Monday, April 16, 2012

Orthodox Teased with The Promise of Union

The issue of jurisdictional unity in America is a hot button issue in certain circles. Even though I don't run in those circles, it is something of a pet issue of mine as well. Once upon a time, when I was but a wee lad, my interest in Orthodoxy was piqued through correspondence with a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. He expressed his disappointment, even shame, that there were ongoing divisions (albeit primarily administrative ones) among the various ethnic Orthodox churches in the United States. He admitted, with candor and sincerity, that it was one of the greatest barriers to growth and evangelism for the Orthodox in the States. I have since asked several more priests to explain it--typically in more public venues and under the guise of genuine ignorance. Their tendency has been to brush off the issue as inconsequential.

The Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople (1872) didn't see it that way. In fact, it condemned ethno-centrism, or "phyletism," as a heresy. Churches should not, cannot (ideally), cannot be divided or organized along ethnic lines within a single jurisdiction. It amounts to nationalistic idolatry and racial discrimination. Yet, 140 years after the Constantinople decision and fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement initiated the downfall of racial segregation in America, the churches in the United States are still divided on ethnic lines, with Greek, Antiochine, and Ethiopic congregations all coexisting in the same jurisdictions, at times even occupying the same city.

Now, after decades of trying to sort out the problem, it appears there may be some hope:

On orders from patriarchs in Constantinople, Russia, Serbia and elsewhere, all Orthodox bishops in this country are working on a plan for one American Church.

The patriarchs say they want to approve such a plan at a yet-unscheduled Great and Holy Council of global Orthodoxy. The last such council was in A.D. 787. In 2010, 66 American bishops formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, to devise the plan.

"This has great potential," said Bishop Melchisedek of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the Orthodox Church in America, which is self-governing but has Russian roots. He cited existing differences on matters such as divorce or re-baptism of converts.

"The canon law of the church allows for only one bishop of a city, but here in Pittsburgh we have four. It's a situation that can create unnecessary conflict. Now we have the potential for the church to speak with one voice."

...There are now 13 Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, with 800,000 members. The Pittsburgh region is a stronghold, with perhaps 25,000 adherents.

In 1994, when all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas gathered near Ligonier and called for unity, the ecumenical patriarch accused them of rebellion.

"When we started this work 20 years ago it was anathema to talk about the possibility of administrative unity. Now we're not only talking about it, but hopefully the hierarchs will be looking at what is necessary to accomplish it," said Charles Ajalat, a retired lawyer from Southern California, chairman of the pan-Orthodox social service agency FOCUS.

Of course, the Orthodox have made noise about unity before and to no avail. The best anyone can hope to do is wait and see if a centuries old bureaucracy can be nimble enough to respond to the troubles of the twenty-first century. I'm hopeful. After all, the Patriarch of Russia knows how to use Photoshop. Will wonders never cease?

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