Considering Chambesy: The Chairmanship of the Ecumenical Patriarch

In this series of blogs I will be commenting on issues dealt with and created by the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambesy (June 6-13, 2009).  The first blog was Considering Chambesy: The Mother Churches, then Considering Chambesy: The Diaspora, third Considering Chambesy: The Issues, 4th Considering Chambesy: The Decisions, and then Considering Chambesy: The Articles Governing the Assemblies.   All of the ideas expressed and questions raised are my own, as one Orthodox Christian living in the USA,  and do not reflect the opinion of any other person or organization.   I am commenting here on the Chambesy document   RULES OF OPERATION  OF EPISCOPAL ASSEMBLIES IN THE ORTHODOX DIASPORA. 

 Article 4.    The Chairman is ex officio the first among the Bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and, in the absence thereof, in the order of Diptychs. The Chairman of the Episcopal Assembly convenes the meetings thereof, directs its work and presides over its colleagues.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

The bishops at Chambesy re-affirmed the basic canonical order of the Orthodox Church in placing the chairmanship of the Episcopal Assemblies in the hands of the bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  In as much as granting of autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate and the creation of the OCA had not brought about the unity of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America (neither had the formation of SCOBA for that matter), what Chambesy proposed for all situations in the world like what exists in North America is a new, even if temporary, organization to attempt to deal with the anomalies which exist in the Orthodox Churches which exist beyond the ancient borders of the Byzantine and Russian Empires.  It remains to be seen whether this newly created temporary, and “extra-canonical” organization will succeed where other efforts have not.   Additionally in America the OCA at this point still has its autocephaly and thus the relationship of the OCA bishops to the other jurisdictions will still have to be worked out by the proposed Great Council of the Orthodox Bishops of the world which promises to take up the issue of who can grant autocephaly.

The chairmanship of the Episcopal Assemblies is key because it is the chairman who basically set the agenda for the work of the Assemblies.  In other words the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be deciding what can and cannot be discussed and what direction discussions may take.

The bishops of Chambesy while allowing the bishops in a region to discuss Orthodox unity, are not leaving it solely to the discretion of the local bishops how to inact or implement that unity.   Here the Ecumenical Patriarch has reserved the right of final say for himself and apparently he will have veto power over the decisions of the Episcopal Assemblies.

Article 5.   1. The competencies of the Episcopal Assembly are:

a.     to safeguard and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church of the Region in its theological, ecclesiological, canonical, spiritual, philanthropic, educational and missionary obligations.

Safeguarding and contributing to the unity of the Orthodox is the stated goal of the Episcopal Assemblies and it is a noble one.  I assume that the unity includes administrative unity, though that is not specifically mentioned unless it comes under the ecclesiological and canonical topics.   The document speaks specifically about obligations of the regional Church:  “theological, ecclesiological, canonical, spiritual, philanthropic, educational and missionary.”   I much appreciate the word obligation because to me it implies the church cannot treat these topics as ideals or good ideas but rather as the mandated work of the Orthodox Church.  It implies the Regional Church does not exist merely to take care of the mother church’s “Diasporal” interests; rather the Church in any region is obliged to undertake outreach and missionary work to native and regional populations who are not Diaspora.  Orthodoxy does not belong to any one people or ethnicity including a Hellenic one.  The Gospel is apostolic, evangelical and catholic, like the Church is supposed to be according to the Creed we profess.

5.1.c.  Relations with other Christian Churches and other religions.

5.1.d. Anything that entails obligations of the Orthodox Church in Her relations with society and government.

The relationship of the Orthodox Church to other Christian Churches is a key issue for those of us Orthodox living in “the West.”   We live as tiny minorities not only in the countries of which we are citizens but even among the Christian populations in our home countries.   Intermarriage between Orthodox and non-Orthodox not only happens but must be considered normative for us.  Our voice is one of a tiny minority in a sea of other Christians – Protestant and Catholic.  The Orthodox leadership have behaved in ways which are contrary to a “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” understanding, instead behaving like sectarians and even that of (nationalistic) ethnic minorities.   To encourage all of our bishops and parishes to behave as Orthodox in relationship to church and state would be a good thing.

