The 1967 Metropolia straw vote was a turning point in the history of Orthodoxy in North America. In 1968, a lengthy series of public and private negotiations were begun in yet another attempt to resolve the outstanding differences between the Metropolia and the Russian Church. In 1970, during a brief period of Soviet-American detente, the Russian Church dropped its former demands. Mother and daughter churches reconciled. The Metropolia was officially given “autocephaly” (independence), while oversight of the Japanese Orthodox Church, since 1945 under the Metropolia, was returned to the Russian Church as an “autonomous” church.
The Metropolia quickly changed its name to “The Orthodox Church in America” (OCA), canonized the first American Orthodox saint, Herman of Alaska, and extended an invitation to all Orthodox bodies in America to unite with it. In a “Message to all Orthodox Christians in America” the bishops, clergy and laity of the OCA asked:
How can the world accept and believe our claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of having kept in its fulness the Orthodox faith, if we ourselves are divided? We have the same faith, the same Tradition, the same hope, the same mission. We should then constitute one Church, visibly, organically, fully ... There can be no excuse for our jurisdictional divisions, alienation from one another, and parochialism. The removal of such divisions and the organic unity of all Orthodox in America is the goal of our Church. We invite you to become part of the unity.
But we also know and fully acknowledge that we have come from different backgrounds and have been nourished by various traditions within the same and unique Orthodox Tradition. We firmly believe that this variety constitutes the richness of American Orthodoxy and that what is true, noble, inspiring, and Christian in our various customs and practices ought to be fully preserved, and if possible, shared. Therefore although we insist that the One Orthodox Church here must be the home of all, we equally stress that there must be no loss of our respective national and cultural heritages and certainly no domination of any group by any other group, but a full equality, total trust, and truly Christian brotherhood.
This has remained the official position of the Orthodox Church in America to this day.
The Autocephaly Debate
One large jurisdiction, the Romanian Orthodox Missionary Episcopate, had already joined the Metropolia in the early 1960’s. Soon after autocephaly the Albanian Church in America (1971), the Bulgarian Diocese in America (1976), as well as several individual parishes of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church in North America petitioned to join the new body. The OCA also extended its canonical protection to scattered Orthodox parishes in Australia. The OCA’s Mexican Exarchate was created through the mass conversion (some 10,000 persons) of the entire Mexican National Catholic Church to Orthodoxy in 1972.
Despite enthusiasm and initial success, the new “Orthodox Church in America” was not welcomed by all Orthodox. Orthodox Churches behind the Iron Curtain, led by the Russian Church, recognized the new status and name of the old Metropolia, while others, led by the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate, adamantly refused to accept even the idea of an autocephalous “Orthodox Church in America.” These Greek-led churches based their opposition to the OCA on the long-standing Greek claim that the Ecumenical Patriarchate alone among Orthodox Churches, as the “first among equals,” has the authority to grant autocephaly. Some, such as the Antiochian and Romanian Patriarchates, continue to withhold official comment. The issue remains in dispute. In recent years, however, discussions between the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have resumed, and the resolution to the chaotic ecclesial situation in America is high on the agenda of world Orthodoxy.
This canonical debate shields a more subtle fear, shared among most jurisdictions, that the establishment of the American-based, English speaking, missionary, multi-ethnic OCA represents a catalyst for the creation of an eventual “American Orthodox Church” that would, over time, increasingly draw parishoners away from the ethnic churches. For the patriarchates abroad, the creation of an American church threatened to weaken cultural ties to the ethnic homelands, as well as diminish much-needed financial support. As such, the OCA was seen by many in North America and abroad as a challenge to the very existence of the ethnic churches.
It is ironic that the OCA reconciled with its mother Church in Russia only to find that in so doing it had alienated its sister Greek Church in North America. Only the intervention of the Greek-American Archbishop Iakovos prevented a full break between the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate immediately before and after autocephaly. While relations between the OCA and the Greek Archdiocese continue to be strained at times, recent meetings between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Metropolitan Theodosius, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, suggest the two may be moving towards an accommodation.
The Emerging American Mission
Whatever hopes or disappointments the creation of the Orthodox Church in America engendered, its very existence changed the terms of reference for all Orthodox in North America. Since autocephaly in 1970, the Orthodox have increasingly reflected both on the fact, and the meaning, of their continuing existence in North America. Each jurisdiction has been forced to face the future, rather than the past. As a result, an “American Mission” is emerging among the Orthodox in North America. Unity, conciliarity, spiritual renewal, evangelization, and social witness, not ethnicity, have become central concerns. Although most clearly visible in the OCA, the American Mission is an orientation increasingly evident in all the ethnic churches as well.
