What’s the Future of Orthodox Unity in America?

Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity?  Psalm 132

In late May, a meeting of potentially enormous significance for the Orthodox Church in America will occur in New York City when all Orthodox Bishops in good standing in North and Central America convene for a first-ever Episcopal Assembly. This unprecedented gathering has received little attention in most Orthodox circles and virtually none in the wider religious and secular media.

Nevertheless, its implications for the future of Orthodox Christianity in the Americas are both hopeful and controversial. The historic Episcopal Assembly will take place shortly after the Great Feast of Pentecost – the Kairos - when the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples to establish the Church.

Until 18 months ago, the mere contemplation of such a meeting would have been considered unthinkable in view of long-standing and entrenched official opposition to even discussing the question of closer intra-Orthodox relations. In recent years, a few Orthodox hierarchs with some support from clergy and laity openly but unsuccessfully championed unity initiatives. But with the exception of Orthodox Christian Laity, no group has consistently or aggressively pursued Orthodox unity in America. In October, 2008 the unity landscape experienced an earthquake, when His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened in Istanbul, a Synaxis (gathering) of the leaders of all Autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches; the entire leadership of world Orthodoxy.

At that meeting, Patriarch Bartholomew delivered a remarkable address about the dangers of division among the Orthodox in the so-called Diaspora and the pressing need for these believers to unify themselves in a way consistent with church tradition. Immediately, the assembled Orthodox leaders unanimously endorsed a communiqué calling for a process to address Diaspora issues - and to the shock of many - for the convocation of a Great and Holy Council of Orthodoxy; an encouraging announcement for those seeking greater Orthodox unity both here and abroad.

The Swiss Gambit

The Church leadership further directed their individual representatives to convene two meetings at the Patriarchal complex in Chambesy, Switzerland in June and December, 2009 to formulate specific plans for implementing their declarations regarding the status of the Orthodox in traditionally non-Orthodox lands. These deliberations expeditiously produced guidelines which required the formation of Episcopal Assemblies in a number of geographical regions and the Orthodox Church in uncharacteristic fashion managed in a matter of only 18 months to move from Istanbul to New York via Chambesy and convene this unprecedented meeting whose assignment is to chart the Church's future course in North and Central America.

This sudden change of heart and mind by Orthodoxy's leaders - all centered abroad - about Orthodox unity in the Diaspora has naturally provoked ecclesiastical and political commentary. Irrespective of such speculation, we can reasonably conclude that Orthodox leaders for whatever reason clearly decided to put aside any disputes in order to reach unanimous agreement on this unity initiative. Their actions should also be measured in the context of related developments, most notably the reunification of ROCOR (The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) with the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia, which ended a bitter schism generated by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. This reunion meant that the membership of SCOBA (The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America) for the first time included all recognized Orthodox jurisdictions. In that respect, there is already serious talk that one likely result of the upcoming Assembly is that SCOBA, whose membership is limited only to church heads; will dissolve to be replaced by a new entity.

While local Orthodox cooperation has generally been limited, national Pan-Orthodox organizations such as OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center,) IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities,) OCF (Orthodox College Fellowship,) OCN (Orthodox Christian Network) and other groups continue to flourish and build strong bridges of intra-Orthodox collaboration of bishops have never publicly commented about Orthodox unity in the Americas, although some have called for an independent American church while others have expressed strong opposition to any change in present ecclesiastical arrangements.

As the regional representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Archbishop Dimitrios will have the honor and critical responsibility of chairing this meeting. Perhaps the Assembly should be compared to our the Constitutional Congress where delegates had to organize themselves, create and adopt rules of procedure and then decide on an agenda which in this instance could be a topic of prolonged discussion and debate. Skeptics with some historic basis, but also with what some critics called hasty prejudgment, contend that the Episcopal Assemblies are merely a ploy by "Old World" Patriarchates to sidetrack any real progress toward unity.

They cite past actions by overseas Orthodox centers, which stifled efforts to seek unity and assert that the "church establishment" is deliberatively downplaying public attention on the Episcopal Assembly as a means of minimizing expectations and maximizing control. Others believe that such speculation, however, seems premature, as are more optimistic expectations that the Assembly would declare on the spot a united Orthodox Church in America, Canada and/or Central America. At this point, no one can with any certainty predict, given the unprecedented nature of this meeting, what will happen.

How Much American Involvement?