U.S. Bill of Rights
U.S. Bill of Rights

Additionally, Orthodoxy has not officially worked out its relationship to the modern Western world in which there exists a separation of church and state.  Most Western nations consider themselves officially “secular” even if they have strong Christian roots.  No Western nation embraces the ancient Byzantine imperial idea of a symphony between church and state.  It is the Orthodox leaders who now have to understand what their relationship to nations and governments really is.  For example in Orthodoxy there still exists strong assumptions that the church and state will co-operate, that the Church has the authority to influence the state and that the state will legally support the interests of the church.  Orthodox bishops wear the garb of imperial Byzantium obvious in the miter they wear.  Yet in America bishops do not represent the interest of the state, the state is forbidden from influencing the election of bishops or the policies of a religion.   Orthodox bishops however have often acted like national ambassadors to the American government, and seem to love having photo opportunities with American presidents as if they as bishops were in fact government representatives rather than Christian bishops.  

Orthodoxy must embrace a totally new attitude toward the new world.  Of course one would think at this point in its own history the Ecumenical Patriarch might be willing to consider giving up any imperial pretentions as well as imperial dress and insignias considering their own existence in an officially secular, but de facto Muslim state, in favor of other dress that might be more appropriate to our being disciples of Christ in the non-Byzantine world.  Perhaps the Turkish state would not allow such a change in the Orthodox leadership in Turkey and prefers to remind the Orthodox bishops through their dress that they in fact are the last representatives of a defeated empire.

The real question for all Orthodox is whether we will work through the Episcopal Assemblies to assure that Christ is the head of our Church and not just limit headship to men even if canonically correct. 

Next:  Chambesy:  The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

3 thoughts on “Considering Chambesy: The Chairmanship of the Ecumenical Patriarch

  1. Isa Almisry

    I’d not get into reforming how the Mother Countries view things: in many ways, I think they are aware of the difference here, and don’t find it “Orthodox.” In Russia, the rise of the prominence of the Church is for all the see, and a similar process is underway in Romania (the Patriarch stopped liberalization of divorce with a single statement). In Cyprus and the CoG, the Church is maintaining it traditional position (in the CoG, leading to Euro-funds etc. going to keep up the Phanar). In Bulgaria the state is now locked into a defense of the Patriarchate against schismatics (whom the state created) who won at the EU court. The Phanar, Alexandria and Antioch do not live in secular societies, a fact they have to deal with every day.

    I’m also not sure of the accuracy of your statement on the West, Father. Try incorporating an Orthodox bishop of Canteberry and see how far it gets under British law. I also know Protestant missionaries in Ireland, and despite the Vatican’s hierarchy there having no legal personhood, they are very much in charge. Recent scandals may have changed this somewhat.

    Rather than thinking the Mother Churches should be like us (a thought sure to offend them, and make them dig in their heels) and ingage in a debate at Chambesy over modernity and tradition, let’s just first get our own united Holy Synod in North America, and prove our point by example.

  2. Gregory

    The point is that the world has changed, whether or not the Old World Churches want to admit it; the New World Churches have had to live amid and deal with that reality firsthand for some time now. Secularism — approaching one’s life, shaping one’s worldview and setting one’s values and priorities in terms of this “saecula” (this world, this age, this generation), rather than in terms of “the age to come” to which we profess to look forward in the Creed — has become a near global phenomenon. “Traditionally Orthodox Christian countries” haven’t been immune to that change: whether through the brutal shift of Marxism or the more subtle infiltration of capitalism, those societies are having to deal with secularism’s reduction of human life to materialism, commercialism and consumerism no less than elsewhere now, regardless of past glories, real or imagined.

