News Summer 2010

USA: First Episcopal Assembly Convened

The first Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs in North America was convened on May 26 in New York City by Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. The Assembly, attended by most hierarchs of local Orthodox dioceses in North America, resulted from decisions made by the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference at its meeting in Switzerland in June 2009.

The main goal of the Assembly, said Demetrios, is to witness to Orthodox unity in a “new world” and to secure a more effective organization of mission, witness and cooperation of the local Orthodox Churches.

Demetrios chaired the gathering, with Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Archbishop Justinian of the Moscow Patriarchate as co-chairs. Bishop Basil of Wichita, of the Antiochian Archdiocese, was elected secretary.

“We strive for unity because the Lord asked of us to be one, but diversity and differentiation are not to be feared. They are gifts that are to be used for the glory of God,” said Demetrios, adding that “our unity cannot exist to destroy such differentiation; rather, our unity is meant to flourish as a result of our natural diversity, be it linguistic, cultural or ethnic. Is this not exactly the condition of our universal Orthodoxy today?”

“Of course,” he reminded his fellow bishops, “problems related to unity, or to differentiation, or to both, always existed in the Church, starting already in the time of the Apostles, as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles testifies.”

Demetrios explained that the nature of the assembly is temporary, a preparatory step intended to facilitate the creation of a council that will decide “the final form of the Church in a particular country.” At the end of the process, the Assembly anticipates becoming a Synod of Bishops enjoying autocephaly.

The Assembly took place behind closed doors, with the bishops in attendance reportedly having committed themselves not to speak to the media regarding the details of their discussions.

The Assembly decided that such projects as International Orthodox Christian Charities will now operate under the auspices of the Episcopal Assembly. Committees of bishops are being set up to address legal, pastoral and canonical issues.
It is likely that the Assembly will be comprised only of the parishes in the US, with Mexican parishes becoming part of a Latin American grouping and Canadian parishes constituting a third region.

One of the complications in arranging the meeting concerned Metropolitan Jonah, head of the Orthodox Church in America. Patriarch Bartholomew had asked Archbishop Demetrios not to invite him because OCA’s autocephaly is not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In the end a compromise was worked out – Jonah attended as an individual bishop rather than as the head of the OCA. Jonah accepted the compromise “with all humility.”

Tentative dates for the next meeting of the Assembly: May 25-27, 2011.
Similar Assemblies are to be convened around the world in regions where there is no single Orthodox jurisdictional presence. Participation in these meetings will be restricted to active canonical bishops who reside in the designated region. At each Assembly, the chairman will be the senior bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Meeting in Moscow:
Kirill and Bartholomew stress unity

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrated Pentecost in Moscow, giving sermons that stressed the importance of pan-Orthodox unity. The Pentecost Liturgy took place at the ancient Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery north of Moscow.

In his sermon and greeting to Bartholomew at the monastery, Kirill spoke of the close ties between the early Russian church and Byzantium, and thanked God for the opportunity to celebrate the service with Bartholomew.

At the Savior Cathedral in Moscow the following day, 24 May, they jointly celebrated the memory of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Greek-born brothers who, in the ninth century, created the Cyrillic alphabet and preached to Slavic peoples. Their feast day is now marked in Russia as a celebration of Slavic and Orthodox unity.

In stressing unity, Kirill and Bartholomew both alluded to the travails Russia endured in the 20th century, also noting the challenges posed by the secular world.

“In spite of the decades in which atheist ideology dominated, the majority of the people of the countries of the Russian world regard themselves as believers, as children of the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Kirill, referring to the faithful in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, countries of the former Soviet Union that are still predominantly Orthodox. “This is the triumph of Orthodoxy in our day. The heritage of Cyril and Methodius unites the Slavic peoples. It is also a bridge between the Slavic and Greek worlds. This celebration is especially complete from your presence among us, Your Holiness, primate of the Holy Church of Constantinople, the living bearer of the thousand-year-old Byzantine heritage. In communing with you, we perceive that we are all members of one, unbroken Church Tradition.”

After the service at the Savior Cathedral, Kirill and Bartholomew led a procession to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square where they addressed young people. Referring to Russian believers and decades of atheism, Bartholomew said, “You not only preserved but strengthened your amazing culture, at the heart of which is the Christian faith. You fought, endured, and became worthy of the calling you received from Constantinople.”

Speaking at St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg on the last day of Bartholomew’s eight-day visit, Kirill reported that “with each meeting we are becoming closer to one another.... The holiness and fullness of Orthodoxy overcomes all division.”
Kirill had visited Bartholomew in Istanbul in July. There the two patriarchs spoke of the need to cast differences aside and present a united Orthodox front against secular evils.

