For the last two decades the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and other Orthodox Christian groupings have been tested by internal and external forces. The OCA has been humbled by its testing. It remains to be seen if it will be able to rise up with wisdom.
The OCA’s internal problems have been presented impartially by Dr. Andrew Walsh in the Spring 2012 issue of Religion in the News. Vol. 14, No. 1. Dr. Walsh asks an important question: “Does or should anyone outside the group care what happens to a tiny, historically ethnic religious body like the…OCA…?” I believe that we do need to care.
Why? Because the journey of the OCA is a guide for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America working to create a unified, self-governing Church in the United States. The blueprint and foundation for this unified church in the United States will be strengthened by learning from the experiences of the OCA. The bishops need not judge their brothers but rather need to be guided by Him in humility to do what is right.
All of the Orthodox Christian groupings in the United States are experiencing the same tensions in different degrees as does the OCA. How will Orthodox Christianity, which is the Apostolic Church with its centuries of multicultural-global experiences, transition into the pluralistic, secular cultures beyond its traditional geographic areas? How will the experiences of the different groupings be brought together so that the Orthodox Church can retain the faithful and bring the Good News in a meaningful way to all within the pluralistic setting in which Orthodoxy finds itself? This is the Great Commission given to it. When will we get the Orthodox Church in good order to obey the Lord?
In many ways the OCA, although small in numbers, has been the leader in trying to answer these challenges in North America. It has given us the Missionary Saints of North America, an excellent school of theology, a very professional printing press, small but spirit-filled churches, and outstanding Orthodox theologians and teachers. It has also been in the forefront of the effort to present Orthodox worship in English by creating translations and hymns in the language of America.
It is also teaching us the how to be a self-governing Church. The OCA has put in place mechanisms of governance that respect accountability and transparency. The people are involved in the election of its leaders- hierarchy and laity. From their experience we learn that this system is not perfect. We also see from this present administrative experience that there are oversight mechanisms that impact the hierarchy and even the head of the synod. The lesson here, to be built into the blueprint of the unified church, is that in our cultural setting, it behooves the leadership of the church not to deny, ignore delay or dismiss the faithful.
Our collective 200 year experience as Orthodox Christians in the cultural setting of North America, obligates us to work together and establish the foundations of a unified, self-governing Church. In this regard, we must carefully examine our respective histories in America and build upon our best spiritual traditions and administrative practices. However, the journey towards unification is unlikely to be achieved unless the entire family of the Church is involved. The so-called “top-down” process too often practiced and preached by certain elements in our church leadership is neither sufficient nor appropriate.
The Church is the work of all her people: bishops, priests, and laity working together, each contributing their own special offering. Hopefully, these labors in the vineyard of our Lord combined with our prayers will inspire the Holy Spirit to bestow unity among the Orthodox faithful in America. That is a most compelling and essential goal if the Church is to survive in our nation with her spiritual traditions preserved and her future ensured.