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In Response to Metropolitan Gerasimos

April 27, 2009

Your Eminence, Beloved Brother and Con-Celebrant in the Lord,

Christ is Risen! Cristo e Risorto! Christos Anesti!

I read with great interest Your Eminence’s Open Letter written in response to a sermon given by His Beatitude, Metropolitan JONAH, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, on April 5, 2009 at Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, Texas regarding the status of the Orthodox Church in North America. (Read that letter here)

Let me begin by saying that I do not believe His Beatitude’s remarks were  intended to be intentionally antagonistic or insulting towards His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I believe rather, that His Beatitude was in earnest in conveying the message that the  future and destiny of the Orthodox Church in North America rests in the hands of  the Orthodox bishops and faithful who live, work, pray and worship in this great land.

While I can understand Your Eminence’s disappointment and sadness, I am  nevertheless concerned that Your Eminence’s response does not bear the weight of fact and reality. What I mean to say is that the assertions made by Your Eminence in your Open Letter are not, in most cases, backed up by actions on the part of either His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch or the

Ecumenical Patriarchate itself.

Frequent references are always made by the Ecumenical Throne to Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in support its claims to “ordinary jurisdiction” over all Orthodox Christians living in areas which historically have been considered “barbarian” lands.

The problem with this assertion on the part of the Ecumenical Throne of having canonical jurisdiction over all Orthodox Christians in the “diaspora” is that the Ecumenical Throne does not translate that claim into active pastoral care. Were the opposite to be true, there would be other peoples and groups welcomed into the Church with open arms by the Mother Church including the Celtic Orthodox, British Orthodox, African Orthodox, Italian Orthodox, etc., each church indigenous to its land and embracing all peoples.

As a truly loving Mother, the Church of Constantinople would seek to heal the divisions that currently exist between the various “Old Calendar” Churches and between the “Old Calendar” and the “New Calendar” Churches. She would listen with love and patience to the concerns expressed by the Old Calendar Churches and deal with everyone forbearingly so as to bring about unity, peace, and  harmony in the Church. She would not arbitrarily dismiss those children of the Church who feel alienated or abandoned by the Church simply because they oppose, in good conscience, practices and behavior which are ethically, morally or canonically wrong and questionable.

The Throne of Constantinople would foster and encourage true evangelism and the active conversion of all people everywhere to the Orthodox Faith and would empower, not by domination, but in a spirit of love and maternal support, the effort of every Local Church, regardless of size, to reach its full potential spiritually,  emotionally, physically and administratively. She would guide, not rule; she would serve, and not seek to be served, all those who come to her seeking her loving embrace and would be a true respecter of the cultural and national differences and nuances of the various peoples that seek her out. She would not seek to “Hellenize” those who come to her by appointing Greek bishops to rule over them but would rather ensure, and assist in whatever way possible, that each national group grows and matures in the Faith and as a local Church so that they can, at some point in their ecclesial life, elect their own bishops from among their number to serve and shepherd them and, in turn, take care of the mother that nurtured them and cared for them.

If the Ecumenical Patriarchate is truly serious about being the “Mother Church” then as a good mother, she would allow her children to grow up, making their mistakes and learning from them, and realizing that, at some point, they will be ready to go out on their own to preach and live the Gospel within their own cultural and national experiences.
As a good and loving mother, the Church of Constantinople would recognize that the United States is not Turkey, it is not the “Old World”, and I think this is the message that His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah was trying to convey. Constantinople, and for that matter, Antioch, does not have any practical understanding of what it means to live in America and be American. Our culture is different and while many may say it is extremely secular, pluralistic and increasingly Godless, the fact of the matter is that the American people ARE a people of great faith but they are not slaves to be led around by a leash, blindly obeying the commands of those who are set over them not only to govern, but to serve.

The American people always acknowledge and respect those who are set over them to govern, but the right to govern is given by the people themselves and those who govern are held accountable to those who elected them to serve. The same concept holds true in the Church. The concept of “conciliarity” is not merely a nice catch phrase. It is the reality of the Church. The Church most certainly is hierarchical, this fact no one disputes, but it is also conciliar and therefore the people, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, share in the priesthood of Christ and have an active role to play in the life of the Church.