The American Mission: Unity
The emerging American Mission is predicated on the re-establishment of Orthodox canonical unity in North America. Such efforts have dramatically increased each decade since 1960.
In the narrow environment of ethnicity, ethnarchy, and cultural hibernation after 1925, there was little communication between Orthodox jurisdictions, and even less consciousness of Orthodox community. Attempts to reconstruct forms of inter-Orthodox community from the wreckage of the immigrant Church began only in the 1940’s at the instigation of the federal government. The wartime need for Orthodox military chaplains led to the creation in 1942 of a “Federation of Primary Jurisdictions of the Orthodox Greek Catholic Churches in America” to serve as an endorsing denominational body for the Pentagon. Fr Vladimir Borichevsky of the Metropolia was subsequently appointed as the first Orthodox U.S. military chaplain. Once the war ended, however, the organization quickly languished.
The rapid increase in Sunday Schools in the ethnic churches in the 1950’s (in the Metropolia the number doubled from 76 to 141 between 1953 and 1961) created a need in all jurisdictions for English language Orthodox religious educational materials. In 1956, Sophie Koulomzin, a professor of religious education at St Vladimir’s Seminary, in cooperation with the National Council of Churches (NCC), organized the first of a series of annual religious education conferences uniting representatives from the Carpatho-Russian, Greek, Metropolia, Serbian, Syrian (Antiochian), and Ukrainian jurisdictions. At that first meeting (October 27, 1956), the Orthodox Christian Education Commission (OCEC) was established. It was the first successful inter-Orthodox project on a national scale.
The success of the OCEC encouraged the creation (1960) of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). In turn, SCOBA, with the financial assistance of the Greek Archdiocese, created an inter-Orthodox Campus Commission, charged with initiating a nationwide Orthodox campus ministry. The youth organizations of most ethnic churches joined together at about the same time in creating the Council of Eastern Orthodox Youth Leaders in America (CEOYLA).
Despite initial enthusiasm and success, not one of these movements ever fulfilled the hopes attendant upon their creation. The Greeks withdrew from OCEC, citing the need to create their own Greek-language religious materials. The OCEC continues to exist on paper, but its work has been increasingly superceded by the jurisdictional departments of education. CEOYLA failed to find a common purpose beyond sponsoring ethnic festivals, and SCOBA foundered in the aftermath of the OCA’s autocephaly. By far the most successful of these early inter-Orthodox attempts was the Campus Commission. Between 1965-1972, an entire generation of Church leaders was energized by its annual student conferences as well as its national student magazine, Concern. In the course of the autocephaly debates, however, the Greek Archdiocese withdrew its financial support. The movement eventually collapsed. In an era of ethnic churches controlled by ethnarchs, inter-Orthodox cooperation could not thrive on an institutional level.
As a result, most attempts to promote Orthodox unity since 1970 have been para-ecclesial, issue-oriented, and led by laity. A number of such attempts came into existence or prominence in the 1970’s and 80’s: Orthodox Christians for Life, the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion (OCAMPR), the Orthodox Theological Society of America (OTSA), the Orthodox Charismatic Renewal, the St. John of Damascus Association of Iconographers, Iconologists, and Architects, Orthodox People Together (OPT), Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL), and the North American region of the international Orthodox organization SYNDESMOS (The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth). Continual growth of new inter-Orthodox groupings, both local, regional, and national, indicates that the jurisdictional solution is unraveling psychologically, if not administratively. Whatever their jurisdictional ties, or lack of same, the new inter-Orthodox groups have laid, and continue to lay, a broad-based, multi-ethnic, and serious foundation for the American Mission.
The Emerging American Mission: Spiritual Renewal
A second aspect of the emerging “American Mission” is increasing recognition of the need for spiritual renewal within the Church, and a parallel need for evangelical witness to those outside the Church. Whereas the ethnic churches formerly met in celebration of their heritage, such meetings have become less common, and indeed, peripheral. Spirituality, in some form, is now the central theme of all meetings of Orthodox peoples, ethnic or otherwise. Frequent and regular communion, once a novelty, is increasingly the norm. Retreats, prayer groups, Bible studies, youth gatherings, mission studies, all previously unknown, are now common. Increasing appreciation for the theological and spiritual meaning of icons has led to a recent resurgence in the number and quality of iconographers in America. Orthodox literature in English, limited to less than 10 titles in 1950 (and printed mainly in England), now numbers well over 200 titles from six Orthodox publishing houses in the United States alone.
