The first Orthodox missionaries to reach Alaska traveled with the early Russian explorers and, in 1794, a party of monks established the Orthodox Christian Mission to America. When Orthodox believers venerate icons of the "Saints of North America," many of the images are of missionaries. One is St. Herman of Alaska, a pioneer monk, and another is St. Innocent, an early missionary bishop. Then there is St. Tikhon of Moscow, who envisioned one united Orthodox body in America, a church without ethnic divisions. He later became Russia's patriarch, but died a martyr in the Bolshevik era.
"Before the 1920s, there was only one jurisdiction in North America -- that of the Russian Orthodox Church, which, as we know, was open to ... the widest variety of ethnic communities," said Archbishop Justinian of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, during last week's Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs in North and Central America.
"Much has changed since that time. The tumultuous events of the 20th Century forced many citizens of traditionally Orthodox countries to leave their native homes and seek refuge in other countries, which led to the rise of large ethnic Orthodox communities beyond the boundaries of corresponding local churches."
But the key to conditions today, he stressed, is the fact that an "increasing number of our faithful belong to the Orthodox Church not as the result of their ethnic background, but of a conscious choice in favor of Orthodoxy's truth."
There's the rub, the source of one of the tensions that pulled the bishops behind tightly closed doors in New York City. Even in the public speech texts, it was clear they were wrestling with this question: Is America best described as a mission field in which Orthodoxy is growing or as a strange land in which immigrants have found shelter during a painful diaspora era?
How the hierarchs answer that question will help shape the future, especially if there is to be a way to unite Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Ukrainians, Serbs, Romanians and other Orthodox believers into one American church, with one hierarchy -- as required by Orthodox tradition.
If America is truly a mission field, that would favor the Russian roots of the Orthodox Church in America, which now worships in English. Its claim to be an autocephalous, or independent, national church is based on a declaration to that effect by leaders of the giant Russian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, a "diaspora" framework favors leadership claims by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, the symbolic, "first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs.
Last week's assembly was led by Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and was one of 12 meetings in regions containing multiple Orthodox bodies. However, Demetrios declined Bartholomew's request to exclude Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America. Jonah was seated as a bishop -- but not as the OCA primate. He is a convert to the faith.
At this point, said Demetrios, it's impossible to end the overlapping jurisdictions, which means that bishops from ethnically defined flocks control their own parishes in the same locations. America is both a mission field and part of a diaspora phenomenon caused by immigration, he said. So the new Episcopal Assembly is in control -- for now.
"The vital presence of our churches ... world bears witness to the ongoing work of pastoral care of our flocks who have moved around the globe," he said. "It also bears witness to the continuous preaching of the Gospel that has brought an abundance of converts to the faith. Neither of these realities stands in opposition to the other. They are merely the facts of our existence."
But it's time to see the big picture, stressed Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, another flock affected by thousands of converts. If anyone is living in diaspora, he claimed, it's the tiny Orthodox flocks in Jerusalem, Constantinople and other besieged Old World cities.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox in America, he said, are "no longer little children to have rules imposed on us from 5,000 miles away. Orthodoxy in America has its own ethos. We have our own theological institutions and we have our own theologians, authors, publications and magazines. ... We have been here for a long, long time and we are very grateful to the Almighty God that in our theology and worship, we do express the fullness of the Holy Orthodox faith."