In Praise of National Councils: The 16th All-American

Fr. Basil Zebrun

(In light of the 16th All American Council held in Seattle, I would like to offer the following thoughts.  A presentation of proceedings was given at St. Barbara's on Sunday, November 6, during coffee hour. Further material, as well as podcasts of the council, may be accessed at, the website for the Orthodox Church in America.)

     Councils have continually played a prominent role in the life of the Church.  The Church is not only hierarchical but conciliar in nature.  Councils are vehicles through which the Holy Spirit acts, a means by which divine truth, God's will, is discerned and expressed for the salvation of all. The Orthodox Church, in fact, has been referred to historically as, "The Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils."

     In North America councils have nothing to do with defining sacred Truth for the whole of Orthodoxy, as did great councils of the past. They do, however, concern themselves with conveying such Truth on a local level, discerning a Godly path for the Church on this continent.  They help to shape and define elements of local tradition in a formal sense, as the Church seeks to express what can be termed an American Orthodoxy.

     Though at times, taken for granted -- viewed as routine business -- significant manifestations of this process already exist. Speaking specifically about the OCA, on both national and diocesan levels numerous topics have been addressed repeatedly by council delegates:  moral and spiritual issues, as well as those pertaining to evangelization and Church organization. In addition, methods for Church funding have been taken up often by the Holy Synod, the Metropolitan Council, dioceses and parishes. As the Orthodox Church in America develops, a shift of emphasis is gradually being felt nationally on two topics in particular, through the process of discernment:  proportionate giving, and defining responsibilities more appropriate to dioceses rather than centralized departments.  The above efforts reflect the OCA's sense of self-identity, an awareness of the need for periodic self-evaluation and changes in Church structure, but also an acceptance of Orthodoxy's sacred duty to be a conscience for North America.

     Recent convocations have responded additionally to cries for accountability and transparency at multiple levels of Church life. The laity in this country, while affirming the hierarchical nature of the Church, tend to be strongly aware of their responsibility to safeguard the teachings, as well as practices, of Orthodoxy.  Thus their desire, and that of clergy, that all members of the Body be held accountable for personal actions.

    The specific make-up of councils in America further reveals a local sense of identity through the open exchange of ideas by bishops, priests and deacons, as well as lay delegates.  St. Tikhon is pointed to as having espoused this comprehensive understanding of conciliarity. He thought it wise that our experience of "unity in diversity" include a broad cross-section of Church membership. This vision is not radically new, though locally the concept finds fertile ground.  St. Tikhon's approach is consistent with a Eucharistic-centered Church life, the notion of a "royal priesthood" of believers, and the belief that all Church members are responsible for the Faith imparted unto them.

     This latter aspect of councils - that of inclusion - I find particularly fascinating, especially at a national level.  I am encouraged by the fact that Orthodox Christians, clergy and laymen, from diverse regions of North America can gather together once every three years, listen to one another, address passionately at times specific issues, reach a common understanding of these issues (even if that means agreeing to disagree), vote on proposals, and then greet one another later as brothers and sisters in Christ. These are signs of maturity, signs that people are not focused on the sins of others, or primarily on defending personal opinions, but rather their attention is directed toward the work of the Church.

     The process of conciliar discernment is not always easy or pleasant.  Smoothing out rough edges through prayer and dialogue takes both commitment and patience.  In Seattle a delegate was overheard saying that, "No one is convinced by arguments from the council floor.  When it comes to voting on issues, people already have their minds made up as to what side of the political fence they stand."  Short term, that sentiment may indeed be true.  But in many respects the Church's life is like that of a Christian: the fruit of our Lord's work is revealed over time.  Before growth can occur, before progress can be made, seeds have to be planted in the hearts of council delegates.  This is accomplished in diverse ways: certainly through receiving the Word proclaimed at services and plenary sessions, as well as through the experience of Christ's presence, wherever two or three are gathered.  But seeds are sown as well through the hearing of differing opinions expressed by other delegates.  Once sown, people must strive to cooperate with the Truth revealed, to change their personal rationale when necessary, and open their hearts to the work of the Spirit.

     For Church growth to occur this latter experience, of listening to the reasoning of others, is difficult to overestimate. A person may truly believe that discussions at councils do little good, that minds are already made up, or worse, will never change. Personally, I do not accept this last notion.  The Faith, in a sense, is all about change: repentance in the light of truth and wisdom.  We cannot overlook what fruit may develop, over time, through people's exposure to different ways of thinking. In addition, it is hard to imagine -- for the life of the North American Church -- the unity, the common mind, being forged through personal contacts and public exchange, even if that process takes decades.

While recognizing the time, money, effort and sometimes headaches involved with convening  Church councils at a national level, I must also confirm the joys and inspiration that come through these gatherings.  In my opinion they are invaluable for our formation as an Autocephalous Body striving for administrative unity with other jurisdictions.  I must also express gratitude to those people who spent countless hours organizing the council in Seattle.  No doubt their efforts will lead to growth and meaningful changes for the life of the Orthodox Church in America.