A Guiding Framework for the Orthodox Church in America
Behold, there went out a sower to sow…
In the year 2020, the Orthodox Church in America will mark the 50th anniversary of the glorification of Saint Herman of Alaska, the first saint of North America, and the one who, together with his seven missionary companions, planted the Apostolic and monastic seeds in North America. His glorification was one of the first acts of the Orthodox Church in America as the local autocephalous Church and both the granting of autocephaly and the lifting up of the humble hermit of Spruce Island as a saint were the fruit of over 150 years of the watering and nurturing of those seeds by great figures such as Saint Innocent, Saint Jacob, Saint Tikhon, and Metropolitan Leonty of blessed memory. By their prayers and through their labors — as well as those of countless other bishops, clergy, and faithful — a local North American Church sprouted, first as a tender shoot, then as a frail sapling, and finally as the young tree that it is today.
This young tree is still tender and in need of nurturing and strengthening. It is not yet the mustard tree which is greater than all the other herbs and shoots out great branches so that the birds of the air may lodge under its shadow.1 And yet, even as a grain of mustard seed, the Word that was sown fell on good ground, as witnessed by the accounts of the first missionaries on this continent:
I have been living on the island of Kodiak since 24 September 1794. I have, praise God, baptized more than 2,000 Americans, and celebrated more than 2,000 weddings. We have built a church and, if time allows, we shall build another, and two portable ones, but a fifth is needed. We live comfortably, they love us and we them, they are a kind people, but poor. They take baptism so much to heart that they smash and burn all the magic charms given them by the shamans.2
How has Holy Orthodoxy in North America fared since those days full of apostolic zeal and missionary activity? The Church has certainly expanded geographically, from Alaska to the Midwest, and numerically, with waves of immigration to the East Coast; missions have been planted, seminaries established, and converts welcomed; liturgical services have been celebrated and the holy mysteries offered for the salvation and healing of souls; a wealth of books, musical compositions, lectures, and podcasts have been shared and have impacted not only this continent but the entire world. There is much that has been accomplished and much for which we should give thanks to God.
At the same time, the Church faces great obstacles and tremendous change in the world as she makes her way through the 21st century. We ought to ask ourselves if we love the people of our lands, and if they love us? Do they voluntarily accept baptism and smash the idols that are provided to them by the shamans of our age? Can we, as the Church in North America, genuinely sing along with the paschal hymn: “Lift up your eyes, O Zion, round about and behold. Lo, your children like divinely shining stars assembled, from the West and from the North, from the Sea and from the East, to bless Christ in you forevermore.”3 Do these words ring true for us or do they remind us of the reality that the light of the resurrection may have not yet completely pierced through the darkness of the world and of fallen humanity?
When we gathered for the 18th All-American Council in Atlanta in 2015, I shared with the assembled delegates some of the difficult realities that we face as Christians today and some challenges that we have already shouldered as a community. I also sketched out four broad areas that I felt required our attention and could provide a framework within which to recapture the Alaskan missionary zeal of our forebears. In preparation for the 19th All-American Council in St. Louis, I have expanded upon those four broad areas, using the image of four pillars. This image refers to the four pillars of the altar table, which are the first items to be blessed during the beautiful and moving service for the consecration of a church temple. I chose this image as a way of calling to remembrance the centrality of Jesus Christ to absolutely every part of our existence as Christians and as authentic human beings. Christ is the King of Glory Who is enthroned upon the altar, which also represents His tomb. It is around this tomb and this altar that we gather to worship and glorify Him.
The image of the Four Pillars is a poetic one but the sub-stance of that image is practical, with an emphasis on four concrete areas — the spiritual life, stewardship, relations with others, and evangelism — that require our attention and our action. Saint Herman is an example of one who made real those poetic ideals through his life, his example and his intercessions. He stands for us today as both a model and a source of encouragement as we confront the desert of our own existence. Saint Her-man was truly a living and fiery pillar of prayer and asceticism and an inspiration to us in the spiritual life; he was a faithful steward who cared for both his own compatriots and the native peoples of Alaska, particularly the widows and the sick; he maintained good relations with all those with whom he came in contact, preaching Christ without respect of person or rank but also boldly speaking out in defense of the oppressed; and he was a genuine missionary in his fulfillment of the Apostolic work through his consoling words and healing prayers.
In the pages that follow, I am proposing a framework for us to continue such a witness, a framework that will guide us from our Church-wide gathering at the 19th All-American Council through our long-term approach to forging our identity and mission as the local Church on this continent. There is no single person, single book, or single program that will bring this about. At the same time, every single person, every single book, every single program is crucial for this task. What is called for is a Church-wide endeavor, involving every parish, institution, and individual of the Orthodox Church in America, to tackle the enduring goals that lie before us. As there have been challenges in the past, so there will be many new ones along the way, but such struggles are part of our Christian journey. We need to consider and respond to those challenges, but we can only do this if we are willing to personally and collectively experience and share the gift of communion with Christ. I invite you to join me in setting off upon this path towards Life, a path that may seem uncertain or even treacherous at times, but one that has been traveled already by those who went before us and who now show us the way to follow Jesus Christ.
Twenty-five years after his arrival in Alaska, Saint Herman wrote the following to the Igumen of Valaam Monastery: “We also beg you, as you have been so kind as to remember us and write to us, to remember and pay heed to our humble state, before almighty God, in your holy prayers. We are not on the storm-tossed waves of the sea but are suffering amongst the tempting and tempestuous world and on a pilgrimage of the Apostolic word.”4 All of us are called to join this pilgrimage of the Apostolic word — with our families, with our communities, and within our dioceses. May the intercessions of our Venerable Father Herman comfort and strengthen all of us — bishops, clergy, monastics and faithful — on our evangelical journey within North America, and may his life serve as a light for our feet on the common path we walk as the local Orthodox Church in North America.
THE MISSION OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN AMERICA,
the local autocephalous Orthodox Church, is to be faithful in fulfilling the commandment of Christ to “Go into all the world and make disciples of all Nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all [things that He has] commanded” so that all people may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth:
To preach, in accordance with God’s will, the fullness of the gospel of the Kingdom to the peoples of North America and to invite them to become members of the Orthodox Church.
To utilize for her mission the various languages of the peoples of this continent.
To be the body of Christ in North America and to be faithful to the tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church.
To witness to the truth, and by God’s grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to reveal Christ’s way of sanctification and eternal salvation to all.
— Adopted by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, 1990
1 Cf. Mark 4:31–32.
2 Letter from Archimandrite Joasaph to Igumen Nazarii, May 1795, in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010), pp. 38–39.
3 Paschal Canon, Ode VIII
4 Letter from Monk Herman to Igumen Jonathan, 13 December 1819,
ibid., pp. 41–42.