Source: Orthodox Christian Laity
A DECLARATION OF AMERICAN ORTHODOX UNITY NOW
[A Case Study that was discussed at the Annual Meeting of the Orthodox Christian Laity in San Diego, CA on November 7, 2015 – We invite your comments.]
Amidst great spiritual and practical need, this declaration has been written to send out a clarion call for unity – unity in practice and unity within hearts – among American Orthodox Christian believers. Such unity is inevitable, it is the right thing, and it is based on the historic precedents of the Orthodox Church throughout the ages. It is also urgent, for the world is changing ever more rapidly, with dire consequences to traditional faith and Christian virtues, consequences that we can see on a daily basis. The opportunity to do the right thing, the consequential thing, is often fleeting, and once it passes without courageous and principled action, it can be gone forever.
“We are a new nationality. We require a new nation.” This call for independence, from Britain by its thirteen American colonies, is attributed dramatically to Benjamin Franklin. The date was 1776. In the debates in the 2nd Continental Congress that ensued, there were strong voices against this revolutionary notion of independence. Our country’s Founding Fathers were certain that America was ready for the creation of a new republic; other equally accomplished colonial leaders were not so sure. The revolutionary nature of the whole enterprise was decried by the whole world as foolhardy and a fatal error by everyone other than its leaders and its believers among the People. It seemed miraculous to almost everyone that, seven years after the Declaration of Independence announced the independence of the United States of America, such independence had been achieved by a treaty with Great Britain ending the American Revolution. This new country, against all odds and predictions, survived and thrived, and still does. That is because it reflected an idea whose time had come.
We in America are a new Orthodox Christian nationality. We require a new American Orthodox Church. In a very similar way to the events of 1776, the creation by its People of a unified Orthodox Church in the United States is an idea whose time has come. It is not too early, and, for a combination of reasons, it may soon be too late. The churches are in place, both at the parish and at the ethnic-diaspora level. The independent governing bodies of those churches are well-established, and they have been working together in matters of mutual interest for decades. The leadership of those bodies is aware of the need for unity and capable of achieving it. The willingness to undertake this call, a call that was made by Christ when he was with us on earth, will not be immediately unanimous among all American Orthodox Christians. It will, however, will surely happen once it is examined openly and with good will and good faith in the full light of day.
Sincere voices will cry “Wait, wait, we are not ready for unity.” To the contrary, we are diminishing every day for want of it. The declaration of unity – and concrete steps transforming this desire into reality – must be now, because a combination of events, both positive and negative, has ordained its immediacy.
The positive developments that contribute to a growing wave towards unity are many. Mostly, and encouragingly, they are actions by Orthodox Christian Bishops and Patriarchs. The actions taken in the past three decades by Patriarchs and Archbishops of the Orthodox Churches in the Old World – the four ancient Patriarchates as well as the autocephalous and autonomous national churches – show that they understand the pressing need to address the health and organization of the Orthodox churches founded by their emigrants to the New World. Correspondingly, the actions of the bishops in these “diaspora” lands have increasingly showed that they understand the need for and value of Orthodox unity in their respective locations, most notably the United States.
While it is encouraging that such actions by Orthodox bishops exist, it is discouraging that most Orthodox faithful are unaware of them. This lack of knowledge contributes to an unfortunate and erroneous general belief that such actions are not occurring; that our Bishops are mostly against unity; that we who advocate American unity are disobedient malcontents; and finally, that this is a distant dream that we are far away from ever achieving. All these notions are untrue. We must articulate the positive developments, so that the faithful in America understand the issues and what is at stake.
The framework to achieve American Orthodox unity exists and has been in operation for many years, first as SCOBA (The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas) from 1960 to 2010, and currently as the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States of America. The Assembly of Bishops has met regularly from 2010 until now, most recently in Chicago in September 2015. Under the aegis of SCOBA and the Assembly of Bishops, numerous examples of cooperation among the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have developed. Among them are the IOCC, the OCMC, the OCF on college campuses, and local initiatives such as unified pro-life efforts and Pan-Orthodox worship services. The unifying truth of all these combined efforts is that they are heartwarming, Christ-centered, and inspiring, both in their instant reality and in the hopefulness they engender among the faithful as we envision ever-increasing Orthodox cooperation going forward. Everyone walks away from such activities feeling uplifted, knowing in their hearts that this is the way it should be, that Orthodox unity is what we should be creating, fostering, and experiencing. This reality has not escaped our leaders, the various Orthodox bishops, assigned here by all the ethnic and Old-World based jurisdictions, in the United States. (Surprisingly to most people, there are 54 such bishops!).