There is a difference Your Eminence, between governing and ruling. In the United States, people are governed but no one rules us. I would venture to say that the same holds true in the Church. As  bishops, we govern in the name of Christ, whom we represent in this world. He has entrusted His Church to us, to ensure that it remains, at all times, faithful to His Word and His will and to be the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, thus leading all people everywhere to salvation in Him. But we do not rule, for it is Christ alone who rules over us all as Eternal King. The power we possess to govern is the power of Christ Himself, which He has delegated to us by virtue of episcopal consecration and which we delegate to the priests and deacons we ordain. This delegation of power imposes upon us an obligation of accountability to those whom we govern, since all are called by baptism to be accountable to and for each other in the Body of Christ.
The role of the Church of Constantinople, given to it by Canon 28 is to govern in service but not to rule those in her care. The days of the “Rum Millet” and Constantinople’s role as the “ruler” of the “Roman Nation” are long gone. Constantinople’s role in the modern world should be that of facilitator, healer and guide. The Ecumenical Throne should be the source of unity for the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world and she should be the voice, with the blessing and consent of the other Local   Orthodox Churches, of the entire Church when such occasions require it, but she should do nothing of consequence without first consulting the heads of the other Local Orthodox Churches.

This is why we have today, so many problems with issues such as Ecumenism, because the Ecumenical Patriarchs acted arbitrarily and singularly in the past on such matters and did not seek the counsel and advice of their brother bishops. There would be no such distinctions in the Church as “Old Calendar” and “New Calendar” Churches and the attendant hostilities and problems which have surrounded the matter for the past 86 years if Patriarch Meletios did not arbitrarily impose the revised Julian calendar into the life of the Church in 1923.  The so-called “Pan-Orthodox” Council which purportedly approved the decision was not attended by all the Local Orthodox Churches and therefore did not reflect the mind or will of the entire Church. As such, the decision made was binding only upon one or two local Churches. It should never had been adopted in the first place because all it did was divide the Church and create a mess and chaos which we live with even to this day. Such is the legacy we have been left with by a Church that seeks to rule, rather than to serve; that seeks to divide and conquer rather than empower and facilitate.

The sad and despicable events which have taken place at Esphigmenou Monastery over the years is but another example of what happens when power is abused. The outrage expressed by the international community with  regard to the current Ecumenical Patriarch’s actions and behavior against the monks of Esphigmenou, some of which are documented and can still be seen on the Internet, was vociferous and clear. Is such behavior that of a loving and caring mother? What mother would starve her children? Or withhold their medicine? Or deny them food and water? Or cut off their electricity and other         necessities of life?  Ultimately causing the death of some of the monks. Would you want to be associated with such a mother, Your Eminence? Would you be proud to call such a man the “Leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians”?

This is not the way things are done in America, Your Eminence.

And that is the difference between the “New World” in which we live and the “Old World” referred to by His Beatitude. We don’t do things arbitrarily or deal with people heavy-handedly, especially those who may not agree with us. If we do, then we should not be in the position of authority and responsibility we are in.
If the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the person of His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch is so truly concerned about its role in the Orthodox Church, then it should immediately admit and confirm that such a role is that of service and being a center of unity for all Orthodox Churches and communities throughout the world.

The Patriarchate should readily accept and embrace with open arms all individuals,  groups of  individuals, communities and other entities who seek her guidance, protection and communion. She should accept all who seek her out, whether it be three people, 300 or 3,000. The only criteria that should be considered for  acceptance is not the numbers of people involved or the size of their bank account or the properties they own but rather their possession of the Orthodox Faith and their willingness to live that faith to the fullest.

If the Ecumenical Patriarchate believes so intently that the Church in America should be under its purview, then let it show its commitment and genuine pastoral concern and care for the American Church, that it understands completely the uniqueness of the America situation, by taking concrete steps to bring about administrative unity. Let it abandon the divide and conquer mentality it has had for so many years, and allow the American Church to be the strong, vibrant, influential, dynamic, and yes even powerful Church, it should already be.

If the Ecumenical Patriarch truly wants to be seen as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, let him begin by leading here. First, let the Patriarch appoint an American Bishop as Exarch of the Patriarchate here in the United States, rather than having the Exarch be the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas. The Exarch should be American, born and raised in the United States, and not already a bishop of any other Orthodox jurisdiction, especially those currently “under the jurisdiction” of Constantinople.   Let him reside in Washington, DC and have no other  responsibility other than that of being a liaison between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and all the  Orthodox Churches in the United States in communion with it.

Secondly, the Patriarch should confirm the Charter of the Standing Conference of Canonical  Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) which calls for a revolving presidency among its members.   Subsequent to this, the president of the Conference will be elected from among its membership to serve for a specified period of time, in no case more than two years.

