Being asked to describe the Church’s ministry in the so-called “diaspora” is a daunting task. In this largest of categories, a great amount of literature has appeared from numerous perspectives: statistical, theological, pastoral and canonical. Even a survey of such literature would be a challenge. Instead, I would offer rather a reflection on the specific challenge that the Church has in ministry within my own context in the United States.
The principle of the Church’s “nature” is identical wherever she dwells, though the mode of her existence is certainly “renewable,” to paraphrase a helpful distinction of Saint Maximos the Confessor between the logos physeos and the tropos yparxeos. Wherever the Church dwells within this world, she does so as a witness to a world in need of salvation. The service, or ministry, of the Church to this world is essentially identical everywhere: proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, baptizing the nations, observing the commandments, and teaching and strengthening the faithful, all in response to the sacred and great Commission of our Lord (cf. Matthew 28). What differs in place to place is the means by which the Church accomplishes her mission.
This diversity of means of ministry has always been present within the Church, and today we may not even really be cognizant of how great that diversity was. The differences that exist today between typica or liturgical orders in the “Great Church” tradition common to most Greek- and Arabic-speaking churches, and that of the Slavic churches are well known and easily identifiable—at least to Orthodox. Yet this is a slight reflection of the greater diversity that existed prior to the printing press, and the coalescence of customs and traditions due to the influence of a few “centers” in the Orthodox world. Indeed, technological advances have brought us, in some ways, closer together, and the divergences of small details in liturgical practice, canonical application, pastoral discipline and so forth become more noticeable.
Yet perhaps this diversity is more noticeable to a bishop of the so-called disapora precisely because Orthodox praxis is manifested in such a diversity within the United States due to the fact that Orthodox here arrived from, literally, everywhere else, bringing their customs and traditions with them. Likewise, ministering in this land has also demanded a response of the Church to its own, unique cultural context, and this is certainly different from Greece, Russia, Serbia, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and all other places where the Church dwells.
If understood in its biblical sense, all Orthodox Christians comprise a “diaspora” (1 Peter 1:1), scattered as seeds throughout the world with “no enduring city” (Hebrews 13:14) as the Apostles write. Indeed, the Apostles could address a diaspora of Christians because outside of Jerusalem all Christians were, in fact, a diaspora according to this meaning; this was the response to the Great Commission to “go out” to all nations.
Yet this biblical sense of the word is no longer the prevailing definition of diaspora, nor is it likely that this is how it is used by many within the Church. Instead, to many, the word (especially in English) implies a migration from an ancestral or ethnic homeland, or even exile; implied is the idea of loyalty to that land and the intention—when possible—of returning. Right or wrong, in the American context “diaspora” has a decidedly nationalistic meaning, with members of a diaspora residing only temporarily outside their homeland.
It has long been customary to refer to Orthodox Christians in Western Europe, North and South America, Oceania and elsewhere beyond the borders of autocephalous Orthodox churches as comprising a “diaspora.” Many Orthodox Christians in the United States have started to reject this term precisely because of its perceived nationalistic use, and a majority of Orthodox no longer identify themselves as anything other than permanent American citizens, even if they may appreciate an ethnic heritage and cultural tradition rooted in Europe or elsewhere (as many Americans do), and the bonds with relatives and friends overseas. Likewise, many feel that the faithful here are no longer “seeds” that have been dispersed; the roots have taken, the plant has matured, and borne fruit. At what point does a group of Orthodox Christians, they would ask, move from being a “dispersion” to being a mature Church?
Undoubtedly, the greater portion of Orthodox in the United States traces its ancestry to traditionally Orthodox lands or regions where Orthodox were once, or still are, the majority of Christian groups living in the midst of a surrounding Muslim nation (Asia Minor, the Middle East, etc.). Orthodoxy definitely came to America from somewhere else, and only a small population in Alaska can truly claim to be “indigenous” American Orthodox Christians—and they were converted by Russian missionaries. However, the great waves of Orthodox Christians migrating to the USA earlier in the twentieth century slowed to a slight trickle by the 1960s, with but a small increase following the fall of the Iron Curtain. While some immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Greece included, may have intended one day to return to their homeland following a period of “wealth building” in the “land of plenty,” this was not the reality for most. As with most ethnic groups in America, the subsequent generations did not, and could not, completely identify with the land of their parents and grandparents. Unlike an increasingly smaller portion of the Jewish community, there really is no sense of being a “diaspora” among Orthodox Christians in the USA, no desire or sense of need to return to the land of their ancestors, and therefore the very idea of “diaspora” is being consciously rejected. For the better portion of Orthodox in America, the United States is home and they have known no other. The “seeds” have taken firm root.
