Razilaženje - June 6, 2005


Presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of Orthodox Christian Laity
Oak Brook, Illinois on October 30, 2004

by Dr. Valerie A. Karras

I just noticed a couple of days ago that my talk has been advertised as being on "The Nature of the Church." I had actually communicated with Archbishop Nathaniel about doing something more specific to Ligonier. (So, I hope that those of you who were dying to hear something vague and insubstantial on the nature of the Church won't be disappointed.) Given that we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the SCOBA conference in Ligonier, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on progress and impediments to Orthodox unity since 1994, and particularly to place Ligonier within the broader historical context of attempts at Orthodox unity in North America.

Personally, when I look at what has happened over the past ten years, I find myself filled with both hope and frustration. Since the Orthodox Church in this country is a patchwork of jurisdictions, movement toward unity has been neither consistent nor collective. What we have seen in addition to collective action by SCOBA and other bodies are the individual movements of each jurisdiction, and even these have not always been wholly consistent within a given jurisdiction. These fitful starts, stops, and even reverses have been motivated not only by the commitment and vision - or lack thereof - of the bishops, clergy, and laity of an individual jurisdiction, but also by the vision, confidence, and/or fears of the bishops of that jurisdiction's mother church, and even by the worldwide Orthodox Church. In other words, Orthodox unity in North America is inextricably linked to the relationships between mother and daughter churches among the various jurisdictions. These relationships reflect not only certain historical realities but also the commitment - or, again, the lack thereof - of the mother churches to Orthodox unity in North America.

Before discussing the past ten years, however, I believe it is important to place the aftermath of Ligonier in the broader historical perspective of Orthodoxy in North America and particularly movements toward Orthodox unity. As most of you know, the first Orthodox Church to establish a true local church here, with a normal diocesan structure, was the Church of Russia, whose monks had begun evangelizing the native Alaskans in the eighteenth century. The sale of Alaska to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century suddenly moved part of the Church of Russia to the United States in terms of its political identity. The Russian Orthodox Church here, which eventually became known as the "Metropolia," relocated its administrative center twice, moving from Alaska first to set up its diocese in San Francisco and then, as it expanded across the continent, later moving to New York. As other non-Russian Orthodox immigrant groups began establishing themselves and forming parishes in this country, some retained loose affiliations with the churches of their motherland, but most recognized the legitimacy of the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese as the one Orthodox Church in this country, and so came under its jurisdiction. Thus it is that the first Arab-American Orthodox saint, St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), was a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese here in the U.S.

So, it is ironic to realize that Orthodoxy, splintered in such an uncanonical manner today, actually established itself in North America in a canonical manner as a single jurisdiction. The uncanonical establishment of multiple, ethnically-based jurisdictions began only after the Bolshevik revolution, when the mother Church of Russia came under extreme persecution and was forced to abandon its daughter church here to her own devices. Notwithstanding this capitulation to the political exigencies of the rise of Bolshevism in Russia and the rise of nationalism in Europe after World War I, most Orthodox hierarchs recognized the uncanonical nature of the situation, especially as time passed and successive generations of Orthodox born and raised here no longer considered themselves to be a diaspora, although they usually retained strong ethnic identities.

Some bishops from the 1920's on were keenly aware that we were becoming an American Orthodox Church and so urged the use of English in catechetical instruction and liturgy, such as Bishop Joachim (Alexopoulos) of the Greek Archdiocese and Metropolitan Anthony (Bashir) of the Antiochian Archdiocese. John Erickson, dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, in his excellent textbook, Orthodox Christians in America, noted that the far-sighted Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh in 1927 railed against the ethnic jurisdictional divisions which were impeding Orthodox development in this country. Bishop Aftimios decried the multiplication of ethnic jurisdictions in that decade and argued that "[t]he true ideal of one Orthodox Catholic Church in America for the growing thousands of Americans born and reared in Orthodoxy was lost in the over-zealous patriotic desire of the immigrant generation to parallel in America the national resurrections taking place in Europe."[1] Unfortunately, Bishop Aftimios was well ahead of his time, and his attempt to create an American Orthodox Catholic Church was a short-lived failure.

