In various places on the Internet, there have been debates and discussions concerning the question of Orthodox administrative unity prior to 1921. Often, people seem to be talking past one another. The issue of “Orthodox unity” actually encompasses a variety of areas, some of them historical, some not. I thought I would try to summarize just what those areas are.
The Historical Question: What was
Some, including myself and Fr Oliver Herbel, have made the argument that early American Orthodoxy was not administratively united. This is simply an expression of the reality on the ground, so to speak. The once-common (but increasingly rare) claim that all Orthodox in America were members of the Russian Mission prior to the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921 is simply untrue. Rather, all the evidence points to a chaotic, confusing administrative situation well before that.
I should also note that the only way to answer this question is to delve into the sources. One must engage historical evidence to be able to answer the question, “What was it like?”
The Canonical Question: What should have been
Whether everyone was a part of the Russian Mission is one question. Whether they all should have been a part of the Russian Mission is another issue entirely, and one to which historical facts are only somewhat relevant.
Some say that, because the Russian Mission was the first Orthodox Church to establish itself on the North American continent, it had de jure jurisdiction over the entire land, from Alaska to Florida and all points in between. Following this logic, any priest, parish, or parishioner who was not a member of the Russian Mission was “uncanonical.” Others contend that the Ecumenical Patriarch has jurisdiction over all “new territories” anywhere in the world.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it is only somewhat “historical.” More significant are the canonical presuppositions that underlie the argument. Is it in fact true that the first Church to “plant its flag” on a piece of land “gets” that entire land, from a canonical standpoint? Or is it true that the Ecumenical Patriarch has authority over all “new territories”?
I’m not a canonist, but for what it’s worth, my own answer is, “Neither.” I would argue that America presents an entirely new situation for Orthodoxy, and one for which there is very little guidance in the canons. Our corpus of canon law was mostly set down in the Byzantine era, a time when the world was smaller and the Church was very closely aligned with the State. It doesn’t seem to me that church leaders in the fourth or the fourteenth centuries were thinking about an entirely undiscovered hemisphere and how it would be governed. Because America presents a new problem for Orthodoxy, I believe we need to come to a new consensus, and possibly produce new canons to ensure that Orthodox ecclesiology is preserved in this unusual situation. The recent meetings in Chambesy are an extremely positive step in this regard.
In any event, this is a matter less for historians than for canon lawyers.
The Present Question: What should be
It seems to me that many who engage in debates regarding Orthodox unity in America confuse the historical and canonical questions with this, the question of what should be. This is not a directly historical issue. Should we all join the OCA? Should we all be under the Ecumenical Patriarch? Should SCOBA (or, now, the new Episcopal Assembly) become the new model for American Orthodox unity?
Just before I presented my paper, “The Myth of Unity,” at St Vladimir’s Seminary in June, another presenter warned me that, while I did not necessarily intend it, my arguments would be co-opted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and used to justify an EP agenda in America. This presenter seemed to feel that, if the facts were inconvenient, they were best ignored.
The thing is, I am an historian. The purpose of my paper was to explore what was. What should be is a question that must be answered by the hierarchs, canonists, and American Orthodox faithful today. It is important for us to know how things were in the past, because such knowledge is essential in understanding how we got where we are today. That said, the past does not have to be a model for the future. It certainly should not be a bludgeon with which we batter our ecclesiastical “opponents” into submission.
Bottom line, the argument that there was not, in the past, a period of administrative unity under the Russian Church, is not a threat to unity today. And as an historian, I refuse to cater to the agendas of anybody, be they the OCA, the EP, or some other acronym. Historians are at their best when they deal with history, which is why people like Fr Oliver and I have focused so much attention on the first (historical) question. The canonical question — what should have been – is a bit of a minefield, and it has only partial relevance to the present day. And as for that present day, I am personally quite encouraged by recent developments, and I look forward to a future when American Orthodoxy will, at long last, be administratively united.