V. Rev. Michael A. Meerson
The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which developed and grew on the North American continent, is the youngest autocephalous church in the family of Orthodox churches. It is unique among Orthodox churches insofar as it is unhampered by either political pressures or specific ethnic customs; it speaks and conducts its services in English language. It is also the only conciliar (soborny) Orthodox Church that is run by regularly (every three years) convened councils, in which all hierarchs, clergy and the lay representatives of all parishes participate. It also offers the only viable model for unifying other Orthodox bodies (jurisdictions) America. It numbers more than two hundred years of uninterrupted church tradition and church organization on North American continent.
Orthodox missionary work was started in Alaska even before the American colonies began to fight for independence. The territory, once discovered, was inundated with Russian traders and developers who brought with them their own confession to share it with the native population. (1) John Ledyard, a member of an expedition to Alaska, led by the famous seafarer captain James Cook, wrote in his journal in 1776 that the expedition had come across a Russian colony of about five hundred people in Unalaska. They heard the Russians, Aleuts, and natives of Kamchatka sing evening prayers in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. (2)
The government of Empress Catherine the Great, famous for its colonizing ambitions, responded to the appeal of the developers for cultural and religious colonization of Alaska, and in 1793 sanctioned the dispatch of the team of eight missionaries there. The team’s work was short-lived, however, and only one of them monk Herman remained in Alaska. (3) Herman stayed among Aleuts for the rest of his life. For forty three years, until his death, he preached the Gospel, taught the Orthodox faith and cared for the flock he gathered around him. In 1970, the year of its autocephaly, the OCA canonized him as its patron saint. (4)
Herman of Alaska laid the foundation for the local Alaskan church, which was build up by another Russian missionary, Innocent Veniaminov. He lived in Alaska from 1824 to 1858, serving for fifteen years as a missionary priest and for twenty-two years as a missionary bishop. (5) A man of many gifts, Innocent built a chapel with his own hands, founded a school, and set up a meteorological station. He learned the local dialect, and, as the natives had no written language, he created for it the alphabet by adapting Cyrillic letters, compiled a dictionary, and developed a grammar. Innocent subsequently translated the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into the written Aleutian language that he had himself designed, and wrote a catechism in it. He traveled all over Alaska by dogsled and by canoe, and, as the first educated explorer in Alaska, he was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences for his work on the ethnography of the region. (6)
The apostolic work of Innocent brought him to the attention of the Holy Synod and he was unanimously elected metropolitan of Moscow, the highest position in the Russian Orthodox Church before the reestablishment of the office of patriarch in 1917. Metropolitan Innocent welcomed the purchase of Alaska by the United States, considering it the opportunity for Orthodoxy to penetrate into the American society and culture. With this in mind, he proposed to transfer the bishop’s residence from Alaska to San Francisco, to appoint a bishop and bring in the clergy who would speak English, and to permit the Orthodox Church in the United States to conduct the liturgy and other services in English language. (7) Although he drafted a plan for the gradual conversion of the Russian diocese into a local church in America, it took a century for this plan to be realized. Metropolitan Innocent died in 1879, and was canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1977 on the recommendation of the OCA.
The Beginnings of Orthodoxy in the United States
Like other immigrants to America, Orthodox immigrants brought their confession with them. Arriving at the United States in the late nineteenth century, they were lucky to discover the existing church structure established here by the Russian Orthodox mission. In 1868 a multilingual parish, comprising Greeks, Russians, and Serbs, was founded in San Francisco and began to publish a newspaper under the title “The Slavyanin”. In 1870 a separate diocese of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands was formed, and soon afterwards the residence of the bishop was transferred to San Francisco. (8)
By 1870 Eastern Orthodoxy also reached the East Coast with Fr. Nicholas Bjerring preaching in New York City. Bjerring, a former Roman-Catholic professor who after the First Vatican Council in protest to its endorsement of the doctrine of papal infallibility had converted to Russian Orthodoxy, was ordained to the priesthood in St. Petersburg and sent to New York as an Orthodox missionary. Here he established a chapel in his residence and began to publish the Journal of the Eastern Church. With many friends in American social circles, among them the U.S. president Ulysses Grant, he contributed a great deal to introducing Eastern Orthodoxy to American intellectuals. In 1884 he collected all English translations of services that had appeared in his journal and published them as a separate book. (9)
Bjerring’s work, however, was rather an exception than a rule. By and large the Russian church was not prepared for Orthodox testimony in American society, where it found itself in unfamiliar political, cultural, and religious environment. The United States, with its personal liberty and initiative, freedom of belief, and absence of either state pressure on or state support of the church, was a legend even in Western Europe not to mention Russia. The difference in psychology and political awareness was intensified by the peculiar position held by the Russian Orthodox mission. The church mission was regarded by the clergy, and even more so by the imperial bureaucracy, as a religious emissary of the Russian Empire. The clergy and the bishops who had served abroad upon returning to Russia received their pensions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (10) This left a specific imprint on the mind of the clergy who considered their work abroad as a temporary mission of a diplomatic nature that was to terminate upon their return to Russia and be rewarded accordingly. The Holy Synod determined the terms of the Foreign Service for bishops, and the Tsar authorized the appointment of a bishop as a high-ranking church official. A bishop was not his own master. He could neither refuse his post, nor extend the duration of his service. Such a state of affairs could hardly help the clergy to become assimilated into American way of life. By the time a bishop had become familiar with local conditions, he was usually recalled to Russia. Moreover, by virtue of American democracy the new pattern of relationship between laity and hierarchy was developing that was radically different from that to which the Orthodox hierarchy was accustomed.
To begin with, American religious life was free of the concept of “sacred property”‹ the property that belonged to the church, was managed by bishops, and could not be sold or transferred into secular hands‹which was characteristic of the Russian Empire and other Orthodox countries. In the United States, church property belonged to religious congregation, and laity developed a unique sense of financial responsibility, self-reliance, and independence.
