Road to Unity: The A-word

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picks up Day Two of OCL’s Road to Unity Conference:

Orthodox bishops in America are now free to use the A-word.

That’s autocephaly — meaning a self-governing church that doesn’t answer to an authority overseas. America is now divided into overlapping ethnic jurisdictions, most of which answer to a church in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Many of those overseas churches had squelched talk of autocephaly for their mission dioceses in places such as the Americas and Australia. But in June they unanimously called for all bishops in each of those regions to assemble and make decisions about their own territories.

“It is a transition that will lead us, as quickly as possible, to our goal of a united, autocephalous American Church,” said Metropolitan Jonah, national leader of the Russian-rooted Orthodox Church in America.

At the conference, the speakers and attendees examined how unity might actually take shape:

Many speakers addressed what American Orthodoxy might look like, urging that it focus on outreach to all Americans. Christopher Shadid, 22, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said that campus Orthodox fellowships are already models of unity where students worship without ethnic distinction.

“The youth want unity,” he said.

Read Orthodox Christians celebrate independence in America on the Web site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


  1. Wesley J. Smith :

    The OCA is not just “Russian rooted.” It is the only American Orthodox Church with autocephaly.

    I believe that it would be easiest to use the existing OCA structure to craft the united American Church. But I doubt that will be acceptable to other jurisdictions. Thus, achieving a broader American Orthodox Church (to use a hypothetical name) will probably require the OCA to cease existence via merger with other jurisdictions. Establishing an “AOC” would be a delicate process, what with the need to choose leadership from among the existing diverse hierarchies, merge finances and governing structures, etc. It would require humility from all parties.

    From what I have seen of + Jonah’s commitment to unity, I believe he would willingly go in that direction, as would, I think the OCA clergy and laity. I would be interested in how members of other jurisdictions would view such a process. From what I have read here and elsewhere, I think most would look upon such a merger favorably, at least in principle, with perhaps the exception of the GOA. But that is pure supposition on my part.

    We do need a unified American Church. Until we have it, our efforts at evangelizing and impacting the culture will be hindered. And that doesn’t serve any legitimate interest, it seems to me.

  2. Michael Bauman :

    A thornier problem is what constitues orthopraxsis? There is an increasing wide divergence on even moral issues such as abortion especially from the GOA. Personally, I don’t see unity happening as long as the Greeks are more interested in being Greek and political significant more than in the Gospel.

    I don’t see unity happening as long as the ecclesiology of cronyism ala Met. Philip has any traction.

    I don’t see unity happening as long as there is a such a wide divergence in praxis as exists between ROCOR, for instance, we Antiochians and even more liberal, the Greeks.

    I don’t see unity happening without the Calendar issue being settled.

    I don’t see unity happening when there is such a wide divergence toward how to receive non-Orthodox in the Church especially in the situation where there have been multiple marriages outside the Church, particularly civil marriages.

    I don’t see unity happening as long as there are a significant number of bishops who are more interested in their status than the Gospel.

    Unity would lead to a weakening of our witness before it strengthened it because the fact of that matter is that we Orthodox do not share a common faith. In true American modern form, we mostly proclaim our own personal faith as the true faith.

    I wonder if we are actually called to obedience to the Holy Tradition, how many would object and leave?

    Just consider some of the objections that are raised here to even modest suggestions that obedience to Holy Tradition is required to be Orthodox.

    Are we to have a high/low Church? Are we going to abandon fundamental truths to accomodate unity?

    I am not optimistic.

  3. As a person who converted into GOA in the mid 1990’s, and who has been a member of the Antiochian jurisdiction, the OCA, back to GOA, and currently the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of USA, here is my opinion:

    1) I think the a unified American Church will not do anything on it’s own in impacting our culture or helping our efforts at evangelization. I would suspect the same deficiencies found in each of the current jurisdictional churches would remain, or even be magnified.

    2) I think the current bishops of the OCA, Antiochian, and GOA are no basis to form a unified church on. For every one that does not appear to be an old world throwback, there are 6,8, or 10 who are.

    3) I would never personally agree on any of the current OCA bishops being a part of any church I was a member of, excepting perhaps Bishop Job and maybe Jonah (maybe). I have little doubt that if it had been the safety of our children (as it was for the RC child pedophile scandal) instead of a few million dollars, the reaction of the OCA bishops and organization would have been the same. As a father of a 10 month old little girl, I could never in good conscious allow such an institution anywhere near her.

