The emergence of the OCA on the basis of Rusyns’ immigrant community in America

V. Rev. Michael Aksionov Meerson, PhD in Theology


This article was originally a paper in Russian delivered at the 2010 Moscow conference dedicated to Fr. Alexander Schmemann under the title “Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Metropolitan Nikodim – Builders of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.” It was subsequently published in the Journal of Moscow Patriarchate, in June, #6, 2011, under the title: “The Carpatho-Russian Immigrants, Russian Clergy, and their Canonical Recognition.” The article is translated into English by Fr. Michael A. Meerson and Prof. Olga Meerson.



The edifice of the Orthodox Church in America has been formed out of three fundamental components. They originate in different countries and under different conditions, and they had very little in common until the Divine Providence brought them together in America, fashioning from them the new organism of the local church. The conditions that made the synthesis of these divers parts possible, only briefly converged at a specific point, as if for a specific purpose. This very coincidence points to the fact that the emergence of the OCA was providential. Here are these three components:

1) The main body of the faithful consisted of Carpatho-Russian immigrants, former members of the Uniate Church from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They returned to Orthodoxy by joining the Russian diocese in North America, in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Having joined the Russian diocese, they formed a stable church contingency on the territories of the US and Canada.

2) At the turn of the 20th century, some key Russian hierarchy and clergy, sent by the Holy Synod to America from the Western part of Russia and familiar with the Uniates, were able to accept and accommodate these new-comers to Orthodoxy and form a large archdiocese of their congregations. After the Russian Revolution and during the decades to follow, a steady influx of Russian clergy and church workers joined the Russian diocese and then the Metropolia in America, fulfilling its need for pastoral work. They included a small but extremely productive circle of Russian-European Church intellectuals - theologians, Church historians, and Canon Law specialists. These men succeeded in educating the faithful about ways to form and maintain a functioning self-governed church organization.

3) The Moscow Patriarchate, through the Tomos of Autocephaly, finally accepted this American Church province as the local American Church. The Tomos secured the canonical acceptance of the OCA among sister Orthodox churches and in the Christian world in general, providing the third and upper component that transformed the Russian Metropolia into the OCA.

The emergence of this upper level of the local Church edifice depended upon the activity of, and the providential encounter and an agreement between two bright leaders of Orthodoxy, in the second half part of 20th century -  Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, of the OCA, and Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), of the Moscow Patriarchate. In his obituary to Schmemann,  Fr. John Meyendorff noted the amazing collaboration of these two men who had almost opposite biographies: “During the negotiations that led to the Autocephaly, Fr. Alexander formed a striking personal relationship with Nikodim, the Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod . The signing of the Tomos of Autocephaly by the Patriarch of Russia, on April 10, 1970, was made possible because Nikodim fully understood the importance of this step for Orthodoxy in America.”[i]

One might add that the step was important for Orthodoxy in Russian as well, and that Metr. Nikodim was fully aware of that too. Let us refer to the assessment of this event by the Russian church historian Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin: “By the beginning of the 1960-es, more and more congregations in the American Church moved to the English language in worship... Converts formed an ever more visible part of its flock. These converts were Americans having no Russian or even Orthodox background. Given such ecclesiastical reorientation and change in its ethnic make-up, those Russian members who wanted to preserve their Russian heritage changed jurisdictions in accordance with their political views, either joining the ROCOR, or, less frequently, joining parishes of the Moscow Exarchate in America. In 1963, under these circumstances, Metropolitan Nikodim,  Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, initiated unofficial talks with the bishops of the American Metropolia, aiming to remove the ecclesiastical bans imposed on it and thus regularize its canonical status.”[ii]

In the context of his Church politics and ecumenical activity, Metropolitan Nikodim took quite an initiative. He led the Russian Church, persecuted and imprisoned in its own home country, out into the large world, making her a leading participant in the ecumenical movement. He had firmly woven her into the fabric of international pan-Orthodox and Ecumenical organizations, thereby securing some positions for her even at home!