On the contrary, the church in Russia after the reforms of Peter the Great was bureaucratized and characterized by almost complete exclusion of the laity from church everyday business. The people had neither their own elected officers nor any control over finances and church property. Bishops were appointed and transferred by the Holy Synod and priests by bishops without any participation on the part of parishes. The social net-work in the Russian Empire was dominated by the principle of hierarchical structure of authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, starting with the emperor who was the “autocrat by God’s Will.”
A radically different state of affairs existed in the United States. Church buildings were bought and sold, and any community of the faithful was free to form a religious corporation, purchase property and take care of it without asking anyone for permission to do so. Moreover, Orthodox immigrants found themselves in a situation where open discussion of problems, free elections, constant control over their elected officials and finances constituted the way of life.
This new way of life could not but affect Orthodox immigrants who began organizing their church life on their own initiative, purchasing church property in the name of religious corporations they had formed themselves. The Russian Orthodox hierarchy was not particularly sympathetic toward this new development, which reduced its own role in church administration, but it was not able to prevent it. In fact, the constant flow of clergy and the frequent turnover among bishops only nurtured this new situation. (13)
one has to credit Russian hierarchy in America for its flexibility and willingness to assist those groups of Orthodox immigrants who turned to it for help. While the Greeks attempted to secure the independent church structures of their own, Slavic, Arabic, Romanian, and others congregations usually turned to the Russian bishop for blessing and guidance. The Russian bishop supplied antiminsions (14) and appointed priests who could serve either in their native tongue or in English. Since no other Orthodox church aspired to patronage over these disparate parishes, they found themselves, de facto, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, the attempts by the Greeks and Arabs in America to obtain priests from the patriarchs of Constantinople or Antioch, or from the Athens Synod, did not yield results. These administrations either lacked interest in the fate of their countrymen who had gone to America or did not want to tangle with the Russian Church that enjoyed the backing of the Russian Empire. (15)
Thus, due to the circumstances involved in undertaking the patronage of various ethnic groups, the Russian diocese was becoming the germ of a multiethnic American church. Even many Uniate (16)parishes transferred their affiliation to Orthodoxy through this diocese. While the Russian hierarchy accepted the state of affairs in which laity owned church property, the Roman-Catholic hierarchy in America refused to do so, fueling the conflict with the Uniate immigrants from the Eastern Europe. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century Carpatho-Russians, who had for several centuries belonged to the Uniate church but were accustomed to relative self-governance through their tradition of brotherhoods, immigrated to America in increasing numbers from the eastern regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before the arrival of these newcomers to America, the American Catholic diocese, consisting primarily of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, had not been acquainted with Uniates. Treating their different customs, such as allowing married priests and the use of the Byzantine rite, with distrust, the American Catholic hierarchy alienated the Uniate communities and their priests. Upset and discouraged by the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy, the Uniate parishes turned to the Russian bishop, requesting to be received into the Russian Orthodox diocese so that they may safe-guard their church property and preserve the self-administration of their parishes and their customs. The initiator of this movement was a Uniate priest Alexis Toth who convened the first conference of Hungarian priests in 1890 to discuss Uniate issues in America. The following year he and his parish joined the Russian diocese. This laid the groundwork for the return of Uniate parishes to Orthodoxy. Eighty of them joined the Russian diocese eventually. (17) The Uniates brought with them the tradition of self-administration and communal organization to which, in great measure, the OCA owes its very existence.
The Revival of Sobornost
It was Archbishop Tikhon (Vasilii Ivanovich Belavin, 1865-1925), subsequently to be elected the Patriarch of All Russia of the restored patriarchate, who consciously introduced the federal structure for organizing various ethnic groups within the territory of his diocese. Following his recommendation, the Russian Holy Synod elevated the American diocese to arch-diocese with vicar bishops for both the regional territories and the ethnic groups. Three dioceses were created: one for Alaska with the bishop’s seat in Sitka, another for the Syrian-Arab mission in Brooklyn, and the third for Canada. The deaneries for Serbian and Greek parishes were established, for which Tikhon began searching for Episcopal candidates. He planned that eventually these deaneries would evolve into dioceses within the structure of one American church. His next concern was the organization of theological education in the United States. He upgraded the existing missionary school in Minnesota converting it into a seminary. During his administration the translation of the basic Orthodox liturgical offices into English was published. His third and possibly most significant achievement was the revival of Orthodox sobornost by means of letting the spirit of American democracy into Orthodox life. Just prior to leaving the United States for a new assignment, Arch-bishop Tikhon convened the conference of Orthodox clergy in Mayfield, Pennsylvania. This convention launched the conciliar (soborny) history of the OCA. Starting with this convention, the American archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church began gradual-al restoration of the authentic tradition of Orthodoxy, which had disappeared from practice in other Orthodox churches.
Archbishop Tikhon thus laid the foundation for a multi-ethnical Orthodox federation in America, which he envisioned as an autonomous Orthodox Church that would be directed by a synod of bishops chaired by an actually independent hierarch, who would be a member of the ruling synod of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to one observer, “had this plan been effected before the war, so that there would already have existed such an autonomous Orthodox Church in America, then the political events in Europe would have little or no impact on the life of this Church, with the exception of strengthening its independence and unity. The sad disorganization and the disruptive division of the Church in America, resulting from European political events, would have been impossible.” (19) However, neither the Russian Church at that time was ready to grant autonomy to its American archdiocese, nor the archdiocese itself was ready, both financially and psychologically, to be autonomous or autocephalous.
Tikhon’s immediate successors in the American archdiocese lacked his vision; none of them nurtured the seeds of sobornost that he planted. The next council was convened only after the Russian Revolution, in 1919, and it was rather an extraordinary event necessitated by the vital need of saving the very organizational structure of the archdiocese. It was during the early years of the twentieth century that the ethnic Orthodox federation, which Tikhon had built into the framework of the Russian archdiocese, began falling apart. Russian hierarchs with their imperial mindset were accustomed to dealing condescendingly with other ethnic Orthodox groups, while the latter successfully adjusted to the conditions of American life and found themselves even better off than the Russians themselves due to their habits of self-reliance and ethnic communal self- support. The Russian leadership of the archdiocese, however, neither expressed strong and consistent interest in their affairs, nor understood their specific needs.
