Logically, one should probably begin an essay with this title by expounding the historical background of the Church in our corner of the world. This information, however, is easily available elsewhere. My aim instead is to discuss the current situation, and what, if any, change is on the horizon.
Since my childhood (I was born in the middle of the previous century), I have been told that we Orthodox Christians (that is, the Church of the ancient Seven Ecumenical Councils) are sacramentally one, but on account of a multitude of historical factors, exist in North America in more than a dozen administrative entities, usually referred to as “jurisdictions.” I was also told that this was an abnormal situation that can and should be resolved so that all the Orthodox would be in one American Church, where all of our Old World expressions of the Faith would be respected and honored.
Some of the hierarchs of our various jurisdictions have recognized the importance of administrative unity and publically called for such unity. Some have expressed their opinions that such unity is not an urgent issue and that pastoral concerns for Orthodox immigrants and their descendants are reasons for postponing administrative unity to some unknown future time.
Prospects for unity have waxed and waned over my lifetime, and we are currently at a new low. Both before my ordination and after, I have long been in favor of one American Orthodox Church, with a synod of all our bishops pastoring all the clergy and faithful. I have always tried to emphasize any positive steps toward that end and tried to maintain that the obstacles to this end are surmountable.
Considering our current situation, I have concluded that the time for more frank discussion is upon us. Our failure to act as brothers and sisters of Christ’s Church should no longer be ignored or papered over.
Why is Orthodox unity in America not a reality? The answer is simply that we do not truly desire it. It is not enough to say that we would like to see it. We need to die to ourselves to make it happen. Some of you will object, saying, “I am willing and many I know are willing.” When I say we, I mean virtually all our hierarchs, many of our priests and many of the faithful. I use the first-person, plural, to indicate that as jurisdictions, we are quietly (or otherwise) very happy with our disunity, and (at best) only give lip service to unity.
The Assembly of Bishops, which meets once a year, was created by the mother churches with the express purpose of overcoming our jurisdictional disunity. Their first meeting took place almost seven years ago, and virtually no progress on unity has been made. The bishops come together once a year, hold their meetings and then return home conducting business as usual. One doubts if they give the Assembly another thought in the ensuing year, except for those who publically criticize and mock the Assembly and/or various other hierarchs in other jurisdictions. These actions are supported by the attitudes and priorities of the Mother Churches. We have seen how seemingly impossible it is for all of them to come together in a worldwide council. A Council some 60 years in the making was only able to meet in an incomplete form and was unable to promulgate decisions on any of the issues it set out to deliberate.
The evidence suggests that unity is beyond our reach because we lack something in the three most important Christian virtues: faith, hope and love.
We do not have faith that God will take care of His Church and bless her if we die to our jurisdictional “safe spaces,” and live, work and witness together according the Holy Canons (“one bishop in one city”).
We fail to hope for more than our current situation; we refuse to see how much more we can do for the gospel if we are one in all things.
Finally, we do not truly love one another. Why do I say this? There are a number of reasons. We do not forgive one another. (Consider the antipathy of the jurisdictions: Greeks vs. Russians vs. Antiochians, and so forth; converts vs. cra-dle Orthodox.) We do not trust one another. (“The Greeks are just trying to rule us”; “The Russians think they should dominate world Orthodoxy.”). Also, we do not talk to one another. (So, for example, bishops accept clergy who have been disciplined by other bishops without communicating with their brother hierarchs.)
We love our ghettoized jurisdictions more than we love Christ’s Holy Church. It’s just that simple.
Consequently, I will no longer talk about Orthodox unity the way I used to. Having advocated for unity all my life, I have seen no real progress and recently only regression. Remembering the aphorism, “insanity is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result,” I will now oppose unity because we are simply too spiritually immature to work towards it or realize it. Maybe if I oppose it strongly enough . . . .
Archpriest Michael Laffoon
Archpriest Michael Laffoon is Parish Priest of St. Mark Antiochian Orthodox Church of Irvine, California.