The National Council Of Churches Of Christ And Orthodox Unity
By Father Andrew Harrison
The talk about Orthodox unity has gone on as long as I have been a priest. Back in 1965, I attended a Vesper service in Pittsburg comprised of the youth organizations of the various jurisdictions. It was thought that this activity would eventually lead to Orthodox unity. Obviously it did not.
When the issue of Orthodox unity comes up, the implications are that the Orthodox Church is divided up like Protestant denominations. This is the impression that most non-Orthodox and many Orthodox have. It is like saying the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church are as different as Lutherans and Episcopalians. This is not the case; in fact, the Orthodox Church is more united than any other Christian church. Even the Roman Catholic Church struggles with its Byzantine Catholics and liberal Catholics. The worldwide Orthodox Church is united by the same faith. The appearance of disunity is expressed in how the Orthodox Church is governed. It can be described as a federation of independent geographic or national churches which have the same faith. They govern themselves under their local elected bishops while still expressing the same Orthodox faith.
When Orthodox unity is discussed, it is about administrative unity of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. The Orthodox Church in the United States is united. In fact Fr. Roman Braga, a prominent Romanian theologian, stated that the Orthodox Christians in the USA are more united than they realize. He believes there is a mind set that is culturally American. There are liturgical and social activities that are not universally practiced in Orthodox Churches in the world. Just to name a few: Sunday School, coffee social, stewardship programs, elected parish councils, a variety of liturgical traditions, a greater emphasis on lay participation, and a sharing and blending of sacramental requirements.
In November I attended the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC). Orthodox Christians have been involved with this organization since its founding. The purpose of the organization was to find ways for churches in the United States to work together on common activities. It sprang up in the ecumenical movement which has as its goal Christian Church unity. The Orthodox participation from the founding has been to be a witness to the ancient Christian faith with the hope that as Protestant churches came to know the Orthodox they would be attracted to it, and at least have a greater appreciation for our legacy. The Orthodox Church has had a direct influence on the faith and practices of the Protestant denominations through its involvement in the NCCC. The NCCC has had an influence on Orthodox unity in America.
Each Orthodox ethnic church is represented as one full member body equal with the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans, etc. The requirements for membership are a belief in the Holy Trinity and Christ as the incarnate Son of God, and a minimum number of members. This means when there is a vote at NCCC meetings, the Orthodox Church counts each jurisdiction as a member church while the Protestant Churches count each denomination as a member church. The Orthodox jurisdictions usually work together and are in agreement on faith issues and tend to vote as a block. This means they can exert a greater influence than their numerical membership.
Another area of influence is the charitable arm of the NCCC, Church World Service (CWS). Although an independent organization, it is loosely tied to the NCCC. Church World Service is the main international charitable organization for many mainline Protestant denominations. With the financial support of their membership they have substantial resources and an effective international outreach. The Orthodox Church has a small organization by comparison – the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). Although not connected to CWS, the IOCC receives funds from World Church Service, and the IOCC does help fund CWS programs. It works in this way: the IOCC has contacts in countries with an Orthodox population. When there is a national disaster, for example the war in Lebanon, the IOCC will set up a charitable outreach program with the help of CWS. When there is a disaster like the tsunami, CWS will set up its programs with the help of IOCC. The need to form the IOCC was a result of Orthodox participation in the NCCC and CWS.
The NCCC is the one place where the Orthodox jurisdictions do express their collective unity by the way they participate. They sit together, they meet together, and they pray together. If the day came for administrative unity of all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America, membership in the NCCC would change to reflect that unity. The Orthodox Church would cease to have the influence it has had over the past years. There are those Orthodox Christians who believe we should not be members of the NCCC because it is a Protestant organization which reflects a branch concept of the church. By being members they believe the Orthodox Church appears to support that concept. Administrative disunity suggests that the Orthodox Church is made up of many branches. There has been a movement to form a new council of Christian churches which would include the Roman Catholic Church and other non participating evangelical churches. In order for this new organization to function, the Orthodox jurisdictions in America would have to be administratively united. I believe the founding of this new council of churches has been slowed by Orthodox administrative disunity. With the growing secular and atheistic attacks on Christianity, there is a need for a council of churches who can speak with one voice. What a great tragedy for Christianity in America if it turns out that Orthodox Church disunity is holding this up.
Recently I was listening to a sermon by Fr. Vladimir Borichevsky about Christian unity
on one of his radio programs, Hour of Orthodoxy, which is posted on our website
http://www.stlukeorthodox.com/html/thefaith/borichevsky/houroforthodoxy.cfm. He said that unity must not be imposed by a worldly organization. It must grow out of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Whether this is the Orthodox Unity or general Christian unity, he believes that the closer we come to living our life in Christ, the closer we are to each other. Our goal should be on living the Christian life, and unity will take care of itself. These are certainly noble words, but I believe there is a relationship between living the Christian life and Christian unity. Christ came to form one church, not many churches. It is our responsibility to work in any way we can to reflect the unity of one church.