Of Rainbows and Pharaohs

“The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  (Genesis 9:16)

The view from my hotel window said it all.  There was a beautiful rainbow in the sky over Atlanta.  In the photo immediately above you can even detect it was a double rainbow – the 2nd is about 1/3 of the way from the right side of the photo.  The rainbow reminds us that God, according to Genesis 9:16, is looking at the same thing that we are at the same time.  For us Orthodox, it certainly means that outside the liturgy, in nature, we can focus our attention on something and realize God is gazing at the same thing we are at that moment.  We can meet God’s gaze in space and time.    Not that God is not paying attention to creation the rest of time, but in the rainbow we have a unique experience of looking at something that also catches the Creator’s attention and God remembers all of humanity and all creation in that experience.

Perhaps a good sign for the Orthodox Church in America which is holding its All American Council in Atlanta.  Certainly the infamous “days of trouble” (as they have been frequently dubbed) – scandal and failed episcopal leadership – are part of our past history.   And the OCA navigated those turbulent waters without the intervention of government (friendly or hostile) and without the intervention of a mother church in a foreign land.  The OCA, not a child anymore, has accomplished what an autocephalous church must do – deal with internal problems, apply appropriate discipline and fix the problems.  Other Orthodox jurisdictions may wag their heads as they look at the troubles the OCA has experienced and see us as weakened and on the verge of collapse, but we have gained by our experience.  We have been forced to deal with our problems and to overcome them.  We exposed our problems rather than denying them.  We have survived, which also lays a good foundation for our wrestling with the future.

I am reminded completely of the story form Exodus 14 of the Israelites escaping Egypt with Pharoah’s army in hot pursuit.  Trapped by the Red Sea, the people furious with Moses for getting them trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, Moses, confident that God will save them, cries out to his fellow Israelites:

 “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”

God will save us, He will do it all!  But, NO, that is not what God does.  For in the very next line, God puts salvation on the shoulders of Moses:

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.

What is God going to be doing in this desperate situation?

He is going to be goading the Egyptians to attack!

That’s what He offers.   He asks Moses, “Why are you crying to me to save you?”  “You lead the people into the sea.”

Holy Moses!

I find this one of the best stories in the Old Testament.  Poor Moses sees the stage is set for God to miraculously save them, only to be told by God, “Why are you crying to me?  I appointed you as their leader, so lead them!”

The OCA has gone through a similar experience.  We had to rely on our divinely appointed leadership to get us through and out of the trap we had  gotten ourselves into.  Those were the times of trouble, and leadership has emerged, as has the OCA from the trap it was in.  A resurrection like the Israelites experienced in the Exodus.  We had to do it not by fleeing one land into another, but by affirming that in this land, we are the autocephalous Church and we have to deal with our problems, no matter how much we have been the cause of them.

The adoption of the revised Statutes as this AAC, the implementation of strict rules of best practices in financial matters – transparency and accountability – and in dealing with clergy misconduct and sexual misconduct in the church, all are signs that the OCA has come through these rough waters in a more healthy fashion and much matured.  We have been battered, but we better understand what God’s love demands from us in North America in the 21st Century.

For me personally, there is also some relief and comfort in the sense that I can trust my Metropolitan and my bishop.  No longer do I feel the need to play the diocese against the central church, or to have to choose which is the lesser of two evils.  Those were feelings that were even cultivated by a former chancellor and seemed so necessary to survive as a priest.  I no longer feel hypocritical about asking many years for our episcopal leadership.  The raging wars are now in the culture, but in many ways these are outside the Church itself.

“Glory to You, building your church, haven of peace in a tortured world.” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”)

For a long time it seemed to me the Church was as tortuous as the world itself.  But what I have found at this year’s AAC is that I am at peace in my Church, the OCA.  Thanks be to God.  May God grant many years to Metropolitan Tikhon and Bishop Paul.

The AAC of the OCA

18thAACFrom my perspective, the 18th All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America is remarkable.  This is not because any new or groundbreaking ideas have been presented, adopted or accomplished.  On the contrary, the Assembly is doing little more than what it is expected to do administratively for the OCA.

What stands out in my mind is the irenic spirit exhibited in the plenary sessions in which the OCA Statute revisions were almost unanimously adopted (97% voted in favor) and the proposed budget and funding plan were so overwhelmingly adopted (92% voting in favor).  The spirit of the council is exhibited in the gentle spirit of Metropolitan Tikhon, whose opening address captured the tone of the Council, and I hope, the future direction of the OCA.