All this contributed to the birth of ethnic separatism within the church. This separatism produced a splintering into different ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in America only after the collapse of the Russian Empire, when the Russian Orthodox Church, suddenly subjected to severe repression by the Bolsheviks, was able neither to defend its jurisdictional rights nor to concern itself with other ethnic communities.
Tikhon’s direct successor, however, Archbishop Platon (Rozhdestvensky, 1907-14), launched a successful campaign among the Uniates to bring them into Orthodoxy. It was during his administration that the majority of Carpatho-Russian Uniate parishes joined the Russian archdiocese. He also founded Russian Immigrant society in New York City and started two periodicals: the Russian Immigrant (a daily) and the American Orthodox Messenger. (20)
At the beginning of the Russian Revolution the archdiocese of North America was one of sixty-four dioceses in the Russian Orthodox Church and numbered eighteenth in size. It consisted of five bishops, seven hundred parishes, and more than four hundred priests of various ethnic backgrounds. It also had five monasteries, one convent, and a seminary with seventy students. The diocese even planned to establish its own representative office in St. Petersburg. This plan among many others, was thwarted by the Revolution. (21)
The Russian Revolution and the Autonomy of the American Diocese
The fall of Russian autocracy started a new era in the life of the church, forcing it to reexamine the ecclesiastical and political premises of its activity. If the basic canonical structure of the church had been formed before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, all later developments in the Orthodox church went hand in hand with the empire‹at first the Byzantine Empire and later the Russian one. Beginning with Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who introduced into the church’s mind the monarchist concept that “the power of the emperor in the world is a reflection of God’s power in Heaven,” all the way to the last great ideologist and practitioner of the subjection of church to state, the ober-procurator of the Russian Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev who asserted that the autocratic rule of the emperor by virtue of its totality and indivisibility is the highest form of authority, the Orthodox Church not only lived in the grips of the empire‹whether Byzantine or Russian‹but also in an indissoluble spiritual bond with it. (22) Thus, at the turn of the twentieth century, when Russian society and even church educated leadership demanded radical political and ecclesiastical reforms, the bulk of church people through their two spokesmen later canonized, St. Theophan the Recluse and St. John of Kronstadt, proclaimed their loyalty to the Byzantine concept of a sacred kingdom and to the imperial autocracy. (23)
In its preliminary stages the Revolution greatly benefited the Russian Church in that the All-Russian church council (sobor) was finally convened. Although preparations for the council had been under way for some time (since the time of the Revolution of 1905-7 and the retirement of Pobedonostsev) and church officials were growing more adamant in their demand to convene the council, the tsarist government kept putting it off under various pretexts. Only the Provisional Government granted the permission to convene the council. The council, consisting of Orthodox bishops, clergy, and lay representatives, convened in Moscow in August 1917 under the Kerensky government. The council restored the patriarchate, elected the patriarch and outlined the new framework for administration of the church that was in accordance with church canons, the principles of Orthodox ecclesiology, and ancient Russian custom of people’s election of church leaders, consistently practiced in Novgorod and Pskov republics. This reform was based on the most ancient canonical principle: the election of pastors by the entire church, and it reinstated the organic place of laity in the body of the church. (24)
The North American archdiocese happened to play an important role at the All-Russian council through its two representatives: Fr. Alexander Kukulevsky and Fr. Leonid Turkevich. Fr. Kukulevsky was a member of the council committee for developing parish statutes. On his recommendation the committee adopted the 1909 Standard Statutes for Parishes of the North American Archdiocese as the basis for its draft. Fr. Turkevich nominated Metropolitan Tikhon Belavin, his former collaborator and superior in the American archdiocese, as a candidate for the office of the patriarch. Metropolitan Tikhon was elected the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. (25) Both delegates brought back to the United States the resolutions and spirit of the council. Kukulevsky then chaired the all-American sobor held in Cleveland in 1919, which was convened in a very difficult period for the diocese. Turkevich, later metropolitan Leontii, was at the head of the metropolia from 1950 to 1965.
The Bolshevik Revolution had catastrophic repercussions on the American diocese. All normal communications with the central church authorities were severed. The Moscow patriarchate was deprived of any access to international mail and telegraph communications, which were now monopolized by the new regime, and was cut off from its overseas dioceses and missions. Financial support ceased. Having survived on finances provided by the Holy Synod, the American archdiocese now found itself in a hopeless situation. Under these conditions one of the administering bishops, Evdokim, attempted to correct the situation by requesting that Serbian churches that joined the Russian archdiocese transfer the management of their church property to the bishop. Another bishop, Alexander Nemolovsky, Evdokim’s successor, started mortgaging parish properties that did not belong to the archdiocese№ administration. This policy resulted in anti-hierarchical revolt.
Observing a decline in authority, a schismatic Renovationist (26) faction sprang up. It was formed in New York City in 1917 under the leadership of a priest, John Kedrovsky. He engineered an attack on the leadership of the Russian diocese in an attempt to appropriate its administration for himself. An all-American sobor was convened in 1919 for the purpose of asserting diocesan authority. Shortly after that, Metropolitan Platon Rozhdestvensky returned to the United States. He had been appointed head of the American archdiocese by Patriarch Tikhon, who made this appointment verbally in the presence of Fr. Theodore Pashkovsky (later Metropolitan Theophilus, head of the American metropolia from 1935 to 1950) and Mr. Colton, chairman of the YMCA, who happened to be in Moscow at this time. Taking advantage of the situation of unrest and the absence of an official letter from the patriarch, Kedrovsky (who had become the pro-Soviet “Living Church’s” emissary to America and was passing himself off as the canonical archbishop of New York) commenced legal proceedings to appropriate diocesan church property. (27) As a result, the St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York City passed into the hands of the Living Church. These attempts by the Renovationists to destroy the American archdiocese and appropriate its church property on the one hand, and the disorder and lack of authority on the other, forced the hierarchy to convene the third all-American sobor in Detroit in 1924. The sobor affirmed Metropolitan Platon, renamed the archdiocese a metropolia, and proclaimed a provisional autonomy for the American metropolia until an all-Russian council could be convened by the ROC. The sobor also defined the structure of ecclesiastical authority: the metropolitan was the head of the metropolia and administrator of the church together with the synod of bishops and representatives from the clergy and lay people, who were to be elected from periodically convened all-American sobors.
