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?