Posts tagged early unity
One year ago, I delivered a paper at St. Vladimir’s Seminary entitled, “The Myth of Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” (Click here for the audio.) My thesis was that, contrary to a widely-held belief, American Orthodoxy was not administratively united prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Rather, from a very early stage, Orthodox parishes in the United States answered to multiple ecclesiastical authorities. The events of 1917 exacerbated the problem, and served as a breaking point in cases where cracks already existed (e.g. with the Serbs and Antiochians), but our jurisdictional multiplicity did not originate in 1917 or some date thereafter.
At the time that I gave my talk last June, many people still believed the “myth of unity” — the idea that all Orthodox parishes and people in America recognized Russian authority until 1917. In the year that has followed, the rigid old myth has faded considerably. I’m not trying to boast, or take full credit, or anything like that. I’m just one of many people who has challenged the old myth. The important point is that the old story is just no longer tenable.
Quite understandably, some people were disappointed to have their perception of the past challenged. In some quarters, a modified form of the myth has emerged, and with it, a subtle but very substantial shift in emphasis. Whereas my paper was focused on how things were, some have begun to emphasize how they think things should have been. Whereas I examined questions relating to unity, some are now focusing on questions of legitimacy.
I must admit, while I am quite confident about my conclusions regarding the reality of the past, I am much less confident when talking about how things should have happened. Should the early Greek parishes have joined the Russian Mission and submitted to the Russian bishop? To be completely honest, I think the answer is yes. Ideally, the Greek (and Romanian and Bulgarian) parishes being founded at the turn of the last century would have looked to the local Russian hierarch as their natural leader.
This didn’t happen, of course. Political commentators tend to immediately jump from “it didn’t happen” to “it should have happened” and then straight to “the Greeks were illegitimate.” I don’t follow that line of thinking. I’m an historian, so I am naturally inclined to ask, “Why didn’t it happen?” Why did the Greeks, with few exceptions, reject Russian authority? Why did the Serbs seem to chafe under that authority, and why did St. Raphael send conflicting messages to his Syrian flock (telling them both that they were under the Russian Church and were simultaneously a diocese of Antioch)? To me, these are much more interesting questions.
But then, I suppose I’ve wandered back into the area of “what happened,” and not “what should have happened.” So, to satisfy some of my critics — yes, in a perfect world, everyone would have been united under the Russian Archbishop. Of course, it would have helped a lot if the Russians had followed St. Innocent’s advice and initiated a continent-wide missionary program after the sale of Alaska in 1867. It would have also helped if the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska had changed its name to include “North America” prior to 1900, by which point Greek parishes were already proliferating. It would have helped if the brilliant St. Tikhon was the rule, rather than the exception, for Russian bishops in America. Consider the roster of Russian bishops in America around the turn of the century:
- Bishop Nestor (1879-1882) committed suicide during a fit of neuralgia.
- From 1882-1888, the episcopal see was vacant.
- Bishop Vladimir (1888-1891) was constantly embroiled in scandals and may have been a pedophile.
- Bishop Nicholas (1891-1898) was a good man, but was also a Russian nationalist whose primary focus was (quite understandably) on the conversion of Uniates to Orthodoxy and their subsequent Russification.
- St. Tikhon (1898-1907) was an outstanding bishop.
- Archbishop Platon (1907-1914) was heavy-handed, temperamental, and extremely nationalistic.
- Archbishop Evdokim (1915-1917) was rather flaky and eventually joined the Soviet Living Church.
- Archbishop Alexander (1919-1922) was utterly incompetent and possibly corrupt.
Had someone the caliber of St. Tikhon been in charge beginning in the 1880s, it is entirely possible that the jurisdictional chaos could have been avoided. Then again, it’s likely that that chaos was inevitable. The Greeks had a perfectly understandable fear of Russian hegemony. (Maybe you don’t agree with their fear, but it was understandable.) The Russian Empire had tried for centuries to capture the city of Constantinople. The Russian Church was buying up church properties on Mount Athos and in the Holy Land, and exerting its influence in other autocephalous Churches, such as the Patriarchate of Antioch. I’m not saying this influence was negative, but Greek fears of a Russian takeover of global Orthodoxy were, at least, reasonable. The Russian Church was rich and powerful, backed by one of the great empires of the world, and had already suppressed the independence of at least one autocephalous church (Georgia in 1811). Russian ecclesiastical imperialism was a very real concern for Greeks a century ago.