The Detroit resolution that proclaimed autonomy and reestablished conciliar administration of the metropolia was ratified in accordance with the decree from Patriarch Tikhon, (28) which mandated diocesan bishops in the case of a breach in communications with the higher church authorities to take full charge of their dioceses and administer them with the help of the clergy. In accordance with this same patriarchal decree, a diocesan bishop was to divide his diocese into several dioceses, grant full rights to vicar bishops, and ordain new bishops, bearing in mind that at a later date, when central church authority is reinstated, these measures would be subject to ratification.
The sobor of Detroit obeyed the patriarchal decree, while being obviously not aware of the historical significance of such an act. The proclamation of autonomy was made at a time when the body of the American Orthodox church was beginning to break up into isolated, even hostile, ethnic and political jurisdictional factions. The disorder in the church that followed the revolution in Russia, the absence of uncontested authority, financial problems, and the level of political catastrophe‹all this distracted the Russian hierarchy of the American metropolia from attending to a pressing concern for other ethnic groups that remained under its jurisdiction. The previously existing authority of the Russian Empire, which had backed the Russian hierarchy, had kept the various ethnic groups together, but with the fall of this authority, all leanings toward ethnic separatism came to the surface, spawning the creation of a number of Orthodox jurisdictions.
As the famous church leader and Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann pointed out, during the last several centuries the Orthodox Church had experienced a disintegration of its catholic mind. The autocephaly of the church came to be understood in the sense of ethnic consciousness or as an appurtenance of statehood. Although the principle of territorialism remained in force and in theory continued to be the canonical norm, in practice it acquired over time ethnic dimension. (29) While the Orthodox lived in their own countries, they be-longed to their own respective national churches. But with the beginning of mass emigration and the creation of ethnic enclaves in other countries, the national-political principle came into conflict with the principle of territorialism under the conditions of Diaspora.
The Diaspora showed, according to Schmemann, that the national churches, in effect, became “religious projections of a given people or, even a given state.” And if “the Orthodox church degenerated into a federation of national churches, whose interrelationships were built similarly to relationships between sovereign states” (30) (i.e., on the principle of “noninvolvement” in each other’s affairs and protection of one’s own rights), then the Orthodox Diaspora was also being built on the concept of independent ethnic jurisdictions, each representing a small member of that church community, the head and body of which are located on other continents. Along with communist regimes, the last 75 years have brought a division of Orthodoxy on political grounds and led to a separation of already existing ethnic churches into hostile jurisdictions. By the time the Orthodox church in America was formed in 1970, Orthodoxy in America existed in the following divided condition: “one Greek jurisdiction, three Russian, two Serbian, two Antiochian, two Romanian, two Albanian, two Bulgarian, three Ukrainian, one Carpatho-Russian, and several smaller jurisdictions.” (31) The history of other Orthodox ethnic jurisdictions is not the subject of this study since they detached themselves from the Russian archdiocese after the Russian revolution. Some of them grew into sizable church organizations far exceeding the OCA in numbers, and today they continue to live their own life. (32)Various Orthodox jurisdictions in America recognize, however, many disadvantages in their lack of unity and keep looking for some solutions to this problem. In 1960 they established a kind of synod of bishops for the purpose of discussion and planning of joint ventures. This body, called The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in Americas (SCOBA), chaired by the head of the Greek Archdiocese as the largest among Orthodox jurisdictions, meets twice a year to discuss and implement a joint stand on ecumenical matters, mission, charity and education.
The Struggle of the Metropolia in Defense of Its Autonomy
After Detroit proclamation of a provisional autonomy, facing many new problems, like the growing immigrant population, the simultaneous emerging of parallel Russian and other ethnic jurisdictions, the American metropolia began developing its own self-awareness as a local church. In this period, historical surveys and research were undertaken. Church officials were struggling to preserve the independence of the metropolia from the divisions that were tearing the church apart, both in Russia and abroad. Two foreign branches of the Russian Orthodox church: the American exarchate of the Moscow patriarchate, which came into being in the 1930s, and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, for several decades challenged and threatened the metropolia. Both encroached upon it by attempting to deprive it of its independence or, at least, to impose their own conditions.
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was created at a meeting of emigrant Russian bishops in Yugoslavia in 1923. The meeting took place in the small town of Sremski Karlovci (from which the church’s other name, the “Karlovci church,” is derived) and was held under the patronage of the Serbian patriarch. Having been created as a temporary ecclesiastical administration for Russian emigrants, the Karlovci synod proclaimed itself the national Russian church in Diaspora. (33) The synod took a restorationist stand on political matters, calling for the reinstatement of the house of Romanov, and thus placed the patriarch of Moscow and all church in Russia in a dangerous position. In May 1922, even before the Karlovci meeting took place, Patriarch Tikhon had officially decreed that hierarchs who had emigrated for political reasons had no right to speak on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, that their statements did not represent the “official voice of the Russian Orthodox Church, due to their political nature,” and did “not have ecclesiastical-canonical significance.” (34) After the meeting at Sremski Karlovci, the patriarch issued a decree that categorically and explicitly dismissed the ecclesiastical administration established there. He simultaneously passed on the administration of all Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe to Metropolitan Evlogii, who was residing in Paris. (35)
However, the Synod of Bishops outside Russia declared that the Patriarch and the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Soviet Russia were paralyzed, at best, and, at worst, actively cooperating with the atheist government. The Karlovci synod demanded subordination from Metropolitan Evlogii, the head of the exarchate in Western Europe, and from Metropolitan Platon, the head of the American metropolia, both of whom had been appointed by Patriarch Tikhon. The synod also demanded that Platon nullify the autonomy, ratified by the Detroit sobor. These demands forced both Platon and Evlogii to leave the Synod and break all relations with it. To this action the Synod responded by creating parallel jurisdictions in Europe and America. In the United States the Synodal church grew into a more or less sizable jurisdiction only after the World War II, beginning with the end of the 1940s. Before that time, it was the Moscow patriarchate that presented the greatest threat to the metropolia.