The American Mission: Monasticism
Orthodox monasticism, an integral part of any authentic Orthodox spirituality, has experienced a unique renewal in the last 25 years as well. Since 1970, an unprecedented twenty Orthodox monasteries (eight female, twelve male) have been established throughout the United States and Canada. However, these new monasteries are generally small (typically numbering only one to three monastics), and financially insecure. With the possible exception of the OCA’s large New Skete communities in Cambridge, New York, none of these new monasteries plays a role in Orthodox church life beyond the boundaries of neighboring parishes in the diocese to which they belong.
In truth, Orthodox monasticism in North America has always encountered difficulties. Immigrant generations were reluctant to encourage their children to renounce the material culture of America. Likewise, ethnic Orthodox clergy encouraged monastic-minded Americans to seek their vocations not in America, but in the various homelands or on Mount Athos in Greece. Thus the Greek Archdiocese, for example, established its first (and short-lived) monastery in America only in 1961, and its second only in 1988.
Some groups—the Russians, the Romanians, and the Serbs—did establish monastic communities in America. The first Orthodox monastery in the United States, St Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania (1905), has been an enduring spiritual center for the Metropolia, and later, the Orthodox Church in America. In 1946, the exiled Russian Monastic Brotherhood of St Job of Pochaev (which had found refuge in Slovakia following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution) emigrated en masse to Jordanville, New York. There the monks established a rival monastery (and seminary) under the Karlovtsy Synod, to compete with the Metropolia’s St Tikhon’s.
The Romanians have been the most active in supporting female monasticism in North America. Under the leadership of Mother Alexandra, the former Princess Ileana of Romania, a large English-speaking community in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, and a smaller Romanian-speaking community in Rives Junction, Michigan, have been established. Nevertheless, a hostile cultural environment, continuing ecclesiastical divisions, and the perpetual temptation of monastic life abroad, has clouded, and continues to cloud, the future of Orthodox monasticism in North America. Yet the very fact that monasteries are being created demonstrates a continuing profound commitment to mission in America.
Indeed, the perennial lack of monastic vocations in North America has had effects beyond the cloister. Lack of monastic vocations has led to a severe shortage of candidates for the episcopacy, since bishops have traditionally been selected from among monks or widowed clergy. From time to time, this has led to calls, on the part of priests and laity, for the restoration of a married episcopate.
Ethnic churches may be gradually losing members, or at best holding their own, but the American Mission is experiencing slow and steady growth. Since 1970, the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America have led in the effort to establish new, multi-ethnic, or non-ethnic, Orthodox communities where none previously existed. In the past twenty years more than 150 new Orthodox parishes have been established by all jurisdictions, the majority in areas previously underserved (the South, West, and Midwest). For the first time since the turn of the century, large numbers of adult converts, and not only those resulting from mixed marriages, are entering Orthodoxy. The recent (1988) mass conversions of two disparate groups, the Protestant “Evangelical Orthodox Church,” an offshoot of the Campus Crusade for Christ with some 2,000 members in 12 communities, to the Antiochian Archdiocese; and the New Age “Holy Order of Mans” (with some 3,000 members in 20 communities) to an Old Calendarist Greek Orthodox jurisdiction, testify to Orthodoxy’s evangelical appeal when presented to an American audience in English. Through Orthodox radio programs (the OCA’s “Hour of Orthodoxy,” 1972), the larger Antiochian ACORN network (1989), or Greek participation in the VISN cable television network (1990), this audience is growing.
Foreign missionary work has also expanded since 1970, largely funded by the Greek Archdiocese through its St Photios Mission Center in St Augustine, Florida. The Archdiocese supports Orthodox missions in South Korea, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and reconstruction work in the lands of the former Soviet Union. Katherine Lvov, an OCA laywoman, established Religious Books for Russia (RBR) in 1979 to publish and distribute Orthodox religious literature throughout the Soviet Union when this was still illegal. At the same time, the American-backed and European based “Voice of Orthodoxy” gathered funds to help broadcast shortwave Orthodox religious programs to the former Soviet Union. Recently (1992), the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission, at the invitation of the Romanian Orthodox Church, conducted a series of Orthodox revivals throughout Romania. Their enormous success in filling stadiums led to invitations to hold similar Orthodox evangelical revivals throughout Russia.
The Emerging American Mission: Social Witness
A third aspect of the emerging American Mission is increased Orthodox concern for a credible social witness. This includes social services, ecumenical endeavors, and Orthodox participation in the wider culture of America.