Met Tikhon AACThe Council, under the shepherding of Metropolitan Tikhon, shows every sign that the OCA is ready to move beyond the years of turmoil that marked the past decade.  Council delegates showed a willingness to trust and follow leadership that was in fact working with the Holy Spirit.  Metropolitan Tikhon gave a long opening address in which he skillfully wove in the story of the religious sojourn of his own ancestors into the history and current situation of religion in America today.  His talk was a vision of hope that Orthodoxy in America, which contributed richly to the melting pot which is America, now living in a country of even greater social diversity and heterogeneity, can in fact thrive.   The Orthodox ethnic experience was one in which the ethnic groups tried to maintain their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness in the midst of the melting pot.  The OCA is realizing a new experience – that we as Americans can also be Orthodox, and we as Orthodox can be Americans.  While there are some who feel this is purely accommodation – allowing American values to replace Orthodox values – others see that Orthodoxy has functioned as the salt of the earth in every culture into which Orthodoxy has moved.  Orthodoxy has functioned in many different cultures, even those completely hostile to its existence.  I’m reminded at least of the anonymous early 3rd Century Christian document, “The Letter to Diognetus” which among other things says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their peopleagapefatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.

This seems much closer to Metropolitan Tikhon’s vision than any sectarian withdrawal from the world.  He is a monk, and though having withdrawn from worldly pursuits, he understands the words of Christ:

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. … But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:11-21)

Our goal as Church in America is to be a witness to the love, compassion and Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are to give opportunity to others that they might themselves come to repentance (we can’t compel or legislate repentance – it must come from the person’s heart).  We can’t force others to repent, but can invite them to repentance, to offer them good reason to choose a godly way of life.  Our message though is challenging – we invite people to know the love of God, not through self love but through loving others.  On the one hand our underlying assumption of free will resonates to independently  minded Americans.  On the other hand the call to love others is at odds with the self-centered and selfish ideals of total individualism.

My own sense of things is this vision is again being offered and proclaimed in the OCA in a time of uncertainty and in a constantly changing religious and moral landscape.  Our message doesn’t change, but the people to whom we speak are constantly changing.  We have to be steadfast in our love toward them.


The Election of Metropolitan Tikhon as Primate of the OCA

Metropolitan Tikhon under the watchful eye of St. James the 1st Bishop of Jerusalem

I just got home from the 17th All American Council  which was held earlier today in Cleveland, OH.  As is now well known the Synod of Bishops elected Archbishop Tikhon to be our new Metrop0litan.  Metropolitan Tikhon served for many years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and in the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania.   There were no stunning surprises at the Council.  There was only one agenda item – the election of the Metropolitan.  So after the hierarchical Divine Liturgy in the morning, the Council was opened and a vote was taken.  The candidates getting the most votes are all current bishops in the OCA:  Bishops Michael, and Archbishops Tikhon and Melchisedek.  Bishop Michael received the most votes of any one candidate, about 35% of the 590 votes cast.  On the second ballot in which each delegate votes for two candidates, Bishop Michael and Archbishop Tikhon received the most votes and so both of their names were submitted as the candidates of the 17th All American Council for the Synod of Bishops consideration.  The members of the Synod then cast their votes for Metropolitan and Tikhon was elected.   As is true in every generation for the Church, the OCA faces many challenges and problems in dealing with issues in a rapidly changing world.  I certainly think Metropolitan Tikhon is in need of our prayers to help him face the current problems of the OCA, to build the bridges that need to be built or repaired between the OCA and other Orthodox jurisdictions and patriarchates, to see clearly the issues we face in order to bring the wisdom of Church Tradition to contemporary topics.

There was some speculation that perhaps the supporters of retired Metropolitan Jonah might arouse popular support for the former metropolitan to return him to office or to in some other way disrupt the Council.  But popular support for +Jonah was minimal: he receive only 17 votes on both the first and second ballot – suggesting only a tiny minority were interested in him as a candidate and that number did not grow on the 2nd ballot, suggesting that there was no ground swell for the return of the former Metropolitan.

