E Pluribus Unum: One Church From Many?

By: George C. Michalopulos

In a recent essay1 for the American Orthodox Institute, I showed that in the Byzantine Church between the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the fall of Constantinople (1451 AD), the title of "metropolitan" was originally reserved for autonomous archbishops presiding over large ecclesiastical districts, especially missionary territories called eparchies. Their exercise of authority included both the administrative duties appropriate to pasturing such large regions and the Orthodox promulgation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that crucial duty defined in the Divine Liturgy as "rightly dividing the Word of [God's] Truth." In this essay, I consider some major internal and external obstacles to American Orthodox ecclesiastical unity, reflect on how a consensus might be achieved, and offer a sketch of how an American Orthodox Church might be structured along traditional lines.

Ecclesiological Obstacles To Unity

During the post-Byzantine era, the improper use of the office of metropolitan has enabled the expansion and consolidation throughout North America of Old-World ecclesiastical authority. This has happened precisely during a time of great growth and flowering of North American Orthodox Christianity, as expressed in increasing numbers of converts across the country, the expansion of institutions such as seminaries, university graduate programs, and independent study programs, and increasing calls for unification into one self-directing North American Church.

Although an already established archdiocese existed in North America, several Old-World patriarchates took it upon themselves to set up their own eparchies, the better able to minister to their dispersed and growing flocks. Though irregular, there was some justification for this considering the upheavals that befell the Russian Orthodox Church because of the Bolshevik revolution. In addition, America was not an “Orthodox” land; there was no Orthodox imperium, but a secular republic, one that was religiously neutral. If hundreds of mainline Protestant denominations could coexist, then why couldn’t several ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions? Thus, for the first time in Orthodox Church history, the new phenomenon of ethnic –and parallel—jurisdictions arose in one land.

Those who believe in the continuing viability of American Orthodox independence find much encouragement in the recent elevation of +Jonah Paffhausen as Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Although the debilitating, scandal-plagued tenures of the previous two OCA Metropolitans had sunk the Church into bitterness and anxiety, the election of newcomer +Jonah was accomplished by an overwhelming majority of the assembled delegates, with immediate confirmation of their choice by the Holy Synod of Bishops. The dark cloud that had hung over the opening of the All-American Council was dispersed rapidly by widespread rejoicing that such a major decision could be reached peacefully and nearly unanimously. The OCA’s renewed sense of hope and purpose is heightened all the more because Metropolitan Jonah and the OCA are under no obligation to subject their vision for the future of their Church to a foreign, perhaps unsympathetic, higher church authority.

The reception by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of fifteen American parishes that formerly belonged to the Patriarch of Jerusalem appears to mitigate the ecclesiastical chaos by reducing the number of old-world jurisdictions in America by one. But because the oldest of the parishes in question was first established during a schism within a parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese, its reception by the GOAA has been seen as a deliberate rebuff to Antioch. As well, the Church of Romania may soon unify its American parishes with those of the Romanian episcopate of the OCA into a new, "maximally autonomous" ethnic jurisdiction headed by yet another American metropolitan. Furthermore, representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch continue to insist that any unified American Orthodox Church would have to submit to the authority of Constantinople.2

Clearly, Orthodox jurisdictional disunity on this continent is more than mere competition between differing "styles" of Orthodox life and worship. It goes beyond the problem that most Orthodox churches in this country were originally built to be not outward-looking missionary enterprises, but inward-looking preservers of cultural and linguistic identities among Orthodox immigrants and their families. It clearly involves questions of motive among the old-world Churches for refusing-even obstructing-unity or rapprochement among the American Orthodox faithful. All this flies against earlier American efforts at achieving unity, such as the establishment of SCOBA (the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in America) and the gathering in 1994 in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, of twenty-nine Orthodox bishops to discuss steps towards unity. It may have been in reaction to the Ligonier gathering that the impoverished Ecumenical Patriarchate moved to consolidate its control over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.

