Maybe I’m Just Too American
For This Orthodox Church
by Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, NY
I firmly believe that America offers the potential for the Orthodox Faith to flourish and grow like in no other land or culture.
Unfortunately, at times, we cannot free ourselves from the “old world” mentality which mires us in our “ancient” faith. Consequently, it makes it difficult for Americans to even attempt to understand the fundamentals of our Faith.
As the first historic Episcopal Assembly ends, and I read the message delivered at its conclusion, I cannot help but feel that we are attempting to fix our American jurisdictional problem with an “old world” mentality solution. Consequently, it makes it difficult for this American to understand why we are being so Byzantine in seeking a plan for Orthodox unity in America.
From the very beginning, the America colonists were used to doing things their own way. When problems arose, they fixed them on their own, and did not wait for direction from Great Britain. The revolutionary spirit which led to the establishment of the United States in America has not waned; it is still very much alive in our spirit and culture – we are a “can do” people who think outside the box and take matters into our own hands. Because of our entrepreneurial nature and our ability to change direction without being a slave to protocol, we are able to solve our problems by charting a course of action. It is this spirit which has made us today the most powerful and influential nation in the world. It is this same spirit that is so attractive to people from foreign cultures that come in contact with Americans. And, it is the same spirit that can cause our Orthodox Faith to flourish in this land.
Many people will state that the convening of the Episcopal Assembly was a major step towards Orthodox unity in the Americas. But, the message issued at its close does not convince my American spirit that the goal of the Episcopal Assemblies is a united autocephalous Orthodox Church in America any time soon– sounds like we have just created another version of SCOBA with a marginalization of the Orthodox Church in America. So committees are created to determine who is canonical and who is not, a registry is created, and the pastoral needs of the Orthodox living in our nation will be addressed – been there, done that over the past 50 years with SCOBA!
Archbishop Demitrios is to be commended for finessing the presence of the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America at the Assembly in spite of the protestations of the Ecumenical Patriarch. On the other hand, the Ecumenical Patriarch did succeed in stifling any voice from the Moscow Patriarchate in support of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America, probably through some quid pro quo deal over the Ukrainian situation. And the news blockade during the Assembly (even though matters of national security were not being discussed) seemed to be quite successful. With its complex schemes and bureaucratic intrigue, all of this seems to be patterned after Byzantine politics as usual in an attempt to avoid talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room – the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.
It is no secret that many of the efforts to maintain control over the American Church are rooted in the need for the ancient Patriarchates to seek support for their very survival. What they do not realize is that an autocephalous Church in America will have far more ability to influence nations and gain support for causes relative to our Orthodox Church throughout the world when it speaks as the independent Orthodox Church in America.
As an American Orthodox Christian, I am concerned that the ancient Orthodox Patriarchates do not have a clue when dealing with the multi-jurisdictional situation in America because in large part they do not understand our American spirit. As Americans, it is part of our nature to celebrate ethnic diversity -- something completely foreign to the homogenous traditional Orthodox lands. They lack our capacity to adapt to change and our ability to forge solutions in a rapid manner when faced with obstacles. And, they do not realize that we can in fact solve our own problems and present a plan of action for them to accept, in a relatively short period of time, if we only had their blessing to proceed. From my limited perspective, the events of the Assembly appeared to be choreographed down to the minutiae from Istanbul in order to avoid another Ligonier.
Before I am accused of just being cranky, let me propose a number of steps that can enhance the ability of our ancient Patriarchates to understand the jurisdictional situation in America:
• An American presence as Observer with a voice at the Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conferences would greatly enhance the understanding of our situation in America among the “old world” delegates. The Decision of the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference dictated to us in America the groundwork for the Episcopal Assembly – talk about taxation without representation – the entrepreneurial spirit in America has served to enhance the resources of Americans that have greatly supported both financially and politically many of the ancient Patriarchates. Unfortunately, no one from America was represented when the Episcopal Assemblies were discussed in Chambesy.
• If it is the desire of the Episcopal Assembly to truly move towards an autocephalous Church in America, it would behoove them to place a representative of the Orthodox Church in America on the Executive Committee. The OCA has been an autocephalous church for more than 40 years, and even though we have seen our share of scandal, we had the ability to solve our problems on our own without reaching across the ocean for guidance or approval. At present, the Orthodox Church in America is the most transparent Orthodox Church throughout the land and we have in fact had experience dealing with multi-ethnic jurisdictions within our autocephalous church; we have also functioned as an independent entity since the 1920s’and have been a presence in North America for over 200 years.
• Let the Assembly review the historic documents and working papers which led up to the creation of the Orthodox Church in America. Greater minds than what I see today were the architects of the autocephaly of the former Metropolia which addressed a specific need during a specific time in history.
• The Assembly must provide for participation from both the clergy and lay representatives of our Church. The Orthodox experience in America has been shaped by a collaborative spirit. This is the time for flowering of sobornost, not for a return to the autocratic way of the old countries.
• Let the faculties of our seminaries, which represent multi-jurisdictions here in America, prepare working documents on a canonical and administrative structure for the Americas. The Orthodox Church in America currently has three major seminaries and there has been talk about the seminaries working together towards a unified approach to theological education. It is a disappointment to me that seminaries’ faculty members of the Orthodox Church in America no longer seem to represent a leading force in the life of our Church. What the faculty do not seem to realize is that the workers they are preparing will not have a vineyard to plant their fruit in if they do not engage in being a part of the preparatory steps towards an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the Americas.
Whether one wishes to admit it or not, the Orthodox Church in America has a lot more to offer the Episcopal Assemblies than what was proffered us at the present table. And, with our American spirit we have the ability to solve our canonical problems in a relatively short period of time if we only had the blessing from the ancient Patriarchates to proceed. The ultimate goal of the Episcopal Assemblies is in fact what currently exists, in microcosm, in the Orthodox Church in America -- so, dear hierarchs of the ancient lands, take another look at the Orthodox Church in America.