Yet the rejection of the idea of being a “diaspora” should not be misconstrued to suggest unconcern with their fellow Orthodox in the lands of their ancestors. To the contrary, Orthodox Americans remain tremendously concerned with the welfare of their fellow Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Palestinians, and so forth. It is just that they have increasingly less concern with the advancement of the “political” interests of the governments of these lands. Americans do not equate or identify ethnicity with territorial sovereignty; they cannot, for America is the land of nearly all “ethnicities” co-existing under one “flag.” Greeks in Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey are most important and dear to Greek-Americans; the governments of these lands—not so much. American Orthodox likewise do not understand the relationship between the Church and the civil government in these lands, for their own experience is much different.
Furthermore, there is a strong admiration and reverence for the ancient history and traditions of the Patriarchates and other autocephalous churches of the Christian East. Sometimes this admiration is even greater than the faithful of those churches! Perhaps this is because the history of the Church in America has been so brief in comparison.
ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
The increasing rejection of the notion of “diaspora” does have a positive foundation in the growing sense of Orthodox Christian identity among Church members in the United States. The immigrant experience was one of segregation into ethnic ghettoes and enclaves in urban settings where immigrants competed for housing, employment and so forth. The parish community was a safe haven and refuge for persons who shared a similar ethnic culture. The focus was on maintaining ethnic ties and mutual support of an immigrant community struggling to survive. The parish church was, in fact, as much a cultural center as spiritual center; in some cases, the cultural center was established first, only then did immigrants seek to bring clergy to America to serve their “spiritual” needs. Still, in this immigrant community, the focus of the Church’s ministry was almost completely introverted. There was little effort (or even ability) to reach out to the greater society—itself perceived, in many ways, as much of a threat as an opportunity.
Greek, Russian, Serbian Orthodox could have parishes within the same neighborhoods and never relate to each other in any meaningful manner. The ecclesiastical communion that existed between us was, more often than not, ignored in practice. While this may still be true in places, the “emphasis” has begun to change.
Subsequent generations did not require the parish to assist them in the transition to a new world, and they certainly had options—if not sometimes pressure—to join other faith communities. Membership in the parish gradually became membership in an Orthodox Church, with the ethnic modifier being an important, yet secondary consideration.
This process was in its infancy following the last great waves of immigration, and has now reached a perhaps impetuous adolescence with all the difficulties that maturation requires. Yet the presence of persons in the parish who do not share the predominant ethnic culture (largely through inter-marriage) has caused even the majority to appreciate their ecclesiastical heritage in a new light. In most places, there is a consciousness that Orthodoxy is not “genetic” in the sense that one is simply “born into it.” Membership in the Church is rightly seen as volitional; it is a matter of one’s choice and commitment, and this attitude “adjustment” has had many positive effects.
The major benefit of this ongoing shift from ethnic identity being primary to Orthodox Christian identity being primary has been a heightened sense of mission. Orthodoxy is a gift to be shared with the surrounding society, not simply a treasure to be preserved or a nostalgic remnant of a previous life in the “old country.” This alone has brought Orthodox of various backgrounds together in numerous and beneficial ways, though it has also presented some challenges—growing pains, as it were.
CHALLENGES FROM THE CULTURE
Orthodox ministry takes place, always, in a particular cultural context. Orthodox faith and life does not, cannot, and never has occurred in a vacuum apart from the world. Even monasticism, as an uncompromising witness to the world, cannot truly stand apart from it, unconcerned, without betraying the Gospel. If there is a difference of “style” or emphasis between the Orthodox lifestyle of Greeks and Russians, this is due to the cultural context in which the one Church dwells and fulfills her mission. While there is sometimes a move for greater uniformity, a strict uniformity would be a detriment to the spreading of the Gospel.
