Stop new schism in the Serbian Orthodox Church in USA
Stop new schism in the Serbian Orthodox Church in USA
Why this petition matters
Esteemed members of the Holy Synod!
It should be clear to anyone who is able to interpret the signs of the times objectively that a new schism is in the making in the American diaspora. Preparations already have largely been completed, initial actions have been undertaken, and it now remains to be seen whether effective countermeasures will be implemented in a timely manner to prevent a coup in the diaspora of the Serbian Orthodox Church from being enacted.
All Orthodox Serbs in the United States vividly remember the painful experience of the division in our Church caused in 1963 by Udba, through its agents. In the time of Blessed Patriarch Pavle, we reconciled and united. We vowed that a similar terrible division, which tore apart not only parishes but also homes, and which turned yesterday's godparents and friends into enemies, would never happen again in our midst. That is why we were shocked when a document was disclosed recently, emanating from the office of the Secretary of State of Illinois, Jesse White, about the discrete formation in 2017 of a non-profit church corporation. The emergence of this new legal entity, officially called The Serbian Orthodox Dioceses in the United States of America, has never been officially announced or explained to the laity by the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States. Its purpose and composition, in parallel with the existing three dioceses of the SOC in the United States, are enigmatic, unexplained and unknown to us. But in light of the initiatives launched at the 2019 Assembly of the three Serbian Dioceses in the United States at the Nova Gracanica Monastery, this mysterious legal move, executed two years before, seems neither frivolous nor innocuous. Simultaneously with this memorandum, a petition is also being prepared for you, the Holy Synod of Bishops in Belgrade, for which concerned believers from the Serbian Orthodox Church from all over the United States have been collecting signatures. This petition is very seriously argued and please read it carefully.
The essence of our deep concern is that a series of steps taken by Bishops Longin, Maxim and Irinej indisputably indicates that systematic preparations are being made for the separation of the three dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States from the Mother Church, based in Belgrade. Possibly, the plan includes their annexation by another jurisdiction - apparently the Patriarchate in Istanbul - which is not only obviously not Serbian, nor has anything to do with the teachings of St. Sava, but, worst of all, we suspect that it is probably not even Orthodox any longer.
To the best of our knowledge, at the epicenter of these changes, which are being introduced without consultation and behind the back of the believing people, is the newly formed legal entity called The Serbian Orthodox Dioceses in the United States of America. As believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church and members of various Serbian Orthodox parishes throughout the United States, we seek answers to a number of key questions. First of all, who are the signatories, on whose behalf and finally, with whose blessing was this legal act undertaken, whereby a new church entity of the Serbian Orthodox Church was registered? Judging by the name given to this new legal entity, it could be concluded that it represents a body that would be situated above the individual dioceses of our Church in the USA. Consequently, what are the goals and scope of this newly formed corporation? (For clarification, in the US, "corporations" are not exclusively business entities; this is a generic term for various types of legal entities, which may also be non-profit, humanitarian, religious, etc.). As is well known, the Serbian Church, made up of three dioceses, has existed in the United States since before 2017, when this new and purportedly overarching legal entity was incorporated. According to our understanding of how our Church is governed, the superior ecclesiastical organs of our dioceses in the United States are the Holy Council of Bishops and the Synod. Is that still the case? What is the reason behind suddenly, without consultation and knowledge of the general public, forming a new ecclesiastical legal entity situated above the already existing dioceses, and occupying a vague position between our individual dioceses and the legitimate governing bodies of our Church in Serbia? Why and for what purpose? Are all three existing dioceses (individually incorporated already) to be merged into this new legal entity? Who is listed as the governing body of the new corporation? These are all questions that must be answered, but we have not received any answers from our bishops here. Can we get answers to these questions through you, our hierarchs, to whom our bishops here, on the principle of collective leadership (sabornost), owe an accounting of their actions, if they feel that they do not owe it to us, their own flock?