    4) I don’t think the mother churches are even remotely interested in an independent American church. To much $influences$ for the Greeks and Slavs, and the only hope for survival for the Syrian/Arabs.

    5) IMO, the best hope for a unified American church is for the Russian church to reassert their canonical basis and pull us back under their bishops as we would be today if it had not been for the Communist interruption.

  4. Christoher, when I read your posting I begin to wonder. Why don’t you start your own jurisdiction? It seems you have gathered enough experience from hopping through all the jurisdictions. You know all their shortcomings and you seem certain that none will or can live up to your standards. In addition, it seems you have the moral high ground covered and can predict the future as well as the correct outcome of any hypothetical situation.
    Why not give it a shot? Nobody else seems do be able to do it right anyway…


    • Medical training (my wife’s) starts at medical school in one city, internship in another, residency in another, and finally work in yet another. We go to the nearest english speaking parish no matter the jurisdiction. The only place we voluntarily left was the OCA after the parish voted to take the gag order from our bishop lying down.

      Instead of getting all twisted inside over folks having opinions, why don’t you try forming one yourself – something with some substance.

      • Funny thing, but we like to say we are one Church and then we criticize those of us who move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as if somehow this was prima facie evidence of some sort of psychological or moral, or spiritual.

        I was ordained to deacon by HE Nicholas of the Johnstown diocese and served there for 3.5 years. I was ordained priest by HE Maximos in the GOA and sent to Redding, CA serving in that and other mission parishes in the Metropolis of SF for 6.5 years. When my wife wanted to go to law school, we moved back to Pittsburgh where I served for 4 years. My wife’s career has taken us first to OH and now to WI and since there weren’t GOA parishes for me, I transferred to the OCA we I’ve been for two years. Here in Madison, WI there is no OCA parish so while I’m still in the OCA, I serve at Antiochian parish. These moves reflected changes in our life–some happy, some not–and have allowed me to see more of the richness of Orthodoxy in America than if I had stayed in one parish, in one jurisdiction.

        If anything I think a big obstacle to until is the unwillingness of many of us–cradle or covert–to step outside of the form of Orthodoxy that we know. Add to this our suspicion and/or unwillingness to behave in a way that suggest we really do think the Church is One.

        Here’s the deal, if the Church is One, really and truly ONE, then jurisdictions don’t matter and we need to stop behaving as if they do. The young man quoted in the article, Chris Shadid, was in my OCF group when I was chaplain in Pittsburgh so I know hiom nad the students quite well. These kids get it–they see themselves as Orthodox Christians and they REJOICE in the different customs and practices that are their heritage as Orthodox Christians in America. We have the great blessing here in America to draw from a diversity of ethnic cultures and customs to live the Gospel. Sadly, we don’t seem to want to do this. Instead we squawk.

        In Christ,


  5. In my opinion we are either going to decide for ourselves or the Patriarchs at the Great and Holy Council will decide for us.

    Will unity be easy no it will not. Will some priest, people, and churches not want unity, yes. We need to stop thinking negative and work towards a positive solution. The conference this past week was very positive and we need to carry that spirit into this entire process.

    Leave the Greeks alone, they are our brothers and if we start treating them that way and stop beating the up then we will be able to do many things together. Orthodox disunity is a sin that needs to be corrected and we all need to sacrifice for it.

    Jonah+ said we need to honor the past but continue to move forward, I believe that is true.

    • I test market positive thinking for a living. 😉 Seriously, platitudes are no basis for serious and realistic look at that which divides us.

      Assuming we decide for ourselves, what do you propose to do with those of us who will not accept the OCA bishops because of basic issues of competence? About a quarter of the parish I was in left over the issue. We did this after serious reflection and prayer. Simply reducing it to “negative thinking” cheapens it – and is frankly more of the same we had in the OCA: paternalistic “now, now, be good little sheep and get in line”. Don’t even go to false talk of “obedience”. We are called to be slaves in Christ, not to men who are not qualified to run a hot dog stand.

