September 20 letter to the North American Bishops, in which he blessed the establishment of a separate Canadian Episcopal Assembly. But unfortunately, so far neither Canonical Regional Planning nor any other of the projected committees has begun to function. Indeed their membership has not even been appointed yet.

One problem here may be simply the sheer magnitude of the task ahead. As Archbishop Demetrios pointed out in his address to the Episcopal Assembly, besides the obvious structural problem of parallel, overlapping jurisdictions, a host of disciplinary issues need to be addressed, many with serious theological and pastoral implications. How, for example, are converts to Orthodoxy to be received? Practice today varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another, and sometimes even within a single jurisdiction. Thus, depending on the group, diocese or individual priest receiving him, a confirmed Roman Catholic might be baptized, or anointed with chrism on various parts of the body (or possibly only on the forehead) according to the usual pattern for post-baptismal chrismation, or anointed with chrism on various parts of the body following some other pattern, or received upon renunciation of errors and profession of the Orthodox faith or simply by aggregation. Equally varied are the theological positions used to justify one practice or another. (For more on this subject see my article "The Reception of Non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church: Contemporary Practice," St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly [1997] 1-17.} Consider also the question of marriage “outside the Church.” One line of thought and practice in effect maintains that only a marriage blessed by an Orthodox priest in the Orthodox Church according to the Orthodox Rite of Matrimony “counts.” Another line of thought seeks to determine whether, in a given case, the qualities and conditions requisite for marriage as the Orthodox Church understands it are present (e.g., a commitment to permanence and fidelity).

Differences on such issues obviously are confined to North America, but in much of the Orthodox world they have gained little attention save among theologians and historians. Here in North America, however, where we encounter divergent practices of various sorts in person, first-hand and up close, we experience them with particular poignancy. How, for example, do you address the pain of a convert Catholic couple who, after years of communicant membership in a parish of one jurisdiction, move to a city where the priest of the only Orthodox parish insists that they cannot receive communion until they have been married in the Orthodox Church?

In principle the Episcopal Assembly, through the work of its committees, will be expected to address a plethora of inconsistencies and anomalies. How do the various Orthodox jurisdictions in America deal with financial matters? With the discipline of clergy? With lay involvement at various levels of church life? Right now our practice in such areas can seem improvised, arbitrary. Too often we end up staggering from crisis to crisis, scandal to scandal. In fact, the Church’s canonical tradition can offer some unexpected but welcome guidance in many areas that may seem especially timely:

Let us take a specific example: concern for transparency and accountability, especially in financial matters. This concern may strike some people as a typically modern preoccupation – an unfortunate capitulation to American culture if not altogether unorthodox. In fact it is very much in line with the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church. The ancient canons do not deal in detail with the internal administrative structures of the diocese or local church. In general they presuppose the full and exclusive authority of the bishop within his own diocese. But the canons also recognize the possibilities for mismanagement and financial abuse within the diocese or any other ecclesiastical entity. Note, for example, Apostolic Canon 38:

Let the bishop have the care of all the goods of the church, and let him administer them as under the authority of God. But he must not alienate any of them or give the things which belong to God to his own relations. If they be poor let him relieve them as poor; but let him not, under that pretense, sell the goods of the church. (trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 14)

Such concern for financial integrity led the Council of Chalcedon (Fourth Ecumenical Council, 451 AD) to require each diocese to have an oikonomos (treasurer, steward) to “administer the church’s goods with the advice of his own bishop,” so that “the administration of the church will not be without checks and balances, the goods of the church will not be dissipated, and the priesthood will be free from all suspicion.” (canon 25, trans. Abp. Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996]) – i.e., no co-mingling of funds. The same concern is evident in the elaborate enforcement mechanisms prescribed by the Second Council of Nicea (Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787 AD), canon 11: If a bishop fails to appoint an oikonomos for his church, the metropolitan may intervene to do so, and if a metropolitan fails to appoint an oikonomos, “it is permitted to the bishop of Constantinople by his own authority to choose an oikonomos for the metropolitan’s church.” Later commentators will expand on these provisions for direct intervention of an ecclesiastical superior. Here the Church’s usual insistence on the full and exclusive authority of the bishop within his own diocese, of the metropolitan within his own province, of the abbot within his own monastery, etc. is superseded by its concern for financial integrity and accountability at all levels of church life.