However, his vision had not died. Orthodox remained uncomfortably aware of the uncanonical nature of their divided ecclesiastical structure in North America. Another attempt at some type of Orthodox unity was the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions established in 1943 by Archbishop Athenagoras of the Greek Archdiocese and Metropolitan Anthony Bashir. Yet, despite its much more modest aim of simply coordinating Orthodox activity, this too was short-lived. Nevertheless, while both of these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, the underlying desire for unity propelling them persisted.

In 1960, this quest for unity manifested itself again, and this time it would not simply die on the vine. Archbishop Iakovos (Coucouzes), as the new head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, organized a conference of Orthodox bishops from various jurisdictions to discuss coordinated activity. This new creation, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), established joint commissions for such areas as ecumenism, religious education (OCEC), military chaplaincies, scouting, and, in more recent decades, for college campus fellowships (OCF) and international charitable work (IOCC).

SCOBA also strove in its early years to initiate a process of Orthodox unification in North America, what a 1965 report of its Ad Hoc Commission on Unity titled "unity by degrees".[2] Because SCOBA recognized that "it would be absolutely impossible to simply 'jump' into that ideal future" of "one Orthodox Church unified in its canonical structure",[3] it proposed transforming itself first into a provisional Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, allowing each jurisdiction to continue to administer its own internal affairs, but coordinating at the synod level such activities as the ordination of bishops, religious education programs, and global inter-Orthodox relations.[4] This provisional synod was to provide an intermediate step toward attaining full Orthodox unity.

Unfortunately, these plans were vetoed by most of the mother churches, who were having problems among themselves in determining the agenda of a proposed Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church (in fact, in their still ongoing preparatory discussions they have now removed the situation of the Orthodox churches in North America from the agenda entirely). As John Erickson discusses,[5] their solution to these inter-Orthodox tensions was to concentrate on "safe" topics. The uncanonical situation of the multiple Orthodox jurisdictions in North America was not safe, particularly since it included another uncanonical situation nested within the larger one, namely, the frosty and almost non-existent relationship between the Metropolia and the Patriarchate of Moscow, which had existed since the Bolshevik Revolution.

This situation was resolved when discussions between the two, begun in 1968, resulted in a reconciliation and, in 1970, in Moscow's granting autocephaly to the Metropolia. The Metropolia was renamed the Orthodox Church in America and began yet another effort at Orthodox unity as the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese and the Bulgarian Orthodox Diocese joined it, although these created mini-schisms as well, as some parishes remained under their mother churches; the Romanian episcopate, under Bishop Valerian, had already joined the Metropolia in 1960. As I discussed with OCL in a previous address here in Chicago several years ago, Orthodoxy's history includes three different modes of granting autocephaly: 1) the decision of an ecumenical council, 2) a decree of the emperor, and 3) an act of the mother church. Therefore, the purported ecclesiological rationale for the refusal of many Orthodox churches (mainly the Greek-speaking ones) to recognize formally the OCA's autocephaly - namely, their argument that autocephaly can only be granted by a pan-Orthodox council - is on shaky grounds given the historical record, and most especially since the Patriarchate of Constantinople itself granted autocephaly to the Czech Church just a few years ago. While most agree that there was probably some Soviet pressure on the Patriarchate of Moscow to cut the American Church loose, the Patriarchate of Moscow engaged in full, sometimes difficult discussions with the representatives of the Metropolia before agreeing to autocephaly; furthermore, it has not attempted to revoke that autocephaly since the fall of communism a decade ago.

