Unless one is particularly interested in the politics of North American Christianity, it is easy not to know about the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Founded in 2009, the ACNA is a schismatic group within the global Anglican Communion created by former members of the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada (the official provinces of the Anglican Communion in North America). The vast majority of ACNAs members, particularly among the clergy, broke with the Anglican Communion because of the main bodies decisions to ordain women (though this subject is treated in a variety of ways by ACNA dioceses) and extend full sacramental inclusion to LGBT people.
For three days last month, culminating on the Feast Day of the Three Hierarchs, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) hosted a dialogue at its flagship seminary, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, between the OCA and the ACNA. To be clear, before we go any further, there is an ongoing official dialogue between global Orthodoxy and the Anglican Communion that began in 1973 and continues to this day. There is no doubt that Orthodoxy acknowledges the Anglican Communion and has continued contact through the liberalizing of Anglican practice. None of this stopped St. Vladimir’s from inviting the ACNA onto campus.
While it would seem unadvisable to encourage schism anywhere within the greater Christian body at anytime, the choice seems particularly hypocritical at the moment. The OCA has been resolute in its support of the Moscow Patriarchate’s position in Ukraine and has announced its ongoing support for Metropolitan Onufry as the rightful hierarch of Ukraine, though stopping short of breaking communion with Constantinople. This is to say, the OCA is simultaneously condemning Orthodox bishops in Ukraine under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople (with whom it remains in communion) as “schismatics” while entertaining clearly schismatic Anglicans in Yonkers. Ostensibly, this has all happened in the name of Christian unity. However, a closer look might lead one to believe that one or both of these decisions is founded not from a genuine concern that “brothers dwell together in unity,” but instead on cynical political motives. Or, perhaps worse these decisions could be founded upon a desire to be united with those who would push a global political agenda based upon narrow prejudice and decidedly un-Christian bigotry.
Over the past decade, scholars and journalists have discussed the emergence of a “traditionalists” Christian network. There exists directed and concrete efforts to unite arch-conservative Christians across national and denominational lines against perceptive civilizational threats, specifically Islam, feminism, multiculturalism and LGBT rights. It is an informal, yet growingly powerful group in which Orthodoxy, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate, has played an increasing role. And whatever one thinks of the “threats” which have been identified, the goals of this group (whatever they may be in practical terms) deserve scrutiny. This is particularly true since key figures in this movement, including Steve Bannon and Franklin Graham, have expressed both political and theological opinions that are at complete odds with the Orthodox tradition, regardless of how one feels about the Culture Wars.
Moreover, it is worth asking why the OCA has chosen to side so openly with the most socially and politically conservative faction within both ecclesiastical conflicts. Not to mention the faction in both conflicts with has received the greatest sympathy from the American Evangelical movement.
It is impossible to look at the situation and not feel a hint of the growing “Evangelical-ization” of many corners of American Orthodoxy. The OCA and the Antiochian Archdiocese have been the center of this shift (largely for the fairly banal reason of language--at least initially), but no American jurisdiction is immune. And it is a sad thing for Orthodoxy in America. It is a devil’s bargain in which we trade away our tradition in order to gain inconsistent allies against imagined enemies. Frequently, it is a deal in which we join the army of Caesar against the most vulnerable. It is a dimming of the light of Orthodoxy in America and in the world.
The Winter 2019 issue of The Wheel focuses on the life and work of Father Alexander Schmemann and Olivier Clément, both towering figures in modern Orthodox theology, who (along with the other members of the “Paris School”) represented hope for a robust, intellectually vibrant, and open Orthodox Christian theology and practice in the modern world. Father Schmemann is also one of the guiding figures of St. Vladimir’s. The idea that the exercise in trained closed-mindedness, of unity through fear, that was the OCA-ACNA dialogue happened in the “house that Father Alexander built” is difficult to even contemplate. But it is indicative of the direction of Orthodox faith, theology, and practice in America. It is a trend that should not go unchallenged. On the surface, a three day meeting with the ACNA might appear innocent enough, but it is not. It is part of a bigger picture. And that picture is, at the moment, not a pretty one.
Katherine Kelaidis is an editor of The Wheel and a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. She is a professional historian, trained at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of London.