Unable to support even one seminary between 1922-1938, the Orthodox community was, by American standards slow in creating educational institutions. While the number of seminaries has grown to eight since 1938, only three, St Vladimir’s (OCA), Holy Cross (Greek Archdiocese), and St Tikhon’s (OCA), are fully accredited as graduate schools of theology. There exists but one very small Orthodox undergraduate institution, Hellenic College, affiliated with Holy Cross Seminary. A few, largely Greek, parochial schools have been established, the vast majority in New York; but they remain the exception rather than the rule.
It is not to education but to charity that Orthodox have turned since 1970. Although the ethnic churches have always generously collected monies to support countrymen in times of trouble, such as aid for displaced persons after World War II, Greek earthquake reconstruction efforts, Lebanese war relief, or assistance for Romanian orphans, since 1980 the trend has been towards inter-Orthodox assistance. Thus the Greek Archdiocese supports the OCA’s missions in Alaska; largely Slavic OCA parishes send aid to Lebanon; and all assisted Armenia during its recent catastrophic earthquake. This trend culminated in 1991 with the creation by SCOBA of an inter-Orthodox relief agency, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) to channel aid from all Orthodox jurisdictions in America throughout the world. IOCC has generated strong support from all the Orthodox and fostered new avenues for inter-Orthodox cooperation at all levels.
It is on the parochial level, however, that Orthodox social services, jurisdictional and inter-Orthodox, have really blossomed since 1970. Through food banks, ministries to the elderly, homeless, and imprisoned, homes for elderly, hospital chaplaincies, etc., scores of Orthodox parishes are assuming visible roles beyond ethnic food festivals in their communities.
Orthodoxy has also been visible in the wider Christian community through its ecumenical participation. Fr Georges Florovsky, Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary from 1950-1955, was one of the founding fathers of the World Council of Churches. Fr John Meyendorff was active in the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission and served as its Moderator from 1967-1975. In 1988, the National Council of Churches elected its first Orthodox Christian president, Fr Leonid Kishkovsky, an OCA priest. American Orthodox theologians, particularly faculty members from St Vladimir’s (OCA) and Holy Cross (Greek Orthodox), continue to assume leading roles in the deliberations of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, as well as various bilateral dialogues (e.g., Roman-Catholic-Orthodox; Lutheran-Orthodox; Episcopal-Orthodox). Ecumenical participation, however, has not been without controversy. A number of Orthodox, (interestingly, fewer ethnics than converts) oppose ecumenism, fearing that such participation dilutes Orthodoxy’s unique ecclesiological claims and moral teachings. Proponents, on the other hand, cite evidence of the blessings ecumenical participation has brought to the Orthodox in North America, including refugee aid, educational opportunities, financial assistance, the chance to publicly explain and defend the teachings of the Church, and not least, constant encouragement for inter-jurisdictional cooperation.
On a secular level, the symbols of Orthodoxy are increasingly visible as well. Recent changes in Russia, the Lebanese Civil War, the Bosnian conflict, and presidential candidates of Greek descent have made the beards, black robes, and tall hats of Orthodox prelates favorites of photojournalists. Traditional Orthodox choral music, as well as works by contemporary Orthodox musicians and composers (such as the Estonian Arvo Pärt or John Tavener of England) are increasingly performed in concert halls throughout the USA and Canada. Inexpensive Byzantine icon reproductions may be seen in trendy American shops, while traditional iconography is increasingly collected and displayed by major art museums. Orthodoxy is still foreign and exotic to much of America, but increasingly less so in major urban areas.
The Emerging American Mission
As a result of the OCA’s self-description as an American Church, rather than as a church in exile, or as an American outpost of a foreign patriarchate, the ethnic churches, as well as the OCA, have had to reflect on the meaning of their presence in North America. Although the jurisdictional solution continues and ethnicity still plays an important role in the lives of most Orthodox in North America, it is possible since 1970 to see an American Mission emerging out of the ethnic churches. This “American Mission” grows out of and is a result of the sociological, theological, and canonical changes all the ethnic churches have undergone between 1940 and 1990.
Unlike earlier periods in Orthodox history in North America, institutional developments and individual personalities are less important in this new era of an emerging American Mission than general theological, psychological, and sociological changes. The beginnings of an American Mission, signaled by the institutional creation of the Orthodox Church in America in 1970, but carried forward by laity in all the jurisdictions, is truly the most significant development for Orthodoxy in North America since the “jurisdictional solution” of the 1920’s.