There is an emergent sense among Orthodox that the fields are “ripe for the harvest” in the United States. This largely began in the 1960s, once the great waves of immigration had largely ceased. Of course, the strongest early attempts for the “baptism” of America were rooted in the Russian Orthodox parishes, for by this time Russian immigration had long ceased due to the closing of the Iron Curtain, and the second and third generation of Russian Orthodox had fully transitioned into American life. Unfortunately, and due perhaps to a tendency to avoid associations with America’s principle enemy, there was the sense that the “ethnic” elements of traditional Orthodox piety could somehow be simply discarded in favor of the creation of a uniquely “American” Orthodox Church. That experiment, as is clear now, failed precisely because in discarding ethnic customs—customs infused by an Orthodox ethos—something else was lost.
Indeed, the immigrant experience of all Orthodox groups experienced a similar development with the Russians, and the attempts at cultural acclimation occurred in all of the largest Orthodox jurisdictions (Greek, Serbian, Antiochian [Syrian]) to some degree. The pressure to adapt to American “norms” was often great, and this resulted in “experiments” to make Orthodoxy more palatable to the American public. Such experiments included not only the expected use of the English vernacular, but adaptations of traditional architectural settings for parishes, decoration, musical composition, and so forth. Catechetical instruction for youth, as one example was adopted in form, if not even in content—from Protestant models (this occurred in traditionally Orthodox lands as well). Sometimes these adaptations were a matter of some necessity; in others, they were consciously chosen paths to American “normalcy.” Some found a measure of “success” in that they have endured to the present, such a musical compositions for choirs based on Byzantine or Slavonic originals. Others did not, or were later “corrected” or modified, as in the case of catechetical materials for children.
Since the 1970s, in which events actually provoked a crisis between Orthodox groups precisely on the question of how best to proceed in the building of a more united ministry by Orthodox in the United States, such a simplistic approach has itself been discarded. Now, in numerous, slow -even tentative- attempts, there is creative work in translating liturgical texts into English in such manner as to retain traditional chanting melodies and music. Ancient forms of architecture and iconography are studied and appreciated, while being incorporated into parishes that, at their founding, sometimes consciously rejected “old forms” so as to better acclimate to American society. Of course, the activity of SCOBA (Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas) fostered pan-Orthodox initiatives, but with little overall success. Rather, SCOBA was more successful in its endorsement of “grass-roots” initiatives that matured into broad missionary efforts (Orthodox Christian Mission Center or “OCMC”) or philanthropic endeavors (International Orthodox Christian Charities or “IOCC”) that brought together clergy and laity from all Orthodox jurisdictions. In 2010, as is known, through the initiative of the Preparatory Commission of the Great and Holy Council under the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, SCOBA has given way to the Episcopal Assembly of Orthodox Bishops, with a greater inclusion of all hierarchs present in the USA.
There is now greater discernment in how to approach American society in order to minister to it. Of course, there are missteps and false starts, as well as successes. Yet unconsciously, there has been a move to boldly present the Church to heterodox and non-Christian neighbors in the glory by which the Slavs and Rus were converted. The insecurity of the immigrant has given way to the boldness of those fully at home in American culture.
We are witnessing the emergence, through a dynamic of inter-relatedness and interaction, of an American Orthodox identity. It is a process that has yet to mature in its fullness. In many ways, this process has only just begun, but the prospects are positive.
Of course, there are dangers.
America, like the entire West and all those touched by its cultural influence, is an increasingly secular society. By law and by custom, religion has been largely relegated away from the public sphere. In a positive light, this has only made the contrast between the Church and the world starker, and the Church has raised a prophetic voice in what is an increasingly hostile environment to those who dare violate the secular ideals of those who prefer religion to be a strictly private matter (perhaps an outgrowth of America’s Protestant majority). Yet there is a negative side to this, in that Orthodox Christians also are tempted to believe that these secular ideals are, indeed, right and true; that religious life is simply a matter of private “opinion” and choice, and so forth.
Unlike the experience of some of the “mother” churches, there is a strict separation between Church and State in the United States in practice if not actually a matter of law. The Church receives no material support from the State, and while this allows the Church a great independence from pressures of the civil authority, it has sometimes proven a challenge to convince immigrants—who supported their church by taxes elsewhere—to be good stewards and financial supporters of the Church. Yet even this challenge has the benefit of vividly illustrating the personal commitment of the faithful for the success of the Church’s mission. The Church in the USA has to be self-reliant, and this can only enhance its ability to be a prophetic voice in the society, “speaking truth to power.”