After the death of Patriarch Tikhon under obscure circumstances in 1925 and the arrest of the three interim administrators designated by the Patriarch in his will, the Soviet authorities selected Metropolitan Sergii Stragorodsky, who was the substitute for the third locum tenens. After spending some time in a Soviet jail, under obvious pressure from the GPU (secret police), he agreed to what may have been an unavoidable compro-mise with the regime and slowly but surely surrendered the independence of the church. (36) Shortly after ecclesiastical authority was consolidated in Metropolitan Sergii’s hands, he succumbed to the pressure of the regime and began attempting to spread Moscow’s ecclesiastical authority over the centers of Russian Orthodoxy abroad: the Western European exarchate and the American metropolia. The obvious reason for this action was the Soviet government’s desire to gain influence over the masses of political refugees living in Europe and America.
Already in 1928 Metropolitan Sergii demanded Metropolitan Platon to sign the pledge of nonparticipation in political activities directed against the Soviet regime. The demand was repeated in 1933. After the American metropolia declined to sign such a pledge, the Moscow church administration sent a bishop to the United States in order to establish Russian exarchate there, and issued an interdiction against Metropolitan Platon. In the 1930s, however, the influence exerted by this exarchate in America was minor. But the pressure from the Moscow patriarchate continued even during the administration of Platon’s successor, Metropolitan Theophilus. The latter was elected in 1934 at the Cleveland sobor, which ratified the total administrative independence of the metropolia and gave it the right to elect independently its own leader. In response to this decision of the sobor, the Moscow patriarchate issued in 1935 an interdiction against Metropolitan Theophilus as well – barring his repentance. (37)
Theophilus attempted to consolidate the various Russian Orthodox groups in America. He succeeded in concluding an alliance with the Karlovci jurisdiction and the independent Carpatho-Russian diocese. The bishops, clergy, and parishes from these groups joined the metropolia, headed by Theophilus, under the condition that the latter preserved her autonomy. The sixth all-American sobor of 1937 ratified this status of reunification. The union of Russian Orthodox churches in the United States continued until World War II. At the beginning of the war there were in the American metropolia 400,000 faithful and 330 parishes, divided into eight dioceses. (38) The war period proved to be a new phase in the growth of the metropolia’s self-awareness as a territorial church. In 1943 the first Orthodox chaplain was appointed from among the clergy of the metropolia to the armed forces. In 1944 the metropolia celebrated 150 years of Orthodoxy in America, which was brought here by Russian missionaries and had put down strong roots.
In the war the United States and the USSR were allied against the common enemy. After two decades of bloody terror, under the pressure from the allies the Soviet government acknowledged the church, reinstated the patriarchy, permitted the election of a patriarch, and allowed a certain semblance of religious freedom. The election of Metropolitan Sergii as patriarch in September 1943 radically changed the relationship between the USSR and its allies.
Taking advantage of the rise in pro-Soviet feelings and the great deal of publicity they were getting, Metropolitan Veniamin, the exarch of the Moscow patriarchate, began a campaign of active propaganda among the American Orthodox to force the metropolia to enter under Moscow authority, especially since the primary reason for the separation‹the persecution of the church‹had now “ceased to exist.” Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which had met in October 1943 in Nazi-occupied Vienna, condemned the election of the patriarch.
Sergii’s successor, Patriarch Aleksii, elected in 1945, again demanded subordination from the metropolia and again received a refusal from her synod of bishops. The seventh all-American sobor ratified the autonomy of the metropolia. As a result of his failure to obtain the subordination of the metropolia, Patriarch Aleksii in 1947 repeated the old interdiction and extended it against all the bishops of the metropolia. As with all previous interdictions, the last one had no noticeable effect on the life of the metropolia. The end of the 1940s was generally marked by a radical decline in influence of the patriarchal exarchate on the American Orthodox. The resurgence of Stalin’s repressions in 1948 and the beginning of the cold war brought a natural end to this influence.
Yet this period saw the growth of a dividing influence from the Karlovci jurisdiction, which proved to be far more harmful and of more lasting duration. After the fall of Nazi Germany, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) moved its headquarters from Munich to New York, without obtaining any approval from the administration of the American metropolia. With the second immigration from the USSR – war prisoners, participants of the Vlasov movement, all those who managed to escape from the Soviet Union – the ROCA, which had been stressing its anti-Soviet politics and its Russian nationalism, began to grow rapidly and soon spread across the United States and Canada. (39) After the Moscow Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the metropolia and the latter turned into the Orthodox Church in America, the ROCA broke communion with the OCA. (40)
Despite the apparently vast irreconcilability of their ecclesiological positions, the Moscow patriarchate and ROCA had much in common. From the synodical epoch they both inherited a feeling of dependence upon the state rule and were both imbued with the spirit of imperial power. They both conceived the life of the church only under patronage of the state. They both are conservative in their theology and liturgical life, both fear any reforms or renewal. The very spirit of novelty and theological creativity frightened both the synod and the patriarchate. And yet, owing more to creative efforts in theological and ecclesiastical awareness than to church diplomacy, the American metropolia was able to become a territorial autocephalous church.