      • Geo Michalopulos :

        Christopher, be very careful about casting aspersions at OCA bishops who are “incompetent.” Looking across the broad landscape of the three major jurisdictions, I can honestly say that the Holy Synod of the OCA is far better positioned for the future than the AOCNA (whose bishops have no authority, they’re still “auxiliaries”) or the GOA, whose bishops are likewise auxiliaries and have bought into preserving the status quo as a whole.

        At least the Holy Synod eventually screwed up the courage to end the Syosset kleptocracy. Let’s see how the AOCNA “internal” audit turns out. How much did the GOA have to shell out for the pedophile scandals (which are still ongoing)?

        • They did not “screw up the courage”, they were forced into it like a gaggle of scared little girls being pushed into a haunted house. I mean this in all sincerity, if one of them applied for a position at my company I would refuse for lack of character. Not that they would pass the criminal background check 😉

          Your point about AOCNA & GOA underlines my point: The current bishops of the American church are not a basis to form a united church on. It will simply compound and magnify the existing problems.

          Perhaps in a generation or two. What’s the hurry? (rhetorical question as obviously I don’t feel the same level of angst of many at administrative disunity)

          • George Michalopulos :

            I’ve actually known a couple of OCA bishops, quite well in fact. Some of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. And I take umbrage at your characterization of how they removed the previous metropolitan. It was done with patience and decorum. He was allowed to “retire” with a modicum of dignity. Was it as quickly as I’d like? No. But in the final analysis the shenanigans in Syosset did not impact the dioceses because in an autocephalous church, the dioceses exist on their own merits.

            As to your point of “what’s the rush?” I am in no special hurry. I like the way things are in my OCA diocese. If it’s God’s will that we should unite (and I mean truly unite) then we shall do so. I for one however, do not believe that the Holy Spirit will honor our efforts if the upcoming episcopal assembly is just going to be another SCOBA or a clever way of subjugating the American Church under the EP.

          • It certainly impacted us on a parish and a diocene level. On the parish level, it pitted those of us who could not stomach sending our treasure to Syosset. Much more importantly and deeply it split us when we received the gag order from Dimitri. It caused a real and lasting split among the parish itself. Interestingly most clearly along those with children and those without. The echoes of RC pedophiles and the “sweeping under the rug” of that monumental moral failing.

            I take umbrage with your seemingly minimalizing of the problem and it’s impact, and wanting to put certain men before others. It is characteristic of a culture within the whole OCA (from bishops to laity) that is to borrow a modern term, “dysfunctional”. The minimal standards of behavior are in fact unacceptably low to this day. All testimonies to the character of these men (and I have heard them before) simply do not stand up to the light of reality – their actual behavior.

            I will never yoke myself with these men or the men who support them – not willingly. If (God forbid) some “unity” arises in which the OCA bishops are a part, it will be ROCOR (or even Old Calendarist) for my family, no matter the distance (I don‘t even want to look up the nearest ROCOR parish).

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      Fr Peter, I must respectfully disagree, or at least offer a different perspective. The idea that the hierarchs at the putative Great and Holy Council choosing for us our ecclesial structure is, or should be, anathema. First of all, there is no guarantee that there is going to be a Great and Holy Council. Seriously, don’t hold your breath. Personally, I dread one, and considering that St Justin Popovich spoke against one, I think I stand in good company.

      Second, there are already is a local Church in America. It may not be perfect (it can’t be, I’m in it) but it is what it is. If things are so much better in the Old World, then why is Orthodoxy dying over there? Simply put, who are they to tell us what we’re doing right or wrong?

      Third, the Old World patriarchates have (with the possible exception of Russia) abrogated their moral authority vis-a-vis the American Orthodox. They never once complained about our laxity, theological compromises (membership in the NCC, the abeyance of Confession, silence on abortion, etc.) or liturgical inanities (organs, loss of chant, kitschy iconography, etc.) All they wanted was the money. And now, they’re acting all high and mighty.

      I’m sorry, but nobody is fooled. If they think things are so bad (and I’m talking about Phanar flunkies here who succeeded in ruining my Lenten journey last Spring), then they should pony up the money and send liturgists here to set us straight. This is all about the money, nothing more. The only way that the EP is going to let the GOA go is if and when America descends to third-world status (a la Albania). I figure we got another 50 good years left before that happens.

  6. I’d put my faith in the episcopacy, rather than the bishops.

    I don’t care for a lot of how things were done in the OCA, but the question is how relevant this is today, in view of Met. Jonah and other episcopal turnover.

