Your Eminences and Your Graces,
Dear Brothers and con-celebrants in the Lord,
We have gathered here these days bathed in the Light and Grace of the All-Holy Spirit to discuss the future of our Holy Orthodox Church in North America. Whether this comes to be seen as an historic meeting will depend on us, and what we decide. And while we may have been convened in a new way, that fact is that the project of organizing the Church on this continent is not new. As we continue our deliberations it would be helpful to pause and reflect on all of the efforts over the last century that have enabled us to come to this moment. We stand in a line of very eminent and holy people who grappled with the very same issues we will attempt, over the course of days and years, to reconcile and resolve. If we are able to discuss these issues in ways that have eluded others in the past, it will be in no small measure due to the real vision and sacrifice of all of those men and women who planted Christ’s Church here; who watered and nurtured Her; who ensured that She would take root and grow.
It is customary when we speak of the history of our presence in North America to mention the towering figures of St. Tikhon, Patriarch Athenagoras, Metropolitan Antony Bashir, and Archbishop Iakovos, and it is right to do so. Yet, it is always a perilous business when recounting names. There are so many people to whom this moment belongs. I think of my own predecessor, Archbishop Victorin. He served the Church here for over fifty years, as a professor at St. Tikhon’s, as a parish priest, and finally as Archbishop. He was a faithful witness to Christ’s Church, here. He was devoted to the cause of Orthodox unity, here. He would never be absent from meetings of the Standing Conference or other occasions of pan-Orthodox witness. There are many in this room who, like he, labored for this moment. There are many, clergy and lay people, who have struggled and continue to struggle to ensure the witness of our Church on this continent. It is fitting that we take a moment and give thanks to our Compassionate God for them.
What we are asked to do during these days is not very glamorous. Most of it is administrative. We will hear reports, be asked to establish committees and commissions, discuss and recommend the boundaries of one or more Episcopal Assemblies on our continent, and many other seemingly unimportant matters. But we would be mistaken if we think our work is not absolutely critical to the future of our Church. We are laying a foundation. When people marvel at a magnificent structure very few, if any, venture down to the cellar to examine what stones were laid to support the whole building. My beloved brothers, we are being asked to take the building blocks already prepared for us, and with these and others build the supporting structure for the future.
Let us examine the building materials we have been given. I mentioned St. Tikhon. Already in the early part of the last century he and others identified what would be the challenges of our mission here. As early as 1937 Archbishop Athenagoras and Metropolitan Antony proposed a Conference of Orthodox Bishops. In 1943 these same hierarchs joined with hierarchs of the Patriarchal Russian and Serbian jurisdictions to create the Federation. And finally, in 1960, at the invitation of Archbishop Iakovos, eleven presiding hierarchs of the Church here met and decided to create the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas — SCOBA. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century there were many other meetings, events, failed starts and anemic successes. The political situation in Europe following the Second World War complicated matters immeasurably. Yet these early efforts gave voice to the emerging reality of an indigenous Orthodox Church in what some call the “diaspora.”
The establishment of SCOBA coincided with and benefited from the convening of the Pan-Orthodox conferences held between 1961 and 1968. There is a direct line between those early conferences and the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference held last year in Chambésy, that established the principles for our present gathering. There is a direct line between the efforts in the last century to give a common structure to our Orthodox witness in North America and our current Episcopal Assembly. The Bishops Conferences held in Ligonier in 1994, Washington in 2001 and Chicago in 2006 have already given us, all of the hierarchs here, the experience of coming together to discuss issues of common concern and ways in which to work together.
It is important to keep in mind that SCOBA was never intended to be a permanent institution; it was by its nature a transitional body constrained by circumstances. Yet, despite these constraints, it played a gradually expanding role in organizing Church life here by widening the circle of participation and decision-making. In 1960 there were eleven primatial hierarchs who gathered. Since 1994 three Bishops Conferences have been held. Today we gather as an Episcopal Assembly numbering over fifty. The same can be seen in the changing scope of SCOBA commissions. The commissions of 1960 are not the same as the array of agencies, commissions, committees, and organizations presented to the hierarchs in Chicago in 2006.
