A little more than a year ago I wrote an article for Crisis discussing what Catholics should not learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church. In it I called attention to the process of establishing a single American Orthodox jurisdiction and its unraveling after the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) took a walk. Now the Antiochians have joined them. There is a brief, but thoughtful, post on the matter over at the Byzantine Texas blog. As the author notes, an apparent lack of leadership on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarch with respect to Antioch’s grievances over the canonical situation in Qatar coupled with growing displeasure toward the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America appears to be at the root of Antiochian Archdiocese’s decision. Also possibly motivating the Antiochians is an unwillingness to break ties with their besieged Patriarchal church. Whatever deciding factors were involved, it seems like the promise (or the threat) of an authentic American Orthodox Church is a long ways away.
It is difficult to judge what effect continued jurisdictional disunity will have on Orthodoxy in America. As I also mentioned in my Crisis piece, one prominent ROCOR clergyman had speculated that his jurisdiction’s decision may have been motivated by the fact that some local Orthodox churches in America “have laymen in good standing, and even clergy, who are openly advocating for gay marriage, and proclaim that committed monogamous homosexual relationships are not sinful.” Rod Dreher, an Orthodox journalist and author of some notoriety, agreed with this observation in his post commenting on my article.
In theory, a unified Orthodox body could set the record straight on any number of controversies related to faith and morals which the Orthodox, for a variety of reasons, have not been able to address in a uniform manner. On the other hand, perhaps the more conservative clergy in ROCOR and other jurisdictions realize that “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump.” Instead of faithful bishops and priests being able to still speak authoritatively to their flocks on traditional doctrine and morality, a unified American Orthodox Church could follow the abysmal Catholic practice of issuing wishy-washy statements with ambiguous passages that cloud the Church’s true teachings. At the same time, on the level of praxis, some American Orthodox may be understandably concerned that a “lowest common denominator” approach will be taken to matters like liturgy, marriage, and discipline.
None of this is to say that there may not be some less-than-noble interests behind both ROCOR and Antioch’s respective decisions. Chauvinism is still a real problem in Orthodoxy, not just in America, but around the globe. There is a still a surprisingly widespread belief within certain jurisdictions that they have a unique mission toward particular ethnic groups and that the other Orthodox bodies need to stay out of their business. Moreover, there is also considerable distrust to be found between so-called “cradles” and “converts.” There are more than a few “cradle Orthodox” who see the project of establishing an American Orthodox Church as a “convert project” with few, if any, legitimate ties to the (fraught and confusing) history of Orthodoxy in this part of the world.
All is not lost, of course. Orthodoxy, for better or worse, will continue to function much as it always has in America. In other words, the end is hardly nigh for the Orthodox Church’s future in the United States despite the Orthodox, like their estranged Catholic brethren, having a hard road ahead in a culture that is secularizing rapidly (if not radically). Further, there can be no doubt that cross-jurisdictional relations have improved dramatically over the past decade, as evidenced in part by the quick thawing of relations between ROCOR and the Orthodox Church in America. Still, perhaps it will be for the next generation of American Orthodox to refresh the unification project. Until then, we should all pray that the Orthodox remain faithful witnesses to the Gospel in the face of a society whose “values” have become so antithetical to the truth of Jesus Christ.