Orthodox bishops in America are now free to use the A-word.
That's autocephaly -- meaning a self-governing church that doesn't answer to an authority overseas. America is now divided into overlapping ethnic jurisdictions, most of which answer to a church in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Many of those overseas churches had squelched talk of autocephaly for their mission dioceses in places such as the Americas and Australia. But in June they unanimously called for all bishops in each of those regions to assemble and make decisions about their own territories.
"It is a transition that will lead us, as quickly as possible, to our goal of a united, autocephalous American Church," said Metropolitan Jonah, national leader of the Russian-rooted Orthodox Church in America. The Russian Orthodox Church declared his church autocephalous in 1970, but that wasn't recognized by other patriarchs, leaving Metropolitan Jonah's status in the new body uncertain.
He encouraged the national conference of Orthodox Christian Laity, which met in Ligonier this week, to embrace the new unity process. It will have far greater impact on bishops and priests than on laity, he said, but the laity will be crucial to the changes that count.
"Part of the challenge is simply to be together: to work together, to pray together, and for our children to grow up together, our seminarians to study and pray together and our people to marry one another. There is a gradual process of integration that will take generations and will eventually result in a completely unique American Orthodoxy," he said in a Thursday night speech.
When the Russian Orthodox Church declared the Orthodox Church in America autocephalous in 1970, it hoped that would be the basis of a single American church. Instead, Metropolitan Jonah said, all jurisdictions, including his own, must give up their own structures to form a new church.
"When the time comes for that autocephaly, then the vision that we were given in 1970 will be fulfilled in something much greater than we are ourselves," he said. Creation of such a church will require a Great Council of the global church, which has been in the planning stages for decades.
Many speakers addressed what American Orthodoxy might look like, urging that it focus on outreach to all Americans. Christopher Shadid, 22, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said that campus Orthodox fellowships are already models of unity where students worship without ethnic distinction.
"The youth want unity," he said.
While a new American church mustn't be limited by ethnicity, it must honor all of its heritages, Metropolitan Jonah said. He suggested using his own church's model of having both territorial dioceses and non-geographical dioceses for parishes that need ethnic ministries.
"We need to ... figure out a way in which not only our history but all of the other histories -- the Romanian experience, the Albanian experience, the Greek experience -- all of that is seen not as just their experience but our common experience," he said.
A united American Orthodoxy will be more effective than the current ethnic groups in lobbying for the rights of persecuted Christians in Turkey, Sudan and elsewhere, he said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the first among equals of the Orthodox patriarchs, is visiting the U.S. this week and next. Metropolitan Jonah met with him, and felt encouraged by the patriarch's public words and their private conversation.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.