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A Hundred Years

Of A Conciliar Church

by Fr. Michael Plekon, New York NY

"We live in an extremely difficult time.If one wished to indict our ecclesial life there would be no chance for an acquittal. Indeed everyone is guilty. History knows the periods when the disorganization of ecclesial life was no worse than in our time. There was struggle, disunity, mutual accusations, slander and violence, but nevertheless there is a difference between the situation then and what we have now. Beneath that disorganization there was struggle over dogma. But in our time sheer human passion exposes itself in broad daylight without the protection of dogmatic debate. Our ecclesial life has reached a dead end, for the principles which penetrated it in the distant past have become obsolete and only continue to distort it."

("The Church of the Holy Spirit", 7)

So does Nicholas Afanasiev, the priest and theologian who recovered the “eucharistic ecclesiology” of the early church conclude the forward to his major work, The Church of the Holy Spirit. He first presented this study for the doctorate in 1950 and spent the next decade and a half, till his death in 1966, revising and enlarging it, completing as well, much of what would be a companion volume, The Limits of the Church. The Church of the Holy Spirit was only finally published posthumously, in Russian in 1971, in French in 1975 and in English in 2007. (UND Press)

Fr. Afanasiev’s vision of the church came from the many recoveries by theologians of the Paris Russian immigration, most of whom taught at St. Sergius Institute there. Of them all, he was the most insistent on the necessity of taking the history of the church seriously, given the dogma of the Incarnation and the human as well as divine aspects of the church’s existence.

In what follows I offer a response to his Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah’s thoughts about the OCA,

“A Time of Crisis and Opportunity,” with the understanding that this document was presented by him as the beginning of discussion on the future of the OCA, in particular its statute and ecclesiological shape. Afanasiev’s classic ecclesiological study was not only a serious scholarly investigation of elements lost or discarded over time from the early church. As with all of his work in the canons, in church history, liturgy, the scriptures, Afanasiev was aware of an important connection to the state of the church in his time. Those who fled the revolution and come to the west saw the church fragmented and divided into at least three jurisdictions, one of which eventually would deny churchly status to the others and to any church bodies outside its borders—thus the lively interest among so many émigré writers about the “limits” of the church.

One of the most important recoveries on Afanasiev’s part is the priesthood of all the baptized, the sense that the church is the whole people of God, that bishops, the clergy and the laity all celebrate the liturgy, do the work of Christ in the world—in short that the church is a community bound by love in the Spirit, not by law or status. Afanasiev painfully sketches the movement away from this early situation, one influenced by the development of both law and stratification within the community, principally into the ordained and the laity. It is widely recognized that in the first half of the 20th century one of the principal theological rediscoveries was that of the church as the community, the gathering or assembly of the whole of the people of God. For us in the OCA the recovery of this “conciliar” sense and shape of the church goes back earlier than Afanasiev’s work as we shall see. There is over a century of churchly experience and deliberation that is our legacy.

This reflection is offered to “put the best construction” on all things as a manifestation of Christian hope, and in the words of the American song, to “accentuate the positive.” We need this constructive outlook precisely in this time of crisis, with many issues not yet resolved. Yet it is also a time of searching for renewal, reform and possibilities, a time of hope for the future. My principal theme comes from St.Paul—namely to “hold fast to what is good…”, to stay with the OCA’s conciliar ecclesiology, which took a century to be recovered from the past and which has been pushed aside in recent decades by the OCA central administration and the synod. (I Thess. 5: 21)

The focus here is on the historical path that brought about the recovery of a conciliar vision of the church. As Fr. Schmemann noted, the church is hierarchical as well as conciliar. (Church, World, Mission, Crestwood: SVS Press, 1979) The church can be looked at in many other ways: liturgical, diaconal, pastoral, missionary, among others.

The conciliar vision of the church

This conciliar ecclesiology is an understanding of and a model for church life. It seeks to include the bishops, clergy and laity in the work and decisions of the church, respecting the different vocations of all, but also reflecting “that all were together” not only in celebrating the Eucharist but in the rest of their life and action, in the view of Acts 2: 44, as Fr.Afanasiev has observed. This conciliar way of being the church is no recent creation, but the experience and practice of the early church, as Afanasiev documents, found throughout the NT letters, the Acts of the Apostles and in the writings of early church teachers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Cyprian of Carthage.

It is possible to debate the shape and culture, the trends and urgencies of various historical periods—those of OCA autocephaly and the statute, those of the years of the metropolia before 1970, even the years of the missionary work of Sts Tikhon of America, Raphael of Brooklyn, Innocent, Herman, Yakov and Juvenaly of Alaska. Recently I heard two leaders of the OCA & GOA disagree and publicly and deeply about the origins of the Orthodox church in America in the first years of the 20th century. The historical realities of those early years are not interpreted in the same way by the OCA and the GOA. The OCA sees there a model of one church united, with respect for ethnic belonging but not consumed with this. The other point of view is that it was necessary for Greek Orthodox Christian to have their own church.

