Vol. 2 No. 1 - Pascha 2007
A Canadian Orthodox Commonwealth?
The Nation that Could Have Been
Like most Canadian immigrants, the first European settlers in the area of Canada - Celtic monks and Vikings - were looking for a new place to call home, at a time when home had run out of room for them. Unlike the encounters of Orthodox monastics with natives in Alaska, the Celtic and Viking immigration, such as it was, came to a bleak end in missionary terms: the Vikings were driven out by hostile natives who perceived (perhaps correctly) the Vikings to be invaders, and the Celtic monks left the area surrounding Greenland because the native population would not accommodate the life the Celts were seeking; i.e. absolute quiet and seclusion.
But what if things had been different? One can imagine a pastorally oriented Celtic version of Saint Herman of Alaska or Saint Innocent, traveling over the tundra, making friends with various native groups, tending their illnesses and entertaining their children, while at the same time sharing the Gospel in a very personal way. Undoubtedly, such holy individuals would also have been the conduit of the Lord's grace, both in serving the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and Communion, as well as blessing the native peoples with a share of lifesaving miracles.
One can envision an early ecclesiastical native language, a kind of Imagine an early Church Iroquois or Church Algonquin, using Celtic letters, much as Tlingit and Aleut church texts use Cyrillic even today. The distinct sound of native chant would undoubtedly have drifted through wooden churches built on local architectural models. Annual blessings would have taken place at the beginning of hunting season, and prayers would have undoubtedly been offered at the appointment of native community leaders - all of this assuming the Celtic monks actually cared to share the Faith, and not to waste time trying to turn Mohawk into Celts.
Such a decentralized setting, with a mix of Celtic and native bishops given autonomy from their mother church across the ocean, would have provided an interesting backdrop for the arrival of the Norsemen a few centuries later. Rather than facing an alien people, native Christians would have encountered an increasingly Christian Viking immigration seeking a new homeland in the west. The then centuries-old native Orthodox population would undoubtedly have seen the obligation upon them to assist their Viking brethren in rescuing their kinsmen from the errors of Thor-worship. Perhaps local native Orthodox chieftains, like St. Ethelbert of Kent or St. Vladimir of Kiev, would have offered these brethren a small territory in which to make their home, and the two Christian cultures (really three, if one considers the Celtic inheritance) would have settled down as neighbours.
But wouldn't the whole thing have fallen apart, into inevitable war between peoples? The inheritance of Byzantium and Russia suggests it would not have done so, since in these cases, the shared identity came not from race or blood (a later idea arising out of post-Enlightenment ethnic nationalism), but from the idea of Orthodox Christianity as citizenship. It was this same notion that allowed Orthodox Russians, whether Slavic, Scandinavian, Asiatic, or Alaskan native, to live together as one Orthodox people. It was this same notion that allowed the multi-ethnic Byzantines to welcome a quarter million Orthodox brethren fleeing the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and to construct three English churches in Constantinople itself (a demographic which would suggest twenty percent of the blood in the veins of residents of the Great City and their descendants is actually Anglo-Saxon). Could not such a harmony have prevailed in North America?
It is reasonable to argue that not only could such a civilization have come into being, but in fact, that it would have come into being. Erik Wahlgren, author of The Vikings and America, points out that one major import of the Vikings was the draft horse, rather than the warhorse of later European emigres. Such animals are useless for major warfare, but extremely useful for expanding agricultural civilizations, which native Canadians were at the time of the Viking arrival. Had they forged a civilization united by their shared Orthodox Christian heritage, a multi-lingual federation of chieftains whose people worked the soil with great success would have been a likely result.
The results for other immigrants to North America would have been remarkable. Rather than French Catholics and British Protestants arriving in a land they could easily exploit, with cultures they could destroy in the name of Christianity, these arrivals would have been faced with a vastly different picture: A Christian civilization in which the French and English were the minorities, in which Orthodox Christianity was the majority faith, and in which Orthodox Greek and Slavic immigrants would have found a place amoung the cultural elite. The English and French might have even been stuck doing domestic work for the mixed-blood Native-Norse population. Perhaps the Scots would have returned to their roots, getting jobs at universities learning about and teaching the ancient liturgical language of their Celtic ancestors.
Alas, it was not to be. Yet even in this exercise of historical fiction, there is a fundamental lesson about Orthodox identity and mission work, and its approach to converting a people to Christ, instead of trying to wipe out a culture. And perhaps more importantly, the lesson learned by the Byzantines, and passed on to the Russians - the idea of a citizenship based on the Orthodox Faith, rather than race or culture - perhaps this is the lesson that Orthodox Canadians can learn and apply in our own time.
Celts and Vikings missed the chance to do this a millennium ago, and we are spiritually poorer for their mistake.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pascha, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.