All the contention of a society with as many ideologies as America has, coincides with a most noticeable ethical relativism. The inability to find an ethical consensus in American society on some of the most basic issues, from social justice to those concerning the very sanctity of life, has affected many of the faithful who fall under the undue influence of the prevailing “anything goes” attitude.
America was founded by Protestant “rugged individualists” and this individualism is now bearing its fruit with the disintegration of social bonds and standards. In fact, the positing of a real community and communion is what has generally attracted persons to the Orthodox Church from other faith traditions. It is the confession of a standard (canon) of life and the admiration for adherence to historical roots that has fostered curiosity and then commitment to the Orthodox Church.
CHALLENGES FOR THE CHURCH
Of course, the Orthodox are not the only group that offers an alternative to the postmodern, relativistic secularism of American society. If America is a vast marketplace, the same metaphor applies to the religious landscape. The Church is confronted by basic challenges that must be addressed if she is to “compete” in this struggle for the salvation of souls.
The first of these challenges is the continuation of proselytism. While perhaps a more noticeable issue in traditionally Orthodox lands when other faith traditions seek to “convert” Orthodox to their version of the truth, the same attitudes exist in America, though perhaps they are more subtle because they are more commonplace.
Ecumenical dialogues have generally promoted a measure of respect between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian (Anglican) and other “mainline” Protestant groups, but “Evangelical” Protestants, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Protestants generally do not subscribe to the notion that Orthodox Christians are, indeed, Christians in the full sense of the term. Likewise, the so-called “Christian cults” such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons actively seek converts among all Americans. In the Western states of the USA, where it is centered, the Mormon faith continues to be among the fastest growing religious traditions in America, drawing converts from both non-churched citizens and nominal members of other Christian churches—the Orthodox included. More important to converts than doctrinal or theological presuppositions is the sense of community and ethical standards of living, something the Mormons emphasize to the point that many Mormons are ignorant or uninterested in their own theological construct.
The Church has undertaken in the last several decades a concerted and growing effort to educate the faithful on the doctrinal uniqueness of Orthodoxy, and increasingly through creative use of the media (including the Internet). Orthodox academicians have begun to play a more prominent role in non-Orthodox institutions including faculties of theology, and some authors have entered the “mainstream” of a greater public appeal.
Early on, during the height of Orthodox immigration, the pressure to conform or acclimate led many to Protestant churches, especially in the absence of Orthodox communities. That is no longer the case, and the growing presence of Orthodox in the public realm has provided an “alternative” even for Protestants disconcerted with the movement of their tradition toward more “liberal” agendas. Orthodoxy, with its sense of tradition and inherent conservatism in doctrinal and ethical matters.
Indeed, while sometimes misunderstood, the participation by Orthodox leaders in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues has been, in the American context, a necessity. Of course without seeking any “compromise,” our dialogue has allowed a peaceful co-existence with many groups in place of previous hostilities. It has raised Orthodoxy out of the ethnic ghetto into the mainstream of American life, and it is only in that position where it can have any hope of “baptizing” the culture and calling people to the Truth. It also places Orthodox leaders in a position to influence and communicate with leaders of other faith traditions that do, in fact, proselytize in traditionally Orthodox lands, and to draw the assistance of other Christian and non-Christian groups in common aid in times of humanitarian crisis in Orthodox nations.
One area that has emerged from the common immigrant experience of all Orthodox is the difficulties attached to overlapping “jurisdictions” and hierarchies. Noted above, the declaration of the Russian “Metropolia” in America as “autocephalous” in the early 1970s provoked a crisis with lingering discomforts. Yet it did raise, in an acute way, the need for a normalization of the canonical situation in the USA (and elsewhere). Indeed, the controversy of this matter has adversely affected the relations of some autocephalous churches.
The anomalous situation emerged as a natural outgrowth of the immigration patterns and immigrant needs in the New World. There is no doubt about this, and arguments from a strict “geographic” claim by one jurisdiction or another will have no success. This was clearly recognized by 1970, but little movement toward improving the matter was made until much more recently.
The formation of the Episcopal Assembly of (Canonical) Orthodox Bishops in the Americas was a move that indicated, at least to Orthodox Americans, the inevitability of a united American Orthodox Church, and the eventual recognition of such by the mother churches. It is far too premature to even speculate on what will happen in the future in this regard, but the very assembling of all Orthodox hierarchs is a move that can only benefit the Church in her mission in America.