And it wasn’t just the Greeks. The Romanians and Bulgarians tended to reject Russian authority as well. Some Serbs accepted it, but a lot of them did not, and were reluctant (and nominal) members of the Russian Mission. The Syrians did have a close relationship with the Russian hierarchy, but even that relationship was ambiguous enough to confuse the laity. It is one thing to affirm the vision of the Russian Mission (or, rather, the vision of St. Tikhon), but the reality of the Mission was different. Apart from the great Tikhon (and, to a lesser extent, the capable Bishop Nicholas), the Russian bishops were rather disappointing. And even St. Tikhon was only one man, with a continent-sized diocese and one of the most diverse flocks in Church history.
Anyway, I’m not trying to justify anything; I’m trying to understand it. Again, I have crept over from “what should have been” to “why it was.” That’s what history is — literally, inquiry. All we can do is acknowledge our own ignorance, ask questions, find the best answers we can, and then ask more questions. Truly, the more you know about American Orthodox history, the more you realize that you don’t really know much at all.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
“[I]n 1921 … without the knowledge and canonical approval of the Russian Orthodox Church, a Greek Archdiocese was founded in America.” (Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, March 17, 1970.)
Patriarch Alexy’s position has been shared by many people, particularly since the OCA was granted autocephaly by Moscow in 1970. But is it true? Was the Greek Archdiocese really established against the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church? I had always assumed so, until I stumbed upon a letter from Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky — the Russian Archbishop of North America — to his Greek counterpart, Bishop (later Archbishop) Alexander Demoglou, dated November 11, 1921. The letter is included in Paul Manolis’ The History of the Greek Church of America in Acts and Documents, and I have reprinted it in full below:
Most Reverend and Dear Brother in Christ:
After taking counsel and acting accordance with our knowledge and understanding of the Canon Law, we herewith inform you that our interpretation of the duty confronting us in relation to the established intercommunion of our Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic Communion, we look to you and your Canonical Superiors as the head in America, North and South, of the interests of the Hellenic members of our Holy Faith.
By this, you will therefore understand that until further action by the Oecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople, the Russian Mission established in America with jurisdiction known as the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Isles and North America, as well as our local American work known as “The American Orthodox Catholic Church” under the immediate direction of the Right Reverend Archimandrite Patrick [Mythen], who is under obedience to us as Archbishop, are in full fellowship and communion with you, 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).
We beg you to take note of this, our official communication and pray that together under God’s direction, we may work in fraternal harmony in the Apostolic responsibilities resting upon us.
Prayin[g] God’s blessing on you and your work, I am
Archbishop of the Aleutian Isles and North America
Abp Alexander’s letter proves that the leadership of the Russian Archdiocese of North America welcomed the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921. Contrary to Patriarch Alexy I and so many others, the Greek Archdiocese was founded with the “knowledge and canonical approval of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Now, Abp Alexander Nemolovsky may well have been wrong to have written that letter. His understanding of canon law certainly seems peculiar, since he simultaneously claims to be Archbishop of North America and acknowledges another bishop as having the same jurisdiction. Later Russian Church leaders were free to disagree with Abp Alexander’s original position, but we cannot deny that the head of the Russian Archdiocese welcomed the creation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921.
What does it mean? It means that we should be honest when we’re debating the sticky questions of territorial rights and so forth. Yes, the Russian Church had the original Orthodox presence on the North American continent. The Russian Church was the first to formally claim North America as its ecclesiastical territory, and it was the first to engage in large-scale missionary work on that territory (among Alaskan natives and Eastern Rite Catholics). But it is wrong to say that the Greek Archdiocese was founded contrary to the wishes of the Russian Church. In fact, I would turn the question around — and I’m very open to new information on this: can anyone point to a specific document, from the 1918-1922 period, in which a Russian Church leader declared the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese to be uncanonical?
