Monday, July 6, 2009

cautiously optimistic about Chambésy

Most of the reactions that I've seen online to the recent Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambésy have been either dismissive--it won't change much of anything--or downright negative--it's a step backward from the goal of Orthodox unity. Personally, I didn't feel like there was enough on which to comment until the publication this weekend of the official statement, and particularly of the promised "rules of operation." Having seen them, I must say I think there's reason to be hopeful.

Some have said that the proposed regional episcopal assemblies won't contribute anything to the American situation in particular, since we already have SCOBA. But there is a definitive difference--SCOBA's membership corresponds with that of the proposed Executive Committee: "the Primatial Bishops of each of the canonical Churches in the Region." The assembly itself, however, will consist of "all Orthodox Bishops of each region . . . who are in canonical communion with all the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches." This is not only a more canonical arrangement (all bishops participate as equals), but it promises more balanced representation. Instead of, for instance, Bp. Ilia of the Albanian Diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate (representing two parishes) holding equal standing with Met. Jonah of the OCA (representing hundreds of parishes), the assembly would include all of the OCA bishops (not to mention, all of the Greek bishops, all of the Antiochian, etc.). It won't be strictly based on numbers of parishes or parishoners represented, but in general the larger jurisdictions will have more bishops in the assembly.

Another important point made clear in the statement is that this is an interim measure, designed to bridge the gap until a fully canonical resolution can be established at a future Pan-Orthodox Council. I realize there is a lot of cynicism about whether such a Council will ever happen, but there should still be at least two positive outcomes. First, the assemblies, to the extent that they perform their desired functions, should foster a unifying process over time. There is even an explicit prohibition on "actions that could hinder the above process for a canonical resolution of the issue of the Diaspora." For instance, there should be less confusion about clerical appointments and discipline: "It must record every decision relating to clerics promulgated by their bishops, in order that this decision is applied among all the Orthodox Churches in the Region." Second, they are specifically directed to work on developing canonical solutions. If that actually happens, we'll probably find ourselves in a better position further down the line, even if a Council never materializes. The latter outcome is safeguarded by specific requirements to meet regularly, and a mechanism for the bishops to call meetings even without the chairman's initiative. The assembly meets at least annually but may meet more often; the executive committee meets at least quarterly. One-third of the membership of either body may call a meeting.

Another point that should not be discounted is that this proposal has the stamp of approval from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There seems to be a lot of negativity about this--whether anyone will accept the requirement that the chairman must be the ranking EP bishop, whether more conservative jurisdictions will follow, etc. (How much difference will it make that the MP is endorsing this plan?) But it seems to me that at least the perception of SCOBA is that its efforts at unity have stalled in the past because of EP intervention. If that's no longer going to be an obstacle, isn't that reason to be optimistic? Also, given the composition of the assembly and the directive to operate by consensus, I don't think anyone will need to fear a partisan agenda (liberal or otherwise) being pushed through against the wishes of certain jurisdictions.

Of course, if the American bishops aren't also hopeful about this proposal, it probably won't go anywhere. But my ignorant assessment is that it's a workable structure, and probably the best possible arrangement we can hope for right now. There will be time later to see whether the push is toward complete EP dominance, but for right now, taken at face value, I think it's a good opportunity to work out our own issues on our own soil.