The Orthodox Church in America in being given autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church received a gift of freedom – the freedom to bring to life on the North American Continent an indigenous Orthodox Church. Our task is not to make present in North America Russian or Greek or Romanian or Serbian or Arab or Albanian Orthodoxy, though as an immigrant church we have done all of those things. The task given to the OCA in its creation is to find a way to speak to America about the Orthodox Faith and to incarnate Orthodoxy in America as Orthodoxy has uniquely been incarnate in other cultures where it has taken root, such as in Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania, Syria, Lebanon and many other places in Africa, the Mideast, the Balkans and Europe.
The freedom to embody Orthodoxy in America, to make incarnate the Orthodox Church on the North American continent, has proven to be a very challenging task. Having a document which says we are autocephalous is not the same as having bishops and leaders who are prepared for autocephaly or who have embraced that bold vision which is necessary for bringing Orthodoxy to a new culture.
St. Maria Skobtsova, being part of an émigré church (rather than a missionary church), did have some insight into the awesomeness of the task facing Orthodoxy in Western Europe in the 1940’s. Orthodoxy had been displaced to Western Europe by the rise of atheist communism in Russia, and found itself living in the darkness of atheist Fascism which was blitzkrieging across Europe. Mother Maria recognized that Orthodoxy separated from its motherland favored status is given a freedom to be the Body of Christ and not merely a state-church. She saw clearly that freedom places great demands on the membership who can no longer rely on the cultural/state support to maintain the church or its status in society. These struggles also are rife with temptations to avoid the difficulties by trying to live in some golden age past or by trying to recreate and maintain the culture from which one is exiled instead of trying to live the faith in the soil in which one is newly planted. She wrote:
“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given to us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tenderhearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. We cannot stylize everything as some sweet ringing of Moscow bells – religion dies of stylization. We cannot cultivate dead customs – only authentic spiritual fire has weight in religious life. We cannot freeze a living soul with rules and orders – once, in their own time, they were the expression of other living souls, but new souls demand a corresponding expression. We cannot see the Church as a sort of aesthetic perfection and limit ourselves to aesthetic swooning – our God given freedom calls us to activity and struggle. And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish for Christ. It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us … And we will become fools for Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.” (p. 114-115. MOTHER MARIA SKOBTSOVA: ESSENTIAL WRITINGS)
That hand of God which now rests on the OCA is heavy indeed.
In 1 Samuel 5:11, we read about what happened to some people when they received the Ark of the Covenant in their presence. When God lays His hand upon a people, it is sometimes a discomforting thing: “For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there…” Autocephaly like the Ark of the Covenant is a two edged blessing, as the Israelites and the Philistines discovered. In the hands of the wrong people, it is a curse. We are familiar with the adage, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). And though these warnings are dire, and may cause our hearts to tremble, we in the OCA are also given reason to hope and take courage. For the hand of God may at times be heavy, we can humble ourselves beneath that almighty hand and receive the blessing it can bestow:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:6-11).
The question which remains for us to answer is: are we going to take autocephaly seriously or not? It is our behavior which determines whether we receive it as Philistines or as God’s chosen people. The real scandal of the OCA may turn out to be neither financial or sexual but one of faithfulness to what God has given us.