Yet a ray of hope shines through – perhaps even from within? – the midst of this disorder. The misuse of the office of metropolitan illuminates its true value all the more. The restoration and implementation of the ancient role of missionary archbishops could prove a powerful tool for bringing America to the light of Orthodoxy. American metropolitans could simultaneously advance the cause of unification under one central and native authority and confirm the united Church as a truly missionary one. As in the past, each metropolitan could preside over a missionary region, honing the message of Orthodoxy and bringing the American people to understand its timeless relevance. Such an arrangement would be sensitive to each region’s culture and needs and would honor existing Orthodox cultural legacies while maintaining a unified doctrinal vision. It would allow the faithful to move beyond current divisions and confusions into true unity of faith, worship, and witness.

The Endangered Health Of American Christianity

Orthodox Christianity is founded on the Word of God as understood and interpreted through the apostolic witness to Christ, which in turn is the basis of Holy Tradition. Every authentic Orthodox Church builds on this foundation according to the unique characteristics and needs of the culture around it. A true American Church must therefore take into consideration that the United States was established as a Christian nation on Christian principles,3 and that these principles still inform much of American culture, despite their dilution and distortion by competing philosophies such as individualism, atheism, or secular humanism, among others. Effective preaching of the Gospel engages any culture on its own terms. American Orthodox preachers and teachers must take into account the preconceived notions and previous experience with other Christian confessions of many of the people to whom they reach out.

Although American culture is leaning dangerously towards becoming a post-Christian culture, by comparison to Western Europe, America is still rightly called the most religious industrialized nation in the world. Church attendance outstrips anything found in most European countries. But America still presents special challenges to the modern missionary. American Christianity, though robust and mostly free from government intervention, bears only a modicum of resemblance to the Christian praxis of the first millennium (to say nothing of the Church of the catacombs). Liturgical worship and solemnity are mostly non-existent. The preferred worship tends to be exuberant and not demanding of interior reflection and ascesis. Perhaps most troubling of all, the moral consensus that animated Christendom through its first nineteen hundred years lies in ruins. Anarchy reigns in the moral realm. Ironically, abortion laws in the United States are far less restrictive than in most European countries. Many denominations now openly champion immorality as a fundamental Christian virtue, and others seem unable to stand up for more than vague principles of "tolerance" and "inclusiveness."

Perhaps because of this moral weakening among the mainline denominations, confessions4 with a more rigorous moral compass have seen considerable growth in North America as well as in other parts of the world. Despite recent liberalizing tendencies, the Southern Baptist Conference remains the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The Mormon Church is probably the fastest-growing American religion in many parts of Latin America and the Third World. Pentecostal Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia,5 far outstripping Islam in gaining converts. The largest Methodist and Presbyterian congregations are in South Korea; the largest Anglican provinces are in Nigeria and Kenya. All of these growing movements insist on traditional morality and rebuke their older American and European counterparts on that basis. Some, like the Anglican provinces of Africa, have even excommunicated the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA) and threatened schism from the Anglican Communion itself.

Other, more problematic faiths have seen explosive growth as well. The Nation of Islam has been making remarkable headway among African-Americans in the United States since the time of Malcolm X in the 1950s. The more traditional Wahhabi form of Islam is likewise making significant inroads in America as well. Interestingly, both recruit heavily among the black men who constitute about 50 percent of the prison population. Unfortunately, they are also attracting disaffected Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, sometimes turning them into jihadis.

The current religious and moral landscape in American Christianity is thus anything but serene. Traditional Christians who are concerned with modern distortions of the Gospel may see no recourse but to retreat inwardly, as the Amish and Mennonites did in centuries past. This is an understandable impulse and has a long history, as attested by the Christian monastic movement. But as viable a Christian witness as monasticism is, it cannot sustain a culture in and of itself. Unless Christian faith and practice are available and open to all who desire them, then traditional Christianity will lose contact with the modern world and slide slowly downward into moral and social irrelevance.