A wait and see attitude is certainly in order but the Bishops might give a hint about their intentions when they organize relevant committees to carry forward the Assembly's work. Under the rules, the Bishops may form committees comprised of their own membership but also open to clergy and lay participation. Whether these committees and other Assembly organs reflect legitimate, real and broad-based lay participation in the spirit of Orthodox conciliation and American inclusiveness and transparency may reveal how much. How the Bishops approach this task and what plans they have for a broader dialogue within the entire church will be crucial indicators, those close to the church believe.

Orthodox Christian Laity and other advocates of Orthodox unity (Full disclosure: I am an OCL board member) support the process established by the Istanbul and Chambesy meetings and view the Episcopal Assembly as the fullest and most tangible expression yet of a united Orthodox presence in America.

Any results or decisions emanating from New York are unlikely to have any immediate effect on the Orthodox faithful but the meeting itself will raise questions, such as:

  • Will the move towards Orthodox unity deliberately weaken ethnic affiliations and lead to the imposition of an English language liturgy?

  • Will church-related ethnic language schools be abolished? That’s a question not just limited to the Greek Orthodox. No such actions are likely but in the months and years ahead the Bishops and the entire church must be prepared to deal seriously and honestly with these and many other similar, provocative questions.

Clearly the mosaic of Orthodoxy in the Americas is dramatically different from the immigrant-dominated Church of the early Twentieth Century. Recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East still enter the Church. But most members are descended from earlier immigrants and it is their marriages - many of them inter-faith – that have produced new members. These worshippers have also been joined in recent decades by an increasing number of Americans who have converted to Orthodoxy; sometime with families and friends. These developments pose challenges but also offer opportunities to acquaint the broader American community with historic Orthodox theology and practice.

One very current and extremely encouraging example of how Orthodoxy is preparing to engage the religious dialogue in America is expressed in the theme of the forthcoming St. Vladimir's Seminary Summer Symposium, "Hellenism and Orthodoxy (June 10-12.) Not only will Archbishop Dimitrios deliver the symposium keynote but the Very Rev. Dr. Archimandrite Elpidophoros Lambrianiadis, Chief Secretary of the Holy & Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will discuss Hellenism and Orthodox Identity in North America.

The symposium will feature an impressive array of younger and thoughtful Orthodox speakers - panelists from America and abroad who will discuss how Hellenism, a critical component of Orthodox tradition, transcends conventional and generally narrower nationalistic perceptions. The seminar represents a working Pan-Orthodoxy at the highest theological and intellectual levels and perhaps could even eventually reach all the faithful.

Clearly something is stirring in world Orthodoxy. It was evident at the Synaxis of October, 2008, which forthrightly called for a Great and Holy Council- the last was held in 1872. It was also expressed at the subsequent Chambesy meetings and now is emerging in the regional Episcopal assemblies scheduled to convene around the world. These actions, unprecedented in both scope and speed, demonstrate to some that the Orthodox peoples are finally and confidently emerging from centuries of suffering and martyrdom to engage each other in the light of God's freedom. Strengthened by their sacrifices they are now able to bring the Orthodox message to the entire Oikoumene.

As these developments unfold, it is instructive to observe that as Orthodoxy embarks on what could be an unprecedented step toward unity in America, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism - in sharp contrast – have been and are consumed with fierce feuding involving both secular and faith matters; many of them so-called hot-button issues. This should signal caution to the Orthodox as they phase out from Old World divisions and into newer realities and many believe they must remain steadfastly faithful to the Church's theological and liturgical tradition and ever vigilant to avoid the fads, factionalism and rampant individualism, which regretfully constitute much of what they believe, passes for so-called contemporary American Christianity. On the other hand, they said that the Church, as it evolves, should seek to incorporate those practices of institutional integrity and collective and individual philanthropy, which distinguishes the many beneficent aspects of American religious life.

Perhaps guidance may also be found in the sentiments expressed by the late Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, the Twentieth Century's pre-eminent historian of Christianity who late in life left the Protestant Church of his childhood to become Orthodox. Following a lecture in 1998 at Baltimore's prestigious St. Mary's Seminary and University, he was asked why he had become an Orthodox? He initially declined to respond but then replied by stating he would provide his questioner with what he called a Western Answer: "What was de facto is now de jure," an obvious allusion to his long time sympathy for Orthodoxy and Western Christianity's preoccupation with legal definitions and theological precision. That could be an example as perhaps the Eastern Orthodox Bishops have already unified de facto by Liturgy and The Eucharist may also, in the spirit of Dr. Pelikan produce a de jure response at their May Assembly and maybe even produce the beginning of a clear path to ecclesiastical unity in America.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Christian Laity website (new window will open).

Date posted: May 8, 2010