Recently, much time has been given to the thought of administrative unity in the Orthodox Church, particularly in North America. There is a recognition by the old-world Churches that the current situation of multiple overlapping jurisdictions is un-canonical, presenting an image of a schizophrenic and disorganized Church. A quick overview of Orthodoxy in North America confirms this ecclesiastical craziness, as being something of a game of Risk, and not the Church of the Apostles.
In the past, attempts have been make to correct and clarify this overlapping and confusing witness, with various degrees of success, but there was never anything to build upon. Perhaps, the last great attempt was the formation of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) with the blessing of its Mother Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, as a self-governing and independent Church in 1970.
In hindsight, the thought that this “new” Orthodox Church could be an informal commonwealth of Orthodox Churches in North America ,was naïve and unrealistic. Despite the good intentions and the work done since then, and the will and the desire of the Assembly of Bishops (charged by the old-world Churches to find a solution), so far no possible solution to the current mess seems realistic.
And so we are left with a question. Is Orthodox unity in North America an impossibility, or are we going about solving it in a completely wrong way?
It is interesting to consider this question in the light of the anniversary of the glorification of St. Herman of Alaska this Sunday (Aug. 9th).
The witness of Orthodoxy in North America did not begin on the Canadian Prairies, or the Mill towns of the Mid-West, a hundred or so years ago. It started with a small group of missionaries landing on the shores of Russian Alaska in 1794. Within a year of their arrival, only St. Herman was left.
He was a monk, not a bishop, not even a priest or deacon. We don’t even know his last name, yet it is providential that the first Orthodox missionary in North America, and the first glorified Orthodox saint in North America, was in the eyes of this world, a nobody. He did not have vast resources with which to evangelize, or elaborate and systematic programs and mission plans by which to address the immense challenges and obstacles in the establishment of Christianity. All he had was faith that this new world, its peoples, its land, were all under the Lord’s protection, and that it is for them that the Lord came and offered Himself on the Cross, that they might be freed from death.
From his little hermitage on Spruce Island, St. Herman’s life and prayer sought protection for his Aleut brothers and sisters from the abusive colonial powers. In time, his prayers included new Canadians from the old-world who, like him, had become orphaned in a new-world, and who were often the prey of forces that sought to exploit and abuse them. Now his prayers include those who strive to find real life in Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church.
The fact that the OCA exists and is growing as (as is witnessed in this Archdiocese today), and that there are healthy Orthodox bishops, priests, deacons, parishes, and faithful in every shape, size, and colour, regardless of what language they speak, or what calendar they serve on, or what foreign bishop they commemorate, is a direct result of this first witness of Orthodoxy in North America, even if many of them do not know who he was, or what he did.
St. Herman’s faith, the size of a mustard seed (especially when you consider what one man in the middle of nowhere Alaska could offer), planted at the furthest edge of North America, was such that he was able to take a mountain (Mt. 17:20) of unbelief, oppression, violence, sickness, fear and self-doubt and throw it into the sea, leaving a plain upon which the Church, the “Faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) was firmly built.
Maybe this realization of a unified Orthodox Church in North America can be accomplished using the example of St, Herman’s small but profound witness, and not any other way.
We, like St. Herman, are nobodies, and regardless if we have heavy foreign accents, or whether we walk around with a copy of the “Orthodox Church” by Kallistos Ware in one hand and a fresh copy of the Orthodox Study Bible in the other, we have the potential, that by faith (even the tiniest bit of it) we can effect change and healing.
That simply living the words spoken by St. Herman “that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will”, we can cast the mountain of disorganization, pride, politics, and prejudices into the sea, making a smooth plain in which to make manifest the Kingdom of Heaven in Christ, the Church His Body, on this continent, in this country, in this province, and in this municipality, wherever we might be.
Orthodox unity is not an impossibility, any more than the miracle of Christ’s saving love being revealed to a whole continent some 221 years ago by a simple monk.
By the prayers of St. Herman may we have even the smallest grain of faith.