On Sunday, March 5, 2017, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, was guest homilist during the Great Vespers service celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy, at Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church, Bridgeport, Connecticut—whose rector is Archpriest Steven J. Belonick, seminary alumnus (M.Div. ’77). The parish hosted the event, which was sponsored by the New England Clergy Association.
In this intriguing homily, Fr. Chad acts as both sleuth and visionary: he traces the origins of the Sunday of Orthodoxy and its subsequent celebration up to the present day, and then relates both little known and better known efforts at Orthodox Christian unity in the USA. He includes such historical tidbits as the words of St. Tikhon of Moscow in two of his homilies at Orthodoxy of Sunday Great Vespers, and the FOGCPJA (Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America) formed to address the crisis of Orthodox Christian soldiers during WWII not having dog tags to identify their religion properly! In closing, Fr. Chad urges a call to the Orthodox churches in North America to “a corporate repentance and a re-commitment to becoming the Orthodox Christian Church in America—one house, one shared faith, and one common witness?”
Orthodoxy Sunday Vespers – 5 March 2017
Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church (OCA), Bridgeport, CT
Archpriest Chad Hatfield, President, SVOTS
Fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ, I want to thank Archpriest Steven Belonick for hosting this Inter-Orthodox Vespers this evening as we mark the first Sunday of Great Lent. This day is often called the “Sunday of the Triumph” of Holy Orthodoxy. We have been keeping this feast and the practice of processing with our icons and crosses since the Empress Theodora ordered Patriarch Methodius—who by all accounts was a godly Patriarch of Constantinople—in AD 843 on the First Sunday of Great Lent, to assemble the faithful for a procession with the icons, crosses, and candles, so that the holy images might be restored to the Church for veneration.
The Empress Theodora did not have the support of her late husband, Emperor Theophilus. In a dream she saw a vision of her husband being tortured for his heterodoxy as an Iconoclast. In the dream she saw herself pleading for her husband, and the voice of an Angel spoke to her, saying: “Great is your faith, o woman!” She was told that by her prayers and tears forgiveness had been granted to Theophilus. The intercessions of the priests and faithful had been heard.
Patriarch Methodius had previously written the names of all of the heretical emperors, including Theophilus, on a plain piece of paper and had placed it under the Holy Table. After his own encounter with an Angel, who told him that his intercessions had been heard and that Theophilus had been forgiven, he tested his vision by going to retrieve the paper—finding not a single name left on it! This good news was shared with the Empress and her son Michael, and thus was the beginning of this festival day.
So, we now have our history. History is very important to Orthodox Christians. We like to look back. One bit of history that I want to share this evening, is closer to our own day. That is the question: When exactly did we start gathering on the evening of Orthodoxy Sunday, with a focus on “Orthodox Unity”? I am not sure that I have an exact answer. I don’t have an exact date or time. What I do have is some more history.
We know that after the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–18, the Orthodox Church in North America was unable to maintain the canonical unity that had, more or less, prevailed since the arrival of those first Missionaries on Kodiak Island in Alaska in 1794. Their missionary efforts are the foundation for Orthodoxy in the New World. The Church is founded on the blood of martyrs, and we have that blood in the martyrs Juvenaly and his companion and St. Peter the Aleut. This is all part of our local church history, and it is foundational for American Orthodoxy.
We also have, as part of our American Orthodox patrimony, the vision of St. Tikhon, our own Archbishop, here in America, who would return to Russia and be elected Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia during the 1917–18 Sobor that paralleled the time of the Revolution. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his election as Patriarch and his Enthronement. Hear the words of this great saint preached on Orthodoxy Sunday in 1903:
Holding to the Orthodox Faith, as to something holy, living it with all their hearts and prizing it above all, Orthodox people ought, moreover, to endeavor to spread it among people of other creeds. Christ the Savior has said that: “neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle stand, and it gives light to all that are in the house” (Matthew 5.15). The light of Orthodoxy was not lit to shine only on a small number of men. The Orthodox Church is universal; it remembers the words of its Founder: “Go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Luke 16.14). “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” (Matthew 28.19). We ought to share our spiritual wealth, our truth, light and joy with others who are deprived of these blessings, but often are seeking them and thirsting for them.
In his “Farewell Sermon,” also preached on Orthodoxy Sunday in his San Francisco Cathedral in 1907, he sounded a similar note, worth hearing once again tonight:
…it is not enough, brethren, only to celebrate “The Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It is necessary for us personally to promote and contribute to this triumph. And for this we must reverently preserve the Orthodox Faith, standing firm in it in spite of the fact that we live in a non-Orthodox country, and not pleading as an excuse for our apostasy that “it is not the old land here but America, a free country, and therefore it is impossible to follow everything that the Church requires.” As if the word of Christ is only suitable for the old land and not for the entire world! As if the Church of Christ is not catholic! As if the Orthodox Faith did not “establish the universe.”
