Byzantine Politics or Holiness? The Future of the Church in America

A classmate in graduate school once told me that (and I’m quoting), “You are the most cynical man I have ever met.” In response I told him “I am only cynical if I’m wrong; if I’m right you’re naive.” (His response to me was, “See!”)

Recent comments on one of my posts (see here) put me in mind of that exchange some 20 years ago.

In response to my query as to what he meant by “ Byzantine politics,” a reader (Peter) offers a number of observations that I am tempted to dismiss as cynical rather than face the possibility that they are true. He writes:

The EP never, and I mean NEVER picks a fight it cannot win. It has survived in a hostile land since 1453. It has plans within plans, and the EP’s statement made at Holy Cross was made for a very specific purpose – to assert the Phanar’s power over the Orthodox American flock. The OCA cannot afford to underestimate its strength as others have in the past (i.e. former Archbishop Spyridon, the OCL, GOAL, etc.) and have lost and are now simply voices in the wilderness.

Referring back to a speech given at Holy Cross School of Theology by a representative of the Ecumenical Throne, Peter argues that “The EP with that statement at Holy Cross just smoked out Metropolitan Jonas [sic], tested his resolve and now with Met. Jonas’ [sic] apology saw him cave in. The EP just won the battle and most people don’t realize it.” He offers then what is to my mind a frightening conclusion:

While everybody is arguing about this little war of word the EP has been working in Australia, Britain, Eastern Europe and elsewhere shoring up his power. Once this is done you will have a juggernaut that will be coming towards the OCA and will destroy it canonically. . . . Machinationsare now in place that could either canonically destroy the OCA or force it to join with the Greek Archdiocese.

My first thought in reading this was simply to dismiss the argument being made. To even have such thoughts is horrifying to me. But if I have learned anything as a priest it is to resist my own desire to minimize sin, my own or others, no matter how much I want to do so.

I have no idea whether or not Peter’s analysis is correct and I hope to God that it is wrong. At the same time I worry about the easy comfort that comes from dismissing information I don’t like or that makes me uncomfortable. If the above scenario is correct—and I have seen no evidence that it is—then there are those in the Church who are doing the Devil’s work for him.

While I think that a united American Orthodox Church is essential and (more importantly) God’s will for His Church, I also believe that unity can only come by way ofreconciliation.In the Old Testament the Jewish People were divided into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel because they sinned against God. Division, whether from the Church or within the Church, is always and everywhere a consequence of human sinfulness. We can see the symptoms of our sinfulness not simply in heresies and schisms but in the acceptance of our parallel ecclesiastical lives across jurisdictions and within our dioceses and parishes.

The Orthodox Church is coming quickly to a moment of crisis. The scandals in the United State and in the “Old World” have highlighted our own spiritual anemia. Yes part of our weakness is the result of persecution by the Soviet government and Islam. But as events in America suggest that there is only so much blame we can shift those outside the Church.

Let me conclude with what I fear might be taken as a polemic comment. I’m not being polemical, but I do think we have overlooked something that my wife pointed out to me.

The saints of the American Orthodox Church, the saints that God has raised up in and for North America and the whole Church share two qualities. One they were, missionaries, evangelists and (with a few exceptions) monastics. And second they were under the omophorion of the Church of Russia. Unless this history is acknowledge and appreciated, there will be no real unity in America. God has shown His Church in America the way to unity and it is up to take that road not out of ethnic chauvinism but in gratitude to the work of God in America.

The real competition for leadership of the Church in America, and world wide, is not one that can, or should, be resolved through canonically arguments. Yes the canons have their place. But what is need is sanctity. The saints of North America have given us the path that God would have His Church here in America travel. We cannot be a monastic Church or an evangelistic Church; we must be both. And we can only be one if we are also the other.

Leadership in the Church must not to be based in sterile canonical arguments not but in the witness of holiness. For all that it might be canonically sound, our witness is not true if it is predicated on an attempt to usurp the role of other Churches. For us as Orthodox Christians in American this means, as Metropolitan Jonah has said, that we be shining examples of fidelity to the traditions of the Churches of the “Old World,” of the whole Church. We must be men and women known for love of the saints (both in the body and out of the body).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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