The visit by Bartholomew to Moscow comes after a mission to the Vatican by Metropolitan Hilarion, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations. [Sophia Kishkovsky/ENI]

Environmental Day message
from Patriarch Bartholomew

In a June letter written for World Environmental Day, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said that “the fundamental cause of the abuse and destruction of the world’s natural resources is greed and the constant tendency toward unrestrained wealth by citizens in so-called ‘developed’ nations.”

He stressed the words of St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” “As St. Basil the Great instructs us,” the Patriarch added, “everything beyond this borders on forbidden ostentation.”
Bartholomew’s brief letter ended with a classic story “from which everyone can reasonably deduce how uneducated yet faithful and respectful people perceived the natural environment and how it should be retained pure and prosperous.

“In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers on the Sinai, it is said about a monk known as the righteous George, that eight hungry Saracens once approached him for food, but he had nothing whatsoever to offer them because he survived solely on raw, wild capers, whose bitterness could kill even a camel. However, upon seeing them dying of extreme hunger, he said to one of them: ‘Take your bow and cross this mountain; there, you will find a herd of wild goats. Shoot one of them, whichever one you desire, but do not try to shoot another.’ The Saracen departed and, as the old man advised, shot and slaughtered one of the animals. But when he tried to shoot another, his bow immediately snapped. So he returned with the meat and related the story to his friends.”

Russian Orthodox and new WCC
leader discuss controversial issues

It is outside the scope of the World Council of Churches to put forward a view on the issue of same-sex marriage and female clergy, the WCC general secretary told journalists in Moscow after meetings with Patriarch Kirill and other leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Speaking at a press conference on 30 June, the new WCC general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Russian Orthodox leader responsible for ecumenical dialogue, dealt with challenges facing the WCC and inter-Christian dialogue in general.

Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran, has made contacts with Orthodox churches a priority since he assumed his position in January.
Responding to a journalist’s question about same-sex marriage and female clergy, Tveit said that the WCC cannot express a position until there is a consensus within the organization. “The WCC has 350 churches,” he said, “and they hold different positions on such issues. We work on establishing consensus. That means that the Council doesn’t have an opinion on issues that have not reached the level of consensus.”

Tveit noted that the WCC works to foster conversations and open space for discussing issues about which member churches have different viewpoints. “I don’t foresee that the World Council of Churches will have one point of view on either of these issues in the near future,” he stated.

Tveit praised the Russian Orthodox Church for fostering interfaith dialogue in Russia and thanked the Moscow Patriarchate for organizing meetings for him with government officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov and Konstantin Kosachev, chairperson of the Committee on International Affairs of the State Duma, Russia’s lower legislative chamber.
Regarding his meeting with Tveit two days earlier, 28 June, Patriarch Kirill spoke of the WCC’s potential in defending Christianity in the world and in dialogue with other civilizations. “We live in a world in which relations between different civilizations are becoming more and more significant,” said Kirill. “In these conditions it is important for all Christians to ensure the preservation of Christian civilization and to cooperate in building good relations with communities of other civilizations. The WCC can help in achieving these two goals by defending the Christian system of values and developing the dialogue of Christians with other religions and with non-religious world views.”

Violence against Copts
on the rise in Egypt

In late April, in the Egyptian coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, some 3,000 angry Muslims gathered after Friday prayers during which the mosque’s imam had exhorted them to cleanse the city of its “infidel” Christians. The enraged mob went on a rampage – 18 homes, 23 shops and 16 cars were destroyed. For ten hours, 400 Copts barricaded themselves in their church until the frenzy died out.

This was only the latest of more than a dozen such attacks during the past year, including in the village of Kafr El-Barbary on June 26 last year, the town of Farshout on November 21, and the village of Shousha on November 23. Then came Naga Hamadi, where passengers in a passing car fired at Christians leaving a Coptic Christmas service on January 6. Seven were killed and 26 were seriously wounded.

Although the Copts have long been the target of sporadic attacks, the violence of the last few years is more like a purge, as waves of mob assaults have forced hundreds, sometimes thousands of Christian citizens to flee their homes. In each incident the police, despite frantic appeals, invariably arrive after the violence is over. Later the injured are coerced by the special security police forces into accepting “reconciliation” with their attackers, in order to avoid the prosecution of the guilty. No Muslim to date has been convicted for any of these crimes.

Egypt’s Christian Copts, about 12 percent of the population, have long been subject to customary and official discrimination. No church, for example, can be built or even repaired without a presidential decree. Copts are excluded from the intelligence and security services because they are deemed a security risk.

