The Orthodox Church in America exists as one part of the Orthodox “movement” on the North American continent. I intentionally use the word “movement” rather than “Church” because Orthodoxy has not attained an administrative unity as one Church in North America. One can hardly speak of “THE Orthodox Church” in its North American expression for administratively “the one Church” exists in the fragmented form of jurisdictionalism on our continent. Granted Orthodoxy does share a common faith and so is united in doctrine. Ecclesiologically however Orthodoxy has remained jurisdictionally, thus administratively and so uncanonically, separated.
Some claim that the OCA was born as an effort to establish Orthodox unity in America. Certainly if one reads Fr. Alexander Schmemann writing in 1964 in the ST. VLADIMIR’S SEMINARY QUARTERLY (Vol. 8, No. 2), “Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Canonical Problem,” one has the impression that the canonical problem was clear to all Orthodox, and a solution to the problem was needed if not self evident.
The establishment of the OCA however never solved the problem as the situation remained unchanged for the years to come, even with autocephaly being granted to the OCA by the Moscow Patriarchate. Unity for the Orthodox in America did not follow. The OCA existed as one of several parallel jurisdictions in America, and could fairly be criticized at times for even promoting such an idea as it positioned itself in the crowd of jurisdictions to ensure its place in an ecclesial pecking order.
Now for the Orthodox in America a new, and perhaps more serious, effort is being made to deal with the non-canonical situation of what one could term as the “Orthodoxies” in America or the Orthodox churches in America. The meeting of the Orthodox bishops of the “mother churches” at Chambesy in June, 2009, produced a new forum, the Episcopal Assemblies, to oversee studying the problems of the non-canonical jurisdictionalism among Orthodox living in territories beyond the ancient boundaries of the mother churches. So far, the process appears to be taken seriously by all the canonical Orthodox churches as a more comprehensive and encompassing effort to deal with the administrative problems Orthodox in “new lands” have created for the mother churches.
The OCA’s Metropolitan Council in its March 1-4 meeting heard a report by Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, the OCA’s Director of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations, regarding the Chambesy process which will hold its first North American Episcopal assemblies after Pascha this year.
I would characterize the news he presented as both interesting and hopeful. If the OCA was in fact established with the intention of helping to resolve the canonical problem of the Orthodox churches in America, Chambesy represents a possible means to a solution. In fact the Chambesy process might offer to the Orthodox in America solutions to several issues which the OCA always claimed to be THE issues of Orthodoxy in America. Of course, the solutions are not quite what the founders of the OCA’s autocephaly might have envisioned, for if Chambesy works out, the OCA will be part of the process toward a solution, but not the solution itself. The OCA will be able to bring to the table its own vision for Orthodoxy in America and its unique experience on this continent, but it will be working out a vision in a conciliar fashion with other jurisdictions, rather than continually arguing over power and subordination of one jurisdiction to another.
For some in the OCA this will be a test – for the issue will be, has the OCA been serious about what it claimed were the problems and solutions for Orthodoxy in America, or will it be shown that the OCA leadership was only trying to frame the issues in such a way as to make themselves the invaluable or only possible solution to the problem?
Of course only once the process starts will the pitfalls and problems of this process become apparent. It does represent an opportunity to restate the problems and reframe the solutions rather than creating just another Rugby match in which the various Orthodox try to push each other around.
What unique things might the OCA bring to the Episcopal Assembly table?
I think autocephaly has allowed some members of the OCA to “rethink” what being Orthodox means in America. Fr. Schmemann in his article writes:
“It is not the task or the purpose of Orthodoxy to perpetuate and ‘preserve’ the Russian or the Greek national identity, but the function of Greek and Russian ‘expressions’ of Orthodoxy is to perpetuate the ‘catholic’ values of Orthodoxy which otherwise would be lost.”
For some, autocephaly has meant the opportunity to create an indigenous church in North America – not to make Orthodoxy “American” but to incarnate Orthodoxy in America as it has done in so many other cultures. This in no way negates the need or the goodness of some Orthodox holding to the forms, rituals, rubrics, traditions of the mother churches. It is however a call to fulfill the Great Commission in a particular way:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
This is a call to reach out to the non-Orthodox and go beyond simply implanting old cultures in a new land. It is outreach to new people, not just ministering to immigrants of the Diaspora. Orthodoxy began with people of Jewish culture who held to the universal vision of Jesus Christ to take the Gospel to all nations. They spread the faith to the cultures/nations of the ancient world including the Hellenic and Roman cultures. In turn these faithful spread the faith beyond the Roman Empire to Slavs and the Rus’. These people in their turn brought this same Tradition to North America and handed it over to us.
Christ is with us in this mission always and to the close of the age! We are to make disciples of all nations, not just to bring ethnic traditions to new cultures, but to baptize and teach every nation to follow Christ, including the nations of the New World. We are not just to carve out ethnic enclaves practicing the traditions of “mother” cultures, but we are to engage the culture we live in bringing forward to our nation the Tradition we have received and are to pass on to the next generation. Our task is to incarnate the Tradition in language and images which the peoples of North America can understand. We are to witness to the Gospel, not to our ethnic customs, through our lives as Orthodox Christians. Our mission is to enable the citizens of the North American nations who believe through our witness to themselves incarnate this Gospel thus making them to be members together with all the saints of the Kingdom of God as well.
For other comments on the recent Metropolitan Council meeting see my Conciliarity: The Mind of Christ Expressed Through His Body