A Sign of Ecclesial Maturity

The 18th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. held in Atlanta, Georgia in July 2015, is now an event of the recent past.  It was a productive and positive Council that passed two very important resolutions that will impact the future of the OCA—the creation of a newly-revised Statute for the Church; and a new model of funding the national Church.  My intention is to place this most recent Council within a wider historical context, but one of modest duration, by referring to internal events within the OCA over the last decade.  I am hoping that this will serve to emphasize how important it was to have a Council that can be best described as “productive and positive” after a period of turmoil that left some even doubting the future of the OCA.  Modest as that description may sound about the recent Council, knowing our longer history indicates that this was no mean achievement.  This will in turn explain and justify the meaning of the phrase “ecclesial maturity” as an appropriate designation for the OCA as an autocephalous Church moving into the future with the goal of “expanding the mission.”

“The Time of Troubles.”  It was only ten years ago that the OCA was shaken by the public disclosure of what has been termed a “financial scandal” that exposed a deeply troubling level of moral and ethical corruption at the highest level of administration at our national headquarters in Syosset, New York.  Because this scandal inaugurated a very trying period of time, it is now referred to as “the time of troubles” (2005-2008), an expression used more than a few times at the latest Council with reference to the past – a reference that no delegate failed to understand!  This financial malfeasance itself was traced back to the 1990s, but it was only exposed by someone on the “inside”—the proverbial “whistleblower”—in 2005.  We now realize these damaging allegations served the long-term well-being of the Church as a painful process toward the realization of transparency and openness.

This movement towards transparency was a “painful process” because it met with some resistance within the inner circles of Syosset.  This was a discouraging example of institutional defensiveness that, in turn, only escalated the existing atmosphere of mistrust, disappointment and anger.  Some of the former members of the Holy Synod (our diocesan bishops in assembly) were responsible for this resistance movement against a thorough investigation.  One bright exception was His Eminence, Archbishop Job of blessed memory, who had the courage to ask the one question needed:  “Are the allegations true or false?”  He was bitterly attacked for this.  In addition, it was the tireless work of an Orthodox web site and its editor, emanating from Dayton, Ohio, that refused to allow this form of institutional stone-walling from hiding this scandal from the concerned probing of both troubled clergy and laity.  Yet it was too late to expect the members of the Church not to look behind the curtain that had been drawn back, and the ensuing investigation did indeed uphold the initial charge of financial corruption “in high places.”

An Uneasy Interlude.  We then gathered in 2008 for the 15th All-American Council in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the heavy responsibility of electing a new Metropolitan who, it was hoped, would lead the OCA in a much-needed healing process.  The financial scandal had run its course.  It was now time to “move on.”  I was in attendance with an elected lay delegate.  Amidst an atmosphere that was almost euphoric and endlessly described as “charismatic,” the Council delegates elected as our new Metropolitan, a genuine “newcomer” among the episcopacy—His Grace, Bishop Jonah, Auxillary Bishop of Dallas, Texas.  Bishop Jonah had been elevated to the episcopacy about two weeks before the Council!  But it was his innocence and non-involvement with the existing and somewhat tainted Holy Synod that was the reason behind this startling turn of events in Pittsburgh.  Bishop Jonah also endeared himself to the Council delegates by delivering a very stirring report that addressed the existing tensions within the OCA with a refreshing frankness.  His election as Metropolitan was seen as the finishing touch that would inaugurate a settled and sound period within the OCA.  The mood was clearly upbeat as we departed for home from the Council.

But, alas, this new beginning, so initially promising, did not result in what was so longingly hoped for.  Making no judgments as to what went wrong in Metropolitan Jonah’s short period of leadership, I can safely state that from the start of his tenure as the Metropolitan, his words and actions caused real tensions within the Holy Synod, Administration, Metropolitan Council and indeed within the OCA at large.  Sharp divisions were forming and rumors and speculation about the future of the OCA were rampant.  There is no doubt that we were facing real disarray on both an international and domestic level for the OCA.  Something had to be done or we were going to face an increasingly bleak and fractured future.

A Tense Council.  Only three years later, in 2011, we gathered for the 16th All-American Council in Seattle, Washington.  Again, I was in attendance with a lay delegate on behalf of our parish.  The existing tension between Metropolitan Jonah and the Holy Synod was a sensitive sore spot that could no longer be hidden, and one could say that the ensuing tension at the Council was almost palpable.  It was this unresolved tension that dominated the atmosphere of the Council, and for which the delegates were awaiting some attempt at resolution.  This culminated in the Metropolitan’s dramatic address to the Council, in which he acknowledged that “these three years have been the most difficult of my life….  These three years have been an administrative disaster, and I need to accept full responsibility for that.”  The Metropolitan then left his future role in the life of the Church as an open question.  In the end, and within a year’s time following protracted and difficult negotiations, Metropolitan Jonah did resign his position amidst an atmosphere once again rife with rumors and speculation.  The retired Metropolitan has subsequently been released by the OCA to another Orthodox jurisdiction.

