An Assessment of the Recent Meeting of the Executive Committee of the OCL, Houston, Texas, Feb 18-20, 2010


Recently, the executive committee of the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) met in Houston, Texas for its semi-annual meeting. As in most meetings of the OCL, outreach was made to members of the established Orthodox jurisdictions in order to address issues affecting the governance of the Orthodox Church in North America. As is known, the OCL has grown from a largely Greek-American organization concerned with internal reform of the former Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America to a broadly pan-Orthodox group whose main concern is administrative unity among the various Orthodox jurisdictions. In addition, the OCL has demanded ecclesiastical independence (also known as “autocephaly”) for the American church, as well as transparency and active lay participation. Previous lecturers have included hierarchs from most of the major canonical jurisdictions. In an effort to spread the word of American Orthodox unity and to make its message accessible to as many people as possible, it has met in venues as varied as Chicago, Wichita, and Ligonier, Pennsylvania. (Its next meeting in October 2010 is scheduled for Salt Lake City.)

At this particular meeting of the executive committee of the OCL, the keynote address was given by the Rev Fr Mark Arey. Arey, a clergyman in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) is the liaison between its primate, Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis, and the primates of the other canonical jurisdictions. In addition, he is also the general secretary of the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA). This dual role (which it must be noted he handles quite capably) is a difficult one in that he has to be cognizant of the concerns of the several different jurisdictions. As might be expected, it is difficult to imagine all of the primates that make up this body as necessarily being of one mind on the idea of Orthodox unity in North America. Moreover, as the representative of the GOA in particular, he labors under additional burdens in that ever since the removal of Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzis as primate of the Greek archdiocese in 1996, it has been viewed by many that this particular jurisdiction is not predisposed to unity except under its own terms.

In subsequent actions and speeches in the interim, the GOA has reinforced this supremacist position. Despite the best efforts of Arey, this bias against the GOA was difficult to overcome. Although his lecture was lively and broadly sympathetic to the other jurisdictions, in the final analysis it was difficult to believe that that eparchy’s fundamental view of itself had changed in any significant way. Moreover, as for Arey himself, the appearance of a conflict of interest between his role as general secretary of SCOBA on the one hand and as GOA functionary on the other could not be avoided. Indeed this dual identity makes his position as an honest broker next-to-impossible. That being said, what follows is an assessment of the keynote lecture by Fr Arey. It is meant in the spirit of honest and constructive criticism.

(In the interest of fairness it must be pointed out that the OCL has had a checkered relationship with the Orthodoxy hierarchy, particularly with the GOA. It was in the fore-front in the battle to remove Archbishop Spyridon Papageorge, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s hand picked successor to replace Iakovos Coucouzis, whom it removed in the aftermath of the Ligonier Conference in 1994.1 As such, it was considered a remarkable gesture of goodwill on the part of the GOA hierarchy to send Arey [one of its highest-ranking clergymen] to address the OCL. More importantly, upon his arrival in Houston, he told the executives of the OCL at a private lunch that he would welcome vigorous and honest questioning by its members. To prove his bona-fides, he used his good offices within the Greek archdiocese to overcome the last-minute glitches that threatened the opening session on Thursday night. The OCL for its part thanked him and assured it that it would do everything within its power to help in any way with the incipient Episcopal Assembly [which is to be convened in mid-May of 2010]. To prove its own goodwill, the OCL pledged $10,000 to SCOBA for purposes of defraying the cost of the first assembly of bishops. As of the close of the meeting Saturday night, the OCL had raised at least $7,000 from the assembled members to this end.)

