An Immigrant Church Comes of Age


In the unblinking eyes of the Risen Christ icon and vivid murals of biblical epics, the story of Christianity is written on the walls of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral near downtown Los Angeles.

So, too, in its own way is the story of an immigrant church coming of age. For the captions beneath the murals are written not in Arabic--the traditional language of the Antiochian church--but in English. Its liturgies are celebrated in English and Arabic as well as in Spanish.

Now, 105 years after the church came to America as a small mission directed chiefly at immigrants from the Middle East, its Los Angeles cathedral is about to become the starting point in a historic turn of events. The U.S. church is poised to ask for autonomy from its mother church in Damascus, Syria.

Swelled by American converts and American-born children and grandchildren of Syrian, Lebanese and other immigrants, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church has grown to 500,000 members in the U.S. and Canada.

"It's like a child that grew up," Archbishop Philip Saliba, the church's American primate, said in a telephone interview from his Englewood, N.J., headquarters. "It has reached the age of maturity. It wants to be a little bit independent in managing his or her own affairs."

That means electing its own regional bishops--"ordaining them in this country, from this country," Saliba said. Autonomy would also formalize the handling of the church's own administrative affairs.

The vote asking for autonomy is scheduled during the church's national General Assembly, which will meet July 27-28 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles after a prayer service July 23 at the cathedral.

While all this may seem of interest only to the church's members, the developments have significance for a far broader audience. At its heart, it is a story of an ethnic church adding its unique strands to the rich religious tapestry of America and, in turn, being changed itself.

The church came to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1895 as a small Syrian mission of the Russian Orthodox Church to minister to Orthodox Christians from the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

Today, it has 350 priests nationwide, about 60% of whom are American converts, mainly from American evangelical churches. There are more than 230 parishes in the U.S. and Canada. Half its members are American converts.

"It didn't change the doctrine of the church," said the Very Rev. Michel Najim, dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral. "It changed the [ethnicity]. It became a mixture between cradle Orthodox and converts and created a new interaction between them."

In Los Angeles, the church also has a mission to Latinos and has a youth program for its predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Crowned with a white dome and a bronze-colored cross, St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, at 2300 W. 3rd St., was consecrated in 1950. It has a total of 1,500 pledging and non-pledging families.

Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, has no supreme pope. Instead, each national Orthodox church and its overseas branches is led by a patriarch based in one of the historic church administrative centers or sees. They include the cities of Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey; Alexandria, Egypt; Antioch, Turkey; Jerusalem; and Moscow. Antioch is mentioned throughout Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and is described as the city from which the Apostle Paul began many of his missionary journeys. After an earthquake in 1324, the Antiochian church moved its headquarters to Damascus.

Ultimately, hopes of many church leaders for one unified Orthodox church in America first depend on each individual ethnic church becoming fully independent, or autocephalous, from its mother church.

Only then might Greek, Russian, Syrian, Antiochian and others be united in one North American Orthodox church in which ethnic and nationalistic labels would be things of the past. To date, only one Orthodox church, the Orthodox Church in America, is fully independent. It was given its independence in 1970s by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today, the various Orthodox churches are administratively separate but hold to virtually the same liturgies, doctrine and traditions.

The expected appeal for autonomy by the Antiochian church in the U.S. could affect the future of the largest Orthodox church in America, the 1.5-million member Greek Orthodox Church, clergy in both the Greek and Antiochian churches said this week.

One priest, who asked to remain anonymous, said Antiochian autonomy would bring "tremendous pressure" on the Greek church to become autonomous too. "If the Antiochian Orthodox Church does this it's going to spread to other jurisdictions," he said. "The real issue is the church in the New World must speak with a clear voice to its constituents, rather than the voice it has spoken with from the old country."

It is a sentiment widely held in the Antiochian church as well. "They [Damascus] don't understand us here," Archbishop Saliba said. "I came to the U.S. 44 years ago [from Lebanon]. . . . I still feel I am crucified between my new country, which I love very dearly, and my old culture."

At the moment, however, the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. appears to be facing more obstacles than the Antiochian church.

The Greek patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, reportedly rebuffed his American archbishop, Demetrios, last month when Demetrios went to Istanbul to broach the subject of autonomy.

John Collis, a member of Demetrios' executive board, said the U.S. archbishop came back "almost empty-handed." He added, "Frankly, there's a great disappointment all over the country." He said the Greek archdiocesan council will meet in the next several weeks to discuss what to do next.

If the Antiochian church becomes autonomous, it will still maintain ties to the mother church in Damascus. While the U.S. body would elect its own auxiliary bishops, its highest-ranking archbishop would continue to be elected by the Holy Synod in Damascus.

The synod is headed by the patriarch of Antioch in Damascus, the Most Blessed Ignatius IV, and includes all Antiochian Metropolitan bishops in the world. The church's tradition says that it was founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, even before Peter went to Rome.

There is hope in the U.S. that the American church could recommend three candidates for archbishop from which the Holy Synod in Damascus would choose. But it remains a subject for negotiations.

Ultimately, leaders say that votes about jurisdiction and organization are aimed at one goal--the preaching of the Gospel.

"We believe the power of Eastern Christianity will have a great impact on this nation," Najim said. "People find in Eastern Orthodoxy a genuine expression, a genuine way of Christian life. . . . In this age of materialism we need some strong spirituality."

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