At one of these ecumenical gatherings, Metropolitan Nikodim met Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Being the head of the ROC’s foreign department, Nikodim obviously knew that Patriach Sergius and then Patriarch Alexii I had issued several ecclesiastical bans against the bishops of American Metropolia. He also knew that the bishops ignored these bans and would continue to ignore them in the future. He was probably also aware of the Metropolia’s failed attempt to join the jurisdiction of Constantinople. His move to accept the Metropolia’s autocephaly, therefore, was fully conscious and apparently initiated a radical change in policy. But what were his reasons to change the policy?

I distinctly remember an unexpectedly open talk I personally had with Metropolitan Nikodim in the summer of 1972, at a dinner in my friend’s house, a priest in his diocese, as Nikodim visited him in his parish. A typically neophyte, I criticized Orthodoxy for its inability or unwillingness to face the challenges of contemporary life and culture. Metropolitan Nikodim listened to my complaints, but then answered in a rather enigmatic way: “We are all shards of Byzantium.”  I would understand these words many years later, after my own Church experience and Orthodox education would increase. These words actually shed light on Metropolitan Nikodim’s resolution to obtain autocephaly for the American Metropolia. He had clearly seen that, within Western Christianity, despite its willingness to engage the Orthodox Church in international religious fellowship, few churchmen actually respected or knew what Orthodoxy was all about.  Both Protestants and Catholics regarded the Orthodox Church as a hermetic ancient ethnic tradition that faced the past and was incapable to develop or adjust to modernity. These Western Christians also considered Orthodox believers to be an ignorant religious body kept in slavery everywhere they were at home, by either Islam or an atheistic regime.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, by virtue of his very personality, his life-long work and the theological school that he headed, testified to a totally different picture of Orthodoxy. When therefore Nikodim encountered Schmemann, he saw a completely new perspective on Orthodoxy and prospects for it. A provincial Russian metropolia, lost in a medley of other ethnic jurisdictions in America, could become the embryo of the local Orthodox Church – in America! Thanks to its free and energetic theological witness, education, and liturgy, all done in English, it was acquiring its own voice, a voice that could be heard and understood by the Christian West. I remember the Holy Week services at St. Vladimir’s Seminary during the years of my study there, in 1974-1976. Not a single year passed without a visit by some “Christian celebrity:” the president of the NCCC, or Roman-Catholic or Anglican bishops, or representatives of the WCC. These visits were not merely official, they were a way for the visitors to partake of the Eastern Orthodox worshiping experience. St. Vladimir’s liturgical practice made that first-hand experience of Orthodoxy possible, meaningful, and accessible.

As it was English-speaking, Orthodox Church in America also promoted the latest refined achievements of Russian theology way beyond the Russian-speaking world. Its testimony altered both Orthodoxy’s status in the world in general, and the status of the Russian Church in particular. Now it emerged as the Mother-Church for its American Daughter-Church - one growing in the largest and most dynamic country of the free world.

Once gained, Autocephaly enabled the OCA to witness about the Orthodox faith across the world. Moreover, the specific cultural guise of this testimony was Russian, yet the witness itself was made universal. In Metropolitan Nikodim’s opinion, granting Autocephaly to a provincial Russian metropolia would equal queening a pawn for the Russian Church.

But this movement required from the Church in Russia, especially the Soviet Russia, an ability to comprehend the inner working of the Metropolia in question. The collaboration and mutual understanding between Metropolitan Nikodim and Fr. Alexander Schmemann played a key role here. Like Nikodim,  Fr. Schmemann was fully aware of the importance of this understanding. One particular entry in Fr. Alexander’s Journals illustrates his awareness. The entry shows Schmemann’s appreciation of the Metropolitan’s mental tenacity. Schmemann is writing about his last meeting with Nikodim, in Rome, at the enthronization of John-Paul I, then the new Pope. Metropolitan Nikodim had already left for the audience with the Pope, while Fr. Schmeman was waiting for his own turn. Schmemann writes: “Nikodim was invited and ushered in. Five or ten minutes later, Fr. Leo, a young companion of the Metropolitan, rushed out and kept running somewhere along the halls. My heart skipped a beat: here they do not run about this way, I thought. Someone said to me, Apparently Metropolitan Nikodim has forgotten his gift for the Pope. I : I know Metropolitan Nikodim. He never ‘has forgotten’ anything. The monk ran back with a black handbag containing the medicine. Five minutes later, Mgr. Arrighi announced: ‘Il est mort’.”[iii]

