Ground Zero as Metaphor: A Crossroads for America and Orthodoxy?

9/11: Implications for America and Orthodoxy


On September 11th, 2001, four American passenger airplanes were hijacked by nineteen Islamic terrorists bent on a executing a spectacular suicide attack. Two crashed into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon, while a fourth was commandeered by the passengers and crashed into a Pennsylvania field killing all aboard. On that traumatic day 3,000 Americans were killed, the single worst enemy attack sustained on American soil in history. The entire world was stunned by this atrocity. The old order was overturned: one million Iranians gathered in Tehran and staged a spontaneous candlelight vigil mourning the victims; Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian armed forces to stand down. The world said with one voice “we are all Americans today.” We still haven’t come to grips with what happened that dreadful day. This attack exacerbated divisions in America in ways that haven’t been seen since the Vietnam War.

The political class has for the most part abandoned traditional Americanism, while the hierarchy the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the upper echelons of its lay leadership are more concerned foreign affairs involving Greece and Istanbul...The silence of the GOA is baffling to those outside the orbit of American Orthodoxy.

On that day as well, more than financial and governmental institutions were destroyed. The collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center destroyed St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a church that was built in 1916 and had been partially endowed by Czar Nicholas II. This entire area has come to be known as Ground Zero. Unfortunately, neither the WTC nor St Nicholas has been rebuilt. Muslims activists however have agitated to build an Islamic cultural center, titled The Cordoba Initiative, just two blocks away from this site. This complex, which is to house a mosque as well as an “interfaith” conference hall and swimming pool, has aroused the ire of millions of Americans who view Ground Zero as hallowed ground. In a very real sense, the political debate has become a flashpoint between secular elites who want this Islamic center built and ordinary Americans who are revolted by the very prospect. Both instances result from a lack of nerve: the political class has for the most part abandoned traditional Americanism, while the hierarchy the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the upper echelons of its lay leadership are more concerned foreign affairs involving Greece and Istanbul.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

St. Nicholas Church

The silence of the GOA is baffling to those outside the orbit of American Orthodoxy. After all, St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was the only religious institution that was affected by this disaster. So silent has the GOA been that until recently, most Americans were unaware that an Orthodox place of worship had been destroyed on that horrible day. It was only because of the efforts of certain conservative politicians and commentators who have led the charge against the Ground Zero Mosque that it was even brought to public’s attention. The few statements made by archdiocesan functionaries in response to this controversy have been tepid at best, and then only elicited due to the prodding of insistent reporters from national news organizations such as FOX News.

What accounts for the desultory leadership of the GOA when by all rights it has the moral authority to lead the nation in this regard? Ground Zero is more than a place of national trauma; it has become at present a metaphor for the bifurcation that is plaguing our nation, a division that has arisen between the people and the ruling class. Certainly this falls within the purview of our nation’s religious leaders. Unfortunately, the destruction of an old parish church with only a few dozen members has exposed similar tensions between Orthodox leaders and the people. This is regrettable to be sure but inevitable given that for many of our bishops and lay elite, America is not the focus of their ministries, but merely a country of convenience: their collective gaze all-too-often lies wistfully to the East –- to another place and another time.

Among the American Orthodox today, "Two different ecclesiological narratives that exist among Orthodox Christians on this continent. One narrative is missionary and local; the other is colonial and ethnocentric. Both claim precedence on this land.

Two Ecclesiological Narratives

What accounts for such a view? The answer can be found in the different ecclesiological narratives that exist among Orthodox Christians on this continent. One narrative is missionary and local; the other is colonial and ethnocentric. Both claim precedence on this land. To those not familiar with Orthodoxy this appears trivial but it is vital nonetheless: for if one view is authentic then the other by definition must be illegitimate. The answer to this question may lie in exploring which narrative is germane to the American experience. Which narrative best explains the reality of Orthodoxy in America? Which one can heal the wounds opened up by the attacks of 9/11 as well as the other traumas of American history?

The ground swell of Orthodox laymen who have taken to the blogosphere and social networking sites to pioneer the cause of St Nicholas stands in sharp contrast to the feckless leadership of the GOA in this regard. What would have been the outcome had American Orthodoxy resolved this identity crisis? This is in fact the metaphorical “crossroads” that is represented by Ground Zero.

Orthodoxy in America: Mission Church or Colonial Eparchy?

