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Book Review. Orthodox Christianity At The Crossroad: A Great Council Of The Church? When And Why

Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit (OCA)

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Orthodox Christianity At The Crossroad: A Great Council Of The Church ? When And Why
IUniverse (April 7, 2009)
112 pages $12.95

As plans are moving ahead for the convening of preparatory meetings for a Great and Holy Council to take place in Cyprus in June 2009, you need to prepare yourself for what is at stake through these meetings. How can you prepare yourself? Pray that the Holy Spirit guide the participants and read this timely volume: Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church - When and Why (ed. George Matsoukas).

One of the many tracts that the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) organization has distributed during its twenty years of service to Holy Orthodoxy in North America is An Orthodox Christian Church in the United States: Unified and Self-governed (2000). It is given out at all meetings and sent to the mailing list of the organization. On the outside back cover is a statement entitled “Resolution for Autocephaly Adopted October 10, 1998,” in which an appeal is made to His All Holiness, Bartholomew, and to the SCOBA to further the “establishment of a united autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.”

Almost ten years have passed since that appeal, and the interest of the OCL in the establishment of the local church in North America has not wavered, even though its resolution has been ignored. OCL activities have continued to intensify in order to keep this matter in the minds of hierarchy, clergy and laity, worldwide. At each Board Meeting, at each Annual Conference, this topic has been on its agenda. On the occasion of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the founding of OCL, it was decided that the Educational Symposium for 2007, the anniversary celebration, would have as its topic, “The Need for A Great and Holy Council.”

This topic was selected to speak to the question of how autocephaly is earned, or recognized, or taken. Who could answer this question? What body would decide? The idea was that perhaps the way to create this “united autocephalous” entity in North America is primarily through such a council. Among the possible answers to the question was: Is this not the role of a great council of the Church? Five outstanding North American Orthodox, both clergy and laity, agreed to present their thoughts on the topic.

His Eminence, Metropolitan Christopher of the Serbian Midwestern Diocese, stated: “I, for one, categorically reject being put in the category of Diaspora. I am an American, this is my country, and I am proud of my heritage. I do not feel that I have to be under someone’s foreign domination for me to have a respect and love for my heritage and of my ancestors.” Metropolitan Christopher further strengthens his stance by informing the audience that, “The advocates of an Orthodox Christian Diaspora consider that those of us living outside of traditional Orthodox Christian lands lack the maturity and knowledge of Orthodoxy and therefore need tutors from abroad to teach us how to govern our Church in America. I reject that nonsense categorically.” Quoting the late Archimandrite Justin Popovich, however, the Metropolitan considers that, according to the present agenda for the Council, it should be observed that it “was prepared to guarantee for (Constantinople) the exclusive right to grant autocephaly and autonomy in general to all the Orthodox churches in the world, both present and future, and at the same time to determine their order and rank at her own discretion.” The Metropolitan urges patience and a change in the agenda.

Very Reverend Dr. John Erikson, former Dean of St. Vladimir Seminary, presents a comprehensive overview of the history and difficulties in preparing for such a council. Professor Erikson brings to our attention the 1990 and 1993 meetings of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission, in which two closely intertwined topics, Diaspora, and autocephaly and how it is to be proclaimed, were addressed. Within these reports, there are three main lines of thinking: the Report of the Romanian Church; the Reports of the churches of Greek heritage; and the Report of the Russian Church. Father John brings to the fore the varied and conflicting interpretations of Canon 28 of Chalcedon, giving a rich history of the early organization of the church and the development of the power of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. “The manifest disunity of Orthodoxy, whether here in America or globally, contradicts the most basic principles of Orthodox ecclesiology,” states Father Erikson. “Perhaps, God willing, it (the dynamic and living ability of the Church) will be become evident in the twenty-first century, … and bring about the possibility of a Great and Holy Council.”