Read the biography of Metropolitan Tikhon

17th All American Council at Holy Trinity Church, Parma, Ohio


Bishops and Metropolitans

As we in the Orthodox Church in America prepare to elect a new Metropolitan, we can contemplate the words of St. Augustine (d. 430AD):

“When you hear the words: ‘Peter do you love me?’ (John 21:15) imagine you are in front of a mirror and looking at yourself.  Peter, surely, was a symbol of the Church. Therefore the Lord in asking Peter is asking us too. To show that Peter was a symbol of the Church remember the passage in the Gospel: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 16:18) Has only one man received those keys? Christ himself explains what they are for: ‘Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ (Matt. 18:18) If these words had been said only to Peter, now that he is dead who would ever be able to bind or loose? I make bold to say that all of us have received the keys. We bind and loose. And you also bind and loose. Whoever is bound is separated from your community: he is bound by you. When he is reconciled, however, he is loosed, thanks to you because you are praying for him. We all in fact love our Lord, we are all his members. And when the Lord entrusts his flock to shepherds, the whole number of shepherds is reduced to one individual body, that of the one Shepherd. (cf. John 10:16) Peter is undeniably a shepherd, but without doubt Paul is also is a shepherd. John is a shepherd, Andrews is a shepherd, each Apostle is a shepherd. All the holy bishops are shepherds, without a shadow of a doubt.” (Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, pgs. 320-321)

Seeking the Episcopacy: Salvation not Reputation

In as much as the OCA is in the process of electing a new Metropolitan, we can consider the words of St. Gregory the Great (d. 604AD) about those who seek to become bishops.  Some according to St. Gregory seek the office of bishop for wrong reasons, looking not for their salvation but to enhance their reputation:

“Moreover, it should be noted that he said this at a time when whoever supervised the laity was the first to be led to the torments of martyrdom. Therefore, it was laudable in that era to seek the episcopate, when whoever held it would suffer severely. It is for this reason, then, that the office of the episcopate is defined as a ‘good work’ when it is said: ‘If one desires the episcopate, he desires a good work.’ Therefore, he who seeks not the good work of the ministry, but only the glory of honor, testifies against himself that he does not desire the office of a bishop. For a man does not love the sacred office, nor does he even understand it, if by craving a position of spiritual leadership he is nourished by the thought of subordinating others, rejoices at being praised, elates his heart by honor, or exalts in the abundance of his affluence.” (The Book of Pastoral Rule, pg. 41)

Discerning God’s Will: Electing Bishops

On November 13, the OCA will assemble at the All American Council to elect a new metropolitan.

Theologian Nicholas Afanasiev says that it is not the church nor the bishops who pass on or give the gifts of the Holy Spirit to its members and leaders. All the church or bishops can do is recognize that a person possesses the gifts of the Spirit and then they (the bishops) ask God to bless or confirm this person. What the church prays is that God will show that the person elected for office indeed possesses the gifts of the Spirit and that we have discerned correctly. Obviously, sometimes the discerning process fails, but that is our fault, not the fault of the Holy Spirit.   Afanasiev writes:

“The divine will cannot depend on the human will or be subject to it. God sends the gifts of the Holy Spirit not upon those chosen by the bishops or the people of the Church but upon those whom He himself chooses. The bishop has the grace to celebrate the sacrament of ordination, but this does not mean he manages the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Even to a lesser extent does it mean, as scholastic theology claims, that at the ordination of the presbyters and other clerics the bishop passes on to them the gifts of the Holy Spirit… Grace is not something to be passed from one to another and the bishop is not the one who has a depository of grace in order to distribute it to anyone he wills. Grace is a living gift of the Spirit who dwells in the Church…

In the Church God himself ordains people for particular ministries just as God ordains everyone called into the Church to his ministry of king and priest. ‘And God has appointed (etheto) in the church’… (1Cor. 12:28), ‘and he ordained some to be apostles…’ (Eph. 4:11). Neither a bishop nor a council of bishops nor the people of the Church, but God himself, ordains apostles, prophets, teachers, and pastors. God ordains these individuals for the ministry in and not outside of the Church, and for this reason the ordination which is from God is accomplished within the Church and with the participation of the Church…

God chooses every one of his ministers in the Church. The ancient church testifies to this its conviction through the words of the ordination prayer: ‘You who know our hearts, Father, grant that your servant, whom you have chosen for oversight, should shepherd your holy flock and should serve before you as your high priest…’ The Epitome uses the expression hon exelexô, ‘ whom you have chosen’ – just as in Acts 1:24: ‘and they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen (hon exelexô)…

The election by God, manifest through the ordination of the bishop, presbyter, and deacon, does not exclude a possibility of their election by the Church itself. ‘Let the bishop be ordained, having been elected by all the people.’ Election by the local church is one of the ways to discover God’s will, for it is not the one who is pleasing to the people that is elected but the one who was already appointed by God for ministry. The election was the people’s testimony concerning the will of God revealed in the Church and at the same time the expression of their consent to the ordination of this particular person who was elected, in fulfillment of God’s will, for this ministry.”