Orthodoxy’s Unique Promise For America

One might be tempted to laugh at the thought that contemporary American Orthodoxy-mired as it is in obscurantism, nationalism, and xenophobia-could lead the culture around it into Christian dedication and moral clarity. But Orthodoxy may yet be the best candidate among the confessions to do so. The Orthodox Church has never lost its fidelity to the Gospel or the undiluted Christian Tradition as it existed throughout history. While a telling indictment of Orthodoxy in the past five hundred years has been its loss of evangelistic fervor, this is an unfair indictment when set in historical context. It is true that those churches that fell under Ottoman rule were forbidden from evangelizing, but the same cannot be said of the Church of Russia, which undertook a massive missionary program across the vast Siberian expanse that finally alighted on Alaskan shores in 1794.

Seen from the perspective of the Orthodox Church’s long historical memory, American society and culture closely resembles the Hellenistic world in the century before Christ’s birth. Then, as now, many competing faiths flourished. Then, Christianity arose as a rejection of Judaic militarism against the Pax Romana, and as a viable-and universalist-alternative to the Temple cult in Jerusalem.6 Now, Christianity offers an equally promising and necessary alternative to the violent monotheistic religion-Islam-that is wreaking havoc throughout the world. Now, as then, the surrounding culture is mired in neo-paganism and is experiencing demographic collapse. Immorality, abortion, and euthanasia are on the ironic ascendant in the more "civilized" West.

A greater awareness of Orthodoxy seems to permeate the greater Christian atmosphere. Academic symposia involving prominent Orthodox theologians occur regularly, as do productive interfaith dialogues with more serious confessions such as the Lutherans and Catholics. Less productive efforts include continued involvement with confessions which have compromised themselves in both faith and practice, including many that belong to the National Council of Churches. Sadly, Orthodox participation in this body is used by other members to provide cover for their own theological innovations against criticism from their more conservative flocks.7 The time will come when the Orthodox Church will have to stand up for its principles in the broader ecumenical milieu. Continued ecumenical participation under current conditions only dilutes the integrity of the Gospel and darkens the light of Orthodox faith.

North America is crying out for an authentic Christian witness. As we have seen, mainline and eclectic Protestant confessions alike are irrevocably compromised, either morally, theologically, or both. Just as irrevocably, the Catholic Church, despite its roots in the Early Church and its admirable moral witness in the midst of Western decrepitude, is committed to the supreme authority of a single worldwide leader rather than a national leader. Only Orthodoxy, despite its comparatively miniscule numbers, can offer North America what even the Catholic Church cannot, an indigenous confession that is not necessarily beholden to foreign bishops.

Steps Towards Unity

Just as in the first millennium, Orthodoxy seeks to enlighten nations by baptizing their native cultures and preaching in the vernacular. And in order to make such missionary efforts permanent, it consecrates native priests as bishops and eventually makes their churches autonomous.8 How to do so in America? Before anything else, a conceptual consensus must be reached among the hierarchy, clergy, and laity. First, Orthodox Christians in America in no way form an Orthodox "diaspora." Christianity, unlike first-century Judaism, is not tied in any way to a particular land or locale, and those who use this term are theologically in error. Second, most Orthodox Christians in America are not immigrants, and that the use of parishes and jurisdictions alike solely to preserve ethnic identities has now become a hindrance to true Orthodox mission and identity in the New World. Third, American Orthodox Christians must realize that the only reliable method of church financing is the tithe. Fundraisers such as food festivals are ineffective and debilitating and send the wrong message about Orthodoxy to the American people. Fourth, tithing is difficult to accomplish in jurisdictions that are obligated financially to foreign authorities. Only when American Orthodoxy is free from the grip of overseas entanglements will tithing be able to provide funding necessary for Orthodox hospitals, universities, and other cultural and social institutions arise. Finally, only when clergy and laity alike arrive at the understanding that Orthodoxy possesses the fullness of the Christian faith can its undiluted glory shine fully across the land.

