I am a young college student and I had a few thoughts I wanted to share with you to get your response. What has concerned me greatly about my church—the Orthodox Church—is that there doesn’t seem to be a collective effort from all of the Orthodox churches in America to really evangelize our country. The Antiochian Orthodox church and the OCA do seem to be having more of their parishes have their services in English and talk about missions and evangelism more than most. Yet, I still feel we are not a united church visibly. In faith and belief I know we are, but not in location. Where I live their are three Greek churches, two Antiochian churches, two OCA churches, one Serbian church, and a few non-canonical Orthodox churches: Coptic, Armenian, and Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
The only time the canonical churches show unity is on Orthodox Sunday with a joint service and the yearly Christmas festival. Only two of these Orthodox churches have the entire service in English—the rest do at least 50%, if not the whole service, in a foreign language. While Orthodox Churches elsewhere in the world have made sure to proselytize in the native languages, this hasn’t been so in America. I realize that some churches who minister to immigrants coming to this country might speak in their native language, but most of our church should speak in the language of this country, if we are serious about evangelizing this country.
This leads me to believe that the jurisdictional situation in this country is in disrepair. It would be wonderful if when the bishops of this country meet they jointly request that the Patriarchs of their specific jurisdictions to let the North American bishops develop a structure to demonstrate one Orthodox jurisdiction for America. The Roman Catholics are eating our lunch when it comes to speaking to their people with one voice and church government. We as Orthodox seem to be more concerned with ethnic identity than church unity and evangelism for this country. Many Orthodox Christians have come to this wonderful country, but how can they bless it?—with their evangelism which is our first commission as Christians! Protestants know this and are evangelizing; therefore, they reach more people in their denominational disunity than the Orthodox are. This is a sad commentary for us who claim to hold the true faith and Sacraments.
I also wonder about how things have changed since the early church regarding how we have so few local bishops overseeing the parishes. Not only is this situation more work for a bishop to oversee, but it separates the bishop from the life of his people. While the scriptures tell us that bishops are to be actively involved with the people, a good parent to his children(!), and morally upright, the priests are now the ones who are closest to the people in their weekly activities. It is my understanding that in the early church there was a bishop for every city. This would be possible today if the artificial and scripturally contradictory limit on marriage was raised so that it would be an easier task to find many good men who would make excellent bishops. I know that for a bishop to give up responsibility for overseeing 30 to 50 parishes or more, to then only oversee 3-5 in a large city, may diminish the clout of the individual bishop. The bishop might be considered as losing greater influence over a large number of people, and may not make bishop visits as notable, but I believe that it will make the bishops more of what they are suppose to be in actual practice—true shepherds of their flocks instead of administrators who are spiritually distracted by church politics. By having more local bishops it would also focus more attention on evangelism with the bishops leading the Christian call, as it should be.
I read with great interest your thoughts on the situation of the Church in North America, and in general, I have not had the same negative experiences you seem to have had. While I completely agree that the situation of the Church in North America—administratively—is quite far from the norm and from what is dictated by the canons of the Church, I also see that such things simply cannot be resolved overnight. There are many, many factors involved in achieving administrative unity—vision, personalities, finances, existing structures, and the like—which one must consider and which must be considered with the utmost sensitivity. Furthermore, it is imperative to allow the Holy Spirit to work as He will and in His time. This does not mean that the faithful should simply sit back and do nothing, but it does mean that whatever we do must be done after a serious discernment of the will of God and a humble acceptance of the fact that whatever we do can not, will not, and should not be done with the idea that “we can save the Church.” If we truly believe that the Church is the very Body of Christ, as St. Paul teaches very clearly, and that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it [the Church]”, as Our Lord Himself promises, then we must acknowledge that it is not us who can “save the Church” but, rather, it is the Church that saves us.
Concerning evangelism, it is quite true that the Church, the People of God, is indeed called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all who would listen. However, our mission cannot be limited to the unchurched or those who at present are not of the Orthodox faith. Perhaps you are unaware of the countless individuals who are nominally Orthodox, to whom the Gospel also needs to be presented. Perhaps you are unaware of the countless new immigrants from traditionally Orthodox countries who, in some cases for the first time, are discovering their Orthodox faith and tradition and who must be ministered to in their own language and with sensitivity to their particular cultural and sociological situations.
