WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Five months ago, the bishops of eight Eastern Orthodoxchurches in the United States asked honest questions about whether theirrich liturgical tradition was still relevant at the advent of the 21stcentury.

After three days of meetings here, they pronounced last week(May3) that indeed their churches do have something to offer a modernsociety, but only if they can learn to speak with one voice.

Inside the splendid Cathedral of St. Nicholas, under the watchfuleyes of brilliantly colored icons, 34 bishops of eight ethnic OrthodoxU.S. churches concluded their second joint meeting with a call for unityand a re-evangelization of the faithful.

"Many in our society are morally adrift. We cannot remain silent,"said a statement issued at the end of the summit. "The oneness of ourvoice will help to provide spiritual direction not only to our ownfaithful, but will also offer a witness to those around us of the truthof the Gospel."

Known together as the Standing Conference of Canonical OrthodoxBishops in the Americas (SCOBA), the hierarchs pledged to find ways ofworking together, even if their mother churches in Europe do not likethe idea.

When the SCOBA bishops first met in 1994, they concluded with asweeping call to unify the 6 million members in the ethnic Orthodoxchurches, a proposal that was swiftly vetoed by Orthodox leaders inEurope and the Middle East. While this year's summit ended with a lesszealous tone, the bishops said their goal remains the same.

"Sometimes we speak too much and have too many things to do andhaven't organized ourselves to do it," said Metropolitan Theodosius,head of the Orthodox Church in America, adding that the hierarchs sawthe need to "put it down a gear."

As part of that quest for unity, the bishops said they realized theneed to develop a centralized infrastructure, similar to the NationalConference of Catholic Bishops, so that the separate ethnic churchescould speak with one voice on social and theological issues.

The bishops also decided that their joint meetings should be heldannually to increase participation and communication between the memberchurches."We want to be able to give people the Orthodox answers to thequestions that are perplexing people," Metropolitan Theodosius said.

Archbishop Demetrios, chairman of the SCOBA bishops and leader ofthe Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, said the bishops spent muchof their time together reflecting on their Christmas pastoral letter,which sought to find ways to make the Orthodox tradition more relevantin an increasingly secular and diverse society.

"Are we willing to engage honestly the many vital questions thatpeople are asking?" the bishops asked in their letter, adding later that"The Church is not a museum and we are not her curators."

Archbishop Demetrios conceded "there is a soul-searching" inAmerican society and the challenge for the Orthodox churches is to bothcommunicate the truth and tell it in a way people can understand. "It's not an easy thing," he said.

Metropolitan Christopher, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in theUnited States and Canada, lamented the image of the Eastern Orthodox assomehow stuck in the past, unwilling to embrace modern culture. "Nothingcould be further from the truth," he said.

While each of the churches has its own unique ethnic identity andculture, Metropolitan Christopher said they all carry the same message,which has remained unchanged since the days of the early church. "You look at a handful of M&Ms, and they're all different colors,but inside, the essence is the same," he said.

The SCOBA bishops include the leaders of the U.S. and Canadianbranches of the Greek Orthodox Church, Antiochan Orthodox Church,Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, American Carpatho-Russian OrthodoxChurch, the Orthodox Church in America, Romanian Orthodox Church,Serbian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church.