The Church and America

By Father George Benigsen

The following is an address by the Very Rev. George Benigsen delivered at the banquet in Scranton, Pa., during the First All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America.

THE FRUIT of the Church is holiness. It was therefore natural for the long process of the establishment of the Orthodox Church in America to be climaxed by witness of holiness--the canonization of the holy elder Herman of Alaska. For those who participated in the ceremonies of the canonization in Alaska, as well as for those who prayed to the newly glorified saint in churches throughout the United States and Canada, this holiness was manifested in the depth of the holy elder's humility and in the strength of his faith. The act of canonization eclipsed everything else--human plans for the future, fears, accomplishments, successes and failures. All this was illumined by new light, the light of sanctity now shining above America--a light surpassing human reason and bringing the fullness of Divine Grace into the life of the Church.

History Fulfilled

The part of the Church's life which men call history has come in America to the great fulfillment of the hopes of many years--the expectations of a century and a half. From the very beginning of the missionary labors of Valaam monks, the idea of a "local" Orthodoxy was the guiding light of their pastoral work. The Christian mission of the Russian Church always avoided the spirit of colonization. The Russian Church did not create Russian mission: in China it planted Orthodoxy for the Chinese, in Japan it built the Japanese Church, in Latvia and Estonia it introduced services in the local languages, in Alaska it created liturgical texts in local dialects. Where, as in Alaska, the state had colonial tendencies, the Church, in the person of its best people, protected the oppressed and, not without endangering its own well-being and security, was not afraid to denounce the authorities. The life of St. Herman of Alaska witnesses to this. For local inhabitants, therefore, whether Chinese or Japanese or Aleutian, Orthodoxy became "their own,"-- "local"--and not alien or imposed. This is why the idea of an Orthodox Church in America--no matter what influences it was subjected to by various political events of a local and world-wide significance--always remained the governing principle for bishops, for pastors, for the Church body of Orthodox America.

Knowledge Deepened

During the past year so much has been written and said about historical background of our ecclesiastical independence that there is no need to repeat well-learned lessons. In all fairness we must admit that under the leadership of our archpastors, many of our pastors, theologians and laymen have deepened their knowledge of the subject with all the seriousness that the subject requires. Ecclesiology, the question of the meaning of the Church at the deepest level, has finally become the concrete theme of our life. Everyone has had to deepen his grasp of the subject not only in the interests of apologetics and polemics, but also for a complete clarification in his own conscience of everything that was so closely connected with our approach to autocephaly. It can be said with certainty that the comprehension of this event and the historical, canonical and theological assumptions connected with it was much more important for us and incomparably more fruitful than the polemics and apologetics which necessity provoked. Preparation for autocephaly called forth among the mass of our parishioners a much more serious attitude toward root problems of Church life and, leading us through a period of crises and conflicts, brought us to a deeper churchliness.

'We Are Not Judges'

After prolonged negotiations with the Russian Church, after the elaboration and signing of the agreement, after an intense period of political accusations from without and honest anxiety from within, the act recognizing us as the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America and Canada took place. All the documents have been published, the whole procedure has become common knowledge; there is no need, therefore, to dwell on this aspect of the ecclesiastical process which brought us to autocephaly. We must speak about another and possibly much more important aspect of this event. Our autocephaly was established by the Russian Church, which gave birth to our Church in America and Canada 175 years ago. During the last decades of its life the Russian Church has passed through the great trials of being a confessing Church. If we bear in mind all the conditions of the Russian Church's life at that period, it is difficult to expect "spotless robes." Unlike others, we never thought we had the right to assume the role of "judges" of the Russian Church. Our position was one of prayerful and sorrowful attention to the burdens of the Russian Church and joy for its faithfulness to the Orthodox tradition entrusted to her by God. We always believed in the full presence of grace in the Russian Church, this presence being once more so clearly shown in the matter of recognizing the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America. "Grace" pertains to the manifestation of human will only in part, as is shown by the word itself; human will is only a vessel into which Divine Grace is poured. Therefore the significance of the process of our "autocephalization," if one may put it that way, only in part is centered in acts of human will--consultations, projects, agreements, and so on. More important is the mystical manifestation of the will of God, which is so easy to discern in the series of events surrounding the granting of our autocephaly.

