Orthodox Christians take steps toward unity


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As Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter today, they have resurrected a movement toward unity in America, where they are divided into a hodgepodge of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions. On orders from patriarchs in Constantinople, Russia, Serbia and elsewhere, all Orthodox bishops in this country are working on a plan for one American Church.

The patriarchs say they want to approve such a plan at a yet-unscheduled Great and Holy Council of global Orthodoxy. The last such council was in A.D. 787. In 2010, 66 American bishops formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, to devise the plan.

"This has great potential," said Bishop Melchisedek of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the Orthodox Church in America, which is self-governing but has Russian roots. He cited existing differences on matters such as divorce or re-baptism of converts.

"The canon law of the church allows for only one bishop of a city, but here in Pittsburgh we have four. It's a situation that can create unnecessary conflict. Now we have the potential for the church to speak with one voice."

Skeptics say unity can be achieved immediately if the bishops really want it and that details could be worked out later.

The bishops assembly "is a façade," said Cal Oren, a layman from Baltimore.

"They want us to believe that they are working together and are really unified. If they are really unified, where is the real unity? Why do we have nine bishops of New York? We don't need more joint commissions on youth work. That just creates an excuse for never really unifying."

Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of a Christian church that split into the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054. Its spiritual leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in modern-day Turkey, is first among equals. He has no authority to tell any other patriarch what to do.

This system of governance that they trace to New Testament times broke down in the New World. Immigrants started churches and then sought priests from the Old Country, giving rise to multiple, overlapping jurisdictions. The Russian Orthodox Church sent a bishop to serve all ethnic groups, but that ended after the communist Revolution of 1917.

In 1970 the Moscow Patriarchate set free its daughter diocese in the United States to become the Orthodox Church in America. But that wasn't recognized by the other patriarchs, who still govern dioceses here. There are now 13 Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, with 800,000 members. The Pittsburgh region is a stronghold, with perhaps 25,000 adherents.

In 1994, when all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas gathered near Ligonier and called for unity, the ecumenical patriarch accused them of rebellion.

"When we started this work 20 years ago it was anathema to talk about the possibility of administrative unity. Now we're not only talking about it, but hopefully the hierarchs will be looking at what is necessary to accomplish it," said Charles Ajalat, a retired lawyer from Southern California, chairman of the pan-Orthodox social service agency FOCUS.

Planning for a Great Council to redraw boundaries started in 1961. Little progress was made until the Iron Curtain fell. That freed the largest churches from persecution, and sent new waves of emigrants to the West. In 2009 the patriarchs asked the Orthodox bishops in 12 regions of the globe to plan for unity. The American bishops have asked the patriarchs to let them break into separate groups for Canada, the United States and Mexico-Central America.

"The United States is the laboratory where this will work out, because we are the biggest and most developed and most complicated," said Andrew Walsh, a Greek Orthodox layman who is associate director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Both supporters and skeptics of the Bishops Assembly say the problem isn't merely bureaucratic, but spiritual. In 1872 the idea of one bishop planting an ethnic church in another bishop's territory was condemned as a nationalist heresy.

"These divisions are not authentic to our faith and should not be tolerated," said the Rev. Josiah Trenham, an Antiochian priest from Riverside, Calif., the media relations officer for the Assembly of Bishops.

"If this doesn't work, nothing will," he said of the assembly.

"The mother churches are requiring us to come together. They said we'll give you an opportunity to draw the road map and present it to us, or we will do it for you. That's like lighting a fire under the clerical leadership in America. We don't want someone else solving our problems from elsewhere."

Skeptics believe the assembly will be undermined by rivalry between the overseas patriarchates, particularly Moscow and Constantinople. The latter, with 3,000 resident members, is so constricted by the Turkish government that it needs parishes elsewhere to survive. Moscow, the largest patriarchate with 164 million members, is asserting renewed strength since the fall of communism.

George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, which advocates American unity, said he was once promised that the Great Council would convene by 2000. "Now, you read that they are in disagreement about convening it because they can't agree about who should convene it," he said.

The American assembly "is a step in the right direction, but they're not doing anything. It's mired in the affairs of the Old World."

Metropolitan Savas, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Pittsburgh, said the patriarchs aren't trying to delay the Great Council.

"There are several reasons why it has taken so long. The first is that we don't have an emperor to summon it. That's how they were all called in the past" when there was still an emperor, he said. "There are questions such as does each bishop get one vote, or do we vote in blocks? Does the Moscow Patriarchate have one vote or 750? They've got something like 500 dioceses."

The Rev. Radu Bordeianu, associate professor of theology at Duquesne University and president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America, believes that Americans sometimes see overseas resistance where none exists. Father Bordeianu, a Romanian Orthodox priest who serves a Greek Orthodox parish, used to accept the axiom that churches overseas want to keep financial support from America.

But after talking to some bishops "I realized that the so-called mother churches are materially supporting the small jurisdictions in the United States," he said. "I was very surprised."

There are tensions between converts -- who have entered the priesthood in large numbers -- and ethnic Orthodox. There has been conflict in and between jurisdictions here. In 2010, the Antiochian diocesan bishops were demoted to auxiliaries stripped of most of their power. Thirty years after declaring the Orthodox Church in America self-governing, the Russian Orthodox Church began planting parishes in the United States and reunited with the formerly schismatic Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

At the Assembly, "a lot of the work right now is simply getting to be comfortable with each other's presence," said Metropolitan Savas. It includes "three different churches that came out of the Russian experience but didn't acknowledge the legitimacy of one another. The fact that they are present and sitting around the same table and communicating is a major advance."

Committees are examining jurisdictional differences in matters from church government to liturgy. They commissioned a study that found they had less than one-third of the 3 million members they once claimed.

Although no one rejoiced, "this means that we might start planning for the real Orthodox Church, not the fantasy Orthodox Church," Mr. Walsh said.

Such work isn't a stalling tactic, Metropolitan Savas said.

"Defining our task is important. What is it we want to achieve? How can we better demonstrate our unity of faith? Does it mean that we have to speak the same liturgical language?" he said.

Metropolitan Savas hopes the bishops will begin to form regional synods and work together.

"Right now we are on parallel tracks. We pretty much ignore one another. That has implications for church planting," he said.

Father Trenham says a united church would cut many overall administrative costs by a factor of 10, saving millions of dollars.

"We've done some things to try to collaborate, but it's nothing compared to what it would be if we were one church. This is an incalculable waste of resources that no business would ever tolerate," he said.

Unity is crucial to the church's ability to carry out Christ's mission in America, Mr. Ajalat said.

"Right now people see all of these jurisdictional divisions and they get confused. They think that all of them are separate churches, like Protestant denominations, but they're not," he said. "The Orthodox see themselves as one church. They are one church in doctrine and worship and episcopacy. It's this administrative problem that needs to be solved."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com.


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