A Low-Key and Penitential Council.  The 17th All-American Council, held in Parma, Ohio in November 2012, was designated by the Holy Synod to be “low-key and penitential,” with the agenda reduced to a single event: the election of a new Metropolitan.  This was an unusual Council designated to last only one day.  And by the end of the day, we did indeed elect a new Primate for the OCA:  His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of Washington DC and all America and Canada.  He has proven to be a very stable and sober presence as our “spiritual leader” with a sense of balance and realism, behind which is a strong desire to promote the fullness of the Gospel in an Orthodox manner here in North America.  He is both humble and honest.  His somewhat dry and well-timed sense of humor is another attractive asset to his persona.  The strength and over-all breadth of his keynote address to the assembled delegates in Atlanta deeply encouraged everyone present, and it also convinced many that we are on the road to a genuine recovery of our true mission which can now be pursued as the “time of troubles” further recedes into the past.  His calming presence set a tone for the entire Council.  This sense of a newly-established confidence in our leadership pervaded the atmosphere of our recent Council and sent the delegates home with a renewed sense of purpose as we seek to “expand the mission.”

Autocephaly and Ecclesial Maturity – The “Good News.”  None of the past events related above have been rehearsed with the goal of rekindling any feelings of disappointment, discouragement or doubt that any one of us concerned about the Church may have experienced during our “time of troubles.”  No such effect was intended in the short survey above of fairly recent events.

However, I believe that any “good news” is best appreciated by a clear-sighted awareness of the “bad news” that preceded it.  There exists an echo here of our entire theological vision of fall and redemption.  The “bad news” of the previous decade has now been eclipsed by the honest efforts of people of good will working together with purpose and for the glory of God and the well-being of the Church.  We call this divine-human cooperation synergy.  For I am convinced that in a relatively short span of time, this is precisely what happened.  Therefore, I will now turn to this “good news” by further expanding the historical context of these reflections by reminding everyone that in 2015 we celebrated/commemorated the forty-fifth year of the OCA’s autocephalous status.

The Tomos of Autocephaly was officially declared binding on April 10, 1970 by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Thus, the former Metropolitanate of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America was transformed into the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, which also includes the Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian Archdioceses.  An autocephalous Church literally means a “self-headed” Church.  Therefore, the Orthodox Church in America has the authority and responsibility to direct, guide and correct its own internal life with no direct interference from another autocephalous – or “Mother”—Church.  We are thus responsible for the strength of our witness to the Gospel.  This authority and responsibility is primarily manifested in our Holy Synod – the collective assembly of all diocesan bishops of the OCA.  And we now elect our own bishops and we elect our own Metropolitan.  Being granted the status of an autocephalous Church means that it was determined that the descendants of the original Orthodox mission to America had reached a degree of “ecclesial maturity,” that we had “grown up” since 1794 (!), and that we could bear meaningful witness to the Gospel on our own in harmony and in full communion, of course, with all of the autocephalous Churches which together make up the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The OCA was facing a real crisis (from the Greek krisis meaning “judgment”) with the discovery of “ecclesial corruption” in 2005.  Thus, our “ecclesial maturity” was being put to the test.  Were we capable of overcoming the debilitating effects of a financial scandal that was traced to the highest level of leadership?  Or did we need outside intervention?  (There was even talk of electing as Metropolitan a distinguished bishop from Russia at the Pittsburgh Council – in order to assist us in getting our house in order.)  Would we collapse or would we recover?  Basically, were we in a state of “ecclesial maturity” or “ecclesial immaturity?”  By the grace of God, we rose to the occasion.  In fact, it is quite remarkable that the OCA has recovered its ecclesial balance so well and in such a short period of time.  As an autocephalous Church we solved our own internal breakdown with no intervention from an older “Mother Church.”  This is a very convincing sign of our “ecclesial maturity.”  The other autocephalous Orthodox churches were aware of our “time of troubles.”  Are they equally aware of our “time of renewal?”  I will even wonder out loud if these other churches could have recovered as quickly and convincingly as we did.  Would they, too, have pursued with such determination the road toward accountability with an identical and much-needed spirit of critical self-reflection?  Perhaps we set a model that should be emulated!

The recently convened and completed 18th All-American Council was not an event of great historical significance.  As it is, that is not the stated goal of the Council.  But it was deeply significant due to the spirit of good will, cooperation, and harmony that were present in Atlanta, but rather absent from the previous Councils of the last decade of our common history.  To describe this past Council as “productive and positive” is, admittedly, rather modest.  For the moment, though, these are important qualities.  Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined above, this could actually prove to be a watershed Council in our short forty-five year history as the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.  With many new hierarchs joining Metropolitan Tikhon, a greater spirit of unity and common purpose is now evident on the Holy Synod, inspiring the restoration of a greater sense of trust in the leadership of the Church at large.

The delegates in Atlanta were witnesses of the transformations that have taken place in a relatively short span of time.  We were witnesses of the positive atmosphere created by the new chancery staff in Syosset—from Chancellor, to Secretary, to Treasurer and others – who, imbued with a sense of stewardship toward the material and spiritual well-being of the OCA have worked hard to make that “atmospheric change” a tangible reality.  This does not make our many problems and challenges disappear.  However, a newly established sense of order will allow our energies to be integrated rather than dissipated in facing up to those very problems and challenges.  Are we, as the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, now prepared to “expand the mission?”  Only God knows, and from our limited perspective, only time will tell.  It is my understanding that there was a certain apprehension as to just how the 18th Council would unfold.  I hope that those who worked so hard to make it so successful are now at peace with the hoped-for outcome.  And for this, we thank God!