Autonomy and autocephaly, in fact, may be the most pragmatic intermediate step toward Orthodox unity in this country. The greater the daughter churches' independence from their mother churches, the more freedom they have to act in concert with other Orthodox churches toward creating a unified Orthodox jurisdiction in this country. Several jurisdictions in this country either were established as autonomous churches or have developed into autonomous churches. The Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese enjoys the same high level of autonomy as other dioceses in Romania itself. For example, two years ago the Romanian Archdiocese elected a new archbishop through a nominating and election process here, with the Romanian patriarchal synod in Bucharest simply ratifying the election. This is the normal procedure for autonomous churches (Finland is another example), although theoretically the mother church could choose the presiding hierarch of the autonomous church on her own. We will see a similar process with the newly-autonomous Antiochian Archdiocese, which was formally granted its autonomy just days ago.

Unfortunately, at the same time that most Orthodox jurisdictions in North America have moved to autonomy and autocephaly, some churches have been moving away from self-governance, most notably the Serbian and Greek Archdioceses. In both cases, the autonomy which they formerly enjoyed has been taken by them, in the early 1930's for the Greeks and a couple of decades ago for the Serbians. The Serbian Archdiocese essentially had its autonomy revoked by its patriarchal synod some 25 years ago in a set of actions which broke up the Archdiocese and created a schism that still has not been healed, despite a Supreme Court ruling in the matter (the court ruling has problems of its own, which I will briefly discuss below).[6]

The Greek Archdiocese was established as an autonomous church in 1922, then had its autonomy revoked and diocesan structure abolished in 1931 by the fraudulent backdating of documents (as Paul Manolis has shown in his multi-volume set of Archdiocesan archival documents). It moved back toward a more traditionally diocesan, though not formally autonomous, structure in 1977. As Andrew Walsh described it, "Under Iakovos, who served as archbishop from 1959 to 1996, the American archdiocese had enjoyed substantial, if informal, autonomy."[7] In the late 1980's and early 1990's, a committee began working with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on a revised charter which was informally called the "autonomy charter".

Unfortunately, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, elected and installed in 1991, has consistently shown an antipathy to autonomy for the GOA through a multitude of actions, most notably the breakup of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the rejection of the work of the joint charter committee, and, of course, his condemnation of the Ligonier conference. "Bartholomew had been caught off-guard and responded by pressuring the sitting Greek Orthodox archbishop in the Americas, Iakovos Coucouzes, into retirement [in 1996]."} The patriarchate replaced Turkish-born but long-time American resident Archbishop Iakovos, who had striven for three decades for greater autonomy and Orthodox unity in America, "with an American-born hierarch [who had not lived in the United States since his teens], Spyridon George, a man with a clear record of loyalty to Constantinople and a mandate to reestablish obedience to the Patriarchate."[8] (This just goes to show that one should not assume a hierarch's priorities and vision based on the heaviness of his accent.) Archbishop Spyridon aroused considerable animosity both within and outside the GOA by his attempts to dismantle and reshape both the Archdiocese and SCOBA (he attempted, for example, to wrest control of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center from SCOBA back to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, which under Archbishop Iakovos had given it over to SCOBA in the first place). In fact, he became so unpopular because of his extreme actions with respect to Holy Cross seminary, St. Basil's Academy, and the Mission Center that an Archdiocesan-wide movement developed to unseat him. In 1999, the Patriarchate of Constantinople replaced Spyridon with Demetrios Trakatellis, a much beloved Greek hierarch and former professor at Holy Cross.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Demetrios, despite strong personal reservations about the actions of the Patriarchate, has been unwilling to voice public opposition to anything Bartholomew has done, from as trivial a matter as revoking an invitation to Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens to serve as grand marshal to the Greek Independence Day parade in New York, to as weighty a matter as the illegitimately-imposed revised charter for the Archdiocese. The philosophy of "divide and conquer" evident in the patriarch's opposition to Ligonier and his earlier breakup of the GOA into four archdioceses and metropolitanates, is continued in this new charter, not by the elevation of diocesan bishops to metropolitan status, but rather by the ecclesiastical structure implied in the order of commemoration, whereby the diocesan metropolitans now commemorate the Patriarch directly as opposed to commemorating the head of their eparchial synod, Archbishop Demetrios. This uncanonical order of commemoration weakens the traditional Orthodox synodal structure, and is evident in the de facto workings of the synod.

