American Orthodoxy Espoused At OCL Annual
Orthodox Christians cannot dwell in the past, but must look
forward in order to help their religion grow. That was the keynote sounded at
the 12th Annual Meeting of the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL).
The meeting was also highlighted by blessings received by the
organization from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and from Archbishop
Demetrios. The Patriarch congratulated OCL for its "... uninterrupted concern
for the good of the entire Orthodox Church". A meeting between OCL
representatives and the Archbishop has been scheduled for Dec. 7.
The conference was held in Berkeley, California, Nov. 11-14,
and included Vespers at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute and
Divine Liturgy at Ascension Cathedral in Oakland.
Dr. Robert Scott of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, urged a
Christ-centered approach of "spiritual integrity and relevance" in planning
for the future. Fr. Steven Vlahos of New Jersey said that changes can be made
while still honoring the rich 2000-year Orthodox heritage. Dr. Scott is a
theologian and deacon in the Boston area. Fr. Vlahos is pastor of St.
Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in N. Wildwood, New Jersey, and an OCL
advisor. Both are graduates of Holy Cross Seminary.
Fr. Vlahos told the story of how his grandmother, who spoke
only Greek, took him aside at his graduation 36 years ago and told him to use
English in the church services or her grandchildren would not remain Orthodox.
Her words were prophetic, he said, because of her 26 grandchildren only he is
Fr. Vlahos did not claim that language was the only factor in
such societal changes, but he cited this family vignette to illustrate the
profound changes that have occurred in the ethnic Orthodox scene in America.
The theme of the conference was, "The Ethos and Identity of
American Orthodoxy: A Vision for the 21st Century". It was held against the
backdrop of OCL's stated position favoring unity and autocephaly of the
Orthodox Churches in America. Dr. Peter Haikalis of Berkeley was conference
Fr. Vlahos urged a national dialogue to hear from all the
faithful about "designing the future of the Orthodox Church in America". Such
planning does not mean dilution of the Apostolic faith, he added, because "I
believe that we do Orthodoxy great injustice by merely looking back and by not
making our ancient faith viable, meaningful, practiced and lived by
contemporary Orthodox Christians in a free, secular and pluralistic society".
To grow toward an American ethos and identity, he urged
church financial support based on Christian stewardship and not reliance on
"dues, minimum giving, Greek Festivals, Bingo and raffles".
Dr. Scott spoke of the message from Matthew about not hiding
one's light under a bushel. He said that "OCL is that light...for it is a
prophetic voice of witness and truth of American Orthodoxy... The OCL role is
that of the prophet that speaks the truth in love and seeks to edify the
conscience of the Church". He deplored the "hyper-Orthodoxy " of appearance
and called for spiritual account-ability and a "Servant-Leadership" from
church leaders, citing St. Chrysostom who wrote that "the spiritual director
should not get in the way of the work of the Great Master".
Many local clergy are in an identity crisis, he said, because
of their vulnerable place between the demands of the laity and the demands of
their church superiors. He termed this a "silent epidemic" that must be
"Unless we develop Servant-Leaders in our Church, we will
operate as an in-effective and irrelevant institution in providing spiritual
growth to our faithful".
Referring to the "mystery of our Orthodox Christian
experience", he said that when the time comes, "....no earthly power will
prevent the Spirit that shall bring forth a United American Orthodox Church".
Prof. Bradley Nassif, of the Fuller Theological School,
addressed "Unity in Diversity" in the history of American Orthodoxy. He
pointed out that Orthodoxy first came to America from Russia, with the Alaska
missions. It later spread to San Francisco and other areas. In a period of
unity in diversity, from 1891-1918 immigrant churches organized within the
mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. The immigrations from Eastern Europe,
Greece, Syria and elsewhere came under the "umbrella" of the Russian Church
"since there was only one Orthodox bishop in America then."
He described the period from 1918 to 1970 as one of
"diversity without unity" with the rise of "overlapping diocese", that was
actually the "first such abberation in Orthodox Church history". Will there be
a oneness of Orthodoxy? Prof. Nassif answered that the oneness of the church
is expressed where the churches are located and in identity with the culture.
This can be a strength, he observed, but also a weakness if it develops ethnic
ties that overshadow the Orthodoxy.
Dr. James S. Counelis, professor emeritus at the University
of San Francisco, and a long-time observer and writer of the Orthodox scene,
traced the development of the autocephaly idea and the significant "Ligonier"
meeting of 1994. That meeting, held at an Antiochian facility in Ligonier,
Pennsylvania, was convened by the Orthodox bishops of America under the
chairmanship of Archbishop Iakovos.
