All of the Orthodox bishops of North America met recently and the reports all seem quite rosey. I suppose I'm a bit of a curmudgeon but I have more than a suspicion that not everything is a grand as is being said in official and public statements. I'm told that Archbishop Demitrius (of the Greek Archdiocese) more than ably presided at the Assembly and actually kept to the agenda as published. I admire his ability in this.
But it still strikes me that it is certainly early days and that a lot is left to do. The local diocesan and archdiocesan practices vary a great deal and this will need to be addressed... the list is actually a long one. But the fly in the ointment seems to be how the OCA (Orthodox Church in America--of Russian background) will be handled. I suspect that it will be a real fight on the administrative council's level which may actually cause the formation of two assemblies. Bismark was right about politics and sausage being something that is best not watched as it's made.
Orthodox unity is an ugly business and I have to say that it causes me quite a bit of heartburn these days. Unity is one of the absolutely foundational aspects of the Church (we do proclaim after all that we believe in the "ONE, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.") For years I have had to teach my catechumens that unity must exist on three levels when it is perfect: (1) Sacramental unity, (2) Theological unity, and (3) Administrative unity. I have also been forced to admit that we have imperfect unity since we lack the complete administrative unity that the Church should possess. Administrative unity is not a tiny thing either. It is a matter of the very organizational life of the Church. The early church very quickly made canon laws that prescribed particular things to the ordering of church life. We can even say, without too much of a stretch, that the Apostolic council in Jerusalem which dealt with the issue of the Gentiles in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles issued a sort of canon law and ordered the life of the Church. We ought not to trivialize administrative unity.
We surely have sacramental unity with each other. We also have theological unity, but here I would say that it exists more in the form of consensus rather than as an absolute, like all communities there are some clergy who appropriate this better than others. But it must be admitted that we Orthodox do generally a better job here than most. This is significant too, for it has formed the basis of our unity (along with the sacramental life of the Church) for centuries. It is one of our strengths. But organization or administrative clearness is not one of our strengths at all. One of my favorite lines is "if you don't believe in organized religion, then you need to become Orthodox because we're not organized at all!" A lot of truth there.
Here I'm probably going to irritate or upset people, but I believe that it is true that the lack of organization is also one of the signs that we need the "other lung" of the historic Church: Rome. Rome is absolutely organized clearly. The boundaries are clearly drawn and they are well known. One might not agree with all of the particulars (I'm not sure what they might be that one would disagree with, but I'm sure some would) but bad rules are better than no rules.
But Rome has had some troubles too, but they are different than those of the Orthodox. Rome can organize but there has developed over the past forty to fifty years a great decline in unity of belief. How else can one explain a Catholic nun allowing an abortion in a Catholic hospital? or nuns pushing for women's ordination when the pope has said it is a closed matter? or clergy like Fr. Matthew Fox, who is completely immersed in new age religion? or Catholic Universities that do not teach the official faith of the Church? The problems are there and they are real. My admiration of Pope Benedict XIV and his work to correct these things is enormous. He is a virtuous and godly man, as well as a good theologian. But I believe that Pope Benedict XIV needs us to help.
Where the East lacks, Rome is stable; where Rome is wanting, the East is strong. I believe that we actually need each other. But it ought not be surprising nor scandalous because our Lord himself desired that the Church be one. The Church indeed needs to have both lungs so that it may breathe healthily again. The reunion of the Orthodox and Rome is also the greatest fear of Islam and of those who hate Christianity. A unified Christian Church would be powerful and strong. I pray for this daily. It is one of my greatest desires. I also believe that the only ecumenical discussions that are of any real substantive value for either us or Rome, is the one with each other.
The new National Assembly of Orthodox bishops is a good step. It all has been described in rosey colors, but my suspicion is that real Orthodox administrative unity is ultimately going to be found with real unity with the West. It is the West's charism, not ours.