We may ask the same question: what important thing could Metropolitan Nikodim  forget – or “never forget?” Let us come back to the moment when Fr. Schmemann and the Metropolitan sat down to discuss possibilities for the Russian Church’s canonical acceptance of a self-governing American Metropolia. Both Metropolitan Nikodim and Fr. Alexander were real church politicians and diplomats. They knew how to steer the ship of Orthodoxy, so ill-adjusted for modernity, amongst the perils of life. Both understood that, by that moment, the motherhood of the Russian Church was merely nominal for the Metropolia. Yes, the Russian Church had started its American mission in Alaska and the Aleut Islands when they were remote parts of the Russian Empire. The real growth of the diocese, however, went by a different route. The diocese grew because a large number of Carpatho-Russian Uniate parishes in America and Canada had unexpectedly joined it, by re-converting to Orthodoxy. After Alaska had been sold to the United States in 1867, the Holy Synod of Russia did not rush to move its mission to the United States. Let us remember that Alaska itself was promoted to a state only in 1959. As I.K. Smolich points out in his History of the Russian Church, “In St. Petersburg, they were inclined to discontinue the mission, despite its recognition by the United States. It was saved only by the efforts of Metropolitan Innocent.” [iv]

In 1872, John (Mitropolsky), bishop of Alaska at the time, moved his residence from Sitka to San Franciscio, outside of his diocese.  Konstantin Pobedonotsev, the new chief- procurator of the Holy Synod, opposed moving the Russian mission to the US.  As late as in 1893, when Carpatho-Russians in America had already begun joining the Russian diocese, Pobedonotsev pointed out to the Tsar (Alexander III) that moving to San-Francisco, outside of one’s diocese, was not canonical.[v]

In America, the Rusyns or Carpatho- Russians who had started to immigrate in the second part of the 19th century had a foremost concern – to preserve their Greek-Catholic (Uniate) church as their own ethnic identity organization.[vi] As a rule, they would find jobs as coal miners or steel workers in Pennsylvania or Ohio, and with their own savings they built churches for themselves and ran their own congregations under the leadership of their own Uniate clergy, usually invited from their home country, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the local Catholic hierarchy, mainly of Irish origin and not familiar with the Uniates, had refused to accept them as they were, with their peculiar differences – married clergy, the Byzantine rite, etc. Looking for an alternative, the Rusyn community found the Russian diocese in its embryonic state and joined it. The conversion was facilitated because the Rusyns in spite the formal allegiance to Rome, identified themselves as Orthodox Christians of Kievan-Russian origin.

At that time, the Russian diocese had no more than a few parishes on the US territory. The Rusins’ conversion took the diocese by a total surprise. Archbishop Platon (Rozhdestvensky), who headed the diocese for his first term, from 1907 to 1914, described this conversion in the following words: “17 years ago an event of uttermost importance took place in Minneapolis: a whole American parish, with its pastor, joined the Orthodox church. This event, as we all know, had almost caught the Russian mission authorities unawares. They were not prepared for it. The mission knew nothing about the Uniates who lived in America. It therefore, is not surprising that the mission had neither plans, nor an agenda for the missionary work among the Uniates. But the Minneapolis congregation … did not wish to wait and almost burst into our Orthodox Church, opening the way into the bosom of Orthodoxy for other Uniate parishes.” [vii]

After that event, during the following two decades, by 1916, 163 Uniate congregations, with total membership of about a couple dozens of thousands, joined the Russian missionary diocese, leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Returning to Orthodoxy, the Rusyns brought with them their own unique tradition of self-governing. This tradition had been strongly developed in the Lithuanian Russia and in Kiev, during the centuries they had spent under the formal jurisdiction of Constantinople.  The Patriarchate of Constantinople did not meddle with their internal church affairs and “did not oppress their established order and spirit of self-governance.” [viii] The Rusyns managed to preserve this tradition of self-governance on the parish level, even when they were drawn into the Union with Rome. In America, the Rusyn immigrants had immediately created the Greek-Catholic society of mutual assistance, with branches, called brotherhoods, in many different cities. The number of brotherhoods had rapidly grown to two hundred. They spread out all over the country. Building new parishes was one of their main tasks. Thanks to the society’s activity, the number of parishes in the Russian diocese grew to 315. In addition to numerous clergymen and several bishops, two primates of the OCA, Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazar; primate in 1977-2002) and Metropolitan Herman (Swayko; 2002-2008) came from the Rusyn community.

