What Does a Unified Orthodox Church Have to Offer America?
By Fr. Gordon Walker
Have you ever watched the evening news and become overwhelmed by the reports of corruption, violence, child abuse, murder, rampant immorality, and widespread disregard for law and order, only to be grieved even further by the misguided people commenting on this social distress? Have you cried out in your heart, “Oh God, what can we do to save America?”
Forces of darkness and evil, and those who would justify them, seem to be incredibly well organized and well funded. In times like these, what does the Orthodox Church have to offer America? It is my belief that we now have a great deal to offer America, but if and when we become truly unified under a single American primate, all that we have to offer will be greatly magnified.
From the outset, let me clarify that I am writing to Orthodox Christians who are American residents and citizens. We can certainly use the prayers and help of those of other lands. But it is a primary duty of a Christian citizen in any country to love his or her country and to pray for the redemption of that country. Not to love our country or to pray and work earnestly for its salvation is a grave sin. If you don’t honestly and sincerely love this nation, how can you expect to be a force for its redemption? As St. Herman of Alaska wisely said, “You cannot save what you do not love.”
Our Redemptive Role
The Lord Jesus Christ greatly loved His own Jewish nation, but He spoke and acted in such a way as to demonstrate His love for both Jews and Gentiles. His goal was to establish the New Jerusalem, the Church, the Kingdom of heaven on earth, which must encompass all peoples in and with the love of God. If we become focused only on our own kind, our own ethnic, social, or racial class or group, then we lose interest in caring for others, and we become a hindrance rather than a help to fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:18–20).
I realize God calls some of us to be foreign missionaries, and therefore our focus may be outside our own country. I am one of those, having made mission trips to seven African countries, the Middle East, Europe, the Far East, and Southeast Asia. But after all those trips and efforts to help foreign missions, I come home and agonize for my own country, which I love.
I truly believe Orthodoxy has much to offer our country that is healing and redemptive. But our lack of administrative unity, along with the lack of a shared vision of our redemptive role, is a great hindrance to bringing this to pass. There is no way we can calculate the lost opportunities for outreach and evangelism, the waste of duplicated efforts, the competition for the same resources to fund our institutions and organizations. In addition, we often refuse to cooperate with one another lest our particular “brand” of Orthodoxy fail to attain the predominance we wish it to have in the public arena.
Brothers and sisters, many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of these failings and more. Not that this is unusual, as almost all religious and secular institutions and organizations are caught up in this same struggle. However, God’s Holy Church should rise above these unworthy, self-centered motivations and actions. We all know this, and most of us feel ashamed of ourselves when we fall into them. But our lack of administrative unity and common vision, into which a truly holy patriarch could lead us, actually promotes and encourages these unrighteous failings. The Church was created for unity in love, not for factiousness.
In our fallen world, competition between companies, institutions, and even nations can be a good thing. It forces them to improve their products and services or go out of business, or fall into malaise. Perhaps this is the good aspect of our unspoken competitiveness among Church bodies and institutions. Something needs to keep us striving for perfection, which the Lord Jesus Christ admonished us to keep as our goal when He said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). However, this striving should properly be motivated by a desire to please God, not by a desire to outdo our neighbors. We should be helping each other to perfection, not racing to get there first.
Inward and Outward Unity
It is correct to say that in many important ways, Orthodoxy is unified in America. We share the same unchanged Nicene Creed, augmented by our faithful adherence to the ancient theology founded on Holy Scripture and enunciated by the Church Fathers and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. We are also unified in worship, using three of the most ancient liturgies of the Church (those of St. James, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom), the use of which is grounded in the church calendar. It is true that we are divided between those who use the old calendar and those on the new calendar. But the same Great Feasts are celebrated by all, even if at different times.
Another unifying force among us is our universal use of icons and the veneration we render to the Theotokos and all the saints. The worship, the theology, the carefully preserved Apostolic Traditions, the unchanging interpretations and understanding of the Scriptures and early patristic texts all convince me that the Orthodox Church is the place where one can find the fullness of the Christian Faith.
However, this affirmation does not give us any ground for arrogance or pride. All of these truths and realities that abound within Orthodoxy are truly gifts of God’s grace and are to be received by us in the utmost humility. But this should not keep us from strongly speaking up in behalf of the urgent need for an American patriarch and the ultimate unification of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America.
Of course this does not mean callously casting aside our Mother Churches. Every effort must be made to fulfill our obligations to them. But no healthy-minded mother wishes to keep her offspring in an unhealthily dependent relationship that would prevent their development to their full potential. I think it can be strongly declared that the Orthodox Church here in America has in no way reached its potential. In fact, there are many who feel that potential is being seriously hindered by the Mother Churches, that they often represent foreign interests and impede the development of a truly indigenous Orthodox Church in North America. Sadly, this is a kind of religious colonialism with no accountability, siphoning off resources and stifling initiative. Furthermore, this situation actively hinders the local decision-making process that is essential to a dynamic and growing local church.
