ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA: SUCCESS AND FAILURE
Once every year, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Orthodox people in North America emerge from their ethnic islands to celebrate the triumph of the Orthodox Faith over the iconoclastic heresy. This victory happened in the year 787 A.D., one thousand, one hundred ninety-seven years ago. The icons were restored to the Church after much suffering, much bloodshed and much sacrifice. We are indeed grateful to the Church of the Eighth Century, for her courage to stand against emperors and governments in order to defend the faith, “which once and for all was delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3). Heroes such as John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite, Patriarch Germanos and Patriarch Nicephorus will live in the memory of the Church forever.
It is not my intention today, to elaborate on the historical circumstances which led to the iconoclastic controversy, nor will I attempt to present a new theology in defense of the holy icons. I doubt if anyone can add much to the brilliant thoughts of St. John of Damascus on this subject. I am not trying, by any means, to minimize the historical events which led to this Orthodox victory in 787 A.D. I am proud of our history; for those who have no past, have no present and will have no future. There is a difference, however, between contemplating history and worshipping history.
During the first one thousand years of her existence, the Church was courageous enough to respond to the challenges of her time. Many local councils were called and seven ecumenical councils were convened to deal with important issues which the Church had to face. The question now is: What happened to that dynamism which characterized the life of the Church between Pentecost and the Tenth century? Did God stop speaking to the Church? Did the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church cease after the Tenth century? Why are we always celebrating the remote past? Have we been lost in our long, long history? I wish we could gather to celebrate an event which happened five hundred years ago or two hundred years ago or perhaps, something which happened last year.
In the Gospel of St. John, our Lord said: “My father is working still and I am working, (John 5:17). Thus, we cannot blame God or the Holy Spirit for our inaction. History, from a Christian perspective, is a dynamic process because it is the arena of God’s action in the past as well as in the present. But, if we do not fully, creatively and faithfully respond to the divine challenge, no change can be effected in our Church, values and human situation. Our forefathers, motivated by the power of the Holy Spirit, have fought valiantly and triumphantly against iconoclasm and all kinds of heresies; but the triumphalism of the past will not save us from the sterility of the present and the uncertainty of the future.
It is indeed astonishing that we have not had an Ecumenical Council since 787 A.D. despite the many changes which the Church has encountered during the past one thousand, one hundred ninety-seven years. I shall mention but a few of these global events which affected the life of the Church directly or indirectly since the last Ecumenical Council:
The 1054 Schism between East and West.
The fall of Constantinople.
The European Renaissance with all its implications.
The Protestant Reformation.
The Discovery of the New World.
The French Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution.
The Communist Revolution and its impact on the Orthodox Church.
The First and Second World Wars.
The Dawning of the Nuclear Age.
The exploration of space and all the scientific and technological discoveries which baffle the mind.
Despite all these significant events which have deeply touched our lives, we Orthodox are still debating whether or not we should convene the Eighth Ecumenical Council. A few days ago, I was glancing through the 1932 Arabic issue of THE WORD magazine and came across the following news item, entitled:
“Pan Orthodox Consultations for an Ecumenical Council Were Postponed.” The news item continues: “The Orthodox world was expecting that the representatives of the Orthodox Churches would meet on Mount Athos during the Pentecost Season in June of this year for serious preparation for the Great Ecumenical Council. There was great concern as to what the Pan Orthodox consultations would decide regarding important and urgent issues facing the Church. What a disappointment to have learned that the meeting was postponed to the forthcoming year.” That meeting never took place, and I doubt if an Ecumenical Council will be convened in the foreseeable future.
You might ask, what is the reason behind this Orthodox stagnation? Did our history freeze after 787 A.D.? There is no doubt that the rise of Islam, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, and the fall of Czarist Russia have contributed much to our past and present stagnation. The sad condition of our Mother Churches across the ocean is indicative of this reality. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is living under the heel of a Zionist state. The Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Egypt is still living under house arrest. And, what can I say about Antioch? If I may paraphrase the biblical words, I would say the following:
“A voice was heard in Lebanon, wailing and lamentation — Antioch weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they were no more,” (Matt. 2:18). The Church of Cyprus is suffering the consequences of a badly and sadly divided island. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is slowly, but surely dying from Turkish oppression. Furthermore, the Patriarchate of Moscow and those of Eastern Europe continue to suffer under the yoke of communism. Have we then lost all hope for an Orthodox renaissance? Is there not a place on this planet where we can dream of a better Orthodox future? I believe that there is a place, and this place is the North American continent. We have a tremendous opportunity in this land to dream dreams and see visions; only if we can put our house in order. Where in the whole world today, can you find seven million free Orthodox except in North America? We are no longer a church of immigrants; the first Orthodox liturgy was celebrated in this country before the American Revolution. Many of our Orthodox young people have died on the battlefields of various wars, defending American ideals and principles. We have contributed much to the success of this country in the fields of medicine, science, technology, government, education, art, entertainment and business. We consider ourselves Americans and we are proud of it, except when we go to church, we suddenly become Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Albanians and so forth. Despite our rootedness in the American soil, our Church in North America is still divided into more than fourteen jurisdictions, contrary to our Orthodox ecclesiology and Canon Law which forbid the multiplicity of jurisdictions in the same territory.
