In 1981, the Very Rev. Leonidas C. Contos delivered a lecture titled “2001: The Church in Crisis.” Fr. Contos said the title was chosen because the American Orthodox Church had been in a crisis “for a very long time” and he wanted to fix a reference point for speculations on what the Church’s situation might look like at some future date. That date has come and gone, but Fr. Contos’ reflections are now, just as they were nearly three decades ago, worthy of our consideration. Few have written so honestly and so intelligently about the problems of American Orthodoxy. Fr. Contos questioned the use of the term “diaspora” and said this:
For so long as we are conditioned, in our polity and in our cultural life, by the diaspora complex, however subconsciously, we will be inhibited in the fullest realization of our ‘church-hood.’ More importantly, so long as we are perceived from without as a diaspora—a branch, an offshoot, a transplant, an emigration—by the Mother Church (and, if the truth be told, by the Mother Country), our maturity will never be acknowledged; our uniquely formed destiny in the West, never adequately comprehended; our freedom to shape our future as the Orthodox Church in this hemisphere, never fully realized.
On the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it was Fr. Contos’ opinion that “there is one fate that could be worse than the expulsion of the Patriarchate from Turkish soil. And that is that it should remain there … ”Fr. Contos (1920-1995) was the president of Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology from 1966-1971. Later, he was a professor of Orthodox studies at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif. The late Archbishop Iakovos appointed Fr. Contos to be the official translator of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese where he was responsible for providing new liturgical texts.
At his funeral, the Rev. Spencer Kezios eulogized Fr. Contos as “a scholar, a humorist, an intellectual, a gentleman, an artist, an author, an orator, a musician, a theologian, a husband, a father and a grandfather. He was a gifted man. Lesser men were intimidated by the enormity of his talent. Honest men were inspired by it.”
I am reproducing here two passages from his talk, one of the Patriarch Athenagoras Memorial Lectures, which focus on what Fr. Contos calls the “crisis of canonical integrity” and the resulting identity crisis that has afflicted Orthodox Christians in this country for as long as anyone can remember.
The following text is from “2001: The Church in Crisis” by Rev. Leonidas C. Contos:
If it is incumbent on the Church to recover the mind of the Fathers with respect to tradition and with respect to the theological vocation, it is positively the mandate of history, where history has now brought us, to achieve this in the crucial matter of her canonical integrity. If you will consider this word, which is very carefully employed, you will appreciate that it has little to do with honesty—through surely honesty with yourselves is always very much at issue—but rather it has to do with soundness, wholeness. And it is here that we seem to find the greatest difficulty in coming to terms with the past.
That past is dominated by the fact that on the heels of its worst persecution, the Church suddenly came under the protection and favor of the very state that had so long tried to stamp it out as a pernicious heresy. With imperial aid what had been a minority sect succeeded in suppressing all its powerful rivals. (It had been suggested that otherwise it is not inconceivable that Mithra might today have churches on Broadway.) But the new imperial religion, which Christianity soon became, paid such a price for its victory that historians have described Constantine’s contribution as a ‘fatal gift.’ Certainly, its consequences were momentous, as have been the consequences of the transfer of the capital from Rome to Byzantium.
The main point, however, is not that the union of Church and empire created a lasting confusion of the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s. What was of more far-reaching significance was that the absolute condition for the surrender of the Church’s independence to the empire was acceptance by the empire of the Church’s faith.
That unique and universal ‘theocracy,’ whatever its virtues or its faults—and it possessed many of both—perished in 1453. What did survive, under the Ottoman concept of the religion-nation, was the imperial tradition. Under the Patriarch of Constantinople it took the form of an ecclesiastical ‘imperium,’ so to speak, with its ecclesiological presuppositions thrown into a chaos from which Orthodoxy has yet to emerge and which, it would almost seem, it is loath to acknowledge.
