The Election of a New Bishop
Fr. Basil Zebrun
This year's 35th Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South will convene July 16 - 20 in Miami Florida. In 1978 Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Miami hosted our inaugural Assembly. The parish will assume this responsibility once again as we look forward to another historic first: the election of a Diocesan hierarch.
The election will take place, appropriately, on the last day of the gathering, Thursday, July 19 (The Feast of St. Seraphim). As mentioned, the procedure is a new experience for many in the Diocese. His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri was the founding hierarch of the DOS in 1978, appointed by the Holy Synod of Bishops. He remained officiallyour father in Christ until March of 2009, when he retired. Since then we have had two men function as locum tenens, overseeing work within our ecclesiastical borders: first His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, and presently His Eminence Archbishop Nikon of Boston. The void, however, created by Vladika Dmitri's retirement has yet to be filled.
The upcoming vote brings with it hopeful expectations, as well as apprehension: and rightfully, there should be some trepidation that accompanies a course of election. But, while people often focus on the all too human side of reviewing candidates and debating their qualifications, the sacred character of what we are about to do as a Diocese has to be stressed. There is a sacramental quality to this process that can be overlooked too easily. Our approach to an episcopal election as a blessed act -- be it a vote taken within the Synod, or with the participation of priests and laity -- is consistent with what is found in Scripture (for example, Acts 1:21-26), and with an Orthodox understanding of the Church itself, its members and hierarchy. Fr. John Meyendorff, of blessed memory, once wrote that:
"It is the faith of the Church that the election (of a bishop) reflects a divine choice and is actually performed not only by man, but also by the Holy Spirit. The Church is not a human organization, ruled by any of the systems which man may devise -- democracy, autocracy, clergy-rule or laity-rule -- but a temple of God, where God and man meet, where man is being led to eternal life, where God, in His mercy, gives to men and women the privilege of being His sons and daughters. It is this new dignity, which man acquires in the Church, that also allows him to share mysteriously in the acts of divine choice. Holy Scripture teaches us that the ministries of the Church -- and especially the ministries responsible for the performance of sacraments, for the maintenance of the true faith, for the unity of the Church -- are gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, because the Church is the Body of Christ, because all of us clergy and laity are members of the Body, we are all called to participate in the selection of those who are invested with this grace of the Holy Spirit: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:23)." (Vision of Unity, SVS Press, 1987, p.177).
No one will ever take the place of Archbishop Dmitri, either in our hearts or in the further development of the Diocese. He was one of a kind: the right man, in the right place, at the right time, for a unique ministry. Considering a candidate, therefore, to continue the work of such an august figure, makes people edgy, and on occasion quite anxious, especially given that the number of available candidates is limited. It is tempting, when faced with an unknown future as it relates to leadership, to dwell on scenarios of potential failures, as well as politics surrounding this or that person. It is also quite possible to enter a time of uncertainty with joy and confidence. I suppose that both approaches can be expected in periods of transition. One would hope, however, that optimism toward possibilities awaiting our Diocese with a new hierarch, would overshadow doubt and skepticism. A Diocesan Search Committee has been working for over a year to find a suitable person who will understand the founding principles of the Diocese, who will build upon the foundation already laid, but who will bring to the position of diocesan hierarch his own unique ideas and style of leadership. The final decision, of course, rests with the Holy Synod.
According to the DOS website: "Of the candidates under consideration by the Episcopal Search Committee, the Holy Synod has vetted Hieromonk Gerasim (Eliel) and Bishop Mark (Maymon)." Of these two, "The Diocesan Council will put forward the single name Hieromonk Gerasim (Eliel) for the consideration of the Special Diocesan Assembly as the next bishop of the Diocese of the South." The election will then be held and the Synod of Bishops will later make their decision. It must be stressed, however, that the Council's specific recommendation to the Assembly of Fr. Gerasim will not prevent anyone from writing in -- on a blank ballot -- the name of any person who meets the necessary qualifications for consecration to the episcopacy. (For further information on the election process please see the Diocesan website: dosoca.org).
To me, prospects in light of the upcoming election are very encouraging. For the work of the Diocese to continue most effectively it must have a resident ruling hierarch. As we enter a new stage of Diocesan life it will help to remember the public example set by His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri during his tenure. His faith in the work of the Spirit was quite instructive.
This faith was evident when once he was asked about the October 1977 Metropolitan Election held at the 5th All American Council in Toronto. (Then) Bishop Dmitri of New England had received by far the largest number of popular votes, both on the first and second ballots. The Synod of Bishops however, exercising its right of discernment, decided instead to elevate as Primate of the OCA, His Grace Bishop Theodosius, who had received the second highest number of votes (179 to 348). A few people expressed their disappointment that His Eminence had not been made Metropolitan, and suggested that perhaps Church politics played a role in the final outcome. The Archbishop without hesitation, and with a smile on his face, stressed that the Holy Spirit can work through any situation for the good of the Body. In retrospect most people would see the wisdom in these words. Undoubtedly, His Eminence would have been an effective Primate. But had the Archbishop become Metropolitan, the Diocese of the South as we know it today might not exist. And if the truth be told, His Eminence was probably far happier working in the South than he would have been representing the Synod of Bishops and the OCA at national and international gatherings.
Whatever the outcome of July's election, the Diocese is entering a new chapter in its history. The election itself, however, is only a start. Many are wondering what the new bishop will offer in terms of leadership: a valid concern, given that the bar was set high from the beginning. My personal feeling is that another question of equal importance is in order: "what will Diocesan members offer in terms of love and cooperation, regardless of election results and/or Synodal appointment?" It will take time for the bishop-elect to familiarize himself with the South, and to feel comfortable as leader of a missionary Diocese. He will need the prayers of his flock, as we assuredly expect his support for our communities. The Church generally will also require our prayerful acceptance of the Spirit's work through elections by Assembly delegates and members of the Synod.
As we approach the election of a new hierarch we can look ahead remembering the special quality of this year's Assembly, the privilege that is ours as children of God to "share mysteriously in the acts of divine choice" (Meyendorff). We can recall, as well, the Archbishop's faith. In doing so we should remember his entire ministry, how he conducted himself openly and consistently as an Orthodox bishop. We cannot speak for Vladika, but in my opinion -- looking to his public persona as a guide -- he would unquestionably want us, at this time, to be charitable to all candidates for the episcopacy, as he himself displayed charity toward others. He would assuredly desire that we be respectful of our elders, as he himself showed respect to those whom he served throughout his life. To the skeptics he would probably say be wise, yet gentle; do not tempt others; trust in the Spirit; and recognize His power to overcome human frailties. To those in mourning -- August 28 will be the 1st anniversary of his repose -- he would undoubtedly quote the Apostle urging us to weep, but not as those who have no hope. And he would surely encourage the more optimistically minded to remain enthusiastic and to share their zeal for Christ with the rest of the Body.
The July election will not only start a new chapter in the life of Southern Orthodoxy, but in some ways it will be a measure of our maturity as a Diocese, a test -- if you will -- for what we have learned from Archbishop Dmitri in terms of trust and acceptance of God's Will.