(Nicholas Afanasiev in The Church of the Holy Spirit, pgs. 94-96)

November AAC to Elect New Metropolitan

The 17th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America will be held at Holy Trinity Church in Parma, Ohio on November 13 (which also is the feast day of St. John Chrysostom).  This AAC will be a one day Council with the sole purpose of electing a new metropolitan.

According to Fr. Eric Tosi, OCA Secretary:

“The bishops expressed their desire to hold a low key and penitential gathering, keeping costs as low as possible for parishes, dioceses, and the OCA inasmuch as it constitutes an unbudgeted expense.”

The OCA’s webpage reports:   The Council will open with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, followed by brunch. An electoral plenary session will follow, after which the newly elected Primate will be installed prior to the closing session.

The Dormition Fast (2012)

On August 1 of each calendar year, the Orthodox Church proclaims a lenten season in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  This year the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America have been asked to use the Dormition Lent as a special time of prayer and fasting, asking God to guide us in the election of a new metropolitan.

On July 26 the OCA published on their webpage Archbishop Nathaniel’s Pastoral Letter on the Dormition Fast in which His Eminence, the OCA’s Locum Tenens, says:

Dearly Beloved in Christ, we are at the outset of the Fast of the Falling-Asleep of the Holy Birthgiver of God. At the end of the prescribed time of fasting and reflection, we shall joyfully celebrate the translation of the Theotokos to the heights of heaven. She is our constant intercessor with her Divine Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our Orthodox tradition is: first the fast and then the feast! So, the Church in North America is also in a time of fasting and reflection in anticipation of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on our special All-American Electoral Council.

Archbishop Nathaniel also says:

Each clergyman, each lay person, each monastic is exhorted to continue “to serve the Lord in fear and trembling” during this opportune period of fasting in anticipation of the joy which will come at the celebration of the Most Holy Virgin, and in due time, the resolution of the office of Metropolitan.

So we are not only following the discipline of the Orthodox Church, but also being called upon by our OCA to use this fasting season to petition God for His guidance on our church.  The Chancery staff has already begun making preparations for the special electoral council:  Planning for 17th All American Council Begins.

A thought from St. John Cassian on how to keep a fast:

“A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said, ‘Make no provision to fulfil the desires of the flesh’ (Rom. 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning against self-indulgence. Moreover, by itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well.” (The Philokalia: Volume 1,  pg. 74)

Archbishop Nathaniel’s Letter and the Future of the OCA

His Eminence, Nathaniel, Archbishop of Detroit and the OCA’s Locum Tenens issued a Pastoral Letter for the Dormition Fast offering at least a glimpse into what the future holds for the OCA.

Archbishop Nathaniel states that the Synod of Bishops is beginning to make preparations for a Special All American Electoral Council at which a new metropolitan will be elected for the Orthodox Church in America.  He is calling upon all members of the OCA to use the upcoming Dormition Fast as a time for prayer and fasting to ask the Holy Spirit to guide our church in preparation for the Electoral Council.

The Holy Synod is in constant contact among members, acting according to the Statute to prepare for the election. In addition to daily communications, the Holy Synod will meet in a special session on August 13, just before the conclusion of the Fast and in anticipation of the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Virgin. Our agenda is to decide on what is necessary to move forward with a decision on the time and place of the Council. For this, we ask your prayers. Other matters, of course, will be taken up.

See also my blog The OCA and Spiritual Maturity

Parting Thoughts from the 16th AAC

As I mentioned before you can find links to Podcasts and some reports from the OCA’s  16th All American Council  now available online.  So I don’t intend to report what you can read for yourself.

I will comment on two aspects of this year’s AAC.  First just a thought about the big picture:   trying to avoid listing what was or was not accomplished in our days assembled together (since that can be found on the official OCA.org webpage) but rather offering a few thoughts on what could have tied things together.  Second just a few notes on the very short demographic presentation by Alex Krindatch on Thursday.

