Archbishop Demetrios Geron of America, Orthodox Diaspora: Perspectives following the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church

8ο ΔΣΟΘ_2891. The subject of my brief presentation is “Orthodox Diaspora: Perspectives following the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.” When speaking of Diaspora we mean to say the thousands of parishes and the millions of Orthodox faithful who live in different countries throughout the world; countries which are beyond the geographical boundaries of the 14 Autocephalous Churches, namely: the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and the Archdioceses of Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and Czech-Slovakia.

2. The subject of Diaspora—a subject which is very important for the Church on account of the dynamic presence of the Orthodox Faith and witness within large heterodox, non-Christian, and diversified multicultural populations—was engaged by the Autocephalous Churches. This subject, while not a new one, was brought up again by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with clarity at the Holy Synaxis of all Heads of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches which convened in Constantinople in October 2008. It was presented there with an emphasis on the existing elements of canonical anomaly in the Diaspora and especially on the pending serious canonical issue of the existence of multiple Bishops instead of only one Bishop in the same area and land. A few months later, in June 2009, the same subject was presented in a very specific form by the 4th Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva. During this Pan-Orthodox Conference:

It was affirmed that is the common will of all of the most holy Orthodox Churches that the problem of the Orthodox Diaspora be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be organized in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church.

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Likewise, it was affirmed that during the present phase it is not possible, for historical and pastoral reasons, an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church on this matter, that is, the existence of only one bishop in the same place. Therefore, it has been decided to propose that a transitional situation be created, which will prepare the ground for the strictly canonical solution of the problem.

It was proposed that, for the transitional period while the canonical solution of the matter will be prepared, “Episcopal Assemblies” of all canonically recognized bishops in each region should be created in each of the regions who will continue to be subject to the same canonical jurisdictions to which they are subject today … Decisions shall will be taken by consensus of the Churches who are represented in the particular Conference.

The Pan-Orthodox Conference of Chambésy defined the competencies of each Episcopal Assembly by way of special regulations, which are as follows:

First: to safeguard and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church of the region in its theological, ecclesiological, canonical, spiritual, educational and missionary obligations.

Second: the coordination and leadership (promotion) of activities of common interest in regions of pastoral care, catechesis, liturgical life, religious publishing, mass media, religious education, etc.

Third: relations with the non-Orthodox Churches and other religions.

Fourth: anything that entails obligations of the Orthodox Church in Her relations with society and government.

Fifth: the preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the Region on   a canonical basis.”

8ο ΔΣΟΘ_1783. Pursuant to the decisions and instructions of the aforementioned 4th Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference at Chambésy, necessary mechanisms and essential preparations were set in motion, and starting even in the following year, i.e. 2010, the first Episcopal Assemblies began to operate. Regarding the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States, we inaugurated in 2010 and continued annually with Assemblies in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 prior to the Holy and Great Council. It must be noted that the annual Assembly meetings typically last for three days, but its work is not limited to this short time period. Within the Assembly there are many committees at work which cover a multitude of subjects. Furthermore, the Episcopal Assembly of the USA is affiliated with administratively strong philanthropic and missionary organizations such as IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities), OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center) and other organizations (Orthodox Christian student organizations in universities, ministry for the care of prisoners, etc.).

From the time of their founding in 2010 and subsequently following, the Episcopal Assemblies of the Diaspora and their committees have produced very important work in many areas of vital significance. They have, without a doubt, constituted a serious step in the apostolic work of the Church.

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4. While there was considerable progress and success made in many areas of the work of the Episcopal Assemblies, it does not appear that any decisive progress has been made regarding the major issue of the submission of a proposal for the resolution of the existing canonical anomaly in the Diaspora. If a relevant proposal did exist, it would have been submitted to the Preparatory Committee of the Holy and Great Council, to be finally discussed during its meeting. But this did not happen. No proposal was made.

Allow me to offer certain explanations which perhaps might interpret this phenomenon. These explanations emanate from our experience in America but are also confirmed by verifiable sources of information from other regions of the Orthodox Diaspora.