'The Will of God'

As we know, His Holiness Patriarch Alexis fell asleep in the Lord in the 92nd year of his life. Having reached this unusually advanced age he was the last surviving hierarch of the Russian Church who was consecrated before 1918. In the fact that he signed the Tomos of the autocephaly at such an advanced age and on the eve of his repose one can perceive the hierarchical succession of the Russian Church, for he was the last link between the contemporary Church and her historical sources, from which Orthodoxy in the new world issued forth. According to a number of accounts the late Patriarch often declared it was his dream to perform this last act of that Russian Church which he represented better than anyone else. After the signing of the agreement between the American Metropolia and the Moscow Patriarchate, the Metropolia was promised that the Tomos would be signed in the sixth week of Great Lent. If this had been the case, the Patriarch's signature would not have appeared in the Tomos, since he died on Saturday of the fifth week of Lent. For some reason--more truly said by the will of God--the Patriarch was able to sign the Tomos sooner. As he signed the Tomos he said to the Archbishop of Tokyo, Vladimir, that his dream had finally been fulfilled and he could now peacefully go to the Lord. . . The recognition of the Orthodox Church in America took place, as we know, not in the office study of a state official (as was expected by some external "critics") and not even in the Patriarchal quarters. For this great event in the history of the Church an appropriate location of great importance in the Church's history was selected: the chapel in Holy Trinity Monastery where the remains of St. Sergius of Radonezh rest. There, before the tomb of the saint who is so intimately connected with the liberation of Russia from the Tartar yoke and the spiritual rebirth of the Russian Church was the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America proclaimed. The event took place in the fifth week of Great Lent when the Church prayerfully glorifies the Mother of God, who ceaselessly poured her special love on St. Sergius. . . Having completed the last act of his long and difficult service as a hierarch, His Holiness Patriarch Alexis died on Saturday of the sixth week of Great Lent, which the Church dedicates to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. According to the witness of his attendant, the Patriarch foretold his death. In the mystical chain of events, the very day of the Patriarch's repose appears to be meaningful; the Lord who rules over life and death raised His friend Lazarus on the fourth day after his death, when he already stank. Thus can the Lord raise and give life to all things, even to those who in our opinion have not only died but are already decomposing. . .

Enter New House of God

By the will of God our historical road has brought us to the boundary of a new ecclesiastical existence. We enter a new House of God which bears the words "Orthodox Church in America." Let us enter it with humility: the Lord has allowed us to be the first to enter His New House. Room has been prepared here for all those who intend to tie their ecclesiastical fate permanently to the American and Canadian lands. We must make certain that the lock of our pride, our provincialism (even if it is American provincialism), our feelings of superiority never appears on the door. The door must be kept wide open for those who will come not at our "command" (from which may the Lord preserve us), but of their free will. Let there be no "elders" in this house, no any "prodigal" children--but only one Church family, united in Orthodox Church life and in American citizenship. It is not accidental that this All-American Church Council is convened under two numbers: as the 14th and last one, completing the historical road of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America and Canada, and as the new and First Council of the Orthodox Church in America. It is proper for this new Church, at the very beginning of its new historical road, to witness first of all to its brotherly Christian love for all other Orthodox Churches here in America as well as in the rest of the world. It is only in brotherly union with other Orthodox Churches that we see the justification of our autocephaly.