Once this consensus is reached, bishops, priests, theologians, and laymen must request an independent unity that is free of foreign constraints. This first phase of unity may proceed on several different fronts. The bishops who make up SCOBA can certainly meet more regularly and request the convocation of an all-American synod. Priests on the local level can meet with their counterparts regularly and receive from their parish councils the resources necessary to consolidate operations. Cities that have bishops can request that the resident bishop serve as the president of the local Orthodox ministerial association. Laypeople must likewise apply their talents and experience to the cause of unity. Lawyers will be needed to help draw up diocesan incorporations. Accountants and financiers will be needed to assemble strong, enduring, transparent financial structures. Medical doctors and bioethicists can be appointed as permanent advisors to and members of episcopal councils, advising bishops about the ethical implications of current and developing medical technologies. The demand must be from the "bottom up" as much as from the "top down." The universal call for unity cannot abate.

The particulars of unity would have to be worked out in anticipation of an all-American convocation on unity, which might run for several months or even years. Once the new dioceses and metropolitan districts are formed, then the existing bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans could decide among themselves who would administer each see, with final decisions open to lay review and approval. The consolidation of the new jurisdictions and the new patriarchal administration could then proceed apace.

The Structure Of Unity

We cannot forget that the canonical model for Orthodoxy is socio-cultural, not colonial. Americans must realize that Canada and Mexico must also have their native churches and their own indigenous metropolitans. In the case of Mexico, the metropolitan of that nation would have to assume responsibility for the entire Central American region and financial assistance from the United States would have to be forthcoming for the immediate future. As for South America, that continent is developed enough that its ethnic churches would have to come to the realization of unity on their own. Having said this, a successful North American experiment may serve as a model and a goad to pursuing jurisdictional unity on their own.

With that in mind, the structure of an autocephalous American church could look like this:

Patriarch

The Archbishop of Washington, D.C. would be the primate of the American Orthodox Church. "Archbishop of Washington" would be his primary title, although to distinguish him as the primary ecclesiarch of North America, he should be granted another title like "Patriarch of the United States and the Western Hemisphere."His diocese would include the states of Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.

Metropolitan Archbishops

The existing metropolitans could be enthroned as archbishops of regional centers like Atlanta (Southeast), Boston (New England), Chicago (Upper Midwest), Dallas (South Central), Denver (Mountain West), Los Angeles (Pacific Coast), Seattle (Pacific Northwest), New York City (Middle Atlantic), Kansas City (Plains) and Pittsburgh (Midwest). Eventually, it might be best to create fifty metropolitan sees, one in every state capital, and comprising its own state synod. Each of these archbishops would be given metropolitan rank and their archdioceses would constitute ecclesiastical provinces or eparchies of the Orthodox Church of the United States. Upon recommendation of the bishops within his eparchy, a metropolitan could reassign, transfer, and discipline clergy. This last duty would include convening ecclesiastical courts of the first resort, or the courts that initiate disciplinary actions against clergymen and monastics (short of revocation of clerical orders and expulsion from monasteries). Extreme sanctions could only be enacted by ecclesiastical courts of the second resort, which would be convened only by the Holy Synod of Bishops.

Bishops

Other major American cities, especially those with a population in excess of 250,000 people or at least five Orthodox parishes, could be given diocesan status, and their bishops granted full canonical authority. Each bishop would ordain priests within his diocese, tonsure monks and nuns, consecrate new parishes, create diocesan institutions, and convene regular episcopal councils made up of laypeople nominated by their pastors and elected by the parish as a whole9 (the episcopal council of the metropolitan eparchy would be known as its metropolitan council). Bishops would serve on the metropolitan synod with the local metropolitan as its president, in addition to serving on the Holy Synod of the United States. These bishops would be known as bishops or archbishops, but not as metropolitans.