I think the bishops set a very interesting tone to the AAC in the responses they offered after the Metropolitan’s opening remarks.  fascinatingly there was even a question by one woman about why the bishops had scheduled in the agenda a time of response to the metropolitan: a question born no doubt in the paranoia of those who cannot understand the frustrations of those who have had to work with the Metropolitan.   The Metropolitan made his own public admission that there has been a complete breakdown in trust or an ability to work with him.  So the bishops exercising their own fraternal concern for him stood with him in an effort to show they have a oneness of mind.

On some level there has been an amazing degree of cooperation and unity between the Synod, chancery staff and the Metropolitan Council in recognizing a problem.  Even if we haven’t all been at the same point at the same time in what to do, that there is a problem has been clear, and the Metropolitan has acknowledged this.  This recognition by all is not some plot as some falsely accuse, but a sad recognition f the reality before us all.   That recognition is the only way to healing and/or change, and/or a way forward.  Some  few don’t want the church leadership to deal with truth.  Ideology does cause institutional blindness and dysfunctional enabling.  It is neither easy or pleasant for the rest of us to have to wrestle with what we face, but it is the way in which we follow Christ who claimed to be the Truth.  We cannot pretend what we want to be true, we each have to bear our cross as well as one another’s burdens.   This is the way to the Kingdom in which the truth sets us free.

The bishops in their responses did not attack or blame or accuse, but rather offered some interesting anecdotal accounts of their own experience in Orthodoxy.   It was to me a rare moment of the bishops showing a glimpse into their personal lives as members in and bishops of the Body of Christ.  Some felt the comments were enigmatic, I thought they helped put “flesh” on men we often experience only as caricatures in Byzantine imperial vestments.  They really did seem at peace with each other as if they had reached a common mind on where they were and where they were going even if that goal is not yet clear to the rest of us.

What we lacked though throughout the AAC was an articulated vision of what the OCA is or should be.   What does the autocephaly mean to Orthodoxy in the 21st Century with the realities we face in our civil culture as well as with the episcopal assemblies and the condition of world Orthodoxy?   What special and unique gift has God bestowed upon us that we bring to American Orthodoxy?  How can we contribute this gift to the condition of Orthodoxy in America?    At the moment we seem to lack the person, persons or leaders who can articulate this in a way to inspire us.  So we struggle along, sometimes only muddling along, and occasionally doing something well.  Autocephaly means something, and for many of us it means something essential.  We at this moment however lack the person or persons who can embody that vision and lead us to it.  Perhaps the reason is present realities won’t allow it.

My last three years on the Metropolitan Council left me with a rather positive view of the men and women serving us on this Council.  Same is true of my impressions of the chancery staff.   All of these folk are working with the hard issues that easily can grind a person down, and yet the work is done.  And there is no doubt that lines of communication between the members of the synod, staff and committees are often there and better than have existed in the past.  And to be honest there still are frustrations.  The bishops want our trust, but that is an earned commodity and it still is slow to materialize.

I also will positively comment on those plenary sessions which dealt with the very emotionally charged issues of budget and funding.  For despite the energy, the disagreements and probably personal animosities, I thought people presented themselves very well.  The arguments were not ad hominem attacks as so often happens on the Internet, but rather people made their points on all sides of the issues and spoke passionately but well.

Finally, just a few words on the Krindatch statistics which represent the most comprehensive statistical study of the Orthodox in America to date.      You can read more details about Krindatch’s  work on line.   His studies do show that we Orthodox are a tiny minority in America (and in world Orthodoxy for that matter).  Krindatch says there are about 1,043,800 Orthodox in America which includes all jurisdictions as well as the Oriental Orthodox.  Of that total only about 294,300 participate in the Church on a frequent basis.  Of the total of Orthodox, only about 84,200 belong to the OCA, with about 33,300 of those being regular participants in their parishes.  So on the whole members of the OCA show a higher rate of regular participation in their parishes than do the Orthodox as a whole.   So while we are small, we have about 40% of our members who regularly participate in their parishes.  This shows at least some positive interest of the OCA faithful in their parishes and in the Church.   It may be a small amount of good news but it is a zeal which can lead to more vibrant parish life and further mission and outreach in America.

See also my blog  Viewing the AAC from Where I Sit