In the closing years of the 19th century, a number of Roman Catholic leaders in America were accused of a heresy called Americanism, and Pope Leo XIII wrote an apostolic letter specifically denouncing elements of this teaching, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. Americanism was essentially the emphasis on American political values over against the Roman Catholic political tradition, which was at the time at least distinctly uneasy regarding political positions such as the separation of church and state, freedom of the press, liberalism (in the classic sense) and the individualism which so marks American culture in general. While the episode in Catholic history was really quite minor, what was at stake was the question of religious identity in American society. It was probably not until the election of John F. Kennedy to the American presidency that Roman Catholics came to feel that they had finally come into their own in America, despite their presence on the continent for nearly as long as the English Separatists who founded the seminal colonies of American national life.
In our time, it would be regarded as absurd that anyone would accuse American Catholics of heresy over a devotion to such staples of American political values. Setting aside for the moment the controversial peculiarities of modern American Roman Catholicism even within the wider Roman communion, it must be admitted that the “Americanists,” such as they may have been, have essentially won. Few American Catholics would say that one cannot be fully American and yet fully Roman Catholic. There has come to be no contradiction seen between these identities. (For an example of a rather less successful merger of such values, one need only look at the liberation theology of South American Catholic Marxists.)
Like those Roman Catholics living in 19th century America, for Orthodox Christians living in 21st century America, the question of how exactly one is to be faithful to one’s communion in this particular place is again paramount. Though the debates about Orthodoxy’s history, present and future in America range widely—from canons to language to proofs to corruption to double-dealing to controversial candidates for the episcopacy or canonization—the question at the heart of all these debates is really this: What is our identity?
One attempt to grapple with our past and our future might also be termed Americanism. Unlike those 19th century Roman Catholics, however, modern Orthodox Americanists (not to be confused with Orthodox Americans) have chosen different elements of American identity with which to interpret and (I would argue) distort not only our history but our faith.
Perhaps the clearest and most troubling such element is the spirit of legalism which pervades Americanist readings of our history, accompanied by their prescriptions for our future. The narrative typically follows this shape: Because the Church of Russia was the first in America (in Alaska, 1794), it gained immediate rights to the whole continent. Thus, when in 1970 it granted autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (the Metropolia), which subsequently renamed itself as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the exclusively legitimate Orthodox Church for America finally was born.
There are numerous problems with this narrative even on purely “legal” grounds: Does jurisdiction in Russian Alaska automatically extend to the entire continent, under the control of multiple colonial powers at the time? Did the Russian Metropolia even view itself as exclusively legitimate prior to the establishment of other jurisdictions in America? What does it mean that the Metropolia granted canonical release to the Antiochian parishes operating on its territory? For the purposes of ecclesiastical annexation, do the canons actually allow for appointing bishops outside one’s canonical territory? (The opposite, really.)
But the issue here is not really all these legal grounds. For one thing, it is anachronistic to read our history in this fashion, since there is no indication prior to about 1927 that anyone was making the claim that all Orthodox in America had been united under the Russians, that the Russians enjoyed an exclusive, universally acknowledged claim over the whole continent, or that the Metropolia ever really regarded the other Orthodox in America outside its jurisdiction as illegitimate, uncanonical, etc. But now there are some commentators saying precisely all these things, some even going so far now as to claim that all those outside the Metropolia’s jurisdiction were really not Orthodox. Such a claim, if true, would render most Orthodox Christians currently in America bereft of the sacraments.
What is most troubling, however, is this dedication to legal technicalities. It is certainly a major facet of American life that we like to get the legal authorities involved at the drop of a hat, so much so that, even when we are not actually involving the police or the courts, we still think and speak in such precise technicalities. Even if this anachronistic narrative of our history were actually defensible on purely canonical, legal grounds, this spirit goes wholly against the spirit of the Orthodox Christian faith. We were not appointed by God to be lawyers for His Kingdom, but rather “able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Reading history in order to find ammunition for “claims,” etc., is basically a Westernization, a distortion of our church life along lines foreign to our basic ethos. It is what Fr. Georges Florovsky would have called a “pseudomorphosis” (a term he used when referring to the distortions which accrued in Russian theological life as a result of the “Western Captivity” which led up to the Bolshevik Revolution).
While it is surely an American thing to call out the lawyers and pull out the law books in order to adjudicate nearly every dispute, this is not the content of our Orthodox Christian faith. If we wanted to be Christian legalists, we would find no better home than Calvinism, a theology designed by a lawyer.
A dedication to “the letter” typically leads to sectarianism, the rigid sense that one particular ecclesiastical faction is right while all the others are wrong. At the foundation of this sensibility is also a historiographical problem, the identification of a sort of “golden thread” which stretches unbroken from some favored moment (e.g., St. Herman landing in Russian Alaska) to the current day. The favored sect is the sole lens through which this history is read.
The theological problem at the heart of this side of Americanism is the refusal to look into the faces of fellow Orthodox Christians and see the Church. This ideological approach to faith is the same one which gives rise to totalitarianism in politics, which always necessarily follows a dedication to ideology. What is most important is the transcendent narrative, not the other person. That is why the other can be dehumanized and demonized, and insulting epithets can be hurled at church leaders who do not represent one’s preferred sect. In politics, this leads to persecution, but in ecclesiology, this leads to schism.
