Posts tagged American Orthodox Catholic Church
Back in June, I gave a paper at St. Vladimir’s Seminary entitled, “The Myth of Past Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” The unwieldy title notwithstanding, the premise of my paper was simple: that the commonly-held story of a unified American Orthodoxy which fragmented after the Russian Revolution is, quite simply, not accurate. In fact, administrative division has been part and parcel of Orthodox life in the United States from the very beginning.
In my latest American Orthodox History podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, I interviewed our own Fr. Andrew Damick on the “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” which was an attempt, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to form a single American Orthodox jurisdiction. This is part of my miniseries on past attempts at administrative unity.
In that interview, Fr. Andrew explained that it was from the American Orthodox Catholic Church (henceforth, “AOCC”) that the “myth of past unity” originated. Until the AOCC came along in 1927, nobody, so far as I can tell, ever claimed that all of American Orthodoxy was administratively united prior to 1917. Sure, from time to time, Russian church leaders would claim that everyone should have been under their authority. That was the ideal, but it was obvious enough to everyone at the time that the ideal wasn’t being lived out in practice. It was only later, with the advent of the AOCC, that people started saying that administrative unity had been a fact prior to 1917.
Who first made this claim? As best I can tell, it was Fr. Boris Burden, one of the leading priests in the AOCC. In 1927, Burden wrote,
The advent of Greek-speaking Orthodox Catholics followed this establishment of the Russian Hierarchy by many years, and the early Greek churches and faithful were naturally and canonically under the protection and care of the Orthodox Catholic jurisdiction thus established by the Russian Holy Synod for all American Orthodox residents. [...]
For nearly fifty years after the Russian Hierarchy in America had thus established the first Greek church in this country [in New Orleans,] Greek churches and faithful continued to increase and multiply under the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America. [...]
We have viewed the history of all these [ethnic groups] in outline down to the period just preceding the World War and seen them, at that time, united solidly under one Hierarchy of the Church in America established for them by the Russian Holy Synod.
Burden wrote that in the first issue of the Orthodox Catholic Review, the short-lived official publication of the AOCC. I won’t bother to refute Burden’s assertions here, since I’ve done that elsewhere. But it’s worth noting that Burden himself only converted to Orthodoxy in the early 1920s, so he wasn’t personally around during the supposed period of blissful unity.
A couple years after Burden’s article in the Orthodox Catholic Review, the head of the AOCC, Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, propounded the myth in a series of letters to Archbishop Alexander Demoglou, who was the head of the Greek Archdiocese. These letters appear in Volume II of Paul Manolis’ The History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents. On January 15, 1929, Aftimios wrote,
[...] I secured from the Synod of Russian Bishops in America, who alone exercise the sole and exclusive canonical jurisdiction and authority in America held solely by the Patriarchate of Moscow from 1764 to 1927, the right and authority to establish and conduct an independent American Orthodox Church.
Aftimios repeatedly referred to the “sole and exclusive” canonical authority of the Russian Church in America, which established the AOCC, but at the same time he spoke of the AOCC itself as the “sole canonical jurisdiction” in America. He said that, for 130 years, the Russian Church had “undisputed [...] administration over all Orthodox people in America.”
Aftimios repeated his claims in another letter, dated February 14. Echoing Fr. Boris Burden, he wrote, “[I]n 1860 the first Greek-speaking church was dedicated in the United States with its Greek Priest [...] under and by the sole and exclusive Russian canonical authority and all without ever a word of protest or claim of jurisdiction on the part of Constantinople.” He went on to say that “the first intimation of any Constantinopolitan claim of American jurisdiction” came in the 1908 Tomos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in which the EP gave over its authority in America to the Church of Greece. Aftimios continued:
In characterizing any claim to Orthodox jurisdiction in America other than the Russian as recent, uncanonical, and unhistorical no offence is intended — only the truth is stated plainly and the foundation of the true American jurisdiction derived from the Russian Bishops set forth in essential contrast to others. All others not derived from the Russian Bishops are recent, because they have appeared only during the last twenty years of more than a hundred and fifty years of American Orthodoxy, uncanonical, because they deliberately ignore the Sacred Canons [...] and unhistorical, because they ignore the fact of a long Orthodox history in America under Russian Jurisdiction still continuing and still canonically excluding their claims.
Archbishop Alexander was not impressed. On February 23, he wrote to Aftimios, “[A]s long as Alaska was a Russian territory, the Russians had jurisdiction in their own house, but it makes a great difference thence to jump to Canada, to the United States, etc.”
