A Challenging Vision for Orthodox Christians in America
ENGLISH VERSION: A Challenging Vision For
Orthodox Christians in America. An Interview with Father John Meyendorff
by Antoine Niviere (1990, previously available only in French)
Interviewer Antoine Nivier (A.N.): Last January you offered
many lectures in Paris where in one of them you posed the question: "Is the
Orthodox Church Still Eastern?" Why this question and what is your
Father John (F.J.): Western Christians very often tend
to identify Orthodoxy as a religion of Greeks, Russians, of certain peoples of
the Middle East or the Balkans. They identify Orthodox tradition with one or
some of the cultures which are a little peripheral relative to my culture of the
West. Nevertheless we find ourselves in a period where that division no longer
has a raison d’etre, simply because there are Orthodox who live in the West, not
only in the sense of "diaspora" or "dispersion," as they are sometimes called,
but very often they form an integral part of Western culture. Given this fact,
they are no less Western than the other Westerners.
From another perspective, if one speaks of theology, of thought processes,
one is able to say that the Orthodox of Western Europe, in fact already since
the 19th century, have adopted certain scientific conceptions, certain
methodological approaches that are unique to Western civilization.
it is no longer as in the time of Byzantium where those of the East and West
were speaking two different languages, had very different social structures and
lived in a different intellectual world.
Presently, we better understand one another than was the case at the end of
the Middle Ages or the beginning of the 19th century. Thus, we are better
prepared for discussing Christian unity, to be able to separate that which is
truly the Apostolic Tradition and that which is human tradition. Today,
Orthodoxy is only of value and interest if it presents itself as a witness of
the Apostolic Tradition… and not simply as the inheritor of Byzantine or Russian
The Orthodox "Diaspora" and Preparation for the Council
A.N.: At this time what does this new situation imply culturally and
sociologically, in particular for those communities throughout the world,
notably in the countries not traditionally Orthodox, and for their witness? What
is the future for these young communities?
F.J.: Their future and their mission are to witness to Orthodoxy in an
atmosphere of dialog, apart from wholly participating in the development of the
life of the countries, of societies, in the intellectual world in which they are
I would underline however that there exists a certain problem in the midst of
Orthodoxy itself pertaining to the subject of these communities. There are, all
the same, some people not here in the West, but in the traditional Orthodox
countries, who, when it comes to the standard of ecclesiastical
responsibilities, occasionally do not express total confidence in those Orthodox
of Western formation. There are also those who identify Orthodox tradition with
We in the West have, on this precise matter, to confront them in their
dissent and to ask them if they truly believe that the Orthodox tradition – the
tradition of the Church – is a universal and catholic tradition, not to be
limited to some eras of human culture. At the same time, our witness obliges us
to say the same thing to those in the West. Our Orthodox communities in the West
are obliged to speak to both parties, they are obliged to speak to all those who
would place fetters on the witness of Orthodoxy.
A.N.: The Orthodox Church is entering the final preparatory phase of its future council in which is found at its center the question of the canonical
organization of all the new Orthodox Churches in Europe, America, Australia,
Japan – what is called the "diaspora."
F.J.: If the preparation continues as it has until now, it has no
chance to succeed in so far as those who are primarily involved with this
problem are not invited. I believe that everywhere this is beginning to be
understood a little. Certainly, in practice, those primarily involved, i.e. the
Orthodox of the "diaspora," are participating in this preparatory work: they
write, they speak, one recognizes that they exist; but their participation
remains extremely limited. Certain traditional centers of Orthodoxy do not
consider it acceptable to accord them a place. It is altogether deplorable.
I hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is the first in being
responsible for the preparation of this council, will find the means to unblock
these impasses that are rather artificial and that preparations for the future
council will be facilitated.
Orthodoxy In America
A.N.: Presently, where is the Orthodox Church in America? What is the
state of the Orthodox Church in America?
F.J.: We have a permanent conference uniting the bishops of different
jurisdictions, but it does not function very well. In fact, the different
priorities, which stand out among the members of this organization, arouse
For its part, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of America (d’Amerique) does
not consider itself to be part of the "diaspora," but a local Church. The
attitude of the Archbishop of the Antiochian Patriarchate in America – Orthodox
Americans of Syro-Lebanese origin – equally tends to refuse this notion of
"diaspora." Our priority consists in defining the existence of Orthodoxy in
America in terms of a local Church. Elsewhere there are many Greeks who agree
with this principle, and therefore this vision is not limited only to those two
jurisdictions. But, on a parallel plane there exists a different vision which
tends to take more seriously the priorities of the old-world Churches than the
realities in America.
Within the context of preparing for the visit of Ecumenical Patriarch
Demetrios to the United States in July 1990, the Orthodox Church of America
should, by the way, go soon to the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical
The New Challenges of Eastern Europe
A.N.: Given the upheavals of the last year, how do you see the situation
in Eastern Europe? And most especially, how do you see that which concerns the
life of the Church in Romania, Bulgaria and in the Soviet Union?
F.J.: Until the present the hierarchy in these countries is, to a
certain extent, more or less compromised. Whether they want to or not, they are
obliged to participate in the chorus of praise for Ceausescu, Jivkov, Stalin… It
is evident that the Church will have, hereafter, the possibilities of spreading
anew. The Synod of the Romanian Church came to publish a declaration where it
expresses its repentance and hope for renewal; I still do not know of similar
declarations in Bulgaria or in the USSR.
Nevertheless, the main problem is knowing if the leaders of these churches
are going to be able to exercise their ministry… I hope, in spite of everything,
that there will be a certain continuity, i.e. that there will not be a violent
revolution in the Church as had taken place at the political level. Obviously,
there were at times some deplorable cases, but as a whole, the hierarchy did its
best during the course of these long decades. It is always easy in this regard
to judge, especially when one lives in the West.
