Lessons from the Council of 1917: A response to Professor Meyendorff’s proposal…

I decided to write this letter as a response to some suggestions that were recently made as to how our Orthodox Church in America should handle the recent scandal that engulfed us.  We all know that many faithful of our Church are concerned with the current state of affairs in the OCA and would like to see resolution to the ongoing scandal in the way that is in the best correspondence with the Gospel.  Yet, considering the very young age of our Church, influence from pluralistic society and non-Orthodox Christian movements that our faithful find themselves under (whether they realize it or not) and general confusion that resulted from obvious lack of clear understanding of Orthodox Ecclesiology, I am afraid that the ongoing discussion can lead our Church to the path of self-destruction.  The only way our Church in America can be preserved as an Orthodox Church is if we follow the traditional way of governing our Church, the same way that we find in all other local Autocephalous Churches.  To look for a unique “American way” of understanding the hierarchical nature of the Church at this time of total chaos of opinions would simply mean a dissolution of our Church which will be torn apart by different fractions that believe that their “solution” is better than the “solutions” suggested by others.

To put it simply, we don’t have a luxury of trying to reinvent a more efficient wheel.  I think what is the most important for us is to have firm trust in that not only the doctrinal statements of the Orthodox Church, her liturgical worship, but also the Canons and the established tradition of governing the Church by a Sobor of Bishops, is  all part of what makes our Church Orthodox.  By departing from a TRADITIONAL understanding of the relationship between bishops, priests and laity we are in danger of damaging the Orthodoxy of our Church, even though it will look like we serve the same services and proclaim the same Creed.

I think it is in this light that we should look at the proposal made by Dr. Paul Meyendorff and which seems to be getting endorsement even from some of the Hierarchs.  The relevant question is: do we really have a precedent in the Church history when ALL the bishops of a local Church made a decision to step down and to be replaced with those elected by the people?

Dr. Meyendorff, refers to the precedent that took place before (not during) the All-Russian Sobor of 1917.  As with everything, any event has to be understood in its proper context and then it has to be considered whether the solution for that context can be applied to our situation right now.

To begin with, it is important for us to remember that when we refer to the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church it cannot be properly compared to the Holy Synod of the OCA.  While in the OCA every ruling hierarch of a diocese is automatically a member of the Holy Synod, in the Russian Church the Holy Synod represents only a small fraction of the total number of bishops.  While there are over two hundred bishops in the whole of the Russian Church, the Synod consists of less than 20 hierarchs.  They are presided by a Patriarch and are charged with overseeing the life of the Church between the gatherings of All-Russian Sobor of Bishops.

Here I have to correct Dr. Meyendorff’s statement that the Russian Sobor of 1917 adopted a process in which “each diocese was given the right to elect its own bishop, and sitting bishops had to stand for re-election.” In reality there were no definitions of the Sobor itself that specified this as a way of how the Sobor should begin.  There were cases of reelection of bishops in many dioceses throughout the Russian Church, but it was all done prior to the Sobor and after the results of each election became known it was still up to the Holy Synod of Bishops, that was current at the time, to decide whether or not a particular bishop stays as a ruling hierarch of his diocese.  The very fact that the final decision was resting with the Holy Synod of Bishops is crucial since the integrity of the local Church always rests on the integrity of the local Synod of Bishops and in that case this integrity was preserved.

It is also important for us to remember that the year 1917, when the Sobor started its work, was a time of great disturbance of political and social life of Russian people.  There were many cases of direct or indirect influence of the political upheaval in Russia on the Synod of the Russian Church at that time.  For some of the examples one just have to read in more detail about what transpired in Russia during the year 1917 and how all this was affecting the Orthodox Church there.  Can we consider the decisions of the Synod that was acting in those circumstances as a precedent for us?  I believe that the age, size and the position of our Orthodox Church in America in relation to other Orthodox Churches in this land make it unreasonable for us to use this as a precedent for guiding us out of our current problems.