Indeed, there have been clear pledges from the Old-World mother churches to address the needs of the churches in the New World lands – the need to create order, harmony, singularity of purpose, and to remove confusion, fragmentation, overlapping efforts, and inevitable diminution of numbers in ever-smaller ethnic-based communities and parishes. The clearest directive in this area emerged from a 2009 meeting in Chambésy, Switzerland. All 14 Orthodox Patriarchs were present. The meeting was called and presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It followed 20 years of work by these mother churches , encompassing three prior meetings and much contemplation and activity in parallel committees. These Patriarchs at Chambésy signed protocols establishing Assemblies of Bishops across the globe to bring canonical order, that is in its very essence unifying, to the administrative structure in the New World. The largest of these Assemblies of Bishops was ours, the United States.
Corresponding to this reality and need, the U.S. Assembly of Bishops’ clear central focus in recent years has been to articulate a vision and framework for establishing unity and canonical order among the 12 (largely) ethnic jurisdictions that comprise the Assembly. The convener of the Assembly in the United States has been Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Archbishop Demetrios is the Exarch and presiding bishop in the United States of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul; more than that, Archbishop Demetrios has been the driving force towards unity, reflecting the vision of his own spiritual father. This was made clear when Ecumenical Patriarchate Bartholomew addressed the Assembly of Bishops, meeting in Dallas in 2014, in a video address that unmistakably sounded the call for unity among this American Assembly:
…move beyond words to actions. We know much better than what we actually do. We are called to put our theory and theology into policy and practice. We are called to move beyond what is “mine” and what is “yours” to what is “ours.” From now on, this is how we should conceive and conduct all of our ministries and resources, all of our departments and initiative. Otherwise, we do not practice what we preach. It is really up to us to accept the challenge or to refuse the call.
This statement by the “First among Equals” of all Orthodox bishops is made more resonant by the knowledge that we are on the verge of a seminal event in Orthodox history, the meeting of the first-ever Great and Holy Council of Orthodox Christian Bishops, to be held in the ancient Church of Saint Irene in the old precincts of Constantinople during the week of Pentecost, 2016.
In order to put the historic strength of this event in context, we must understand that there has never been such a meeting before. All seven Ecumenical Councils were meetings of the bishops of a single, unified Christian Church, hundreds of years before the Great Schism. After the crucial dates and tragic events of 1054, 1204, and 1453, the Orthodox world was increasingly under the captivity of Islamic rule. And as that ended, Communist rule enslaved the Church in Russia and its captive nations of Eastern Europe. Only in the last three decades have some Orthodox lands in the Old World been politically and spiritually free, while others continue to struggle to survive under Islamist rule. It is no coincidence that, as the Patriarchates and national churches in the Old World have found themselves freer to resume the growth interrupted by over a millennium of Islamic and Communist oppression, the communities in the New World that are now entering fifth and sixth generations of assimilation in their new homes, are also looking for a road to sustainable growth. Never in all its history has the Orthodox Church held a Great Council of its Patriarchates and national churches like the one just six months away.
Unfortunately, based on things happening in Syria, Russia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the Old World, it is unlikely that this Great and Holy Council will address, let alone resolve, the organization of the churches in the diaspora, including our part of it. For the Orthodox faithful of the United States of America, there can be only one imperative, an immediate commitment to real, operational and spiritual unity among all Orthodox Christians in this country. Since there is great doubt that the Great and Holy Council will countenance even discussing this issue, the surest way to put it on the Council’s agenda is to create this unity as a reality that cannot be ignored, now, among ourselves. Our American bishops have been discussing it for years. There are known to be several blueprints. We call our 54 to bishops declare independence, to choose the best blueprint they have as an initial governing document, and bravely to plough ahead.