Attached to this letter, we bring to your attention two documents we have obtained from the office of the Secretary of State of Illinois. The 2019 Annual Report submitted to the said office indicates that the bishops Maxim, Longin, and Irinej are listed as directors of the religious corporation The Serbian Orthodox Dioceses in the United States of America. In the US system, the list of directors corresponds to the composition of the “administrative board” (upravni odbor) in Serbia. The document makes no mention of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its organs in Belgrade, nor does it state that the religious entity being incorporated by the three bishops as its directors is an integral part of the Serbian Patriarchate and that it is canonically subordinate to that Patriarchate. Further, the document entitled “Declaration of acceptance of the General Law on Non-Profit Corporations,” and “Statement of Election to Accept the General Not For Profit Corporation Act,” filed on June 6, 2017, also lists the names of the same three ecclesiastical functionaries as directors. In addition, it is noteworthy that the religious entity, The Serbian Orthodox Diocese in the United States of America, is a closed corporation and has no membership with voting rights (paragraphs 8 and 10). In the American legal system, that means that the directors, in this case the three bishops, retain for themselves the absolute and unlimited right to dispose of all tangible and intangible assets of the legal entity they are managing. In particular, the bishops-directors would thus potentially also gain absolute control over the assets of their present dioceses, assuming they were able to transfer them to the overarching religious corporation they formed in 2017, all without paying the slightest regard to the superior ecclesiastical authority. Using the above legal instruments, Bishops Maxim, Longin, and Irinej could also transfer their religious corporation, formed in 2017, under the jurisdiction of any other church, without the permission of the Serbian Patriarchate and without even the obligation to obtain its prior consent. From a material point of view, the gist of it is that under such a scenario all parishes and property of the three existing dioceses of the SOC in the United States, could be legally switched to another jurisdiction under the authority of their new religious organization.
We draw your attention to the fact that the act of establishing a new ecclesiastical legal entity was formalized quietly in 2017, a full two years before the attempt to introduce a series of constitutional novelties was made in 2019 at the Assembly in Nova Gračanica. These novelties, unannounced to the delegates until the last moment, were fully consistent with the groundwork previously laid in 2017. It is important for you to know that, from that moment on, an internal church crisis of serious proportions was unleashed in a Serbian church in the United States. The confusion and discontent among the laity grows by the day, and few have any faith left in the vague phrases from the occasional announcements of our bishops here. The sequence of events between 2017 to 2019, taken as a whole, convincingly demonstrates long-term planning and forethought on their part. The ties of some of the bishops in the United States, specifically Irinej Dobrijevic, to some distinctly non-Church factors - as evidenced in the WikiLeaks documents - reinforce these suspicions and raise further concerns about the impact of their actions on the unity and spiritual integrity of our holy Church. It seems that some other institutions have now replaced that wicked outfit that used to be known as the religious commission (verska komisija), while everything else has remained essentially the same.
Of particular concern is the slow and hesitant response of church organs in Serbia to the open challenge the American bishops have opposed to their superior authority. We must note that over the past few years, these same church organs have, in rather summary fashion, dismissed and replaced several bishops, and not just in Serbia. That was done for alleged canonical and other wrongs attributed to them, but which, even if they had been well founded, are rather minor compared to the situation before us now. In this case, we are confronting a potentially grave ecclesiastical offense: preparing the ground for secession, or in the language of the Church - schism. The American Serbs, laity of the Serbian Orthodox Church, do not at all understand the double standard being applied in these cases.
Witnessed by the experience of the church division that erupted in the 1960s, we must ask you - with all due respect - the following question: why have the American bishops not been called to account and were not disciplined in the canonically prescribed manner? It is crystal clear that they have been acting behind the backs of both their clergy and laity for at least two years, and we might say behind your backs as well, by taking actions that could only be interpreted as preparing the legal basis for causing a split within our Church. There are clear signs of intent to circumvent the canonical hierarchy and to transfer our dioceses to another jurisdiction. Why have these bishops not been deprived already even of the appearance of the right to speak on behalf of the SOC in America? (We recall that the Holy Assembly of Bishops already has extensive experience with replacing bishops, both in Serbia and abroad, often rationalized by non-transparent and extremely dubious reasons, of which the case of Bishop of Raska and Prizren, Mr. Artemije, serves as an outstanding example). In the absence of a speedy and appropriate reaction by the higher ecclesiastical authorities, under US law the three bishops can continue to act under the cloak of legitimacy, especially in a hypothetical scenario where these issues would have to be resolved in the US judicial system. Having consulted legal experts on this matter, we can inform you that, notwithstanding the much delayed annulment of the extremely questionable actions of the three bishops in the United States, as long as they continue to legitimately exercise their episcopal offices, they can also continue to make more mischief. In light of the principles of the Anglo-Saxon legal system, with the passage of time, and in the absence of an adequate and natural reaction by the Patriarchate whose canonical powers and authority in the United States are being seriously undermined, should there be a church dispute (a rerun of the 1960s and 1970s), actions by the three local bishops will accumulate greater legal weight. In such a dispute, the Serbian Patriarchate would still have strong legal arguments at its disposal. But the question nevertheless arises, since the vital interests of our holy Church in the United States are being jeopardized, why does she hesitate to act promptly in a natural and effective manner so as to minimize the legal potential of the opposing party?
