Tuesday, January 10, 2012

E Pluribus Unum?

The Latin phrase e pluribus unum is found on the seal of the United States, adopted by an Act of their Congress in 1782. It was considered de facto as their national motto until 1956, when the motto “In God we trust” was officially adopted. E pluribus unum means “out of many, one”, referring to the many individuals and states becoming one single nation. It was, and is, a good motto.
The phrase could be taken also as God’s call to the many Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. There are many such jurisdictions, such as the Greek Orthodox, the Antiochian Orthodox, the Serbian Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox, and my own Orthodox Church in America (aka “the OCA”). The list is, sadly, an impressively long one, containing both numerically large jurisdictional bodies and small ones. Each has its own gathering of bishops, its own infrastructure, its own methods of fund-raising, its own ecclesiastical department of external affairs, whereby it relates to other Orthodox and Christian bodies. And each of them acknowledges, at least formally, that the current status quo of many jurisdictions co-existing on the same geographical territory is uncanonical and needs to the changed. The ancient norms, enshrined in the canons, assumes and calls for one bishop per city, so that all Orthodox Christians in a given geographical locale are not simply sacramentally united (i.e. in communion one with another), but organically united as well, looking to one and the same bishop, and sharing the same ruling presbyterate. Having differing groups of Orthodox in the same area divided into ethnic groups is clearly contrary to the canons. From this verdict there is no dissenting voice. The bishops of all the Orthodox jurisdictions can read, and all agree that the canons require this sort of unity. We didn’t get into this jurisdictional mess overnight, but we do need to get out of it. In the terms of the old American motto, the “pluribus” needs to become “unum”.
Some Orthodox have suggested that the time for such jurisdictional unity is not yet, because Orthodoxy on North American soil is too young and immature. In this view, we need to wait until we mature more and meanwhile stay under the protection of the various mother churches in the Old World. I regard such a view as utter gas, and scarcely worth a sensible reply. We have, in fact, been on North American soil for over two hundred years, and if after that time we are still too immature to run our own organizational show, we should simply pack it in and let the adults in the non-Orthodox churches be the ones to serve Christ here. We Orthodox are, as a matter of fact, quite capable of discerning the will of Christ for the New World (as others call our home), and of striving to fulfill it.
But if all the bishops and theologians and seminary professors agree that such canonical unity is desirable and is God’s will, then why don’t we have it? In a word, because as a whole, American Orthodox don’t really want it. If we truly desired jurisdictional unity, we could have it by next week. It would require courage in dealing with the mother churches of the Old World, and humility in dealing with one another. The fallenness of the human heart and our long-entrenched stubbornness would provide lots of opportunities for patience in working with each other. But it could be done more or less immediately, if we as a total group possessed the political will for it. Why don’t we have such a political will? That is the real question, and the answer to it reveals what is really wrong with Orthodoxy in the New World.
I am a Canadian, and can speak of the Canadian situation with greater ease and certainty than the American (or Mexican) ones. But I believe that an analysis of the Canadian situation will have some applicability further south as well. Up here in Canada, Orthodoxy is tribal. That is, it defines itself and therefore survives (i.e. funds itself) in ethnic terms. No one is simply Orthodox. The Greeks are Greek Orthodox; the Serbs are Serbian Orthodox; the Romanians are Romanian Orthodox. (The O.C.A. are an embarrassment, because they have since 1970 famously and self-consciously chosen to buck this tribal trend.) This analysis and theory can be tested in a thousand ways. For example, in my neighbouring Vancouver, the church hall of the large Greek church has the names of famous Greek philosophers ingrained in wood on the four walls. Not St. Athanasios (I give him a Greek spelling for his name, although in fact he was African); not St. Gregory Palamas. Not St. Kosmos the Aetolian. Aristotle, and Plato and Sophocles. What matters fundamentally in the church wood is not faith, but famous Greek ancestry. Or take the church sign outside the local Serbian church—the lettering (in Cyrillic script) is painted overtop the Serbian flag.
This Canadian experience finds cultural confirmation in American films. When in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” a nice American boy converts to Orthodoxy and is baptized (in a pink wading pool, no less), he exults afterward to his fiancĂ©e, “Now I’m Greek!” Orthodoxy is being defined in exclusively ethnic terms. The church finds its core membership and its financial support on this basis. Who needs evangelism when one has abundant immigration?
I believe that this is the real reason for our corporate lack of urgency in pursuing Orthodox jurisdictional unity. Such a unity would inevitably involve some dilution of our various ethnic self-presentations to society, and a change in our various jurisdictional self-understandings. A change from the status quo is considered by some as too risky, as possibly imperilling financial survival. It is easier to give lip service to our “spiritual” and sacramental unity and live with what we have.
The problem, however, is that what we have does not give adequate expression to the Gospel. It consists too much (I won’t say entirely; that depends upon individual bishops, pastors and congregations), of presenting ourselves to the world rather than Christ. We are famous for our Food Festivals (with a church tour tacked on for those who might be mildly interested in such exotica), not for proclaiming Christ as the Saviour and hope of the world. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he preached not himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and as himself as their servant for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor.4:5). In making our main message not Christ, but Orthodoxy (i.e. ourselves in our various ethnic dresses), we are doing exactly the opposite of what the apostle did, and preaching not Jesus Christ as Lord, but ourselves. The reluctance to trumpet the Gospel and to call our neighbours to repentance is deeply ingrained in North American Orthodoxy (the exceptions to this will forgive me), and the reluctance goes far up the hierarchical ladder. In reading the Ecumenical Patriarch’s well-written primer and presentation of Orthodoxy to the common man, entitled Encountering the Mystery, I could not find a single instance of our primus inter pares calling his neighbours to repent, forsake their former religions, and become disciples of the risen Son of God. I did, however, find a long section explaining the history and significance of the office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is easy to preach ourselves. Preaching Jesus Christ as Lord to a hostile world is a lot trickier.
But tricky or not, it remains our task. The current jurisdictional disunity witnesses to and reveals our underlying weakness. We need to become truly Orthodox Christians first, and Greeks, Romanians, Americans and Canadians second. Pride in ethnic heritage is good, but it is not a fruit of the Spirit, and in this case the good has become the enemy of the best. We need to recover a burning desire to preach Jesus Christ to the mass of North Americans who do not know Him, and those who do not worship Him in the fullness of the Orthodox Faith. If this is our deepest desire, we will not fear to sacrifice the current jurisdictional status quo for something else. Our hearts will be anchored in Christ, not in our national pedigree. E pluribus unum. Out of many, we can become more truly one, and out of that unity, we can more effectively help our North American neighbours encounter the saving mystery of Christ.


