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Building Orthodox Unity in the Midst of Pluralism: A Step Forward

by The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky

Rediscovering One Another

One of the realities of Orthodox life and witness in America is the pluralism of Orthodox churches. This pluralism, as a rule, has not prevented eucharistic communion among the churches. Eucharistic communion has been an abiding testimony to the unity of the Orthodox – a unity in sacraments and a unity in doctrine. Although Orthodox unity in one canonical body with one Synod of Bishops has not been achieved in America, the fundamental unity of Orthodoxy has been protected and nourished by the experience of celebrating the Divine Liturgy together and receiving Holy Communion from the same chalice.

Bishops Peter (ROCOR) and Nikolai (OCA) greet one another at an OCA episcopal consecration service in May 2005. – Photo: WikipediaWhile preserving the treasures of the Russian Orthodox tradition, offering a vivid witness to the Orthodox faith and to the martyrdom of the Russian Orthodox Church, and attracting many converts, Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) for many years was not in full eucharistic communion with the Moscow Patriarchate and with most other Orthodox Churches. The Act of Canonical Unity, which in 2007 reconciled the ROCOR and the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), also opened the way to the restoration of full communion between ROCOR and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).

A statement on “Relations between the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia,” drafted by OCA and ROCOR commissions working together in joint sessions, October 5-6, 2010, was approved and affirmed by the ROCOR Synod of Bishops in October and the OCA Holy Synod in November. In December, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, Primate of the OCA, took part in a conversation with the ROCOR Synod of Bishops at their meeting in New York. The exchange of views was not only positive — it was also constructive and practical and expressed a shared vision of communion and collaboration.

There is much to rejoice about in this mutual determination to clear away the debris of alienation and to rediscover one another in the fullness of eucharistic unity and in the fullness of the Orthodox faith. As the work of the OCA and ROCOR commissions has shown, the two churches have common roots and a shared history. Even the differences between them are signs of this common history. The path of ROCOR, after decades of separation from the Moscow Patriarchate, led in 2007 to canonical reconciliation and canonical unity within one Russian Orthodox Church.

The path of the OCA, after decades of separation from the Moscow Patriarchate, led in 1970 to the granting of autocephaly (self-government) to the OCA by the Russian Orthodox Church. Now there is a growing awareness of the common pastoral and mission tasks and challenges faced by both churches in America, and a growing readiness to work together in accomplishing these tasks and meeting these challenges.

It is important, yet again, to emphasize that there is much to rejoice about in these developments. It is also important not to isolate this journey of communion and collaboration from the larger community of Orthodox churches in North America. Even as ROCOR and OCA labor together to build a common life and common mission, it is essential to do so in full awareness of the totality of Orthodoxy in America and in the world. The reconciliation of ROCOR and OCA is not a means to separate ourselves from the other Orthodox churches and communities. Rather, this reconciliation is called to assist in the building of Orthodox unity in the midst of a pluralism of Orthodox cultures and histories.

St. Tikhon of Moscow (1865-1925) – Photo: Wikipedia

There will be some who will dwell on differences between ROCOR and OCA, and may be tempted to regard these differences as irreconcilable. In the face of such temptations, it will be important to take into account that differences are not found merely in the ROCOR-OCA relationship. To mention just one example, the question of the calendar (Old and New, Julian and Gregorian) is a question before the whole Orthodox Church around the world. If this question were to be seen as an irreconcilable difference which prevents communion among the Orthodox churches, then the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Moscow, Georgia, and Serbia could not be in communion with many of the other Orthodox churches. In the whole Orthodox world it is critically important to distinguish between church-dividing questions, on the one hand, and matters which are not church-dividing, on the other.

When Saint Tikhon, the future Patriarch and Confessor of Moscow, was Archbishop in America, he was confronted by demands to insist on uniformity in the liturgical services. His response was a model of pastoral wisdom. He pointed out that there were liturgical differences in the vast Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire, and that such differences are acceptable within the framework of unity in Orthodox faith and Orthodox doctrine. In other words, he had a clear understanding of priorities, refusing to put all questions in church life on the same level of importance.

May this sense of discretion and wisdom guide us all, through the prayers of St. Tikhon, Enlightener of America, Patriarch and Confessor of Moscow.