Are you Greek?” This is the question I get asked the most when I tell someone that I am an Orthodox Christian. At first, this question rankled, because I am not Greek. (I am, among other things, Lithuanian.) Mind you, I would have no problem being Greek. It’s a wonderful, ancient culture with much to recommend it. But what rankled was the sense that being Orthodox means being Greek.
It is a touchy subject for many Orthodox Christians in America, especially those who converted to the faith, because the implication of such a close identification of culture with faith implies that the faith is not really for people who aren’t from that culture. And no doubt it can also be touchy for the many Orthodox Christians in America who are from traditionally Orthodox cultures who are not Greeks. There are actually quite a lot of themin America, there are Orthodox churches representing the Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Georgian (the Caucasian republic, not the southern state), Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian traditions.
But I’ve come to see the question as mostly the fault of the Orthodox themselves, who have not quite figured out how to convey that Orthodoxybeing Christianityis for everyone and doesn’t require a particular cultural identification. We eventually will figure it out, I think. Roman Catholics in America for a long time were pretty ethnicity-bound, as well (everyone knew which was the Polish church and which the Irish), but now hardly anyone expects a Roman Catholic to be from Rome. And it’s less than a century since the average American Lutheran church conducted services in German, Swedish, or Norwegian.
I also can’t blame the asker of that question too much, because recent demographic studies have shown that some 60 percent of Orthodox in America belong to the Greek Archdiocese of America. So, statistically speaking, “Are you Greek?” is a pretty decent guess, even if I wish it were irrelevant.
That the question is a viable one points to something that may be less obvious to those outside of Orthodoxy’s circle, and that is that the Orthodox in America are in the process of figuring out just who we are. It’s not a doctrinal issuewe do not, for instance, vote every few years on moral standards or doctrines. We are also free of the churning wars of worship innovation that seem to keep Evangelical blogdom busy and inspire laments among traditional Catholics. For better or for worse (depending on one’s view), the Orthodox aren’t going to be giving up on our dogmatic ecumenical councils or revising our Divine Liturgy. Neither new morality nor Novus Ordo for us.
But we do have an identity problem, nonetheless, namely, that Orthodoxy is divided into roughly a dozen “jurisdictions” in America. This administrative division is wholly against our canonical tradition, which stipulates that for any given piece of real estate there should only be one bishop who has territorial authoritythat’s been our standard for about 1,700 years or so. But that’s not how things work for the Orthodox in America, where we have overlapping territories. In the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where I live, for instance, there are nine Orthodox parishes with six bishops governing them, none of whom live anywhere near here.
This is a problem not just because it’s administratively complicated, but because it presents a pastoral mess. Parishioners can literally shop between different Orthodox churches in their area to find the one whose policies and traditions suit them best. Don’t like the membership requirements to have your child baptized? Find another parish. Don’t like how long pre-marital counseling takes? Find another parish. And if a parish splits, a rebellious faction does not have to remain in opposition to their bishopthey can just find a new one. Instead of having to learn to live as a single Orthodox Christian family with all the messinessand possibility for growththat that entails, we can just retreat into our respective comfort zones.
This problem also drains our resources. Instead of a single department of Christian education (we all have the same faith, after all), we have several. The same goes for legal departments, Internet ministries, clergy affairs, retirement, insurancethe list goes on. What’s worst about all this, though, is that we present the appearance of fragmented, ethnically-defined sects rather than the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church we regard ourselves as being.
So how did we get into this mess? And is anything being done about it?
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several waves of Orthodox immigration arrived nearly simultaneously in America, and they brought with them their own traditions, customs and clergy. And it only seemed natural for most of them to keep connections back home going strong, including through their churches.
Communism in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire affected traditionally Orthodox lands in profound ways, sending out immigrants across the world and dividing Orthodox people against each other. Orthodoxy in America became splintered not just along ethnic lines but along political lines, as well. And sometimes ethnic divisions even became microcosmic, with different factions sharing everything about their culture except the particular village of origin back home. At various points, there have been four Antiochian factions, two Greek, two Ukrainian, four Russian, two Serbian, two Carpatho-Russian, two Bulgarian, two Albanian and two Romanian.
Is it any wonder that we sometimes say, “I don’t belong to an organized religionI’m Orthodox”?