In the course of its 175-year existence the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America and Canada went through many phases of a sociological and psychological nature. It began with the missionary efforts of the Valaam monks and was at first totally involved in the Christian enlightenment of the Aleut natives and in the planting of Christian morality and Christian socio-economic foundations among them. It spread throughout the American continent and began to create new pan-Orthodox units in America, continuing to be concerned about mission among the Americans on the one hand, and organizing the first parishes for Orthodox immigrants o all national origins on the other. When the Orthodox immigrants were divided into more definite ethnic groups in which Orthodoxy began to coincide with and sometimes was even replaced by ethnic aspirations, the Church naturally began to expend much energy on the organization of our socio-ethnic "ghettos." In these ghettos all that was brought from the Old World was not developed but "preserved", beginning with recipes and ending with language, culture and provincial politics. This period, which continued for a considerable time, had an undisputed significance in the process of Church growth and development. Thanks to this period a number of important principles in the areas of liturgical life, piety, traditions, character and order were preserved. It also created a prolonged crisis which caused members of our younger generations who were leaving their ethnic and parochial ghetto and associated it with something totally contradictory to the "American way of life" to reject not only their sociological roots but Orthodoxy as well--Orthodoxy being so closely associated with sociological factors. In the last two or three decades a new current has appeared in our Church life. The desire to "conserve" traditional values, so predominant in the sociological ghetto, began to be replaced gradually by the attempt to integrate Orthodoxy into American life. These efforts were not always successful; quite often they carried with them the danger simply of replacing what is Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian by what is American. This, in terms of its quality, threatened to be as provincial as everything that preceded it. At the same time there was a growth of the healthy tendency to accomplish the "churching of Americanism," if one may put it that way, rather than the "Americanization of Orthodoxy." There began an era of the discovery of Orthodoxy in all it untarnished value of Orthodoxy as a self-sufficient principle, to which all other principles must be subordinate. There began a rediscovery of the Church's sacramental life, in which were to be found the sources of spiritual and intellectual sustenance. At first, Orthodoxy was an "embarrassment" because it was a "foreign faith," because it was something contradictory to "American culture." Later, Orthodoxy became a source of "pride," as one can be "proud" of exotic costumes, traditions and background. Now, glory be to God, we have begun to LIVE Orthodoxy, that is, to understand fully that Orthodoxy is not a museum, not a repository, not exoticism, but LIFE.

FOR MANY long years our ecclesiastical and social interests were concentrated almost exclusively upon ourselves, upon our own problems. Even when we thought we were speaking about America our point of departure was our ethnic identity. America for us was "they" and not "we". If, as a Church, we participated in the life of the nation, this participation expressed itself first of all in the fact that we sent our children to the front, where they fought heroically for the country's freedom. As for the rest, our reactions always concentrated on negative things: we warned the country (and were justified in doing so) about political, moral and social dangers.

Although a portion of our participation was directed to creative ends, basically our participation was concentrated upon ourselves and the solution of our "internal problems." We are accustomed to this approach; it will not be easy for us to survive the crisis which has been placed before us by the course of historical and ecclesiastical events. The resolution of this crisis is the major theme of the extremely important test to which our autocephaly has called us.

It is useful to remember that in Greek the world "crisis" means "judgment". Now the meaning of this word is relevant for us in the most direct way. God's judgment is being done to us, the judgment of history and the judgment of our conscience. In the light of this judgment we will have to justify the gift which has been handed to us by the Church, the gift of maturity and independence. We wanted this and our desire has been fulfilled. Looking with gratitude to all our past, to the entire and great tradition of Russian and ecumenical Orthodoxy which we have inherited, we should see in this a good and favorable wind and not a crutch for our support nor eyeglasses through which we can look at the reality of life. In accepting autocephaly we witnessed to our maximal loyalty to the historical road of America and Canada.

In accepting autocephaly our Church accepted American and Canadian citizenship; the acceptance of citizenship always implies liberation from and rejection of any other historical and political loyalties. In turning from the 14th All-American Sobor of the Metropolia to the First Council of the Orthodox Church in America we close the last volume of our 175-year history and place it together with the other volumes on the shelf of experience and respect, simultaneously opening a fresh page of a new book of our ecclesiastical life. The title page of this book bears the inscription "Orthodox Church in America." What will appear on the pages after the title depends on us.