The Theological Basis for the American Territorial Church
From the middle of the 19th century an awakening began among Russian Orthodox intellectuals, focused on discovering the role of Eastern Orthodoxy in the history of Christendom and in contemporary world. It was also focused on a reflection about the nature of the church in reaction to the grievous condition of the ROC under the rule of an imperial autocracy. Started by the Slavophiles Kireevsky and Khomyakov and continued, first, by Vladimir Solovyov and, later, by a constellation of twentieth-century Russian religious thinkers, this theological revival gradually attracted wide circles of church officials and laid the groundwork for ecclesiastical reforms and revival. But Orthodox ideas were not fated to bear fruit in Russia. Together with normal ecclesiastical life, the Revolution disrupted the natural development of Orthodox theology.
This development, however, was able to continue in exile. Its center became the St. Sergius Institute in Paris, which has been called “the first truly free Russian theological seminary in history,” (42) and where the luminaries of Russian theological thought gathered. Among its many theological subjects, the institute was innovative in the field of ecclesiology. Under the influence of Fr. Bulgakov, his former teacher, Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev, a professor at the institute, developed the “Eucharistic” teaching on the church. (43) According to his research, the concept of “catholicity” did not signify for the early Christians a geographical expansion of the church, but rather her ontological omnipresence, which is realized in each liturgy, in each Eucharistic celebration presided over by a bishop, surrounded by the clergy and the faithful people of God. Where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is Christ and the church of the saints, in which the fullness of the “ecumenical” or “catholic” church is given. A bishop’s blessing is first and foremost a blessing to celebrate the Eucharist. It is from this blessing that stems the right to sanctify, to ordain priests as Eucharistic delegates of the bishop, and deacons as ministers of the territorial church. For this reason the full-ness of apostolic charisma is present in each bishop, and, in this sense, all bishops are equal. The names “metropolia” or “patriarchate” do not refer to the catholic nature of the church, but to her geopolitical and demographic features. Thus the patriarch or metropolitan of each territorial church is not so much placed over the church, as he is considered first among equals in the hierarchy of the episcopacy.
This concept, rooted in the liturgical and canonical practice and theory of Orthodoxy, laid the groundwork for overcoming the jurisdictional approach, by which the bishop of a geographically larger diocese, or of a more important administrative center (metropolitan or patriarch), has power over bishops of smaller dioceses. Thus Eucharistic ecclesiology replaced the jurisdictional concept of the church as an institution headed by hierarchs.
The ecclesiological teachings of Fr. Afanasiev, however, did not immediately bear fruit in reality. It took many years of inculcating this ecclesiastical awareness in the hierarchy and the people before it began to shape the life of the church. Two theologians, Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. John Meyendorff, both students of Afanasiev and then young faculty members at the St. Sergius Institute in Paris, turned this theology into practical ecclesiology during their pastoral and teaching activity in the United States. Both taught at St. Vladimir seminary, the American graduate school of Orthodox theology, and led this school as its deans, Schmemann in 1962-1983, Meyendorff in 1983-1992.
Fr. Schmemann achieved the implementation of Eucharistic ecclesiology in the process of liturgical revival that he himself initiated in American Orthodox church and vigorously carried out throughout the fruitful years of his life and work as a professor and the dean of a theological school. He started with the deep conviction that liturgical worship is the essence of church life in Orthodoxy and that the Orthodox cannot take the full advantage of it without, first, understanding the meaning of liturgy, and, second, without the regular participation in the Eucharist as the very core of the liturgy. Through his widely read books on liturgical theology, his talks and sermons, and his administrative activity that also made possible the publication of numerous handy service books in English language, he succeeded in bringing the understanding of the Orthodox liturgy down to the grass-root level. Thanks to his labors, the treasure of Orthodox liturgical tradition, hidden for centuries even in Orthodox cultures, became transparent for English speaking worshippers and readers. His second great achievement was the gradual transforming of the community of the faithful of the Russian Orthodox metropolia in America into the body of communicants. He looked to achieve the task of restoring to the laity the place of the people of God in Orthodox Church through the overcoming the century-old borderline that divided the clergy who had to receive communion at every Divine Liturgy from the laity who just attended it. Under his influence the ancient practice of regular communion of all the faithful was gradually introduced into the life of the Orthodox Church in America, which in this respect became the model for other Orthodox jurisdictions in America and other Orthodox churches oversees.
Fr. Meyendorff carried the same task with the rigor of a scholar, professor, theologian and journalist. As the editor of St. Vladimir Theological Quarterly he brought the latter to the level of widely respected academic publication, a truly catholic mouthpiece of Orthodox scholarship. For decades he represented contemporary Orthodox theology in the international community of Patristic scholars, and the OCA in the family of Orthodox churches. It was Fr. Meyendorff who brought from his visit to Constantinople the recognition by the Ecumenical patriarch of the “self-governing church” status for the OCA. Under the guidance of Fr. Schmemann and Fr. Meyendorff, St. Vladimir Seminary became the world-known center of Orthodox graduate education and scholarship. However, their own activity was possible because the seminary after the II World War managed to assemble the cream of Russian intellectual elite coming from Europe. Such luminaries of Russian theology as Fr. Georges Florovsky, George Fedotov, Nicholas Lossky, Nicholas Arseniev, and Alexander Bogolepov (the last elected rector of the free Petersburg University) came to America to teach at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
Toward an American Orthodox Church, written by Bogolepov, the seminary professor of canon law, became the practical application of Eucharistic ecclesiology. (44) Its thesis was as follows: inasmuch as the fullness of the church is where the bishop, as head of a church community, celebrates the Eucharist, and three bishops of a given region must be present at the ordination of another bishop (since according to Orthodox canons, it is necessary to have three bishops to ordain a fourth), it follows that any church district that has three dioceses, with a minimum of three bishops, and a theological seminary for educating the clergy, could be considered ecclesiastically self-sufficient and in this sense ready for autocephaly or self-administration. The problem of autocephaly does not lie in ecclesiastical authority but in ecclesiastical self-sufficiency.