That logic is reasonable; unfortunately, Alexander had a claim of his own to make. He went on, “The jurisdiction over all Orthodox in the Diaspora, including the whole Western Hemisphere, which includes Alaska as well, being no more a Russian territory, belongs undisputably to the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”
A few days later, in another letter, Alexander said,
It is not true that any group of Greeks in America did ever willingly recognize the asserted Russian jurisdiction in America. [...] And not only the Greeks, but also the most important sections of other Orthodox nationalities in America, did and do reject Russian jurisdiction. [...] Thus, your assertion that the Russian Church and its creations in America were universally accepted by the Orthodox people in America, and that they “governed the whole North American Province undisputedly, peacefuly and without opposition”, falls to pieces.
Basically, what we have here are dueling claims to exclusive jurisdiction, with Alexander appealing to Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and Aftimios holding to what might be called the “flag-planting theory.” And, to support his claims, Aftimios also espoused the myth of past unity, saying that not only did Russia have rightful jurisdiction in America, but that everyone — Greeks included — acknowledged it.
How did the leaders of the AOCC come up with this rendition of history? It makes sense that a newcomer like Fr. Boris Burden might not know the true story, but Aftimios Ofiesh had been in America since 1905. He certainly knew full well that there were numerous Greek and other Orthodox parishes which had no connection at all to the Russian Mission well before the First World War.
I suspect what was really happening was spin, pure and simple. The legitimacy of the AOCC depended entirely upon the legitimacy of the Russian Mission in America. If the Russian Mission wasn’t the “sole and exclusive canonical authority” in the New World, then the mission of the AOCC was in jeopardy. That explains why Aftimios would hold to the flag-planting theory, but why bother concocting an obviously false story about everyone actually being under one jurisdiction until 1917?
Well, really, Abp Alexander was right, partly: it was one thing for the Russians to claim Alaska, but to jump from there to Canada, Florida, and all points in between was another matter entirely. To really secure his claim that the Russians were the rightful authority, Aftimios (and Burden) had to act like everyone — the EP included — accepted this reality. He had to act like the very notion that America was up for grabs was, itself, a novel concept. Then, he could make another jump and claim that he, as head of the AOCC, held “sole and exclusive canonical authority” over all of America.
Nobody really believed Aftimios when he made that claim, but the broader myth of unity has hung around a lot longer, all the way up to the present.
ONE MORE THING: A couple of disclaimers, here at the end… I am not saying that the Russian Mission was not the rightful canonical authority in America. I’m not saying that they were, either; as I’ve said before, the question of what was is different than the question of what should have been.
Also, I promised I wouldn’t refute the myth of unity here, but I realized that using the term “myth” might cause some controversy, so I feel like I should justify myself. Here is my point:
- American Orthodoxy didn’t really exist prior to 1890. There was Alaskan Orthodoxy, and there were parishes in San Francisco and New Orleans, but the United States proper just didn’t have a significant Orthodox presence until after 1890.
- As soon as Orthodox parishes started popping up in the US after 1890, there was jurisdictional pluralism. This is a well-documented fact.
Thus, the “myth of unity” is a myth in multiple senses. One definition of “myth” is as follows:
A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.
Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, the “myth of unity” fits this definition. It is a commonly held simplification of our past. Of course, “myth” also has negative connotations, as in, a false story, a fiction. An alternate definition of the word is, “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” I would argue that the “myth of unity” fits this category as well. It is based in truth — in the ideal of the Russian Mission — but it isn’t accurate, and it is often used as a bludgeon with which some American Orthodox Christians beat others over the head.
One of the curiosities of studying American Orthodox history is that a number of the “firsts” are largely unknown. Matthew Namee has done a lot of work in introducing the first black Orthodox priest in America, Fr. Raphael Morgan. With this post, we’re going to look briefly at the first convert bishop in Orthodox America, Ignatius William Albert Nichols.
Never heard of him? It’s probably because his time as an Orthodox bishop lasted just about ten months (more or less). It’s probably also because the vast majority of information about him available is regarding his career as an episcopus vagans, which bracketed his brief stint within Orthodoxy.
William Albert Nichols (b. Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 4, 1877) started out his ordained ministry as an Episcopal deacon in 1908 in Arkansas, having received theological education at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest two years later in Colorado and also trained and worked as a chaplain and journalist, eventually becoming religion editor for the New York Sun and the Brooklyn Standard Union (1926-28) and later The New York World-Telegram (1929-43). He served as an Episcopal parish priest in Brooklyn for two years (1927-29).
