A Challenging Vision For Orthodox Christians in America:
An Interview With Father John Meyendorff
In 1990 the late Father John Meyendorff, renowned church historian, patrologist and dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, was interviewed in Paris by Antoine Niviere. The interview was subsequently published in Service Orthodoxe de Presse (no.146, March 1990). Some 20 years later it was reprinted in Le Messager Orthodoxe (no. 148, 1-2009).
Father John’s responses to Niviere’s poignant questions help to provide, in a very condensed format, an historical and theological backdrop for evaluating the recent Episcopal Assembly convened by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The interview also provides a vision for its work in the future. This historic assembly, held in New York City on May 26-28, 2010 was a response to the decisions of the fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference held at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambesy, Switzerland (June 6-9,2009). Focusing on resolving the various ecclesiological anomalies caused by the so-called “diaspora,” the Chambesy conference was the result of the gathering of primates representing fourteen autocephalous churches invited to Istanbul by His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (June 6-12, 2009). Missing from the list of invitees was His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
Father John’s interview is as strikingly fresh and challenging now as it was when first given. It covers a range of diverse but interrelated topics relative to ecclesial unity: Orthodoxy in the West; The State of Orthodoxy in America; New Challenges for the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe; Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and Orthodox unity vis-a-vis the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
From the outset of the interview one can sense that Father John is more than slightly vexed with those who relegate Orthodox Christianity to being geographically and ethnically locked into the East. This myopic perception has helped to support the idea of “diaspora” and its accompanying unorthodox ecclesiology of jurisdictional pluralism driven by ethno-phyletism. Though not explicitly stated, one can glean from the interview that the issue of “diaspora” and therefore Orthodoxy in the West is related to a spiritual and psychological disposition that confines Orthodox Christianity to an ethnic ghetto. Father John stresses that the viability of Orthodoxy in the West is not dependent upon the perpetuation of ethnic enclaves but on its witnessing to the Apostolic Tradition. Orthodoxy in the West can neither sustain itself nor fulfill its missionary mandate by pretending to exist in Byzantium or pre-revolutionary Russia. For Father John, Orthodox Christianity is also a Western phenomenon as it witnesses to the universality of the Gospel, and he insists that it is responsible for contributing to the spiritual, cultural and intellectual life of all societies and countries.
Since the time of the interview until now, attempts to discuss and ultimately resolve the “diaspora” problem through a conciliar process have ironically maintained the status quo of Orthodox disunity. In the case of America, the creation of the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), while laudable, has not resulted in the transformation of the American bishops into a single synod with its own primate free from the influence or barriers imposed by the mother churches. The only exception to this ecclesiological impasse fueled by jurisdictional pluralism is the Orthodox Church In America (OCA) which received its autocephaly from its mother church in 1970. This unilateral act of the Moscow Patriarchate and the North American Metropolia continues to be viewed as a canonical anomaly among many if not most of the Orthodox world.
Twenty years ago Father John stated that those of the “diaspora” had been accorded only a limited participation in preparing for a future Ecumenical Council which would provide a blueprint for establishing new local Orthodox churches in the West. Last week Metropolitan Philip Saliba, primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America expressed a similar frustration to the other fifty-five bishops attending the Episcopal Assembly in New York. He highlighted the fact that none of the canonical Orthodox bishops of North America, including the chairman of SCOBA, were invited to Chambesy.
If the “diaspora” is to contribute towards achieving Orthodox ecclesial unity in the West it must be encouraged by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to offer its voice to the conciliar process leading to a resolution of its own unique problem. As for the “diaspora” in North America, it must encourage the Ecumenical Patriarchate to become involved in using its primatial ministry to finally put an end to jurisdictional pluralism and to lead the way for establishing a local autocephalous church. To this end the Orthodox Church In America (OCA) has much to contribute and should not be marginalized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate or any other of the old world churches since it alone identifies itself and has functioned as an autocephalous church for the past forty years.
Father John clearly supports the pivotal role played by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Orthodox ecclesiology. Yet, he candidly states the need for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be truly ecumenical and that its candidates not be limited to a particular ethnicity or subject to the restraints of the Turkish government. Father John reiterates the need for a permanent committee or synod, made up of representatives of all the autocephalous churches, to be part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This would enable the Patriarchate to properly exercise its primatial responsibilities in a conciliar context that is not exclusively ethno-centric. For all intents and purposes, Father John saw the need for what was known in the Byzantine and Ottoman empires as the synodos endemousa. The composition of this synod included the Patriarch, patriarchal bishops, bishops, who for various reasons including political/religious exile resided in Constantinople, and the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem or their representatives. Historically, the synodos endemousa helped to restore and maintain proper ecclesial order and unity during those times when ecumenical as well as local councils could no longer be convened.
Given the need for ecclesial order and unity, Father John was also well aware that the various manifestations of church unity could not depend solely on ecclesial institutions. He stressed that the Apostolic Tradition, lived out through a vibrant and growing faith, was fundamental to the life and structure of the Church. Father John warns against putting trust in authoritative structures and institutions that are divorced from the life given and sustained by the Holy Spirit. This warning poses the greatest challenge for any and all attempts to forge ecclesial unity in America and throughout the “diaspora.” Orthodox unity cannot be forged by structures of authority, even those structures which strive for the most inclusive configuration of conciliarity, i.e. bishops, clergy and laity, if there is no involvement of the Spirit.
Even though Father John does not detail the relationship between the Spirit and the Church’s conciliar structure, his words remind us that too often trust is placed in institutions rather than in God. Without the Holy Spirit all canonical structures of church order and unity are destined to fail. Only with and in the Holy Spirit will the Church be able to generate and nurture the unity needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century as it works for the salvation and transfiguration of the world.
Father Robert M. Arida