There are signs that spring might just be trying to peek through the winter now. Admittedly winter was not that hard here this year, but it was still a land of snow for a little while. Now I can see the grass being revealed from beneath the blanket of white. There is little that is more unattractive than snow that has started to melt along the side of roads, discolored by road grime to a dark patina of gray. It's more depressing that snow itself I think. But spring is trying to come round.
And there is perhaps a spring that might be coming within the Orthodox Church in the United States as well. It would seem that the Ecumenical Patriarch met with the heads of other autocephalous churches (which are also "mother churches" of American jurisdictions) to begin the correction of our canonical anomaly of multiple and overlapping jurisdictions. I have heard rumors that there is now a desire to form an American synod of bishops to govern the Church in the United States.
All of this is good news so far. Multiple jurisdictions with multiple disciples and guidelines have caused great difficulties for us in parishes. The laity are not the only ones to blame for seeking out an answer that the prefer best by comparing different jurisdictions, the clergy have often been just as bad.
No one really knows how such a correction will look in the US. After all we have a very different situation than that which was ever imagined by the ancient Fathers of the Church. They never envisioned immigrants coming from many diverse backgrounds to form a new local church. But, of course, not even the history is so clear. A large number of the Greeks never intended to become Americans originally. Many came the the New World to earn money and then go back to Greece and retire. I have known many Greek clergy who still own homes in Greece for their retreats and future retirement.
Will the bishops have a liberality of spirit and charity of heart to suggest multiple over-lapping jurisdictions for different ethnic groups? This would allow specific oversight by bishops within the cultural norms that are desired and needed. The point of unity would be the American Synod of Bishops. This would necessitate a slight modification of the mindset that we have had heretofore from that of a strictly territorial jurisdiction to a modification of a personal jurisdiction with territorial character. This would be little more than giving structure to the situation in which we find ourselves now, while adding the necessary administrative unity that is so desperately lacking. Our own Archdiocese (the Antiochian) has been publicly calling for Orthodox unity in all of our Conventions for years now. Well, we might see if we really want it. Cynically, I think that many of the jurisdictions and bishops may well love Orthodox unity as long as they are in charge of it personally.
But I hope I can be forgiven if I see a dark lining behind this silver cloud. I fear that the Western Rite Orthodox will be left out in the cold, and perhaps will virtually cease to exist overnight. Let's consider the numbers. There are at least 600 Orthodox parishes in the United States (there may be many more, I just can't remember off-hand), but there are only about 27 or so Western Rite (WR) parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese. ROCOR has another 5 or so. The number is terribly small. The bishops will come together and necessarily speak about the most pressing problems, and the WR is not one of them. Even more problematically, some of our bishops are not inclined to "go to bat" for the WR because of personal experiences that are not necessarily due to the WR itself, but with some of the surrounding and attending problems that have been forced upon them.
Tragically there was a brief moment in time about one and a half years ago that would have resolved this upcoming problem. There was a movement to get a bishop for the WR. That's what is really needed. And it is needed for a large number of reasons. But when a new Synod is being formed, the WR will be left completely out in the cold if it does not have a bishop. If the US is divided into strictly territorial areas, then I rather doubt the the WR will be able to continue much longer at all, perhaps a couple of years until those parishes adopt the Eastern Rite. The Orthodox bishops' meeting of North and Central America in May will be a watershed moment for all Orthodox, but I think that perhaps more is on the line for WR parishes.
This to me would be an enormous loss. Though the WR is small and has little impact in the wider circle of affairs, it still represents a moment of clarity in the mind of the Orthodox Church. It allows people to be grafted into the Church without having to lose their own ethnic identity. While I love the Middle Eastern culture and people, I can never be one myself. Not with a name like Winfrey. I am of English descent and I treasure that heritage and culture as much as my Arabic parishioners do theirs. That is good and proper.
The very existence of the WR—even though I don't serve a WR parish—is critically important. It says that those of us from European extract are truly welcome as we are. If it ceases to be, it rather says that, “You are welcome so long as you become a Greek, …or an Arab, … or a Russian, …etc.” It can’t happen. How could I turn to my father and say, “Dad, I have to give up our family heritage, our family traditions that have made us who we are and guided us to Christ. I have to somehow learn to be something that I can never really be from the inside, but only be by imitation in external ways.”
The Church can only truly be the Church if it is strictly about Christ, not about our ethnicity (which is how our jurisdictions are variously divided). The only antidote to this is to allow all ethnicities to function in their fulness as authentic expressions of the Church. If the WR is eliminated, by direct action or indifference, then the very catholicity of the Church’s vision will be revealed as fatally flawed and those of us from European ancestry will not really be welcomed.
I hope that our bishops take a broader and more eirenic approach to things. I hope that they will not only allow the WR to flourish, but even give it its own bishop who can grow it and give it stability. As long as it is merely a plaything then it is really a disservice and quite disingenuous. No one should be forced to spend their spiritual life in an ecclesiological sand box. Either the WR is real and true, and therefore must be supported and given the means to grow, or it is false and should be stopped.
If it is considered false then I will have to think long and hard. It will be very painful, but it will be absolutely necessary for me to do so. I became Orthodox in 1991 in a WR parish with every intention of serving the WR for my entire priesthood. I dreamt of planting such a parish and then pouring my life out for it. Well, necessities altered my service but not my love. If the WR is abolished, then I would have to question many, many things. Was I brought into Orthodoxy through a lie? If the Church is willing to lie about something so fundamental as the way in which people pray and offer the Eucharist, then is it still “Church?”, or is it “a church?”
Spring is hopeful… usually. I am hopeful about the Bishops’ meeting. I only hope that we don’t end up with a summer that is so hot that it scorches young plants trying to take root. Let us pray for our hierarchs and for the grace of God to guide their every word and decision.