Orthodoxy's Greatest Need Today
by Archbishop Michael (Shaheen) of Toledo
Sermon delivered at the Greek Orthodox Church in Miami, Florida
As we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy here in Miami, Orthodox Christians the world over in similar services commemorate the Triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy, and the restoration of icons in our churches. The attempt to modify Orthodoxy was an attack against the Doctrine of Incarnation, our belief that God became man in Jesus Christ. However, the ancient Orthodox dictum that “THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE IS THE VOICE OF GOD” prevailed and icons continue to adorn our churches everywhere. Patriarch Methodius of Constantinople composed this service for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and it has been observed by Orthodoxy since the 9th Century.
Today, in this 20th century, Christianity at large and Orthodoxy in particular face new forces and challenges that must be met and dealt with. In a pluralistic society where major religions and aggressive ideologies are competing for the mind of man, there is a pressing need for a united Christian voice. The charge of the Church to bring “THE TRUTH, THE WAY, THE LIFE” to mankind is hindered and weakened by the divided Church. Even the missionary efforts of the more aggressive churches are grievously impaired.
What chances has a divided Church before the overwhelming and threatening forces of Communism, Secularism, Humanism, etc. . . . not to mention Atheism and Agnosticism? We cannot speak in the language of St. John Chrysostom while our contemporaries are more receptive to the arguments of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein. We cannot survive long on the glories of our rich heritages in this 20th century. We must meet our problems and face the challenging issues with action today. In a world population of 4 billion, only one-fourth claim to be Christians, many of whom are in name only and not fully committed. How can we present any meaningful expression of the great truths of Christianity in a divided voice?
There is no doubt that these factors prompted the religious leaders of Christendom to call for unity, aside from the clear mandate of our Lord Who asked “that all be one.” Leading figures like Pope John and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras led the way by calling for self-renewal in preparation for Christian unity. While Orthodoxy’s ‘First among Equals’ called for a Pan-Orthodox Council in 1961, Pope John convened Vatican II, which brought many changes and created friendly relations among all Christian bodies. Listen to the golden words of Pope Paul at an opening session to which all Christian bodies were invited:
AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF SEPARATION, AFTER SUCH PAINFUL POLEMICS, WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO BUT AGAIN LOVE ONE ANOTHER, PRAY FOR ONE ANOTHER.”
The warmth of Pope John, the great love of Patriarch Athenagoras and the humility of Pope Paul have generated a miraculous change of attitudes among Christians. Thanks to them, Christendom today is witnessing warm and profound relations that are without precedence in almost 2000 years.
Orthodoxy is now in the process of convening a Pan-Orthodox Council and hopefully this will be held within the next two years. This will be the first since Nicea in 787 A.D. (now named Iznik in Turkey). The preparatory conferences have taken about 15 years and require at least two more to complete the agenda.
Orthodoxy at large feels the great need for self-renewal. Only a Pan-Orthodox Council has the authority to institute changes and decide on the many issues that trouble the Church in this day and age. The Council will deal with matters which are of secondary nature, that is ecclesiastical matters that regulate the practical aspects of Christian life.
On primary matters of Faith, (Dogma and Doctrine) Orthodoxy cannot change. Our Orthodox Faith is like Christ, “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” God does not change; Christ is the Son of God; Mary is the Mother of God; the truth of the Gospels as preached by the Apostles has been delivered once and for all. This has been confirmed by the Church Fathers and decreed by the Ecumenical Councils during the first eight centuries of Christianity.
But it is the secondary and ecclesiastic matters that are long-due for review, study and change to better serve the faithful in these modern times. There is an urgent and pressing need to update the Church on worship, fasting, marriage laws, customs, traditions and the complex and antiquated Canons of Orthodoxy.