With respect to the legal challenge mounted by OCL to the imposition of this revised GOA charter, I would like to raise an issue which is of importance to Orthodoxy at large in the United States, and which I believe should lead the other Orthodox jurisdictions to file amicus briefs, if that is appropriate in this type of legal action. This is one of the issues opposed by Evan Chriss himself in his Affidavit and Memorandum of Law, namely, the court's assumption that the Orthodox Church's being "hierarchical" is to be interpreted in an essentially Roman Catholic sense, i.e., the highest authority (interpreted as the Patriarchate of Constantinople) in the church has the final say in all matters. The American court system's recognition of only two ecclesiological models - hierarchical and congregational - is a natural result of the predominant models in Western Christianity. However, the Orthodox model, while hierarchical, is far more complex in its understanding of the relationships among laity, clergy, hierarchs, and the state. Unfortunately, that complexity does not lend itself readily to concrete American legal structures.

The problem is intensified because, historically, the balance to episcopal authority in the Orthodox Church on the lay level has normally been exercised by the state, whether that was the emperor or tsar in earlier times, or the Ottoman sultan, or the modern Greek and Russian states. This creates a peculiar paradox in the United States because of its constitutional separation of church and state: the state will not and cannot exercise the role historically it has played to prevent the episcopacy from wielding power unchecked and thus has effectively removed the traditional balance of authority which has existed in Orthodoxy.

Even worse, by imposing a Western hierarchical model on the Orthodox Church, i.e., by making the mother church legally exempt from abiding by its own contractual obligations (e.g., charters with daughter churches), the American court system is leaving the daughter Orthodox churches in the U.S. with no legal protection from their respective mother churches. We are subject to the whims of our mother churches because of certain jurists whose convoluted understanding of the free exercise of religion has led them to the remarkable opinion that American daughter churches have no legal right to enforce contracts entered into with their mother churches.

Those American Orthodox bishops who currently look favorably upon the American courts' imposition of a simplistic hierarchical model on Orthodox church matters should think twice. Except for the OCA, this model means that every jurisdiction in this country is subject to whatever changes desired by their mother churches, even if they have autonomy. That autonomy could be revoked and the American courts would uphold it (in fact, they did just that in the Serbian case). Every Orthodox jurisdiction in this country would do well to consider not how the legal hierarchical model enforces unfettered episcopal authority, but rather how that unfettered episcopal authority, at it highest level, has the potential to be used against the Orthodox churches in the U.S.

Moving back to the question of autonomy and Orthodox unity in North America, I do not believe that it is coincidental that the Serbian and Greek Archdioceses, the two which have moved backward in terms of autonomy and openness to Orthodox unity, share two traits in common: they are the most explicitly ethnic of the jurisdictions, and they both have mother churches which either are or were politically oppressed when they made decisions breaking up their daughter churches and exercising more direct control. In other words, in a reverse from the situation which obtained with respect to the Moscow patriarchate and the Metropolia, political pressure or, alternatively, fear emanating from a siege mentality, have led these mother churches to attempt to control more directly their daughter churches.

Of course, these attempts to tighten control and authority are doomed to failure, in both practical and theoretical terms. As a practical matter, the mother churches exhibit woeful ignorance in their understanding of the realities of Orthodox church life in American society. They ignore the consequences of both ethnic and religious inter-marriage as well as the challenges posed by a confessionally pluralistic society which creates a religious marketplace. Instead, such mother churches operate under a false notion of diaspora and, insofar as they do recognize the ever-diminishing ethnic and mother-church identity of their faithful in North America, they naively believe that it can be remedied through language instruction, dance and youth groups, and greater control by the mother church over ecclesiastical affairs here.

