Fr. Leonid is the long-time primary figure in the external affairs department of the OCA, and its chief ecumenical officer. One of the advantages of Fr. Leonid’s speaking on this topic is that he has been directly involved on a personal level with this topic for at least 30 years.
Fr. Leonid began by considering reactions to autocephaly in 1970 among various Church groups. Of special note was ROCOR’s critique that the OCA would now be an agent of the Moscow Patriarchate. Fr. Leonid then detailed a meeting with Russian Church leaders and Soviet officials in DC in which demands were made by the Soviet bureaucrat about changing coverage of the Soviet Union in the OCA paper. As Fr. Leonid explained, it didn’t happen.
He then turned to St. Tikhon, who in 1905 penciled thoughts about the American Metropolia becoming autocephalous on the eve of his return to Russia. He then gave an overview of attempts to reconcile with the Russian Church following the Revolution, and attempts to work with the Church of Constantinople, given the tangled problem of the Metropolia’s status. In this complicated context real negotiations began with Moscow to seek autocephaly to resolve all the issues. The negotiations took place in Geneva, New York and Tokyo, and resulted in the autocephaly agreement.
Recognition of the OCA, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: The Slavic world supports, the Greek world denies, and everybody who is not Greek or Slavic take no public opinion – although everyone is in communion.
The OCA’s autocephaly had little to do with self-aggrandizement, but with the recognition and dream of an existing local Church in North America. It needs to find the proper way to govern itself and relating to the whole Orthodox world, as well as the societies in which it must perform its mission. That vision of an inclusive Orthodox Church was there at the start.
The most tragic recent event was Ligionier in 1994 – the failure of the vision of that meeting through Constantinople’s demand that the Greek bishops remove their signatures has had many effects.
The recent meeting in Chambesy had one notable feature: when it talks about local or territorial churches, it suggests that everything outside Eastern Europe and the Middle East is the diaspora. We in America and Western Europe see local churches emerging in both places – we are not just cultural pockets living in barbarian territories of undefined borders. The growing numbers of converts is changing the reality of the Church in America, and so the narrative of autocephaly continues.
Is autocephaly an achievement, an opportunity, a challenge in a positive sense? All three. It is Orthodoxy globally that should be interested in building autocephalies of new local churches. Today Orthodoxy is not seen as universal, it is seen as being a Eastern ghetto, bound to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But a united, orthodox church in America would be evidence that Orthodoxy is capable of being vital outside historic areas, that it can engage western societies. I think we are building a hope for all of Orthodoxy here, not just another narrow ghetto of our own.