    The “Constantinian” or “imperial” age of Christianity is over, and it’s arguable whether that era did the Church good or harm in the end. Jesus Christ did not herald the good news of his Gospel or call together his Church to be litmus tests for good citizenship, ethnic identity, social cohesion, cultural continuity or political stability. He did so to bring humankind back into communion with God. However well-meaning, government sponsorship of Orthodox Christianity has often subverted that purpose and bent it to worldly agendas contrary to its content and spirit. Following Jesus Christ as a member of his Church must, ultimately, be a free-will choice and effort; government enforcement of it just turns it into mere social conformity or cultural covention. Saints like Martin of Tours, Ambrose of Milan, Philip of Moscow and Nilus of Sora were wise in their warnings that the Church would do well to maintain a discreet distance from Caesar, lest she compromise her integrity.

    The past is seldom (if ever) retrievable, and it’s dubious whether every past is worth retrieving. If anything, the age we live in more resembles the first three centuries of Christianity, when the Church was free from state intereference, if persecuted by the political establishment, and had to win over people with prayer, persuasion and personal example by the power of the Holy Spirit, not the coercion of state enforcers or superficiality of peer pressure. (In Eastern Europe, one could argue this age is a repeat of Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, as apparatchiks who formerly persecuted the Church now flock to membership in her, now that it’s become “socially respectable” and carries some collateral benefits in politics and business.) The New World Churches, living in an alien culture where separation of church and state predominates, have been given what is a blessing, even if it is not immediately perceived as such: relearning how to follow Jesus Christ and build up his Church by dint of personal commitment, funding and work, without outside assistance of the powers that be. That experience ought not to be discounted or ignored. It puts the Church in a much better position to maintain her integrity and not be bent to worldly agendas.

    “Since the Orthodox world was and is inevitably and even radically changing, we have to recognize, as the first symptom of the crisis, a deep schizophrenia which has slowly penetrated the Orthodox mentality: life in an unreal, nonexisting world, firmly affirmed as real and existing,” wrote Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. (Consider, as a case in point, how the bishop of Damascus styles himself “Patriarch of the Great City of Antioch and all the East” — though Antioch is no longer his see and “all his East” is incredibly shrinking — or the bishop of Istanbul styles his see “New Rome,” as though it were still capital city of a Christianized Roman “oikoumene” that no longer exists.) “Orthodox consciousness did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, of forms of life… Now that this Orthodox world is breaking down, we try to regenerate and revive it. We are deeply concerned with the fate of many Patriarchates, with the survial of Mount Athos; we busy ourselves with Byzantium…” And so we bury our heads in the sand like ostriches, rather than face the world as it is and figure out how to present and embody Jesus Christ in it, which is what the Church is meant to do, “for the life of the world.”

    Perhaps the rise of the New World Churches is God’s providential wake-up call to the Orthodox Christian world at large: “Stop relying on anything but my Holy Spirit and get on with the business of saving my world by embodying the saving presence of my Christ in it and heralding his good news to it.” Sadly, though, the Chambesy documents don’t even take that tack or tone. They don’t even mention Jesus Christ once.

  3. George Williams

    The Ep. Assembly in N. Am. is over. Now, everyone is supposed to be scrambling in committees to decide how to structure an American Church. Then, we have to submit these ideas to the Mother Churches for their “blessing” to move forward. Reading the fine print, the Pat. of Istanbul with his cronies has veto power and will ultimately “decide” how the American Churches should be organized. Well, BALONEY! What the Ep. Assembly in America should do IMMEDIATELY is for all the bishops to declare themselves autocephalous and organizing a NEW American Church themselves. Then, they should vote on a Head to lead the church. Why should we wait for any “Great Council?” Why do we need approval from foreign bishops who have kept the American Church divided since WWII? How is the Bishop of Istanbul where there are MAYBE 2,000 Orthodox relevant to N. Am.? All of these Old Country bishops only wish to maintain control and make sure they are still able to siphon money from N. Am. Tell them to go tend their own flocks!

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