The bishops of the eight ethnically rooted Orthodox churches in North America released their statement "And the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt AmongUs" on Thursday to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birthof Jesus Christ.
Known together as the Standing Conference of the Canonical OrthodoxBishops in America (SCOBA), the bishops joined for their mostcomprehensive statement on integrating Orthodox theology in amulticultural and increasingly secular society.
"As Christians we have a responsibility to give an account to othersfor the hope that is in us," the bishops said. "But even more, we have aresponsibility to show them that our hope is more than words, that ourlove is more than sentiment."
But perhaps most important, the bishops asked pointed questions ofthemselves on whether the church's message is "honestly" addressing thetough questions asked by a spiritually hungry society.
When the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches split in the GreatSchism of 1054, the theological and ethnic differences forever dividedthe Christian community into two camps. Later, with the ProtestantReformation of the 16th century, the two camps became three.
While the Orthodox Church maintains remarkable sway in EasternEurope, Russia and parts of the Middle East, the U.S. church hassometimes struggled for a sense of relevance in a nation dominated byProtestants and Roman Catholics.
In a way, the bishops were trying to reinvigorate their own peoplewith their pastoral letter, hoping that a rejuvenated Orthodox Churchwould lead to a spiritually rejuvenated society at large. At times, the SCOBA bishops sounded both evangelical and Catholic.
The 44-page statement is a spiritual smorgasbord of sorts,reflecting on everything from the nature of sin to a spiritual rationalefor environmental protection. The bishops also take a not-so-subtleswipe at tabloid TV and a Jerry Springer culture that is fixated on theshortcomings of others but reluctant to confess personal failings.
The bishops confessed their ignorance to the "bizarre" and "curious"talk shows where "people admit to their darkest and most intimatesecrets to the entire world. Listening are millions of people who,instead of being embarrassed by this public display, tune in to betitilated.
Such a spiritual landscape has presented the church with a fertile"missionary territory" in the United States and Canada. They describe asociety in the midst of "cultural transition" and frankly ask whetherthe church is offering relevant answers to society's questions.
"Are we offering answers to questions that no one is asking? Andperhaps more importantly: Are we willing to engage honestly the manyvital questions that people are asking?"
However, the bishops stopped short of offering real answers to someof the most troubling questions touching contemporary religion, such asthe debate over homosexuality or the role of women or top-down authorityin the church.
What the bishops did offer, however, was a sweeping reevaluation ofwhat it means to be Christian, or more important, the church.
"We can forget that the church is not bricks and mortar, hierarchiesand clergy, departments and committees," the bishops said. "She is noteven, strictly speaking, particular rituals and forms. She is first andforemost the community that remembers the mighty actions of God."
The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, ecumenical director for the Orthodox Church in America (formerly the U.S. Russian Orthodox Church) and a member of the statement's drafting committee, said that the "museum" image of the Orthodox Church has detracted from its relevant message.
"To some degree it's a self-inflicted image, and to some degree it'sinflicted upon us," Kishkovsky said. "But there is the image of a kindof museum that is associated with the Orthodox Church today. Werecognize that to be the case, but we think it's the wrong image. Itdoesn't represent the real thing, the real message."
The members of the bishops' committee included the patriarchs of theU.S. and Canadian branches of the Greek Orthodox Church, AntiochanOrthodox Church, Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, AmericanCarpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America,Romananian Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church and UkranianOrthodox Church.