Constantinople's Mistake

As is well known, Orthodoxy first came to this continent with the arrival of eight monks from Valaam Monastery in 1794.1 Its mission was to evangelize the natives and in time it pushed itself into the contiguous United States. In relatively short order, the Russian Mission became a functioning diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and its first bishop, Innocent Veniaminov, was eventually elevated to the office of Metropolitan of Moscow. Some one hundred years later however, tens of thousands of Eastern and Southern European immigrants came to America and set up their own parishes, often outside the purview of the Russian Mission. The concern for precedence therefore is not lost on the majority of the Orthodox in America. It is certainly not lost on those hierarchs and their votaries who choose to denigrate the Russian missionary experience, some of whom go out of their way to make absurd and pseudo-historical claims.2 This studied ignorance of the Russian Mission has unfortunately been championed by highly-placed functionaries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate such as the Rev Elpidophorous Lambrianides as well as by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, both of whom chose to ignore the existence of the Russian Mission in controversial speeches given last year while in the United States. (Patriarch Bartholomew went so far as to make the arguable claim that a failed plantation in Florida was the real beginning of Orthodoxy in America.) The reason for such revisionism should by now be obvious; what it exposes though is a fatal weakness: the vociferous drive to resolutely ignore the first century of American Orthodoxy exposes the paucity of the countervailing argument.

Unfortunately, the propagandistic use of historiography has a long and sordid history: in March of 2009, Lambrianides, who is the general secretary of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, gave a startling and ill-received speech at Holy Cross in Brookline, Mass. One of its most shocking claims was that Constantinople had universal jurisdiction of all non-Orthodox, or “barbarian” lands. This was based on a tortured understanding of an obscure canon from the Fourth Ecumenical Council. This canon (28), gave the Archbishop of Constantinople consecratory rights over the metropolitans of three regions adjacent to the imperial city and the “barbarians within them” (some suggest that the translation should read “and the barbarians next to them”). Though nonsensical on its face, this has been the dominant view of the Constantinopolitan see ever since the tumultuous and controversial career of Patriarch Meletius IV Metaxakis of Constantinople in the 1920s. Unfortunately what is left unsaid from the official histories is that the offending canon itself was instantly nullified by the Pope and was excised from the records of that council.

Why do these rival narratives matter? The question which should be asked is what do they portend for the future? The question cannot remain unanswered. The events of 9/11, a resurgent Islam, and our overall societal collapse do not allow us the luxury of complacency. Are we therefore a missionary religion or a tribal one?

The reaction to the general secretary’s speech was instantaneous and vociferous. Leading the charge was the Patriarchate of Moscow which had over the years engaged in a bitter rivalry with Constantinople over the latter’s interference in what it perceived to be the internal affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. Likewise many in the United States were shocked as well by the intemperate tone and startling accusations made by him against the OCA, the Antiochian jurisdiction, and even parish life in the GOA. Underpinning this speech was a suspicion by many that its purpose was to enhance the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position going into the Chambesy conference which was to meet in June of that year. If this was indeed the case, then it failed miserably as the confreres meeting in Chambesy made absolutely no reference to Canon 28 and put to rest the idea of Constantinopolitan supremacy once and for all. Instead, they recognized that Constantinople was merely first in honor and decided that in lands where there were multiple jurisdictions, the chairmanship of the various Episcopal Assemblies would occur based on the order of the diptychs. (Chambesy recognized twelve such regions throughout the so-called Orthodox Diaspora, among them: North America, South America, Oceania, Iberia, Germany, Scandinavia, and so on.)

What Do the Rival Narratives Portend for the Future?

Why do these rival narratives matter? The question which should be asked is what do they portend for the future? The question cannot remain unanswered. The events of 9/11, a resurgent Islam, and our overall societal collapse do not allow us the luxury of complacency. Are we therefore a missionary religion or a tribal one? It is now obvious that both ecclesiologies cannot continue to coexist on this continent –on this both camps agree. Metropolitan Jonah, the newly elected primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) stated as much in a recent address given to that church’s Canadian Archdiocesan Assembly when he contrasted the missionary ethos of the OCA with the exclusionary one that seems to animate the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He tone was not damning, he understands all too well the historical burdens that are placed on the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the Turkish government and that the Ottoman subjugation of the Phanar for well over half a millennium has created a culture which is ethnically separatist as well as an administrative style that is based on defunct Ottoman models of governance. By contrast, the OCA’s worldview is descended from the Russian model of a missionary imperative. Nevertheless, Jonah’s challenge was firm: the missionary ethos and integrity of the OCA would not be compromised in exchange for unity at all costs.