In the American metropolia the presence of six bishops who could ordain new bishops, as well as the existence of theological seminaries to educate the clergy, meant that the American church had the practical prerequisites for autocephaly. The practical application of the principles of Eucharistic theology has given the metropolia its ecclesiastical-canonical basis for demanding legal recognition of its independence, which it was constrained to proclaim in 1924, and then to defend. The request for autocephaly was finally presented in a discussion with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate.
The Proclamation of Autocephaly by the Orthodox Church in America
As a result of negotiations, the Moscow patriarchate arrived at the conclusion that granting autocephaly to the American metropolia was only a matter of time, since it had already been independent, i.e., de facto autocephalous, and its return under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate impossible. That the Kremlin did not obstruct this act by Moscow patriarchate may be attributable to the relative political uncertainty that prevailed in the early years of the Brezhnev regime.
Hence, the Moscow patriarchate granted autocephaly to the American metropolia in April 1970. Patriarch Aleksii signed the Tomas of autocephaly six days before his death. A delegation led by Theodosius, the bishop of Alaska, went to Moscow to accept the document after the death of Patriarch Aleksii. That same year the fourteenth all-American sobor of the metropolia convened and officially proclaimed its autocephaly, taking the name Orthodox Church in America. This sobor thus became the first council convened by the territorial American Orthodox church. The birth of the OCA caused a great furor in the American Orthodox Diaspora, with its ethnic jurisdictions, and in the entire Orthodox world. (45) However, several church groups in America, such as Albanian, Bulgarian, and Romanian dioceses have chosen to join the OCA, while preserving their ethnic character. Their bishops became members of the synod of the OCA.
Most Orthodox churches, those who acknowledge the right of the mother church (in this case the Russian church) to grant the self-governing status to its daughter-church, welcomed the OCA, as a newly born autocephalous church, into their family. But the patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Greek patriarchates of Jerusalem and Alexandria, that closely ally with it, have refused to acknowledge the “autocephaly” of the OCA on the alleged ground that the exclusive right to grant or withdraw autocephaly to or from any local Orthodox church belongs to the patriarchate of Constantinople. The latter, however, maintains communion with the OCA, and actually agrees to acknowledge its “self-governing” status, resisting merely to apply the technical term “autocephalous” to it. But since the “self-governing” is the English translation of the Greek word “autocephaly” (to be self-headed, or self-governed), this acknowledgement amounts to the actual recognition. Thus, the OCA practically enjoys acceptance and equality in the family of Orthodox churches today.
The Orthodox Church in America Today
From the middle of the 1950s the Russian metropolia entered into the accelerating process of Americanization. English became the official language of all its publications, academic endeavors, and liturgy. The awareness of the new generation of the faithful and the clergy was turned toward missionary work. Since the mid-1950s there has also been a rising flow of Americans converting to Orthodox Christianity. This flow has increased significantly since 1970 and the grant of autocephaly, which opened the doors of Orthodoxy not only to individual persons but also to ecclesiastical communities: parishes and monasteries. Even the entire Old Catholic diocese in Mexico converted to Orthodoxy and joined the OCA. On the basis of this diocese, a Mexican exarchate of the OCA was created. A survey of five hundred OCA members who had converted to Orthodoxy in the thirty years between 1950 and 1980 showed that about 60 percent of those who joined the OCA did that according to the degree that the OCA as a territorial church, became known to American society. (46) Thus the establishing of a territorial church opened the doors of Orthodoxy to Americans, who converted from other religious and cultural traditions, or came from atheism or secular background.
There are presently fourteen dioceses in the OCA, of which eleven are territorial and three are ethnic: the Albanian, the Romanian, and the Bulgarian; one is a foreign exarchate‹the Mexican diocese; the others are individual parishes in Australia and Latin America. (47) The leader of the church is the metropolitan, who is the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and metropolitan of all America and Canada. He is elected by the council of the OCA and administers the church between councils together with a synod of bishops and the metropolitan council, comprising both clergy and laity. According to an ancient rule, the synod of bishops meets twice a year in spring and autumn.
The present primate of the OCA Metropolitan Jonah (born James Paffhausen) is a native-born American and the first convert to Orthodoxy to become the head of American local church. The OCA is the fifteenth autocephalous Orthodox Church in the world. It enjoys the freedom, which the American democratic system of religious organization secures and is administered, according to Orthodox norms, by regularly convening councils (which now meet every three years), attended by bishops, clergy, and lay delegates.
The OCA has the self-awareness of American local church. In 1994 it celebrated its 200 years on American soil. It is significant that at the historical meeting of SCOBA in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, (November 30 December 2, 1994), the hierarchs of eleven Orthodox jurisdictions in America subscribed to this 200-year history, while launching appeal for administrative unity of all Orthodox Christians in this country. The twenty eight bishops, gathered at their Ligonier Conference, called themselves “the Episcopal Assembly of the Orthodox Church in North America,” thus underlying the fundamental unity of Orthodox church behind the jurisdictional division. In their declaration that reflected the mind of the OCA, the bishops stated that the American Orthodox can no longer consider themselves as merely an Orthodox Diaspora, that the church is “neither museum for historical nostalgia, nor an archeological site,” but faces the challenge of witnessing the truth of Orthodoxy in and for American society. Due to their responsibility before their own flocks and jurisdictions and their loyalty to their respective patriarchates oversees, the bishops could not acknowledge the OCA as the model of unity in America, but they nevertheless subscribed to the ecclesiology to which OCA witnesses not merely in theological teaching but by its very existence. Although the way to the unity of all Orthodox in America will presumably be long and trying, the OCA makes it possible by opening its own doors. Its very structure enables other church groups and dioceses to enter it without violating their own organizations and traditions and enjoy the advantage of conciliar procedure and election of all officers of the church starting with its head, the primate.
