Vol. 2 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2007
Oh Say, Can't You See?:
The OCA and the American Problem
As the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has been rocked by certain financial scandals over the last couple years, it has been almost impossible to gauge the response of the faithful of the OCA who live outside American borders, in Canada and Mexico. The reason is much like the difficulty discussing tourism with folks from Baffin Island: the issue simply does not even register in the minds of those outside the USA.
The business of the "American" Church is very much an American business. Many - even most - Orthodox Americans are not aware of the fact that the physically largest diocese of the OCA is found outside the United States, in Canada. In a jurisdiction dominated by the white, middle class decedents of Slavic and other Europeans, her largest diocese rests within a country that is culturally diverse and culturally and regionally divided, with little time for centralized power south of the border that was drawn in the blood of Canadian soldiers. Yet Orthodox Christians in Canada can never be entirely sure if our American brethren understand our differences.
For those living outside her, it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that the United States is a nation that believes it knows best. Since her own civil war, America has been engaged, on and off, in an effort to export its identity and way of life to the rest of the world, with the firm sense that the world would be better off being like America.
What does this identity look like? The American Revolution set the tone for a powerful nation, built upon the charred remains of the European inheritance America extracted from its history. Inspired by the revolutionary, secular spirit of building a perfect, new society, America rejected a heritage of monarchy and tradition, and embraced an admiration of human intellect, philosophy, and the power of the individual. The American Dream seemed like a bold new dream; it was in fact the oldest dream of all, one that promised her followers, you shall be as the gods: free and equal members of a democratic brotherhood.
The same spirit inspires many Orthodox Americans who seek an independent, unified Orthodox jurisdiction on this side of the Atlantic. While special interest groups such as Orthodox Christian Laity overtly seek to revolutionize and "Americanize" Church on this continent, even those within the leadership of "American" jurisdictions like the OCA and the autonomous Antiochian jurisdiction have been deeply shaped by such revolutionary ambitions, which seek to build a "renewed" church, in the "American" image: white, middle class, and English speaking.
For Canadians, this is downright funny. Yet for many Orthodox in the United States, this is serious business. Building suburban missionary parishes in a country with an exploding population in the inner city ghettos seems to somehow make sense. Graduating unilingual seminarians in a country in which nearly half the population is Latino is accepted as normal - because for those involved, this is the norm of American Orthodox life. this is Brady Bunch Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Americans are often shocked to discover that most parishes in Canada use no English at all, using Slavonic, Ukrainian, Romanian, Albanian, or French, in many cases because they are dealing with new immigrants. Such a discovery would not be a shock if Orthodox mission work in America was widespread among Latinos and American blacks. The reason it is not has nothing to do with missionary priests, some who have laboured in these communities for years. It has everything to do with the American elite triumphalism that has shaped American foreign policy for two centuries, and continues to shape the outlook of the Orthodox Church in America today. It is this same pride which will always lead to a fall - in recent years, to financial scandal within the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.
Like the Emperor in the old children's story, many Orthodox Americans cannot, do not, or will not see this delusion. It is of course such blindness which robs us of God's blessings on mission work; the numbers in the Church bear witness to this lost opportunity. Instead of fussing over building "The Church for America", we faithful would be much wiser to follow the path of our North American missionary saints, and minister to those who are with us already on this continent, without borrowing from the hollow nationalism of American Protestantism.
A few years ago at a convention here in Canada, I asked one of the advocates of a united "American Orthodox Church", "Tell me, what will happen to Canada and Mexico under your little scheme?" The man replied, "Oh, you can each have your own independent Church, too." How nice, I thought - we can all have it our own way - like some ecclesiastical burger chain.
Later that day, I tried to purchase a book from an American merchant, who was visiting Canada.
"I'm sorry," he explained, "We can't take your currency - only American dollars."
When I tried to explain that he was in our country, he could not understand the problem, and expressed his frustration by adding, "If Canadians want what we have to offer, they can just trade in their money for American dollars. I can't see the problem."
Looking at him, I thought to myself, I can.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.