And, just to pre-empt any questions about it — I point all this out not to argue for (or against) the agenda of this or that group in the Church, but only to correct the historical record. The Russian Archbishop of America welcomed the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese. This is a fact.
Yesterday, May 19, was the 126th anniversary of the arrival in America of Protopresbyter Stephen Hatherly, a convert priest from England. Hatherly served under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and spent several months in the US, attempting to establish an Orthodox parish in New York. Last July, I wrote an article on Hatherly’s brief American tenure, but back then, this website had far fewer readers than it does today. For that reason, I’m reprinting my original article.
From 1870 to 1883, Fr Nicholas Bjerring was pastor of a Russian Orthodox chapel in New York City. Bjerring was a convert from Roman Catholicism, and he basically operated an “embassy chapel.” He held services for Russian and Greek officials stationed in America, he ministered to the few Orthodox Christians living in New York, and he strongly discouraged inquirers.
In 1883, the Russian government informed Bjerring that they intended to close his chapel, apparently to save money. They offered Bjerring a comfortable teaching position in St Petersburg. Bjerring, upset and disheartened, turned down the offer and instead became a Presbyterian.
Word of Bjerring’s apostasy eventually reached the ears of one Fr Stephen G. Hatherly, an archpriest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Hatherly was a convert himself. An Englishman, he had joined the Orthodox Church way back in 1856, and he was ordained a priest in 1871. He was based in England, but in May of 1884, he arrived in America. His plan was to band together the handfuls of Orthodox on the East Coast (mainly New York and Philadelphia) and establish a new church to replace the defunct Russian chapel.
Hatherly spent three months in America, and his mission was a resounding failure. There was simply not enough interest from America’s meager Orthodox population. At the close of his stay in the US, the New York Sun ran the following story (August 18, 1884):
S.G. Hatherly, the Greek arch priest who came to New York from Constantinople and established a chapel in St. John’s School in Varick street two months ago, conducted service yesterday for the last time, and the chapel will be closed. About a score of the Greek colony in attendance and as many curious minded spectators. Athanasius Athos, the son of a Greek priest, was reader. Father Hatherly did not deliver an address, but said briefly to the worshippers that it was because of their want of faith that the effort to establish a Greek chapel had failed.
In conversation Father Hatherly, who is an Englishman by birth, said that he wrote from Constantinople to the authorities in Russia to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York. The official reply was that no effort to establish a Greek Church chapel in New York would be undertaken after their “cruel experience” with N. Bjerring, who is now a Presbyterian. The Russian colony, Father Hatherly said, has kept away from this chapel in Varick street. Two or three Russians, he said, had said that they wanted something grander than Father Hatherly’s chapel.
“The collection to-day,” he added, “is $4.32. You can see that the chapel would not be self-supporting. However, that is not the only reason why the chapel is given up. The people do not attend as they should. I had hoped when I came on my mission of inquiry to be able to hold services alternately in New York and Philadelphia. It’s all over now, and I go to Constantinople in a few days.”
That’s an interesting article for a variety of reasons, but one in particular jumps out — the statement that Hatherly wrote to the Russian authorities “to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York,” and the Russian reply that it indeed was.
Up to now [July 2009], I’ve felt that the Russian closure of the New York chapel was an implicit abandonment of the city, and that the Greeks who, seven years later, formed their own church, were under no obligation to contact the Russian bishop on the other side of the continent. But Hatherly’s story drives that point home even further. The Russians didn’t implicitly abandon New York; if this report is correct, they explicitly did so.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee. After I originally published it in July 2009, I contacted the Ecumenical Patriarchate to see if they still had, in their archives, the letter from the Russian Church to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Alas, they couldn't find anything. It's possible that the letter is there somewhere, and it's also possible that something remains in St. Petersburg. Of course, a century and a quarter after the fact, it's just as likely that we'll never find the original document.]