The recent formation of the Episcopal Assembly, through the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is an opportunity for working together from a common understanding, noting that final solutions will be confirmed by a general council. The ancient and autocephalous churches have called for the Orthodox throughout the so-called diaspora to form a plan that is workable and conducive to their own social context. This is precisely what is required to maintain unity, to foster better relationships, and to mature together in a fitting manner.
The Episcopal Assembly will also allow the necessary communication and cooperation to solve several of the other pressing challenges facing Orthodoxy in America. Or, at least, it will provide the necessary environment to calm undue but real concerns that persist in regard to Orthodoxy’s relationship with American society, particularly the issue of acclimation and accommodation.
CONCLUSION: ADVANTAGES FOR THE CHURCH
The people in the United States cherish the idea of freedom. Enshrined in their national anthem are the phrases, “land of the free and home of the brave.” As the seeds dispersed from throughout traditionally Orthodox lands and ancient patriarchates, the faithful have taken root in a land that requires salvation and affords, through the freedoms granted to all citizens, a great opportunity to the Church.
The United States, as so much of the West, is quickly realizing the results of those “Judeo-Christian” values on which it was founded, particularly those of the Protestant traditions that were held by the greater majority of early settlers. The “rugged individualism” revered by the Reformers found its greatest expression in the American experiment. Many Protestant Christian groups are quickly realizing that this individualism was a double-edged sword. Yet this is an opportunity for the Orthodox, among several, in the land of freedom.
FREEDOM FROM… FREEDOM TO…
For several generations, Orthodox faithful in America have been free to progress and grow without any legal restraints or encumbrances. Immigrants who came to these shores have quickly established themselves within the mainstream of American society—at all levels. Orthodox in America have known no religious persecution from the State, unlike the experience of our brethren in Turkey, the Middle East or even, until recently, the Communist Bloc.
Orthodox faithful in America have not been immune to the nationalistic concerns and anxieties of their brethren in Europe. However, more often than not, Orthodox communities emerging from the immigrant experience into a solidly established community have been free from such anxieties since their destiny has not been tied to the circumstances of national governments overseas. Instead, once ethnic groups free themselves from the civil-political concerns of the “old country,” they are free to provide assistance—moral and material—in times of need. And the fellowship of Orthodoxy in the broader sense, transcending ethnic boundaries, has allowed fellow Orthodox to be mutually supportive. Such was the case when all Orthodox shared the concern about the United States’ intervention in the former Yugoslavia, and the effect this had on the Serbian people. All Orthodox in America have coalesced in seeking greater freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey. The examples could be continued, particularly in regard to humanitarian aid.
NO LASTING CITY…
The emergence of a uniquely American Orthodox identity is in its nascent stages, much as the often overlooked but unique American culture in general. Part of this is precisely the unity in diversity—another application of a contribution of Maximos the Confessor—of American society. This unity in diversity has been slowly growing even among the diverse Orthodox communities from diverse ethnic traditions of the USA, and the process is yet to be complete. Yet the New World presents a new opportunity for the Church to grow and realize success in her sacred mission.
As a final thought, I am comforted by recalling that the Roman Empire and the prior conquests of Alexander the Great provided a fertile field for the Church to flourish even under (or perhaps better, because of) persecution; or the barbarian incursions, into what is now called the Byzantine Empire, created conditions for the conversion of the Slavs. Perhaps it is possible that the economic and social climate of eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere, that prompted Orthodox Christian to migrate to the USA, have created a new “field” for the dispersed “seeds” of the Church to grow into a new harvest for the salvation of the world. It took centuries for the Church to grow from a handful of disciples into the Church of the Empire. It took centuries for the Church to move beyond the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. Orthodoxy has been present in the United States for a much shorter time, and really did not come to convert Americans, but rather to minister to the needs of immigrants seeking a better life. That mission is still, in many ways, ongoing, for many of the immigrants are still with us. Yet in just a few generations here in America, less than a century, the Church is poised to witness to this great society: that none of us has a “continuing city but we seek the one to come” (Heb 13:14, NKJV). This harvest will be possible as the Orthodox in America, and throughout the world remember the other words of the Apostle and “let brotherly love continue” (Heb 13:1) in the communion of the undivided Body of Christ. Amen.