This discrimination springs from a belief deeply grounded in the social psyche of the ruling elite and large sectors of the Muslim community that it is unreasonable in an Islamic society to expect strict equality between Muslims and the infidels.
“The dhimmi status of the Copts,” said Moheb Zaki, former managing director of the Ibn Khaldun Center, an organization that supports democracy and civil rights in Egypt and the Middle East, “will not be changed by persuasion. It will only change by persistent domestic struggle supported by vigorous international pressure. The Copts do not demand the tolerance of Muslims but equal rights with them.”

Moscow Patriarch appeals
for Orthodox unity in Ukraine

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, on an official visit to Ukraine, has appealed to Orthodox believers there who have broken with the Moscow Patriarchate to return to its jurisdiction.

“There are no barriers preventing the return to ecclesial communion,” declared a statement issued after a 26 July meeting in Kiev of the Russian Orthodox Church’s bishops’ synod, chaired by Kirill.

The Orthodox church in Ukraine divided after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are now several different Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including one that comes under the Moscow Patriarchate and another, the Kiev Patriarchate, that is not recognized by any of the world’s canonical Orthodox churches. The Moscow-linked church accounts for a significant part of the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine, once the center of a Slavic state, Kievan Rus, is seen as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy because of the Baptism of Rus that occurred in Kiev in 988 following the conversion of Prince Vladimir.
At a 28 July service in Kiev commemorating the Baptism of Rus, Kirill spoke of the spiritual ties that bind Russia and Ukraine, separate countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“There were sinners, there were crimes, there were weaknesses in the lives of the people, but we carried through a thousand years, and continue to carry the great ideal of Holy Rus,” he said in his sermon at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.
Responding to journalists’ questions, Kirill denied that the Moscow Patriarchate had plans to take away the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Kiev Patriarchate is led by Filaret Denisenko, a former metropolitan in the Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet era. He reacted angrily to the appeal for reunification, saying that there is no schism, only jurisdictional division. [Sophia Kishkovsky/ ENI]

Christian peace gathering
in the American heartland

The closing days of July found nearly two hundred Christians of every stripe gathered on the campus of a Mennonite seminary in the American heartland. Their coming together was both the latest event in a centuries-long witness to the nonviolent way of Christ, and a preliminary to an event slated for next May, an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, to be the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence program of the World Council of Churches. The conference in Indiana, called Peace among the Peoples, was intended to take the pulse of the faith-based peacemaking community in North America in preparation for that 2011 gathering.

The Mennonites were best represented, but the other “historic peace churches” – Quakers and the Church of the Brethren – were also an active presence. Added to this core were delegates from the full spectrum of American Christianity, from Pentecostals to Presbyterians, Catholics to Unitarian-Universalists, and Baptists to Orthodox.

Speakers presented new ways of looking at old issues – topics such as conscientious objection in an era of terrorism and upholding family values within new definitions of “family.” They brought new passion to perennial concerns, such as Christian understandings of war or the impact of empire on faith. Conferees wrestled with the theological issues (atonement and costly grace), ecclesiological questions (parish priorities vs. nationalism and globalization), and practical matters (how to reach out to youth, ethnic minorities and those of other faith traditions).

Voices from the Eastern Church took the form of three talks by Orthodox Christians: “An Orthodox Approach to War” by Fr. Philip LeMasters of McMurray University,”The Eucharist and Peacemaking” by Alexander Patico of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and  “A Reflection on War,” a sermon by Fr. Bogdan Bucur, a Romanian now at Duquesne University.
Special initiatives that were carried forward during the conference included:

• Truth Commission on Conscience in War – giving respect to those who have chosen, on the basis of conscience, to withdraw from the current military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. [see:]
• North American Ecumenical Peace Center – envisioned as “a visible expression of a common call by God to advance the non-violent way of Jesus Christ by providing resources, facilitating networking, furthering communication and being a catalyst for collaboration among existing and future communities dedicated to peace and witness.”
• Global Peace Network – a way to lace together the work being done around the world to promote peace among all of God’s children, using today’s technology in the service of a timeless and universal path of reconciliation.
• Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace – several drafts of this seven-page document have been done; it will be finalized as a part of next year’s meeting in Jamaica. To accompany it, the writing committee is compiling a 100-page supporting document, which goes into greater detail about specific actions that have been or might be taken, and theological grounding for peace-work. (A text on this theme was prepared at an Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Consultation held in Leros, Greece in September 2009. Fr. Philip LeMasters attended on behalf of OPF.)

– Alexander Patico

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57