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Sobornost: Uniting Orthodoxy in America

Theophilus Eardwine

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A recent open letter from His Grace the Right Reverend Bishop Nikolai (Soraich) of Sitka, Alaska (OCA) to his diocese, the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, in the Winter 2005 issue of its official publication, The North Star, included these excerpts:

2005 marks the 35th Anniversary of the Canonization of our Venerable Father Herman of Alaska and All-America, and the 35th Anniversary of the Autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America....

I was a student at Seminary when the canonization [of St. Herman of Alaska] took place [i.e., 1970]... In those years I was in the Serbian Church and couldn't understand or accept that this Russian Metropolia could now dare to call itself the Orthodox Church in America. It wasn't until many years later that I realized Orthodoxy in America is indebted to St. Herman and all of the early missionaries who came here enduring great sacrifice in order to bring the Good News!

It says in the Akathist [to St. Herman] that St. Herman envisioned "an Episcopal Throne in this land." (Ikos 11) It doesn't say anything about multiple thrones, but one—an autocephalous Church in this land—one that came to be in 1970 [i.e., the year the OCA received autocephaly from Moscow]. I look back on those seminary years and years later when there was much hope for a united church in America. There were pan-Orthodox celebrations; Sunday of Orthodoxy gatherings were major events and the spirit among the faithful and clergy was elevated in the gathering of the Church. Now we look back just ten years later and find the gathering of bishops at Ligonier is hailed as the greatest event of American Orthodoxy! I wonder how the canonization of America's first saint is relegated to some lesser place in the life of Orthodoxy in America. Even Ligonier was hopeful to those of us who were serving the churches in multiple jurisdictions. Soon we were disappointed when hierarchs removed their names from the documents that were prepared; one on evangelism and the other on administrative unity.

Are we willing to truly pray the Akathist and submit ourselves to the vision of America's most wondrous Saint in realizing one Church? We don't need another Ligonier, we need a gathering in Kodiak at the relics of America's first Saint, a prayerful walk on Spruce Island and a willingness to accept the call of Jesus Christ for the sake of Orthodoxy—not disunited, but united!

In many ways, these are good thoughts. It is clear from the tradition of the Orthodox Church that the current situation of Orthodoxy in America is one of preposterous uncanonicity (on all sides) and bad ecclesiology. We are all uncanonical. It is a sin to remain separated as we are and to have multiple bishops claiming the same cities. Most cities in America have no Orthodox bishops in them, yet some have as many as five! And from that one city multiple bishops try to take care of massive, overlapping dioceses. Perhaps the only place in America where Orthodoxy is relatively united is Bishop Nikolai's diocese, which is overwhelmingly OCA-affiliated and has only a few parishes on its territory from other jurisdictions.

There are essentially two ways to unite Orthodoxy in America. One is to form a new church structure, disbanding all the current structures. The other is for all existing church structures to be disbanded except for one, to which all the others must then submit. In this letter, Bishop Nikolai's model is the latter. His Grace's argument can be distilled down to the following assertions:

  1. St. Herman of Alaska is America's first canonized Orthodox saint.
  2. The OCA is the first church structure in America to be granted autocephaly by its mother church.
  3. The OCA is the inheritor of the authority and vision of St. Herman.
  4. The Ligonier meeting failed to accomplish American Orthodox unity.
  5. Therefore, all Orthodox in America should submit to the OCA, thus accomplishing Orthodox unity.

Certainly, we must agree with His Grace that St. Herman holds the first place among American Orthodox saints. But there are multiple problems with the logic of his argument.

First, the autocephaly of the OCA, as a monastic friend of mine says, "didn't work." Only a few small jurisdictions in the US gathered around the OCA's banner, but the majority of American Orthodox Christians remained under the omophoria of their traditional foreign churches. One can speculate as to why this might be, but what is known is that it was accomplished without the agreement of all those other Orthodox Christians in America.

Also, with autocephaly also traditionally comes a territorial claim. Even the choice to name their church as "in America" rather than "of America" is evidence that the OCA never pressed that claim, and the OCA no doubt did so probably because such an act would have alienated the many Orthodox on this continent who did not wish to submit to the OCA. Pressing the claim probably would have resulted in a break in communion between the OCA and most of the Orthodox world. To this day, only the Churches of Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Georgia, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia recognize the autocephaly of the OCA. That means that out of fourteen autocephalous churches (not including the OCA), there are only five who recognize the OCA's claim. None of the four ancient patriarchates recognizes the OCA's autocephaly, and given the serious financial and membership crises which the OCA is now experiencing, it is unlikely that the old country's parishes (which are generally much more solvent and growing) are going to be handed over any time soon.