Under the enlightened rule of Mehmet II, it might have been possible for the Church to nourish hope for its future as a kind of state within a state. It would soon be disabused of such fantasies. And if in modern times the temptation has persisted in spite of the witness of history that matters might be different, the night of 6 September, 1955, must surely have chastened even the most unreconstructed optimist. A generation has passed since that unspeakable night; disastrous not merely for what took place, but disastrous for what it implied for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and so for world Orthodoxy. Subsequent events have only confirmed these implications. To ignore them is not only naive in the extreme; it might be seen as a perverse will to thwart the destiny of the Orthodox Church, to perpetuate against the very logic of history the profoundly anomalous canonical situation which is at the heart of the Orthodox ecclesiastical crisis.
And here the term ‘crisis’ assumes a more modern meaning, a more urgent character. For our predicament is such, especially since the preponderance of the Orthodox diaspora has shifted to the West and in particular to America that it cannot long endure the strain caused by the fundamental contradiction between the Church’s canonical order and her life. It is deeply saddening to think that we shall go on ignoring, even defending as normal and desirable an historical and ecclesiological anomaly that has become obvious and a scandal even to our Western brothers in the ecumenical encounter; that we shall likely enter the third Christian millennium in the same disarray that has grown progressively more debilitating in the last half millennium; that we shall carry into it the dreary baggage of ‘ethnophyletism’ which has so encumbered us for so long, a ‘racism’ that the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself forcefully condemned as the very evil which prompted Paul to demand of the Corinthian Church, “Is Christ divided?”
For though the pace has quickened somewhat in recent times, the response to our difficulties must seem little better than “one inch every hundred years.” Unhappily, the centrifugal forces within Orthodoxy move very rapidly, indeed. The correctives that must be devised and applied cannot much longer be allowed to lag so far behind the events. Yet even as its agenda has been reduced and its expectations diminished, the time of the “Great and Holy Council” of the Church continues to slip away into some still indeterminate future. One cannot suppose that the parlous state of the Patriarchate is not a primary cause of the paralysis of will from which the whole Church suffers.
I am not unfamiliar with the reasoning—if reasoning is the right term for what is essentially an emotional argument—against removal of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I recall spending a very long evening, nearly twenty years ago, discussing this anguished issue with a highly respected and articulate member of the Holy Synod; not within the melancholy shadows of the ramshackle compound, but in the soft elegance of the Istanbul-Hilton dining room over a fine meal. One could hardly have missed the symbolic irony. I left, and have remained, unconvinced. The mythology of Constantinople is poignant and appealing and altogether understandable. But the political reality is harsh and unyielding. It is ultimately to that reality that the response must be made.
There is one fate that could be worse than the expulsion of the Patriarchate from Turkish soil. And that is that it should remain there, hostage in that pitiful huddle of crumbling buildings, its freedom to function slowly and inexorably choked off, its waning strength sapped even further, its influence diminished and increasingly ignored, its institutions shut down, the Greek remnant totally dispersed and, worse by far, the possibility of recovering and restoring its true spiritual primacy possibly lost forever.
It will be protested that to leave those hallowed precincts would be not only the betrayal of a sacred trust but an unacceptable breach of historical continuity. That the trust is a sacred one cannot be disputed. How best and most faithfully to honor that trust is arguable. As for historical continuity, it seems to me it can only be preserved if the prime see of Orthodoxy can secure its liberty to act in contemporary history with that vigor, to speak with that authority, to serve with that instinct for mission that once underlay its true glory. To suppose that this is possible, or ever will be, in the Turkey we know and have known for more than five hundred years, does violence to logic.