The question of the proper ecclesiological premise for the American context is not a new argument. It has been evident >ever since Ligonier, where in 1994 twenty-nine American bishops gathered at Antiochian Village to create a united American Orthodox Church. Although several of the Old World patriarchates forced their American exarchs to repudiate their participation in this first ever gathering of American bishops, the dream of a unified American Orthodoxy didn’t die. Indeed, events in North America have not been so kind to the Old World model of ethnic segregation and rivalry. To address this crisis –which is nothing short of a canonical embarrassment approaching outright heresy — representatives from all of the patriarchates met in Chambesy, Switzerland in June of 2009 and came up with a model of local “regions” situated throughout the world (as noted above). In these twelve regions, it was decided that all canonical Orthodox bishops located therein would meet in regional Episcopal Assemblies to discuss issues pertinent to inter-Orthodox cooperation. The ostensible goal was to unite the various ethnic jurisdictions into authentic local holy synods sometime in the near future. A reasonable case could thus be made that the animating concerns that drove the American bishops to meet at Ligonier in the first place reappeared in Old World clothing at Chambesy.

Though not without its problems (first and foremost, none of the bishops from the regions in question were invited to the discuss the protocols) the Chambesy model was in many ways a solomonic master-stroke. As far as the North American region was concerned, the issue of the OCA was resolved once and for all in that it was viewed as a fully participating church in the North American Episcopal Assembly. In addition, all of its rights and privileges remained intact. Most important, its self-identification as an autocephalous church was implicitly ratified when its bishops were seated according to the diptychs. This is an arcane point to be sure but one that has momentous implications for the future. Unfortunately, it is unclear at this point whether it possesses a vote as a church (all other jurisdictions each possess one vote).

The Decline of the Imperial Model of Hierarchy

And what are those implications? First among them was the confirmation of the OCA’s missionary ethos. In the past this was problematic in that it often resulted in the planting of local parishes wherever there was a need for them, independent of traditional ethnic considerations. Often, this took place nearby already established ethnic Orthodox parishes. The second was the local election of bishops by clergy and laity assembled in diocesan assemblies, a right that extends as well to the election of the primate by delegates assembled at All-American Councils. Third, the Holy Synod of the OCA has the freedom to remove bishops and even primates, a right that inures in theory to all holy synods but in reality is rarely if ever exercised. (This may be because most patriarchal churches are governed in a more monarchial manner with the primate wielding near-absolute power. As for the election of the primate himself, the details as to how this is done in the ancient patriarchates are murky to say the least.) In addition, lay involvement in the various holy synods found in the Old World, as well record-keeping and transparency are virtually non-existent.

The most novel event however was the election of Bishop Jonah Paffhausen as Metropolitan of All-America and Canada by the people and clergy assembled at the All-American Council in Pittsburgh, in November of 2008. Though the election of the primate is not unprecedented in the OCA, the results had been overturned by the Holy Synod on two previous occasions, passing over the choice of the clergy and people in favor of heirs-apparent or other favorites. The conclusion that was drawn from such high-handed actions in the past was that the vote of the people didn’t really matter. This time, the bishops respected the will of the people. The new primate (who had been elected Bishop of Ft Worth just eleven days prior to this convocation) commented on the novelty of the entire situation, not merely the selection. For one thing, as a true monastic he was clearly discomfited by the imperial honors that had accrued to bishops since the Ottoman subjugation and said so in no uncertain terms. Equally as important was his observation that in America, the Church has never had a secular guardian. Rather than being a detriment however, this was in reality a blessing in that it empowered the Church to be the Church and not the ward of the state which all too often was the fate of the various Orthodox churches.

This did not happen easily. Before the election of Jonah, the OCA had been in danger of imploding. As is by now well-known, its two previous primates presided over scandal-plagued administrations. Morale throughout the OCA was plummeting. There had never been easier time for the other jurisdictions to denigrate its autocephaly (which none of them accepted in the first place) or even its canonicity. Rumors abounded that the Russian Orthodox Church would rescind the tomos of autocephaly that it had bestowed upon its daughter church in 1970. As for the inclusion of the OCA in the Episcopal Assembly, it was only because of the good offices of Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis of the GOA that this occurred at all. Demetrios labored mightily behind the scenes to dissuade the Patriarch of Constantinople from disinviting the OCA, who like his two predecessors, never accepted that church’s autocephaly. Against this negative backdrop it is now obvious that the issue of the OCA’s canonicity (at least) has now been settled once and for all. And the inclusion of its episcopate in the Assembly implicitly vindicated its autocephaly. On a personal level, the warm relationship between Jonah and Demetrios bode well for the immediate future. As far as is known, the Episcopal Assembly which met in May of 2010 went off without a hitch.