AND SO OUR autocephaly has placed our Church face to face with America. All those things which earlier could stand between us psychologically--"Russian heritage," our "emigre identity," "tradition" and all similar factors--have now disappeared. There is nothing that can shelter us from the reality before which God has placed us. To what extent does American life need us as a Christian spiritual force, and to what degree do we need American reality? The second part of this question is so clear that no one is asking it: American life is our life. Even those of us who have become American not by birth but by choice have lived here a very considerable portion of our life. Every day, through newspapers, through the television screen, through encounters, through our work we continually meet American life. If we are still inclined to think that this American life does not depend on us and has no relationship to us, that it is "they" and not "we" who die at the front in Vietnam, poison themselves with drugs, kill, and fall victim to killers, make the politics of the nation, get lost in search of higher values, are joyful and suffer--woe to us! For a long, long time, and especially from the moment we proclaimed ourselves the Church of America, it is WE, these are OUR children, this is OUR present and OUR future.

Incidentally, this does not even contradict all our attachment to other cultures, to other peoples and their history: everything in the world is so closely interwoven, so full of mutual responsibility, that everything occurring in America has its reflex in India, in Africa, in Russia, in the world. "I am not involved", "I do not care", "It is none of my business", was never a respectable criterion: now this formula can only be defective. It is better to resurrect the wonderful thought of Dostoyevsky according to which "everyone is guilty before all men for everything." And we add the words of Christ: "He who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is unworthy of the Kingdom of God."


BEFORE WE APPROACH the question of the degree to which American life needs us we must try to subject the reality of America to brief analysis. This is not easy because we are all inclined towards extreme simplifications and towards seeing everything as black and white, forgetting that in reality our life is covered by "gray" and is therefore difficult to observe with objectivity.

There can be no doubt that America is passing through a deep crisis touching on the spiritual, social and political life of the nation. We can point out that the crisis is not exclusively an American one. It has the same manifestations--and even more radical ones--in all countries and all peoples of the world. There can be no doubt that the solution of the crisis and a constructive way out of it do not lie merely in the area of new legislation, limitation of "excessive" freedom, police control of the population.

The profound causes of the crisis are on the spiritual level; therefore its solution requires a colossal effort of the spiritual strength of the nation. Doubtless at the root of the crisis there is a wrong understanding of freedom. The error extends in two directions. Those who wish to limit freedom forget that the limitation of freedom has no end--how can we know when to stop, how can we make certain that the limitation of freedoms will not lead to a police state and concentration camps for dissenters.

Those who lean in the other direction forget (or do not want to remember) that freedom without responsibility is not freedom but arbitrariness, anarchy, nihilism. Those who struggle against the establishment do not think about the fact that "anti-system" can become a much more frightful system than the "establishment." Therefore the country is torn by the radicalism of two beliefs, both of which are intent on tearing the country apart.

In addition to all this, and notwithstanding all the horrors that are so zealously described in our press, we must remember, first of all, the great majority represented by those whom the President has called the "silent majority." These words are often repeated ironically, but they are a very good description of the mass of American people to which most of us belong and which, like a working horse, pulls the country out of moral, economic and political crises.

Secondly, among the young (and sometimes not so young) representatives of the "new culture" who give us such a fright and whom we are ready to bury in the mass grave of historical forgetfulness it is good to look for those who depart from "normal" American life for a number of reasons deserving our full attention. Due to a lack of spiritual guidance as well as because of inbred American conformity, they often take the wrong road and perish ignominiously and uselessly. It is good to scrutinize the fundamental themes, the motivations, which drive these young people out of well-to-do homes, a successful life, practical materialism. Close analysis inevitably leads us to the fact that youth is repulsed by complacent satisfaction with American well-being, by the false sense of security, by the exaggerated individualism that pushes people into loneliness and isolation, by the rationalization of even religious experience, by social injustice. These are negative themes.

The positive ones are a desire for spiritual experience, for liberation from captivity to material values, a search for spiritual reality and mystical experience, for a sacramental justification of life in all its details--love, sex, friendship, race, and so on. There is a search for the realities of life and death, which were so long concealed by our "funeral home culture" and were so cruelly revealed by the conflict in Vietnam. Youth is only partially responsible for the uncontrolled spiritualistic experimentation which has brought and is bringing so many of them to a tragic end; a great--much greater--responsibility lies on those who did not support, reveal, teach, be an example in time. We also bear responsibility, particularly because we--our Church--have long possessed first-class answers to all these questions.