But there is hope. Many of the divisions have healed. The Greeks, Antiochians, Serbs, Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians each now have only one canonical jurisdiction in America. And there are also pan-Orthodox agencies that do ministry on behalf of all the Orthodox in AmericaInternational Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS), to name a few. And most of the college students who participate in Orthodox Christian Fellowships (OCF) on campus connect with each other more on the basis of common faith than common culture.
And something even bigger is happening.
Since 2010, all the active Orthodox bishops in Americaaround fifty of themhave been meeting annually. This annual meeting is called the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States of America. They’re not a synod. They don’t have actual decision-making authority. But they do have a task, a task that was given to them by their mother churches overseasfind a way to heal the anomaly that is life on the ground in the so-called “diaspora.”
Ours is only one such assembly. The overlap problem is not unique to America. There are twelve other assemblies, ranging from Canada to Central and South America, from Scandinavia to Oceania. But America’s is the biggest, and it may set the pattern for what could happen elsewhere.
The Assembly has fourteen committees to talk about everything from ecumenical relations to monasticism to youth ministry. And of course the “big” committee is the Committee for Canonical Regional Planning, whose job it is to figure out the nuts and bolts of how we get from where we are to where we ought to be.
Since the Assembly’s introduction into Orthodox American life, it has been met with a range of reactions: hope, skepticism, ambivalence, and even outright cynicism. Some say it’s all just a conspiracy of the Ecumenical Patriarchatebased in Istanbul, Turkey and the mother jurisdiction of the Greeks, Ukrainians, Carpatho-Russians and (some of) the Albanians in America. Some say this is our best hope for unity yet. Some say this is just a stalling action so that the mother churches can keep getting donations from their rich American parishes. And some say nothing is actually happening at all, that the Assembly is just a lot of incense and mirrors.
Unity’s been tried in the past, of course. But some these efforts were unilateralsuch as when in 1970 the Russian church gave its American jurisdiction self-governance and renamed it “the Orthodox Church in America” and hoped the various jurisdictions would just join up. Others were multi-lateral, such as the “Federation” that was formed in the 1940s to try to get Orthodoxy recognized as a religion by the government so that its clergy wouldn’t be drafted. And there was also SCOBA (the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America), which was the heads of the various jurisdictions getting together every so often from the 1960s until 2010. But all of these efforts lacked what the Assembly now hasofficial, unanimous sanction from the mother churches to which the various jurisdictions owe their allegiance. And there’s also a deadline: An international Orthodox council is set to meet in 2016 to decide upon this and other questions, and the Assembly has to submit a plan for that council’s consideration.
So now there is an imperative that was never there before. And even though parts of the Assembly might seem moribund to the casual observer, some of the committees are actually extremely active. It’s also hard to imagine what kinds of knots have to be untied. How do you resolve, for instance, the difference between requiring confession before every reception of holy communion and seeing ongoing communion as being essentially parallel to regular confession? Do you even have to?
One thing that gives me a lot of hope is the difference between what I saw at the first Assembly meeting in 2010 in Manhattan (I escorted my bishop and helped him with his luggage) and what has been relayed to me about the one that met on September 1719, 2014. In 2010, most of the bishops kept to themselves and their own jurisdictions, with little interaction between them. But in 2014, discussion was reportedly animated and engrossing, and even where there was disagreement, it was clear that the bishops had become invested enough in each other enough to engage.
And if they can become invested in knowing one another, then it is possible that a common life together might be formed. But this is not an easy process. Although this may be the first generation where all the bishops speak English, for around half of them, it’s not their first language. Many of them were also not born here, and in that they are not really representative of their flocks. The Assembly is an international and multi-cultural gathering.
At least two proposals for unity were put forward at the recent Assembly meetingone which directly addressed the territorial issues immediately and also a two-track proposal which initially unifies various ministries and departments to nurture a common life, while solving the territorial question more gradually. What’s most interesting is that now the bishops are talking brass tacks, having a spirited discussion over concrete proposals for phased action to make a unity that is not just on paper but in reality.
Someone from outside the Orthodox Church may look at all this confusion and declare us hopeless. Certainly, this division makes it harder to see American Orthodox Christians as the local representatives of the second largest Christian communion in the world. Yet Orthodox doctrine, worship and spiritual life are remarkably unified despite all our administrative confusion, disunity and even rivalriesand given a choice between administrative confusion and confusion over doctrine and worship, I’ll take the first any day. Yes, we have an untidy organization, but we know who we are when it comes to what really matters. Orthodox is Orthodox, no matter what other adjectives it might wear.