So what can be done?  Can all the members of the Synod resign and be replaced with new ones or be reelected?  I would say theoretically it is possible, but only in one case: if our Church is not Autocephalous.  If we depended on our Mother-Church for our hierarchs then we could request that the hierarchs be replaced with new ones that will be taught, consecrated and supervised by a Mother – Church where the tradition of hierarchical governance of the Church has been preserved in the unbroken succession from the apostolic times.  But if we consider ourselves an Autocephalous Church, we cannot do it.  At the very moment when all our bishops resign, our Church will proclaim to the whole Orthodox world that we could not hold to the gift of Autocephaly that was given to us in 1970.  We will admit to ourselves and everyone else that we could not govern our Church in America through traditional Orthodox way of hierarchical leadership.  And we will lose the apostolic succession and the right to be called a Canonical Church.

So the solution to our current problem, I believe, is not in re-electing all the ruling bishops fast enough before other Churches could realize what has happened.  Like everything in the Church, the Episcopal governance can only be properly maintained when the previous generation of bishops teaches a new generation of bishops how to “rightly divide the word of truth”.  It is impossible to learn how to be an Orthodox Christian or how to serve services by just reading a book.  I am sure that the same applies to the episcopate: it is impossible to learn how to be a bishop unless you see how previous generation of bishops fulfills their work in the Church, even though they might have many shortcomings.

Ultimately the question that lies before us: do we trust the Tradition of the Church?  Do we trust that the Church is a living organism that is nourished by the Holy Spirit and lives by laws different from the laws of the world?  Do we have faith that the Holy Spirit will be able to lead us out of this crisis without changing the Traditional way of Church governance?  And lastly, do we want our will to be done, or do we want the will of our Lord who is the Head of the Church to be done in His Body?

I hope that our Church will consider the implications of what will happen if we will go down the path that was suggested in Dr. Meyendorff’s proposal.  I also hope that the members of our Orthodox Church in America will be able to clearly see what ways of dealing with the current problems are acceptable in the context of Orthodox Tradition.  I pray that we will be able to have a real and honest discussion on the questions of Church life that are so urgent this day, but most importantly, that our Holy Synod of Bishops will be able to effectively lead us from the current time of great turmoil to the time of peace in our Orthodox Church in America.

– Fr. Victor Gorodenchuk, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA



Filed under Orthodox Church in America 15th AAC, Preparing for the 15th All-American Council

2 responses to “Lessons from the Council of 1917: A response to Professor Meyendorff’s proposal…

  1. Fr. Nicholas

    As an Anglican priest, and long time friend of Orthodoxy, I would caution against over democratization — one need only look at the chaos in the Episcopal Church in the United States to understand where that road can lead. Its experience what happens when hierarchs are not guardians of the Gospel and Holy Tradition but rather politicians responding to a constituency

    Accountability, certainly. Democracy — I pray not!

    We need orthodoxy’s firm and timeless witness to the Truth.

  2. George Williams

    Dr. Meyendorff is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation and remedy for it. As we have seen, the hierarchs of the OCA have been precisely the problem regarding the current scandal(s). +Theodosius and +Herman have been retired due to their instigations. Other hierarchs have also been dismissed. The problems lie within the Synod of Bishops. There is no reason to go into detail here how this happened, but the reality is that the credibility of the Synod of Bishops must be restored. Some people are under the false impression that bishops are “elected” to serve in their position for life or until they wish to retire. This is false. When a bishop elected to “serve” his diocese is no longer serving his diocese or has defiled his office, he should be deposed. The OCA is very lenient to only require retirement. So in regard to Fr. Victor’s assessment, the TRADITION of the Orthodox Church requires that bishops remain accountable to the Church, the laos. Bishops are neither untouchables elected by God nor are they chosen to “rule” over the people. They are “elected” to serve and to lay down their life for the Church, the laos.

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