Autocephaly, the OCA, and the Episcopal Assembly

1st Episcopal Assembly

The new effort to bring about Orthodox ecclesial (hierarchical) unity through the Ecumenical Patriarch’s plan of regional Episcopal Assemblies, has presented a challenge to the Orthodox Church in America.  The OCA  (even if only in its own “self mythology”)  saw the autocephaly created by the Russian Church as a means to eventual Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America.  That dream has yet to  materialize and so some see the autocephaly as a dead issue.

I think this may be a premature obituary for the autocephaly. 

For what I think should become clear to all Orthodox in America is that autocephaly was given not just to the OCA, but to all of us – all Orthodox Christians living in North America:  converts, Russians, Canadians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Antiochians, Bulgarians, Americans, Albanians, etc.  Autocephaly is part of the mix of Orthodoxy in America which should be used to the glory of God.    It is the gift from God that the OCA received and thus has the responsibility to bring to the North American Episcopal Assembly because autocephaly is part of the Tradition of Orthodoxy in America.  

The re-visioning that has to be done (a paradigm shift if you want) is one very similar to what I think Christ called the Jews to consider about themselves.  The Jews believed they were given Torah to make them the chosen people, elect by God and separated from all the nations of the world.  They came to see their mission as maintaining their separateness as proof of their election.  Jesus revealed a new vision for Israel – actually an ancient one:  Israel was to be a light to the world, not separated from it to judge it, but a light to attract all people to God. 

The OCA often acted as if autocephaly was given to it, and it alone.  What is being revealed, I think, is that though the OCA received autocephaly, it didn’t receive this gift to separate itself from all the other Orthodox jurisdictions.  Instead it received the gift of autocephaly, like the Jews received the oracles of God, on behalf of all Orthodox jurisdictions, missions and people in America.

The OCA may not have done much with the autocephaly, but that doesn’t mean it is invaluable.   For what the OCA did was to preserve this gift from God and now it realizes its calling by faithfully bringing autocephaly to the table at which all Orthodox bishops in America sit in assembly. 

Autocephaly is part of the mix that God has given us to establish His Church in America.  The OCA must faithfully bring the autocephaly to the Episcopal Assembly table and never allow others to dismiss it for it is part of the God guided history of the Orthodox Church.  Autocephaly is to be used by the Church in America  (currently we have to admit “churches” since the Orthodox do accept jurisdictional divisions) to help it grow and be the Church, not the Russian Church in America, or the Greek Church in America, but to be THE Church in America, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Holy Trinity.   Autocephaly may have been originally gifted to the OCA, but it is for all Orthodox Christians who reside in North America.  All Orthodox, in whatever jurisdiction they find themselves, should realize the gift as part of our history in America, and come to value it as much as they value their own current jurisdictional attributes.

The oracles of God were given to the Jews long before they could understand their importance.  When the Christ came, the Jews did not recognize Him, despite their having the Torah and the prophecies which pointed to the Christ and whose meaning was revealed in Christ.  The oracles were nevertheless essential for salvation.   Thanks be to God the Jews didn’t discard the words given to them because they made no sense or because they didn’t think they were being fulfilled or because they were suffering in the desert or in exile.   Neither should we Orthodox discard the autocephaly given to all Orthodox in America.   However little we understand it, however little we imagine it being a key gift to the Church as a whole, we like the Jews must preserve it until we see its treasure revealed to us.  It is a birthright granted to Orthodoxy in America by the grace of God.

See also my blog  Mother Churches?

Orthodoxy in Relationship to the World

This is the 16th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Liturgical Worship.

Christianity has never existed as the only religion around.  The very birth of the Christian religion put it in relationship both to the Judaism of Palestine and to the Greco-Roman paganism of the Roman Empire.   Christianity’s early experience was that of an unwanted religion which suffered rejection, hostility and persecution.   Christianity labored without the protection of any army or king to advance its cause for the first three hundred plus years of its existence.

            All of that changed in the 4th Century CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine granted toleration to the Christian religion and then championed Christianity as a means to unifying his empire.   The experience of being an oppressed minority did not however lead the Christians to being empathetic with or sympathetic to other religious minorities once the Christians came to power in the 4th Century CE.   Christianity and Orthodox Christianity have had a hostile relationship to Judaism throughout the Christian period.    By modern Western standards, Orthodox liturgical texts, which are quite ancient, are also sometimes anti-Semitic as well as expressing condemnation of heretics and Judas.   In some ways this is strange since Judaism never posed any threat to established Christianity in the Roman Empire or in the modern world.   In another sense, Orthodox hymns took on a very “nationalistic” tone, mirroring the values of the empires in which Orthodoxy ruled.

            Christianity did aggressively work to convert pagans and Greek philosophers to the Faith.   Some of the best early Christian writings are efforts to offer an apology for Christianity to intellectual pagans and philosophers.   This led to and was aided by the Christian embrace of the Greek language and often of Hellenistic concepts and terminology.   Christianity came to see itself as theologically superior to all other forms of religion and philosophy.   The Byzantine Orthodox Empire was a hotbed of religious controversy and debate leading the Orthodox world to produce a sophisticated theology, and to be in constant dialogue with the ideas, religions and nations of the world.

 Beginning in the 7th Century CE, with the rise of Islam, the Orthodox Byzantine Empire found itself facing a new religious and political challenge.  Orthodoxy closely aligning itself with the Byzantine Empire faced in Islam a religious giant which also had its own army and its own political designs on the world.    At first the Orthodox assumed Islam was a revival of one of the old Christian heresies which did not recognize the divinity of Christ.   But as time wore on and the Islamic armies seemed unstoppable in their successes against the Byzantines, the Orthodox developed a more realistic assessment of this new religion.  However, they also suffered in their ability to deal with Islam, because their own mythology made them assume they were the God chosen and God protected empire.   They struggled mightily with a way to understand the success of Islam, and concluded that it was their own sinfulness which had brought the Islamic scourge to their doorsteps.   This thinking often resulted in the Orthodox attempting to become ever more faithful to their own tradition, which was an increased spiral of conservatism and traditionalism (looking to the past for answers) which has been a hallmark of Orthodoxy to this day.    Once the Orthodox found themselves under Islamic domination, they became increasingly ossified in their thinking and ways of doing things in an effort to preserve their customs and traditions in a now totally hostile world.  This in turn led to increased nationalism among the Orthodox peoples, who had always enjoyed a certain degree of localness in their practice and customs.   But the nationalism caused even further divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and among the different ethnic Orthodox churches.    Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy did not have a church structure with one head of the entire church.   The various patriarchates of ancient Byzantium led to the various nationalistic churches of the modern Orthodox world.

Next:  Orthodoxy in Relationship to Christianity Worldwide