Some Thoughts on Orthodox Unity

I am frequently in contact with people who are passionate about “Church Unity”. Here is my basic take on this, broken down by specific area.

Defining my Terms: By “Unity”, I mean a sharing more than a belief in Christ as Savior, but of the implications of this belief regarding shared ecclesiology and sacraments. While this makes me sound mean (I am not), I am adamantly opposed to the embrace of “lowest common denominator Christianity” for the sake of alleged “unity”.

Disclaimer: These are just the ramblings of a young priest and social scientist. I boast only of my infirmities, not of my opinions.

Overall Christian Unity: I am the Orthodox representative to the “Faith and Order Committee” of the Rhode Island Council of Churches. While there are those who see this as a visible manifestation of the Church, I see it as a place for us to find clarity about both the things that unite and divide us; and to find areas of common cause. Because of its purely democratic character (among other reasons), it is not a real vehicle for Orthodox Church unity (which is the only kind worth having). Thanks to its strong sense of Tradition (“giving past generations of saints a vote”, to paraphrase Chesterton) and Authority, the Orthodox are a mix of pariah (or “wet blanket”) and prophet (or “intransigent fudeedudee”) at Council meetings. The main mechanism for overall Church unity is repentance and conversion. The examples of the conversion of entires parachurch groups here and in Africa give some hope that this could happen at the level of denominations, but conversion is always personal. I don’t have a lot of hope (secularly speaking – meaning that “I speak as a fool”) for overall Christian unity short of the eschaton.

Unity with the Church(es) under the Pope of Rome: I have a good relationship with all the local priests and the local bishop of the Catholic Church. This is very beneficial to all of us. It looks like the Patriarch I serve is actively working towards union with the Pope of Rome. I hope it happens. The existence of vibrant Byzantine Rite Catholic communities and the growth of Western Rite Orthodox Churches suggest that ecclesiology is the primary obstacle, despite what detractors claim about culture and rite. The last Pope of Rome worked hard to improve relations with the Orthodox. This Pope is, too (and actually seems interested in Orthodoxy and being Orthodox). He has even voiced a willingness to reconsider Roman Catholic ecclesiology. This keeps us heading in the right direction.

Unity of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches: I buy into the notion that the major differences that originally led to the schism between these was political/linguistic. But that does not mean that the resultant schism could not lead to substantial theological differences. People smarter than me are convinced that those have not appeared. I hope the progress towards unity continues. Our Rhode Island Orthodox Clergy Brotherhoood has active Orthodox and Oriental members. I hope we can concelebrate soon.

Unity of Orthodox Churches in America: This is where I will take some heat from my brothers and sisters. In my firm opinion (again, I speak as a fool), we already have Orthodox unity in America. We share sacraments and ecclesiology. What else is there? Only trifles. Through SCOBA, we even share administration and outreach. As a layperson, I could join any Orthodox parish I wanted and receive Sacraments at any Orthodox Church. As a priest also concelebrate. Do I think we should have a united Orthodox Church of the USA? Yes, and I think we will continue to head that way. But I don’t buy into the notion that our current transitional state is a major impediment to growth [to put on my analyst hat for a second, that is like blaming Pakistan for all that is going wrong in Afghanistan – there is enough truth in it to believe, but it isn’t helpful]. Jurisdictional overlap/lack of a single “ruling” bishop/synod/sobor has an effect, but most of that blame is with each of us in all our parishes.

To put it bluntly, the answer to growth is to totally commit ourselves to Christ and His Church, stop whining about things outside our immediate control, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

[A Warning Means vs. Ends]

And just in case I have not offended enough of my friends, the history that some have been describing that implies the natural development and maturation of planted (or “daughter”) Churches from infancy to autocephaly (i.e. adulthood or full independence) is a myth. The achievement of autocephaly is usually contested, thought of at the time as the equivalent of a “divorce” rather than “sending the kids off to college”. And in those cases where it was not (such as the Moscow Church under the Soviet Union and the OCA here), it may be less the case of “good parenting” than political machination (please be charitable in reading this: I do not mean to imply that autocephaly should not have been worked for or accepted – I doubt the motives of the Soviet government, not the clergy or faithful involved). To describe things otherwise is not just misleading, it is dangerous. Overselling the “natural development” of autocephaly can lead to unrealistic expectations which, when not fulfilled, can then lead to the temptations of despair and anger (usually at bishops, who are then blamed for the failure). Which one would do more harm to our Orthodox witness or to the faith of catachumen and young converts whose faith is still young: overlapping jursdictions that are in full Communion with one another, or agendas pushed in a way that pit us against one another and our bishops? Prudence suggests caution.

Then again, I recognize that I am extremely risk averse in almost everything. However, I will enjoy omelets that other people make (and thank them for their foresight in “cracking” beautiful eggs) and help clean up the mess when they fall on the floor. My bottom line here is that we need faithful to continue to encourage all of us towards more visible unity, but the starting points of the resultant discussion must be factual accuracy and the recognition that both sides are completely Orthodox in both intent and theology.

Unity of Orthodox Churches in Ukraine: This is another place where I might take some heat. The situation among the “Orthodox” in Ukraine is far worse that it is among the Orthodox in America because many of the groups are not united in any way that matters (culture and ritual don’t count). You do not become Orthodox by claiming to be such: you have to submit to the existing Ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church. Even if you do everything else right, you can’t just create your own episcopal structure (no matter what the circumstances) because in doing so you create and reify your own personal ecclesiology. The most promising way to bring the unity to the Orthodox in Ukraine is for the independent groups to submit 1) to the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (MP); 2) directly to the the Ecumenical Patriarchate; or 3) indirectly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate through its Ukrainian diocese (the one in which I serve). [note: historically Antioch and Jerusalem have also played this role, but I don’t see that as very likely now]. The one that would be the cleanest (and have the least potential for further schism) would be for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to take autocephaly, then for it to admit the other groups into their fold. The approaches that involve the Ecumenical Patriarch have precedences, but would cause enormous friction unless handled extremely well. [There is also the delicate issue of the unification of the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Church, but this issue deserves its own post].


Regardless of whether my opinions are right or wrong (and I willingly declare that they are only personal and very fallible opinions which I try not to hold so strongly as to put them above truth and love), I look forward to the recreation of the world when the mess we have made of the Body of Christ will be corrected, and all the saints will worship in unity and truth.

-Fr Anthony