Sunday, September 24, 2006

United States, United Church?

In this week's edition of Orthodox Christian News, there's a link to the .pdf version of Again magazine's Summer 2006 issue on Orthodox Unity in North America. Since I don't subscribe to the magazine, this was my first opportunity to read this issue. Frankly, I'm humbled by the whole question and the associated challenges. I think unity is important. Personally, a significant piece of what attracts me to Orthodoxy in the first place is the ideal of unity. I recognize that the Orthodox Church here in North America is far from that ideal, but at least Orthodoxy offers a vision to strive for. Protestantism, and Evangelicalism in particular, has long given up on the kind of tangible unity that Orthodoxy teaches. Its ecclesiology of invisible unity in an invisible Church, defined by an abstraction of those who are "saved," i.e., spiritually baptized, can never produce real-life cohesion. Yes, the idea of Christian unity can and often does work at the level of a local congregation, but that congregation must always be a voluntary grouping of individual believers. If the cohesion breaks down, it is sustained by reshuffling the deck. Those who don't fit in can go off and join or start something else, until equilibrium is re-established. The Orthodox notion of catholicity defies this approach, and I love that about Orthodoxy.

So it pains me to see Orthodoxy here in America divided by ethnic jurisdiction. On that point, I don't see much room for dispute, and I don't apologize for taking a position. The problem is when it comes to fixing the situation. Generally speaking, the Again issue seems to represent one viewpoint on how to achieve Orthodox unity. Perhaps it can be argued that it is the only viable approach, at least for North America. But the fact is, such things must be argued. There are alternatives. I don't feel like I'm in a place to settle these issues, or even to give a well-founded opinion, so I'm going to try to stay out of the discussion for now. There are just a couple of points that I want to make here. First, I thought it interesting that almost nowhere in the various articles on Orthodox unity (there are some other topics covered in the issue) was monasticism brought up as a significant factor. It seems to me like it should at least make the list. Second, I found somewhat disturbing Fr. John Behr's article, "One in Christ." The general thrust of his argument seems to be that, since there seems to have been a multiplicity of bishops in at least one or two large cities in the earliest centuries of the Church, we might be barking up the wrong tree to look for one bishop in each city. Maybe all that's necessary is to get the bishops in a city all on the same page--part of a synod or some such thing, and all affirming each other's Orthodoxy and belonging to the same local church.

Now, I don't think that as an intermediate step this would necessarily be a bad thing, and it seems like I've read elsewhere the suggestion that this might be a step in the progression toward canonical unity. What disturbs me is his suggestion (as I understand it) that this could be the final form of Orthodox unity in America--that perhaps the whole idea of one bishop in one city pertains only to an Orthodox nation or empire. I don't want to criticize too much on the basis of what little he says here--I realize it's not exactly the best medium for articulating a full defense of such things. Still, as I say, I find it somewhat disturbing. In particular, I'm skeptical of his suggestion:
This new situation also reflects an undeniable change in our contemporary experience of space—with the advent of mass private transport and greater communications, our sense of space, the world in which we now live, is not so much geographically defined as it is defined by culture, friendships, family. But if this is the case, what has become of the Church in any given region, as described above? Who, what, or where is the Church of New York, or any other metropolitan area?
I think there is "an undeniable change in our contemporary experience of space," but I'm not sure that he analyzes it properly. For instance, I'm not sure how significant family is in the contemporary (Western) experience, particularly on the scale of world cultures and our own past history. What I think we are finding today is a virtual space of our own choosing. The people who live near me are irrelevant (as such). I choose where and with whom I will work, and there too I have control over how far I carry my relationships with coworkers. I choose my activities, so that the people I interact with at the gym, or on a sports team, or as part of a club, have common ground with me because of our shared interests, but there too, I can choose how intimate things get. This choice is carried even further in the formation of online communities, where I can be still more selective about whom I converse with or even date. And I'm not particularly constrained by family, since I can choose to live as far from or as close to them geographically as I want, and I can choose how much I will put into my relationship with them. Ours is a culture of choice, which I don't think is entirely unrelated to the Protestant culture of the voluntary church. I can choose the type of church that I want to attend, so that it places less demand on my time or energy, so that I'm around people I feel comfortable with, so that the preaching agrees with what I already think, etc. In fact, my faith is all about what I as an individual choose to believe, and the most any church can do about it is disagree, so that we choose to go our separate ways.

So I'm a bit disturbed at the thought that Orthodoxy in America would simply accept this outlook as a given reality, because I'm not sure how it fails to lead to the same approach to Christianity that we find in Protestantism today. Granted, the idea that the bishops must all be in agreement at least doctrinally would provide some kind of curb on excesses in this area, but it still opens things up (it seems to me) for a great deal of Protestantization in the Church. And maybe this speaks to my biggest misgiving about the whole idea of a uniquely American Orthodox Church. Is it possible that American culture is so permeated with American religion (indeed, which has been shaped more by the other?), that a too-American Orthodoxy would thereby become less Orthodox than it should be? American Orthodoxy in the sense of Orthodoxy based and administered within America is one thing--with that I have no argument--but American Orthodoxy in the sense of Orthodoxy shaped by American culture is something requiring a bit more discernment. That's where I worry.

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