It was seen as an effort to "jump-start" what were regarded
as slow discussions about unity of the Orthodox churches in the U.S., Dr.
hlThe Ecumenical Patriarch rejected the actions of the Ligonier
meeting, in spite of earlier indications that he wanted to move in this
direction, he said. Ligonier was prompted in part by the address of then
Metropolitan Spyridon at the summer 1994 Clergy-Laity Conference of the Greek
Archdiocese. As the Patriarch's representative, Met. Spyridon expressed
support for Orthodox unity in America.
hlHe "pushed all the right buttons", observed Dr. Counelis, and
part of the Spyridon legacy is that "he let the genie of autocephaly out of
the bag". He said it is not known at this time whether the Patriarch will lead
or follow in the matter of American unity and autocephaly.
Dr. Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, professor of Russian History at
the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about Orthodoxy in Russia. He
said that before turning to Orthodoxy, the Russians considered becoming either
Moslem or Jewish, but rejected these choices. When Byzantium declined,
Moscow's importance as an Orthodox capital increased, and even up into the
Cold War years, some in Russia espoused the doctrine of Moscow as the Third
Rome, although this view was badly misinterpreted, he said.
Dr. Riasanovsky said he is not in favor of the current
Russian law outlawing other religions, but added that the law is actually not
enforced. He supports a United Patriarchal Orthodox Church here, but said that
its formation should occur with humility and recognition of Orthodoxy's deep
Dr. Nicholas Pappas, former executive vice president of the
DuPont Co. and an OCL board member, posed three questions to the audience: Why
do we think that autocephaly is important; What action steps are needed to
effect it; and What are we willing to do personally toward this end?
He said that in spite of the losses to the faith that were
illustrated in Fr. Vlahos' talk, not much is being done to address this. If
this were a problem in the business world, he said, the best minds available
would be working on task forces day and night to come up with solutions. But
no such "passion" is evident in our churches. Indeed, the "core competency" of
many Orthodox churches is in running food festivals, he observed. He admitted
that it is difficult to create fundamental change, and suggested that it must
come from the grass-roots as well as from the top. Incremental changes may
have to be made, and "small successes " experienced, as there is progression
toward larger goals, he said.
But, "if this generation doesn't do it, it won't get done".
The questions posed by Dr. Pappas were discussed in
Summary responses included:
# Autocephaly is important for the preservation and growth of
Orthodoxy in America, and for the sake of our children and grandchildren in
the new century.
# Instead of leaving only a financial legacy to our
grandchildren, we can leave a spiritual legacy by supporting autocephaly.
# As the world's leading nation and democracy, we should be
electing our own church leaders, too, under autocephaly. Such leaders will
know us better and serve us better.
# A united church will raise awareness of Orthodoxy in
America and give us our rightful place at the podium of civic participation.
# A united, self-governing church in a geographical area is
the norm for Orthodox church governance, and it is canonical.
# It will better reflect the American ethos which conforms to
Orthodox ecclesiology that recognizes each believer as made in the image of
God and rejects the monarchical model of church governance.
Under action steps, it was agreed to continue and to expand
the dialogue that has already started with Orthodox jurisdictions, including
laity and clergy at all levels. Members noted last summer's audience with
Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch, and the upcoming meeting with Archbishop
In terms of personal commitment, members unanimously agreed
to work intensively toward church unity , to raise funds from others and to
give generously of their own resources.
In other actions, the OCL board re-affirmed its resolution of
a year ago to work toward Orthodox unity and autocephaly in America. It also
passed a resolution thanking the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute for
its hospitality, acknowledging the Institute as a "paradigm" of inter-Orthodox
cooperation and unity, and that the Institute "foreshadows what can be
achieved with a united Orthodox Church in America". Conference participants
had attended a dinner reception as well as Vespers at the Institute, which is
affiliated with the University of Califonia at Berkeley.
There was Divine Liturgy at Ascension Cathedral in Oakland,
where OCL was welcomed by Fr. Thomas Paris, Pastor. An "Artoclasia" was
conducted for OCL, as well. Fr. Paris also attended sessions of the meeting in
Berkeley, as did Fr. John Konugres, Pastor of SS. Constantine and Helen Greek
Orthodox Church in Vallejo, Ca. Celebrants at the Liturgy and at the Vespers
were Fr. Paris, Deacon Scott and Fr. Vlahos, who gave the sermon.
Editor's Note: This is the official press release that the Orthodox
Christian Laity posted on its website last week about its annual meeting in
November, 1999. Orthodox News previously
ran a story on that meeting.