The Rusyns’ community differs from the Greek, or Russian, or Romanian, or Serbian ones. Unlike those others, it is not religiously or ethnically connected with any Orthodox country or church hierarchy.  Rusyns’ “historical motherland” – the Austro-Hungarian Empire – had disappeared long ago, and, after they became Orthodox, they lost their connections with the Roman-Catholic Uniate church. The Rusyns therefore lost those national and ecclesiastical roots which had been securing the forms of their social existence for several preceding centuries. The Orthodox diocese, the Metropolia at that time, and eventually the OCA, became the only means of their survival as a community. But while comprising the OCA, an almost fully English-speaking Church today, the

Rusyns have preserved, consciously or not, their identity as Orthodox Christians who trace their origin to the baptism of Rus’. They regard themselves as direct descendants of the Kievan Rus’ to which they had belonged before they were absorbed, against their will, politically, first by Poland and then by Austro-Hungary, and ecclesiastically, by Catholicism, albeit with their customary Byzantine rite intact.

Since the Rusyns entered the Russian Orthodox diocese in America, their community has constituted the majority of its body. Thanks to their particular history and mentality, however, they have not separated  themselves from other ethnic groups in the diocese, like Syrians or Aleuts. The Rusyns’ truly “catholic” identity has enabled the Russian Metropolia to grow as the local American Church, i.e. a Church that would include Orthodox believers of various ethnic backgrounds. It was precisely this catholicity and variety in unity that the Russian bishop Tikhon (Belavin, the future holy Patriarch of Russia) emphasized in his definition of the Russian diocese in America which he himself headed in 1898-1907: “Our North-American Orthodox Church considers herself to be ‘the Holy, Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church’ embracing  all nations, languages and the whole world, and heralding Orthodoxy in America. But because of her direct relationship with the Russian people who had come from Austria and had been accustomed to a particular terminology in defining their own church, for practical reasons it limited the universality of its name and was called ‘The Russian-Orthodox Greek-Catholic Church in North America,’ under the jurisdiction of Russian hierarchy.”[ix]

Consisting of numerous self-governing parishes which had been organized along the principles of American congregationalism[x] and scattered over the enormous territory of North America, the Church, on this level, felt herself to be fully self-sufficient and capable of perpetuating herself. Although the Rusyns had entered the Russian diocese on their own initiative, their connection with the Russian Church’s synodal structure was weak and superficial. All that linked the majority of parishes, who had never spoken Russian, to the Russian church, and only in a symbolic way, was the bishop, sent by the Holy Synod from St. Petersburg, and some Russian-speaking priests who comprised diocesan government. But even that symbolic connection was short-lived. It lasted, at most, a couple of decades, for several older parishes, and to a mere few years for the overwhelming majority of the former Uniate parishes which joined the diocese on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution or right after it.

The 1917 Russian revolution broke all contact between the American diocese and Moscow Patriarchate; the Soviet Regime rendered the developing of long-standing relations between the Russian Church and the Rusyn community impossible. Thereby the marks of communion with, and subordination to, the Russian church were quickly erased from the Rusyns’ memory and ecclesiastical awareness. On the congregational level, the Rusyns’ church had always been, and would remain, “self-governed.” It therefore easily adopted the new Counciliar structure and the custom of electing the Church Primate after the model suggested by the Moscow Council of 1917-18.

The fall of monarchy and the church council in Russia legitimized the new form of self-governance for the American diocese. The diocese adopted counciliar self-governance easily and naturally, whereas in Russia itself, the counciliar way was choked at its inception, by the Bolshevik regime. But this counciliarity also failed to develop in Europe, in the ROCOR, - despite the fact that by a considerable majority of votes the Moscow Council had nominated Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), the ROCOR’s founder and leader,  for the position of Patriarch. In the ROCOR, however, he reproduced the synodal structure of church government, not that of councils with elections and nominations.