Speaking of canons, let me cite a few examples that will illustrate how difficult, if not impossible today, it is to abide by the canons. These rigid and severe laws apply to both clergymen and laymen: It is forbidden —
Being friendly and associating with non-Christians,
Praying with or attending services of heretics and schismatics,
Using the medical services of a Jewish doctor,
Marrying a non-Orthodox,
Playing cards or even hunting,
Painting artistic works or gazing at the same,
Clergymen using female housekeepers,
Not observing the four main fasts of the year, plus every Wednesday and Friday all year long,
Attending banquets where females are present. If one were to observe the canons on fasting, it would mean not eating meat on about two-thirds of the year. No wonder a distinguished Orthodox theologian remarked: “THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IS GOOD AND HOLY; HOWEVER, ITS FLOCK IS PRACTICALLY UNDER EXCOMMUNICATION.”
Thank God for the Doctrine of Economy in Orthodoxy that provides shelter and some flexibility. Otherwise, we would all be under the ban of suspension or excommunication.
Such is the dilemma of world-wide Orthodoxy, not to add many new problems and moral issues of this 20th century. Orthodoxy must remind the world of its teachings on abortion, mercy-killing, homosexuality, capital punishment, social injustice, and world-poverty.
Our Lord Jesus said: “THE SABBATH WAS MADE FOR MAN, NOT MAN FOR THE SABBATH.” Moreover, was not St. Paul the first reformer who fought to free the human conscience from the regulations of the Old Law? Let us pray and hope that Orthodoxy will move at a faster pace for its own sake in this jet-age as well as the sake of its loving and obedient children.
In America, Orthodoxy has added peculiar problems of its own that must be resolved sooner or later. Several million Orthodox Americans, united by one and the same Faith, are divided into several jurisdictions and separated bodies that function independently of one another. Each national jurisdiction is linked to its Mother Church of origin. Thus we have two or more authorities in the same cities and land. Such overlapping jurisdictions is a direct violation of Canon Law. Furthermore, it is against the Apostolic and Patristic norms of Orthodoxy. It has been tolerated only because no Pan-Orthodox Council has been held to deal with the scandalous situation.
Our greatest need in America is to unite all these separated national bodies of Orthodoxy into ONE GREAT AMERICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH which will automatically gain national recognition and equal status with the three other major faiths. One united Orthodox Church would mean a more effective voice and a greater impact in the New World. One united Orthodox administration would end all wasteful duplication, similar projects in the same areas, identical efforts that are now limited and costly. Finally, more efficient leadership and supervision would be available across this vast continent, rather than a concentration in some areas and the lack of any spiritual leadership in others.
Orthodoxy must be placed above nationalism, regardless of our rich heritages and ethnic origins of which we are all equally proud. Each national body could maintain its own customs, traditions and preferences within this united American Orthodox Church. The glorious days of the Byzantine Empire are now history and we are now living in an age that has placed man on the moon.
Orthodoxy must speak in the language of the land if it expects to be heard and understood. Orthodoxy must address this generation in their own language and style if it is to be meaningful and of any religious value to them. It must speak on the crucial issues and current problems of this age and day.
We need a St. John Chrysostom to address this generation on the dominant subjects of this contemporary age. We look for another St. John of Damascus to provide a fresh explanation of the Orthodox Faith.
One united Orthodox Church in America, once endorsed and approved by a Pan-Orthodox Council, would usher in the “Golden Age of Orthodoxy.” Only in this free land is the Church safe from interference and political pressures. If world Orthodoxy suffers from external oppression and political pressures, we suffer from internal divisions and weakness.
The time has come for all true Orthodox Christians to support and encourage the establishment of ONE GREAT CHURCH IN AMERICA. If Jerusalem is the holy city of our Lord and the Mother Church of all, and Antioch the great city where we were named Christians for the first time, and Rome the Imperial Capital of the Roman Empire and Seat of the Pope, and Constantinople the New Rome and former capital of the Byzantine Empire, then America has a new role and place in this 20th century. America could become the capital of Christendom in this 20th century. After all, who else in the world, could place the Cross of Jesus and a church, if the need be, on the moon? Thank God for America, thank God for Orthodoxy and thanks be to all who have vision and foresight to dream of all the possibilities that unity can generate. Amen.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America