How much longer will we continue to refer to ourselves as ‘Greek’ Orthodox? The people of Greece when questioned about their faith respond with a single word – that they are ‘Orthodox’ – but we in the United States insist on identifying ourselves as being ‘Greek’ Orthodox.
We are not the only ones to do that, of course. Persons of Russian ancestry in America refer to themselves as ‘Russian’ Orthodox. Same, for persons of Ukrainian, Albanian, or Serbian ancestry. Although they all are Orthodox in faith, they identify themselves as being ‘Ukrainian’ Orthodox; ‘Albanian’ Orthodox; ‘Serbian’ Orthodox, or whatever else the case may be.
Perhaps, a hundred years ago, when the first Greek immigrants arrived to America it was the sensible thing to do for persons of the Orthodox faith, to identify their ethnic origin. But, does it make sense for us today – three or four generations later – to respond to a question concerning our faith by reporting that we are ‘Greek’ Orthodox, that we attend services at a ‘Greek’ Orthodox Church, where Divine Liturgy is celebrated by a ‘Greek’ Orthodox priest? Is the ‘Greek’ designation really necessary in this day and age?
Persons not familiar with the structure of the Orthodox Church might think that ‘Greek’ Orthodox faithful are somehow different from other Orthodox persons, such as Russians, Antiochians, or Bulgarians. They are not, of course. All Orthodox Christians regardless of nationality are united in doctrine and faith, follow the same cannon law, and are in communion with each other.
Referring ourselves as ‘Greek’ Orthodox, or ‘Russian’ Orthodox as in the case of Russian Americans, has its origins in the early years of the 20th Century, when large numbers of Orthodox faithful immigrated to America and proceeded to establish parishes reminiscent of the ones they had left behind. The result is the plethora of Orthodox places of worship that exist in America today, each belonging to a different ethnic group and functioning under the jurisdiction of a different Church Primate.
The arrangement has endured for more than one hundred years, and still does, to the detriment of Orthodox unity and the efficient utilization of Orthodox resources. It also continues to violate an important canon of the Church that there can be but one bishop in every city or province. Incidentally, there are today 45 Orthodox Bishops in the United States of America, belonging to eight different nationalities.
The desire/need to unite all Orthodox resources in America into one ‘American Orthodox Church’ has been the dream through the years of a great many persons, both lay and clergy. Nothing has been accomplished to date, however, for two reasons.
One: how the ‘American Orthodox Church’ would be structured and operate has yet to be defined? Will it be an ‘autonomous’ Church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate (as it should), or possibly some other form of Church administration? If ‘autonomous’, how much control (if any) would the Ecumenical Patriarchate or other Mother Church exercise over the day to day operations of the American Orthodox Church? That includes the appointment of its Archbishop, as well as his diocesan bishops, in line with the canon of the Church that there should be one bishop only in every city or province.
Two: Nothing has been accomplished also, for the simple reason that ‘creating’ an American Orthodox Church out of the present disorder of a dozen ethnic Orthodox Churches would be extremely difficult. Essentially it would necessitate the Primates of Orthodoxy’s Autocephalous Churches with resources in America to break off ties and transfer them to the American Orthodox Church. This would be a near impossible task, since each of the fifteen Primates derives major benefits (financial, prestige etc.) from its churches in America and would be reluctant to surrender them.
The reasons, above, are undoubtedly responsible for the failure of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, the agency which has been tasked with the development of a proposal for the canonical organization of the Orthodox Church in America, to make any progress. The desire for unity is not missing, however, as evidenced by the recent meeting between our Archbishop Elpidophoros and Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Church that concluded with the words, “The future of Orthodox Christianity in America is only possible through unity.”
For the sake of Orthodoxy Christianity and its future in America, a beginning at Orthodox unity must be made now. Our present system of segregating the faithful on the basis of ethnic origin is counterproductive, perhaps even harmful for Orthodoxy’s long run, and should be abandoned. This can be done easily, with the simple step of deleting all ethnic references to the designations of Orthodox Churches, places of worship, and even clergy. Ethnic references do not contribute to unity, if anything they divide us and keep us apart.
Beginning the process of uniting all Orthodox in America should be our top priority, before the present awkward system becomes even more so and makes Orthodox unity impossible to accomplish.
Dennis Menos is the author of several books and is a writer on Hellenic and Orthodox issues.