Note: This article was first published Dec. 3, 1994.
At their historic first conference, the Orthodox bishops of North America have declared that theirs is one church -- not fragmented ethnic jurisdictions -- and are calling on their mother churches overseas to recognize this.
The 30 bishops from the United States and Canada who gathered at a retreat center in Ligonier this week have asked that Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East stop referring to them as "the diaspora." The word means people who have dispersed to non-Orthodox lands.
"We have become an indigenous church. We are not the scattered children of Israel, who created the word. We are one in faith, one in discipline, one in canon law, one in worship, one in soul and one in mission," said Archbishop Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.
"Our hope and prayer is to be recognized as one Orthodox church in North America."
About 15 Orthodox primates from North America have been meeting for more than 30 years. But this was the first meeting open to every bishop, which is a basic requirement for a national bishops conference. During the meeting they decided to hold such a conference every year.
The situation of Orthodox churches in the Americas has long been problematic because, under Orthodox canon law, there can be only one Orthodox church in each nation and one Orthodox bishop for each locality. But because it was founded on immigration, North America has become a crazy quilt of overlapping ethnic dioceses that are considered mission outposts of overseas churches. In blatant violation of canon law, some cities, including Pittsburgh, have multiple Orthodox bishops.
It is time for that to end, the bishops said.
Although "only God knows" how long it will take to achieve full administrative unity in North America, the meeting in Ligonier was a momentous step along that road, said Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in North America.
"There was a tremendous movement ... that we call the power of the Holy Spirit. All the bishops felt the grace of the Holy Spirit had gathered us from all parts of the continent to express our oneness, which already exists.
"All of us agreed that administrative unity is inevitable. ... That is why we are trying to intensify our dialogue with our mother churches, to make them understand our reality right here on this continent."
After two days of closed discussions, the bishops issued a short statement on unity and another on missions and evangelism.
Their unity statement speaks of the continuing plans for a Great Council representing all of the Orthodox churches worldwide. No date has been set, but it will be the first such council since 787. One of its goals would be to straighten out the jurisdictional havoc in North America, Australia and elsewhere. It is widely held that only a Great Council can officially create an independent, united North American Orthodox Church.
In their paper, the American bishops protested that they had not had a voice at the planning meetings in Geneva, Switzerland.
"We maintain that it is critical that the church in North America be directly and concretely represented at future meetings. How is it possible for there to be discussion about the future of the Church in North America in our absence? We must be present to share 200 years of experience that we have had of preaching the gospel and living the Orthodox faith outside of those territories that have historically been Orthodox," they wrote.
"Furthermore, we have agreed that we cannot accept the term 'diaspora' as used to describe the church in North America. In fact, the term is ecclesiologically problematic. It diminishes the fullness of the faith that we have lived and experienced here for the past 200 years."
The bishops pledged to continue efforts already under way to achieve continental, regional and local unity among all Orthodox believers. Of roughly 5 million Orthodox Christians in the United States, about 150,000 live in the Tri-State area.
Their request for recognition as a true American church may not be greeted with universal joy, Iakovos conceded. It will be received by the mother churches "not without any question, not so readily and gladly," he said.
But this is less a statement to the overseas hierarchy than to the Orthodox youth of America, he said.
"There are many young people in our church who speak of one church and publish books and periodicals about one Orthodox church. We have listened to their voice and, God willing, we may satisfy their quest," he said.
In their statement on evangelism, the bishops pledged to work together to continue the missionary heritage of Orthodoxy.
"We believe that our task in North America is not limited to serving the immigrant and ethnic communities, but has at its very heart the missionary task, the task of making disciples in the nations of Canada and the United States," they wrote.
Priests should especially use the opportunity that marriage preparation provides to teach young people about the faith and integrate them into the church, the document said.
"We have a country in which there are more than 60 million unchurched people, and others who are trying to discover the New Testament church, the church that was born at Pentecost," Philip said.
"We have two kinds of missions. One is to unchurched Americans and those seeking knowledge of the truth. And the other is to unorthodoxized Orthodox -- those born and baptized Orthodox who don't know much about Orthodoxy."