Arab Christians

Voice for Orthodox unity -- from Brooklyn

The rites were quiet, yet elaborate, and drew small clusters of dedicated worshippers out of their homes on a Saturday morning and into Byzantine sanctuaries across the nation.

Somewhere in each church stood an icon of a dignified Arab wearing the rich liturgical vestments of an Eastern Orthodox bishop. The worshippers took turns kissing the icon and chanters gave thanks to God for the work of the new saint whose name still causes smiles -- St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

"It isn't every day that you hear the word 'Brooklyn' used in a Divine Liturgy," said Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, the priest in my own parish near Baltimore. "St. Raphael is important not only because he lived a remarkable life, but because of where he came from and who he was. He is a wonderful symbol for Orthodox unity in America. ...

"Our church was unified in his day and we pray it can be unified again."

Father Raphael Hawaweeny came to the United States in 1895 and became the first Eastern Orthodox bishop consecrated in this land. He was known as the "Good Shepherd of the Lost Sheep in America."

St. Raphael was canonized in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has Russian roots, in cooperation with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its ancient ties to the Middle East. The OCA celebrates St. Raphael's feast day on Feb. 27, the date of his death.

This monk, priest, diplomat, scholar, missionary and bishop traveled a risky and complicated road on the way to Brooklyn, a fact noted by chanters during the rites last weekend. One of the prayers said: "Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart and Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice: Alleluia."

In other words, each Orthodox flock can lay some claim to this particular saint. There are about 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States and 250 million worldwide. While the church has grown in America, primarily through converts from evangelical and mainline Protestant pews, the Orthodox map here remains a crazy quilt of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

But there are signs of unity in combined programs for foreign missions, relief efforts and education. And last month, Father Thomas Hopko, one of America's most respected Orthodox scholars, dared to produce a rough-draft of a plan for unity. While Hopko is an OCA priest, his essay was published by the Antiochian archdiocese.

Both of these churches now worship in English and include large numbers of converts at their altars and in their sanctuaries. Their most vital parishes are becoming more and more alike, he noted.

"The seven Antiochian bishops include three born in America, one of whom is a convert to Orthodoxy," wrote Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. The OCA offers "nine bishops born in the USA, one born in Canada, one in Mexico, one in Bulgaria and one in Romania. Eight of the 13 OCA bishops are converts to Orthodoxy. ...

"What an impressive synod these bishops could form to govern a unified Orthodox Church in North America!"

Any attempt to accomplish this would lead to an outbreak of Byzantine politics, especially in Greece, Turkey and Syria. Hopko admitted that it would take years to handle issues of assets, property, diocesan borders and lines of authority.

What would the Greeks do? Who would make the first move? How would a united synod select a patriarch? On this question, Hopko suggested that each church select one candidate and the primate would be "chosen by lot," with a senior priest picking "his name from a chalice after an All-night Vigil, Divine Liturgy and Service of Prayer."

The key is to regain the vision briefly seen in the work of the first Orthodox missionaries to North America -- like St. Raphael.

"All Orthodox churches in the United States, Canada and Mexico would be invited to join in the common work of the new church," wrote Hopko. "No Orthodox would be excluded. All Orthodox would be welcome.

This could take place by 2008, according to Hopko.

It would take sacrifice and cooperation and a shepherd who can command the trust of the Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Slavs and the Americans.

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."