Episcopal Elections

The bishops of the dioceses should be nominated and elected by the faithful parishioners residing therein. Metropolitans would be selected from the pool of bishops, priests, or monks residing within the metropolitan districts and subjected to a vote of the people in a special election held within the metropolitan see. No vacancies for any diocese should last for longer than forty days. Diocesan bishops may appoint exarchs and other auxiliaries, who may be bishops. Each diocese and archdiocese would have its own crest, which would include the date of its founding.

Councils

Episcopal and metropolitan councils would be held on alternating years. The Holy Synod, presided over by the Patriarch, would meet annually and would include a Lesser Synod, comprised of bishops, abbots, and abbesses from each ecclesiastical province. Every three years, the All-American Council would meet, comprising both the Holy Synod (including the entire episcopate) and the Patriarchal Council, composed of laypeople, theologians, and clergy with a lay president. The Patriarchal Synod would be responsible for setting the budget for the next triennium.

Lay Leadership

Great care would be taken to choose laymen with sufficient qualifications if they are to serve on parish, episcopal, metropolitan, or patriarchal councils. Only Orthodox Christians in good sacramental standing would be allowed to vote for bishops and metropolitans.

The undertaking I propose above would require enormous, selfless work on the part of all American Orthodox Christians. Even more necessary, however, would be fervent, continuing prayer for God’s blessing on the establishment of an American Orthodox Church; for peaceful, loving agreement with the traditional Patriarchates that such a Church is not only necessary, but potentially a tremendous boon to them; and for a successful planting of the Lord’s Vineyard in this splendid nation which has fed and nurtured Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox alike. We must also invoke the prayers of Orthodox missionaries who suffered the yokes of martyrdom and privation, so that we may endure the suffering this great work will bring, and so that in the end, our sacrifices will bear fruit as theirs did.

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NOTES

  1. "The Role of Metropolitan and Its Relationship within the Episcopate: A Reappraisal." See www.aoiusa.org. See also Sir Stephen Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, pp. 35-36.
  2. Mrs. Elenie Huszagh, former president of the National Council of Churches and a member of the GOAA, recently (2008) told a gathering of priests in California that unification could only come about under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (As related to this author by several priests who were in attendance.)
  3. Though this sounds controversial in light of current and tortuous debates over the First Amendment, any sincere reading of American history from Plymouth Rock to the writings of the Founding Fathers, as well as the statutes of the various states and general piety of the American people, shows this to be true. Nowhere does the anti-religion interpretation, so favored by modern secularists, of Thomas Jefferson’s famous "wall of separation" appear in any of the foundational texts of the American republic. The First Amendment merely prohibits the federal legislature from establishing a national church.
  4. I choose to use this word rather than "denominations" since it is not the scope of this essay to comment on their fidelity to Trinitarian theology.
  5. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 15-38.
  6. Gentiles were allowed to worship in the Temple and to make offerings for sacrifice. It was the rejection of gentile sacrifices in AD 66 by the retrograde head of the Temple guard, Eleazar, which led the high priest to complain to the Roman authorities, thereby setting in motion the tragic events that followed. See Thomas F Madden, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built-and America is Building-A New World (Penguin: USA, 2008), p 272.
  7. In this essay, the words "autonomous" and "autocephalous" are interchangeable.
  8. Per canonical norms, he would have to inform the regional metropolitan of any decisions and/or disciplinary actions he has undertaken.
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George Michalopulos is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He is married to the former Margaret Verges of Houston, Texas, and the father of two boys, Constantine and Michael. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he is the author of The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2003), as well as several articles and essays published on the Orthodox Christian Laity website. He has served as parish council president of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and twice was a lay delegate to the Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 and 2002. He helped found Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Mission, a parish of the OCA in 2003 and continues to be active in pan-Orthodox events in the greater Tulsa area.