The Drive to Chambesy: The Demographic Sub-text

It should be clear that the consolidation of the various ethnic jurisdictions (in America at least) means that the previous model of ethnically segregated jurisdictions is no longer viable. The end of immigration from the Balkans made this inevitable as it was immigration that drove the formation and sustenance of the ethnic eparchies in the first place. Paradoxically, it may have been because of immigration of a newer kind that the patriarchates gave in and created the new Episcopal regions in the first place. By this I mean massive immigration from Russia, the Ukraine, and Romania. In the United States for instance, it has become apparent that immigrants from the former Soviet Union now make up the largest contingent of Orthodox believers. The actual numbers of the established jurisdictions pale in comparison. (Indeed, without conversion of American natives, they struggle to maintain their numbers.) Some critics assume that the Old World churches –- fearing a Russian demographic tsunami — decided to “freeze” the status quo where it was.

As far as North America is concerned, this brings up an important question: if the previous waves of immigrants overwhelmed the Russian Mission, then what is to stop the present tidal wave of Russian immigrants from doing the same to the existing jurisdictions? This is a very good question, one that lies very much at the intersection of American Orthodoxy at present. That is, is the Orthodox Church to be missionary and local or pastorally sensitive to ethnic considerations?

For many the answer is not “either/or” but “both/and.” This however requires a farsightedness heretofore absent from the vast majority of modern Orthodox administrators. To understand the present controversies, one must be cognizant of the nature of ethnic Orthodoxy, which is riddled with its own peculiarities. Orthodoxy as it was found among the subjugated people of the Balkans and Middle East was nationalistic in character in much the same way that Catholicism was for the Irish and the Poles. It became by default the sine qua non of ethnicity. In other words, it was the only referent to the national identities that had been stripped from these people because of conquest. For the Russians on the other hand, Orthodoxy was an essential part of their nation’s global mission. Because they were the citizens of an expansionist empire, they saw every reason to take their religion wherever they went. And they did. Whatever else their faults, the Russians were not burdened by a ghetto mentality that was all-too-evident (and understandable) among Orthodox from the Balkans and Middle East. Their priests were true missionaries. This may have been because they were in a superior cultural position vis-à-vis the natives they encountered, but this fact did not make it any less real. It was for this reason that they were able to evangelize the vast Siberian expanse and then Alaska.

As to what this has to do with the meeting of the patriarchal churches in Chambesy, another answer can be found in the rivalry that exists between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. Not only is the Russian Orthodox Church resurgent in Russia itself, it is gathering strength in Western Europe and North America as well, where a massive Russian presence is being felt. According to some estimates, there are close to 400,000 Russian émigrés living in New York City alone. This is reflected as well in Alexandria and Istanbul, where officials of the Russian church have put the local patriarchs on notice that in time, Russian bishops will have to be put on the local synods. (In Istanbul for example, Russians outnumber Greek Christians there by at least five-to-one.)

Metropolitan Jonah himself has remarked on this phenomenon at least as far as North American is concerned. Speaking at the same Canadian assembly, he flatly stated that the OCA has “failed” in its mission to pastor these émigrés. This was not intentional however, but merely the normal result of it becoming an American church, rather than an immigrant one beholden to Old World nostalgia. To his credit he also said that the OCA was not without a remedy in that the American eparchy of the Russian patriarchate could easily merge with the OCA and retain its distinctive character while its vicar-bishop joins the Holy Synod. Accommodations for the calendar and linguistic differences could easily be resolved in such a manner.

The election of Jonah also has paid dividends in a growing rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), which had earlier healed its eighty-year schism with the Moscow patriarchate in 2008. Previously relations between ROCOR and the OCA were chilly at best. Political and historiographic considerations underpinned this rivalry as well in that both viewed themselves as the successor to the original Russian-American mission (previously known as the Metropolia). In addition, the scandalous tenures of Jonah’s two predecessors justified ROCOR’s vilification of the OCA as an illegitimate upstart. The healing of the schism and the inclusion of ROCOR as a fully participatory church on the Episcopal Assembly in North America likewise caused a thaw in relations between them which would have been unforeseen in the past.

