The Unity of the Faith
by David Barrett
There has been much discussion, on this website and elsewhere, concerning Orthodox unity in America. Much of it has been constructive and loving, while some of it has been selfish and antagonistic. (I, myself, have been guilty of this, especially in my posts about my pastor, for which I have repented and asked his forgiveness, as I now ask of all of you.) A lot of it has been inaccurate, skewed from a position of a lack of knowledge of either theology or history, or, sometimes, both. This article is an attempt at clarification.
Some people argue that any Churches established beyond the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, or Constantinople, being in lands occupied by “barbarians,” should come under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yet in ancient times, both Georgia and Cyprus acquired autocephaly. More recently, in the 16th century, during the reign of the Russian tsar Theodor I, Boris Godunov contacted the Ecumenical Patriarch about establishing a patriarchal see in Moscow. The Ecumenical Patriarch, of whom it was said “was much embarrassed for want of funds,” acquiesced. The result was the enthronement of Metropolitan Job of Moscow, who, in 1589, became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus. Granted, this autocephaly was literally bought and paid for. Yet, it was a granting of autocephaly.
Other Churches were later granted autocephaly, including Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Cypress, Greece, Albania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Obviously, the peoples in these lands did not constitute “barbarians” as is called for concerning those who are “required” to be under Constantinople. And, equally obvious is the fact that the Orthodox of the various jurisdictions in America, most of whom take seriously the Gospel, also cannot be considered “barbarians.”
Fr John Meyendorff was, for many decades, a theologian and Church historian and Dean at St Vladimir’s Seminary. His writings are important because they synthesize the Church’s history and theological Tradition. Writing in February of 1970 (before autocephaly was granted to the OCA), he said, “The unity of the universal Church is expressed in a fellowship of faith and love, not in the power of one church over another.” He then went on to say, “If, by the grace of God, the Orthodox Church of America occupies at last a position among the autocephalous churches, and even if, at the beginning, some of the Orthodox jurisdictions will prefer to retain their canonical allegiance to their ethnic Mother Churches beyond the seas, the Church of America will still be much larger in numbers and influence than several of the most ancient Patriarchates combined. It will be able to help them and also to express the voice of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Americans in pan-Orthodox conferences. And, last but foremost, it will carry on the message of the Orthodox Christian faith in America, in full unity with Orthodox Catholic Churches throughout the world, dedicating itself fully to the only task which properly belongs to it: the building up of the Body of Christ in this country.” (Editorial in The Orthodox Church, February 1970; reprinted in Vision of Unity [SVS Press], 1987, pp. 38-39.)
Fr Meyendorff expands on these themes in other editorials. For example, he says, “The ‘parishes’ are our ‘temporary homes,’ because the only permanent home of Christians, the sweet home we are looking for and from which we are still ‘exiled,’ is not some ‘old country’ in Europe, but the Kingdom of God, the Temple of the Body of Christ. Clearly, therefore, America cannot be the permanent home of the Church. And it was a grave mistake made by Orthodox Christians to identify the Church with their respective countries and with their ethnic cultures. This identification makes Christian mission impossible. It has caused much harm to Orthodoxy in the past and remains harmful today.” (Editorial in The Orthodox Church, November 1975; reprinted in Witness to the World [SVS Press], 1987, pp. 186-187 [emphasis in original]).
And, finally, excerpts from a third editorial: “Indeed, any ecclesiastical nationalism – Russian, Greek, or American – inasmuch as it places ethnic, cultural or political interests above those of the Kingdom of God, should be anathema.” He goes on to say, “But as young American generations grow, as new members of various ethnic and religious backgrounds join the Church, as English becomes, in the majority of parishes, the predominant language of the Liturgy, the Church needs American leaders….No one should be forced to be what he is not: neither Russians nor Greeks should lose their national inheritance, as long as they are able to maintain them; nor should Americans become aliens [meaning, here, foreigners]. The exclusive function of the Church is to lead all to the Kingdom of God. To define the mission of the Church in other terms than these is heretical, for then there is no reason why it should not also endorse other political, social, revolutionary or conservative ideologies which divide the world. But its mission is unity, not division.” (Editorial in The Orthodox Church, June-July 1969; reprinted in Witness to the World, pp. 200-201).
“But its (the Church’s) mission is unity, not division.” This is the theological crux of the matter. As St Paul says in his most christological Epistle, addressed to the Colossians, “He [Christ] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the Beginning, the First-Born of from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. For in Him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on Earth or in Heaven, making peace by the Blood of His Cross.” (1:17-20) And, further on, he says, “For in Him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in Him, Who is the Head of all rule and authority.” (2:9-10)
Christ, therefore, is the One Who unites! Conversely, it is the devil who divides (διαβολος means “divider”). Our tragic situation here in America came about with mistakes that were made when each ethnic group came to this country and set up its own “jurisdiction.” Because of that, we are now “divided,” split, as it were, into these various cubbyholes of administration. It has gotten so out-of-hand recently so as to be facetious. Take, for example, the misunderstandings in the Antiochian Archdiocese of what was or was not granted under the proclamation of “self-rule”! Each group is separated from its Mother Church by geography, cultural differences, and, now, language, it seems. It is time that each Mother Church becomes a true mother, allowing her “children” to grow up to be fully-functioning, independent (autocephalous) “adults.” For the Old World churches to hang onto their prodigy in this country for financial benefit is to contribute, promulgate, and enable the administrative divisions of the Orthodox in America. And, to do so, is to do the divisive work of the devil.
Despite what some people argue, the Orthodox Church in America was given its autocephaly forty years ago. The fact that she dropped the term “Russian” from her new name to become the more-inclusive “Orthodox Church in America” should be proof enough that her flock are not out to push “Russianism” onto Orthodox in America from different cultures. It is time for all of us to stand up and be counted. It is time to put an end to this heretical division that resulted from tragic circumstances. It is time for all Orthodox in America to become administratively one, as a united Orthodox Church in America, where all can rejoice in each other’s rich cultural heritages. It is time to embrace what our liturgical services proclaim: “the unity of the Faith and the knowledge of [His] unapproachable glory, for [He] is blest unto ages of ages! Amen.”