Of course, most attempts to exercise greater control, because they are based in a false understanding of the realities of the church here, are unsuccessful and simply create animosity toward the mother church and strengthen the American faithful's resolve to become self-governing. Moreover, from a historical perspective, these attempts to govern from abroad are doomed to failure because no mother church has managed to maintain strong control over a geographically distant daughter church for very long. Finally, impeding the establishment of a self-governing local or regional church is theologically and ecclesiologically untenable. It cuts against the grain of Orthodox practice and replaces traditional Orthodox ecclesiology with a series of mini-Catholic models (or not so "mini" in the case of the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has meddled in the affairs of the Church of Russia in Estonia, Ukraine, and even its relations with the Vatican).

So, where have we come since Ligonier? Not nearly as far as most of us had hoped. Perhaps our American bishops have become too American. Rather than - as bishops in Greece would certainly have done - standing up to the Ecumenical Patriarch and other mother church hierarchs opposed to Ligonier, the American Orthodox bishops caved in to opposition from abroad and essentially retreated. Nevertheless, I believe that the autonomy granted by the Patriarchate of Antioch to the Antiochian Archdiocese bodes well for the future. Specifically, I optimistically foresee the OCA and Antiochian Archdiocese uniting to form the nucleus of a truly pan-ethnic autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, although it is unclear to me whether the autonomous Romanian Archdiocese and other smaller Orthodox jurisdictions will join them. The Serbian and Greek Archdioceses, however, will remain outside this unity as a result of ethnic insularity and opposition to unity from their mother churches (I believe that ethnic insularity plays a greater role in the Serbian Archdiocese, while maternal ecclesiastical opposition plays the greater role in the GOA). Unless and until conditions change in these two mother churches, I believe their two daughter churches will remain stagnant and insular, although maintaining cooperative ties with other Orthodox. However, I also believe that their numbers are likely to diminish over time, as less ethnic future generations "vote with their feet" and leave these archdioceses either for a united American Orthodox Church or, tragically, for non-Orthodox churches.

Paradoxically, I observe that at the same time that we are striving for unity across jurisdictions, we are becoming more internally divided within jurisdictions and even within parishes. I foresee this deepening rift creating a reorganization and reshaping of Orthodox jurisdictional lines in the future along the lines of two competing philosophies: on the one hand, the main American Orthodox church, with a dynamic and acculturating approach to Orthodox tradition and history; on the other hand, a smaller, perhaps uncanonical body, with a more static and sectarian approach to tradition and history, i.e., a traditionalist Orthodox church.

In reality, most people - and even churches - combine aspects of both these approaches, often in an unconscious and inconsistent manner. To give one example, traditionalists often insist that clergy should wear cassocks, not a clerical collar, and keep their beards and hair uncut because that is Orthodox tradition, as they believe. However, the historical evidence, both literary and artistic, is that clergy for many centuries had short hair and close-cropped beards and that monks - in the East as well as the West - retained their monastic tonsure (the shaving of the upper part of the head which always makes medieval monks look bald).

As for clerical attire, as late as the 18th or 19th century, drawings in the Benaki Museum in Athens depict a village priest dressed in typical village attire, not in specifically clerical garb.

In actual fact, the anteri (cassock) was monastic dress and only later came to be adopted by secular clergy; the exoraso (the robe with wide, flowing sleeves) and kalamafki (pillbox hat) which virtually all bishops and many priests wear comes from the judicial robes worn in the Ottoman Empire: during the Ottoman period, Orthodox clergy became judges and the ecclesiastical courts served as civil and criminal courts for intra-Orthodox disputes

Traditionalists are not the only ones guilty of an uninformed or hypocritical application of their model. Sometimes even those who in general follow the dynamic approach to tradition occasionally visit the traditionalist side, often with equally uninformed results. (I am applying here a "pox on both your houses" approach.)

For example, I was dismayed to read the statement just issued by the Holy Synod of the OCA, from their meeting at St. Tikhon's ten days ago. They were responding to a controversy, emanating largely from traditionalists, about the participation of girls in altar service. The synod, seeking to maintain "the integrity of the Church and its traditions reaffirms the ancient practice of the Orthodox Church that only males are to be admitted to service within the holy altar." This affirmation is, quite simply, factually false, and I am extremely distressed that, in the 21st century, a synod of Orthodox bishops theologically trained in the United States would make what most of them must have known to be an untruthful claim and then use it to buttress the exclusion of young women from a particular area of church service.