In our case, during the six successive Assemblies (2010-2015), a methodical and responsible study was conducted, and several proposals to overcome the canonical anomaly were presented. These studies and proposals always took into consideration data from ecclesiological, geographical, cultural and population sources. According to Assembly regulations, however, for a decision to be made on any proposal or plan, unanimity would have to be reached as opposed to a majority of votes (even a strong majority of votes). Some church jurisdictions in the U.S.A. did not concur. They presented the view—and indeed insisted on it—that on account of the objections raised, it would perhaps be preferable for the so-called Orthodox Diaspora to remain in its present state rather than to proceed with changes. They argued that in spite of being in a state of “canonical anomaly”, a change to the current situation would cause turmoil and confusion within the Orthodox Jurisdictions in America (and by logical extension the other areas of Orthodox Diaspora).

Therefore, being unable to reach a unanimous decision, it was not possible for any plan or proposal to be submitted and approved.

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5. What exactly caused this aforementioned reaction by certain Jurisdictions of the Diaspora? The main issue appears to be the fear that any plan to lift the canonical anomaly is tantamount to a decrease of autonomy as well as the ethnocultural characters and the jurisdictional identities of the individual jurisdictions.

Additionally, the absolutely unfounded idea that the goal behind overcoming the canonical anomaly ultimately sought to subject all Orthodox jurisdictions in America to be under the Ecumenical Patriarchate was promulgated in several cases.

If the difficulty regarding the elimination of the canonical anomaly is a reality in the United States where we already have fifth and sixth generations of faithful—descendants of primary immigrants from Orthodox countries—and the experience of SCOBA (Standing Committee of Orthodox Bishops in America) for many decades as a common pan-Orthodox effort, then this difficulty must be an even stronger reality in countries of Europe and other regions of the world where the main bulk of the Orthodox Diaspora is constituted by immigrants of first and second generations and who frequently have strong ties to their respective Autocephalous Churches from their countries of origin, and indeed care about the things taking place in the Diaspora.

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6. The problem we are discussing has intensified during the last decade on account of the large numbers of primary immigrants which emigrate due to the radical change of political regimes in Eastern Europe and the condition of war in the Middle East. Therefore, the proposals for the overcoming of the canonical anomaly in the Diaspora, realistically speaking, seem to stumble upon most serious impediments at least for now. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that the remaining Special Committees of almost all Episcopal Assemblies of the Diaspora worked methodically, with zeal and with faith, and produced exceptional work for essential issues in the life of the Church.

7. The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church spent the entire day of Tuesday, June 21, 2016 discussing the subject of the Orthodox Diaspora. In the extensive discussions, many aspects of the subject were examined and views of exceptional interest were exchanged regarding the present and future of the Diaspora. The Synod concluded with certain decisions that are formulated clearly in the following official text:

“The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church concerned itself with the matter of the canonical organization of the Orthodox Diaspora. Therefore, the respective documents were discussed concerning the Orthodox Diaspora and the Rules of Operation of Episcopal Assemblies in the Diaspora, which were submitted by the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, 2009), and by the Synaxis of Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches (January 21-28, 2016), approving them with some minor amendments as follows:

1. a) It is affirmed that is the common will of all of the most holy Orthodox Churches that the problem of the Orthodox Diaspora be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be organized in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church.

b) Likewise, it is affirmed that during the present phase it is not possible, for historical and pastoral reasons, an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church on this issue, that is, the existence of only one bishop in the same place. Therefore, it has been decided to keep the Episcopal Assemblies instituted by the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference until the appropriate time arrives when all the conditions exist in order to apply the canonical exactness (akribeia).

2.a) The Episcopal Assemblies of the below mentioned regions shall be  consisted by all the bishops in each region who are in canonical communion and will continue to belong to be subject to the same canonical jurisdictions to which they are subject today.

b) These Assemblies will consist of all the bishops in each region who are in canonical communion with all of the most holy Orthodox Churches, and will be chaired by the first among the hierarchs of the Church of Constantinople and, in the absence of thereof, in accordance with the order of the Diptychs. These Assemblies will have an Executive Committee composed of the first hierarchs of the different jurisdictions that exist in the region.

c) The work and the responsibility of these Episcopal Assemblies will be the concern for manifesting the unity of Orthodoxy, the development of common action of all the Orthodox of each region to address the pastoral needs of Orthodox living in the region, a common representation of all Orthodox vis-à-vis other faiths and the wider society in the region, the cultivation of theological scholarship and ecclesiastical education, etc. Decisions on these subjects will be taken by consensus of the Churches who are represented in the particular Assembly.”

