Throughout his 16-city U.S. tour, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has faced a good news, bad news situation.
The good news is that Orthodox Christianity is growing in America. Then again, the bad news is that Orthodox Christianity is growing in America. This creates tensions. As the Old World's symbolic leader, Bartholomew has offered many glowing words of praise, and some sharp criticisms, of the New World's feisty flock.
"Orthodox Christians, who live in a country where full religious freedom reigns and where adherents of various religions live side by side, ... constantly see various ways of living and are in danger of being beguiled by certain of them, without examining if their way of life is consonant with the Orthodox Faith," he said, at Holy Cross Seminary. "Already, many of the old and new Orthodox ... are stressing different, existing deviations from correct Orthodox lives."
Many Americans use "worldly criteria" to judge church leaders, said Bartholomew, who is considered the "first among equals" among Orthodox patriarchs. Other converts are, due to ignorance, hanging on to Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings or arbitrarily altering liturgies. This can be observed in the way some Americans sing their chants or in the style of icons they venerate. Some fail to grasp Orthodox architecture or yearn to sit down too much during worship.
Bartholomew couldn't have chosen a more symbolic place to deliver this sobering sermon on Oct. 30. The Brookline, Mass., seminary has been at the heart of a bitter dispute in the church.
Last winter, a Palestinian seminarian punched a Greek priest after refusing repeated sexual advances during a dormitory party. The faculty disciplinary committee investigated and urged expulsion for the Greek. Instead, Archbishop Spyridon of America deposed the school president and fired three faculty members on the disciplinary panel. Many screamed "cover-up" and Greek-American newspapers have carried reports about a powerful clique of homosexual priests and monks close to the hierarchy.
"This storm isn't about American rebels rejecting the authority of their bishops," said Dean Popps of McLean, Va., a leader in a network of angry laity. "This is about corruption and immorality and incompetence."
Greek politics also have affected attempts to build unity among America's dozen other Orthodox jurisdictions, each with its own foreign ties. In 1994, an unprecedented conference of American bishops called for the birth of a true American Orthodox church. But Bartholomew crushed the effort. On Oct. 25, a ranking prelate linked to that effort publicly told Bartholomew that it's time for Orthodoxy to stop being a "tribal," "ghetto" faith in this mission field.
"While we profess our conviction that the Orthodox Church is catholic and apostolic, we live in a way which gives priority to cultural and ethnic loyalties," said Metropolitan Theodosius of the body known as the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russian Orthodoxy. "While we know very well that we are united in the Orthodox Faith ... we present ourselves as divided and even competitive communities. Thus, what we profess and affirm as our faith is contradicted by how we live and act as a church."
In reply, Bartholomew said these words placed a "heavy burden" on him.
There are other signs of division. Reports continue that Bartholomew will carve the Greek archdiocese here into several districts, each with a bishop directly beholden to him. The divided U.S. flock would lose clout and stay under Istanbul's control. Meanwhile, the future of the unified Orthodox Christian Mission Center is unclear and conflicts continue about Spyridon's role in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America.
At some point, the mother church must stop dominating its child, said Harry Coin, a Boston-area layman who runs an Internet site -- www.voithia.org -- about the controversies. "Voithia" is Greek for "help."
"No one wants to make some big change in our tradition, like having female priests. And this isn't about doctrine. No one is debating who Christ is," he said. "But we do need bishops and archbishops who understand that an American church is growing and can accept that. ... We also need trustworthy men who will be solid moral examples for all the people who are coming into our churches."