As for the Romanians on the other hand, the increased migration has resulted in increased turmoil, at least in North America. The patriarchal jurisdiction of the Romanian Orthodox Church has sustained an often bitter rivalry with the Romanian episcopate of the OCA (which is far larger). The new Patriarch of Romania suggested in 2009 that the two jurisdictions merge into one “maximally autonomous metropolitinate.” Rather than heal the division, this has only caused consternation within the Romanian émigré community. Even more egregiously, he suggested that Romanian immigrants throughout the world “belonged” to the Romanian Orthodox Church and could not participate in any other jurisdiction.

The contrast with Moscow’s handling of a similar situation could not be starker. For one thing, it readily assented to ROCOR’s wishes that it remain a distinct eparchy, reporting directly to the Holy Synod of Russia. In addition, Russia has not demanded that ROCOR merge with its patriarchal diocese of North America (or “suggest” that it merge with the OCA). The finesse expressed by the Moscow patriarchate provides a stunning contrast with the ham-fisted tactics of Bucharest. To be fair, Moscow has a long track record of pastoral sensitivity in this regard, as it did not hesitate to grant its American eparchy autocephaly. Though this unilateral act was not met with universal acclaim (especially by the Greek-speaking churches) the fact that it did so bespeaks of an evangelistic fervor unknown among most of the ancient patriarchates.

Evangelism, Outreach, and Turmoil: Additional Concerns about Foreign Domination

Demographic Stagnation and Increase

Set against the backdrop of increased Eastern European immigration, one can easily discern anxiety among the ancient patriarchates and their American eparchies. Such concern is evidenced by the demographic stagnation that is apparent in America. Even the largest –the GOA—is just a little larger in population than it was when it was founded some ninety years ago. The only exception to this is the Antiochian jurisdiction, which grew from sixty-five parishes in 1970 to almost 250 today.

What accounted for this dramatic increase? The answer can be found in the reception of almost 3,000 former Evangelicals into the Patriarchate of Antioch in the early 1980s. Previously, this group had been known as the New Evangelical Order and then the Evangelical Orthodox Church. Many of their leaders had come from Campus Crusade for Christ and after years of intense study, came to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church was the original apostolic church founded in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day. As such, they requested permission to join the Orthodox Church en masse. Inroads were made to the OCA but for some reason they were turned away. Next they asked Bishop Maximos Aghiouroussis (the GOA Bishop of Pittsburgh) to get them an audience with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Demetrios. After a long flight to Istanbul, they were prevented at the last minute from meeting the patriarch by then-Metropolitan Bartholomew Archandonis of Philadelphia. Upon their return to the United States, they approached Metropolitan Philip Saliba of the Antiochian archdiocese and in due time, were received into Orthodoxy. Their clergy were vested as priests and their leader, Bishop Peter Gillquist, received the title of archpriest.

The reasons why the Evangelical Orthodox Church had to travel such an arduous journey are not that hard to fathom. The OCA, though ostensibly a church native to America, was still an immigrant-dominated body and only officially viewed itself as American. As for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it was surmised that Patriarch Demetrios (who could not speak English) was unaware of the machinations occurring behind the scenes that resulted in their rebuff. As noted, it was his principle aide, Bartholomew, who abruptly showed these erstwhile converts the door. What accounted for such a disdainful reception? According to some of the principals involved, the Greek government put pressure on the Metropolitan Bartholomew to blackball these inquirers. This was done because of fear that a massive influx of American converts would dilute the ethnic character of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, thereby negating its utility as a political agent for the Hellenic State in the halls of Congress and the State Department. It was then that the Evangelical Orthodox Church turned to Philip, the primate of the Antiochian archdiocese for help.

Because of this action Philip acquired massive amounts of goodwill among these people and American converts in general. His farsightedness extended as well to the leaders of the former Evangelical Orthodox Church. Many of them were given positions of tremendous responsibility within that archdiocese. A new day was dawning in the Antiochian archdiocese and many convert-priests who followed in the footsteps of Gillquist and company became luminaries in American Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Study Bible grew out of their efforts as well as top-notch journals such as Again Magazine and The Handmaiden, both published by an excellent imprint known as Conciliar Press. Things went rather well for several decades. It was because of Philip’s firm hand that he was able to anticipate problems and derail them before they could come to fruition. In this, he was being true to form as it was he who some years earlier effected the healing of the schism between the two Syro-Lebanese eparchies that had existed in the United States since the 1920s.