Things were going fairly “normally” up until he decided to leave the Episcopal priesthood and was in 1929 consecrated as a bishop of the so-called “American Catholic Church” by Bp. Arthur Edward Leighton. Someone must have told him that his orders were “invalid,” however, because in 1930, he was ordained again to the priesthood and consecrated again to the episcopacy, though this time by Abp. Samuel Gregory Lines of the “Apostolic Christian Church.” Sometime between 1930 and 1932, he became interested in Orthodoxy.
From the sources I’ve read (mainly secondary), it’s not clear when Nichols was received into Orthodoxy or by whom. But we do know that in 1932, he was part of the American Orthodox Catholic Church under Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh, probably having founded with Aftimios in 1931 the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil.
The AOCC was at that time of questionable canonical status, though it had been founded in 1927 with the blessing of the Russian Metropolia in America (itself of questionable canonical status since 1924, when it declared itself independent of its mother church). By 1932, though, Aftimios had made multiple enemies within the ecclesiastical world, as well as suffering the (rather quick) withdrawal of the support of the Metropolia. Despite its isolation, it seems that communion was not broken between the AOCC and other jurisdictions (though Platon in 1930 did say that Aftimios was no longer a Metropolia bishop but a bishop in another jurisdiction), and clergy were readily received from it (typically back into the Metropolia). In any case, by 1932, the AOCC had few parishes.
Aftimios’s general vision was modeled on that of St. Tikhon, who attempted to form a multi-ethnic jurisdiction under the Russian archdiocese, with bishops for each ethnic group. Aftimios likewise appointed bishops for the Syrians (Sophronios Beshara and Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, St. Raphael’s former archdeacon) and Ukrainians (Joseph Zuk). He also attempted to appoint a bishop for the Russians, one Fr. Leonid Turkevich (whose consecration as such had been specifically blessed by the Metropolia at the founding of the AOCC, but the blessing was later withdrawn).
The last bishop whom Aftimios consecrated was William Albert Nichols, who took the name Ignatius. The consecration took place on September 27, 1932, and Ignatius was appointed as Archbishop of Washington and auxiliary to Aftimios, specially charged with evangelizing “Americans” in English. Ignatius’s work with the Western Rite via the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil continued with him as its bishop. Thus, Ignatius is also history’s first (and so far, only) modern Orthodox bishop solely dedicated to the Western Rite.
In 1933, Aftimios’s spiral away from any semblance of ecclesiastical stability finally swirled totally out of control, and in April he got married in a civil ceremony to a Syrian girl from Wilkes-Barre some 30 years his junior. A synod was held by Ignatius with Joseph Zuk (Emmanuel had since returned to the Metropolia) in which they congratulated Aftimios on his marriage and declared him retired. Ignatius later sent a message of congratulations to Aftimios, telling him, “Wind will winnow chaff out of your brave act. Orthodoxy will begin new life in America. God bless you both.”[*]
Clearly inspired by his former primate, in July, Ignatius himself married a woman named Emily Chasman. In November, Sophronios declared Ignatius deposed from the episcopacy. Totally isolated from even the fringes of Orthodoxy, Ignatius nevertheless continued his work with the Clerks Secular.
He functioned independently until the time of his death in 1947, consorting with multiple episcopi vagantes along the way (even briefly going into communion with John Kedrovsky and his son Nicholas of the Soviet “Living Church”). During this time, he (often with other episcopi vagantes) consecrated six different men to the episcopacy. One of these men was Alexander Turner, who in 1936 took over headship of the Clerks Secular. From 1959-61, Turner succeeded in bringing many of his flock into the Antiochian Archdiocese, thus founding the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate.
Through Ignatius, there are now dozens (perhaps more) of lines of episcopi vagantes who trace themselves back to Aftimios.
[*]“Marriage Wins Bishop’s O.K.,” Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, 10 May 1933, Archives of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
(The general outline for this post was taken from the biographical sketch by Bertil Persson found at this link, with some material added from my own research. I’m not sure who Persson is, exactly, but he seems to have done work on various personages in the world of episcopi vagantes and to have some academic standing in Europe. The link contains references to Persson’s sources.)