For example, my own parish was organized in 1989 as an all-English language, pan-Orthodox community in the Chicago suburbs. During the past two years, however, we have received a large number of new immigrants from Poland, Russia, Albania, Eritrea, and other lands, many of whom do not speak English and many of whom are experiencing great difficulties in adjusting to American life. We have also had several individuals, primarily from Vietnam and the Czech Republic, convert to Orthodoxy as a result of some of our neighborhood outreach ministries. The situation of these individuals is radically different from the situation of the vast majority of American-born parishioners, and their presence has generated a variety of new ministries within our parish, including English-language classes on Saturday mornings, the institution of a second Liturgy for the Slavs, and the need for the parish clergy to learn about these cultures and about places we can go to assist them with everything from housing, health care, immigration concerns, and other things that we never imagined we would have to face. There are some who would criticize this, claiming that we should go out and evangelize the non-Orthodox in our community instead. [This is odd, since about 40% of our American-born parishioners are in fact converts to Orthodox Christianity.] Perhaps some of the negative bystanders are expressing prejudices against people who are of radically different background and experience, perhaps not—it is quite difficult to discern. But the point is that such individuals need the Church just as much as the non-Orthodox, American-born neighbors. We endeavor to balance our ministry, while understanding that the primary purpose of the parish community is to bring people to Christ—whether those people be former evangelical Protestants, unchurched fourth-generation Americans, or newly-arrived Albanian immigrants. It was St. Paul, again, who tells us to “be all things to all men so that by all means we might save some” (emphasis added). Our Lord commands us to “teach all nations.” On Pentecost the apostles spoke in such a way that individuals of radically different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds all understood the Gospel. These things must be taken seriously—most seriously—in parish communities today, many of which are experiencing radical social and demographic changes that would have been unimaginable a decade or two ago.
On the one hand, we cannot lose the vision of an administratively united Orthodox Church in North America. I must acknowledge that on the parish level ministry must continue and the Gospel must be proclaimed to any and all who would receive it, even if administrative unity is not a reality at this point. It is also my firm conviction that we cannot abandon the proclamation of the Gospel until administrative unity is achieved or until everyone in our parishes speaks fluent English or is totally assimilated into American life.
Concerning the use of language, it is of course imperative that people are able to pray in their own language, for it is impossible to pray in a language that one does not speak. Does not scripture state, “Sing praises to God with understanding”? However, at this point in time, two things should not be assumed:
That by celebrating every service in every place for every group of people exclusively in the English language, every problem of the Church will be solved. In my opinion, this is a myth. I have seen parishes that use very little English thrive, and I have seen parishes that have exclusively used the English language languish and wither. Important as the language issue is, it is not a solution to every ill in the Church, nor should discussion of language take more time than actively living and proclaiming the Gospel, which is a fundamental purpose for the Church’s existence.
That the function of the Church in North America is to make people “Americans.” In the ministry of our parish’s clergy, as mentioned above, we have to deal with a variety of individuals from radically different cultures and backgrounds. We must accept them where they are and for who they are. The Vietnamese parishioners, for example, are fond of bringing egg rolls for coffee hour. This is admittedly unusual, but it is not the task of the Church to encourage them to patronize Dunk-n-Donuts. [I dare say that on those Sundays when egg rolls are served, everyone is actually delighted to have a break from donuts!] While we do offer English language classes every Saturday, it is for the purpose of enabling such individuals to adapt to American life, which is not the same thing as “Americanizing” them.
This brings me to a final consideration: It is only my opinion, but it seems that, while the Church is charged by Our Lord to bring Orthodoxy to North America, as we so often hear of late, it is not our responsibility to do the opposite. Our task, whether we are dealing with recent immigrants, fourth-generation cradle Orthodox Americans, converts from non-Orthodox backgrounds, or the unchurched individuals living down the street, is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, not to proclaim American values, American culture [whatever that may be], or American customs. This is precisely why the OCA is known as the Orthodox Church in America rather than the Orthodox Church of America. If we truly believe that the Good News was delivered to all mankind through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and this is a reality that is not the product of America—then our task is to bring this “changeless Christ” and His changeless message into an ever-changing American landscape.
