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“OCA Conciliarity”:

An Oxymoron in the Making?

by Fr. Oliver Herbel, ND

(Originally published in and reprinted with permission.)

Recently, Mark Stokoe over at OCANews noted that members of the OCA synod are contemplating a vision of the OCA in which the All American Councils would be replaced by a council of the bishops and their diocesan councils:

He has also mentioned that the search for a new bishop for the diocese of the midwest will be proceeding. I certainly hope so and I hope it proceeds in a conciliar manner and not according to the rumored “90 day” time table that some would like to see. Such a time table would circumvent healthy ecclesiology since our diocesan assembly will not occur until October.

It is difficult to know how far the debate concerning the AAC will go, and I am not suggesting there are no reasons at all to consider such a vision as a possible direction for the OCA. The process for electing a new bishop also has many questions and events in its future.

I think it is prudent, however, to ask a basic historical question at the outset of both: does the Orthodox Church include, within Her Tradition, a conciliar approach that would allow, if not encourage and support, parish and presbyterate participation in the conciliar process? The reason I raise this question is because any of us who are likely to oppose a greatly reduced and limited version of the AAC and/or a non-conciliar appointment of a bishop will need to offer some sort of justification from within the Tradition. To be upfront, I, myself, oppose the less conciliar “All American Council” proposal as well as an appointment of a bishop without the people’s consent through a diocesan assembly. There can be no doubt that there are those who would wish to emphasize a less conciliar hierarchical model and there is certainly historic precedent for that. So, what of the other model? Is the OCA all alone in thinking priests and parishes ought to contribute to the conciliar process? That is what I wish to explore here.

I ask the reader, however, always to keep in mind that this is blog entry, not a publication of a university press. I cannot possibly cover everything in such a short survey, but I hope that by selecting the examples that come readily to mind, a case can be made for the participation of the presbyterate and laity in the operation of the Church.

The Church is not simply the bishops. Nor is the Church the bishops and a small handful of others. There are reasons to defer decisions and questions and investigations to committees, but we would do well not to reduce Church governance merely to a glorified committee. Nor do I think it wise for the bishops to act without any committees or input and advice from others. Instead, we should have the participation of a significant portion of the Church, but more on that in a bit. First, a quick survey:

The very early Church was a little more “libertarian” than what we have today. Bishops served in local congregations and were elected from amongst the local council of presbyters. One sees this model in St. Ignatius of Antioch. The bishop is important and necessary, but he is placed together with the presbyters.

The role of the presbyterate continued to influence episcopal elections even in large patriarchates such as Alexandria into the fourth century. By the late third century, the Church was already taking on the structure that would come to dominate during the Byzantine period. The Egyptian situation demonstrates both of these aspects rather well, though this would change after Nicea.[1] Even after Emperor Constantine and the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, it was not simply the bishops calling all the shots for everything, without any participation from others. For example, although the bishop was in charge of charity and patronage, it seems the presbyterate would also work with aristocracy in places such as Antioch.[2] Concerning the laity at the time, it was primarily the aristocracy that played any significant roles in the governance and policy of churches and monasteries, but this was lay participation nonetheless. This form extended throughout the Byzantine period and into the modern era.

One case of conciliarity during the Byzantine or medieval era was Novgorod. There, the elections of the archbishop of Novgorod were elected beginning in the twelfth century until Moscow finally solidified its power over the process, when Novogorod lost its independence in 1478.[3] The local Novgorodian governing structure consisted of the posadniki (mayors), tysiatskie (judicial officers, though apparently there had originally only been one tysiatskii), and the veche, the major landowners. It should be noted that veche is a vague term in later sources, making it difficult to tell whether this was merely the city elites or a larger group. That is, when veche refers to a convened gathering, it is difficult to know whom it included. In 1156, the veche elected Arkadii to be their bishop. From 1156 to 1471, nineteen of the twenty-one bishops were elected, though nine of those were chosen by lots. The metropolitan consecrated whomever was elected for Novgorod, legitimizing the act of electing a bishop for Novgorod. Therefore, although one might expect that the metropolitan would convene a council for choosing the bishops, the elected candidate was always consecrated during this time. The Novgorodian process at this time also contradicts the all-too-common reality of princes and kings having their chosen ones installed as bishops.

A prominent example in the modern era is the 1917 Sobor.[4] 564 representatives, split almost equally between clergy and laity gathered together to reestablish the Russian Orthodox patriarchate. During preconciliar discussions the importance of lay involvement was highlighted. One past example mentioned was the Stoglav Sobor, which assisted Tsar Ivan IV. In the end, the All Russian Sobor of 1917 self-consciously included 314 lay members.

In America, we have the Mayfield Sobor, or the All-American Sobor of 1907 and those that followed. This sobor included both lay and clergy participation and set the tone for the conciliarity of the “Metropolia” (the remnant of the Russian Mission in America before it became the current Orthodox Church in America in 1970).

As we move forward within the OCA, we need to continue reflecting not only on the historical events and traditions within our great Tradition, but we also need to take into account reflections on ecclesiology that have already been undertaken. Is sobornost a concept important to the OCA? Might not Fr. Nikolai Afanasiev have something important to say to us?[5] There is warrant to object to undoing the statutes of the OCA and diminishing our conciliarity. We also should no longer sit idly by while bishops are chosen without any real electoral procedure. The OCA is not out of the woods yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. Further discussions of past indiscretions by hierarchs have yet to reach their full potential. Just wait around friends, there is more to come (and you’ll learn of it on OCANews and elsewhere as it becomes available). More importantly, we have not yet weathered the “Kondratick era.” For if we had, we wouldn’t even hear rumors of 90 day time tables or wonder how often we might see bishops chosen through means that circumvent our statutes.


[1] W. Telfer, “Meletius of Lycopolis and Episcopal Succession in Egypt,” The Harvard Theological Review 48:4 (Oct., 1955), 227-237. The literature surrounding St. Phileas of Thmuis and the Meletian schism demonstrates this well. Forgive this footnote, dear reader, but here is a list of some: For a good overview of Phileas, see Theofried Baumeister, “Der ägyptische Bischof und Märtyrer Phileas,” in Garten des Lebens Festschrift für Winfrid Cramer (Altenberge, Germany: Oros Verlag, 1999), 33-41. The Letter to the Thmuitians may be found in Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 320-7. The Acts of Phileas may also be found in Musurillo, 328-53, though Pietersma has provided the most recent and detailed investigation of the text and the manuscripts themselves. See Albert Pietersma, ed. and trans., The Acts of Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis (Including Fragments of the Greek Psalter) (Genève: P. Cramer in cooperation with the Chester Beatty Library, 1984). F.H. Kettler supplies us with a critical edition of the Letter to Meletius in “Der melitianische Streit in Ägypten,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Urchristentums (35): 155-93. The critical text may be found on pages 159-63.
[2] Wendy Mayer, “Patronage, Pastoral Care and the Role of the Bishop at Antioch,” Vigiliae Christianae 55:1 (2001), 58-70.

[3] Michael C. Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod, Russia 1156-1478,” Church History 72:2 (2003), 251-275. Readers are forwarded here for further details surrounding the situation. I have only provided a brief synopsis.

[4] For one assessment of the debate concerning the reestablishment of the patriarchate, see Catherine Evtuhov, “The Church in the Russian Revolution: Arguments for and Against Restoring the Patriarchate at the Church Council of 1917-1918,” Slavic Review 50:3 (1991): 497-511.

[5] Here, I forward the reader to Nicolas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, by Nicolas Afanasiev, trans. Vitaly Permiakov, Michael Plekon, ed., with introductory essay, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.




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