Moreover, the unchanged role of the Patriarchate as the focus of the Church’s oneness and consensus need not imply that its locus also remain unchanged. It is her essential being that must not be mutilated or violated. Can it be argued that it is now possible, or is likely ever to be, for the ‘imperial’ Church—the symbol and center of the one universal Christian empire—to authenticate that ecclesiological model? Both the Byzantine Empire, for all its genuine glory, and the Ottoman Empire, for all its early enlightenment, are dead and gone. The coming age, and it is upon us, requires of us an act of immense courage: to make of the Ecumenical patriarchate an international, and supra-national, center capable of affirming unambiguously the canonical unity and order of world Orthodoxy, of assuming once again that spiritual and moral leadership which through the centuries marked it as an instrument of the Holy Spirit.
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I wonder if the term ‘diaspora’ is any longer descriptive of our situation. Even for the Jews of he Hellenistic period it seemed inappropriate—in Alexandria alone, by New Testament times, there were no fewer than a million. And while hey kept in touch with the ‘homeland,’ paying the Temple taxes and keeping the religious laws and traditions, Greek culture thoroughly penetrated their thought. The analogy is fairly obvious and, it seems to me generally valid.
Our numbers, relative to the strength of the Mother Church, are so great, our life so ordered, our organization so articulated, our identity so well-defined, our aims so coherent, above all our roots so deeply thrust in this congenial soil, that to regard ourselves as a ‘dispersion’ in any literal sense of the term, at least, tends to very subtle ways to distort our sense of self. Even the recent new wave of immigrations, large and disruptive as it has been in some, especially urban, communities, I think validates rather than disproves this thesis. Their assimilation into mainstream of the Church’s life is simply a matter of time and adjustment.
The point is not idly raised. For so long as we are conditioned, in our polity and in our cultural life, by the diaspora complex, however subconsciously, we will be inhibited in the fullest realization of our ‘church-hood.’ More importantly, so long as we are perceived from without as a diaspora—a branch, an offshoot, a transplant, an emigration—by the Mother Church (and, if the truth be told, by the Mother Country), our maturity will never be acknowledged; our uniquely formed destiny in the West, never adequately comprehended; our freedom to shape our future as the Orthodox Church in this hemisphere, never fully realized.
At the risk of belaboring the painful issue, rather fully dealt with in the previous lecture, and perhaps of oversimplifying it too much, the canonical aberration that now plagues Orthodoxy in America could have been foreseen (it was foreseen, to be sure, and the Patriarchate amply forewarned) and might have been forestalled. That it was not dealt with prudently and in time, in spite of the please and cautions that had long signaled its inevitability, can be attributed in large part to this basic misapprehension of us as still a diaspora.
This is not to say that our ties with the Mother Church are not intimate and binding or that our loyalty and devotion ought to be less than absolute; rather it is to affirm the simple and objective fact: that we are not a mere extension of it, only contingently existing apart from it, dependent upon it for identity and life. Our dependency, if the term can be made to serve, is a spiritual one, deep and abiding since we draw from it as from a wellspring of the vivifying tradition. We are not unlike the eldest son who has established himself successfully in the new world and now faithfully provides the main support of the household of his childhood out of love and deep respect.
I would suggest that the analogy of the Jewish dispersion is instructive in another respect. Through its exclusiveness, and under the firm domination of the Palestinian rabbinate, it isolated itself more and more from its Gentile environment and developed into the Talmudic Judaism that subsisted through the Middle Ages and into modern times. This is not to suggest for a moment that we ‘assimilate or ossify.’ It is to suggest what is well-known and what, with one lobe of our mind, we readily admit, indeed sometimes loudly and proudly proclaim: and that is that we are integral to this culture, have to some extent helped shape it, and that our faithful have long since ceased seeing themselves as aliens in it and alien to it.
It is the other lobe of our split mind that has not yet fully assimilated the reality. To return to the metaphor of the distant family home, long since left behind but certainly not forgotten, my this not be in part because of our spiritual and or ethnic parents, out of their own insecurity, keep dinning it into our consciousness that we must ever remain the obedient child? And if there is some truth in this, does it not explain the curious guilt complex from which we still suffer?
