The editors of Orthodoxy in Dialogue wish to commend the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America for its thoughtful, articulate response of August 18 to last week’s disturbing events in Charlottesville. (See the Assembly’s statement here). We see the statement as a significant moment in the Assembly’s history and, by extension, the history of the American Orthodox Church. It represents—let us hope and pray!—the modest beginning of a critical pivot in our institutional self-awareness as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ not only in, but of and for, America.
The Assembly has demonstrated that it possesses the mechanism, when it also has the will, to produce a reasonably timely response to emergent crises in national life. Certain things simply cannot wait until the Assembly’s next annual meeting.
In this way the Assembly has also shown signs of its nascent vision for a more holistic episcopal ministry to our wider American society than suggested by the narrow parameters of its two annual condemnations: the institutional church vitiates the moral authority of its prophetic voice and its preaching of the Gospel in the public arena when it is perceived by both those within and without as being solely concerned with opposing civil same-sex marriage and legal access to abortion.
In our Open Letter of August 16 (here) we joined the chorus of voices lamenting the Assembly’s silence in the days following Charlottesville. We wondered at the USCCBs ability to produce two statements in two days, the first on the very day of the tragic deaths of a peaceful counter-protester and two law enforcement agents. Yet we were deeply gratified by the thoroughness of the Assembly’s statement when it finally appeared, and by its reminder that the Gospel does not permit us disciples of Christ to return hatred for hatred. In modern times St. Silouan the Athonite and St. Justin Popovič taught that we have not even begun to become Christians if we fail to love and pray for enemies and evildoers.
We humbly suggest that, when future crises arise in national life, the Assembly issue a brief statement immediately, as the USCCB did, to be followed within a few days by a more thorough, more analytical statement. This will go far to alleviate the anguish of Orthodox faithful and friends of Orthodoxy who might perceive that the Assembly is ignoring a situation of extreme gravity.
We wish to defend the Assembly’s statement against the charge, on the part of some, that it is “not enough.” As far as statements go, we find its content and tone to be equal to the situation in Charlottesville and to its underlying sociological causes. That is to say, it is “enough,” but only insofar as it serves as that “modest beginning” and that “sign of a nascent vision” for which we expressed our hope above.
Finally, we wish to conclude with some thoughts on ethnophyletism, condemned as a heresy at the 1872 Council of Constantinople. Prior to the Assembly’s statement, several online Orthodox commentaries had already appealed to this precedent, not only in condemning the eruption of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, but also in deploring the reception of two prominent American white nationalists into the Orthodox Church in 2014. However appropriate it may be to speak of ethnophyletism in the current context, we ought not lose sight of the fact that the Church condemned it as an ecclesiological heresy: Orthodox ecclesiology only ever admits a territorial structure to its organizational life, with the specific ministry of unity invested in the sole bishop of a given territory—regardless of the various ethnic identities found in his Flock. The Church’s division into overlapping ethnic “jurisdictions” in North America, with multiple bishops having parishes in any given city—(here in Toronto where we study, we count parishes under at least ten canonical bishops, some resident in Canada, some not)—makes the Orthodox Church in the US and Canada the most flagrantly ethnophyletistic ecclesial entity in the world.
Until we correct this canonical perversion as a matter of the greatest urgency—with or without the “permission” of Old World mother churches—our call for interracial and inter-ethnic unity in American social life will carry limited moral force as long as we fail to practice what we preach.
From the Assembly’s website:
The purpose of the Assembly of Bishops of the United States of America is to preserve and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church by helping to further her spiritual, theological, ecclesiological, canonical, educational, missionary and philanthropic aims. To accomplish this, the Assembly has…as an express goal the organization of the Church in the United States in accordance with the ecclesiological and the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.
…[T]he Assembly is a transitional body. If it achieves its goal, it will make itself obsolete…[and] come to an end, ultimately to be succeeded by a governing Synod of a united Church in the United States.