I believe that one of the major elements in the Americanist approach to our history and our future is precisely the schismatic spirit, the one that prefers to be “right” rather than to love, the one that makes demands and sets exclusive terms rather than taking every opportunity to work together and sacrifice for the other. This attitude has been rarely more evident than in the recent Internet storm over the newly formed Episcopal Assembly, which it seems can only be up to no possible good. I very much believe that the Americanists want it to fail in its task. I’m not really sure what they would put in its place, however, other than an entirely unrealistic expectation that the overwhelming majority bow to the small minority of their favored “jurisdiction.”
But all our “jurisdictions” must die in order that our Church may live. We cannot become one Church for America without all giving up what we are in order to become what God has called us to be: a single testament to the Orthodox Christian faith. I cannot see any workable solution which would not require the disbanding of all our current “jurisdictions.”
As an example of the demonization typical of the sectarian spirit, many Americanists will point to the controversial claim of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to jurisdiction over all the diaspora (i.e., all areas outside universally acknowledged canonical territories) based on Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council. It is true that such a claim is almost never taken seriously except by Constantinople itself. Yet while Constantinople’s claim is raged about, few of the Americanists, who typically have a much greater affection for Constantinople’s main rival of Moscow, will criticize the much broader claim made by Moscow in its very Statute:
The jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church shall include persons of Orthodox confession living on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan and Estonia and also Orthodox Christians living in other countries and voluntarily joining this jurisdiction. (emphasis added)
Not only does Moscow define its jurisdiction primarily as one over “persons” rather than simply over geographic territory, the very wording of its Statute permits Moscow jurisdiction everywhere in the world, limited not only to specific territories and the diaspora, but even theoretically to within the territories of existing Orthodox churches.
This disturbing, universalist approach to ecclesiology, with some variations, is not exclusive to Constantinople and Moscow, however. Contrary to the canons, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and even the OCA also maintain parishes outside their officially claimed canonical territory. This anomaly is rampant, and almost no Orthodox church in the world is innocent of it. We have indeed seen the enemy, and he is us.
The problem of nationalism in Orthodoxy throughout the world is of course also rampant and its sins well-known. For Americanists, it is most often expressed on grounds which are basically Orthodox—a desire to be shepherded by local shepherds—but the expression of those grounds often takes us into a rebellious and nationalistic direction. So-called “foreign” bishops are rejected (which discounts missionaries), total local independence is assumed to be the norm at all times (which discounts the numerous centuries throughout Church history in which various churches were dependent for lengthy periods on “foreign” administrations far away). The ultimate desire of Americanist nationalism is that our bishops would simply thumb their ecclesiastical noses at the “foreigners” in other lands and declare us immediately to be an independent, autocephalous church. As precedent for such an act, they correctly point to when this has happened before.
But with modern communication and travel, “foreign” bishops are not so foreign as they once were. In the past, a unilateral self-declaration of autocephaly was much more practical than it is today, due precisely to these same factors. Though uncanonical, it is now much more possible to have an international, worldwide jurisdiction answering to a single synod. What Rome declared de jure and enforced with anathema has now become de facto for ten Orthodox jurisdictions which operate outside their traditional and/or self-defined territory (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland and the OCA).
Yet with such unilateral self-declarations of autocephaly in the past, the driving factor was practical: the need to form a local, self-sustaining common church life. What we have now is numerous overlapping networks of self-sustaining church life, bound together internationally by easy communication and speedy travel. Globalization has taken a toll on our Church life, permitting it to become distorted beyond the essentially localist approach witnessed to in our canonical tradition, where decisions made by leaders had to be lived with by those leaders. They were shepherding their neighbors.
If we are to regain our localist sensibility for church governance, then we cannot rely on a means which was supported by a different technological age. The unilateral declaration of autocephaly is impractical in our time. Why? It’s because there are already existing international networks for American Orthodox Christians to fall back on. This is why the formation of local networks is so critical. This is why our mother churches have mandated the formation of the Episcopal Assemblies.
It may well be that the Assemblies are just a power grab by whatever jurisdiction we hate the most. But even if that is true, what is happening at them is the formation of a common local identity.
The Cure for Americanism: The Common Identity
All of this fractiousness may be cured by looking no further than our common Creed, which attests to our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As Orthodox Christians living in America, we have no path to unity—indeed, no path to our own salvation—except through love. We must look at one another’s faces and see the Church there. When we cease to do so, we have become sectarians and schismatics.
All of the history of Orthodoxy in America is our common history. It does not matter which “jurisdiction” we are in. The saints, the sinners, the laity, the clergy, the successes, the failures—all of these are mine. All of this history is our history. It is not the history of Russians or Greeks or Syrians or converts, etc. It is the history of the Orthodox. We need to learn to say with St. Raphael of Brooklyn, “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.” He didn’t just tolerate these other people; he identified himself with them.
Many of these elements of American culture that I call “Americanism” and that are at odds with our faith also are now characteristic of other cultures throughout the world, and we can see their ill effects in other Orthodox churches, as well. Claims and counter-claims, legalism, sectarianism and nationalism are all major pastoral problems plaguing Orthodoxy worldwide, and no doubt we would have a more peaceful and united presence in the world if we could shed these sins. American culture has much that is worth preserving and enhancing, but as truly Orthodox Christian Americans, there are some elements of that culture that need not preservation, but repentance.
We have an opportunity in our time to put aside all of our claims and sectarianism Phariseeism, to see one another as fellow children of God, and to build a common church life. We’ve come a long way, and at least to me, it seems that the future is starting to look a lot brighter.
I really cannot wait to see where we go from here.
[This article was written by Fr. Andrew S. Damick.]