Ethnic Tensions

Unfortunately even under his steady guidance, the ethnic divisions could not be contained forever. In early 2009, Philip (who had previously forced the Holy Synod in Damascus to grant his archdiocese autonomy) started behaving in an erratic manner. Perhaps fearing a dreaded schism, he somehow encouraged Damascus to demote the Antiochian bishops in America and Canada to “auxiliary” status. Such an unprecedented move scandalized many. Two of the newly-demoted bishops (Basil Essey of Wichita and Mark Maymon of Toledo) refused to sign their names to the document which ratified this controversial move, and another bishop (Alexander Mufarri of Ottawa) signed it in a facetious manner, leaving no doubt as to what he thought about the entire situation.

Other scandals followed in short order. The growing rifts followed an ethnic divide for the most part, with converts generally questioning these actions and Arab-Americans applauding them. The situation quickly deteriorated: four Arab-American priests in the Toledo diocese openly defied Maymon, who feared that some of their churches were guilty of major financial and canonical improprieties. At the archdiocesan conference held in Palm Desert, California in July of that year, priests who likewise questioned Philip’s actions were shouted down by the ethnic contingent. Many were physically threatened. In the end, Philip was forced to back down on the demotion of his bishops, much to the glee of Damascus, which had long since grown weary of Saliba’s antics. The issue appeared to be settled and things remained quiet for about a year. Recently however, the Holy Synod in Damascus apparently reversed itself and upheld the original demotion. As of this writing, it is unknown what the repercussions will be for the Antiochian jurisdiction.

As for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the scandals had been brewing for much longer. If a date could be set for their onset, one could make a reasonable case that the dam burst forth with the ouster of Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzis in 1996. Bartholomew, the newly-elected Patriarch of Constantinople, had become genuinely shocked by reports that Iakovos planned to unite the various ethnic jurisdictions in North America into an autocephalous church. It was Coucouzis after all who had earlier spearheaded the creation of the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) in 1965 and it was he and Saliba who engineered the Ligonier Conference in 1994. A controversial figure in his own right –he had earlier marched with Dr Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965—Coucouzis was not without his detractors. Yet among the various primates who made up SCOBA, there was no doubting his sincerity and his commitment to American Orthodox unity (as well as his legendary love for America).

His ouster was met with genuine shock and dismay in all quarters of American Orthodoxy, not merely the GOA. His replacement, Metropolitan Spyridon Papageorge of Italy was the Phanar’s hand-picked successor. Initially, Papageorge appeared an inspired choice. Young, urbane, American born, multilingual, and ostensibly committed to the eradication of “ethnic ghettos,” he appeared more circumspect than Coucouzis in many regards. Unfortunately, he was unable to work in a conciliar manner with the bishops of the GOA and the other primates of SCOBA. He then severely mishandled a homosexual escapade at Holy Cross. Things swiftly deteriorated and he began acting in an even more erratic manner. Soon, the bishops of the GOA were in open revolt and Bartholomew, in an effort to defuse the situation, comically “elevated” them to titular metropolitans of defunct sees (although in doing so they were really being demoted from ordinary status). This only bought the new archbishop a little more time and finally, after the misallocation of funds which he used to purchase a house in Long Island, his tenure became untenable. In 1999, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, bowing to overwhelming pressure, was forced to remove him from office. In his place, Bartholomew asked Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis, a renowned academic resident in America to take the helm of the GOA.

Despite the fact that Trakatellis was brought in to restore calm to the GOA, this would be difficult to accomplish. The seeds of controversy were sown during the early days of the tenure of Papageorge, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate unilaterally abrogated the charter which governed the GOA. The damage was extensive: for one thing, the Clergy-Laity Congress, a biennial assembly which governed the archdiocese became defunct for all practical purposes; for another, the archdiocese itself was broken up into four metropolitinates (Canada, the US, Central America, and South America). The question was not whether the charter could be amended (it could) but whether any hierarch had the authority to take such capricious action without recourse to the provisions found in the charter. The Phanar and its partisans for their part viewed the issue at hand as whether the GOA was a hierarchical church or a congregational one. The lay groups which sued the archdiocese in federal court eventually lost and the unilateral changes remained in place.

The damage had been done however. The attrition to the GOA became apparent over time, when it was reported that each subsequent Clergy-Laity Congress was less attended than the one before. The annual budget of the GOA grew significantly but so did the deficits which became more pronounced. A new system of gathering monies from the parishes was implemented which proved to be unpopular. Parish formation came to a standstill. Exacerbating these tensions (and contributing significantly to the deficit) was the outbreak of several pedophile scandals. The monetary damages have been estimated to be in the range of 12 million dollars. As if this wasn’t enough, many of the more ethnocentric faction resented what they perceived to be an increasing Americanization. Demetrios for his part was diligent in representing the Greek government in the halls of American power, but this did little to mollify those who came to blame him for the perceived anti-Hellenic drift at Holy Cross. And of course, the destroyed church of St Nicholas at Ground Zero has yet to be rebuilt.