Individually, Orthodox jurisdictions have done much for themselves. We have some of the finest theological institutions in the world. We have excellent religious publications. Many volumes have been written in English on Orthodox theology. We have some of the best Christian Education programs. Our clergy are highly educated and deeply committed to the Orthodox Faith. We have built multi-million dollar churches and cathedrals and our laity are well organized and have contributed generously to the financial and spiritual well being of our parishes. Collectively, however, we have not been able to rise above our ethnicity and work together with one mind and one accord for the glory of Orthodoxy. Our efforts continue to be scattered in different directions. Why should we have fifteen departments for Christian Education, Media Relations, Sacred Music, Youth Ministry, Clergy pensions and so forth? Where is our spiritual and moral impact on the life of this nation? Where is our voice in the media? Why is it that every time there is a moral issue to be discussed, a Protestant, a Roman Catholic and a Jew are invited for such discussions? How can we explain our Orthodox absence despite the authenticity of our theology and moral teachings? The answer to these disturbing questions is simple; it is ethnicism. Unfortunately, we have permitted ourselves to become victims of our ethnic mentalities. We cannot be agents of change in full obedience to the truth unless we transcend ethnicism and establish a new Orthodox reality in North America. I am not asking you to deny your own history and your own culture. What I am asking is to blend your old and new cultures into some kind of an integrated reality. I am not against ethnicism, if ethnicism means a return to the spirit of the desert fathers, the Syrian fathers, the Greek fathers and the Slavic fathers. But if ethnicism means a narrow, fanatic, Ghetto mentality which separates us from each other, then I am definitely against such ethnicism. The mission of the Church is not to be subservient to any kind of nationalism. The mission of the Church is the salvation of souls — all souls. In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul said: “There is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal. 3:28).
Brothers and Sisters in Orthodoxy,
I have shared with you some of my reflections on our past and present, success and failure. I would like to share with you, now, some daring visions about the future. My first vision concerns the role of our Orthodox laity in this relentless quest for Orthodox unity. After eighteen years in the Episcopate, I have become convinced that Orthodox unity in North America must begin on the grass roots level. You, the laity, are the conscience of the Church and the defenders of the Faith. Consequently, I would like to see a strong Pan-Orthodox lay movement, totally dedicated to the cause of Orthodox unity. Without the laity, our churches would be empty and our liturgical and sacramental services would be in vain. The clergy and laity, working together, are the “LAOS TOU THEOU,” the people of God, and they constitute the Orthodox Church.
My second vision concerns the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA). Since the purpose of SCOBA is to bring organic unity to our churches in America, I believe that SCOBA should be elevated to the rank of an Orthodox Synod which will have the power to deal effectively and decisively with our Orthodox problems in this country.
My third vision, ladies and gentlemen, concerns the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There is no doubt that we need a catalyst to lead us from the wilderness of division to the promised land of unity and fulfillment. I do not know of a better catalyst than the Ecumenical Patriarch, himself, who continues to live like a prisoner in Istanbul. Let us prevail on him to leave Turkey, come to America and unite our various jurisdictions under his wings. The Greek remnant in Istanbul can be shepherded by an exarch who would represent the ecumenical throne. The Ecumenical Patriarch will preserve his traditional role in the world regardless of where he resides. We have unlimited opportunities in this free land, but if we do not move forward with faith and courage, our Church on this continent will remain an insignificant dot on the margin of history.
Finally, I would like to conclude this sermon with the words of the late Alexander Schmemann. “One can almost visualize the glorious and blessed day when forty Orthodox bishops of America will open their first Synod in New York, or Chicago or Pittsburgh with the hymn, ‘Today the grace of the Holy Spirit assembled us together,’ and will appear to us not as ‘representatives’ of Greek, Russian or any other ‘jurisdictions,’ and interests but as the very icon, the very ‘Epiphany’ of our unity within the Body of Christ; when each of them and all together will think and deliberate only in terms of the whole, putting aside all particular and national problems, real and important as they may be. On that day, we shall ‘taste and see’ the oneness of the Orthodox Church in America.”
Metropolitan PHILIP was the celebrant and speaker at the Sunday of Orthodoxy Liturgy, sponsored by the Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts, on March 11, 1984.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America