A cursory glance at the non-Orthodox churches in America reveals bodies of people who support thousands of schools, universities, and seminaries and tens of thousands of foreign missionaries and institutions. For our part, we claim Orthodoxy has been on American soil for 200 years (which is true in a very limited geographical sense). Yet even if we claim only 100 years, we still stand embarrassed. The Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) can only lay claim to four small seminaries, which until lately were all struggling for survival. Our missionary endeavor, as wonderful as it is, is very small compared to the needs. We have no universities and very few parochial schools, secondary schools, or colleges. Many of us believe that if the Mother Churches gave their blessing to an American patriarchate, all these means of outreach would greatly escalate, and our efforts to support and care for the Mother Churches would escalate as well.
How Should We Act?
However, since we do not yet have a patriarch, what should we do and how should we act until we do? St. Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 4 and 5.
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called . . .” (Eph. 4:1)
First we are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as Orthodox Christians. This requires us to have attitudes of lowliness and gentleness, not haughtiness. We are to be longsuffering, bearing with (putting up with) one another in love.
“. . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3)
We are to endeavor (this word indicates an earnest continued effort) to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Thus we should act as if we had an American patriarch—working hard at keeping peace among our jurisdictions and parishes. If we follow St. Paul’s injunctions, our parishes will go out of their way to cooperate lovingly with one another, to support one another’s programs to the full extent we are able.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling . . .” (Eph. 4:4)
We must keep in mind that we are fundamentally one body, not multiple jurisdictions. And we serve together within the one Holy Spirit. The one hope of our calling is the joyful anticipation of better things to come.
“. . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:5, 6)
Our unity is based on having one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, the faith once for all given to God’s holy people. And we share one baptism, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our unity is also based on one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.
“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’” (Eph. 4:7, 8)
We all have been given a special measure of grace by Christ Jesus, and we are expected to put that gift to work in the Church. The one who gives these gracious gifts is He who was crucified and buried and descended into Hades to free the captives there. Then He ascended into glory to present His trophies of grace to the Father before returning to earth in His resurrected body. Later in this passage, St. Paul discusses the gift of special ministers and ministries “for the perfecting of the saints [here he means all true believers] for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.”
“. . . till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . .” (Eph. 4:13)
Our great goal: All of us are to come to the unity of the faith and the full knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man—till we measure up to full Christlikeness. Unity is all important to the witness, the function, and the growth of the Church!
“. . . that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ . . .” (Eph. 4:14, 15)
We as individuals, as parishes, and as a national church, need to stop being children (which means to stop being and acting in a childish manner), but grow up into Christ. Our goal is the full maturity of Christ Himself. We are not to be blown about “by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,” which seems to be what has prevented our national church from being able to take shape and move into maturity and Christlikeness. However, in this time of trouble and uncertainty, we must always “speak the truth in love,” not for self-aggrandizement.
“. . . from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:16)
The growth of the Church will happen naturally when the whole body is in good health and working in peace and harmony.
“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Eph. 4:29—5:2)
After giving many wonderful, practiced admonitions in verses 17–28, St. Paul admonishes us to speak wisely and lovingly, that our speech “may impart grace to the hearers.” Then he gives a solemn warning: “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Divisive contentiousness causes great difficulty in the body of Christ and hinders our growth to maturity. We must rather “be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgives you.”
Striving to Please God
Brothers and sisters, the great question before us is clear: Are we pleasing God or grieving the Holy Spirit? Grieving the Holy Spirit has always been viewed as a very serious and dangerous matter. If we are doing all in our power to encourage and work toward a unified Orthodox Church in America, I believe we will be pleasing to God. On the other hand, if we are obstructing this great and necessary process, I fear we may be grieving the Holy Spirit.
If we are unified in love and in the Holy Spirit, we will be willing to give up our “turf” for the sake of a truly unified Church. But if we lack the humility and love needed to surrender our jurisdictions and submit ourselves to a truly unified body, led by a holy patriarch who loves this country and deeply desires its redemption, then I believe we stand in danger of severe judgment.
May God have mercy on us all!
The Very Rev. Gordon Walker is pastor emeritus of St. Ignatius Church in Franklin, Tennessee. He served for six years on the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese, and is still actively involved in missions both in North America and overseas.
This article was published in AGAIN Vol. 28 No. 2, Summer 2006, a special issue dedicated to Orthodox unity.