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Orthodox Christian Unity In America

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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It is said that in the United States and Canada there are somewhere around five to six million Orthodox Christians. If true, that would make the Orthodox Church a relatively large minority church. If that is the case, you can't help but wonder about our invisibility on the national scene. Even after decades of effort from the time of Archbishop, and later Patriarch Athenagoras, Archbishop Michael, and above all Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory, we are hardly ever noticed in the public scene.

But that is the least of it. The Orthodox Church in the United States is an almost totally fragmented reality. If you only count the canonical (fully recognized) Orthodox Church bodies in the U.S.A. and Canada there are nine separate "Orthodox jurisdictions."

Here are the names of these Orthodox, but jurisdictionally separate Churches: the Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America; the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in the U.S.A. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America; the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; the Orthodox Church in America; the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America and Canada; the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada; and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

Not counted among these canonical Churches are several ethnic jurisdictions included as separate bodies under the chief hierarch of some of these nine bodies, as well as numerous and sundry Old Calendar and non-canonical jurisdictions outside the canonical Churches.. Taking into account that all of these bodies claim to hold the Orthodox Faith, moral teachings and subscribe to the canons of the 2000 year old Orthodox Church, one stands befuddled before the phenomenon of Orthodox disunity in America.

Not surprisingly, there have been numerous calls for the Orthodox Churches to put aside their jurisdictional separateness and to unite into a single Orthodox Church in this part of the world. Such ideas, suggestions and proposals come from some of the laity, some of the clergy and some of the Bishops, at different times, and yet, since there is significant hesitancy as we enter the 21st century, it has not been achieved.

Recently, one of the most powerful calls for Orthodox Christian Church unity appeared in a theological journal under the title "Orthodox Reunion: Overcoming the Curse of Jurisdictionalism in America" (St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 50:3). It is a powerful and urgent appeal to overcome the division of Orthodox Christianity, which not only raises theological red flags but also systematically lists and counters nearly every possible argument against moving towards Orthodox Church unity in our time in this country. Actually, the article was the keynote address at an Antiochian Orthodox Church conference held in June, 2006 by Fr. Josiah Trenham. He begins with a biblical affirmation of unity and the blessings of future Church unity for the Orthodox Church in this nation. Whatever unity may exist today, through the shared chalice, he describes as "incomplete, mangled and intolerable." Disunity, he feels weakens the Orthodox identity in America and his goal is a "common synod," an actual body of bishops who preside over all the Orthodox Christians in America.

Perhaps Fr. Josiah's most stinging criticism is what he calls "The Trivialization of Disunity," his way of saying that we Orthodox are essentially not looking to overcome disunity, but to find ways to make it "not so bad." He uses Old Testament visions of unity to counter such attitudes, and the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann's assessment that accepting the status quo of contemporary Orthodox Church division is "a sin and a tragedy."

A series of stinging rebuttals to standard and oft-heard "quips" ("It will happen, but not in my lifetime;" "When God wills;" "We are not mature enough yet for church unity.") are followed by a laundry list of "the bitter fruits of disunity," showing tremendous difference in pastoral practice among all of the Orthodox Churches in our nation. Further, he shows our disunity actually works against our mission to be the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church in this place. He concludes his message on a positive note, however, listing almost a dozen positive steps that should be taken to nudge the canonical Orthodox Churches to move in the direction of Orthodox unity in America.

In this presentation, there is passion, energy, theological imperative and vision. In spite of the intensity of commitment Fr. Josiah shows, the practical steps he outlines are far from radical. They show that much work and much time and much patience must be exercised for the Orthodox Bishops in America to take the steps necessary to move in the direction of Orthodox Church unity.

I think that the quest and the passion are noble. No one with theological understanding of Orthodox beliefs can claim that the present situation is acceptable or should be maintained into the distant future. As worthy as fired up passion for unity is, there is great danger is assuming that the unity we seek can be ordered at some synodical meeting, whether here or abroad.

The chief weakness of this article is that it assumes something that is not real: it assumes that the identities of our varied church jurisdictions are only religious. It assumes there is something called Orthodoxy separated from culture(s). My guess is that if the very Bishops Fr. Josiah is addressing were dealing with clergy and parishioners who had no other identity that being Orthodox, unity in America would have been accomplished a long time ago.