  7. Christopher, your answers and the following commentary by others, justify what I have said.
    What ever your emotional problem with the OCA and it’s bishops, it is clouding your judgment. It prevents you from realizing, that things can and have changed. A general moral rejection of all the OCA bishops is, well, silly and emotional overwrought. I do not have to reiterate more on that topic which has been discussed here in from very good to “not so good” commentaries.
    Get over your personal problems and look at the whole of the NA church, it would greatly improve your ability to make reasonable suggestions that can be debatet. Emotionalism, and absolute moral condamnations are not very convincing…
    I follow Isa Almisry when he says: “I’d put my faith in the episcopacy, rather than the bishops” and would like to add, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit

  8. The recent OCA incident is just as relavant today because it is indicative of a culture, that is deep habits of thought and action that are very rarely given up due to one negative incident by an individual, let alone by an institution or in this case a communion of people.

    The habitual criminal or alcoholic who is caught one day and realizing the mistake that is not a single incident but rather a serious of choices and habits he made his whole life is rare enough. One of the characteristics of such an individual is his realization that he literally needs to change his whole life and way of thinking and how immensely difficult that will be. People that knew him before are astonished at the honesty and change. He stops associating with the people he knew before and literally changes his whole routine in an effort to ensure the change ‘sticks’. A true repentance is evident to all. Such repentance is even rarer on a ‘institutional’ level.

    The recent past has shown us that the OCA (and I don’t single them out – the Antiochian’ s and GOA appear to have the same deficiencies) has deep culture that is in fact quite foreign – that is to say un-american. We live in a culture that among it’s positives is a tradition, both legal and culturally, of fair and above all TRANSPARENT dealing in with each other – from the smallest cooperation with our neighbor to the largest financial transactions in the business world.

    I worked for an Iranian immigrant who had a successful Persian rug business and software company (inventory/POS system for Persian rug retailers) when I was in college. I learned that this community operates with a completely different set of rules and habits. The “middle eastern bazaar” mentality ruled. Dishonesty, manipulation, and above all lack of transparency was the rule, not the exception.

    When I say that I would not trust the bishops to run a hotdog stand I mean it. Today I run a small medical practice. If I ran my business with the same ethics and cultural habits that are the norm in the jurisdictional churches, not only would I be liable legally but more importantly I would not be able to sleep at night personally – for I would be trying to be someone I am not (that is to say a foreigner).

    I say all this before we even get to an explicit Christian evaluation. I am saying that the current habits of thought and action in the jurisdictions do not rise to an “American” (or perhaps ‘an Anglo-Saxon’) standards, let alone a moral “Christian” standard.

    This fact I think is plain to see to anyone willing to be honest about the situation. To think of the more grievous and public lapses of basic morality as isolated incidences or that habits of thinking and action that span generations can be “solved” by the election of a new bishop (no matter how charismatic) is to miss the crux of the matter entirely IMO. To talk about unity now is really beside the point. It does nothing to address the core issues and I don’t even see how it improves the things most often cited as the reason for moving forward as quickly as possible (witness to the cultural, etc.).

    Finally, to those who think that a unity based on a mash up of the current jurisdictional churches will move us in an “American” direction think about this – it will magnify the current deficiencies by creating a ‘multi-cultural’ conflict. The mash up will be an even less efficient ‘committee’ church artificially trying to force together differing ethnic and cultures and slowing down adoptation to the American reality. The bishops will fall back even further into their non-transparent inner circle dealings and the voice of the laity will be even further drowned out by the ever present conflict between this and that interest group arguing over such irrelavancies such as whether the children should wave just Greek flags when the EP lands, or should we show our American unity by waving Greek and Syrian and Russian flags also. 😉

    We are putting the cart before the horse. The day the EP lands and we see children waving American flags is the when we can seriously start talking about an unified American church.

  9. “Amateur psychologizing is no substitute for reason.”
    Then please, refrain from it…

    • What are you talking about?

      Object behavior and the explicit reasoning/justification by these actors (bishops, laity, etc.) is part of the public record and is fodder for discussion.

  10. George Michalopulos :

    Christopher, Archbishop +Dmitri is the reason I’m still a member of the Orthodox Church. He was the Orthodox evangelist par excellence in the 20th century. And I don’t mean just in the US, but for the entire world. He was evangelizing in the South and Mexico years before Yanaras and the bishop in Kenya (God bless them both).