A failure to act in a timely fashion could result in great damage to our holy Church, both materially and morally. A hypothetical litigation, similar to that of the 1960s and 1970s, would be time consuming and expensive. Leaving aside for the moment the important question of whether American Serbs are prepared to make material sacrifices on that scale at the present time, and considering just the embarrassing details that would be exposed to public view in such a scenario, the Church in America would be seriously hurt.
To better explain our concerns, here are some specific reasons.
- The new "constitution" and some of its main features
At the New Gracanica Assembly, a new constitution for the three dioceses in the United States was presented. The procedurally deficient manner in which the proponents of this document sought to obtain its adoption by the delegates has already been commented on and substantially confirmed by the testimonies of many attendees. It is symptomatic that Mr. Dobrijevic tried to present the new constitution to the Assembly participants as no more than a slightly modified version of the old one. However, even without delving deeply into the matter and absent any comparative analysis of texts, it is obvious at first glance that this cannot be true, because the new constitution is almost twice as long as the old one.
Even on a cursory review of the new constitution, several things catch the eye. Article 7 states that the Church in the United States is defined as "hierarchical." In the US legal context, this claim is potentially very significant because it openly contradicts the current practice whereby each parish is registered as a separate and distinct legal entity, with clearly defined collective decision-making powers and inviolable ownership of local community property. Therefore, in order to change the status of the parish, in terms of affiliation with a higher church body or change of jurisdiction, members in each parish individually, across the United States, in the same way as shareholders of every other US corporation, would have to signify their agreement by voting. The status of a parish cannot be changed by a decree from above, if the majority of the members of the parish community oppose such a decree. That will be a problem for the initiators of the current confusion in the dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States. At the same time, however, legally and practically that is an opportunity for the ecclesiastical authority in Belgrade to suspend and eventually dismiss the three bishops in the United States, thus effectively preventing them from fracturing the SOC and separating from it the dioceses in the United States, before that process becomes irreversible.
But it is also important to note that the definition of the Serbian Church in the United States, in the new version of the constitution, as predominantly "hierarchical" is at odds with the facts on the ground (that was one of the major issues of contention in the church dispute of the 1960s and 1970s). The Serbian Church in the US is actually constituted as "hierarchical-congregational," i.e. featuring both vertical and horizontal elements. All those fundamental issues were thoroughly scrutinized by US courts in the rulings they made during the earlier church dispute. Bypassing or otherwise neutralizing this legal situation is an essential prerequisite for imposing any organizational or jurisdictional solution that would be contrary to the will of the faithful Serbian laity in the US, which is to belong to an indivisible Serbian Orthodox Church based in Belgrade. We reasonably suspect that the attempt to circumvent the legal obstacles is what lies behind the otherwise inexplicable and in fact never explained incorporation of the said new legal entity in 2017. We reasonably suspect also that the three bishops will at some point attempt to convey all, or the vast majority, of US ecclesiastical parishes and their assets under the authority of the new legal entity they have created and control. The newly created entity "The Serbian Orthodox Diocese in the United States of America" has undoubtedly been assigned a key role in that operation. Exactly what strategic design lies behind it we can only surmise and must continue to carefully observe the developing situation.
For a better understanding of the emerging legal situation, we beg you to take a look at the schematic representation of the newly registered legal entities and their inter-relationship. This will undoubtedly help you to realistically assess the legal situation that was quietly established in the first half of 2017:
SERBIAN ORTHODOX DIOCESES
IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
(The umbrella church organization formed in the USA)
SERBIAN ORTHODOX DIOCESE OF WESTERN AMERICA
SERBIAN ORTHODOX DIOCESE OF EASTERN AMERICA, INC.
SERBIAN ORTHODOX DIOCESE OF NEW GRACANICA -
SERBIAN ORTHODOX MONASTERY OF SAINT SAVA
MONASTERY OF THE PROTECTION THE MOTHER OF GOD - NEW GRACANICA
Evidence of the re-registration of these legal entities during the first six months of 2017, for which there was no apparent necessity, and notwithstanding the fact that all three dioceses and both monasteries were already in existence at that time and duly registered in their respective states, we submit to you as an integral part of this memorandum. The only exception to this process of re-registration is the ex nihilo registration of the so-called "The Serbian Orthodox Dioceses in the United States of America," whose purpose is unknown to us. Considering this scheme as a whole, and linking it to the insistence of the three bishops to adopt a new system for our church in the USA, we can only interpret this as the establishment of the legal infrastructure for the implementation of a plan that has not yet been disclosed to us, the laity. Whether such a plan exists and what its nature might be, we invite you as the hierarchs ultimately in charge of our Church to examine and determine.