In setting out the mandate for the 24th Biennial Congress in Detroit in 1978, Archbishop lakovos seemed rather pointedly to be wanting to disabuse the Church in America of this outdated notion. Unintentionally, perhaps, he was also conceding the other and more fitting meaning of the term ‘diaspora’ when he said that our coming here, under the guidance of God’s Spirit, was to “sow the seeds of a heritage that would gradually enrich the concept and the values of life…The mission assigned to us…is to humbly labor together with all American believers… It becomes incumbent upon all the Orthodox in this country, therefore, to rise above phyletism and self-righteousness, and discern the signs of our times…”
“We certainly can preserve our particular language and liturgical traditions, even our dependency upon Mother Churches, without losing sight of the mission of Orthodoxy, or the fact that this mission can be fulfilled when we decide to act in unison with one, obedient and enlightened mind.” Later on, in the same spirit and tone, the Archbishop made two further observations that deserve to be underscored here: “Orthodoxy in America must study and understand itself.” Then, “This, in essence, is the principal task of our Orthodox Church in the Americas: to rid itself of all self-righteousness, of all prejudices and become free of all situational and denominational complexes…to recapture its own image as an ecumenical church…”
Surely these observations come close to defining the nature of the crisis of identity as anything can. But there is something vaguely doleful in the Archbishop’s tone. The words have less of the clarion ring of a call to an ideal whose time is now and must vigorously be pursued, than they do of a rueful confession that the moment when that ideal might have been seized has passed us by; it seems to echo “we have left undone the things we ought to have done.”
But confessing our failings is but one stage in the saving process of repentance. It remains empty of all meaning until it forces that change, that total conversion of heart and mind which the verb ‘metanoo’ implies. And even then the redemptive grace eludes us until we are ready to “bear fruit that befits repentance.” Our situation is more lamentable for the fact that the seeds of those fruits of which the Archbishop speaks were sown in the ready soil a very long time ago.
I was still a young seminarian, impressionable and idealistic, when an event took place which then appeared truly momentous but which has since faded into that oblivion to which we consign or failed visions. I was present at the State Capitol of New York when Governor Thomas Dewey signed the legislation that had the effect of so amending the Religious Corporations Law as to grant Orthodoxy the same status that of the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths. Yesterday, in fact, was the anniversary of that signing, the thirty-eighth! Thus, nearly four decades after the heady proclamation of a “bright future for Orthodoxy in America,” we find ourselves confronting a future that is clouded and uncertain. It is the more tragic in that while the times demanded the best that is in us, we have tended to respond with the worst that is in us: the old antagonisms, the historic mutual suspicions bred by the age-old ethnic ambitions, the sad divisions of heart and mind that rend the seamless garment of Christ.
There followed, under Archbishop Michael, a concerted, almost feverish effort to persuade state legislatures to enact similar resolutions declaring Orthodoxy to be a ‘major faith.’ I did not then, nor do I now, feel that there was anything but the most superficial significance in this triumphalistic ritual undertaking. I believe a total of twenty-six states adopted such resolutions. It seems pertinent to ask whether it made the slightest difference twenty years ago, or whether it does now. Our majority as a faith, like that of any person or agency or institution or movement, is related absolutely to our inner maturity. Looking inwardly at ourselves, we are what we are and do, and can be nothing more nor less. Looked at from without, we are what we contribute, what we add to the enrichment of our social and cultural environment, precisely as the Archbishop said. Our crisis of identity, in short, will only be resolved when we come to know ourselves fully and then, confronting ourselves in absolute honesty, gratefully acknowledge our strengths, faithfully seek to heal our infirmities and make good our failings, and respond in humility and singleness of mind to the best of our understanding to the tasks that God in history has called us to.
The identity crisis has from the first contained within the crisis of canonical integrity, of which nearly enough has already been said. But to put it, perhaps more accurately: the crisis of canonical order has thus far perpetuated, indeed exacerbated, our identity problem.