One of my odd hobbies in historical research is wandering the strange hinterlands of episcopi vagantes on the Internet. I think I first became interested in the phenomenon as I studied Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh (as previously mentioned, the subject of my M.Div. thesis). When I first encountered Aftimios’s name, it was in some offhand remark about his being an episcopus vagans himself. I later discovered that not to be true, that he had effectively retired when he got married in 1933. But right near the end of his ministry, he consecrated one William Albert Nichols as Bp. Ignatius, who almost immediately went vagans and started consecrating people left and right. It is Ignatius who is the real culprit in the ever-stretching family tree of episcopi vagantes. He does, however, have the fascinating distinction of being the first convert consecrated an Orthodox bishop in America (though he left the Church soon after). (And he also started the group that in 1959 found its way into the Antiochian Archdiocese as the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate.)
Aftimios also consecrated Sophronios Beshara (who, incidentally, is buried in the same grave as St. Raphael, though the stone gets his death year wrong—it’s actually 1934). Sophronius, it turns out, was one of the consecrators (along with Theophan Noli) of Christopher Contogeorge, who gave the Greek Archdiocese many headaches around the middle of the 20th century, and may have had some sort of status as an exarch for the Patriarchate of Alexandria. (That, my friends, is a story for another day.) Contogeorge went into communion with the Living Church for a bit (as had Ignatius some time before), consecrating Nicholas Kedrovsky (son of John Kedrovsky) to the episcopacy.
Kedrovsky eventually consecrated a man named Joachim Souris, who himself consecrated a Ukrainian immigrant named Walter Myron Propheta (regarding whom I have a number of notes-to-self to look into). Propheta was a powerhouse when it came to consecrations and is looked upon as something of a saint by many in the episcopi vagantes world. He eventually consecrated a gent named John Christian, who consecrated a fellow named Richard Morrill. (Don’t get too confused here—these sort of consecration lists account for nearly 90% of the information on the websites of episcopi vagantes.)
Now, all of this would probably be of little real interest to serious Orthodox Christians interested in historical research, except perhaps (as it is for me) as a hobby. But perhaps there is some whimsical weirdness deep within you which might find it fascinating that Morrill (who was rather flamboyant in his consecrating habits and went by “Patriarch Mar Apriam I”) in 1977 married a couple named Mike and Carolyn. In 1982, he consecrated Mike to the episcopacy. Mike’s last name? Warnke. In 1982, Warnke founded a religious body known as the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church in Kentucky, Inc.
Former Evangelicals like me probably instantly recognize the name Mike Warnke, renowned 1980s Evangelical comedian who claimed to have been a Satanist high priest and made a lot of money making that claim. His celebrity empire came crashing down around his ears after a major exposé was published on him by Cornerstone magazine in 1992. Before that happened, he had quite a lucrative career doing comedy tours, books (including his most famous, The Satan Seller), and tape recordings of his comedy. My family traveled a lot when I was a kid (my parents are missionaries), and we would listen to his tapes in the car. He’s still going strong, it seems, though with a drastically diminished audience and a festive new title (“Bishop Abbot”) and snazzy outfit.
And that’s how the tape deck from my ’80s childhood roadtrips linked up with my Orthodox M.Div. thesis.
In the late 1920s, after Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh (the successor to St. Raphael in the see of Brooklyn and the subject of my M.Div. thesis and possible future book) had in 1927 established, with the blessing of the Russian Metropolia, the so-called “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” he engaged in something of a debate via correspondence with Abp. Alexander Demoglou, the Greek archbishop for America. In the debate, he repeatedly made the claim that the Russians had for 130 years had jurisdiction in America, and that since 1927 his new autocephalous jurisdiction was the sole canonical authority for the United States, as the rightful successor to the Russian presence. He also asserted that all Orthodox in America had accepted Russian authority prior to the 1921-22 establishment of the Greek Archdiocese.
Alexander’s replies to Aftimios are consistent in asserting the now-infamous interpretation of Chalcedon Canon 28, namely, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has jurisdiction in the “diaspora.” He also writes that Alaska, while it was Russian territory, rightly belonged to Moscow, but that it is another thing entirely to “jump” from there to Canada and the U.S.
