The Crisis in the OCA
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block,
I Cor 1, 23
The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has existed for over forty years. Sadly, born in crisis from an uncanonical grouping in North America, it has encountered immense difficulties in its brief life, going from crisis to crisis, both financial and moral. The latest study by Andrew Walsh of Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, (link), is much misinformed about the role played by Parisian intellectuals in its foundation and also so harsh as to be uncharitable. However, it does focus minds on the question as to whether the OCA can survive at all.
In this study the author asks: ‘Does or should anyone outside the group care what happens to a tiny, historically ethnic religious body like the Orthodox Church in America, or OCA, which has a paying membership of only about 30,000? Over the last two decades, the Church...has traversed a cataract of misfortunes of remarkable scope - plunging membership; attendant resource crises; financial, managerial, and sexual misconduct scandals among its senior hierarchs; and the sputtering of its animating vision of a new and unified American identity intended to supplant the divided realities of the nation’s small cluster of Orthodox Christian churches’. Given such a severe critique, is there any hope for the OCA?
Historically, the Church, in the world but not of it, has always suffered from various, this-worldly forces, coming from outside Her and oppressing Her. From the very outset, as we mentioned above, there were the Jews and the Greeks, who tried to pull the Church apart. These two tendencies, the first judaising tendency pulling towards the right side, the second philosophising tendency pulling to the left side, have repeated themselves throughout the course of history, taking on different names and forms, but always keeping the same spiritual essence.
Thus, the same two forces, existing as philosophical currents, also disturbed the Church in the early centuries. The first was called Aristotelianism and later Scholasticism, the second was called Platonism, as represented by Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and Origenism. Over time, the first current evolved into Monophysitism, moulded Islam, and later became Iconoclasm, the second evolved into Arianism, Nestorianism and moulded Western secularism. Outside the Church, the same currents also evolved into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Clericalism and Congregationalism, Authoritarianism and Populism. In modern terms, these two currents can be called Conservatism and Liberalism.
Specifically within the small OCA, not much more in size than a single diocese, these currents have been brought into the Church from outside Her by secular Americanisation. This took place as She came to be dominated by a secular-minded ruling elite, originating first from Paris, then from the USA. This domination increased, as the members of this elite lost contact with the grassroots or rather, since they came from outside the Church, did not make contact with Her grassroots. Unfortunately, without any authentic monastic life, the small OCA was too spiritually weak to resist such secular pressures. Disincarnate intellectual fantasies and ideologies and ensuing personality cults, the bane of small, provincial groupings, were put above the catholicity of the Church by those who had never integrated Church life and remained unChurched.
The first current in the OCA is a conservative one, which has gone in for fundamentalism and puritanical moralism. The second is a liberal one, which has gone in for the Americanisation of the Church, known in the Church as ethnicism or phyletism. The first current tends to be pro-Antiochian, since its Protestant-leaning bias, introduced from outside the Church, has tended to be conservative, Anglo and Republican. (However, with the events in Syria today and the US-supported insurgency there, Antiochians may yet veer away from this stance). The second current tends to be pro-Greek and, since poor Greek immigrants have tended to support the Democrats, it is pro-Democrat. Thus, the small OCA has fallen victim to secular currents from outside the Church and is being torn apart by them.
Whereas the small OCA grouping has been too small to resist secular pressures, the Church has always stood above and beyond such currents, from right and left. Crucified between two thieves, one on the left and one on the right, the Church is above all isms, liberalism and conservatism. The Church is the Tradition, Spiritually Incarnate, Incarnate Spiritually, resisting both the stumbling block and foolishness, witnessing to the Cross and the Resurrection.
The Church as a whole does not know of clerical contempt for the people, for the grassroots. The Church does not lose Her roots in intellectual or ethnic ideologies or theories, which end in the ghetto and the sect. The Church is not a study, but life. As a Non-Orthodox Christian author, G. K. Chesterton, wrote in his ‘The Secret People’:
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,
The OCA was set up as a temporary solution for an uncanonical Church grouping in a Cold War situation. Soviet-American relations of the time determined its status. Now that the Cold War is long over (despite the energetic attempts to revive it among conservative forces in the West), it may indeed be the time when the OCA will fragment into its component parts. What are these parts? First of all, a very small, clerically-dominated group may yet leave the Church entirely and set up a Renovationist sect. Other small parts, the conservative and liberal groups who came from outside the Church and have not integrated it, may well turn to the Antiochian and Greek Churches, just as similar groups have done in England in the last few years. Others may well return to their Mother Churches, Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian.
However, most of the OCA, its grassroots in Alaska, in Canada and in its heartlands in and around Pennsylvania, may well return to the Greater Church, that is, may well reintegrate the Russian Church. And this is the greatest hope for the OCA – a return to roots, a return to the Father’s House after the straying in a distant land over recent decades. In this way, there will cease the forced captivity to the political and sectarian prejudices of 20th century human ideologies of right and left, and there will begin again the free attachment to the Divine Theology of Eternal Love.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
19 May / 1 June