Orthodox Christian Laity - January 15, 2000

American Orthodoxy Espoused At OCL Annual Meeting

"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 Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Orthodox Christian Laity.

The meeting was also highlighted with 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 was scheduled and convened on December 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 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 North 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 Orthodox. 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 chairman.

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 accountability 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 identify 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 healed.

"Unless we develop Servant-Leaders in our Church, we will operate as an ineffective and irrelevant institution in providing spirtual growth to our faithful". Referring to the "mystery of our Orthodox Christian experience", he said that when the time comes, " 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 1916 to 1970 as one of "diversity without unity" with the rise of "overlapping dioceses", that was actually the "first such aberration 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 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 United States, Dr. Counelis said.

The 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.

He "pushed all the right buttons", observed Dr. Counelis, and part of the Spyridon legacy is the fact that "he let the ‘cat’ 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 history.

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 round- table groups. 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 recent meeting with Archbishop Demetrios.

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 California at Berkeley.

[ Orthodox Christian Laity - - January 15, 2000 ]