Our own little Orthodox Church in America is (to paraphrase Paul Simon) still autocephalous after all these years, despite the suggestion of some during times of difficulty that we should somehow pack it in and ask return to our previous status as a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church under Moscow, rather like an adult child returning to live with mother and asking for the old room back. It would be idle to deny that our autocephaly has made for difficult situations abroad, and even back home (witness our Metropolitan’s place at the hierarchical table during the meetings of the recent episcopal gathering bishops from all the North American jurisdictions). And admittedly our own little autocephaly is unlike the other autocephalies, in that those autocephalies unite all the Orthodox in a given geographical locality under one synod, whereas our own OCA autocephalous synod leaves out the Orthodox Christians in our locality from the other jurisdictions. Of course the initial granting of the autocephaly in 1970 was meant to be something of an interim step, a vision and a challenge, an invitation to the other Orthodox Christians in North America to join us in forming a single united American Orthodox Church. Obviously most of our North American brethren did not take us up on the invitation, and the move provoked what Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously described as “a meaningful storm”. But that does not mean that the invitation was wrongly given.
Our autocephaly still can provoke some reaction, despite the courtesy and diplomacy customary among bishops. That is, there are some parties to which we are not invited. The parties to which we are still invited are the ones given by Moscow and their autocephalous friends. Whatever they may privately think of us North Americans, they unfailingly include us in their gatherings, such as the recent meeting of the local Orthodox Churches with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the occasion of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the Rus’. An official statement regarding the persecution of Christians was drafted and signed by all present, including our own Metropolitan Tikhon.
Our presence at these gatherings should not be minimized, nor the value of our present autocephaly discounted. Valuing our autocephaly of course does not mean that we would refuse to join a wider North American autocephaly if such a thing could come about. That was, after all, the whole point and vision behind our own 1970 autocephaly in the first place. But until then, we should not cast away the canonical gift we were once given, nor be ashamed of it, regardless of what others may think. For the value of the autocephaly is two-fold: it points the way forward to a healthy future for North American Orthodoxy, and it allows our voice to be more widely heard in the Orthodox world.
The first point regarding the need for a single united autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America has been stated so often and so well that it need not be rehearsed again at length here. Everyone with eyes to read the canons can see that our present state of over-lapping jurisdictions is uncanonical and wasteful, and there is no need for us to refer to hierarchs overseas for everything we need as if the North American churches were so many branch-plants of a foreign business venture. The bishops themselves know this perfectly well, which is why they were working hard at the recent episcopal assembly to resolve the situation. Canonical common sense and administrative church unity has enough champions without me adding to it my own little two cents worth of Amen. Our own OCA autocephaly is valuable if only because it points toward the need for a wider autocephaly uniting all North American Orthodox.
The second point is perhaps worth elaborating more fully. We in the OCA have something to add to the counsels of world Orthodoxy which might not otherwise be heard. In particular, just because we are a young church (as the Orthodox count church time) we have the advantage of seeing more clearly the value of returning to first principles. Anyone who has started a new mission knows what I mean. When one takes over a parish which has existed for a long time, one inherits a situation in which some things are good and healthy, and other things are not. The latter are defended not because they really defensible, but because they are The Way Things Have Always Been Done, at least since grandma was alive. The priest may know that these things are not being done correctly, but he finds it difficult to change them because of the dead weight of social inertia, or if you like, of local tradition, (with a very small “t”). But when one begins to build a new mission from scratch, one does not inherit such small “t” traditions of dubious value. One can decide what to do and what kind of community to build not based on the way that it was always done since grandma’s day, but by returning to first principles. One then asks not so much “How was it done before I arrived?”, but rather, “How did the Fathers say we should do it?” This freedom to return to first principles makes for the possibility of a healthier church. (Note: just the possibility, for a healthy church depends ultimately upon how loving the priest and people are, not just upon liturgical decisions.)
It is the same way, I submit, with our young little OCA. Precisely because we are a young church in a young land, we have the possibility of asking, “How did the Fathers say we should do it?” This is not to suggest that we North Americans are the only ones asking this, for of course all Orthodox bishops take the Fathers as the guiding principle of their life. But it does mean that we in North America, in the absence of long-established national traditions, can focus on the question with greater clarity and single-mindedness.
Our voice is only one voice among many others, and like all younger children as social gatherings of those older than us, we should politely wait for our turn to speak and not presume to dominate our elders. But when our turn comes to speak, we should not be reticent, for we also have something valuable to say. A long autocephalous pedigree is no guarantee of infallible wisdom. Perhaps we young ones in the OCA have unique something to contribute as well. And surely that is enough to justify our being invited to the party.