Not everyone will follow them, nor indeed will all the bishops agree to this courageous action. Already, in recent years and even months, voices of restraint have been heard among the Assembly of Bishops or the mother churches in the Old World; that is, the mother churches of Assembly of Bishops members. Leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the United States, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese have indicated they support the continuation in the United States of churches of separate ethnicities, supervised by foreign patriarchates. And even last month, during the September meeting of the American Assembly of Bishops in Chicago, during a panel discussion by four of our bishops at a youth event, one of those bishops told a youthful questioner that he doubted unity being achieved in this century. As discouraging as such reluctance is, these examples of hesitance are outliers. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s statement quoted above is eloquent proof of his position. Archbishop Demetrios has energetically asserted his leadership and influence in favor of American unity. There is little doubt that the majority of our 54 American bishops are for unity. Yet they may be reluctant to buck their mother churches. And many would rightly ask to what end would they be traveling?
Once again, the history of this country is instructive. In 1776, the adoption of the resolution for independence in the 2nd Continental Congress was not automatic, and was energetically debated. Not every member of the Congress ever agreed, but ultimately, the delegations of all thirteen colonies did agree, and became the thirteen United States. In order to govern themselves, they quickly wrote the Articles of Confederation in 1777, which were not approved or enacted until 1781; somehow they muddled through until then. Yet the Articles proved to be unworkable, so in 1787, a brand-new Constitution was written in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and enacted in 1788. It took, then, twelve years after independence was declared by the new United States of America, for this fledgling country to have a workable governing blueprint. In those twelve years, the United States managed to survive both war and peace. And ever since the Constitution took force, it has lasted us all these years with very little change.
We have it in our power to do a comparable thing now, a thing no less important to people of faith:
- We can and must declare American Orthodox unity, enlisting our People and our Bishops now;
- We must do everything we can to make this idea a reality now, and present this reality to the Great and Holy Council when it meets in 2016 so that it can address it; and
- We must work to perfect our blueprint for unity as we go.
We have it in our power to change our world, and we should do it now.
It is fair to ask why we should do these things. Indeed, such strong actions cannot lightly be taken, nor can they rightly be taken if they are merely discretionary. We believe that American Orthodox unity is essential to our continued Orthodox Christian witness in the United States. It is our duty to the critical task of preserving our Church for our children’s children; it is an essential part of our task of working together to create God’s kingdom on earth.
Yet these opinions are not currently uniformly held across our nation. It is more the case that this position has not really been considered, than that it is disagreed with. To enlist our fellow Orthodox to this accord and this cause, we must persuade them of the rightness of this purpose. We must state clearly the causes that impel us to such beliefs and such actions. We believe they are compelling.
Some truths are self-evident.
We who live in the United States are Americans. The Orthodox Church, in its several jurisdictions, has lived in the United States for many generations. It is, correspondingly, American.
It has been a great glory of Orthodoxy through the centuries that it is a unified church of great diversity, so different from the homogeneous Roman Catholic West. It has been a cardinal principle of Orthodox growth and witness that, as it expanded to lands outside of its first home in the Roman Empire of Christ’s time, it adapted to the culture of the local people; adopted elements of that culture including the local language within Orthodox liturgy and tradition; and created a local church that was nevertheless consistent in the essence of Orthodoxy. That essence included local cultural variation. Hence, over the centuries, national churches evolved or were created in Orthodox lands.
Hence also, while the same Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is celebrated everywhere, besides the mere fact of different languages used in different places, the sights of iconography and architecture and sounds of music and singing can be different as well, yet no less Orthodox.
The reality of the ethnic diversity of Orthodoxy in the United States is that it reflects Orthodoxy in a microcosm. Rather than being a reason for maintaining the various ethnic jurisdictions of the Old World, this diversity in America defines the very essence of, and necessity for, Orthodox unity. That Orthodox unity is the same as American national unity – E Pluribus Unum – from many, one. It has been said here already: we are a new Orthodox Christian nationality. We require a new American Orthodox Church.
Other truths are based on Christ’s teaching and example, and Christian understanding.
