WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Five months ago, the bishops of eight Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States asked honest questions about whether their rich liturgical tradition was still relevant at the advent of the 21st century.

After three days of meetings here, they pronounced last week(May 3) that indeed their churches do have something to offer a modern society, but only if they can learn to speak with one voice.

Inside the splendid Cathedral of St. Nicholas, under the watchful eyes of brilliantly colored icons, 34 bishops of eight ethnic Orthodox U.S. churches concluded their second joint meeting with a call for unity and 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 our voice will help to provide spiritual direction not only to our own faithful, but will also offer a witness to those around us of the truth of the Gospel."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Are we willing to engage honestly the many vital questions that people 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" in American society and the challenge for the Orthodox churches is to both communicate 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 the United States and Canada, lamented the image of the Eastern Orthodox as somehow stuck in the past, unwilling to embrace modern culture. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

While each of the churches has its own unique ethnic identity and culture, 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 Canadian branches of the Greek Orthodox Church, Antiochan Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, Romanian Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
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