Yet, it is in the system of commissions, committees, agencies, and, most recently, endorsed organizations, which we inherit from SCOBA, that we find its most visionary and enduring legacy. The SCOBA Constitution provided that “the continuing work of the Conference shall be assigned to Commissions and Committees of experts who shall work as directed by the Conference.” One is impressed at how farsighted the hierarchs were in 1960 when identifying the work needed to be done in common. Most of those areas identified in 1960 are still being addressed today by commissions and committees established then, even while others have been added over time. We all know that the progress and successes of the commissions and committees have been mixed. Over the years individual commissions have waxed and waned. Yet, taken as a whole, these agencies, commissions, committees, and organizations form solid building blocks with which to lay a foundation.
Those who were present at the 2006 Bishops Conference held in Chicago will recall the reports presented by these SCOBA bodies. I believe it would be useful for us today to refresh our memories on the scope of these organizations.
Eastern Orthodox Committee on Scouting (EOCS) was established in 1960 as the first SCOBA Commission. Through the years this commission has offered Scouting awards and scholarship in the name of the Church.
Orthodox Christian Education Commission (OCEC) was also established in 1960. From a limited library of religious education materials available in English in the 1940s and 1950s, the Orthodox Church has developed a rich religious education curriculum second to none.
Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), established originally in 1965 as the Campus Commission, impacted the lives of countless college students in the 1960s and early 1970s. After a dormant period and at the request of the youth directors in our jurisdictions the hierarchs of SCOBA created in 2001 the reborn OCF, with a staff organizing OCF chapters on college campuses.
International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) represents the new generation of SCOBA agencies. Established in 1991, IOCC became a vehicle for our Church to offer assistance and help to those in need throughout the world. One could see this as a uniquely North American contribution to world Orthodoxy. Through IOCC our Orthodox Church has also joined the broader network of religious humanitarian organizations. It has given our Church a presence on the world stage.
The Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) represents another way in which SCOBA agencies were created. OCMC has its roots in the early 1960s missionary efforts within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. In 1966 the GOA Clergy-Laity Congress created a Missions Committee that continued to grow and support missions all over the world. In 1994 the GOA Mission Center was transformed into a SCOBA program with a new name: the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). Today, the OCMC has reached out to over 31 countries worldwide with mission programs.
The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) was received by SCOBA in 2003 having been started by a local priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese as a radio ministry. Today OCN is a national and effective media witness for the Orthodox Christian Church in North America. It produces high-quality programs and media tools for local parishes using the media of radio, the Internet, podcasts, DVDs, television and more.
The Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) began as a ministry within the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1991. In 2005 through a national gathering of prison ministers organized by this Antiochian effort, it was transformed into a SCOBA agency. Through 2009, Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) has ministered to more than 700 prisoners and former prisoners and is currently ministering to more than 250 Orthodox catechumens in prisons across America.
Distinct from the Agencies, the SCOBA Commissions assisted the hierarchs directly. These are:
The Ecumenical Commission established in 1960 oversees the local North American ecumenical dialogues authorized by the hierarchs. Today these are primarily with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Here we should also mention the relationship we have with the Oriental Orthodox through the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches in America (SCOOCH).
The Social & Moral Issues Commission established in 1998 and reconstituted in 2002 drafts statements on important societal issues at the direction of the hierarchs.
The Orthodox Research Commission (ORC) established in 2005 conducts on-going social-scientific statistical analysis of our Church, jurisdictions and parishes.
The Orthodox Information Technologies Commission (OITC) established in 2005 coordinates the information technology department efforts of our jurisdictions.
The Endorsed Organizations are Pan-Orthodox efforts that have sought out and met the criteria established by the SCOBA hierarchs for Endorsed Organizations. These currently are:
The Orthodox Theological Society in America (OTSA) established in 1966.
Project Mexico established in 1987.
The Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion (OCAMPR) established in 1988.