Representing the Church of Russia, Very Reverend Archpriest Alexander Abramov approached the matter stating that “the Council must address the critical questions that affect the world of Orthodoxy,” and that “the number one political topic that remains is addressing the so-called Diaspora, or the part of the church that is out of its canonical territory.” Father Abramov, discussing the concept of “sobornicity,” says: “We first believed and believe that it is not the mother church only who must define the future of the people of God abroad from canonical territory. It’s the Diaspora, or the so-called Diaspora, who should and must participate in this process.” A statement by Father Abramov could spark theoretic interest: “What would have happened had the Church of Russia granted autocephaly to North America in 1905, as suggested by St. Patriarch Tikhon?” Perhaps the Church in North America would not be in its present state of administrative disunity had this taken place! Another interesting and thought-provoking statement is that SCOBA is only one way to reach Orthodox unity.

“Youth, Unity and Orthodoxy in America,” is the presentation by Professor Vigen Guroian. The question of a Great and Holy Council is not one that he, an Oriental Orthodox Christian, will address, but he shares with us his thoughts that the future of the church is through the presence of the youth in the Orthodox communities. Professor Guroian points out that Oriental and Eastern Orthodox youth do meet together: “Ethnic or jurisdictional belonging does not inhibit them,” but they join together “as Americans to form, not a Greek Christian fellowship or a Ukrainian Christian fellowship, but an Orthodox Christian Student Fellowship. They learned from the culture, from the presence of all of us (Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) in this American culture … [that] this is the clue to the future of Orthodoxy in North America.”

Professor Guroian presents us with insights that do, in fact, apply to all Orthodox in the “Diaspora.” “Our brethren in the old countries have their own interest in keeping this mentality (Diaspora) alive in us. A powerful myth arises that Orthodox religion in the Diaspora is derivative and inferior to what was in the old country.” Members of the OCL will acknowledge the truth of the professor’s statement that we “ … must begin with recognition of the ironic, almost tragic, fact that Orthodox Christians in North America live and work together as citizens, but are ecclesially separated, not by national boundaries, but rather by transported jurisdictional structures and ethnic identities.” In concluding, Professor Guroian states that Oriental and Eastern Orthodox youth coming together “ … has to do with the fact that they came together as Americans in order to remain Orthodox!”

“The need for a Great and Holy Council: Why, Why Not Yet, and How?” is the presentation of Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, Department of International Relations, Boston University. Dr. Prodromou informs us that her approach to the topic is quite different, for she speaks as a social scientist who focuses on the role of religion in world affairs, and on Orthodoxy within the contemporary reality of global religious pluralism. To the question, “Why have a council?”, she reminds us that “ … we, as Church, are living in fundamentally different times and unprecedented conditions … human beings now posses the capacity to destroy all of God’s created order … and at the same time, human beings now stand at the threshold of the capacity to create human life in a manner wholly separated from the act of erotic love.” Therefore, she states, “A Great and Holy Council, as an expression of the living Tradition of the Church, is a sine qua non for the Church in any meaningful effort to come to terms with and to transform our current historical reality.” “Why haven’t we had a council,” the second proposition, rests on the “question of ecclesiastical primacy; tendency toward a legalism that is the antithesis of the notion of Living Tradition; and the content of the agenda.” To question three, “How can we achieve a Great and Holy Council?”, Dr. Prodromou states that the Orthodox world must “voice support” for the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene it, and the Church must be prepared to be engaged with the world in which we live; the Council would then take place. She emphasizes that we must improve “lay literacy” in the local churches.

The scholarship, experience, and suggestions of these presenters are made available, within these pages, to a wider audience than only that of the Twentieth Anniversary Symposium Celebration held in Chicago, Illinois. We are certain that the work of Mr. George Matsoukas, Executive Director of the Orthodox Christian Laity, and that of the National Board members of the OCL will be appreciated and understood in light of the ongoing activity of the organization toward the “establishment of a united autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.”

The Most Reverend Nathaniel, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate, presides over the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, an ethnic diocese of the Orthodox Church in America. He is also the founder and president of the St. Andrew House Center for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Posted: 01-Jun-2009

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