So, while we all work, each in our own way, to pray for and achieve and realize Orthodox administrative unity in North America, we must be equally attentive to working, each in our own way, to evangelize—not only unchurched or non-Orthodox Americans, but anyone and everyone whom God sends our way. Important as administrative unity or worshipping in the language of the people [which may not always be English at this point in time] are, it is only my opinion that it would be foolish to assume that administrative unity or worshipping exclusively in English, once achieved, will bring about a floodgate of evangelism. This would be as foolish as the apostles, on the day of Pentecost, saying, “If only the Roman authorities would accept us as a legal religion, we could go out and proclaim the resurrection.” The Roman Persecutions were a tremendous obstacle to evangelism, and yet on the day of Pentecost alone, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, thousands accepted Christ—despite the threat of persecution which became increasingly present. If the Church grew during the first three or four centuries, it was not because of slick evangelism programs, seminars, PR, evangelistic rallies, or marketing techniques; rather, it was because individuals acted on their conviction to share the Gospel, despite the consequences, and regardless of the obstacles. If we truly believe that God has called us, “broken earthen vessels” as we are, to continue His work in this world, then this must be our vision, and into this we must pour all of our resources and time and talent. Administrative unity is important, but it will not save us, nor will it be an instant remedy for all of our ills.
Concerning the Church’s bishops: While it may be the case that the “work load” of many Orthodox bishops is heavy, I know of few instances in which the bishops have not tended to the needs of the communities in their charge. Our own Bishop JOB of Chicago tends a flock scattered over some 15 states, numbering some 60 parishes and missions. His task is not an easy one, if only on the level of demographics and geography. Yet he makes time to visit all of his parishes with tremendous regularity. From January 2000 to August 2000 he has visited our parish on three occasions, and we anticipate at least one more visit before the end of the year 2000. While our clergy and parishioners know how difficult this can be, everyone is most appreciative of his tireless efforts, and no one has ever expressed any negative attitudes about his evident love and concern for our community.
In the OCA Diocese of the West, Bishop Tikhon has made tremendous efforts in the realm of missionary outreach and evangelization, despite the fact that his diocese, geographically, encompasses one-third of the United States. The creation of a Missionary Deanery in that Diocese took place in response to the desire to evangelize and “grow” the Church, often in places that had had little or no Orthodox presence. With the help of his tireless assistants, much is being accomplished, despite immense distances. Each of our hierarchs, each in his own way and each taking into consideration the unique characteristics of his diocese, works tirelessly and has accomplished a great deal, even if one rarely hears about such things.
While it might be ideal to have a bishop overseeing a half-dozen communities, there are a number of realities that must be acknowledged at this time, not the least of which is where one would obtain a sufficient number of candidates for the episcopacy to fill the hundreds of mini-dioceses that would be created. All of this was addressed in the early days of the Church as the bishops delegated many responsibilities to the presbyters, who serve the local communities in the name of their respective hierarchs. On a personal level, I have never had an occasion to doubt that any of our bishops—or the bishops of other jurisdictions with whom I have had occasion to come into contact , whether in North America or abroad—have failed to show concern for me, my family, or our parish community; to the contrary, they have been a source of strength and inspiration, each in his own way. While they, too, are not perfect in every respect—who is?—it is only my opinion that each is deeply committed, intensely convinced, and working in the midst of many obstacles few, if any, of us can fully appreciate.
Finally, we must recognize that there has never been a time in which the Church has not had to carry out its mission in unusual circumstances. For example, the Russian emperor Peter the Great, in the early 1700s, abolished the Patriarchate of Moscow, transforming the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church into a kind of department of State, over which he placed a layperson, the Oberprocurator of the Holy Synod. This was a completely anti-canonical action which placed the Church in a very unusual situation. This situation existed until the time of the Russian Revolution. And yet, despite the radically anti-canonical situation of the Church during this period, great saints emerged, souls continued to be saved, the bloodless sacrifice continued to be offered on altars across the Russian Empire, and a great flourishing of evangelistic missionary work was initiated, extending to China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Kamchatka, and eventually to Alaska in 1794. I dare say that, despite the obstacles imposed on the Church—different obstacles than those which we face today in North America, but surely of equal if not greater concern—the Church remained faithful to its mission. St. Seraphim did not say, “Well, until the Patriarchate is restored, I cannot possibly offer advice to my spiritual children.” St. Nicholas of Japan did not say, “Gee, I’d like to do missionary work in the Far East, but with the present situation of the Church under the thumb of the state, I simply will have to wait.” And no one dared say, “If only the Patriarchate was restored and the Oberprocurator of the Holy Synod dismissed, all of our problems would be solved.”
Administrative unity is inevitable. It is something for which we must pray, and pray fervently. But until it takes place, we must remain faithful to the business of the Church, the mission to which all of God’s People, clergy and laity alike, are called: the building up of the Body of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel to any and all who would listen and receive it.
I apologize for the length of this observation, and I pray that it will at least provide a different perspective on the ongoing situations we all face and to which we are all committed.
May God bless you.