Chambesy and its directive for administrative unity

In his capacity with SCOBA, it has fallen to Arey to organize the first Episcopal Assembly of bishops as decreed by the representatives of the foreign patriarchates which met at Chambesy, Switzerland, in June of 2009. The purpose of the signatories of Chambesy was to normalize the non-canonical order that obtains in those regions of the world that are not traditionally Orthodox –i.e. the so-called Diaspora. Twelve regions were identified as falling within this category, including North America, South America, Iberia, Scandinavia, Germany, France, and Oceania, among others. Notwithstanding, Chambesy was not without its critics. For one thing, none of the bishops of the “Diaspora” were present (though to their credit it must be pointed out that the signatories recognized that this term is viewed by many Orthodox in a less-than-flattering light). Neither for that matter was an invitation extended to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), ostensibly at the insistence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (which has never accepted that church’s autocephaly).2

As to the opening lecture certain last-minute problems appeared. The venue was to be at the local Greek Orthodox cathedral. Due to misunderstandings with the local clergy, the lecture which Arey was to give on Thursday night was in danger of being cancelled outright. Although open to the public it was not advertised for reasons that remain opaque. In addition, an internal memo to members of the OCL sent by e-mail a few days before the scheduled meeting stated that the local Antiochian bishop had instructed his local clergy not to attend. According to this e-mail, this was purportedly because the Patriarch of Antioch had some reservations about the process behind the protocols worked out at Chambesy. In the event, the lecture did take place and considering the absence of ecclesiastical sponsorship, was fairly well attended.3
As for the lecture itself, Arey acquitted himself well. It was in many ways a bravura performance. The level of his enthusiasm was obvious and infectious. Clearly he is well versed in the minutiae of North American Orthodoxy, particularly on the administrative level. His attentiveness to the pastoral issues that are normally involved in any gathering of bishops shows him to be a man of great sensitivity and politesse. If nothing else, he deserves recognition for the countless hours of hard work that he has expended in organizing this assembly. At the risk of belaboring the point, it is his responsibility (and his alone) as general secretary of SCOBA to set up this first meeting convened under the auspices of the Chambesy protocols. This includes sending out invitations, making travel arrangements, and securing hotel accommodations for approximately sixty bishops scattered throughout North America, a continent that stretches from the North Pole to the jungles of Panama. In a lighthearted fashion, he admitted that he hoped that by organizing this gathering he would be putting himself out of a job. Recognizing the obvious, Arey agreed with the general assessment that SCOBA has proved to be a less than credible witness to Orthodoxy in America. He received no criticism on this point.

Lecture: Its substance and resultant concerns

As for the lecture itself, Arey relayed a brief history of past attempts to unify the various immigrant jurisdictions in North America even before the inception of SCOBA in 1960. Although his talk was riveting, there were clear indications that the road to unity is paved with contradictory intentions. For this, he cannot be blamed. The political minefields that he has had to navigate were very much in evidence. Simply put, the longstanding bias against the GOA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate could not be cast aside so lightly. Despite his best efforts, there was little that Arey could say to disabuse this sentiment, at least among a certain segment of his listeners.

That being said, it would have been better had Arey refrained from making a few gratuitous statements aimed in the direction of the OCA. Specifically, certain comments about its size in proportion to the GOA, its recent financial scandals, and the small number of North American saints. To the present author, these were unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that the Greek jurisdiction is not without its own problems. On these points at least, it was obvious that Arey was beholden to the GOA’s point of view. For one thing, the actual size of that jurisdiction is an open question; the oft-repeated statement that it has over one million adherents is patently false. Secondly, the reference to the financial difficulties of the OCA due to embezzlement that occurred during the previous administrations rather conveniently overlooks the recent scandals that have depleted the treasury of the GOA. As to the small number of American saints, Arey contradicted himself when he stated in another context “that numbers don’t matter.” (That context being the miniscule size of the patriarchate of Constantinople in relation to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has upwards of one hundred million adherents.) Likewise, his rhetorical attempt to elevate the failed New Smyrna Colony in Florida to the same level as the successful Sitka Mission appeared to be special pleading. (To this date, it is unknown whether the Greek indentured servants who made up the Florida plantation at New Smyrna in 1774 were even Orthodox. The prevailing view is that they were Uniates.4) On the other hand, the claims for Constantinopolitan primacy were stipulated by Arey to rest on canons other than the controversial and mischievous canon 28 of Chalcedon (AD 451). Unfortunately, he left unsaid which canons in particular these included. Regardless, as far as the OCL was concerned, the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople within the Orthodox world is not an issue. Nor is it within Orthodoxy in general for that matter. (Supremacy on the other hand is a real and valid concern.)

