I Haven’t Quit Yet: Observations, Thoughts on NFTU & True Orthodox Unity

It started as an experiment, really, to see if I could write about the positive on the ground. I felt that True Orthodox in general often know each other well (I don’t believe this as much anymore) and that if our site focused on ecumenism in World Orthodoxy while focusing on news less covered in the True Orthodox Church throughout the world, there could be a positive effect.

In 2006, NFTU– which began in 2004 as an unofficial ROAC news site– decided to pursue a policy of non-jurisdictional preference, which has been given a variety of names, both positive and negative. At the time, I alone ran the site, though previously other members of the Church have helped. After nearly seven years, one failed international relocation, one return home, one jurisdictional change, one wedding, elevation to the diaconate, assistance from a number of people from almost all jurisdictions on NFTU as a project, and 11 months short of NFTU’s ten-year anniversary, I’m calling it quits with the experiment.

I’m not shutting down NFTU (part of my goal was to make NFTU pretty difficult to shut down, and there’s enough people working on it that even my taking a two-month break did not stop the site from being active) but at least for me, the experiment– wondering if reporting on all True Orthodox jurisdictions impartially could help improve the working environment of True Orthodox Christians in America– is over, and I’ve drawn a number of conclusions, some positive, and some sufficiently disheartening that I’ve wondered whether or not I would continue altogether with the site.

Rather than quit NFTU, I’d rather take down the conclusions I’ve drawn, explain my thoughts on the matter, and continue on in a new chapter of my life, with NFTU as a part of that, but without guile or deception on my part, which is what it would be if I am not honest.

Probably the first thing NFTU as a non-jurisdictional site was greeted  with in 2006, besides curiosity and huge interest by World Orthodox trying to leave, was suspicion. After all, if you’re obedient to your Bishops, why wouldn’t you focus on building “your empire”? That’s how we roll in True Orthodoxy. Everyone wants a metochion in country X where they can say “see? The Church survives in the hinterlands of Abkhazia, so as you can see, we’re all over the world”. Leveling the field obliterates that argument. Why join TOC-blank if you live in the hinterlands of Abkhazia when other-TOC-blank has four Bishops and two dozen Churches there, known as the “HATOC”? In the immediate short-term, this led to confusion with what NFTU’s goal is, but it generally produced two results, one substantially over the other, at least among True Orthodox with online presences.

The first and larger response is stake-raising. It became apparent that as TOC writers and thinkers had to include other TOC’s in their thinking, that we stopped talking about individual jurisdictions as the Church and we began discussing the Church globally. One the one hand, this alone is an incredibly positive development, and one that, if it continues over the next decades (if we even have that long) will eventually lead to the consolidation of True Othodox Churches into a largely unified and organized communion. Certainly we can’t take credit for that sort of discussion. It was going on without us. But the fact that NFTU reported on it was a sea change: on the ground people began to realize that their Bishops did in fact personally relate with other Bishops on a level laypeople could not bring themselves to do because they thought it was impossible (or at the least highly inappropriate).

The downside of this has been the competitive nature of the inter-Orthodox communications. Whereas before, one man’s single jurisdiction was “the Church”, now this one and that one and that one together are the Church and to the others, anathema sit.  “Except maybe for Father So-and-so, because he gave me a confession once.” Certain jurisdictions (such as the ROCOR under Abp Vladimir) have backed away from such intercommunication with other jurisdictions (which I consider a sort of “ostrich” response) and others have stretched their resources to the point of the ridiculous, such as Metr Kirykos’ Synod (a Pope of each land!–it is enough) and others have taken a team mentality (my Bishop may not recognize you, but darn it, I like you!) and yet others have maintained agreement through formal communion, while stabbing each other in the back (practically every communion agreement that exists right now, including my own Synod’s).

We’ve managed to decrease the size of the “other” when it comes to competing jurisdictions in True Orthodoxy, but we’ve drawn bigger lines in the sand and upped the ante in terms of hostility towards those we don’t include in our personal circle. Whereas before we were more inclined to say “I don’t know if you’re in the Church, but prudence favors a lack of recognition” we’re more apt to give a “nope, you’re not in the Church” answer. The unneeded triumphalism in our decision to stay with the True Church, dormant and something to be rooted out with humility, has become a badge of honor we wear proudly.

We’ve taken ten steps forward in recognizing other True Orthodox and twenty steps back in our behavior those we are not sure we recognize, or now openly say that we don’t. Perhaps it’s more honest, but it’s unexpected and much more disheartening. “Leveling the playing field” does not bring an end to inter-Orthodox conflict. All it does is raise the stakes and make the conflict larger. For someone who has done his best to be an outside observer, the jury is still out as to whether or not this is a good thing.

My experience as the “non-partisan” guy has been far from a positive one. At best, I’ve been generally seen as some sort of demented public servant whose job is to “fix this” or “report that”. At worst, I’ve been seen as a secret agitator for my Synod, who’s secretly working for the Moscow Patriarchate anyway. In between those I– and NFTU with me– have been seen as everything from a marginally useful, if logically misunderstood, personage or grouping to a secret “True Orthodox Ecumenist” (or grouping) who wants to join together all religions– which doesn’t make sense to begin with.

Then there was our intercommunion. Hailed as a milestone for True Orthodox Unity (which it is, I won’t take that away from it) never have I seen such a level of jurisdictional politicking,

If I collected all the opinions from 2006 to today in one email, I’d probably find them funny. Doled out over seven years, wondering what I could to do improve the user experience, I concluded they take a toll on one’s spirit. A few months ago, I simply began thinking “why bother” to everything. And it began to spread to posting. Then my prayer life. My personality had become subsumed into what I did. I’d become depressed.

For that reason, from May till a week or two ago, I stopped writing on NFTU altogether. As they say in the common parlance, “the haters had won”. I shifted to another one of my non-ecclesial interests at the time– soccer– and made it my whole focus. There was no better time. The New York Cosmos were coming back. The summer came. Two weeks ago, for the first time in almost four years, my family went to the beach. I answered this or that Church-related email, but basically I considered myself having quit anything not related to my Synod personally. And even that wound down.

A funny thing happened then. Taking a look at NFTU a few weeks into the end of June, I realized Hieromonk Enoch had been posting news stories. It didn’t have to be him per se– it well could have been my wife, or Jonathan Gress (it was probably going to be Fr Enoch, though, he’s been very supporting of NFTU and does a lot of the work on it now)– but I realized maybe this thing could work without me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to give up altogether on it. Maybe it’s not time to burn out.

So here we are. Almost 10 years with NFTU, and it’s served as a source of joy and frustration (as well as occasional donations for which I am grateful). I will post as I always have, but I probably will have a greater focus on True Orthodox who are making news, not just everything and everyone. I don’t have the strength or the patience.

And don’t mind me if I take a break every so often.

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