- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

American Orthodox Christian leaders will hold their third joint meeting next week, a gathering aimed at strengthening ties among their churches, which began splintering along ethnic lines a century ago.

But the chance that the movement will take up unifying into one U.S. church — the dream of some laity and clergy — at the meeting of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas is small to nonexistent.

The 31 officials, who will meet from Tuesday to Friday in Chicago, represent churches formed by Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Syrian, Lebanese and other immigrants. The assembly will “exemplify the bond of brotherhood that exists” among the churches, said Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and chairman of the Standing Conference.

But those bonds are unlikely to lead to a merger, although supporters of the idea argue that pooling resources would make Orthodoxy stronger and more attractive to people seeking a home in America’s diverse religious marketplace.

The leaders represent an ancient tradition that has nearly 220 million followers worldwide, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. Yet the Orthodox presence in the United States is relatively minor.

The American Orthodox are split among more than a dozen separate jurisdictions, or church groups, many with membership reaching no higher than the tens of thousands — or even as few as the hundreds.

Collectively, they serve about 5.9 million people — and several of the jurisdictions are shrinking, according to the center’s research.

These troubles have fueled calls for a unified church.

Many Orthodox are frustrated that, in a nation of spiritual seekers, the elaborate ritual, liturgy and teachings of the Orthodox tradition are failing to attract more newcomers. Advocates for unity say a merger would create sorely needed resources for outreach.

“The church in America has to get it’s act together,” said George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, which advocates for a unified church. “All these jurisdictional churches duplicate everything.”

The pressure for merger intensified more than two decades ago when Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of America gave a forceful sermon decrying the “ethnic mentalities” that he said left the Orthodox weakened and “scattered.”

He proposed giving the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops the power to bring churches together. Lay people and clergy joined in promoting his message, but opposition remained strong.

A merger would require individual churches to move bishops and share authority among many more leaders. Advocates like Mr. Matsoukas say that overseas patriarchs oppose unification because their own churches at home are struggling, and a North American jurisdiction strengthens them.

Merging would also require a major shift in outlook for worshippers, many of whom deeply appreciate that their churches help maintain their ethnic identity and links to the past.

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