More germane to the topic of American autocephaly was the question of how it is granted. Arey stipulated that two methods were available, either by act of an ecumenical council or by a grant from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Unfortunately this was an incomplete answer and as such mandates an additional historical digression: it is well known for instance that autocephaly can be granted by a mother church and by imperial edict (admittedly, this latter method is not possible today). The grant of ecclesial independence by a mother church has long been the stated belief of Moscow.
The first known instance of such a phenomenon was the unilateral granting of independence to the church of Georgia by the ancient see of Antioch in the fifth century. The historical record proves that this earlier grant of Georgian autocephaly was accepted by the Church at large, even by Constantinople. (For that matter, the loss of autocephaly as happened to the churches of Bulgaria and Serbia in 1767 has never been viewed as cause for celebration in Orthodoxy.) The other instance of a daughter church gaining independence of course was when the Russian Orthodox Church granted a tomos of autocephaly to the Metropolia, its former eparchy in North America (the present OCA). It is this latter act which has proved controversial, at least in the eyes of Istanbul. A case could certainly be made that it was this act that drove the Chambesy protocols in the first place, albeit in a typically dilatory fashion. A more compelling case could be made that the resurgence of the Russian patriarchate is driving the entire debate. At the risk of belaboring the point, such Constantinopolitan unilateralism puts that patriarchate on the horns of a dilemma: how can it be the only the only patriarchate which can be a grantor of autocephaly when its own church’s independence was itself created by an ecumenical council? Also, if an independent church cannot grant autocephaly, then how are its other sacraments and acts valid? (Are we to believe that some churches “more equal” than others?)

Equally troubling (at least to the present author) was a response by Arey that there was no canon which mandated that a nation should have an autocephalous church. This proved to be a bone of contention. To the present author this meant that in essence “Albania [for example] could have a national church but not America.” No adequate response was forthcoming except for a few bromides along the lines of how there are “no foreigners in Orthodoxy.” (Which of course begs the question, why then were there no American bishops at the meeting in Chambesy?)

Another, rather startling assertion was that the reason for Orthodox unity “was not to evangelize America.” Arey specifically mentioned the fact that since many Protestants are allowed to enter into sacramental unions with Orthodox Christians in our churches, there was no way we could not view these people as “not being Christian.” This triumphalist view of Orthodoxy of course has never been in evidence, at least within the precincts of the OCL; its stated purpose for the greater part of its existence has instead been Orthodox unity for its own sake. In the event, this bold declaration was rather unsettling as Arey himself is a self-described convert. To not put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon of Orthodox evangelism is fraught with anxiety for many jurisdictions. Indeed it can be said that it has been thrust upon Orthodoxy by historical events, with often inelegant results. It was certainly a stated subtext of the original Ligonier Conference (as well as the recent pre-conciliar commission that was held at Chambesy). Quite simply, how are the disunited American Orthodox jurisdictions going to handle this phenomenon when under the present circumstances they are clearly unable to do so? As far as the OCL is concerned, evangelism cannot in fact be divorced from administrative unity; as such, the OCL is vitally interested in facilitating it.
Arey’s statement to the contrary therefore is troubling on many levels, not the least of which it calls into question whether the GOA is even interested in evangelism in the first place. Certainly Arey’s cavalier attitude left this an open question. Evangelism after all is the Great Commission mandated by no less a personage than Jesus Christ Himself (cf Matt 26). If nothing else, such a sentiment calls into question the long-term strategic thinking of the advisors to the hierarchy of the GOA and whether they are even aware of the logical lacunae inherent in such an ethnocentric worldview. A recent video interview by the present Greek-American archbishop for example leaves the decided and unfortunate impression that his role as primate is primarily political, to convey the concerns of the Greek state to the seats of American power. No mention was made at all of evangelism or pastoral work of any type.

