America's Orthodox Christians, divided for decades among about 10 churches based on Greek or Serb or other ancestry, soon may be moving toward the formation of a united American Orthodox church.
Many of them have dreamed of that for decades, especially as conversions to Orthodoxy have skyrocketed. But most church patriarchs have squelched such talk.
Now it appears that the patriarchs are not only supporting but demanding some sort of unity. To explore what this may mean for believers in the United States, the independent, pan-Orthodox group Orthodox Christian Laity will gather for three days, starting Thursday, at Antiochian Village in Ligonier.
In 1994 that retreat center hosted the first and only gathering of all Orthodox bishops in North America. Believing they had approval from church patriarchs overseas, those bishops called for a united church in which the faithful would not be treated as "scattered children" of ancestral homelands.
But the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople -- the spiritual head of global Orthodoxy -- denounced it as a rebellion against the ancient church and replaced the Greek archbishop who had led it. The unity movement lay dormant for 15 years.
Then, in June, the 14 Old World patriarchs gathered in Chambesy, Switzerland, and declared that all Orthodox bishops outside of traditional Orthodox lands -- including North America -- will begin meeting to address their own issues in their own lands.
This week's lay conference will examine what it may take to achieve unity. There are significant questions about how ethnic traditions will continue to be honored and whether laity will have as much of a voice in a unified church as they have in some of the smaller ones.
The patriarchs "are asking the Orthodox Christians in the so-called lands beyond the ancient world to show that they can create a unified, multicultural church in their land. That's a very dramatic development," said George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity. The first meeting of American bishops is set for May.
The keynote speaker at Ligonier will be Metropolitan Jonah, leader of the Orthodox Church in America, a self-governing offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although it is one of the most Americanized bodies -- and he is a Chicago-born convert -- it potentially has much to lose in the formation of a new American church.
Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of an ancient church that split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054 in a dispute over papal authority. Its ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople -- modern-day Istanbul, Turkey -- has no authority over the other patriarchs, but is "first among equals." He has direct authority over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, which is at least 100 times the size of his flock in Turkey.
The Russian Orthodox Church began sending missionaries across the Bering Sea to Alaska before the American Revolution, and originally had jurisdiction over North America.
But after the Russian church was crippled by the 1917 communist revolution, many Orthodox bodies worldwide created a jumble of overlapping ethnic mission dioceses in North America. This violates church law, which dictates one bishop per city; Pittsburgh has several.
The June meeting in Switzerland was part of decades-long preparations for the first Great Council of Orthodox bishops since 787, which is expected to untangle the American hodge-podge.
"The idea of unity in America is really a very conservative movement," Mr. Matsoukas said. But it has been resisted from overseas, where churches that struggled under communism or Islam rely on American support.
Disputed estimates say there are at least 225 million Orthodox worldwide. The United States had claimed 5 million. But a study by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, found no more than 1.3 million -- roughly half of them Greek Orthodox.
It found that 90 percent of parishioners in the two largest bodies were American-born. More than half were converts.
"That was much more than I expected," said Alexei Krindatch, research director of the institute. He also found that overwhelming majorities of both bodies wanted unity.
No one from America attended the gathering in Switzerland. So no one from churches here knows why the patriarchs chose to call for unity now.
"The Orthodox unity project has been either stalled or losing ground since the 1970s. So this Chambesy thing, which came out of the clear blue sky, has some people really excited and many people puzzled about how things will work," said Andrew Walsh, an Orthodox historian at the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
Since the ill-fated 1994 Ligonier meeting, the ecumenical patriarch "has vigorously sent messages [to the Greek archdiocese] to be quiet about this. And people have been," Dr. Walsh said.
"But many people have been frustrated by these slow discussions on unity. What this means is that permission has been given for the Greek side to take it seriously."
Dr. Walsh, who is Greek Orthodox, said non-Greeks worry that the new structure will favor Greeks, in part because the next two strongest groups have been hamstrung by internal turmoil. The Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, which has its roots in the Middle East, had led the unity movement.
But the Orthodox Church in America is emerging from years of financial scandal. And an uproar over bishops' authority -- pitting some immigrant Arab priests against convert bishops -- has erupted among the Antiochians, who have a patriarch in Syria, but are an Americanized magnet for converts.
The sudden move for unity "is happening at a time when it's clear that tensions over how we will get along with one another -- especially the converts and ethnic Orthodox -- are looking really bad," Mr. Walsh said.
The Rev. John Abdalah, dean of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, said the Antiochian conflict has been blown out of proportion and is being resolved. He hopes to attend the Ligonier meeting.
"The more we all get to work together and to know each other intimately, the easier [unity] will be," he said.
The Rev. Thomas Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas, an Orthodox Church in America parish in McKees Rocks, has mixed feelings about the new call for unity.
He's elated that the ecumenical patriarch and Greek archdiocese now support unity, but worried that they may discount the Orthodox Church in America. The patriarchs decreed that the representative of the ecumenical patriarch -- the Greek archbishop -- will preside at the unified bishops assembly. Standing among the others appears to be ordered according to historic status in the ancient world.
That could give a major role to the Bulgarians, who have a handful of U.S. parishes, and minimize or eliminate the Orthodox Church in America, whose independence from Moscow has never been recognized by Constantinople, he said.
"The OCA is really at a crossroads. There are decisions being made about us, and we are unable to participate in those discussions," Father Soroka said.
He's not concerned about whether his team will have power, he said, but whether the unified church will take the gospel to mainstream America.
"The OCA has been extremely vocal that we are a missionary church," he said. "We're going to have to see whether this [bishops] assembly can articulate that mission, or whether it will fall back into an old-world mentality where the key words are 'maintain and preserve' rather than 'reach out and evangelize.' "
Metropolitan Maximos, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Pittsburgh and an architect of the ill-fated 1994 Ligonier conference, believes the Orthodox Church in America will have an important voice in the new body.
"I'm not worried about the Bulgarians," he said. In the movement for unity, "they don't mean that much. The OCA in itself means much and the Antiochian archdiocese means so much regarding Orthodox unity."
He won't be in Ligonier. But he is still working for unity. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew arrived Tuesday in the United States. Metropolitan Maximos plans to urge him to make unity a priority.
"He is a very wise person and I would like him to be fully involved in this project. There will be no progress without him," Metropolitan Maximos said.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.