That being said, in comparison to the tumultuous career of Coucouzis and the scandalous one of Papageorge, the calm demeanor of Trakatellis provided a balm to an otherwise intense situation. Perhaps because of his growing popularity in American Orthodoxy, and especially among the other primates of SCOBA, a campaign to remove him was quietly orchestrated by the Phanar. This scheme soon reached a fever-pitch in late 2009, when an inflammatory letter by a unknown metropolitan in Istanbul was published in The National Herald. Its aim was to highlight as much as possible the deficiencies of the GOA under his tenure. Unlike Iakovos however, Demetrios did not back down. Michael Jaharis, one of the most powerful laymen in the GOA, wrote a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch forcing him to discipline the errant metropolitan and to publicly apologize to Demetrios. A careful reading between the lines of Jaharis’ letter indicated that the Phanar –- which is dependent upon American largesse — could not afford to continue along this path.

Although chastened for the moment, the Ecumenical Patriarch continued this brinksmanship with his American eparchy in a more roundabout fashion. In April of 2010, he secretly summoned Demetrios to Istanbul, most probably to chasten him for inviting Jonah and the other bishops of the OCA to the Episcopal Assembly to be held in May. So secret was this trip that not even the GOA metropolitans were aware of it. Upon his return to the States, rumors swirled that he would be forced to retire, perhaps after the Clergy-Laity Congress which was held in July. Regardless, Demetrios held his ground and as of this writing remains in place as primate of the GOA.

A Native Church –A Study in Contrasts

The above is not intended to be an exhaustive compendium of the contretemps that ethnic eparchies are prone to. There were certainly other missteps which highlighted the amateurishness of the Old World patriarchates. The so-called Apostolic Journey that the Ecumenical Patriarch undertook in October of 2009 springs instantly to mind. Bartholomew, a principle voice on ecological matters on the international scene, used this excursion to preach about environmental awareness and Anthropogenic Global Warming. He also secretly invited the Greek-American metropolitans to acquire Turkish citizenship. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough, he demanded that every diocese in the Ecumenical Patriarchate deed over a piece of property to him. These two requests were met with stunned silence and no mention was made at all about them to the thousands of Greek-Americans that make up the congregations of the GOA. Tangential to his crusade against AGW, another unfortunate scandal erupted immediately after his departure, when it became clear that scientists at East Anglia University, who had been preaching the dangers of global warming for several years, had deliberately falsified key data in an effort to gin up support for the campaign against global warming.

The nature of these incidents however is secondary to the issue at hand. What is obvious instead is that the present dysfunctional nature of foreign control by Old World patriarchates leads inevitably to such calamities. Even the institution of an autocephalous church does not militate against such occurrences, especially if the local church is mired in nostalgia. At the All-American Assembly in 1978 for instance, Bishop Dmitri Royster of Dallas was elected primate. Unfortunately, because he was a convert, the Holy Synod decided not to ratify his election and opted instead to elect Bishop Theodosius Lazor in his place. It was widely believed that this action was taken because of fear of antagonizing the Carpatho-Russian majority. The same thing happened again in 2004, when Archbishop Seraphim Storheim of Ottawa’s election was overturned in favor of Bishop Herman Swaiko. (Seraphim, like Dmitri before him was a convert.) It was under the scandalous pastorates of both Theodosius and Herman that the ship of the OCA nearly foundered. Thanks to the muckraking efforts of bloggers such as Mark Stokoe and the courage of Archbishop Job Osacky of Chicago, the Holy Synod forced the retirement of Herman in early 2008. It was at Pittsburgh later that year however that the dam finally burst, when the newly-consecrated Bishop of Ft Worth, Jonah Paffhausen, rose to give a sobering speech cataloguing the errors of the recent past. In the eyes of many, it was because of Jonah’s eloquent words and honesty that the assembled delegates overwhelmingly elected him. This time, the Holy Synod chose to ratify their decision.

Time, and an American sensibility –- one free of foreign intervention — eventually prevailed.

