Friday, November 14, 2008

Back from 15th All-American Council

I returned last night from 4 days in Pittsburgh, as a lay delegate to the 15th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. I will not soon forget the events that transpired there. Without going into specifics, suffice to say that the last few years have been trying ones for the OCA. Members and others who follow this sort of thing will know what I am referencing. Consequently, this council always had the potential to be a bit dicey. And yet, the gathering took an altogether different course, in ways both mysterious and wonderful. Fr. John, our parish priest, described the experience much better than I:

It is safe to say that, while some perhaps foresaw that anything could or might happen at this Council, no one could have predicted this. And yet it all happened in the most spiritual and natural of ways. We all went to Pittsburgh with some fear and trepidation, hoping for a spirit of healing and relief from the burden of the financial scandal of the past several years; fearing the release of pent up anger amongst many. We also came with hope that Our Lord would bring about a new day for the OCA and allow us to move forward in our mission for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unburdened and empowered by Grace. This is what we got. On Monday night and the whole of Tuesday the Council plenary sessions dealt forthrightly and openly with the scandal. We heard reports, had floor discussions, and penned questions for the Hierarchs (bishops) to consider. One thing became very clear from the outset - our Hierarchs were participating in the Council to a much greater degree than they had at previous Councils, and in general seemed more expressive. As Tuesday went on there were some tense moments as people asked difficult questions, and while nothing got out of hand it was clear that to most that many questions and a spirit of doubt and distrust continued to hang in the air. There was a general temptation to read anything and everything in the context of the scandal. Towards the end of Tuesday disappointment was expressed that the Holy Synod had yet to formally address questions that were collected from the delegates and that could be on any subject. Their silence on this was purely a procedural matter - they had not received the full questions and had not had time to consider them. It was decided that they would be addressed on Wednesday, but it was at that moment that it was announced that Bishop Jonah would speak for a few minutes after the end of the plenary session. This was not planned - it was a spontaneous decision. I am sure I was not the only one thinking that the junior bishop of the synod who was not involved in any way in the scandal faced a measure of peril in speaking to such a topic. But as he began to speak, everything began to change. For the first time a Hierarch stood and spoke with spiritual authority and pastoral compassion to a gathered body of the OCA. He spoke very openly, almost too openly, on certain aspects of the scandal. But he also made it clear that our spiritual task involved laying down our anger as a spiritual cancer, and abandoning any negative energy or feelings we still bore to the whole subject, and begin to look at tomorrow. You can listen to this speech here: At the end of the speech, which was frequently broken by applause and standing ovations, the whole gathering exploded in applause. It was a truly significant moment, and far beyond the actual words used, it was the sense of a spiritual father speaking to spiritual children with genuine, God given spiritual authority. I have never heard anything like it on that scale, and it was clear that ten days of being a bishop meant little - Bishop Jonah bore a standing all his own - a Grace of the Holy Spirit, and no doubt the fruit of a genuine monastic life removed from the world of ecclesial politics and compromise. Only he could have made that speech.
The next day we began the process of electing a Metropolitan. Delegates are not supposed to talk about potential choices. It is an entirely open process and any name meeting the minimum canonical requirements (a celibate male member of the Orthodox Church) can be voted for. Bishop Jonah led the first ballot over Archbishop Job by a few votes. On the second ballot that lead grew. The Holy Synod took those two names into the altar for consideration. They had the freedom to choose either one or even someone entirely different. It still seemed unlikely that Bishop Jonah could rise so fast to the responsibility of Metropolitan. But as the synod came out and Archbishop Dmitri spoke, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." it suddenly became clear. The announcement of his name again brought thunderous applause and realization that in one fell swoop so much about the OCA suddenly changed. That night, after a beautiful address from our chancellor Fr. Alexander Garklavs, His Beatitude again addressed the banquet, and again a spirit of euphoria and joy swept the room as he laid out his vision - again one that was not unique in many senses, but he just said everything that so many had been waiting a long time to hear. He was connected to the Grace filled future of our autocephalous OCA in a way that no other hierarch seemed to be. He was truly our Metropolitan.

The official OCA announcement can be found, here.

Ancient Faith Radio has links to all the major addresses, here. I particularly recommend any of the talks by now Metropolitan JONAH. The Banquet Address of Fr. Alexander Garklavs is very good, as well.

While we were busy at the Council from 7:00 AM until late at night, I was still able to squeeze in a bit of Pittsburgh sightseeing, here and there. I was favorably impressed with the the city, actually--friendly people, interesting neighborhoods and significant, classic architecture. Approximately 400 priests at a downtown hotel made for an interesting street scene in central Pittsburgh--for OCA priests always wear their cassocks. At any given time--and particularly around dinner--one might see a couple of dozen Orthodox priests, monks and hieromonks on the sidewalks of downtown Pittsburgh. As they've seen it all in Pittsburgh, everyone seemed to take it in stride. I'm afraid the sight would have been a traffic-stopper in Dallas. The first night there, several of us ended up at a small Greek joint nearby for a gyro (and I might add, the best rice pudding I've ever had). There were probably 6 to 8 priests in there at time. A policeman came in and joked with the priests--pretending he was calling in reinforcements because the cafe had been swarmed by Orthodox priests. Another short side-trip involved walking down "the Strip," a few blocks of fish markets, sausage markets, macaroni markets, etc. and Wholey's Supermarket. Wholey's is, shall we say, unique. They also have a talking cow--a fuzzy, mounted cow head that talks to you as you walk by, welcoming you to Wholeys. The talking cow sounded a bit too much like Marty Moose to me--cheesy as all get-out, but a lot of fun, nonetheless.


Steve Hayes said...

Thank you!

I'd heard the news of Metr Jonah's election, but not the manner in which it was accomplished, and it is something for which we praise good.

While the financial scandals have mainly been the concern of the OCA, they also concern English-speaking Orthodox throughout the world, because the OCA has been, in many ways, the pioneer of English-speaking Orthodoxy.

Pauline Disciple said...

I wish I could have been there!

Anonymous said...

Sounds absolutely wonderful. My continued prayers for OCA and all harboured therein.

Look forward to reading some of the links when time allows.

Steve Hayes said...

OK, where is it?

I looked on your blog for this post:

Notes from a Common-place Book
Up a Creek: S. M. Hutchens on the Dangerous Success of Rudderless Christianity - The most disturbing and widely publicized finding of *Reveal,* Willow Creek Community Church's years-long exercise in consultant-directed self-analysis, wa...

... but couldn't find it!

Is there a cyberpoltergeist moving things around?

John said...

Ah, Steve--you are too fast for me! I am still working on that one. I had it up for about 15 seconds as a test, and then took it back to editing. It should be posted sometime tomorrow.