Further, the Patriarchate should direct that the membership of SCOBA be opened up to ALL Orthodox Bishops in the United States, including the various Old Calendar Churches, and not just the heads of the various jurisdictions present in the United States.

The structure and operation of SCOBA should be that of  a local Synod with the power and authority to develop, implement and supervise policies, regulations and programs of the Orthodox Church of  America as well as to handle and solve problems and issues that arise such as duplication of episcopal sees, boundaries of dioceses, training and formation of deacons and priests, and the credentialing of clergy.

A unified and strong American Orthodox Church would have as one of its mandates and priorities, the care and support of the Mother Churches. A unified American Church would be in a much better position to do this because it would have the full support of the faithful, who would function as one   unified Church with a common vision and purpose.

Under the scenario proposed, there would still be various “jurisdictions” in the United States, each with their own archdioceses and dioceses but all the bishops of every jurisdiction would also sit on a single Synod (SCOBA) with its president. Each Metropolitan, Archbishop or Bishop would be responsible for his individual Archdiocese or Diocese but would also guide the National Church through SCOBA. The proposed structure would be similar  to that of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops - the “USCCB.”

The election of bishops would continue to remain within the member archdioceses and dioceses with the understanding that no bishop will be appointed by any jurisdiction to a See in which an Orthodox Bishop already resides.

Given the fact that Constantinople does not recognize the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in   America, the Patriarchate has no choice but to pursue such a course of action as that which I have outlined in this letter. Regardless of what the Patriarchate may think about the OCA’s autocephalous status, it is what it is and provides the foundation for the creation of a strong and unified Orthodox Church on the American continent.

Furthermore, the visit of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah to the Church of Russia, which is on-going as I write this letter, is clear indication to the Orthodox people in America, and throughout the world, of the Moscow Patriarchate’s strong support of the OCA as the  Local American Church. It was a very powerful image that was conveyed by the pictures of His Holiness, Patriarch Kyrill and His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah concelebrating the Divine Liturgy together. The reality of that experience will no doubt animate the OCA and renew it’s vigor and self-confidence in its role as THE Autocephalous Orthodox Church of America.

There is no doubt that the years of scandal and mismanagement which have destabilized and paralyzed the OCA for more than twenty years are now over and that the Orthodox Church in America has       entered a new era. There is no doubt as well, that Metropolitan Jonah, while untested in episcopal     duties, has, nonetheless, the vision, energy, commitment, charism  and zeal to make the OCA realize its destiny as THE American Orthodox Church.  Truly, under His Beatitude’s spiritual guidance, the OCA will fast become a spiritual force to be reckoned with.

It is true, even by his own admission, that His Beatitude misspoke his words, but I think at the same time, it was a bad move on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to withdraw the invitation for  Metropolitan Jonah to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate. If nothing else, the meeting should have been allowed to take place so that 1) Metropolitan Jonah could have apologized in person and, 2) the two  primates could have discussed issues important to the Orthodox Church on the American continent and thereby possibly identify a direction in which both could walk together to resolve the mess that we currently find ourselves in.

I ask Your Eminence to consider these thoughts in the spirit in which they are given, out of love for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and a desire to see healing take place in our Orthodox Church here in the United States. Nevertheless, it must be understood by Your Eminence, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other holy Fathers of the Great Church that the actions of the Patriarchate betray its words.

The Church of Constantinople cannot continue to claim to be the mother of all when she refuses to accept individuals and groups that come to her seeking refuge and safety; when she treats her children with disdain, indifference and even hostility; or when she refuses to acknowledge her role as the guardian of unity, the facilitator of holiness and the bearer of love to and for all Orthodox Christians everywhere as well as  to those who seek to enter the bosom of the Church.

I respectfully ask Your Eminence not to continue the rhetoric but be an instrument by which the Holy Spirit will guide the Orthodox Church on the American Continent to its true destiny as a strong, vibrant and charismatic Local Orthodox Church.

Asking Your Eminence’s prayers, I remain always your brother,
With love in the Risen Lord,
+Archbishop Stephen
Primate of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church

(Editor's note:  The Italo-Greek Orthodox Church is "an independent group of churches in North America following a Greek Orthodox style of worship" but with no current ties to canonical Orthodoxy. The first community was organized in 1902 in Philadelphia, PA and currently has 14 communities throughout the US and Canada, led by Archbishop Stephen (Enea). It is headquartered in Utica, New York.)






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