Subdeacon Simeon (Terry) C. Peet, Lay Delegate
The delegates of the 15th All-American Council began arriving on Sunday in preparation for the beginning of the council the next afternoon. Most of us arrived with hope tinged with various levels of apprehension. The Church was in a mess after three years of scandal that was pried loose by the revelations of Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, an insistent question posed by Archbishop Job of Chicago (“Are the accusations true or false”) and the catharsis provided by the OCAnews website maintained by Mark Stokoe all of which was followed by much soul-searching and investigations with a strong dash of acrimony and finger pointing.
Besides dealing with the scandal itself, the council was called to elect a new metropolitan. As the delegates arrived the odds on favorites were +Job, +Seraphim of Canada and +Benjamin of San Francisco; by Monday evening word was spreading that +Seraphim had withdrawn his name for consideration stating the pressing needs of his archdiocese and his concern, which I believe was unfounded, that as a foreigner he would have a difficult time presiding over a church that was largely U.S.-based. For example, +Seraphim said that he as metropolitan should be the guarantor of the majority of chaplains in the armed forces of the U.S.A. and how could he be if he were a foreigner. The answer is simple: a metropolitan who is a foreign national, would delegate the responsibility to a bishop who is an American citizen. By Tuesday a printed flyer containing a brief letter by +Seraphim was circulated confirming his desire to have his name withdrawn.
The council opened by singing the following troparion:
The Grace of the Holy Spirit has assembled us today
Having taken up Thy Cross, we cry:
Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord;
Hosanna in the Highest.
Two plenary sessions on Monday dealt largely with the results and recommendations of the Special Investigations Commission established by the Holy Synod to look in to the allegations of moral and fiscal improprieties. Both sessions were moderated by Bishop Benjamin with ample time for questions and answers. The tone of these sessions was civil and respectful; hard and direct questions were posed and equally hard and forthright answers were given by +Benjamin. The bishop admitted the failure of the Holy Synod and the Metropolitan Council in their duties. The tone of these two sessions, in hindsight, actually established a base standard below which the business of the council would never sink and in fact, the tone was incrementally raised higher and higher as the council proceeded.
In one of our plenary sessions, each table, having six to eight delegates, was asked to formulate two questions it wanted to pose to the Holy Synod. These questions were consolidated into about 15 questions for the bishops to respond to over a period of three days. At the plenary session on Tuesday evening, it was announced that the bishops would defer responses to the questions until after the election of the metropolitan the following day – an announcement that was not well received by the delegates. The bishops oddly or deliberately choose the rookie bishop from Ft. Worth, consecrated only 10 days earlier, to respond to all the questions. His Grace, +Jonah, having maybe all of five minutes warning, went to the microphone and in a period of approximately 45 minutes responded extemporaneously. His response was full of theological insight, was direct, honest, sincere; he acknowledged the sins of the past and he called on all to move beyond the acrimony and contention that had consumed the Church for the last three years. +Jonah’s reply was full of Love that only the Spirit gives; his was a clarion call for renewal and change and during his extended remarks, received two thunderous prolonged standing ovations.
It was after +Jonah spoke Tuesday night, that many of us, gathered around in small groups, began to see in +Jonah our new Joshua, a spokesman for all of us who felt betrayed and who articulated a vision of the Church that was desperately needed. We believed what we heard and we were amazed. It was then that the atmosphere of the council began to soar; the hope and excitement were palpable.
Wednesday morning came and oddly enough the bishops had selected +Jonah to preside at the Divine Liturgy and to give the homily. +Jonah’s homily that morning was an extension of the remarks that he made the previous evening and only served to confirm those remarks. +Jonah’s constant emphasis was that our lives as Christians are 95% action and 5% prayer or divine services, only served to reinforce our growing belief that +Jonah was the man sent by God to us at this moment in our history for North America.
As it happened, the first vote showed that +Job and +Jonah received the lion’s share of votes with +Jonah receiving about 20 more than +Job’s 212. The second ballot revealed +Job receiving 364, +Jonah 473 and +Benjamin 140 (up from 75 on the first ballot). The two top vote getters were the nominees to be sent to the Holy Synod. The decision did not take long; within 15 minutes the bishops, minus the newly elected metropolitan, emerged from the altar and announced +Jonah as the new metropolitan.
Delegates were weeping and joyously shouting Axios! Delegates were embracing one another in relief and joy and everyone lined up to greet the new metropolitan, but not before pulling out their cell phones and dialing someone to let them know what God had wrought : A church brought low in scandal rising like a phoenix from the ashes, a church inspired by the Holy Spirit to make a clean break by electing a real monk who had been bishop only ten days; a church that had re-discovered itself; a church that had formally received autocephaly in 1970, but had become autocephalous from old world culture of handling its business affairs 38 years later; a church like no other Orthodox local church in the world, that could subject itself to agonizing self-scrutiny and purge itself of its corruption; a church that elected a “convert”; a church like the apostle Paul knocked off his horse by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. The council will be seen, I am sure, as a defining transformational moment in the history of the O.C.A.
It took at least an hour for everyone to approach the new metropolitan to receive his blessing and to wish him well. Thereafter until the end of the council 24 hours later, the atmosphere was highly charged. I could not find one disappointed person and we all later learned that the bishops’ vote was unanimous – unprecedented in OCA history. And to be blunt, the election of a layman or a monk/hieromonk to head a national church is historically closer to the canonical model than we had ever seen here in America.
My impression of Metropolitan Jonah is that he smiles a lot; he is articulate always speaking in clear complete sentences and never mumbles; his explanations, though steeped in theology, are couched in phrases the hoi polloi can understand; the new metropolitan said that we are called to love everyone including the guy with substantial tattoos over his body, body piercings and spiked hair; he believes that the Orthodox should be very proactive about witnessing to the world. Did I mention that he smiles a lot?
Subsequently the new metropolitan articulated his own ideas such as the establishment of Orthodox hospitals, schools, senior citizen residences, the building of student housing with Orthodox chapels on university campuses or nearby throughout the country and is supportive of abolishing the head tax in favor of a tithing system, parish to diocese, and diocese to the national church.
The proposed amendment to change the method of electing a new primate (metropolitan) was tabled since there is to be a wholesale review and revision of the OCA statutes. The potentially contentious amendment to restrict the per capita assessment for the national church to $50 completely evaporated in the euphoric atmosphere; instead the delegates voted in favor of leaving the assessment at $105 ($1 below the current $106) so that progress made by the new team at the central church administration would not be undone, but strengthened.
The council in Pittsburgh turned the corner and the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. But very hard work remains before us. The proper Christian response is to roll up our sleeves at every level, parochial, diocesan and national and get to work. Let only the cynics — the true unbelievers – remain aloof. To be sure, not all trust has been restored; it will take time, but trust is truly being restored now and healing is coming to this vineyard planted by the Lord’s right hand.
Unlike previous stage-managed councils with specific pre-ordained results, this council managed to finds it voice in conciliarity. In the end, when all of us delegates returned home, whether by car or jet, we really flew on magic carpets — elated, ecstatic and full of hope for the future. It is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.