A Snapshot of Interwar Orthodoxy: Introduction

In the June 1935 issue of the journal Church History, Matthew Spinka of the Chicago Theological Seminary published a 20-page article entitled, “Post-War Eastern Orthodox Churches.” The “War” he was referring to was, of course, World War I, and his article offers a succinct and quite balanced snapshot of the state of the world’s various Orthodox Churches in the years immediately following the war. I’m going to publish a series of excerpts of the article, beginning with the Spinka’s introductory comments.

Of course, this period — 1918 to the mid-1930s — was the era in which the various ethnic jurisdictions were firmly established in America. It’s a critical period in American Orthodox history, and it helps to understand the global context of that time.

 

From the downfall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the center of Eastern Orthodoxy slowly shifted from the Byzantine church, which suffered a tragic deterioration under the rule of the Turk, to the Empire of the Russian Orthodox tsars. Before the World War, the predominant role in numbers and resources as well as in spiritual and theological leadership was played by the church of Russia. Out of a total of some 144 millions of Orthodox adherents, the Russian membership comprised about 110 millions. By reason of its wealth and of the generous financial aid which it freely dispensed to the rest of the needy Orthodox communions, Russia exercised a far reaching, in some instances controlling, influence among them. Moreover, Russian Slavophil[e] thought has affected all Orthodox communions and has exercised a dominant theological influence over them.

The World War has produced another radical regrouping of the separate units of the Orthodox churches, and has once more shifted the center of gravity, this time from Russia to the Balkan peninsula. In accordance with an unwritten law in which the Erastian principle, so characteristic of Eastern churches, finds its expression, each independent political unit is accorded an autonomous or autocephalous ecclesiastical status. Accordingly, the creation of new states or expansion of the already existing ones has resulted in the organization of nine new Orthodox communions, while some formerly independent organizations have lost their separate existence and have been incorporated into larger national bodies. The net result of the various changes has been that the total number of Orthodox communions has considerably increased: there are at present twenty-one autocephalous or autonomous Orthodox bodies, instead of the fifteen which existed before the War.

In order to divide the subject in some logical fashion, one might conveniently group the Greek churches together, for they in reality form a self-conscious whole; the so-called Melkite group may be treated separately [ed. note: here he refers to the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, rather than the Melkite Catholics who are in communion with Rome], the Russian church, and its successional ecclesiastical groups, form a separate group by reason of their historical sequence and territorial propinquity. The Balkan churches likewise form a convenient grouping.

 

Next time, I’ll publish Spinka’s discussion of what he calls the “Greek churches” — that is, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, and the Church of Cyprus.

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