While the Episcopal Assembly is working toward uniting the various Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, it also has to deal with the issue of the relationship of the various jurisdictions in America, not just to each other, but also with their respective “mother” churches. Any attempt to bring an ecclesiastical/hierchical unity has to deal with the relationship of all jurisdictions and parishes in America to their mother churches overseas. All the parishes will have to decide whether they can relate to each other as parishes in America or whether they can only relate to each other as their mother churches permit; unless, of course, the mother churches agree on jurisdictional unity and order their diaspora parishes to embrace the leadership and vision of a proposed unity.
For the OCA, our relationship to our “mother” church has already been resolved and is not a problem. The Russian Orthodox Church granted autocephaly to the OCA in 1970, and so our bishops have no mother church to which they have to answer and so don’t have this additional layer of complexity to deal with in resolving jurisdictinoal separation (read some answers to questions on autocephaly by Fr. Thomas Hopko).
So, the OCA’s sitting at the Episcopal Assembly table with a lesser status than the other jurisdictions is actually appropriate. We are watching to see how the other jurisdictions are going to deal with their relationships to their mother churches in order to make unity in America possible. In some sense we do sit apart from the rest. The other jurisdictions’ bishops most still represent the interests and positions of their mother churches. We in the OCA have no overseas interest that we represent. The Episcopal Assembly (apparently in the mind of the mother churches who created them) is to help the jurisdictions sort through their own loyalties and dependencies. The OCA’s loyalty is to the Orthodox Christians in America and to the Orthodox mission to be an indigenous church. Unlike the bishops of the other jurisdictions, OCA bishops don’t have to figure out what a “mother church” wants or expects us to accomplish. We are free to work out church unity ourselves because we have autocephaly. That is the gift the Russian Orthodox Church gave to us, and ultimately to all Orthodox in America.
The other jurisdictions have to sort out whether they are diaspora and dependencies of a mother church or whether their focus is to be Orthodox Christians living in North America. They have to whether they are to remain loyal to their old world patriarch or to the wishes of a different old world patriach in their effort (if they are sincere) to attain Orthodox Church unity in America. There is going to be for the other jurisdictions a real issue of choosing between Orthodox unity and loyalty to the plans and will of their mother churches. For the OCA, this decision has already been made back in 1970.
These issues of discerning the will of the mother churches and what they want for their parishes in America simply are not the challenge facing the OCA. We can offer advice to the other jurisdictions and parishes based on our own 40 years of experience, but we cannot resolve the challenges they face based on their loyalties to their mother churches. Our challenge as the Orthodox Church in America is not to discern or enact the wishes and plans of the mother churches but rather to incarnate our loyalty to Jesus Christ and to His Church in America. We are not going back anywhere, we are not diaspora but rather if we have any homeland on earth we live as Christians in North America. We have a Synod in this country and stand ready to help any other jurisdiction to become also the Orthodox Church in America, in whatever form that is to take as an autocephalous church.
We have been struggling really hard with being an autocephalous church including dealing ourselves with our recent scandals, weaknesses, and failures, as well as in dealing with an American mindset and American values. We, like every Orthodox jurisdiction in America, are figuring out relating to the American ideal enshrined in the separation of church and state and in the extreme importance placed on the individual over and against any social institution. But, then, unlike all of the other jurisdictions we do not have to also determine our relationship to an overseas patriarchate or another government or a different culture. This is what autocephaly means for us. This is what the OCA brings to the table of the Episcopal Assembly.