It is against this backdrop therefore that we can confidently say that a new day is dawning for the Orthodox Church. Set against the backdrop of the diminution of Constantinopolitan claims based on Canon 28, another equally important change has taken place. This has to do with the granting of autocephaly. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has long maintained that only two methods existed for granting autocephaly: an Ecumenical Council, or in its absence, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (There hasn’t been an Ecumenical Council for almost 1,200 years.) Moscow on the other hand feels that in addition to these two methods, an additional one exists as well. That is that a mother church can grant autocephaly to one of its constituent parts should the political situation warrant such a move. This is what Moscow did in 1970 when it granted a tomos of autocephaly to its former eparchy in North America. This act by Moscow has been a bone of contention between it and Constantinople for forty years now.

Although examples are few and far between, Moscow has history on its side. Antioch for instance, singlehandedly granted autocephaly to its Iberian archdiocese in the fifth century, creating the Church of Georgia. This act was never nullified nor did it cause any controversy as far as can be gleaned from the historical record. Even Constantinople in the not-too-distant past believed that a local church could be granted independence based on several contingencies. One Ecumenical Patriarch, Joachim III, commented as such in 1876 when his church recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Serbia (which had lost its long-held autocephaly to Constantinople in 1763). The claims of Constantinopolitan exclusivity therefore are completely without merit as far as they go. Perhaps seeing the writing on the speciousness of this argument, certain functionaries of the Phanar have backed off from this claim. In a recent interview on Ancient Faith Radio, the Rev Mark Arey admitted that the gift of autocephaly granted to the OCA was not illegitimate in itself but that it bore the taint of irregularity in that it was conveyed to the new church by a “Soviet dominated patriarchate” and “ratified by other churches in the Soviet orbit.” This same theme was reiterated by the afore-mentioned Rev Lambrianides in June of this year in a more measured speech that he gave at St Vladimir’s Seminary. In both cases, the imputation was that the “Soviet dominated churches” were not acting in a free manner and thus the grant of independence of the OCA was irregular.

This may be true. Nevertheless it is also a huge step back from the previous view that only Constantinople could grant a church autocephaly. Be that as it may, it also calls into question whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its functionaries are capable of irony –- the cliché of the “pot calling the kettle black” springs instantly to mind. As any reasonably well-read student of history knows, there has been no more subjugated patriarchate in history than that of Istanbul. As even some of its propagandists note, there has been no action –trivial or otherwise—taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchs for almost half a millennium that was not ratified or ordered by the Sublime Porte. The leaden hand of sultans extended even into liturgical matters. Other times, patriarchs were forced by their Ottoman overlords to interfere directly in ecclesiastical matters in countries not under Turkish control (such as the United States). Some of these actions were provocative and have left wounds lasting to this very day. The Soviet government on the other hand –for all its atheistic brutality —only once ordered the Patriarch of Moscow to interfere in its American archdiocese. So egregious was this demand that it was met with instant disdain and nothing of this sort was ever attempted again.

The American Context

So where are we? Is North America ready to move forward into the future, one united across ethnic lines and free of foreign interference?

The new situation, even with the blessing of the Old World is complicated. To be sure, it is not at all settled whether the twelve regions so identified as “Episcopal regions” are all ready to march in lock-step into a bright evangelical future –far from it. The same ethnocentric tendencies that previously caused American Orthodoxy to divide into balkanized ghettos are even more pronounced in places such as Australia and South America. Our concern however is North America. Thanks to the good offices of Demetrios, and the appearance of a genuine monastic preacher like Jonah –as well as an energized laity—it is more probable that we at least have a fighting chance here in this land. The fact that the bishops of Canadian and Central American petitioned for the creation of their own Episcopal Assemblies certainly gives one hope that the canonical idea of territorial boundaries is once again arising, as well it should.

We now come full circle. The metaphor of Ground Zero, whether there is a mosque to be built there (as our elites demand) or a church (which is what the people want), is the flashpoint in the American debate at present. The American people in their righteous anger have risen and shouted a collective “no!” to the mosque, not because they hate Muslims, but because that land has become sacred ground. Even secular intellectuals recognize it as such. Likewise in the Orthodox world, a groundswell has arisen among the laity urging for the reconstruction of the only place of worship that was destroyed there, a tiny Greek Orthodox Church. Some (such as myself) have asked that it be an American Orthodox Church, one in which all jurisdictions take part and offer daily services, each according to their respective typicon. The hope is that this church will serve as the flashpoint of a united and independent local church, one encompassing all nationalities and ethnicities that comprise American Orthodoxy. One in which the laity have an equal part in the governance and care. And one that operates in an open and transparent way, in which local bishops sit in an American Holy Synod and are accountable to each other and the people they serve. Only a local, independent, and territorial church can rise to this level.

Discuss this article on the American Orthodox Institute blog.

Date posted: August 23, 2010