Progress towards Unity of the Orthodox in North America
By Lee Kopulos
Short Synopsis of the Recent Past
The only national group working on Orthodox unity is the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL). This group of committed Orthodox was originally founded in the Greek Archdiocese (GOA) where they concerned themselves with matters of Orthodox conciliarity especially the voice of the laity. In 1997, OCL turned its focus to Orthodox unity as its primary mission. When this was pronounced as a major mission by OCL, I personally stepped into the organization in 1999 to help push for this most important goal for all Orthodox in North America. How can a tiny group of 1.2 million splintered into 14 separate canonical Orthodox Churches compete with the vast majority of Christians in the USA? Just as important, why must we Orthodox continue to compete with our brother and sister Orthodox jurisdictionally? Or, when are we Orthodox going to discover the advantage of pulling all our collective resources in manpower, education evangelism and financial resources together so as to fund consistent efforts that get results. Certainly the canons demand it in our ecclesiology.
From 1998-2004 the OCL organized a quarterly set Open Forums on unity in 4 major U.S. cities per year. What we found was very little interest on the part of the laity. The participation was low due to a number of factors. First and foremost the laity did not see unity as their responsibility. Second, most of our laity had enough to do in their churches much less the fight for unity. Third, some preferred to keep their ethnic experience ahead of their faith and could have cared less about ecclesiology! Last, and more importantly, our people view their bishops as the depository of the truth and expect them to organize all of us properly according to Orthodox history. There is an old adage in Orthodoxy, “Where the bishops are there is the Church.” Well, where are our bishops? – This is the big question to this day!
As most of you know, I became President of OCL in 2005 and 2006. My charge was to make OCL exactly that: a body of diverse Orthodox Christians from all major Archdioceses in North America. This was accomplished as we added over 15 new Board and Advisory members. In my tenure, two important national conventions were held. The Antiochian Archdiocese (AOCA) in Detroit and our own OCA in Toronto. Both of the keynote speakers pushed hard for unity in their presentation gaining long standing ovations. Thereafter, we approached Metropolitans, Philip (AOCA) and Herman (OCA), asking them to agree to organize a study group for the purpose of unity. Both Archdioceses have great similarities and the priest all know each other for they go to the same seminaries.
As it turned out, Metr.Philip would not sign the agreement and nothing was accomplished to our chagrin. Close but no cigar!
More Recent Events
It is now 2009 and the OCA has gone through a rough 3 years from 2005- 2008 cleansing itself of a full boat of ethical, moral, organizational and financial problems. Just as important, our OCA just elected a new Metropolitan Jonah in November of 2008. His first major speech on Education Day at St. Vladimir’s Seminary can be highlighted as follows:
¨ The OCA is a mature indigenous church in America with 170 years of growth on this continent;
¨ The OCA is an autocephalous church (self-governing) and has never been under Constantinople or any church of the “Diaspora”;
¨ We are Americans and fully Orthodox;
¨ Our vision is one church in America governed by a Holy Synod of Bishops as we are structured;
¨ We would prefer to merge with our friends of the AOCA as a first step toward all jurisdictions coming together in autocephaly; and
¨ We honor all the different heritages.
In June, 2009 a group of 14 European Orthodox bishops under the direction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople came together in Chambesy, Switzerland to discuss how the so-called Diaspora could be organized “with a view to overcome every possible influence foreign to Orthodox Ecclesiology.” The Chambesy Document, as it is now called, has these organizational features:
¨ A plan to establish an “Episcopal Assembly’ of local bishops in 12 regions where Orthodox are not together;
¨ We are in the Region designated North America and Central America;
¨ The Assembly will meet once per year with a Executive Committee meeting every three months;
¨ All Assembly’s are headed by a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch and only recognizes canonical bishops;
It appears that at the very least this idea of Episcopal Assemblies is a starting point for possible solution and does not duck this important unity question. Europe now has put it out on an agenda. How far this will go is
another matter. Over the years my experience is that “talk is cheap” with regard to American unity.
In November, 2009 the OCL held a conference at Antiochian Village entitled, “The Road to Unity –From Vision to Action. This new Chambesy Document was discussed with a full cadre of bishops, clergy and lay speakers. Metr. Jonah was the keynote speaker suggesting that this new document should be given a chance to spur unity.
Two very important and experienced priests have their opinions of the plan put forth at Chambesy. Fr. Thomas Hopko does not view the Chambesy Document as anything more than another SCOBA organization that we have had in existence since 1960. SCOBA has no authority or financial responsibility within the Orthodox Churches here in America. The Chambesy Document does not either. He strongly urges the American bishops on this continent to come together and act calmly and decisively to establish one church here. At the same time be fully prepared to suffer punitive actions - temporary excommunication – by the church leaders of the old world led by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The OCA would have to die to itself as it now exists but that is okay for this is “for God’s glory and the good of God’s people.” The question is: which bishops are ready to lead the faithful?
Fr. Steven Vlahos, a priest of the GOA and long time advisor to the OCL states, “ If the patriarch is into simplifying the process of American Orthodox unity all he has to do is recognize the already existing autocephaly of the OCA and instruct all jurisdictions to join the OCA. He goes on to say that frankly “Christ is unity and not juridical power struggles for primacy.”
In my in-depth study of Orthodox unity it is obvious that autocephaly (self- government) is taken not given. This is true of almost all of today’s patriarchates and self-governing units. This, of course excludes the five Ancient Patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Only Cypress and Georgia and the OCA were given it historically. All the others who sought self-governing status took it including Greece, Serbia, Russia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Finland and a number of smaller national churches.
In my travels in the USA, I have witnessed great cooperation among the clergy especially. Clergy Associations abound with good cooperation and loving friendships. Thanks be to God that these men have acted as one church irrespective of their archpastoral leaders.