Further, it was extremely unlikely in 1970 that the other jurisdictions with a major American presence would hand over their parishes to a church structure which had for years been in virtual schism from its mother church. The granting of autocephaly by Moscow fell right on the heels of a process of rapprochement, and the OCA's credibility hung by a fairly thin thread. Many Orthodox Christians in North America had been accustomed to staying away from the Metropolia (as the OCA had been known until 1970), just as many steer clear of the various Old Calendarist jurisdictions now.

Whatever the canonical rights or traditions with regard to the grant of autocephaly to the OCA, the existential reality "on the ground," so to speak, is that it is not autocephalous in the way that any of the rest of the world's autocephalous Orthodox churches are. It has neither the recognition nor the reality. The overwhelming majority of the Orthodox Christians of America remain outside its omophorion, and they're not going to go under it just because the OCA says it should. On top of that, even if the OCA were the only Orthodox church structure in America, it internally violates traditional ecclesiology by having three ethnic dioceses with their own bishops, whose territory thus overlaps with other OCA diocesan bishops.

The third claim on our list above is that the OCA is to be regarded as the rightful successor to St. Herman. There are problems with this claim, as well. The OCA as we now know it is actually not largely the result of the Russian missions in America. Rather, the OCA's main bulk is the successor to the Uniate conversions led by St. Alexis (Toth) of Wilkes-Barre. Perhaps in Bishop Nikolai's Alaska he sees St. Herman's spiritual children all around, but that is only one diocese out of nine territorial and three overlapping ethnic OCA dioceses. There are two other groups of parishes which can claim direct descent from the Russian presence in America, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate parishes. Besides those, some 30 parishes currently in the Antiochian Archdiocese were founded (by St. Raphael of Brooklyn) as part of the Russian mission.

Besides all that, St. Herman's authority, while spiritual and glorious, was not episcopal. He was never a bishop, nor even a priest. His presence in Alaska did not establish any canonical ecclesiological precedent for America. It would be much better to look to saints like Innocent, Tikhon or Raphael to set about the establishment of this precedent, but of course none of those saints is associated with the autocephaly of the OCA, and none of them can be a symbol of American Orthodox unity the way St. Herman can. It was a good step for the OCA to canonize St. Herman when it was granted its independence by Moscow, but doing so did not give it any sort of exclusive claim to his legacy.

The fundamental problem with Vladyka Nikolai's argument finds its expression in his rejection of the Ligonier meetings. I agree with His Grace that the repudiation of the agreements at Ligonier and the subsequent failure of the meetings to accomplish American unity (which was not, it must be said, their premise) are a disgrace. The American church had at that moment the opportunity to make American Orthodox unity a reality, and in many ways, judging from the witnesses to that gathering, it was a reality at least while they were there. One participant to whom I've spoken said that there was something almost electric in the air, that something spontaneous, inexpressible, and unifying happened between the bishops of our American church. What was happening was conciliarity, what the Russian tradition calls sobornost.

Bishop Nikolai's call to gather around the relics of St. Herman of Alaska is a good one, but his declaration that "we don't need another Ligonier" is, I believe, extremely unfortunate. American Orthodox unity will never be accomplished by one of our uncanonical jurisdictions calling to all the other uncanonical jurisdictions to submit to its rule, especially not when that rule is established on less than the firmest of grounds.

Whether we get together and form a new structure independent of any of the old world patriarchates or we form a new structure which is autonomous yet connected to an old country episcopacy, the only way American Orthodox unity will be accomplished is through conciliarity, not through calls to submission. With true repentance for our pride and disunity, we do need "another Ligonier" (and we can even hold it in Kodiak), but it must be one with more purpose going in and more resolve going out. When the inevitable ecclesiastical political upheaval occurs across the ocean, we stay the course. We also must be sure to keep sending monetary assistance to our mother churches and work to lessen their political sufferings through our own government, both of which should go a long way toward mending any hard feelings.

Reading Bishop Nikolai's own testimony of coming to terms with the need for Orthodox unity in America is genuinely inspiring, and everything that I have heard of His Grace is that he is a good shepherd to his flock. But let us be honest: the last time a major question on the unity of the Church was approached primarily from the angle of submission to one church structure, we ended up losing the entire West. And none of us should be lost. Not one.

Theophilus Eardwine writes on issues of inerest to Orthodox Christians.

Posted: 19-Feb-05

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