Decoding "The Message"
The careful reader may discover much in today's carefully drafted "Message" offered by the Episcopal Assembly which concluded its meeting yesterday evening.
First, it is not clear to whom the message is addressed: the first personage mentioned is "The Triune God", who presumably knew what was happening before it did, and has little need to be informed. The second mention goes to the "Primates and Representatives of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches". Third goes to "We, as the Episcopal Assembly..." In short the bishops were primarily talking to themselves and their "Leaders" abroad, which is probably a good thing since many of them have never spoken to each other before.
There were also prayers for the 11 victims of Gulf oil spill, and indeed "for all people living under conditions of war, persecution, violence and oppression." The one group not mentioned were the 1.25 million Orthodox clergy and laity in America - except until the very end, and then in only in terms of necessary "contributions" to their "obligations".
In short, the "Message" has much to tell Orthodox America about their Bishops, and what the future may look like:
• SCOBA is dead; although its formal burial will be delayed as lawyers make sure the transfers are all legal. SCOBA's monies transfer to the new Assembly, and its outreach programs will be subsumed as the " ...the Episcopal Assembly understands ourselves as being successors of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) assuming its agencies, dialogues and other ministries."
• Unlike SCOBA, the Episcopal Assembly will be coordinated by a Bishop serving as the Secretary of the organization, rather than a priest. In this case it will be Bishop Basil (Essey) of the Antiochian Archdiocese. For those worried the Episcopal Assembly was simply a "stalking horse" for Constantinople, +Basil's election should provide some small comfort. Although, since all the bishops present " expressed (their) resolve to adhere to and adopt the regulations proposed by the Pan Orthodox conferences and approved by the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and to do everything in our power by the Grace of God to advance actions that facilitate canonical order in our region...", it matters little who enforces the "regulations" ...
• The OCA now has an official a seat at the table, albeit the lowest. Humility is good for the soul. Although less than half of the Orthodox Churches recognize the OCA's autocephaly, the situation was finessed by the Assembly. +Jonah was denied formal recognition as a "Primate" of a local church, and so a place on the Executive Committee, but the OCA formally recognized as a "local community" with "no reference to the (other) Most Holy Autocephalous Churches". Isn't that what "autocephaly" means?
The important news is that former episcopal discussions of whether the OCA was "canonical" or not, based on whether one accepted claims of autocephaly or not - are now moot. Every Orthodox bishop in America has formally signed off on the OCA's "canonicity" and presence at the table - except for the 10 who didn't show up. And since one of these was Metropolitan Sotirios of Canada, there could be a bump in the road up north...
• Speaking of which, the "Message" reveals that the first thing the Assembly did was to submit to Constantinople, as the convener of the Episcopal Assemblies worldwide, a "request to partition the present region of North and Central America into two distinct regions of the United States and Canada." If tiny Switzerland and Leichtenstein can be a region, one wonders how +Bartholmaios can deny massive Canada equal status without the whole process losing credibility. Additionally "...the Assembly will likewise request to merge Mexico and Central America with the Assembly of South America." (Interestingly, Bishop Alejo of the OCA's Mexican diocese was also one of the Bishops not listed as present at the meeting, although photos of the meeting show he was. Reports from the Assembly indicate that Metropolitan Jonah spoke on multiple occasions to the Greek +Athenagoras of Mexico, and it appears some fences may have been mended.)
• In the short term, though, the goals of the Episcopal Assembly were very practical, as outlined in Archbishop Demetrios' opening address. Lists were (will be) made of canonical bishops, canonical clergy, and canonical congregations. The Assembly was also able to organize committees for "liturgical, pastoral, financial, educational, ecumenical and legal issues", each with three bishops. This committees will be fleshed out, presumably by the Secretariate, with lay and clerical members in the coming year. This is where the real work of forging an encompassing American Orthodox Church will be hammered out.
As once can clearly see, the potential for the Episcopal Assembly to become a vehicle for real unity is great; although the road, if it exists, is long.
Finally, the drafters of the "Message" are to be congratulated for not using the word "Diaspora". Archbishop Demetrios' address, while offering an excellent overview of many of the problems facing Orthodoxy in America, (as well as a preview of most of the Assembly's decisions) suffered from this notable failure. (Read that speech here.) Metropolitan Kallistos Ware famously banished the word "diaspora" years ago, suggesting that we begin to speak of "areas of emerging local churches" instead. That seems to be the whole point of the Episcopal Assembly, no? That our bishops are not in "Diaspora" but have recognized that we are an "area of an emerging local church"? And if that is not the case, then any further "Messages" will most likely end as this one awkwardly seemed to have begun - with bishops meaning well, but talking to and mostly about, themselves.