Christ’s last instruction to his People was to go out and “make disciples of all the nations;” to bring them into His Church. As twelve jurisdictions in the United States, it is infinitely more difficult to bring converts into Orthodoxy in anything but the most scattered, piecemeal ways, than if we were one. Where we have acted as one Church: in the Orthodox Christian Missions Center; in the International Orthodox Christian Charities; in our unified and unifying efforts at things like campus ministry, pro-life consensus, and defense of Orthodox under persecution, we have been markedly more successful. Yet even these initial efforts are only a small fraction of what we could and should be doing. Can anyone doubt the power of a unified Orthodox Church in the United States in internal and world-wide evangelism; in unified rather than competing parishes in small towns and cities; or in raising a single strong voice at the highest levels of government and media to decry the persecution, slaughter, and extinction of our Orthodox brethren in Asian and African lands, something tragically happening right now at levels unprecedented in world history?
Christ has called us to be His single Church. At least, can we not be a single Orthodox Church, in a single country, while we work for and aspire to greater Christian unity before His Second Coming?
Still other truths are based on experience.
No one can doubt that our current organization – or lack thereof – ill-suits the needs of our People. It is impractical, disorganized, and counterproductive. We have 54 Orthodox bishops in America, in twelve jurisdictions. The great majority of these bishops are located in a small number of big cities. At least one jurisdiction has only one bishop for all 50 states; several others have just three or four, while bishops in some cities live and work just a few city blocks apart, yet with little interaction.
Our Orthodox tradition is for one bishop in each location. In the United States, once Orthodox unity is achieved and episcopal assignments reorganized to meet the needs of the People, no member of the faith need be more than one state away from his or her hierarch. The practical and especially pastoral advantages of this are enormous.
The current overlapping violates all traditional Orthodox canonical order, and creates and fosters duplication, confusion, and fragmentation. Moreover, such an inchoate mixture is the least welcoming atmosphere for converts and evangelization that you could ever imagine. Ultimately, it creates an atmosphere that diminishes rather than builds devotion to the Church. It causes doubt as to what the authentic Orthodox Church is. Partly as a result of this – though there are other causes to be sure – our own children walk away, and new seekers of God’s truth do not recognize it in our disunified and unwelcoming climate. The falling numbers of Orthodox faithful, as reflected in official church statistics of sacraments and stewardship, are compelling. What we are doing now cannot be left unchanged for very long. Our very future as a growing and vibrant faith among the American commonwealth is in doubt.
Yet no one is asking for a wholesale or even eventual abandonment of ethnic identity by recent immigrants, or those to whom ethnic identity remains important. In towns and small cities where there is just one church, whether Greek or Antiochian or Russian, it is Orthodoxy itself that provides the identifying and unifying value. Wonderful things such dance and language follow the particular demographics present in each location. In the large cities, there will continue to be self-selection, as people choose their parish. Even today, to walk into some Roman Catholic parishes in America’s cities is essentially to walk into Poland or Mexico. That kind of thing will continue to be true for our People as long as Orthodox ethnic demographics support it. But to state one of the great, undeniable truths of this whole subject, it is the presence of a healthy Orthodox Church that guarantees the possibility for continued ethnic traditions in the United States, not the other way around. Where immigrants from Orthodox lands have abandoned the Orthodox Church, in almost all cases, the ethnic identity of that person and that family is much more quickly extinguished.
Finally, Orthodox Unity carries with it the unequivocal ring of truth. That ring of truth resounds when a thousand people of a dozen ethnicities gather in Pittsburgh for the Vespers of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It resounds when Orthodox students gather from around the United States to build a church in Kenya, speaking to the Kenyans in English, the only language they all understand. It resounds when Orthodox clergy and laity from all jurisdictions march together against abortion at the Supreme Court in Washington. This resounding, this inspirational and transcendent sense of God’s truth in His unified Church, is a magnificent thing to experience. We must bend our efforts towards making it happen more and more often.
The first step on the path to that truth is American Orthodox unity. This declaration constitutes our devotion to that cause. With God’s help, we pledge ourselves to achieving it now.
Please be in touch with OCL with your comments. Thank you.