In a recent essay1 for the American Orthodox Institute, I showed that in the Byzantine Church between the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the fall of Constantinople (1451 AD), the title of "metropolitan" was originally reserved for autonomous archbishops presiding over large ecclesiastical districts, especially missionary territories called eparchies. Their exercise of authority included both the administrative duties appropriate to pasturing such large regions and the Orthodox promulgation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that crucial duty defined in the Divine Liturgy as "rightly dividing the Word of [God's] Truth." In this essay, I consider some major internal and external obstacles to American Orthodox ecclesiastical unity, reflect on how a consensus might be achieved, and offer a sketch of how an American Orthodox Church might be structured along traditional lines.
During the post-Byzantine era, the improper use of the office of metropolitan has enabled the expansion and consolidation throughout North America of Old-World ecclesiastical authority. This has happened precisely during a time of great growth and flowering of North American Orthodox Christianity, as expressed in increasing numbers of converts across the country, the expansion of institutions such as seminaries, university graduate programs, and independent study programs, and increasing calls for unification into one self-directing North American Church.
Certainly it was appropriate in the early days of American Orthodoxy for the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Moscow, and Antioch to appoint metropolitans as heads of each Church's American eparchy ("missionary territory"). The Russian Metropolia progressed most rapidly along the path to independence, so that by 1970, the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the viability of American Orthodoxy by granting autocephaly to its former eparchy, now the Orthodox Church in America. But political struggles among the ancient patriarchates outside North America have made it clear that certain American eparchies are viewed more as sources of income and protective influence for their mother Churches than as mature offspring who are ready to stand on their own. In 1996, the Patriarchate of Constantinople promoted its existing diocesan bishops in America directly to metropolitan rank, with no ecclesiarch serving as intermediary between them and the head of the mother church. The direct commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch by GOAA archbishops underscores that the locus of Greek Orthodox authority in America lies outside American borders.
Those who believe in the continuing viability of American Orthodox independence find much encouragement in the recent elevation of +Jonah Paffhausen as Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Although the debilitating, scandal-plagued tenures of the previous two OCA Metropolitans had sunk the Church into bitterness and anxiety, the election of newcomer +Jonah was accomplished by an overwhelming majority of the assembled delegates, with immediate confirmation of their choice by the Holy Synod of Bishops. The dark cloud that had hung over the opening of the All-American Council was dispersed rapidly by widespread rejoicing that such a major decision could be reached peacefully and nearly unanimously. The OCA's renewed sense of hope and purpose is heightened all the more because Metropolitan Jonah and the OCA are under no obligation to subject their vision for the future of their Church to a foreign, perhaps unsympathetic, higher church authority.
The reception by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of fifteen American parishes that formerly belonged to the Patriarch of Jerusalem appears to mitigate the ecclesiastical chaos by reducing the number of old-world jurisdictions in America by one. But because the oldest of the parishes in question was first established during a schism within a parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese, its reception by the GOAA has been seen as a deliberate rebuff to Antioch. As well, the Church of Romania may soon unify its American parishes with those of the Romanian episcopate of the OCA into a new, "maximally autonomous" ethnic jurisdiction headed by yet another American metropolitan. Furthermore, representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch continue to insist that any unified American Orthodox Church would have to submit to the authority of Constantinople.2
Clearly, Orthodox jurisdictional disunity on this continent is more than mere competition between differing "styles" of Orthodox life and worship. It goes beyond the problem that most Orthodox churches in this country were originally built to be not outward-looking missionary enterprises, but inward-looking preservers of cultural and linguistic identities among Orthodox immigrants and their families. It clearly involves questions of motive among the old-world Churches for refusing-even obstructing-unity or rapprochement among the American Orthodox faithful. All this flies against earlier American efforts at achieving unity, such as the establishment of SCOBA (the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in America) and the gathering in 1994 in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, of twenty-nine Orthodox bishops to discuss steps towards unity. It may have been in reaction to the Ligonier gathering that the impoverished Ecumenical Patriarchate moved to consolidate its control over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.
Yet a ray of hope shines through - perhaps even from within? - the midst of this disorder. The misuse of the office of metropolitan illuminates its true value all the more. The restoration and implementation of the ancient role of missionary archbishops could prove a powerful tool for bringing America to the light of Orthodoxy. American metropolitans could simultaneously advance the cause of unification under one central and native authority and confirm the united Church as a truly missionary one. As in the past, each metropolitan could preside over a missionary region, honing the message of Orthodoxy and bringing the American people to understand its timeless relevance. Such an arrangement would be sensitive to each region's culture and needs and would honor existing Orthodox cultural legacies while maintaining a unified doctrinal vision. It would allow the faithful to move beyond current divisions and confusions into true unity of faith, worship, and witness.
Orthodox Christianity is founded on the Word of God as understood and interpreted through the apostolic witness to Christ, which in turn is the basis of Holy Tradition. Every authentic Orthodox Church builds on this foundation according to the unique characteristics and needs of the culture around it. A true American Church must therefore take into consideration that the United States was established as a Christian nation on Christian principles,3 and that these principles still inform much of American culture, despite their dilution and distortion by competing philosophies such as individualism, atheism, or secular humanism, among others. Effective preaching of the Gospel engages any culture on its own terms. American Orthodox preachers and teachers must take into account the preconceived notions and previous experience with other Christian confessions of many of the people to whom they reach out.
Although American culture is leaning dangerously towards becoming a post-Christian culture, by comparison to Western Europe, America is still rightly called the most religious industrialized nation in the world. Church attendance outstrips anything found in most European countries. But America still presents special challenges to the modern missionary. American Christianity, though robust and mostly free from government intervention, bears only a modicum of resemblance to the Christian praxis of the first millennium (to say nothing of the Church of the catacombs). Liturgical worship and solemnity are mostly non-existent. The preferred worship tends to be exuberant and not demanding of interior reflection and ascesis. Perhaps most troubling of all, the moral consensus that animated Christendom through its first nineteen hundred years lies in ruins. Anarchy reigns in the moral realm. Ironically, abortion laws in the United States are far less restrictive than in most European countries. Many denominations now openly champion immorality as a fundamental Christian virtue, and others seem unable to stand up for more than vague principles of "tolerance" and "inclusiveness."
Read the entire article on the American Orthodox Institute website.