Let’s also consider the concern for what today we would call “due process” – for fairness and impartiality in judgment, and an expeditious process. The canons lay down very detailed provisions to assure that, when accusations are made or suspensions issued, the matter will swiftly come to trial, so that reputations will not remain under a cloud or just condemnation will be evaded. In general, as I have said before, the canons presuppose the full and exclusive authority of the bishop to administer the affairs of his diocese, and this authority extended to disciplinary matters such as excommunication. At the same time, the canons recognize that the bishop’s judgment sometimes may be flawed in various ways. This is what Nicaea canon 5 has to say:

Concerning those, whether of the clergy or of the laity, who have been excommunicated in the several provinces, let the provision of the Canon be observed by the bishops which provides that persons cast out by some be not readmitted by others. Nevertheless, inquiry should be made whether they have been excommunicated through captiousness, or contentiousness, or any such like ungracious disposition in the bishop. And, that this matter may have due investigation, it is decreed that in every province synods shall be held twice a year…. (trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 14)

Bishops are expected to render just judgment, and other bishops are expected to honor their decisions: that is the norm, the Canon.... But this does not mean that unjust judgments should be allowed to stand. Hence a number of canons (lower case c) that establish provisions for appeals.

Here we touch obliquely on a central issue, perhaps the central issue raised by the creation of these Episcopal Assemblies: How much authority will they have? To what extent will this Synedrion be able assume the responsibilities of a true provincial Synod of Bishops, whose competencies and rules for operation are set forth in such great detail in the ancient canons - a synod in which the bishops together with their primate are collectively responsible for the ordinary management of their regional provincial church; a synod in which bishops are accountable to one another for their management of their own particular dioceses; a synod therefore capable of making authoritative decisions and judgments. Put differently, if a cleric appeals a judgment made against him by his bishop, to whom does he appeal? To the North American Episcopal Assembly, through its chairman, or to the Holy Synod e.g. in Sofia, through its patriarch? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is the latter.

Similar questions arise when we turn to the selection of bishops. We know, of course, that canonical election, the formal katastasis, involves bishops only. The selection process, however, is not limited to that, any more than the selection of a president of the United States is limited to his formal election by the Electoral College, which takes place only months after its likely outcome has already been determined. Many texts from the early church indicate the important role played by the clergy and faithful of a local church in the selection of their bishop. For example, in the Apostolic Tradition, a work generally ascribed to Hippolytus towards the end of the second century, we read:

Let the bishop be ordained... having been elected by all the people. When he has been named and found pleasing to all, let the people come together with the presbyters, and any bishops who are present, on the Lord’s Day, and when all give their consent, they [viz. the bishops] lay hands on him.

With mass conversions following the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, episcopal elections could become tumultuous. This led the Council of Laodicea (mid-fourth century) to decree, “The election of those who are to be appointed to the priesthood is not to be committed to the okhlos” - the multitude, the crowd, the mob. But, contrary to an interpretation developed centuries later, that did not exclude appropriate involvement of clergy and laity of the local church. This is what the ninth-century Epanagoge Aucta, usually ascribed to St. Photius, prescribes:

We command that, if a bishop is to be elected, the clergy should be assembled together with the chief men of the city, and votes should be cast for three persons. Each of these [electors] should in his own handwriting declare that he has not rendered his vote because of any gift of promise or friendship or favor or any attempt whatever [to influence him] but through knowing that the persons involved are of the Orthodox and Catholic faith and of modest life, and in age above the thirtieth year, also that the candidate is not married...and has no concubines or illegitimate children. And of the three persons voted upon, let the best man be chosen by the will and judgement of the electors. (In Geanakoplos, Church, Society, and Civilization Seen Through Contemporary Eyes)

In North America, however, the selection of bishops varies considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Three basic models can be discerned. (1) In the OCA - an autocephalous church whether universally recognized or not - both the diocesan bishops and the primate are elected and consecrated locally, on this continent, with no necessary involvement of a mother church abroad. (2) In the AOCA - “self-ruled,” whatever that may mean at this point - the diocesan bishops are nominated and elected locally, though they are consecrated in Damascus, while the metropolitan primate is elected by the Holy Synod in Damascus from a list of three candidates nominated by a special archdiocesan convention. (3) More limited still is local involvement in the selection of bishops in the GOA, an “eparchial province” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. According to the present GOA charter, the diocesan metropolitans are elected by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from a list of three nominees chosen by the local Eparchial Synod. Election of the archbishop primate, however, “is the exclusive privilege and the canonical right of the Holy Synod” in Constantinople, though the local Eparchial Synod may advance an “opinion.” (Here see the presentation of Dean Calvert,

Provisions for the selection of bishops in the other Orthodox jurisdictions in America amount to variations on the second and third of these three models. Only in the OCA does the process for selection of bishops begin and end on this continent. In the other jurisdictions, some role for a “higher authority” in the Old World is prescribed - and in most cases this role is not a “mere formality.” Clearly with the selection of bishops, just as with appeals, the ultimate point of reference is not a local ruling synod of bishops but rather the ruling synod of an Old World patriarchate.