There are numerous other strong disagreements. It is no secret that the accomplishments of a Fr. Alexander Schmemann, being remembered in various conferences in this 25th year since his falling asleep, are acclaimed by some and still strongly rejected by others.

Conciliar sources

The Moscow council of 1917-18

Many of us do not know of the bishops, clergy & laity whose deliberations at the Moscow council of 1917-18 worked out the conciliar church model as a reform for the Russian church. Because of the Revolution, this model was not put into practice in Russia, but it had already been the model in the American metropolia since St. Tikhon’s days. Later it would be adopted also in the Paris exarchate under Metropolitan Evlogy, as well as in the Sourozh diocese under Metropolitan Anthony, in the churches of Finland and Japan as well.

Soon to appear in translation, Hyacinthe Destivelle’s masterful study of the Moscow council traces the decades of work and preparation that led up to the council’s convocation. His study also presents the vision of the church—the very same conciliar model we have in the OCA statute and many other proposals for a healthier church life.(Le concile de Moscou 1917-1918, Paris: Cerf, 2006)

St. Tikhon and the church of the American metropolia
The pastoral experience of St. Tikhon in the North American missionary archdiocese brought much to the work of this council. For it was St. Tikhon who asked that the all-church council in Mayfield PA in 1907 include clergy and lay members as well as the bishops. This pattern was retained in the North American metropolia thereafter, both because it was effective but also because it reflected the fullness of the church. Moreover, the same conciliar pattern that incorporated all members of the church—the bishops, clergy and laity—was reflected in the makeup of the Moscow council and found further implementation in the acts of that council—this was the result of the urging of the Russian bishops themselves, along with clergy and lay leaders and scholars. Thus it was not the conditions of a small missionary archdiocese that required the conciliar pattern, rather it was agreed to as the form for the entire Russian church by this council of 1917-18. While there was disagreement about the details of how this conciliar way of being the church should work, in the end the Moscow council arrived at a form which retained the authority of the chief pastors while also engaging the rest of the church—the clergy and laity—in the church’s work.

Given the revelations in the past three years of decades of failed church leadership, abuse, threats and cover-ups, now more than ever we need to hold on to this example of truly “living tradition” that we in the OCA have inherited from a number of important sources, a conciliar form of being the church. As noted these include Sts Tikhon and Raphael and Alexis Toth but also from their era Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, Bishop Innocent (Pustynsky), Fr. Leonid (later Metr. Leonty) Turkevich, and Frs now Sts John Kochurov and Alexander Hotovitsky.

Teachers of the St. Sergius Institute and the Paris Exarchate

Another often over looked source of this conciliar ecclesiology came to us from the experience of the exarchate based in Paris, eventually under the ecumenical patriarchate, and led by Metropolitan Evlogy, himself one of the leading participants in the movement leading up to and culminating in the Moscow council. Metr. Evlogy implemented the council reforms into the operation of the exarchate, creating a diocesan assembly as well as council with the bishops, clergy and laity all included. The St. Sergius Institute, the first Orthodox theological school in the west, was established with his blessing and the financial assistance of many outside the church most notably the America YMCA. Many of the professors at the Institute contributed to a renaissance of patristic scholarship, (Fr. Georges Florovsky) but also in liturgy and ecclesiology and dogmatic theology. The work of Frs Bulgakov, Afanasiev, Bishop Cassian (Bezobrazov), Cyprian Kern, Basil Zenkovsky, professors Kartashev, Zander, Fedotov, Zernov and philosopher Nicholas Berdiaev would shape generations of laity and clergy after them, would contribute greatly to the international liturgical and ecumenical movements, even to Vatican II, particularly to the dogmatic constitutions on the church-- Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes.

As those studying the Paris exarchate and St. Sergius theologians—Antoine Arjakovsky, Brandon Gallaher, Rowan Williams, Hilarion Alfayev and myself-- point out, this local church effected nothing less than a rediscovery of the tradition’s dynamic nature. Whether in their articles in the journal Put’[The Way], or in their own books, and anthologies such as Zhivoe predanie [Living Tradition]of 1937, they recovered the sobornost’, the “catholicity” or “conciliarity” of the church. This conciliar identity is rooted in Baptism and in the Eucharist which define the church, which incorporate all members—bishops, clergy, laity— for all are priests, prophets, kings by Baptism. (I Peter 2: 4-10) One cannot be ordained a bishop or priest without first having been consecrated to the universal priesthood in Baptism. One is a bishop, priest, deacon or layperson because there is the rest of the community to serve. The rationale for the conciliar shape is neither balance of powers or democratic representation and procedure. The rationale is first and foremost our baptismal and eucharistic identity as the people of God.


Teachers of St. Vladimir’s Seminary

Finally, students of these St. Sergius teachers, principally Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff, also Professor Alexander Bogolepov, among others, continued their work at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and were the primary craftsmen of the statute of the OCA, formally accepted at the 1971 all-American council. (A. Bogolepov, Church Reforms in Russia 1905-1918, Metropolitan Council, 1966)

So, this conciliar ecclesiology, enshrined in the OCA statute, was the result of over a century of ecclesial experience and work, beginning with the statute developed at the Mayfield council in 1907, then the deliberation and actions of a major church council, that in Moscow in 1917-18, and followed by the deliberate implementation of that council’s conciliar ecclesiology by the American metropolia in the councils at Detroit in 1924 and New York in 1955, culminating in the OCA statute accepted at the 1971 council in South Canaan PA.