As I was re-reading some of this correspondence, I was interested in note one element of Alexander’s arguments (quoted here verbatim from a March 4, 1929, letter to Aftimios [*]):
The Canons, which you mis-quote, do not apply in the case of the Orthodox Church in America. They regard certain provinces, particularly rural localities, outside the defined limits of established Patriarchates or autocephalous Churches or Metropolises. How could it be otherwise, since, in accordance with Canon 28 of the Fourth Oecumenical Council, (and as you confess in your letter) the Oecumenical Patriarhate (or as you rather contemtuously prefer to call it the Constantinople Patriarchate and the Constantinopolitan Bishops) “has the primary right to assert jurisdiction over the faithful in the Diaspora”, (which includes American as well). Such being the case, it makes no difference if our Russian brethren attempted to impose their ecclesiastical rule in a territory canonically accorded to the Oecumenical Patriarchate, no matter if these attempts lasted for 3, 30 or 130 years. Te lawful incumbent does not thereby lose his rights to the pretenders. The Russians were all this time conscious of their precarious un-canonical standing, and that is why they exercized, during the Tsarist Regime immense political pressure to bear upon the Oecumenical Patriarchate to force it to accept and recognize the Russian claims over the Orthodox in America. In selfdefense, the Patriarchate temporarily conceded the Churches of America to the Church of Greece. You are, no doubt, familiar with the sinister designs of the overthrown Tsarist Regime of Russia, and, especially, of the then powerful Pan-Slavistic Society, seeking to promulgate, under the cloak of religion, the abortive ends of the oppressing Tsarist Russian Imperialism. Being of Syrian descent, you must of course be aware of their intrigues in connection with the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem, with Mt. Athos and so on. Likewise, American Orthodoxy felt the weight of similar designs and intrigues. Therefore, you are not supposed to be taken by surprise, when we speak of Tsarist pressure.
This was new to me. I had heard of pressure from the Turkish government on Constantinople due to Greek priests in America engaging in anti-Turkish activities, but this is the first time I’ve read about there also being “Tsarist pressure.” No doubt this fell on fairly deaf ears, since the Tsarist government was looked upon by many Arab Orthodox Christians in the Middle East as a benefactor.
Alexander goes on in the same letter to rebut Aftimios’s claim that all Orthodox in America previously accepted Russian rule:
It is not true that any group of Greeks in America did ever willingly recognize the asserted Russian jurisdiction in America. On the contrary, it is historically true, that they fought staunchly these baseless claims, especially in 1907, when the Russian Church tried to legalize their pretentions by legislative act with the legislature of the State of New York. The Greeks rose as one man and happily annulled these designs. It is also a contravention of the true for you to assert that, at the time I came to this country, “I found one of your Syrian Priests (presumably the Rev. Joseph Xanthopoulos) in charge of a Parish of Greek people under your jurisdiction.” The Greek Communities of Wilkesbarre, Pa, and Scranton, Pa., where the said Priest has served, belonged always to the Greek Church. And not only the Greeks, but also the most important sections of other Orthodox nationalities in America, did and do reject the Russian jurisdiction. We had in the past, and, espesially after the war, we have numerous national Orthodox Churches in America, like the Serbian, Rumanian, etc. which ignore entirely the Russian authority and are under the direct jurisdiction of their respective Churches in Serbia, Rumania, etc. The same is true and even more so with the Syrian Church, where, perhaps the majority of the Syrian Orthodox in this country, opposed and still oppose you and your Russian superiors. There are more than one schisms in your own Church. Some remain faithful to the Patriarchate of Antioch and to its representative in America, Bishop Victor; others recognize the Metropolitan of Selefkia Germanos; still others are “independent”. Thus, your assertion that the Russian Church and its creations in America were universally accepted by the Orthodox people in America, and that they “governed the whole North American Province undisputedly, peacefuly and without opposition”, falls to pieces. I believe, one is justified to add here, without malice: My brother, before attempting to put in order your neighbor’s house, first, put in order your own household.
He also later writes that in 1921, the Russian-American hierarchy recognized his own jurisdiction:
…your superior prelates of the Russian jurisdiction, by an official communication of theirs, as far back as 1921, “look to me and to my Canonical Superiors as the head in America North and South of the interests of the Hellenic members of our faith” and “until further action by the Oecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople … are in full Communion with me, as the only valid and Canonical head of the Hellenic Mission for care of the spiritual interests of citizens and former citizens of the Kingdom of Greece” etc.
That’s a particularly curious admission on the part of the Russians! Not only do they admit some sort of jurisdiction to Alexander, but they definite it as a “Mission” and particularly on ethnic/national terms. As you might imagine, Aftimios’s reply to this comment is that it was just a temporary “permission” granted by the Russians, though that doesn’t much square with their language of “until further action by the Oecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople.”
In any event, the 1920s and 1930s remain, for me, one of the most fascinating periods in the history of Orthodoxy in America.
[*]Manolis, Paul. The History of the Greek Church in America: In Acts and Documents. Berkeley: Ambelos Press, 2003, pp. 1551-57.