Orthodox Unity in America

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

Recently, an essay was published on the blog of First Things with the title, Are You Greek? Unifying the Orthodox Church in the United States.  Written by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick the essay takes the reader through a bit or American Orthodox history and the question of Orthodox unity here in The United States of America.

I am a priest in an ethnic Orthodox jurisdiction, the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese, however I am not ethnically Romanian.  Like Fr. Andrew I am a convert to Orthodoxy and I chose the church that I call my home because of a connection to the spirituality of Romania that pre dates my conversion by many years.  What I have come to realize is that Orthodoxy here in America is very young, not that we have not been here long because we have, but we are young because in many churches, and as Fr. Andrew points out, many of the bishops are first generation.

I agree with the statement from the essay that “the Orthodox in America are in the process of figuring out just who we are.”  I will quickly add, as did the author, that this is not a doctrinal discussion but rather an administrative one. “For better or for worse (depending on one’s view), the Orthodox aren’t going to be giving up on our dogmatic ecumenical councils or revising our Divine Liturgy.”  We are unified as a church with our doctrine and our Liturgy.  Sure there might some applications of both Liturgy and doctrine that differ amongst the bishops and the clergy but, “Orthodox is Orthodox, no matter what other adjectives it might wear.”

As I see it the problem of Orthodox unity is not one of figuring out how to make it happen but rather it is one of patience.  I, like many Orthodox here in America, greeted the creation of the Assembly of Bishops with mush joy and hope for the future.  For the first time all of the Orthodox bishops in America would come together in a single place to meet and talk about the future of the church.  What helps is that the “mother churches” given the bishops the mandate to do this so in one sense they are forced to do this and that may not be a bad thing.

There are roughly 50 Orthodox bishops in the United States, when the Assembly was first created it included Canada and Mexico but they have recently been separated into their own assembly, and when they met for the first time in 2010 many of them did not know each other.  They spent most of that first meeting, and they only meet face to face once a year, getting to know each other.  I like to think of it as a marriage, we would not expect a man and woman to get married after their first date so we should not expect the very difficult task of joining together different jurisdictions to take place overnight.

The Orthodox Church here in America is much different from the Orthodox church of even a generation ago.  As Fr. Andrew points out we work together on many levels from the international right down to the local.  The churches here in my town work closer together then we ever have before.  Can it get better, sure it can.  The amalgamation of departments of religious education, clergy benefits, insurance, and the like can happy now and should happen now, but patience is what is needed at the moment.

I am not a fisherman but references to fishing are often used in Scripture to explain a point.  One of my favorite fishing sayings is “you have to hold the fish gently or it will flop right out of your hand.”

There are voices from some quarters of Orthodoxy saying that the Assembly is a waste of time and things are moving too slowly.  I recall a discussion at conference a few years before the creation of the assembly where one of the participants argued that this could, and should, be wrapped up in a year it is like the merger of two corporations, well it is not that simple.

In my opinion, and I welcome others to chime in here, part of this comes down to trust.  Let us not forget that it was less than a generation ago that there were shouts of Communist be thrown at some members of our church which led to the separation of ethnic jurisdictions.  My own Romanian Orthodox Church is split into two diocese that have been trying for the last, however many years, to repair a rift that never should have happened in the first place.  Try as we might, with all of the good and righteous intentions, there is still a layer of mistrust bubbling under the surface.  Until we come to grips with our past we will never be able to move into the future.

We have achieved Orthodoxy unity in America.  Our bishops meet and have friendly discussion.  Our parishioners know each other and work together.  The clergy of the various jurisdictions meet and work together on projects.  This is far more than we had even a generation ago.

It has taken the entire history of Orthodoxy in America to get to this point we cannot expect that the future will be changed and mapped out in a single meeting.

Fr. Andrew concludes his essay with these words:

Someone from outside the Orthodox Church may look at all this confusion and declare us hopeless. Certainly, this division makes it harder to see American Orthodox Christians as the local representatives of the second largest Christian communion in the world. Yet Orthodox doctrine, worship and spiritual life are remarkably unified despite all our administrative confusion, disunity and even rivalries—and given a choice between administrative confusion and confusion over doctrine and worship, I’ll take the first any day. Yes, we have an untidy organization, but we know who we are when it comes to what really matters. Orthodox is Orthodox, no matter what other adjectives it might wear.

I could not have said it better myself.

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