The American diocese, on the other hand, was rather swift to recover after the fall of the Russian Empire, which demise, naturally, stopped all financing of the diocese by the Russian Church. Significantly, at its Detroit council (1924), the diocese had not merely upheld the position of Metropolitan Platon as its head, also redefining itself as Metropolia, but also proclaimed its own autonomy. It was also significant that the American diocese had gained independence from Moscow Patriarchate while the latter was still headed by Patriarch Tikhon, himself a deeply loved, respected, and well remembered bishop in the North American diocese. By proclaiming its own autonomy, however, the American diocese announced its right to do so and its capability to govern itself.

After the Detroit council, the Metropolia undertook considerable theological research to establish the canonical foundations for its new status. For this work, best Canon Law specialists in Russian immigration, not only in America, but also in Europe, were invited. In 1929, The Russian –American Orthodox Messenger, the diocesan publication, published an article by S.Troitsky, professor of the Canon Law, who had sent it from Yugoslavia. In his article, Prof. Troitsky maintained that Metropolitan district was the best form for the organization of the local church in America. He pointed out that church government operated through two organs: local diocesan bishops and the council (synod) of these diocesan bishops, the first of them presiding, usually under the title of Metropolitan. These two organs, required by the Canon Law, have existed in every district metropolia. Before Church was united with State, when it had been governed exclusively by its own canons and interests, it was organized as Metropolitan districts. This church order still continued even at the first stage of the union between Church and State, for example, in the time of the First Ecumenical Council.

As Prof. Troitsky maintained, the larger church units, more complicated jurisdictionally – such as exarchates and patriarchates -  emerged as a result of the Church’s adjustment to the state structure. When canons spoke of necessary norms for Church order they referred only to metropolitanate (Cf. the Apostolic rule 34, in connection with rule #9 of the Anthiochian Council). These early canons mentioned patriarchates merely as a way of an historical adjustment of Church to Society that had no dogmatic or ecclesiastical relevance. Later on, in the time of symphony between Church and Empire, when the patriarchate structure was sanctioned, it did not become the norm for other local churches.  According to Prof.  Troitsky, the metropolitanate structure of the church was so essential that even when autocephalous orthodox churches became exarchates or patriarchates, they remained in fact mere metropolitanates.

Prof. Troitsky considered metropolitanate to be the only feasible option for the Orthodox Church in America, inasmuch as the US, with its strict separation between Church and State, allowed no particular religious organization to become a national church. He also cited Metropolitan Sergius, the locum tenens of the Patriarchal See in Moscow, as saying about the same time (1927), that he considered the American diocese to be a full-grown church.[xi]

By the beginning of 1930s, the Russian Metropolia possessed the necessary canonical foundations to de-facto establish itself as a self-governing local church. Under Metropolitan Plato, it thus asserted this status of independence and self-government. This took place in spite of a serious crisis: some living members of the Metropolia’s body – e.g., the Syrian diocese and a few dozen of Carpato-Russian parishes -- separated from the Metropolia to form their own ethnically based independent units under over-seas Patriarchates. At the same time, various ethnic jurisdictions also emerged in America, on what had before been an uncontested canonical territory of the Russian diocese.


Russian church intelligentsia

Albeit self-governing, the Russian Metropolia remained very provincial, ill-suited to express itself theologically, in a truly catholic Orthodox way. Its theological muteness was gradually overcome as well-educated Russian Church intellectuals started coming from the post-war Europe to the US and formed the faculty of a local theological school – the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox seminary - while also joining the ranks of Church leadership among the clergy and episcopate of the Metropolia. Among them were Fr. George Florovsky, George Fedotov, Nicholas Arseniev, Nicholas Lossky and Alexander Bogolepov.  Although they landed in a small and obscure Orthodox seminary, Florovsky, Fedotov, Lossky, and Arseniev were among the initiators of the top Russian philosophical and theological culture of the 20th century, and the Seminary was not much longer obscure. Bogolepov,  Professor of Canon Law, who had been the first elected rector of St. Petersburg University, wrote a book pointing to autocephaly as the only feasible realistic solution for the Metropolia.[xii]

