Orthodox Unity and Autocephaly: Fr. John Meyendorff's Timely Message
In The St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1 (2011), The Fr. Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology Dr. Paul Meyendorff penned an essay about Protopresbyter Dr. John Meyendorff's perspective on the unity and autocephaly for the maturing American Church. Father John (1926–1992), a former dean and professor of Church History and Patristics, has a good deal to say to the Church in 2012, as Dr. Meyendorff's essay makes clear. The original essay was presented as a paper at a symposium honoring Fr. Meyendorff on the 20th anniversary of his death, held at St. Sergius Institute in Paris, on February 8–11, 2012.
Fr. John arrived in America with his family in October of 1959 to assume a teaching position at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, at a time when Orthodoxy in America was emerging from its ethnic cocoon.
In 1960, just months after his arrival, The Standing Conference of the Orthodox Christian Bishops in America (SCOBA) was founded. The three largest Orthodox jurisdictions in America were at this time led by three visionary leaders: Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, who became the first chairman of SCOBA; Metropolitan Leonty of the Metropolia; and Metropolitan Anthony Bashir of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. High on the agenda of SCOBA was the express desire for canonical unity in North America, and all three of these hierarchs repeatedly spoke on this subject. Indeed, Archbishop Iakovos, in his opening remarks at a January 1965 meeting of SCOBA, praised Metropolitans Leonty and Anthony for their vision and emphasized that the Standing Conference must acquire a regular canonical status, as the Provincial Synod of the American Church, according to the Canons and with the blessing of the Mother Churches.
In 1965, Fr John was appointed editor of the new Metropolia newspaper, The Orthodox Church, a position he held until his retirement in 1992. As editor of this monthly publication he wrote numerous editorials calling for Orthodox unity, and later defending the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) after this was granted in 1970. His very first editorial, published in February 1965, concludes with the following words:
It seems, however, that we are approaching a new period in the history of our Church. Practically everyone understands that the present situation cannot last. The Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops is watched by millions of laymen with great expectation. Nothing, however, will be done unless all realize exactly why Orthodox Unity is necessary. The reasons are spiritual, canonical, and practical.
Spiritually, it is obvious that when we confess our belief in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” this belief is meant to be the guiding principle of our lives: God is one, the Lord Jesus Christ is one, and the Church must be one also. “National” churches can exist only inasmuch as they accept to submit their particular interests to that of the whole Body of Christ.
Canonically, the rules and canons of all churches strictly forbid the existence of parallel ecclesiastical organizations on the same territory.
Practically, the Orthodox witness in this country will be immensely strengthened if the three million Orthodox pray and work together; if others are able really to see in us the One True Church, and not a conglomeration of mutually exclusive factions; if we can all join our forces in the education of our youth.