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. ~Frederica Matthewes-Green, Christianity Today, July 2004
This is an old article, but the issue is still very current. On the face of it, and in the way that Mrs. Matthewes-Green has presented it, Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America sounds very sensible. It sounds as if sheer chance had derailed the possibility of Orthodox unity in America. Of course, none of us believes in sheer chance, so there may be a message in this experience as well as something to be learned from it other than that “unified jurisdiction is good.” Undoubtedly, the Greek Archdiocesan churches, the Antiochians and the OCA could combine their jurisdictions without much difficulty. They are on the same calendar and each could, to the extent that each parish desires, retain its own language.
That only leaves out several other jurisdictions that cannot, for reasons of important but little-understood (even by most Orthodox) calendrical disagreements and anti-ecumenism, participate in the foreseeable future in the reorganised jurisdiction, including the not insignificant Serbian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which is centered in America under His Eminence, Metropolitan Laurus.
There is another, perhaps more compelling reason for not having an American Orthodox Church, suggested to me by my first parish priest. He said that there cannot be American Orthodoxy until there are many more American saints. At the moment, there are about a half-dozen. The purpose of having autocephalous or autonomous churches on a national basis is to allow for the spiritual freedom of members of those churches to express their Orthodoxy in a way most suitable to evangelising their people, language and culture. Then it may become a vessel for preserving the transformed and Christianised people’s heritage. What would an American Orthodox Church be able to do in this regard that the existing jurisdictions cannot do?
Have the unifiers considered the detrimental effects, perhaps even scandal, that might result among our Orthodox brethren in the rest of the Americas in our identifying the jurisdictions to which they have belonged with America, by which we mean here the United States? Ironically, though quite unintended by the unifiers, I can easily see how this specifically American attempt to overcome the “problems” of ethnic jurisdictional division will reinject the problem of American nationalism into the life of the Church as a whole.
Several jurisdictions coexisting do not have to be at odds with one another, and it could be that the challenge set before Orthodox in America is to realise genuine spiritual and practical unity without resorting to the more mechanical means of a single hierarchy, at least as a temporary means to overcome the real barriers among the Orthodox here and everywhere in the world. Until the larger problems afflicting the entire Orthodox world are resolved, however, there will be many Orthodox in America who could not participate in such an American Orthodox Church, and it would be a mistake to create it without the consensus of all Orthodox bishops in America.