2. Dilemmas about the new constitution
With respect to the concerns we have raised, we would also like to draw your attention to the enigmatic formulation in Article 7, paragraph 4, of the proposed new Constitution. There, the supreme ecclesiastical organs are referred to as "the holy assembly of bishops," and immediately after that "the holy synod." However, it is not specified which church jurisdiction is being referred to. It does not explicitly state that these are the governing bodies of the SOC, based in Belgrade. So, in light of the concerns raised above, we reasonably suspect that a mechanism is being set up that would allow the bishops in the United States, at any given time, to switch to the jurisdiction of another assembly of bishops and another synod. Do you accept such an ambiguous formulation and do you not see the danger to the unity of our Church that it poses?
We also invite you to look at Article 11 of the new constitution, which defines the status of ecclesiastical communities, or parishes. This, as we have already stated, is not based on the actual status of parishes in US states as practically autonomous legal entities, existing and functioning as such in accordance with secular US law. Instead, parishes are treated as informal associations of believers, without any special powers other than being allowed to dissolve themselves by a two-thirds vote. Under the new dispensation, they would have roughly the same powers as the Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija. But it is important to know, regardless of the status of similar bodies in Serbia, that in America in legal terms the actual state of affairs is fundamentally different. Although not a true reflection of the factual situation on the ground, the position articulated in the new constitution is nevertheless of great significance as an indication of the true goals and aspirations of the creators and proponents of this document.
If the ultimate goal is to separate the dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church and their institutions in the United States from the canonical system of which they are currently a part, then the attempt to downplay the status of the parishes and the attempt to circumvent them as a key legal obstacle to the planned manipulations are entirely understandable. However, the fact remains - and this is something you need to know, to avoid making unfounded analogies to the situation as known to you in Serbia - that every Serbian ecclesiastical community in the US, as a secular legal entity, enjoys a status of equality vis-a-vis the diocese, in terms of the secular US law. Under secular US law, members of each parish, or church congregation, have the right to decide where they will belong, what they will do and whom they will listen to. At this point that is the way Serbian Orthodox Church parishes in the US are legally constituted. The laity of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the US respect the canonical order and obey the traditional hierarchical structure of the Church, but voluntarily. They do that not because they have to under US law, which disregards church canons completely except insofar as they are embedded in the secular act of incorporation, but because as believers they choose to do so freely, and only as long as that is their choice.
We remind you that all of these issues were legally analyzed at length before the American courts during the ecclesiastical dispute that erupted in the 1960s, and since in the US legal system the principle of precedent prevails, everything that was then resolved still stands, at least until it is vacated or modified in some upcoming litigation. Since the conduct of the three bishops in the United States has already largely departed from the ecclesiastical realm and has moved into the secular legal and political domain, we advise you to consult US legal experts in order to harmonize your response to the challenges you are facing with the principles of applicable US law.
Your Holiness, esteemed hierarchs!
The situation in the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States of America is extremely grave. If the apparent operation to detach our dioceses in this country succeeds, and if there is no adequate response from the higher ecclesiastical authorities, and there is a realistic possibility of that happening, successful secession of parts of the SOC in the USA will serve as a model for separating Serbian dioceses in other countries, regions and continents. Along with the already extensive political fragmentation of Serbia, the resulting spiritual fragmentation will lead to the disintegration of our Church, as well as the complete religious and national alienation of the large Serbian diaspora world-wide.
The responsibility that rests on your shoulders does not come down to resolving relatively simple matters of an administrative or purely material nature. It is much broader and deeper than that, and it relates in the highest degree to the moral responsibility that you bear to guard one of the most important frontlines in the struggle for the survival of the Serbian nation, and that frontline is spiritual. Safeguarding that front has been entrusted to you and you will all be held accountable at the Last Judgment for its successful defense. Therefore, we urge you to commence without delay the effective resolution of this serious situation, whose unchecked deterioration would undoubtedly have far-reaching and extremely negative consequences for the flock entrusted to you.
In the meantime, as lay believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States of America, we will keep you informed of the developing church situation in the country in which we live so that, first of all, you should have an objective source of information, and, more importantly, in order to make sure that you had been informed of what you need to know in a timely manner.
While remaining faithful and loyal sons and daughters of our Church of St. Sava, we warmly greet you and ask for your archpastoral blessings.
- The Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church