All of them were Russian-speaking authors who had been formed both intellectually and professionally, in and by the pre-revolutionary Russia, and who, after the Revolution, had lived in Europe for a long time. They came to America when they were already well advanced in years.  Fr. George Florovsky was the youngest among them, but even for him, English was, not the first, nor the second, but the third foreign language in which he had to function, teach, and write. That obstacle did not prevent any of these theologians and thinkers from leaving a noticeable intellectual trace in the US, and in the English-speaking world at large, especially in the area of Slavic studies. But St. Vladimir’s Seminary, under Fr. Florovsky’s tenure as Dean, remained an elite island, far removed from the main flock of the Metropolia. To this flock’s credit, though they were mainly English speakers, who did not share those few Russians’ intellectual interests, they accepted them and their endeavors with respect and gratitude.

Paradoxically, it was not their own Russian compatriots, but the English-speaking Carpatho-Russian Metropolia who invited this elite group from the war-torn and impoverished Europe, to staff and lead this Metropolia’s theological school, even when it was not capable to support its own seminary financially. That Orthodox seminary, at that time, was financed by the Episcopalian Church, and was sheltered in several apartments that belonged to the GTS, the Episcopalian seminary.

This state of affairs began to change when Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a young and energetic professor from St. Sergius’ Theological Institute in Paris, came to the US and joined the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Fr. John Meyendorff, Professor of Patristics and Schmemann’s successor as Dean of the Seminary,  wrote about Fr. Schmemann  in his obituary. “Perhaps Fr. Alexander’s most visible contribution to the life of St. Vlad.’s Seminary was that he managed to weave the theological school aspect into the very fabric of real Church life. Under him, the school ceased to be merely an academic institution, respected in ecumenical circles, yet detached from the life of actual dioceses and parishes.”[xiii]

Fr. Alexander used to tell me that, when he came to America from Paris where he had taught church history at St. Sergius Institute, he found an Orthodox desert here. Scattered over the huge territory of the US and Canada, having almost no communication among themselves, the Orthodox congregations lived each their own isolated lives, resembling local ethnic clubs. They felt as if they were self-sufficient, expressing no interests in anything beyond their parochial cares. Earning their bread by hard physical labor, these parishes came from the Uniate tradition, in which theological education and church leadership had been run and totally controlled by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and monastic clergy, without any participation of laity, or even parish clergy. These parishes therefore did not feel obliged to financially support Orthodox theological education, nor the central administration and general programs of the Metropolia.

Fr. Schmemann vividly described the living quarters the faculty and staff had occupied before the seminary moved, due to his efforts, to its own campus in Crestwood, NY. Professorial families huddled together in the central hall partitioned by curtains into cubicles, located in a big Episcopalian apartment, where St. Vladimir Seminary then ran its classes. Fr. Florovsky, its dean, did not even try to obtain any financing from his own Church but sent all the bills to the Episcopalians to pay. In order to change this situation and to involve the church at-large in supporting its own education, one had to overcome the abyss between the intellectual elite of the Seminary on the one hand, and theological and liturgical ignorance in actual parishes, on the other. Theological education had to become relevant for parish life. That was precisely what Fr. Schmemann started doing, traveling all over America giving lectures, showing that theology was indispensable, as it constitutes the self-awareness of the Church -- and that it therefore had to be open and appealing to everyone. He also stressed that Orthodox Church expressed her theological awareness in everyday Worship. He pointed out to the people of God that they did not need to travel to theology, they could find all in their Liturgy. Thus he gave birth to Liturgical Theology as we know it today.

It is not accidental that Fr. Schmemann, a church historian and Canon Law specialist by training and profession, here in America had chosen to teach liturgical theology. His life mission was to reveal that the main treasure of Orthodoxy lay in its Liturgy, where everybody else had been accustomed to see a tedious and ill-comprehensible “rite.”  Behind this “rite,” Schmemann pointed out the real presence of Christ who promised: “Where two or three gather in My name, I shall be there with them (Mt. 18:20).” It is in the Liturgy that the name Immanuel - which means God-With-Us (cf. Mt 1:23) - is realized and fulfilled through the Eucharistic communion of the faithful. Using Theology for the explication of the Liturgy, Fr. Schmemann began building bridges between academic theology and parish life, inviting all the people of God to participate in the Eucharist fully consciously.