Granted, I know a bit more about this particular area than even most bishops. It has been one of my major areas of research for well over a decade now, and I am in fact completing revisions to a book on the liturgical participation of women in the Byzantine Church.

Nevertheless, modern Orthodox research on the ordained female diaconate in the Eastern Church began with Evangelos Theodorou's publication of his doctoral work on this topic in 1954 and 1955. Subsequent research over the past five decades, including my own, has proved conclusively that women were ordained at the altar and received the Eucharist from the bishop at the altar in the Byzantine Church. They were considered full deacons, although their diaconal functions did not include public liturgical service. However, these functional limitations were consistent with the cultural distinctions at that time between public and privates roles which men and women in general followed; they were not the result of canonical restrictions. There are no canons, for example, excluding female deacons from doing petitions during the liturgy. St. Nektarios, who ordained several nuns as deaconesses at the women's monastery he founded on the island of Aegina, ordained them in large part precisely so they could do petitions and therefore allow the nuns to enjoy fuller services (what is called the Liturgy of the Hours) when there was no priest.

The modern liturgical service of women is further evidenced in most Orthodox countries, where nuns serve as acolytes in their monasteries. Even in parish and cathedral settings, the bishops of the OCA, above all others, should be aware that non-monastic, non-ordained women help vest the clergy in the altar area of the large cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and no one blinks an eye.

As for boys and young men serving as robed acolytes, that is not even a traditional Orthodox practice to begin with (we have adopted it in this country from Roman Catholic practice), so there is no historical foundation to exclude girls and women from that role.

I cannot stress strongly enough how damaging this synodal statement is going to be to the spiritual and liturgical well-being of women and girls throughout the Orthodox Church. Orthodox lack of unity and ethnic insularity are not the only factors leading to the continuing exodus of cradle Orthodox from the Church. Faulty theological arguments and practices which exclude fully half of our faithful from broader liturgical participation play an important - and too often overlooked - role as well.

In conclusion, the above examples help to highlight the challenges facing us as we strive to bring to reality the vision of Ligonier, not only for Orthodox unity, but also for Orthodox mission and evangelism. Our churches are hampered in their quest for unity by threatened mother churches, by concerns over power and prominence among some of our hierarchs, and by lethargy and inertia on the part of our laity.

Our churches are hampered in their witness to Christ and His Church by a devotion to ethnicity over Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and by a traditionalist and sectarian mentality, on the other hand.

Yet, we have a canonical obligation to pursue Orthodox unity, and a dominical obligation - from the Lord himself - to mission and evangelism.

Nor can these obligations be divorced from each other: an essential problem with our limited Orthodox witness in North America is our lack of unity and the all-too-apparent reasons for that lack.

The two statements from Ligonier, on Orthodox unity and on mission and evangelism, are more than simply desiderata. They are a moral as well as ecclesiological mandate to the Orthodox in North America, and to fail to take them seriously is, I believe, essentially to sin. Let us, therefore, fulfill Christ's charge to us in Matthew: to help build His Church, against which "the gates of hell shall not prevail" (Matt. 16:18), by "teach[ing] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).


[1] John H. Erickson, Orthodox Christians in America, Religion in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 100.
[2] Ibid., p. 117.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 114.
[5] Ibid., p. 115.
[6] v. Serbian Orthodox Archdiocese.
[7] Andrew Walsh, "The Patriarch's Visit: Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters," Religion in the News 1:1 (Summer 1998)
[8] Ibid.

[ Razilaženje
   (Valerie Karras on Ligonier: A Traditionalist Response - By Hieromonk Patapios Agiogregorites,
   Holy Monastery of St. Gregory Palamas, Etna, CA)
   June 6, 2005 ]