At the very least, Arey’s nonchalance begs even bigger questions. Among them: why then if it is not our mission to evangelize America is there a necessity for the various Orthodox jurisdictions to unify in the first place? After all, this is the implicit reason for streamlining the parallel dioceses with their redundant ministries, chanceries, and departments, which by of course results in the waste of precious resources. Moreover if theological pluralism is acceptable, then why must the American Orthodox labor under the yoke of a forced unity imposed upon us by us by a process to which we were not invited? Indeed, why then can we not incorporate heterodox teachings and practices into the various Orthodox jurisdictions? Taking this to its logical conclusion, why should we be concerned when our children leave Orthodoxy for other faiths? Who are we to deem mainline Protestants as “good enough” but not Latter Day Saints or Jehovah’s Witnesses (for example)? Why should the Ecumenical Patriarchate care to normalize the status of the indigenous Orthodox Church of Guatemala, a body of over half-million adherents who were recently received en masse into its Slavic jurisdiction? Are we to believe that this was merely a case of oneupmanship between the OCL and the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

As for the barometer of success for the Episcopal Assemblies, the question of their final outcome was left in doubt. The ultimate metric for success was the convening of the convocation of the much-anticipated, but ever-delayed (and possibly chimerical?) Great and Holy Synod. As noted, the Chambesy protocols mandate the ordering of the world into “regions” so that the various ethnically based churches contained within them could coalesce into canonical local churches. The most that Arey could assure us was that each of the Espiscopal Assemblies would have to come up with a formula for their ecclesiastical governance or have one imposed on them at some future date by the Great and Holy Synod. These bishops were warned that “they might not like” the outcome. Arey stressed this point more than once. However, when he was asked whether this meant autocephaly, he replied that this “could mean semi-autonomy, autonomy, or perhaps autocephaly.” To some of the assembled, this was certainly troubling. All this sturm und drang for mere “semi-autonomy”? More troubling to this author was whether foreign patriarchates even have the right to “order” local churches into structures they deem “canonical” when they were never involved in the inception of these churches in the first place.

This raised the hackles of many, confirming their worst fears that is to say that the various Old World patriarchates had absolutely no intention of divesting themselves of their American eparchies. More to the point, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who are in the OCA, since –for all its faults—it is already an autocephalous church, one that is recognized as such by over 95 percent of the world’s Orthodox population (if not the majority of its independent churches). Also, he could give no firm date for when the Great and Holy Synod was to meet. Nevertheless, he assured us that Patriarch Bartholomew considered its convocation to be the culmination of his life’s work. This raised the eyebrows of many of the attendees, some of whom had traveled to Istanbul in 1995 where they had been promised by Bartholomew himself that this council would take place by the year 2000. Given this history, the imputation of bad faith could not logically be avoided.


This is not to say that the lecture was not a success or that there was no honest dialogue. Thoughts were certainly provoked on both sides and the resultant dialectic must be viewed as necessary to sharpen the debate and bring a resolution (if indeed one can be had.) Nor is it fair to impute bad motives to Arey; as noted, his dual roles as both SCOBA general secretary and GOA functionary are inherently contradictory. In addition, he cannot be saddled with the faults of the Greek archdiocese, which since the unfortunate departure of Coucouzis from the scene has often acted in a high-handed fashion vis-à-vis the other jurisdictions. The only solution would be for him to quit one or the other position. Unfortunately, his manifest talents make him very much an indispensable man to both entities.

The question ultimately is not whether the GOA will allow him to act as an honest broker, but whether it has given up its supremacist claims.5 This can only be answered by the hierarchy of the GOA itself. Unless there are some good faith efforts conveyed to the bishops of the other jurisdictions in anticipation of the assembly, then the ultimate success of the regional assembly for North America remains very much in doubt.

—Respectfully submitted to the OCL by George C Michalopulos


George C Michalopulos, is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He was born in Tulsa, OK where he resides and works. George is active in Church affairs, having served as parish council president at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and as Senior Warden at Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he wrote ‘American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings” (Regina Orthodox Press: 2003). He is married to Margaret and has two sons, Constantine and Michael.