ZOE for Life established in 2002.
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship (North America) established in 2003.
St. Catherine’s Vision established in 2007.
Ancient Faith Radio established in 2007.
There are other pan-Orthodox efforts, such as FOCUS North America, that have received warm encouragement from SCOBA, as they await final endorsement.
Finally there is the Study & Planning Commission. It is unique among the commissions and committees establish in that it is designed to be the supervisory arm of the hierarchs themselves. The responsibility of this Commission was to oversee all of the work of the various commissions and committees establish and authorized by SCOBA. The members, appointed as the direct representatives of the hierarchs, assisted the General Secretary in coordinating and prioritizing issues for the hierarchs’ consideration. It is my opinion that as we think about the future structure for the Episcopal Assembly, we will need a way in which all of the voices of our jurisdictions can be present in the work of the Secretariat.
When I was called to serve as Archbishop for our Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese, I had little experience of life in North America. I was raised and educated in Romania. I did graduate studies in Western Europe. While deeply grounded in our Orthodox faith in my Mother land, my experience of our Church outside of Romania was largely in France and Germany. As I assumed my duties here, I began to experience the richness and diversity of Church life in North America. To be sure, it is not the same as in a traditionally Orthodox setting, but it is genuine, alive, and full of the Holy Spirit. Many of you have either been raised or spent many years here. I have a different perspective coming here as I did. I was and am amazed by the depth of what I have found. There are difficulties – no one can deny this. Yet, there is also an energy and vitality to our North American Orthodox Christian experience that is to be treasured. As just one example, look at the way in which faithful lay persons have taken up Christ’s work here. The faithful of our parishes and dioceses have embraced the spirit of volunteerism that is the hallmark of our Canadian and American nations. Many of the Agencies and Organizations cited above are staffed primarily by volunteers. This gift of faith in action is something we can offer to world Orthodoxy.
We can never forget that the unity of the Church is not an option. We are united in faith expressed in worship, but we are also united in faith expressed by action. The unity we find when celebrating the Liturgy together must also be expressed in the way we organize ourselves internally and in our outreach to the world. Sometimes, we might be tempted to withdraw into ourselves because of the frustrations we feel with the dissentions in our parishes and the squabbling in our dioceses. However, we can never allow ourselves to accept factions and divisions within the Church as a permanent reality. It makes a lie of what we say we believe. This is true both in our search for a closer unity within the Orthodox Church especially here in North America, as well as in our search for unity with the other Christian Churches.
In saying this we always need to remember that unity is a gift from God. We may argue for the need for a more coherent ecclesiastical structure, but even when we have achieved success at creating a better organizational framework, we still experience this unity as a gift from God, not the result of our efforts. We know that any agreement or constitution is not worth the paper it is written on if the necessary good will and love are lacking. Only God can give us this.
We are called by some the “diaspora.” Others reject this designation. There is certainly a dynamic tension. Let me suggest that in the push and pull of what we were and what we are yet to become we find the “now and not yet” of the coming Kingdom. The development of our Orthodox Church in a pluralistic “new world” has forced all of Orthodoxy to grapple with the missionary imperative of the Gospel. Much of what we see in our SCOBA legacy is in some sense a response to the new setting in which Orthodoxy finds itself.
Among the most important issues we will need to decide in these days is how to absorb the great work of SCOBA. The many ministries of SCOBA over fifty years have truly been a blessing for the entire Church. These ministries have strengthened our unity in Christ Our Lord. The ministries of SCOBA have provided a fruitful witness for Orthodox Christianity throughout these lands. The ministries of SCOBA have contributed to advancement our Church throughout the world. This is truly a precious inheritance that provides us with a firm foundation for our future work. I urge us to not only endorse it, but to embrace what is being offered to us as precious inheritance. So many grace-filled people have labored for so many years to give us this gift offered us by God. For my part, I give thanks to Almighty God for these holy witnesses who have preceded us. In them God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is glorified, now and always.
† Archbishop NICOLAE