WHAT CAN WE, as a Church, as the heirs of a spiritual experience of many centuries, say to contemporary young America? Even on the basis of our historical experience, on a purely negative plane, we can witness to the ease with which freedom can be lost. The trouble is that freedom, like good health, the comforts of life, or even hot water every day, is understood best when it is no longer available. We know very well what not-freedom is. What it is to be endangered when you think, to be in even greater danger when you speak, and to invite catastrophe when you set thoughts on paper. We know what it is to be unfree to believe, to pray, to go to Church when you choose. What it is to be unfree to leave your country when you wish. What it is to be unfree to organize your life as you see fit.

It is our holy duty to share our negative experience with all politically naive people, with all those who are easily caught in the net of the demonic propaganda of the other side, where man means nothing. Where "the death of one man is a tragedy--the death of ten thousand is a statistic," in the words of one ideologist on the "other side." This is not a political statement, for it concerns not only "political freedoms" but, first of all, the freedom of the spirit. This is witnessing to the real presence of the demonic in politics, in history, in sociology, of demonism which quenches the spirit and which rises against God and humanity. Therefore the power of this witness must be evangelical power, the power of Christ, always denying darkness and the devil, whatever the coloring which they adopt--even if they appear "in the image of an angel of light."

THE VOICE OF Orthodox spiritual experience will have even greater power in answering the spiritual quest of our time. For this we ourselves must realize the spiritual strength of our Church, which is not an exotic museum, but the living power of the Holy Spirit, Who breathes "wherever he wills " in this world. All contemporary problems can be answered, first of all, in the sacramental theology of the Orthodox Church. Human interrelationships (the social order), love and the family (sex), the value of the human personality (racial problems), freedom and responsibility (legislation and jurisprudence), morality (discipline), social reforms ("love thy neighbor"), suffering (purification), death (resurrection)--all these problems can be properly solved in the light of the sacramental understanding of life as organic co-operation in the Divine act of the creation of the world. The experience of spiritual life (the Jesus prayer, solitary life, monasticism, fasting, effort) is the answer to the search for spiritual life. The practice of Orthodox contemplation (hesychasm) is the answer to the thirst for mystical experience. The Divine services, particularly the Eucharist, are the answers to the thirst for sacrifice, cult, communion in love, union with God.

Our time is looking for symbols and for cult. Symbols are justified only when a genuine spiritual content stands behind them. Otherwise they turn into ritual. Ritual and idols sooner or later lead to demonology. Here is a boundless field for our preaching, for our mission in America, in Canada. This is why it is good to bring down the walls, to tear the bonds which tie us to ourselves and keep us away from serving "these little ones." These, then, in very brief form, are the tasks--responsible, important, holy tasks--which confront our Orthodox Church in America.

AND SO WE STAND--weak and uncertain as yet--before these tasks, the extent of which is very simple. It was once clearly expressed by His Grace, Bishop Dmitri, when he was asked what he considers the ultimate goal of Orthodoxy in America. Without any hesitation, His Grace said: "America must become Orthodox. If I believe that Orthodoxy is the revelation of Truth, then this, and only this, can be the purpose of its presence in America." The road leading to this goal is long. The way to holiness, to God, to the Kingdom of God, is equally long.

We have set out on a new road. Many issues, problems, projects, opportunities, difficulties, achievements are ahead of us on the road. On the agendas of our Councils old and familiar "unfinished business" will appear once again--the statute, pensions, ecumenism, charity, education and so on. It would be good, at this Council and at subsequent ones, to put in first place the questions of our spiritual growth, the deepening of our commitment to the Church, our sacramental and eucharistic rebirth, our organic entrance into the very essence of the Church, our total life in the Church.

No matter how important all other questions may be, they are among those things which will be "added" to those who first of all seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. In thirst for God's Truth, in hunger for the Bread of the Holy Eucharist, in the creation of God's Christian family welded together by the bonds of the love of Christ--there is found the only token of the success of our service to the Church, to America, and to humanity, the token of the justification of our autocephaly, of our membership in the Orthodox Church in America.

The Orthodox Church, February, March, April 1971.

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