In anticipation of the All-American Council – I have attended five, maybe six since 1999 – I can’t help but think of Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” Well, All-American Councils are like a box of chocolates… The Statute of the Orthodox Church in America requires the Church at-large gather in council every three years, every parish and Stavropegial entity sending the assigned priest and one lay delegate selected by the parish to represent them. Over six hundred clergy and lay gathered in Baltimore, MD for the 20th All-American Council, 18 - 22 July 2022. Going into the Council most everyone knew because of pre-conciliar activity that the OCA Pension Plan would be a serious topic of conversation. (If you are interested in the nuts-n-bolts of the Pension Plan you can start your odyssey here - OCA Pension Plan). Another matter which concerned a growing number of Council participants had to do with the Church’s response to a most recent incident regarding the action of an Orthodox Bishop (see here - Church News); how would the Church respond? On the truly practical, having attended a number of councils before, would the Church attempt to deliberate on more items, issues, and concerns than any one person ought to know about in a lifetime, let alone try to do something about all of them in a weeks’ worth of plenary sessions? And finally, how would the OCA, through the Holy Synod of Bishop’s continue in their response to the war prosecuted by Russia against Ukraine? (Please understand dear reader, by wording this last statement as I did, I have not concluded that Ukraine is without responsibility. However, that Orthodox Christians are warring, killing each other ought to truly break our hearts and cause us to intensify our prayer to God for the cessation of killing.)
The Pension Plan of the Orthodox Church in America established to provide retired clergy some semblance of a retirement is seriously underfunded. By resolution at a previous All-American Council, approved by the Holy Synod of Bishops, clergy and parish participation in the plan is mandatory though only 85% participate. Presently, every Priest must pay monthly 6% of their compensation (salary & housing) into the plan and the parish 10% monthly. In an effort to bolster knowledge of fund investment strategies and management among members of the pension board, an amendment to the selection process reflected in the Statute was put on the floor. At present, all members of the pension board are selected by vote during an All-American Council. The amendment would permit the Metropolitan to select three of six board members with the three selected vetted through the Metropolitan Council, the Holy Synod and the Holy Synod ultimately approving the Metropolitan’s selection. An amendment to the Statute requires a 2/3 majority vote for adoption. The amendment recommendation received 57% favorable votes, as such the amendment failed adoption. Beyond this, the Pension Plan received no significant attention for the duration of the Council. (For a more in depth look into deliberations from the Council, look here - Pension Plan Amendment).
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The Holy Synod of Bishops took the opportunity to reiterate the belief of the Orthodox Church on human sexuality and marriage. Please see the following statement - Holy Synod of Bishops on Same-sex Relationships and Sexual Identity - issued by the Holy Synod at the Council. It is a great summary with fidelity to what the Orthodox Church has always believed on the subject.
The Holy Synod of Bishops approved the following resolution on the war against Ukraine, unanimously supported by all participants of the Council:
RESOLUTION 2 The 20th All-American Council:
- Expresses support for the statements by His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon and the Holy Synod condemning the aggression against Ukraine;
- Expresses support for His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church;
- Condemns the attacks upon parishes, monasteries, and temples whether by military action, seizure by other religious groups, or pressure and interference by civil authorities or occupying forces; and
- Remembers with love the visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry to the 18th All-American Council in Atlanta.
(You may read the comments of clergy and lay delegates in favor and opposition to the proposed amendment here, beginning on pg. 6 of the minutes - Minutes Plenary Session IV)
The report of Bishop Alexei, newly enthroned Bishop of Sitka and Alaska was noteworthy. I will share more from this report and on how we may be able to assist clergy and their families realize an acceptable standard of living. The report of Archbishop Alejo of Mexico City and Mexico was also enlightening. I will share more in the near future from this report and how we may assist in raising the level of clergy education and formation for the Orthodox Church in Mexico.
Wrapping up, Thursday and Friday were special for yours truly. At the end of the hierarchal Liturgy on Thursday, His Beatitude awarded the Military Cross to Fr. James Parnell and me. The Military Cross is awarded to Orthodox Clergy who served with distinction in the Armed Forces as Chaplains. Some in our parish may remember Fr. James and his family. I met James Parnell years ago when I was a chaplain at 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and he an enlisted Soldier. We had a few conversations during our time assigned at 5th such that when he completed his enlistment contract, he and his family attended our mission worshiping on Madison St. Fr. John Beale received James and his family into the Orthodox Church and from here they went to St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He received ordination as a Priest, reentered the military, this time as a Chaplain in the National Guard. Fr. James serves full-time now as a Chaplain in a Veteran’s (VA) Hospital. What a thrill to receive this award along with a young man whom our parish, Protection of the Holy Virgin Mary played such a significant role in his formation.
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Finally, on Friday I had the privilege of presenting to the Council as part of the military chaplain’s report. I said the following,
"Karl Marlantes in his book, What It is Like to go to War writes, “Killing someone without splitting oneself from the feelings that the act engenders requires an effort of supreme consciousness, that quite frankly, is beyond most humans. Killing is what warriors do for society. Yet when they return home, society doesn’t generally acknowledge the act it asked them to do created a deep split in their psyches, or a psychological and spiritual weight most of them will stumble beneath the rest of their lives. Warriors must learn how to integrate the experience of killing, to put the pieces of their psyches back together again. For the most part, they have been left to do this on their own.”
“This statement for many, because of their personal experience as parents, brothers, sisters to those so affected is ‘no surprise.’ Similar to the words of our Lord concerning the poor, we can say, war we will always have with us. In the 246 years of existence as the United States we have known only 17 years of peace. Military action is what we do as a country. Even if the Orthodox Church should discourage participation in the military, from among our sons and daughters there will always be those who will join, enlist, and receive an officers commission. From these, there will be those who will kill in combat, and not just enemy combatants. The asymmetrical reality of today’s battlefield places “innocents” at high risk of injury and death by the hand of our Soldiers. In short, war holds the high probability of crushing the Soldiers’ soul for having done what they were trained to do. Some may be oblivious to the soul damage incurred by our sons and daughters who have survived combat because upon their exit from the military and return home, they no longer come to church. As such we don’t see what they suffer.”
“So, what do we do about it? How do we respond? I don’t have the answers. What I do know, there is a great deal of experience, and knowledge among our clergy and people, adept in affecting cure of the soul. This is my prayer, ‘God raise up from our midst, those who will be singly focused and committed to the healing of the souls of our Orthodox sons and daughters wasting away under the soul-destroying weight of having killed in combat, be they enemy combatant or innocent. Vessels of grace who may teach us how we may bring hope, love, and assurance to those suffering, that God has not cast them aside because of what they may have had to do because they were in harm’s way on our behalf.’ Amen.”
I came away from this Council satisfied with the work of her participants. To be sure, there are many issues which require address and attention, but the planners and organizers for this Council did a good job keeping all participants focused on these few and select matters. I believe seeds planted during this Council will see a bountiful harvest in the outreach, health and vitality of our Orthodox Church in America.
Fr. Peter M. Dubinin