All this raises questions about what we may expect from the new American Episcopal Assembly. The 2009 Chambésy Rules of Operation lists among the competencies of the Episcopal Assembly “the preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the region on a canonical basis.” The decision on the Orthodox diaspora similarly refers to the Episcopal Assembly as the temporary instrument “that will prepare the ground for a strictly canonical solution of the problem.” What is meant by “canonical” here? Back in the early 1990s, when formal inter-Orthodox discussion of the issue of the so-called diaspora began, the general expectation was that the Episcopal Assembly would anticipate and develop the kinds of synodical structures that I mentioned earlier in connection with appeals: structures appropriate for a local church, which - depending on particularly circumstances - might in due course lead to autonomous or autocephalous status for the church in question. Since then, however, the meaning of words like “canonical” and “uncanonical” seems to have narrowed. I mentioned earlier that the 2009 Chambésy text on the Orthodox Diaspora closely followed the text developed in 1990 and 1993. But there were a few changes. Consider the following: “during the present phase it is not possible, for historical and pastoral reasons, for an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church on this issue, that is, the existence of only one bishop in the same place.” The final clause has been added to the earlier draft. This added clause - along with many comments that I’ve heard over the past months - seems to imply that THE major canonical problem to be overcome in the so-called diaspora is multiple claims on the same titles and the territorial overlapping of jurisdictions.

Certainly the principle of territoriality – embodied in the phrase “one bishop in one city” – is fundamental in the Orthodox canonical tradition. It reflects a basic aspect of our faith: that in Christ Jesus, in whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28) we are reconciled, becoming one body in Him. But if our Church in America is to be a shining example to all the world of Christ’s reconciling power, rigid insistence on the principle of territoriality will be less effective than it might have been in antiquity. Given the various sociological factors affecting church life in America today - massive immigration, increased mobility, rapid means of communication - some flexibility in ecclesiastical structure may be necessary for many years to come. (I’m frankly not worried about having multiple bishops in New York.)

If the aim of the new Episcopal Assembly is to pave the way for fully canonical church life here in America, we can’t limit ourselves to sorting out Episcopal titles. Administrative unity - hierarchical unity, with no parallel and overlapping jurisdictions, with “one bishop in one city” - certainly is important, but it does not in itself make a church canonical. To be truly “canonical,” a church needs an appropriate and adequate conciliar structure, viz. a real synod of bishops headed by its own primate. We have become too accustomed to thinking that a diocese or “jurisdiction” becomes “canonical” simply by being “under the omophorion” of a distant higher authority. Healthy and authentic Orthodox church life requires real conciliarity and real primacy expressed at every level of church life. If there is indeed to be “oneness of mind” in the local church, so that “God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit” (Apostolic Canon 34), it is essential that there be adequate mechanisms for ensuring the mutual accountability of the bishops of that church.

Clearly the Episcopal Assemblies created by the 2009 Chambésy decision are not episcopal synods operating along the lines prescribed in the ancient canons. Nor were they intended to be. The term assembly, or Synedrion, was deliberately adopted to distinguish them from a proper Synodos. For example, they play no role in the selection of new bishops, neither do they function as courts of appeal. Ultimate authority in all such areas lies with the various mother churches abroad. This reality is underscored by another addition made by the 2009 Preconciliar Commission meeting to the draft text of the 1990s:

The Episcopal Assemblies do not deprive the Member Bishops of their administrative competencies and canonical character, nor do they restrict their rights in the Diaspora. The Episcopal Assemblies aim to form a common position of the Orthodox Church on various issues. In no way does this prevent Member Bishops from remaining responsible to their own Churches, and to express the views of their own Churches to the outside world.

In many ways, therefore, the Episcopal Assembly is a lot like its predecessor, SCOBA. For the most part it is simply an advisory, consultative body. The main difference is that, unlike SCOBA, it can claim the imprimatur of the fourteen universally recognized autocephalous churches. Possibly it will also receive their cooperation and support. Whether this cooperation and support will be unstinting and unanimous is another question. Chambésy enumerated five competencies for the Episcopal Assemblies, most of which correspond to activities that SCOBA has engaged in with some success for many years. Only one distinguishes the Episcopal Assembly in a significant way: It is responsible for “preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the region on a canonical basis.” Earlier in my presentation I mentioned the growing sense of frustration that many feel in the wake of our own Episcopal Assembly meeting last May. How much there is to do! I hope that those responsible for the operations of the Episcopal Assembly will not get distracted by the many immediate demands on their time and instead will give full attention the one new task that has been assigned to them: preparation of a plan for organization of the Orthodox Church in our country in a way that will be fully and truly canonical, a united local Orthodox Church that one day may take its place among the fourteen other universally recognized autocephalous Orthodox churches.


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