Today’s topic is “Pride of Place.”
Several times in these podcasts I have emphasized the importance of place within the Orthodox faith. I have argued that being rooted to a particular place is an important element to our spiritual development. We are not Gnostics. We do not believe in an idealized, disembodied spiritual existence. In his incarnation, our Lord became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time in human history. As a result, Christ did not come to save us fromour particular existence, but to save us within it and to transfigure it.
This means that, while in one sense there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, in another sense we never stop being what we are—Jews, Greeks, Southerners, New Yorkers, whatever. I’m re-emphasizing this today because this fact has very important ecclesiological implications. Often when I travel I am asked what jurisdiction I belong to, and this is very common amongst Orthodox in America when we meet one another for the first time. “Are you OCA, Antiochian, Greek?” The problem is that this is a totally inappropriate question; not from a social standpoint, but from an ecclesiological standpoint.
No one belongs to a jurisdiction. I do not belong to the OCA. I belong to the Church of Dallas and the South. My bishop belongs to the Holy Synod of Bishops of the OCA. This is extremely important because many of us suffer from, if I may borrow a Marxist term here, a false consciousness regarding the Church. We think of the Church as either the parish or the national church or jurisdiction. But the Church is, in reality, neither. The local church, the one Holy, catholic and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Creed is the diocese. It consists of the ruling bishop surrounded by the presbytery, the diaconate, and all of the laity. In one sense, local churches are simply legal fictions. They are not churches in the strict sense, but synods of churches. However, the fact that we tend to think of the national church or jurisdiction as the Church creates all sorts of practical, ecclesiastical problems.
In fact, I think it is one reason that we have been so slow to move toward administrative unity here in North America. Let me give two examples of what I mean. If you pay attention to internet gossip, and you really shouldn’t, you probably know that a particular diocese in this country is going through a great upheaval at the moment. There is a full scale revolt going on against the bishop. Now it is unclear, and I don’t know all the facts, whether or not the bishop has actually done anything technically to merit canonical removal. What is clear is that the vast majority of the clergy, and one imagines a large part of the laity, want him gone…yesterday. Now since I have no firsthand knowledge of the situation, I’m going to take the advice I gave last year and not make any comments about it. What I want to point out here is the simple fact that the bishop in question is not a native of this particular diocese.
This business of a synod sending a person from one diocese, literally from one local church, to become the bishop of another is symptom of the false consciousness that I have just described. It bespeaks of a mindset that says that the national church or jurisdiction is the real church and that dioceses are merely convenient, administrative divisions. Frankly, this is the same ecclesiological heresy we have been accusing Rome of for the past thousand years.
We must get back to thinking of the diocese as the local church, and whenever possible draw bishops from within that church. Now, I’m not saying that homegrown bishops will solve all of our problems. But at least we won’t have issues of culture shock and alleged insensitivity, as we have in the diocese in question. Of course, in order to have eligible candidates for the episcopate, the diocese must have a thriving spiritual life and, ideally, at least one monastery.
I don’t know the bishop in question, and, even if I did, it would not be my place to make any comments or judgments about him. My complaint, rather, is about a system that often downplays and sometimes ignores altogether the integrity of the local church.
The second example I want to talk about has to do with administrative unity here in North America. If we have wait for all of the mother churches to get together and come to a decision, then we will never have a unified ecclesiastical structure here in North America. No, if unity comes, it comes from the ground up. But in order for that to happen we must develop a genuine ecclesial consciousness and begin to think of ourselves as members of a concrete church—not as Antiochians, or Greeks, or members of the OCA.
The point here is not that we need an American church. We need no such thing. We need to understand that we are members of the Church of Dallas, or Wichita, or Atlanta, or Chicago. When we do that, then, and I think only then, will we realize just how uncanonical and untenable our situation here is. If I belong to the Church of Chicago, and you belong to the local church of Chicago, then how come we have two complete different bishops?
Let me suggest a fantasy scenario here. In the South, there are like everywhere else multiple, overlapping jurisdictions. But unlike Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco, all of the bishops in the South are in different cities, different states even. They are resident bishops in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Other parishes are under the cathedra of bishops in Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, New York, and even, somewhat inexplicably, Detroit.
Now here’s my thought. The territory of the old confederacy and the border states could easily be divided up. Florida probably has enough people to be its own diocese. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina could form a separate diocese with a cathedra in Raleigh or Charlotte. Alabama and Georgia could go under Atlanta, while Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky could create a new diocese centered in Nashville. Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma could go under Wichita, while Louisiana and Texas would remain under Dallas. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona could go under Denver.
The thing is, if the region were divided up territorially like this, there would be enough local churches to create their own synod. Of course the mother churches would have an absolute conniption fit over all of this. But in reality we would just be following the oldest ecclesiastical canon. Apostolic Canon 34, which calls for local churches in a given area to create a synod of bishops chaired by the bishop of the metropolis.
I firmly believe that if we are ever to achieve unity on this continent, it will follow a course similar to what I have just described. It will happen only when bishops, clergy and laity stop thinking in terms of nations and jurisdictions and return to a genuinely Orthodox ecclesiology centered around the local church.
And now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose presence in the Church is our guarantee of unity, holiness and catholicity, through the intercessions of Saint Innocent of Alaska and the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.