  1. I absolutely agree with you. I like your saying "Orthodoxy is tribal". I have lived in Canada for more than 2 years... I'm from Russia. It was quite unusual for me to see how things are here. On one hand I understand why would a Russian or Serbian would go to a Russian or Serbian church instead of a Greek church, for example. I feel more comfortable going to a Russian church.. because I can talk in Russian there, to have confession in Russian, to listen to Russian chants and so on.

    But on the other hand I don't really like that, as you mention, there is tribal Orthodoxy. There is no such thing in Russia... there is only one church - Russian Orthodox.

    I think that one of the main problems is that people want to preserve their own part of their homeland in their churches. That's what I feel since the culture around is different to what I'm used to. The other big problem is that some of the churches live using different calendars. It doesn't make sense for me in some way... it reminds me one saying "When in Rome, do like Romans do" or "Don't bring your coal to Newcastle". I mean that to live using Julian calendar in the country where 95% of the people use the Gregorian is strange. When people celebrate Christmas on December 25 you have to wait 2 weeks from that (and it will possibly be a work day, if it is not on the weekend) and all Christmas holidays from work will be finished. For my husband it is very unusual.

    One more obstacle is language. I really appreciate those churches who use no less than 90% English in their services. My husband is Canadian and if the service is 90% NOT in English - he doesn't understand anything and it is not surprising.

    I think that what you said is correct- probably people don't want that unity? Unity requires some sacrifice of language, our "national coals" that we bring from our countries. It looks like people don't want to sacrifice them for the sake of unity and attracting more people to our churches... Instead we are like single churches that are trying to live on their own. Without having that unity we don't even have enough means to build Orthodox high schools in at least the big cities.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Daria. I absolutely understand the desire of new Canadians/ Americans from other countries to preserve language, culture and familiarity. Certainly if I lived in (for example) China, I would gravitate towards my fellow Canadians there and want to worship, confess and pray in English (or French). The desire is completely understandable, but has unfortunate consequences for the next generations. For the children and grandchildren of Canadian/ American immigrants will inevitably regard themselves as Canadian/ American first, and if their church retains old language and ethnicity, it will be less attractive to them. At least two generations of Canadian Orthodox children have been lost to the Orthodox Church here in Canada because of the local church's insistence on retaining the ancestral languages. Your willingness to "do like the Romans when in Rome" is exactly what is required, even though it calls for courage and sacrifice. God bless you!