The church’ gratitude and response to his invitation was striking. Circling American parishes with his lectures year after year, Fr. Schmemann rejoiced when he saw the responding light of understanding in the eyes of his listeners who followed him as he revealed the deep Christian meaning in the seemingly routine words of the Liturgy. Thus Schmemann succeeded to transmit the Lord’s invitation to His supper to all of the OCA. The “inexhaustible delight” of the Eucharist[xiv], turned into a whole Church’s modus vivendi.  It became the natural life of the OCA, and even started to overflow into Church life of other Orthodox believers. Schmemann widely popularized the Eucharistic revival conceived in the works of several Russian theologians at St. Sergius Institute in Paris. He developed it and let it become the ferment that would leaven the whole of the OCA, and thereby, the minds and hearts of believers in other jurisdictions, in America as well as in the Orthodox mentality at large.


Metropolitan Nicodim and the Tomos of Autocephaly

Metropolitan Nicodim had the insight to recognize in Fr. Schmenann, and the church Schmemann represented, the living and dynamic force that now sprang in Orthodoxy as something much larger than mere “Shards of Byzantium.”  It could and would enliven Orthodoxy as Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ “Who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Heb. 13:8) as Fr. Schmeman used to emphasize after St. Paul. Having recognized that dynamism, Nikodim saw it as his task to take this American jurisdiction from under a tub, and put it on the lampstand, for it to shine on everyone in the house - like the proverbial lamp in the Gospel (Mt. 5:15). Once Metropolitan Nikodim pushed it, the episcopate of the Russian Church approved the project of the Tomos of Autocephaly for the American Metropolia. Patriarch Alexii I, well advanced in years, unable to convene a council, asked the bishops to respond to the proposal in writing. The majority of bishops wrote letters in support of the Tomos.[xv]

Through the Tomos of Autocephaly, the Russian Church elevated the Russian Metropolitan district in America, making it one of the lamps in the temple of World Orthodoxy. This immediately provoked what Fr. Schmemann called “a significant storm”: “The storm aroused by the autocephaly of the OCA is, perhaps, the most significant crisis of Orthodox Church history for several centuries.”[xvi]

Despite this crisis, or rather because of it, Orthodoxy all of a sudden emerged as “Aaron’s rod that budded (Heb.9:4)”, and the OCA started to attract Americans like a magnet.  Other Orthodox jurisdictions, non-Orthodox congregations, monasteries, organizations, and even whole national churches, like an Old-Catholic Church in Mexico, joined the OCA.

Fr. Schmemann outlived Metropolitan Nikodim by several years. Both had a chance to see how the OCA was doing, for nearly a decade, more or less. Forty years later, in a radically changed world, we can appreciate their foresight. Communist regimes fell everywhere, and Orthodox churches, viewed as guardians of ethnic cultural traditions and thus guarantors of national unity, were catapulted from their humble state into the position of power and influence in their respective countries. Meanwhile, America continues to attract new waves of Eastern Orthodox immigrants and visitors. They join their respective ethnic Orthodox communities in the US and Canada, breathing new life into them. They also strengthen the ties of these communities with their home churches, countries and their governments. But this means that divisions among the overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions have only increased in America, after the fall of Communism.

What happens if the autocephaly of the OCA is abolished? The OCA, culturally composed from heterogeneous parts, would fall apart, fragmented into these parts – i.e., again, some “Shards of Byzantium.” Those fragments of the former OCA, following their natural inclinations, will join their respective ethnic Patriarchates, supported by their national governments, with their state resources. These governments, with no Iron Curtain around, are seeking to strengthen their connection with their respective diasporas overseas, especially in America, in order to control them and profit from them as much as possible, materially, most of all. No wonder that, if the autocephaly is abolished, the Rumanian, Bulgarian, or Albanian dioceses of the former OCA will join their respective ethnic jurisdictions! American converts, most likely, would join the Antiochian Archdiocese, the most open and the most English-speaking among the various ethnic jurisdictions. The Rusyns who have made the bulk of the OCA, would join the small Carpatho-Russian diocese under Constantinople. Instead of the former OCA, there probably will remain yet another “Shard of Byzantium,” a handful of undecided parishes. But as of now, elevated by the Tomos of Autocephaly above all ethnic jurisdictions as the American local Orthodox Church and the model for the unity of the Orthodox in this continent, the OCA keeps overcoming all these centrifugal tendencies, and shines over America like a church lamp  – also a standing monument to Fr. Schmeman and Metropolitan Nikodim.