(1) Pavel Vasil’evich Shkurkin, “Pervye Russkie na Aliaske,” in Yubileyny sbornik v pamiat’ 150-letia Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Severnoi Amerike (New York: Ed. Yubi-leynoi Komissii Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Severnoi Amerike, 1944), Vol. i, p. 25; and Barbara Smith, Orthodoxy and Native Americans: The Alaska Mission (Crestwood, N.Y.:St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), pp. 7-9.
(2) Bishop Gregory, “Tserkov’ na Alaske posle dvukhsot let,” in Ezhegodnik Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Amerike (New York: oca Press, 1976), p. 26.
(3) Orthodox America, 1794-1976 (New York: OCA Press, 1975), p. 15.
(4) “Zhizn’ valaamskogo monakha Germana,” in Yubileyny sbornik, Vol. i, pp. 48-51.
(5) A detailed biography of St. Innocent can be found in Paul Garrett, St. Innocent, Apostle to America (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979).
(6) Dmitry Grigorieff, “Materialy k biografii mitropolita Innokentiya Veniaminova,” in Ezhegodnik Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Amerike (New York: oca Press, 1977), p. 43.
(7) Ibid., pp. 44-45.
(8) Orthodox America, pp. 3334.
(9) Ibid., pp. 4041.
(10) Alexander Padlo, Clergy and Laity in OCA (Master of divinity thesis, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1970), p.13.
(12) See Anton Kartashov, Ocherki po istorii Russkoi Tserkvi (Paris: ymca Press, 1959), Vol. 2, pp. 44851 and 45364.
(13) Padlo, Clergy and Laity, pp. 914.
(14) Antiminsion is a square piece of silk or linen cloth containing relics and bearing the signature of a ruling bishop. In the Orthodox church, priests are their bishop’s delegates and the signed antiminsion certifies that a community and its priest are canonical. Therefore, no liturgical celebration is possible without an antiminsion.
(15) John Matusiak, Orthodox Church in America following the Russian Revolution, 19171922 (Master of divinity thesis, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1975), pp. 29-32.
(16) Uniate churches are former Orthodox churches which accepted the authority and doctrine of the Roman Church but retained their respective liturgical languages, rites, and customs, such as the married clergy.
(17) “The ‘Unia’ and the Return to Orthodoxy,” in Orthodox America, pp. 4346.
(18) Padlo, Clergy and Laity, pp. 13-19.
(19) Matusiak, Orthodox Church, p. 93.
(20) See Orthodox America, pp. 127-28, 13334.
(21) Sergei Troubetskoi, “Iz istorii Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Amerike,” in Ezhegodnik Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Amerike (1977), pp. 8385.
(22) See Constantin Pobedonostsev, Reflections of a Russian Statesman, Trans. Robert Crozier Long (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965), pp. 254, 27-28, 32-58.
(23) For Theophan the Recluse, the most popular Russian spiritual writer of the second part of the nineteenth century, all political philosophy begins with the tsar, who is appointed by God and represents the head of the whole body of society. Every member of the society must be related to the tsar, “to show him silent obedience in everything, because he pronounces the will of God, to cling to him with thankful love.” All governmental institutions and persons are “the arms, the legs, and the eyes of the Czar.” See Theophan the Recluse, Put’ ko Spaseniu: (Nachertania christianskogo nravouchenia), 2.d ed. (Moscow: Erimov, 1895), pp. 514-18.
(24) Dimitry Pospielovsky, The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime, 19171982 (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), Vol. i, pp. 2531.
(25) Yubileyny Sbornik, p. 285.
(26) For a detailed account of the Renovationist movement, see Anatoly Levitin and Vadim Shavrov, Ocherki po istorii tserkovnoi smuty (Kusnacht, Switz.: Glaube in der 2. Welt, 1978); and Pospielovsky, The Russian Church, Vol. i, pp. 4392.
(27) Dmitry Grigorieff, Russian Orthodox Church in America (Master of divinity thesis, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1958), pp. 21-25.
(28) Ibid., p. 26.
(29) Alexander Schmemann, Tserkov’ i tserkovnoe ustroystvo (Paris: Izdanie “Tserkov-nogo Vestnika,” 1949), p. 13.
(30) Ibid., p. 18.
(31) Alexander Schmemann, “Znamenatelnaya burya,” Vestnik russkogo zapadno-evropeyskogo exarchata, 75-76 (1971), p. 196.
(32) For a history of ethnic jurisdictions in the United States, see Matusiak, Orthodox Church; and Orthodox America, pp. 18295.
(33) See Pospielovsky, The Russian Church, Vol. i, pp. 11333; and Protopresbyter Gr. Lomako, Tserkovno-kononicheskoe polozhenie russkogo rasseiania (New York: Ed. Mitro-polii Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Severnoi Amerike, 1950).
(34) Matthew Spinka, The Church m Soviet Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 26.
(35) Pospielovsky, The Russian Church, Vol. I, p. 135.
(36) For details, see ibid.. Vol. i, pp. 93-112.
(37) Grigorieff, Russian Orthodox Church, pp. 4042.
(38) Ibid., pp. 47r
(39) Ibid., pp. 60-74.
(40) Pospielovsky, The Russian Church, Vol. 2, pp. 257-79.
(41) See Schmemann, Tserkov’, p. 18.
(42) George Maloney, History of Orthodox Theology since 1453 (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1976), p. 77.)
(43) See Nikolai Afanasiev, Trapeza Gospodnia (Paris: ymca Press, 1952); and “La Doctrine de la primaute a la lumiere de 1’ecclesiologie,” Istina (1957) No. 4, pp. 401-20.
(44) See Alexander Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Orthodox Church (New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1963).
(45) See Schmemann, “Znamenatelnaya burya,” p. 196.
(46) Sarah Loft, Converts Respond: A Report on a Survey of Converts (Syosset, N.Y.: oca Press, 1984), pp. 1517.
(47) Yearbook and Church Directory of the OCA (Syosset, N.Y.: oca Press, 1985), p. 3.
Michael Aksionov Meerson ©