Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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 fiancée, “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 please 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. What an excellent essay Father. How much I pray these words are heard and heeded.

  2. Great thoughts. As a recent convert to Orthodoxy, I see what you're saying on both accounts. In my small home church (ROCOR) in Michigan, I've loved learning more about the Russian traditions, along with the music, and all the other things that go along with the cultural/national link. However, I am not Russian. Nor are most of the people that go there (I think). Yet, there is nothing particularly "russian" about the church, in that other than the "Lord Have Mercy"s in Russian sometimes, and borsch for lunch, there are no Russian flags or pledges to Russia to become a member.

    But I find comfort there. And I think that's at the root of what you're getting at. I/we mistake comfort for the truth of why we're at Church. I don't feel as comfortable at a Greek service. Why? Many reasons, but mostly it's just because it isn't what I am used to. And rather than work at the Gospel, maybe I/we are sticking to just our comfort--remaining Jews while trying to be Christians, as it were. Our citizenship is in Heaven, not in the US or Russia or Greece.

    I find your words hard and good. I shall ponder then and see how I might take them to action in my own life. Thank you, Father.


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