The metropolia, at the time of autocephaly, despite its being essentially an archdiocese, was actually larger in numbers than the OCA of today. For decades, this conciliar model of being the church and acting as the church produced much: mission growth, liturgical and monastic renewal, scholarly excellence and research and publications—the publications of St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press stand in witness. Perhaps more than any others stand the legacy of Frs Schmemann and Meyendorff. Confident in the conciliar shape and church heritage of the OCA statute, their writings and teaching sought to offer this not only to the other Orthodox churches but to all other Christian churches and the culture in which they lived. We have not seen any truly apostolic witness like theirs since.

The conciliar vision discarded

But this conciliar ecclesiology has not always succeeded. When set aside, as it was both on the national church and diocesan levels in the past two decades, chaos, abuse, malfeasance, denial and cover-ups ensued. In the lines that followed Afanasiev’s forward quoted at the outset:

"The Church is [then] viewed as an organization subject to human legislation and, being an organization, it exists merely to serve human needs. Human will reigns within and externally human will strives to turn God’s church into a means of attaining its goals. Perhaps never before have the faithful themselves profaned the “bride of Christ” to such a degree." (The Church of the Holy Spirit, 7)

If not the clairvoyance then the timeliness of Afanasiev is indeed striking. We have seen the crisis not only at the national level but in the dioceses. As a member of a diocese in which the two past hierarchs rejected the statute’s conciliarity in favor of domination, deceit and coercion, it was possible to see, at this more local level, what happens when the clergy and lay members of the church could not freely speak, raise questions or challenge procedures. When funds disappeared, delegates heard the diocesan bishop say there would be “no audits, no investigation…you’ll never find where the money went.” (Metropolitan Herman) Clergy and lay delegates at the diocesan assemblies of the former NY/NJ and later DC/NY archdiocese were told that no assembly or council was needed, (Archbishop Peter) that “the bishop was the church,” that he owned and controlled everything, down to “olive trees, sheep, vineyards, domestic animals,” as a canon stated. We were told there would be no questions, audits and that we should simply “get on with it for the good of the church.” The specific activities and failed leadership later identified by the SIC were originally denied by our ruling bishops, the entire matter deemed to be the “work of Satan,” and of vengeful former church employees. And if the “truth” of it all were told, our diocesan treasurer claimed, it would “destroy the church.”

So much for episcopal leadership and mutual accountability at the level of the local church. And with the conciliarity of our statute put aside, only courageous clergy and laity were willing to speak out. There was no redress, no way for the local church to consider this terrible situation openly, honestly, fully.

No guarantees for conciliarity

All of us want to see the wrongs of the past admitted and resolved. We look forward to doing the work of the Gospel in the future. We look forward to a unified church here, also to its being a witness, the yeast in the loaf, the seed planted in the field, the lamp burning so all can see its light.

There is no guarantee of conciliarity in the church. Bishop Hilarion Alfayev echoes this point, repeatedly made by Afanasiev, in a recent conference paper. There is no emperor to call councils or control out of control bishops, clergy or laity. Equally, within the church, threats of punishment are sometimes made by the very leaders who should have been accountable, trustworthy, to those they thought should be obedient to them. (This sadly happened many times over the years in the OCA, rather publicly in the last three with the revelation of the abuses.) Recent experience indicates more breaches of accountability, love and trust. A bishop can explicitly say there is no obligation to answer the questions of his flock. He can also walk away from them and the microphone, as at the recent AAC. Even the church leaders named as failing to listen or to act were allowed simply to retire or were retired or given letters of reprimand.

Either from without or from within there is no power that can make us act like a fellowship, a koinonia. As Paul Evdokimov stressed, citing the Letter to Diognetus (7: 4) from the early church, there can never be compulsion between God and his creatures, among brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, from the very shape of the eucharistic assembly, as Fr. Afanasiev showed, we recognize it is only mutual love that has primacy (vlast’ lyubvi), not law or rank. (The Church of the Holy Spirit, 255-276) Just as at the last judgment, it is only on our love that we are judged, only to love that we are called. We see that sharing in the one Bread and Cup is the work of our common baptism, making us those sent out to work “for the life of the world.” If we are truly brothers and sisters in Christ in the church, regardless of rank, then why should we reject a statute which consistently envisions that we meet and pray, talk and decide and act together, all of us: bishops, priest, deacons, monastics, lay women and men? Rather, we should “hold fast to what is good.”

(Fr. Michael Plekon is  the associate priest at St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls NY, and a Professor of Sociology/Anthropology in the Program in Religion and Culture, Baruch College of the City University of New York.)



Other Reflections:

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Fr. Ted Bobosh

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Fr. Michael Plekon  

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