Pyccкий вариант

[i] Fr. John Meyendorf, “Life Abundant”, Alexander Schmemann, Dnevniki 1973-1983. M.: Russkii Put’, 2005, 660.

[ii] Arch. Vladislav Tsypin, prot., Istoriia Russkoi tserkvi (1917-1997), Istoria Russkoi Tserkvi, M: Izdatel’stvo Spaso-preobraghenskogo Valaamskogo monastyria, 1997, T. IX, 602-3.

[iii] Prot. Alexander Schmemann, Dnevniki, 1973-1983, Moskva: Russkii Put’, 2005, 434-435.

[iv] Smolitch, I.K., “Istoriia Russkoi Tserkvi, 1700-1917” in Istoriia Russkoi Tserkvi, T. VIII, gl.2, Izdatel’stvo Spaso-Preobrazhenskogo Valaamskogo Monastyria, 1997, 274.

[v] Smolich, Op. Cit, 274.

[vi] See Keith P. Dyrud, The Quest for the Rusyn Soul: The Politics of Religion and Culture in Eastern Europe and America, 1890 – World War I, Philadelphia: The  Balch Institute Press, 1992, 33.

[vii] Arch. Platon (Rozhdestvensky), “The Program Speech at the Diocesan Assembly of Clergy,” APV, May 1914, #10, 197.

[viii] Kartashov, A,V., Ocherki po istorii russkoy tserkvi, Paris: YMCA-Press, 1959, v. II, 288.

[ix] Tikhon (Belavin), Archbishop, “Khod soveshchanii na pervom sobore Severo-Americanskoy Pravoslavnoy Tserkvi,” February 1907, APV, Vol.XI, March 1907, # 5, 83.

[x] See Nicholas Ferencz, American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006.

[xi] Metr. Sergius opposed Russian embassy churches under the Petrograd diocesan bishop with missions, established by the Russian Church, such as missions in America, China and Japan, “that developed into self-reliant dioceses, and then even into churches”. Prof. Troitsky added his own commentary: “Metr. Sergius  evidently calls these missions “churches, because they have all necessary conditions  for establishing independent government, as they had several bishops who could form the church’s council.”  Prof. Troitsky, S. (Subbotitsa, Yugoslavia), “ O Kanonicheskom ustroistve tsentral’nogo upravlenia Russkoi Tserkvi v Amerike. Ob’iasnitel’naia zapiska” (On Canonical order of the central government of the Russian church In America) Explanatory Note. (1929, X, 24);  (APV, Americanskii Pravoslavnyi Vestnik, March, 1930. #3, 66-68).


[xii] Alexander Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001. Pp. 130. (First published in 1963).

[xiii] Fr. John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 28, 1984, pp.3-10.

[xiv] A paraphrase of Osip Mandelshtam’s poem frequently cited by Fr. Schmemann:

And the eucharist lasts like an eternal noon-

All partake, all play and sing,

And in sight of all the divine vessel

Streams with inexhaustible delight.”

Cf. also Olga Meerson, “Liturgical Heritage of Fr. Alexander Schmemann,” St. Vlad’s Quarterly, Vol.53, nos. 2-3, 2009, 365.

[xv] I received this information from Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, the head of the OCA Department of External Affairs.  Fr. Leonid heard it from His Eminence Peter (Hullier), Archbishop of New York and New Jersey, his late superior in this office, who at the time of the discussion around the Tomos, was the bishop of Western-European Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, and participated in this council of bishops by correspondence. He said to Fr. Kishkovsky that the overall attitude to the Autocephaly in the Russian Episcopate was positive.

[xvi] Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Znamenatel’naya buria”,  Schmemann, Sobranie Statey, 1947-1983, Edited by E. Iu. Dorman, Moskva-Russkii Put’, 2009, 550. First published in “Vestnik Russkogo Zapadno-Evropeiskogo Patriarshego Ekzarkhata, Paris, 1971, #75-76.