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CRISIS AND VISION
By Father James C. Meena
I wish to speak of today’s Orthodox man and his problems in North America. And I wish to share with you a vision for the future. But before I speak to you of vision allow me to speak of Crisis. . . or rather a group of crises which create challenges, which in turn require responses, which also in turn require vision.
Historically, the Orthodox man has always had a place to look for temporal hope whenever the Church suffered setbacks. A mini-glimpse at history takes us from Jerusalem, to Antioch, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Constantinople, to Russia and the Slavic countries, and now to North America.
With the exception of Antioch and Alexandria, the Orthodox man seldom had two safe harbors for Orthodoxy at the same time for very long. Yet it seems that God will not let our Orthodox Church die despite the machinations of those who would destroy Her. Here we are now, in North America . . . a free land where, for the first time, the Church is able to flourish and grow without interference or hindrance from despots and imperial decrees.
We have faced many challenges in the past and we have resolved them with faith and courage. We have tried to use our cherished freedoms to the best advantage of our Church. We have progressed, but still we face many crises today.
A part of the crisis, as I see it, is in the continuation of the separated hierarchies of the Orthodox Church functioning, as they do now, with a semblance of spiritual unity in which we mostly give lip service, but with no organic or administrative unity, nor even a functional unification of effort to help local Churches cope with the critical problems of our times which are too numerous to list here. And there are no signs of hope that, under the present system, any of this will improve in our generation.
A part of the crisis lies in the possible extension of the ethno-centric foundations upon which these several national hierarchies were founded after the Russian Revolution and upon which they have continued to base their reason for existence almost to the complete exclusion of other more urgent concerns. They seem to have no real sense of awareness of the mission of the Church in North America; no desire to extend the ministry of the Church beyond their own ethnic perimeters; no real wish to preach the Gospel of Christ. . . the Christ of Orthodoxy . . . to those in North America who have not heard it.
The crisis lies in the several abortive attempts on the part of the hierarchy of these fragmented jurisdictions to display at least a surface impression of unity. The most notable of these over the past decade has been the Standing Conference of the Bishops of America which has done little or nothing to fulfill its original intent to find and develop ways of unifying the Church in this land. In fact, certain members of that “Standing” Conference stand as barriers to progress rather than contributors thereto. I think it is safe for me to state that the Standing Conference, for the past several years, has stood, indeed . . . BUT NOT FOR MUCH!!!!
A part of the crisis is that we will be lulled into some sort of apathetic acceptance of the status quo . . . that we and others like us will come to believe that this is the destiny of Orthodoxy and that we are compelled to stand by helplessly as our beloved Church in North America withers and dies.
The crisis is that we will accept the false concept that we and others like us must withdraw deeper into our ethnic shells for our own self-preservation. Nothing could be more detrimental to our spiritual life.
The crisis is that we will become a part of the ever-increasing number of ethnic desert Islands of Orthodox people committed primarily to the preservation of a quasi-Arabic culture in the guise of a Church. . . ever more separated and isolated from other groups of Orthodox people who will become dedicated to similar principles and that, even worse, we will be divorced completely from the fulfillment of our Mission and Destiny in this great land.
The crisis, as I see it, lies in the likelihood that the mainstream of North American life will move past us, leaving us isolated in our self-imposed exile where the Church will be no longer a viable force for good as the Body of Christ, but will become instead little “museum piece churches” scattered in a few neighborhoods throughout the land where God will be called by several strange-sounding names and worshipped in tongues and rituals that will become even more alien to this ever forward-moving North American people. Then the Church will be not the Temple of the Godhead, not the Body of Christ, not the Family of God but instead it will degenerate into some sort of tribal-national-cultural-ethnic social club pretending to be and fooling itself into thinking it is a religious institution.
The crisis is that in these critical times, as giant forces in the Orthodox Church in North America become polarized. . . the one for a united Orthodox Church in America NOW. . . the other contending as it has for at least these past several years that the proposed union must be on its terms . . . that we Antiochians shall be counted and found wanting.
Now out of every crisis there comes a challenge, not the least of which is the choice we, as an Archdiocese that has always spearheaded the drive toward a uniquely “American” Church, will make and the direction we will follow. Will we align ourselves with that group which is already canonically self-governing and self-perpetuating or shall we cast our lot with those who, for various and obviously self-serving reasons oppose any move toward autocephaly which is not initiated and controlled by them?
Another challenge lies in our ability to make a decision and to map out a comprehensive plan of action which will result in our independence but which will not alienate our brothers and sisters in the Church of Antioch and the fathers of that Holy Synod, all of whom we very dearly love . . . a decision and plan that will help them to understand that it is fundamentally in the best interests of the Church, not only in North America but in Antioch as well, that we Orthodox on this continent be free, that we be self-headed (autocephalous) and that we be able to negotiate as equals with other self governing Orthodox groups so that the Orthodox Church in North America will be one.
The challenge lies in our ability to respond to all these crises with a plan of action that will help people understand that we are moving positively toward that which is constructive rather than negatively away from our former affiliations.
The vision for the future is simply this that the Orthodox Church be fulfilled as the Body of Christ in this land. . . that it be unshackled from all encumbrances that will hinder Her tomorrows as they have frustrated Her yesterdays. . . that all Orthodox people in North America might be united as an organic reality, functioning as a Church united in Christ rather than as nationality clubs divided by self-interests.
The vision? A Church united with its own Synodical existence in which each and all of us may continue to preserve those things of our ethnic heritage we choose to retain while we devote ourselves in common as ONE BODY, members of HIS FLESH and of HIS BLOOD and of HIS BONES, to the manifesting of the Gospel of Christ through ONE ORTHODOX CHURCH.
In the relay race of life, the baton of history is being passed to us. Will we have the skill, the dexterity, the athletic prowess of spirit to take it from Destiny’s hand? Will we have the courage to grasp it, the determination to cling to it . . . the commitment to run the race with it and to finish the course so that we might say with Saint Paul. . . we have “fought the good fight”, we have “kept the faith”?