In a presentation I made at a conference at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2000 with the title "Ecclesial and Ethnic Identities Within the American Religious Scene," I showed that all religious groups are a complex of cultural, economic, ethnic, religious, social aspects. None are "purely religious," including our Orthodox "jurisdictions." I used several illustrations from the writing of sociologists to show what I mean: we "change cultural and religious 'hats' depending on the circumstance; our identities change from one place to another like different colored umbrellas that we open up over us -different colors for different situations; and that all of us are like the colorful "nested matushka dolls" of the Slavic traditions, where one identity is visible to the outsider, but there are numerous other identities nested one inside the other more and more hidden, but closer and closer to the center of whom we are. The Bishops know their people, their congregations!

It is not by commands from above that Orthodox unity will be achieved. We are as influenced by tribalisms of place, language, clans and tribes almost as much as they are in present day Iraq! Only we have different names for them. But they are just as real.

A formal unity pronounced from above by either an old world ecclesial authority (which has already proven to be ineffective) or by some local body would be unity in name only and not a true ecclesial unity. There is only one way for such a unity to be achieved.

Sometime cumbersome, often stumbling, frequently disorganized, and always slow, the only way to achieve Orthodox unity is to find more and more ways of making it happen from below! The only agency presently available for that to be fostered is the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, known as S.C.O.B.A. for short. It is made up of representative Bishops of the Churches mentioned above. On three occasions since 1976 all of the Orthodox Bishops in the country have met in order to reflect together, to assess common Orthodox tasks and to look to the future. What is remarkable is how this effort has managed to attract to itself some of the best representatives of Orthodox life and mission.

The third meeting of nearly all of the Orthodox Bishops of our country, under the aegis of SCOBA met in Chicago in early November of this year. I was privileged to be present for part of their meetings and I was deeply impressed and moved by the clergy and lay-people who, in the name of SCOBA, were carrying out a wide range of Orthodox ministries throughout the country, and even beyond the boundaries of our nation. Here is a list of just some of the SCOBA agencies doing work together, regardless of jurisdiction, in the name of all of Orthodoxy and without regard to ethnic, jurisdictional or other dividing factors: Eastern Orthodox Committee on Scouting; International Orthodox Christian Charities; Orthodox Christian Education Commission; Orthodox Christian Fellowship (College Ministry); Orthodox Christian Mission Center; Orthodox Christian Network, and many other ministries such as the following that are endorsed (but not directly sponsored) by SCOBA - Orthodox Theological Society in America, Project Mexico, Zoe for Life, North American Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Christ Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. A review of SCOBA structure shows a number of Commissions that actually do the work of the Bishops: Study and Planning, Ecumenical Commission, Social and Moral Issues Commission, Information Technologies Commission, and the Research Commission. Listening to some of the leaders of these ministries was truly inspiring and challenging.

Here is the point. By working together, whether on the level of SCOBA or on the level of regional Orthodox Church cooperative efforts, Orthodox people buried and isolated in their own ethnic, linguistic, cultural groupings, will slowly begin to realize that in spite of our different histories, we belong to the one Orthodox Church. If we work together long enough and deeply enough we will recognize on the local and personal levels that we are indeed one with each other. We will learn to love and respect each other as brothers and sisters sharing the same Faith. While we respect each others' cultural traditions and histories, we will learn that our Orthodox Faith transcends these and includes them all.

Then, one day our Bishops will hear from the clergy and laity of the Orthodox Faith a plaintive question - "Why are we separate in different jurisdictions?" Unity will come when Bishops hear their Priests and their People cry with the same passion that motivates Fr. Josiah: "What stops us from becoming one Church in America?" As the voices come up from below their message will be unstoppable. Orthodox unity will come not from above, but from below. The voice of the people will be heard.

Of course, nothing is going to happen all by itself. It will take a great deal of effort, cooperation and above all zeal for Orthodox unity in America. Nor will any of it be automatic. Learning to work together is first. Desiring unity is second. Talking about it is third. And even then, it will not come about without the grace and love and will of God.

I close with a warning. One time, I was asked by an ecumenical journal to write an article about a proposed "forthcoming" Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It just so happened that the day the journal came, Archbishop Iakovos visited Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and I showed him the article, which was titled "Will There Ever Be A Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church?" The Archbishop didn't have time to read the article. As I was leaving his office, I had my hand on the doorknob, when the Archbishop called to me "What do you say in response to the question?" With my hand still on the doorknob, I turned to the Archbishop and responded: "To those in a hurry, I say 'be patient'; but to those who are patient, I say 'hurry up!'" The warning is this: that took place some thirty years ago, and the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church has yet to take place! Orthodox unity in America needs the zeal and imperative of many like Fr. Josiah. Patience is a virtue; but urgency is the demand of the times!

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 16-Dec-06

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