- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

The head of the world’s Orthodox bishops was in the District last week, speaking at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution, visiting Capitol Hill, and attending a dinner for 200 at the vice president’s residence, not to mention schmoozing with the local Greek community.

Yet the most important news surrounding the visit of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was barely reported. Other than the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, hardly anyone commented on an all-important meeting to be held in May in New York with bishops from the 10 Orthodox bodies represented in the United States.

In most countries, there is one national Orthodox church, but there are several in the United States, ranging from the Greeks and the Antiochans to the Serbs and the Orthodox Church in America, an independent body founded by the Russians.

It all started in the 18th century, when several national Orthodox churches laid claim to America. The Greeks planted a church in New Smyrna, Fla., in 1767 while Florida was still a Spanish possession, and the Russian monks arrived in Alaska in 1794, 73 years before it became an American possession. The first Orthodox parish established on American soil was in 1864, by Greeks in New Orleans.

All attempts to unite the Orthodox under one umbrella haven’t gotten far, including an abortive attempt in 1994, when U.S. Orthodox bishops met at a retreat center just south of Pittsburgh to call for a united church. Bartholomew squelched that effort by replacing Archbishop Iakovos, the Greek leader who led the unity effort.

The Greeks seem to have little to gain and much to lose from unifying with other Orthodox bodies. Greeks comprise half of American Orthodoxy, estimated at anywhere between 1.3 million and 5 million adherents, so sharing authority would dilute their power.

So it was a huge surprise in June when 14 Orthodox patriarchs from around the world gathered in Chambesy, Switzerland, and declared that all Orthodox bishops in countries where there is no one national church need to figure out ways to establish one.

“It’ll be like a corporate merger,” I was told by the Rev. Mark Arey, general secretary for the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. “You’re talking about 10 different institutions — like silos — that have led different lives for decades.”

Last week, I spoke with Archbishop Demetrios, the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who told me the New York gathering will bring together 55 bishops. He will preside at this unity meeting and unlike the unlucky Iakovos, he has Bartholomew’s backing. The patriarch, Demetrios told me, has assured him he wants American Orthodox unity “in my days.” Bartholomew is 69.

“The assembly is a tremendous step,” the archbishop said. “To create an administrative unity requires progress in other things,” such as the competing ethnicities of the various jurisdictions.

Although I am the granddaughter of a German immigrant, I don’t see myself as ethnically German. Why, then, I asked him, are Orthodox churches so intensely ethnic decades after their members have left the old country?

“The Greek Orthodox Church here in the United States is in its sixth generation,” he said. “Even so, they strongly feel the Hellenic element. And recent Russian immigrants want their liturgy in Slavonic. This [unity] is not something that can be done artificially.”

Four out of the current eight Greek Orthodox bishops in the United States are native-born, he added, so at some point, the leaders will want to cut ties.

“We are thinking of a natural way for this child to be born,” he said, “not a chemically induced birth.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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