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  1. The regions in which Episcopal Assemblies will be created in a first stage are defined as follows:
  2. Canada
  3. United States of America

       iii.  Latin America

  1. Australia, New Zealand and Oceania
  2. Great Britain and Ireland
  3. France

       vii. Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg

       viii. Austria

ix. Italy and Malta

x. Switzerland and Lichtenstein

xi. Germany

       xii. Scandinavian Countries (except Finland)

       xiii. Spain and Portugal

  1. The bishops of the Diaspora, living in the Diaspora and possessing parishes in multiple regions, will be members of the Episcopal Assemblies of those regions.
  1. The Episcopal Assemblies do not deprive the member bishops of their administrative and canonical competencies, nor do they restrict their rights in the Diaspora. The Episcopal Assemblies aim to form a common position of the Orthodox Church on various issues. In no way does this prevent member bishops from remaining responsible to their own Churches and expressing the views of their own Churches to the outside world.
  2. The Chairmen of the Episcopal Assemblies convene and preside at all joint meetings of the bishops of their region (liturgical, pastoral, administrative, etc.). As for matters of a more general concern that require, by the decision of the Assembly of Bishops, a pan-Orthodox approach, the Assembly’s chairman refers it to the Ecumenical Patriarch for further pan-Orthodox actions in accordance with the established pan-Orthodox procedure.
  3. The Orthodox Churches are bound to avoid actions that could hinder the above process for a canonical resolution of the issue of the Diaspora, such as the conferment of hierarchal titles that already exist, and to do their utmost to facilitate the work of the Episcopal Assemblies and restore the smooth order in the Diaspora.”
  1. The relevant decision of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in June 2016 offered the Orthodox Diaspora throughout the world the opportunity on many levels to act and develop activities for the promotion of Orthodox witness, faith and life. The main tool of these activities are the local Assemblies of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and the special committees that are connected to these Assemblies. A very important step was the fact that the Episcopal Assemblies acquired additional prestige by being ratified and instituted by the Holy and Great Council, and that the elimination of the canonical anomaly ceased to constitute an absolute priority of utmost urgency to the exclusion of other important matters.

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Thus, three months after the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, the three-day Assembly of our 55 Orthodox Canonical Bishops in the USA convened with the participation of all jurisdictions. The full participation is also true for the October meeting of last year and we are now in the process of preparing for the upcoming Assembly scheduled to convene in October of this year. The same is also true for many of the other Episcopal Assemblies. Our perspective is to create excellent conditions for the offering of the Orthodox witness and faith, and an offering of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its authenticity, its fullness and its salvific energy. The possibilities are indeed limitless.

It should also be noted that the Orthodox Diaspora does not limit its diverse activity to the work of the Episcopal Assembly. The individual Jurisdictions as whole units, the parishes in the USA, and our Christian faithful as individuals are constantly in a state of mission and deposition of the witness of faith. They do so in environments which, if not hostile are certainly not favorable, and necessitate an increased strength of will and soul, and an abundance of God’s grace so that they do not succumb to frequent unbearable pressures.

The Orthodox Diaspora certainly has the great blessing to see the results of sowing of the word of the truth with the help of God on a daily basis and watch the successive transformations of people as they join our Orthodox Church. The Diasprora has the great blessing to experience empirically both the proclamation of Saint John the Evangelist, This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith (John 1, 5:4) and the confession of Apostle Paul, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us (Rom. 8:37).

Finally, the Orthodox Diaspora feels that the words of the Lord found in the Book of Revelation to the “angel of the Church in Philadelphia” apply to the same also:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (Revelation 3:7-8).

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The Diaspora after the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church has in front of her an open door that no one can shut. Hence the Diaspora is always in a movement of outreach for the sowing of the seed of truth to those who are far away and to those who are near.

Always with the mighty assistance of the merciful and philanthropic God.

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