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Why Not a United American Orthodox Church?

George Patsourakos

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Can you picture America being comprised of 50 states with no federal government and no president? This is a frightening thought, isn't it?

Nonetheless, a similar situation exists in which nine Eastern Orthodox ethnic jurisdictions have been functioning independently in America for several decades with no American administrative leader.

Eight of these jurisdictions are of the following ethnicities: Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Greek, Romanian, Serbian, and Ukrainian. The ninth one is the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) which is "autocephalous" or self-headed.

The OCA began in 1970 as an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox jurisdiction in America and has remained independent from the Patriarch of Moscow. The OCA, which conducts all of its church services in English, now includes the Albanian, the Bulgarian, and the Romanian Orthodox jurisdictions besides its original Russian.

The Antiochian Archdiocese in America was granted autonomy in 2003 by the Holy Synod of Antioch. It is self-governed; it is authorized to nominate, elect, and consecrate its bishops; and it can nominate three candidates for primate and request the mother church to elect one of the three. Like the OCA, church services are in English in American Antiochian Churches.

In an effort to bring some unity to these multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, the late Archbishop Iakovos established SCOBA (the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America) in 1960. The canonical hierarchs of all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America conduct a SCOBA meeting every six months. The hierarchs usually discuss inter-Orthodox and ecumenical concerns at their semi-annual meetings.

Although SCOBA could vote to unite all nine Orthodox jurisdictions and establish a united American Orthodox Church, it has not done so. I believe there are two major reasons for SCOBA's inaction.

First, the hierarchs of SCOBA have a deep sense of ethnic pride. Most feel that "Americanizing" the Orthodox jurisdictions may have a negative effect in maintaining traditions from the homeland.

Second, SCOBA hierarchs have a loyalty for the patriarchs of their motherland and especially the Patriarch of Constantinople, who has the status of "first among equals" in relation to the world's Orthodox bishops. In fact, some SCOBA bishops believe that authorizing Orthodox unity in America comes under the purview of the motherland patriarchs.

Although it might diminish the identity of some ethnic groups, a united American Orthodox Church would have many advantages -- economic, political, social, etc.-- for all Orthodox Christians. At the same time, a united Orthodox Church could be advantageous even from a cultural perspective. I say this because I gained a positive multicultural experience by attending St. Michael the Archangel Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cotuit, Massachusetts on Cape Cod almost every Sunday last summer.

At this Pan-Orthodox Christian Church, a multitude of ethnic features are gracefully integrated into a divine synergy: The jurisdiction is Antiochian; the pastor is Greek; the service is in English; the predominant membership is Russian; and there are a half-dozen other Orthodox ethnic groups worshiping, in addition to several Catholic and Protestant converts.

After the service, I found the parishioners to be friendly during coffee fellowship, as a multicultural atmosphere of genuine love and brotherhood pervaded the gathering. In short, there was a cosmopolitan euphoria among the churchgoers which just cannot occur in a single-ethnic assembly.

I look forward to the united American Orthodox Church blossoming to fruition in the near future. I have come to this optimistic -- - but also realistic-- conclusion because the groundwork for such a Church is already in order and is about to expand. All things considered, the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America will most likely serve as the foundation for a united Orthodox Church.

Moreover, recent ecclesiastical events indicate that the autonomous American Antiochian jurisdiction, as well as the OCA-affiliated Albanian, Bulgarian, and Romanian jurisdictions, may soonqazzqazz merge with the OCA. This being the case, the OCA will be comprised of a majority of five American Orthodox jurisdictions, which will lead to its establishment of a united American Orthodox Church.

The four remaining Orthodox jurisdictions in America would be able to join this united Church when or if they felt it was time to do so. Needless to say, spiritual love and cooperation with the motherland patriarchs would continue to prevail.

As a closing thought, I would like to make an analogy between human development and church development. A mother must end her adult child's dependence upon her, so her child can grow intellectually and spiritually to meet the challenges in today's world; the motherland patriarchs need to grant autonomy to their well-established American Orthodox jurisdictions, so they can flourish to their full potential, as they build up the Body of Christ.

George Patsourakos of Billerica, MA retired as an education specialist for the federal government. He received a BA in political science and a MA in education, both from Northeastern University. You can refer comments/questions on this article to him at his e-mail address: patrician125@yahoo.com.

Posted: 05-Mar-08

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