2016-06-30
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (RNS) -- Declaring that "the church is not a museum and we are not her curators," the leaders of the nation's 6 million Eastern Orthodox Christians have called for a widespread spiritual reawakening and a commitment to evangelizing the "mission territory" of North America.

The bishops of the eight ethnically rooted Orthodox churches in North America released their statement "And the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us" on Thursday to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Known together as the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), the bishops joined for their most comprehensive statement on integrating Orthodox theology in a multicultural and increasingly secular society.

"As Christians we have a responsibility to give an account to others for the hope that is in us," the bishops said. "But even more, we have a responsibility to show them that our hope is more than words, that our love is more than sentiment."

But perhaps most important, the bishops asked pointed questions of themselves on whether the church's message is "honestly" addressing the tough questions asked by a spiritually hungry society.

When the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches split in the Great Schism of 1054, the theological and ethnic differences forever divided the Christian community into two camps. Later, with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the two camps became three.

While the Orthodox Church maintains remarkable sway in Eastern Europe, Russia and parts of the Middle East, the U.S. church has sometimes struggled for a sense of relevance in a nation dominated by Protestants and Roman Catholics.

In a way, the bishops were trying to reinvigorate their own people with their pastoral letter, hoping that a rejuvenated Orthodox Church would 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 rationale for environmental protection. The bishops also take a not-so-subtle swipe at tabloid TV and a Jerry Springer culture that is fixated on the shortcomings 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 intimate secrets to the entire world. Listening are millions of people who, instead of being embarrassed by this public display, tune in to be titilated.

"How can one explain a person who would be loathe to go to a priest to be forgiven...but feels no compunction to share this sin in front of the listening audience.... The need to have the burden of our sins lifted has not disappeared simply because we have stopped talking about it."

Such a spiritual landscape has presented the church with a fertile "missionary territory" in the United States and Canada. They describe a society in the midst of "cultural transition" and frankly ask whether the church is offering relevant answers to society's questions.

"Are we offering answers to questions that no one is asking? And perhaps more importantly: Are we willing to engage honestly the many vital questions that people are asking?"

However, the bishops stopped short of offering real answers to some of the most troubling questions touching contemporary religion, such as the debate over homosexuality or the role of women or top-down authority in the church.

What the bishops did offer, however, was a sweeping reevaluation of what it means to be Christian, or more important, the church.

"We can forget that the church is not bricks and mortar, hierarchies and clergy, departments and committees," the bishops said. "She is not even, strictly speaking, particular rituals and forms. She is first and foremost 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's inflicted upon us," Kishkovsky said. "But there is the image of a kind of museum that is associated with the Orthodox Church today. We recognize that to be the case, but we think it's the wrong image. It doesn't represent the real thing, the real message."

The members of the bishops' committee included the patriarchs 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, Romananian Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church and Ukranian Orthodox Church.

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