[Christianity Today Online, July 26, 2004]
On July 16, delegates to a special convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America met in Pittsburgh to adopt a constitution that will usher in a new era of self-rule. Those who find the workings of the Orthodox Church already Byzantine will be further confused by this action. Is it an act of rebellion, as if the Catholic Church in Ireland broke away from Rome?
No. It’s actually a movement toward unity. The Orthodox Church has a less-centralized form of government than the Roman Catholic Church does. In Orthodoxy each nation is expected to have its own self-governing administration, while all honor the Patriarch of Constantinople as a spiritual leader. So in Romania there is a Romanian Orthodox Church; in Greece, a Greek Orthodox Church; in Russia, a Russian Orthodox Church.
So what are these Romanian, Greek, and a dozen other Orthodox churches doing here? Why don’t we have an American Orthodox Church instead? The short answer is: the Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1794 Russian monks crossed the Bering Strait, bringing Christianity to the northwest corner of the North American continent. (The monks’ letters express joy that the Gospel is being received by "the Americans," by which they mean Inuit, Aleut, and other Alaska natives.) The Orthodox mission spread south along the California coast, and in theory would have continued east until it covered the continent. The Russian church would have guided Americans toward self-rule, until a full-grown American Orthodox Church was ready to stand on her own feet.
But the revolution that toppled Russian government in 1917 disrupted communication between mother and daughter church. At the same time, immigrants from traditionally Orthodox nations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East began to arrive on the east coast. As they spread along the Rust Belt and then throughout the continent, each worshipping community established parishes where they could hear the liturgy in their own language. (Orthodoxy has always used the vernacular in worship; one of the Russian monks’ early tasks in Alaska was developing alphabets for local, previously-unwritten languages). These immigrant churches were bound together by ethnic and language ties, and were sustained by a dozen different "old country" mother churches. These separate "jurisdictions" (not "denominations") use the same prayers and liturgies, observe the same feasts and fasts, and are in communion with each other. The only thing keeping them apart is administrative: the "temporary" structures set up to serve the flood of immigrants a century ago.
In 1994 Orthodox bishops from the various jurisdictions gathered in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and agreed to work toward a united church. One approach is for each to be granted independence from its "mother church;" independent bodies can then combine into a united American church. It’s a prospect that has enthusiastic support among American Orthodox of all backgrounds, although the Ecumenical Patriarch and other leaders overseas have opposed such independence.
Three Orthodox bodies in America are the largest: Russian, Greek, and Antiochian (mostly composed of Arab Christians and those from the Middle East.) The Russian Orthodox were granted independence in 1970, and are now known as the Orthodox Church in America. The Antiochian Orthodox conference in Pittsburgh continues the process of independence for that body. The third group, the Greek Orthodox, have been having the most contentious experience, as laity desiring independence have had bitter clashes with church leaders.
A united American Orthodox Church will be much better able to speak for itself in the American culture, better able to partner with Protestants and Catholics in joint projects, better able to do outreach, evangelize, and serve. If not for the accidents of history, we would have had that united Church a century ago. The Antiochian conference is one more step toward a unity that is long overdue.