In August 1984, Fr John Meyendorff, published an essay about Orthodoxy in America which captured his enthusiasm and hopefulness for establishing and growing an autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. Meyendorff was a world renowned and respected Church historian and one of the great minds guiding the newly established autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. In many ways the Orthodox in America have not been able to overcome the obstacles to church unity in this country which were present back then among Orthodox jurisdictions. And while Meyendorff warned against both fundamentalism and liberalism (the two poles of the American Protestant Church), Orthodoxy has not escaped this trap either. Rising religious fundamentalism throughout the world has happened both in Orthodoxy and in American Christianity. Meyendorff hoped Orthodoxy in America would rise above the mounds of baggage which enwrapped Orthodoxy in the Old World and that it might show the vitality of Orthodoxy in the New World. He also hoped Orthodoxy in America would show itself as a third way neither liberal nor fundamentalist thus avoiding the American pitfalls of Christianity. Orthodoxy in America is currently bogged down in all of the problems which plague it in the Old World and caught up in all the polar divisions which tear apart Protestant Christianity in America. It remains to be seen what will survive or emerge. Below are Meyendorff’s thoughts in one of his opinion pieces which he penned almost 40 years ago.
Although we are fast approaching the Bicentennial of Orthodoxy in America, we are still a young Church, and the country in which we are called to serve Christ is a young country. We are, therefore, full of hopes and possibilities, the reality of which is demonstrated by the dynamism of the American society, but also by the evidence of a slow, but steady progress of Orthodoxy. However, all true civilizations have discovered that the energy of youth should not be immediately directed to action, but should first given the opportunity to learn at the school of experience of others, in order to benefit if future responsible service from the wisdom of the past. In the Orthodox Church this rather obvious truth is not simply matter of common sense. It has absolute, theological dimension, because we believe that there is no church without Tradition. The Orthodox faith is not a sect improvised by an enthusiastic preacher in the American Bible-belt; it is catholic faith of the Apostles, the Fathers, the councils, the saints of all ages, and there is no way in which one can live it, or preach it, before learning first and becoming rooted in Holy Tradition.
This requires responsible effort and patience. To bypass this responsible process, by simplified “super-Orthodox” heresy-hunting, by growing of beard and hair, or the formal preservation of the nineteenth-century liturgical minutiae would be a caricature of traditionalism. Indeed – as anyone cognizant of the early Church, or of St Basil the Great, or of Photius of Constantinople, or of Orthodox historical and theological literature of the last two centuries knows – one cannot preserve Holy Tradition by freezing it in forms and formulae of one particular historical moment. If one does that, one cuts oneself from the past, as well as from the living responsibility of the present: the Russian Old Believers are a tragic example of this. Holy Tradition implies uncompromising and total faithfulness to the apostolic preaching, unchanging, but also living and saving. It alone teaches how to avoid the pitfalls – so typical of Protestantism – of fundamentalism and liberalism. It alone allows us to separate not only Truth from falsehood, but also the essential from the secondary. Maintained by the succession of bishops, it also requires knowledge and discernment by all. In our youthful enthusiasm to build the Church in this country, let us build the Church catholic – which is two thousand years old – and fight the dangers of ignorant amnesia. (Witness to the World, pp 192-193)