CRETE – Apropos of its international character and the importance of its pastoral dimension, the Holy and Great Council (HGC) devoted a large portion of its deliberations – large parts of three days - to discussions focused on the Orthodox diaspora.
Much of the discussion centered on the recently established Assemblies of Bishops in the countries outside Orthodoxy’s traditional homelands and their dual role as a means of fostering greater cooperation and as a transitional structure leading to more formal and practical unity that will correct the current violation of Church canons which call for each city or region to have only one bishop.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and theological consultant in the Office of Inter-Orthodox relations of the GOA, has written extensively on the HGC and the Orthodox Diaspora. He served at the Patriarchate’s spokesman at the HGC, where he spoke with the Orthodox Observer.
Fr. John Chrysavgis is at far left during a HGC press briefing. Angela Karagergou, Press Officer for the HGC is at the podium. Photo credit: Sean Hawkey,
At the outset of the conversation it was noted that most people in the diaspora feel a dual identity. They are Orthodox Christians and they are members of an ethnic group or citizens of particular countries – or both as Greek-Americans would say - and don’t feel that the current structure of the Church is a problem.
Fr. Chryssavgis emphasized that while a situation so anomalous from a canonical perspective cannot he ignored in contexts like the HGC, the essential concern of the hierarchs is not technical but pastoral. The aim of the pre-conciliar preparations and participants in the council was to look closely at the current reality and determine the best way over time to supply the faithful with what is missing when individuals and parishes do not have the experience being part of the Orthodox Church as a whole.
“There is not just the need to work together but to also walk together, and they tend not to do that. They tend to do more on their own and that I think is wrong. We only remember we are one on Sunday of Orthodoxy, or in certain regions in America where some priests, bishops or individual parishes are more sensitive and will meet on a monthly basis.”
He emphasized, however, that “any intermediate transitional stage as the Assembly of Bishops, and even any ultimate solution to the abnormality as it is called in the documents of Geneva would not undermine and certainly would not obliterate that dual distinction people feel is important and are proud of. It would not do away with the national element, the Greek dimension for the Greeks, the Romanian for the Romanians, or the American for the Americans,” he said.
“That element is important, precious, valuable, historical, and sacred,” Fr. Chrysavgis said, and noted that “what the process underway does is put things into perspective from the point of view of the Church in that the national or ethnic dimension should not overrule or do away with basic Church principles. As Orthodox we must remember above and beyond all else that we are one, that we are more one than separate – and we do tend to forget that.”
He also agreed that from the ethnic perspective the process, which entails self and group examination, can lead to a deeper and more substantial appreciation of one’s roots.
When the Church condemns “ethnophyletism,” extreme nationalism is the issue, not ethnic pride or patriotism. As Fr. Chryssavgis noted “There is also an unhealthy form of patriotism that can almost be dysfunctional in the Church.”
“The transitional stage is important because it’s a time also for educating people…they can be informed that the aim is not to get rid of your ethnic background and traditions but to rise above them” – in the context of Church life, and he noted – “the importance of a unified Orthodox church in America which I believe can be much more credible and influential.”
He agreed that it is a voice that other religious groups and participants in the great social and ethical debates of our time, in areas like bio-ethics, the environment, and social justice – welcome.
It was noted that those who feel most strongly about their ethnicity and language are among the more dynamic and generous elements of their parishes, and many feel that those outside the diaspora don’t fully appreciate that parishes simply cannot function without the contributions of time, talent and treasure of the laity given there is no state support for Churches.
That is why “a go slow” approach is best, Fr. Chryssavgis said. “That is what the transitional stage is all about. The explanation that is given in the documents is that it is a transitional stage and we are using the Assembly of Bishops until circumstances mature and they may not mature for a long time in some of the assembly regions.”
The documents do not present a timeframe, and Fr. Chryssavgis admitted that in America the process might take some decades.
He reiterated that “even though the Church knows what is the right thing, it is a pastoral Church, and so it is not going to do things that will harm its parishes or its peoples’ confidence in it.”
It appears to still be early in the process, but It is possible to talk about what Orthodox unity in a region like the United States might look like. “It is not that Astoria would suddenly have a Russian bishop. Where there is a predominance of a particular ethnic group, that’s exactly where they would need their own bishop,” he said.
One could imagine that there would be a Metropolitan in a given region with auxiliary bishops to serve the different ethnic groups across the whole area. “I don’t know if that has been discussed at the Council but it has been discussed at the Assembly of Bishops” and a proposal like that appears on its web site, www.assemblyofbishops.org, he said.
Given that relatively few people know about the Assemblies and what is being discussed at the Council, when it concludes there will be an opportunity for more outreach.
“I would like to see that,” Fr. Chryssavgis said, “and It would be the right thing to do, because after any Council and its decisions, the process of adopting those decisions, what is called ‘the reception process,’ is equally as important as the council itself…it is part and parcel of the council process. Without that, the council decisions have no meaning,” he explained.
“It is the conscience of the faithful, the mind of the people of God, clergy and laity, not just the bishops, not just the primates and not just the churches that didn’t come, that decide... It’s the conscience of the whole Church that gradually – and it does take time – will adopt the decisions of the council and accept them if it recognizes them as being in the authentic continuity of the previous councils of the Church.”
“The reception process is important and I very much hope that in our Archdiocese in America, where in many ways we are a pioneering Archdiocese, that we can encourage this education and process of reception on all the decisions,” he said.
Asked for his thoughts about the absence of the churches of Antioch, Moscow, Bulgaria, and Georgia, which have big stakes in diaspora matters, Fr. Chryssavgis first pointed to what they were missing.
“If I walk into the sessions of the council now, I will see a great deal of common sense, civil conversation, respectful debate, sincere dialogue even on thorny subjects” so that “I would almost be tempted to say ‘I don’t know why they are not here,’ although I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say I respect the reasons they give. Beyond that I would say that they clearly agonized in their churches about their decision and are struggling with the issues being discussed.”
He gave as an example the recent meeting between the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Pope in Cuba.
When he returned to Russia he encountered great upheaval. “There was protest, criticism, and a threat of schism,” Fr. Chryssavgis said.
Disagreements are part of the reason for holding councils
Fr. Chryssavgis emphasized that “Part of the reason for a council like this is that not all churches are on the same page. Because we are each moving at a different pace; a council can at least establish fundamental guidelines and principles,” though not directives, for the Churches.
He said that regarding relations with non-Orthodox Churches, the text the HGC adopts probably won’t accurately reflect the views of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, “but it is a text that reflects conciliarity. It won’t, for instance, affect the Patriarch’s relationship with the Pope, but hopefully it will bring Georgia a little closer to where we are…That’s part of the council’s function.”
It is also important to note that many of these churches either recently emerged from totalitarian rule or are under siege in Turkey and the Middle East. “Under pressure, people tend to clam up, not open up; so it would be nice to gradually inform people of the power of dialogue for good as opposed to the dangers” that they fear. Dialogues are opportunities to witness to Orthodoxy outside its usual circles.
“If this Council becomes the norm, and there are more councils, then it becomes easier to talk. Maybe the next one will have even more churches in attendance than we have here,” he said.