In any case, I hope that the unity of the Church will be maintained and that
the solution will not be schism. That certain bishops, that certain
personalities in place ought to leave is one thing. But the creation of a
parallel Church is something else.
The atmosphere in the USSR – I know less well the situation in Romania and
Bulgaria – is very dangerous. It is possible that the Church in the USSR is
entering into a period similar to that which existed in the 1920’s, with all the
schisms which had been in place at the time.
Moreover, this is being played out by the adversaries of the Church. Besides,
an ultra-nationalist and ultra-monarchist element having a fascist character,
represented by the movement "Pamiat," is actually expanding in the Soviet Union,
and I do not think this is for the wellbeing of the Church.
The fact that Patriarch Tikhon has been canonized seems to me quite important
for he represents the image and the model of an authentic leader of the Church.
It is from this model that the unity of the Church is derived, instead of that
which we are presenting, as one sees it nowadays, in the creation of all sorts
of groups. St. Tikhon had been very firm vis-a-vis [the exercising of] authority
and, when necessary, he was known to adopt a more conciliar attitude for he
desired, above all else, to preserve the unity of Church. He shows himself to
always be the fierce adversary of all schisms whether it be that of the
Renovationists or the Synod Abroad. He was truly convinced that the unity of the
Church is something essential, that it is not an institutional unity, but a
mystical and organic unity.
It is in this sense that I speak of the continuity which ought to be
maintained. One is not able to purify the Church. One is to renew the Church
from within, without dividing it. But this can only be done by those people who
truly have the sense of this [mystical or organic] unity. At times the
"professional" dissidents, the militant nationalists and also the bureaucrats do
not have this sense. Consequently, unity is to go beyond bureaucracies, beyond
nationalisms and beyond dissidence.
The Unity of the Church
A.N.: One occasionally has the impression that Christians have settled
themselves into their divisions… or into ecumenism. The division among
Christians, is it not, nevertheless, a scandal? And, in this case, why hasn’t
unity been re-established among the Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants?
F.J.: This is so. In a way, ecumenism today has lost much of its
dynamism. This is a fact. Here the concern is, above all, an institutional
ecumenism, an organized ecumenism, a bureaucratic ecumenism with its large
gatherings as was done in the 1950’s… This sort of ecumenism doesn’t end up with
the results one was expecting. In my opinion, this was probably inevitable.
We are now in a period which demands patience as well as an attitude that is
more honest, more deep, striving to envisage the problems from a more
theological and spiritual level. This ought to be done at the local level and
not only in the meetings between institutions.
It is well known that a Christian cannot be against unity which we are
working towards realizing. Perhaps the Orthodox, precisely because they are a
little allergic to all organizations and their large structures, have a message
which consists in presenting an image of catholicity and of unity which is based
on the faith and on experience more than on authority or institutions.
The unity of the Church is not accomplished by simply defining organs of
authority. This is one of the temptations of the West. From this perspective, we
are defining structures of authority before defining the faith. No, we do not
proceed according to these criteria. For us, the faith comes first. On the other
hand, there are the relativists who tell us that the faith is an indefinable
given which then reduces the dogmatic union to a minimum enabling one to act as
if one is united to the faith.
Orthodoxy Has Much To Learn
A.N.: If there is a specific message of Orthodoxy to the other Christians,
how is it to be received by them?
F.J.: We have much to learn. The temptation for the Orthodox is to be
too eschatological, to reduce Christian life to liturgy, to have a sort of
contemplation of the Kingdom of God to the point that all responsibility to the
world is forgotten. At the same time, within the framework of universal
ecclesial institutions, the Orthodox are very afraid when it comes to the papacy
to which they react negatively with regards to any manifestation of unity or
primacy, as when it comes to Constantinople. It’s a pity. It would be necessary
to acquire a healthier approach.
It is evident that we need an Ecumenical Patriarch, but he must be truly
ecumenical and that he knows how to accomplish this ministry of primacy. If it
is a matter of an institution which remains monopolized by an ethnic group based
on historical reasons because of the Turks then this is not a solution… In the
past several propositions were made for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to have an
international staff and that located close by would be a headquarters for a
permanent committee representing the other autocephalous Churches, in a word to
have installed a dynamic and permanent conciliarity; but presently this does not
A.N.: What message is Orthodoxy able to offer the agnostic world and to
secularism which characterizes the last decades?
F.J.: The message of Orthodoxy is the experience of the Holy Spirit,
something essential, precisely that which makes the Church the Church. Only, the
Orthodox do not know well how to transmit this experience, nor what are the
presuppositions of that action of the Spirit in the world. Here, rather, is
where the genius of Western Christianity intervenes and I believe that there is
a certain complementarity between the two, a complementarity that has been lost
because of the schism…
The Orthodox Church, not without reason, rejects all forms of ossification
leading up to a certain dogmatism of institutions such as is the case in Roman
Catholicism for example. But the Orthodox Church ought, for its part, to
understand how its message should be presented to the world in a way that is at
the same time dynamic and stripped of these institutional aberrations that she
But, in that case, how is it to be done? If one does not have the pope, then
what does one have? How are we to function as one Church? How is it to manifest
itself? Certainly it manifests itself in the unity of faith. The Orthodox do not
put to the test the difficulties regarding this plan. They have among themselves
a theological unity, a unity of faith which they carry through well. But, when
it comes to ecclesial practice, they are most divided. The existence of parallel
jurisdictions in the West is an illustration of that weakness of Orthodoxy which
puts in peril the credibility of its witness.
(с) Translated by Father Robert M. Arida
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