On The Need For Unity Of The Faith In North America
By Philip Stamatakos
The Church is the kingdom of Heaven on earth. He who has divided it has sinned. And he who has rejoiced from its division has also sinned.
Many North American Orthodox are proud of their Faith. It is a bedrock of theological and liturgical constancy amidst over 20,000 Protestant denominations. But, we are reminded of the pitfalls of pride when we consider the fragmented state of American Orthodoxy: North America is home to over a dozen Church jurisdictions, nearly all of which are based on ethnicity. These include the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Syrian and Assyrian Archdioceses and churches, and the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia.
The existence of parallel Orthodox churches hinders the Church’s ability to fulfill its mission. It is axiomatic that the administration of multiple ministries and church activities in the same geography, each aimed toward many of the same people, is grossly redundant and inefficient. Each American Orthodox church has its own hierarchs, administration, seminaries, monasteries, missions, clergy pensions, charities, prayer groups, youth ministries, music, schools, athletic leagues, publications, media-relations departments, web sites and other activities, and acts with relative autonomy, often competing for the same limited resources and funding. Coordination between jurisdictions is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps worse yet, certain pastoral practices (including those relating to receiving people from other faiths, receiving clergy from other denominations, burying suicides, cremation, recognition of civil divorce, penance, acceptance of suspended clergy, bans of excommunication from other churches, etc.) differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, thereby encouraging forum-shopping. Finally, in our multi-cultural society where the vast majority of American Orthodox wed spouses outside the Faith, the ethnic orientation of our churches is too often a barrier to attracting non-Orthodox spouses to Orthodoxy and retaining them as parishioners. The number of cradle American Orthodox who are active in the Church in adulthood certainly would be greater if their non-Orthodox spouses did not feel excluded from many American Orthodox communities because of their ethnicity or race.
The organization of American Orthodoxy along Old World ethic grounds is partly a product of the historical development of the Orthodox Church in Europe and Asia. Since the early days of the Church, Orthodoxy was accepted and endorsed by and became the pronounced faith of entire nations. Thus, for centuries, indigenous people of many European and Asian countries recognized a close relationship between the Faith and their national identity or citizenship. Consequently, the lines between Church and state were often blurred; the state supported the Church and vice versa. To use a modern example, the Orthodox Church played a crucial role in the Greek revolution against the Ottomans in the 1820’s and in the establishment of a Greek state, and historically, many Greeks have felt a deep affinity for both their homeland and Church and have not distinguished between them the way Americans do. The relationship between the Greek state and the Church historically has been so intertwined that the Greek flag, the symbol of unity and self-identification among native Greeks, bears an equal-armed Orthodox cross. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, Orthodox immigrants brought their national-religious affiliations with them to the Americas. The history of American immigration is well documented and reflects that, often as a matter of survival, Orthodox immigrants gravitated to communities where their native tongues were spoken, and they established churches where they could communicate in a familiar language. This was a natural and understandable phenomenon and was important to preserving the Faith in immigrant families. But, the establishment of ethnic or national Orthodox churches in America also posed a problem: How and under what authority were they to be administered?
Orthodoxy was introduced to America in 1794 when Russian Orthodox missionaries spread the Word in Alaska and California. The immigration of Orthodox from Europe and Asia to North America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s led to the establishment or Orthodox churches in the U.S. and Canada, but until the 1920’s, the Patriarch of Constantinople neither claimed nor had actual power over the Orthodox diaspora. Then, in 1921, the Patriarch established a Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. The Patriarch did not consult the Russian Orthodox Church about the matter, but it should be remembered that the Russian Church had been substantially weakened and nearly destroyed, by communist persecution. In declaring the new archdiocese, the Patriarch claimed authority from Canon 28 of the Holy Fourth Ecumenical Synod held in Chalcedon in 451.
Canon 28 was promulgated by 150 bishops from across Christendom and empowers the Archbishop of Constantinople to ordain bishops of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as bishops of barbarians (non-Christians) of those dioceses. Those who support an expansive view of the Patriarch’s authority over the diaspora of Orthodox Christians claim the Canon’s reference to “barbarians” means people in all territories outside the geographical limits of autocephalous churches, including those in the Americas. But this interpretation is inconsistent with both the plain language of the Canon itself (which refers to barbarians in Pontus, Asia and Thrace), and the historical understanding of the Canon. Patriarch Alesky of Russia has stated that “Historical facts indicate that until the 1920’s the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority.” It was only in the 1920’s that the Patriarch developed a theory of universal jurisdiction.
The Patriarch’s decision was a watershed event and marked the beginning of sanctioned jurisdictionalism among North American Orthodox based on European and Asian nationalities. The last nearly 90 years of American Orthodoxy has been characterized by the establishment, growth and expansion of ethnic Orthodox churches, and, consequently, two or more Orthodox bishops preside over several North American cities. Church canons prohibit having more than one bishop preside over the same territory, and in 1872, the organization of an Orthodox church based on ethnicity or race (a phenomenon called “ethno-phyletism”) was condemned as a heresy by the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople. Therefore, the current expression of our disunity – multiple ethnic churches in America – is heretical.
As a practical matter, our disunity has gravely inhibits our ability to be effective witnesses for Christ. We live in a world seduced by materialism, sensuality, ego and fame so much as to have almost lost its values. As a culture, we have too often fallen prey to crass commercialism and greed. As a polity, we have legalized the great sin of abortion. And as individuals, we have frequently elevated ourselves above God by disregarding His Will for our lives. Our ability to affect political and social discourse concerning these ills (and even to get others to recognize them as sins) and to draw people to the Faith is hindered by our division. Non-Orthodox may rightfully question the moral authority of our leaders because our own Church family is fractured and its organization is difficult to understand (even most Orthodox). When a Syrian Orthodox archbishop in the U.S. speaks about a moral or religious issue, for example, is he speaking on behalf of all American Orthodox or only those who attend the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America?
We must ask ourselves: Is the state of Orthodoxy (and Christianity) in America consistent with Christ’s Will? Scripture and Holy Tradition provide a clear answer. The Psalmist says "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” (Ps 132:1-3.) Christ established the Church. He did not instruct us to “build a Church.” The Church that Jesus adopted is One Church, because Jesus is One. This is reflected in the most profound profession of our Faith. In the Creed, we announce that we believe in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” How far we in the Americas are from practicing and living this fundamental profession of our Faith. Let us pray for unity and peace and act accordingly because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The Holy Trinity loves each of us equally and does not distinguish between us based on our ethnicity, race or any other outward attribute, but instead looks only into our hearts: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” Col. 3:11.
We must not permit ethnicity to divide us and dissipate our energies. Orthodoxy is God’s radiance in a darkened world. It is from the East, that the Light emerged anew. Let us each strive to take constructive and practical steps to ensure that our Orthodox Faith is the heart upon which Jesus builds his unicity in this world.