St. Tikhon had a vision for an ethnically diverse yet united Orthodox Church and Evangelical Witness to and in America. It was set in motion with the consecration of St. Raphael of Brooklyn as an Auxiliary Bishop but never fully achieved. Church politics, ethnic divisions and xenophobic fears, and finally, the Bolshevik Revolution, would shatter Orthodoxy in America into camps and the divided house that we now find ourselves in today.
Russian Americans would become two groups; Serbs would become two; Antiochians would divide between New York and Toledo; Albanians, Bulgarians, and Romanians, would divide; and property lawsuits took a toll with Greeks, Russians, Arabs—everybody. So much for making an Evangelical witness in the New World! We looked tribal to outsiders, and we were tribal for those on the inside. We not only fought about languages, but we had calendar divisions and even communities where someone from the “wrong” Old Country Village was not welcome in a particular parish. We even divided cemeteries in some places so that we would not share space even in death!
We did face a crisis when our American boys were being drafted into military service in WW II. Orthodoxy was not recognized as a religion identity option, so there were no dog tags to identify “EO” Eastern Orthodox. We had to choose “C” for “Catholic” or “P” for “Protestant.” Some even got “J” for “Jewish” when they stated that they were “Orthodox.”
F-O-G-C-P-J-A the “Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America” would be formed to address this crisis. I am not, this evening, going to give you the whole history, but if you are interested you can check it out on Ancient Faith Radio or go to OrthodoxHistory.org.
In short, when an Orthodox priest, Fr. John Gelsinger was drafted, his father contacted a certain George E. Phillies, an attorney in Buffalo, New York who happened to be both Orthodox and Episcopalian and a Free Mason. (Our history is fascinating with some most interesting characters!)
With his legal skills he was able to bring together the “Big Four” hierarchs of the time, representing Antiochians, Greeks, Serbs, and Russians. This was an important foundation for what we do here tonight. It was an attempt at Orthodox unity that did bring about “EO” dog tags for our Orthodox Military members, and clarification of identity as a legal Christian church by the government (There is a famous photo of these bishops with Governor Thomas Dewey of New York). But, our unity effort lasted only until November 1944, when the Russians pulled out. Metropolitan Antony Bashir did his best to keep it going, at least on paper, but it failed in the end.
“SCOBA,” or the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America, would eventually be created in yet one more attempt to create a Pan-Orthodox witness and unity in America. It never became a true functioning local synod, as some thought that it would, but agencies such as the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Orthodox Scouting, and Christian Education Groups would find an umbrella through SCOBA. These were all a good things, and we thank God!
The bold gathering in Ligonier, Pennsylvania in 1994 was both an historic moment full of great hope but also a marker in our history where the vision of what could be was lit like a candle for all to see. As the candle was extinguished, for whatever reasons, so went much of the energy to push for Orthodox administrative unity in America.
So, we have continued to gather once a year on the Sunday of Orthodox for Vespers, as we do tonight, and many a sermon as been preached on the necessity for a unified Orthodox voice and presence in America. That is all well and good, but in reality do we not find ourselves, despite the creation of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America as a replacement for SCOBA, as “Balkanized” as ever?
What is now commonly called the “Council of Crete,” convened this past summer, has not in truth, energized us to move forward and to finally fulfill the vision of St. Tikhon’s American Orthodoxy, where we can successfully make a united Orthodox witness in a culture that is seeking the treasures we possess. We seem pathetic, for the most part, when it comes to sharing the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” with others. People still look into our “tent” looking for the Church of Christ and finding instead a camp of tribes. What they see is hardly a picture of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
St. Tikhon, did not see himself as only the “Archbishop of the Orthodox in America.” He saw himself as the “Archbishop of America,” and all of the sheep were counted as members of his flock. Both Orthodox and non-Orthodox were his spiritual children. As we mark the 100th Anniversary of his election as Patriarch of Moscow and we remember his contribution to the life of the Church in North America, can we not recommit ourselves to bringing “Orthodoxy to America” and “America to Orthodoxy”?
In this spiritual tithe of the year when we seek true repentance and amendment of life as individual disciples of the Living Lord, can we not also call the Church in our land to a corporate repentance and recommitment to becoming the Orthodox Christian Church in America—one house, one shared faith, and one common witness?
We can’t afford to make peace with our unhappy divisions. We need to repent of whatever stumbling blocks keep us from being united in Christ in all things.
We have a most powerful intercessor in this cause in the person of St. Tikhon. We have heard his words and hopefully caught a glimpse of his vision for what can, and should, be Orthodoxy in America, today.
Ask yourself, as I ask myself—what do we need to do to set in motion the action steps needed to complete the vision of a faithful witness given by a saint who loved America, served it in the Name of his Lord, and who calls us to unity in Christ this very night? Ask, in your prayers this Great Lent—what needs to be done by you personally and corporately by our various churches, dioceses, archdioceses, and metropolises to achieve an end to the division and brokenness that the events of history have created and we now live with? If nothing else all of us can utter the words: “Holy Tikhon, pray unto God for us!”