    We had a gag order as well but it didn’t matter because hardly any money from our parish or our diocese was going to Syosset. I’ll say this til I’m blue in the face: the OCA is the only canonical church in North America because each of its dioceses are immune from oversight by the metropolitan (whoever he is). Because of this canonical structure, we were COMPLETELY IMMUNE from the scandals in Syossett.

    Our monies go directly to the diocese and it’s the diocese which sends a portion to Syosset. (I know the head tax was paid directly from the parishioner to Syosset, but +Dmitri told our parish we could stop doing that about 3 yrs ago. And as we know now, the head tax is being phased out completely in the other dioceses as well.)

    • The fact of the fraud is less important. Scandals come and scandals go and are rather regular and mundane occurrences. The canonical “independence” is also rather unimportant. The amount of money being sent was small.

      The symbol of the continued support however revealed a split in the mind of the parishioners. The fault line was revealed along the lines of those who were either comfortable or simply unaware of the status quo, and those who wanted to send a signal (by withholding) that we expect at least “American”, if not “Christian” standards of behavior by the bishops and the clergy/laity in support positions around them. Instead a letter was sent that basically said “we are praying for you”. Well, of course we are.

      The real split occurred when we received the gag order. Here was a bishop of an un-American mind. Instead of transparency, we were getting an old world style political gag order. Instead of Christian preaching, we were getting a strange “cheap grace” exhortation where we are called to forgive but the necessary repentance is not only not being asked for, but actively and intentionally skipped over.

      The realization of a real and deep habit of mind and praxis hit us hard. We asked out loud if instead of a few million dollars, would the same “sweep it under the rug” mentality that infected the RC way of handling pedophiles was not at work here. Those of us (a majority with children) reflected on this and realized the answer was probably (and tragically) yes. Such paternalism is not merely quaint and ineffective, it is down right dangerous.

      Again, the majority ruled and voted to take the gag order lying down. So the split became permanent and many of us left. Like yourself, many of the parishioners simply refused to see how this culture affects them. Like yourself, they feel a real independence from distant scandals. What you (for whatever reason) don’t want to admit is that this culture does not affect you until it does. It is always something that happens to somebody else, until that is it happens to you.

      I tend to think of this situation in a “minimal standards” way. What is the bare minimum we are going to tolerate? The current crop of OCA bishops, and for that matter the majority of the laity in some regions (based on my experience in a single OCA parish) do not meet what I believe are very reasonable, liberal, and above all Christian standards of behavior. When a critical moment arrived, Dimitri did not merely bumble his way through or fail to realize the problem. No, he actively and expressly campaigned against the good. I have heard such testimony like yours of the man’s life before and his impact on individuals. Good for him! Simply because you are a good preacher or a good evangelist does not make you a good bishop. It does not mean that a collection of such people make a good basis for a church.

      In the context of this conversation on the possibility of a unified administrative Orthodox Church here in the USA, I do not believe that such men and such a culture is a basis for a church of any kind. That is why I am not in the OCA. I will not accept such a people and the culture they are a part of to even be a part of a church I am a member of. It does not meet minimal standards. Now that I have a little girl, it is even more important. As an adult I have the ability to protect myself from dangerous modes of behavior. Children do not.

      To those of you who are of the OCA and have different standards or have made different decisions as to what the scandal means and what it reveals about your OCA culture, I am realize that my perspective is a sore point for you. However, I am unapologetic about my decision as I believe it to be correct and prudent.

      Will it always be this way? Of course not. There are signs of a “counter-culture” within the OCA, something that is American and expects minimal standards from Bishops and church support staff. However, the majority of the Bishops and laity are still very much a part of the old way of thinking and habits of action. Even if Syosset has implemented and adopted modern accounting standards, the culture – those instinctive habits of thought and feeling that are more important than any external system – are still very much in place and will be until either a miraculous group change of mind and heart, or a generational change.

      I will check back in 30 years or so to see what has transpired. In the mean time it is my honest hope, and sincere prayer, that some sort of unity based in part on the OCA does not occur. My family will not be participating in such an entity…

  11. …and the Canadian Archdiocese was and is also financially completely independent from Syossett…

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