An Orthodox question for 2010

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."

An Orthodox parable for today

MIAMI -- The elderly husband and wife were screaming at each other as they waited for an audience with the Orthodox archbishop of Tripoli. Metropolitan Theodosius VI could hear them and so could his young Lebanese assistant. Finally, the couple stormed into the office. They agreed on only one thing -- divorce.

"I will deal with you separately," said the archbishop. Then he gestured for his aide to linger. This was going to be a learning opportunity for Philip Saliba, a master class in the realities of church leadership. Half a century later, he remembers what he learned.

It helps to know that, Theodosius soon became patriarch of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the ancient church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Then in 1966, he consecrated Philip Saliba as metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

So the old world was teaching a lesson to the new world, a lesson that the 72-year-old Metropolitan Philip turned into an emotional parable during last weekend's 46th Archdiocese Convention, held at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach.

This was a parable about the growing pains of Eastern Orthodoxy in America, a story about trying to honor the past while facing the future. Grasp this parable, Philip told his priests and lay leaders, and you will begin to understand the hurdles facing churches in America as they strive to gain autonomy from the old country.

So here is the rest of the parable.

Theodosius asked the elderly husband what was wrong with his wife. He offered a familiar litany: She didn't cook, she didn't clean and she refused to shine his shoes. The husband left and the wife came in. She said her husband was lazy and unaffectionate. He gambled, drank too much and leered at other women.

The archbishop listened and then faced the two of them. Recalling that moment, Philip thickened his Lebanese accent to imitate his old teacher's voice. All Theodosius said was: "You are having very serious problems. Go home! Come see me next year!"

Philip was confused. He said he did not understand the wisdom of this response to the couple's fury. What was he supposed to have learned?

That is easy, said the archbishop. The husband and wife were very old. During the next year, they might kill each other. In a year, the odds were good that either the wife or the husband would die. That would solve the problem.

The audience laughed. Then Metropolitan Philip's voice grew serious. Never forget, he said, that people in the ancient lands of the East truly believe that "time and death" will solve most difficult problems.

The audience stopped laughing. This was the meaning of the parable.

After all, it had been two years since the American archdiocese -- which has grown from 66 to 228 parishes during his tenure -- overwhelmingly approved an appeal to the Holy Synod in Damascus for autonomy and the ability to manage more of its own affairs. And it had been two years since Metropolitan Philip survived a life-and-death showdown with heart disease.

Hotel hallways were buzzing with reports of calls from the Istanbul offices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, symbolic leader of the world's Orthodox churches, seeking delays in autonomy efforts affecting the growing churches in North America, and their bank accounts. After all, changes in the convert-friendly sanctuaries of the Antiochian archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russia roots, might spread to others -- even the Greeks.

Some leaders "in the East," said Metropolitan Philip, are convinced that if he dies, the autonomy issue will die. Delay the decision and time and death will solve the problem.

Shouting in Arabic and English, Philip vowed that he would not let this happen.

"No! No way," he said. "I will rise from the grave!"

Hours later, the conference approved -- by a 99.6 percent margin -- sending the latest draft of an autonomy resolution to the Holy Synod, a document prepared by leaders from America and the old country. The synod should meet in October, but recent meetings have been postponed.

In other words, the phrase "Byzantine politics" exists for a reason.

"If this step is delayed," Metropolitan Philip said, Orthodox unity in North America "will be set back for 100 years."