We’ve tried this before. Over the past century or so, there have been no fewer than five attempts to bring the various ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in America into some measure of administrative unity. Next week, from May 26-28, we embark upon a sixth effort — an effort which, compared to its predecessors, seems remarkably promising.
First, of course, there were the Russians. In the early 20th century, the Russian Archdiocese envisioned itself as the platform for Orthodox unity in America. Its sainted archbishop, Tikhon Bellavin, articulated an innovative vision to deal with the unprecedented diversity of ethnic Orthodox Christians in the New World. He proposed that the Russian Archdiocese be organized, not along territorial lines, but according to ethnicity — a bishop for the Russians, another for the Syrians, another for the Serbs, still another for the Greeks. St. Tikhon realized that the different ethnic groups needed their own ethnic hierarchs, and his first step in implementing this plan was to consecrate St. Raphael Hawaweeny as bishop for the Syrians. Separate, overlapping administrative units were created for the Serbs, and later for other groups (e.g. the Albanians), but St. Tikhon’s overall plan was never fully enacted. The tenuous unity that existed among the Russians, Serbs, and Syrians soon fell apart, and by 1920, any notion of American Orthodox unity under the Russians was dead.
Dead, but not forgotten. When St. Raphael, the Syrian bishop, died in 1915, he left no obvious successor. His flock divided into warring camps, one party favoring continued subordination to the Church of Russia, the other submission to the Patriarchate of Antioch. Eventually, the Russian Archdiocese consecrated Aftimios Ofiesh to be St. Raphael’s replacement. And, whatever else one might say of Archbishop Aftimios, he was nothing if not a visionary. In 1926, he proposed the idea of an autocephalous jurisdiction, the “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” which would transcend ethnicity and embrace all the Orthodox in America. The Russian Metropolia — successor to the Russian Archdiocese, and predecessor to the OCA — granted Archbishop Aftimios his wish in 1927. Archbishop Aftimios went around acting like he was the head of an autocephalous Church, but few paid any attention to him, and even the Russian Metropolia soon withdrew its support. As hopeful an idea as the AOCC might have been, it never had any real chance of uniting all the Orthodox in America.
Archbishop Aftimios effectively destroyed his already fringe jurisdiction in 1933, when he married a girl young enough to be his daughter. But two of his top assistants, the convert priests Michael Gelsinger and Boris Burden, continued to dream of a united American Orthodox Church. They spearheaded a 1943 effort that resulted in the “Federation,” which was to SCOBA what the League of Nations was to the UN. The Federation included the primary Orthodox jurisdictions in America (Greek, New York Antiochian, and Moscow Patriarchal, along with Serbian, Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Russian), with the glaring exceptions of the Russian Metropolia and ROCOR. In its short life — measured in months, as opposed to years — the Federation achieved some modest but still significant accomplishments. It managed to get Orthodoxy recognized by the Selective Service, exempting Orthodox priests from military service and allowing Orthodox Christians in the military to put “Eastern Orthodox” on their dog tags. Just as significantly, the Federation led to the legal incorporation of several jurisdictions. My own Antiochian Archdiocese is still governed by that legislation, from the 1940s.
In the end, though, the Federation fell apart. There were probably dozens of reasons for the failure, but, in my view, the biggest was simply that the bishops involved in the Federation weren’t committed enough to its success. Well, most of them. One man who was deeply committed to the vision of the Federation was the Antiochian Metropolitan Antony Bashir. He kept the Federation going, on paper only, through the whole of the 1950s. In 1960, the Federation was reborn as SCOBA, the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. The “big three” jurisdictions — Greek, Antiochian, and Russian Metropolia — were led by three larger-than-life figures, Archbishop Iakovos Koukouzis, Metropolitan Antony Bashir, and Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich. Among many, the unification of all the American Orthodox jurisdictions seemed imminent.
A decade later, though, there was still no administrative unity. The Russian Metropolia had entered into talks with the Moscow Patriarchate, and in April of 1970, Moscow issued a Tomos, granting autocephaly to its formerly estranged American daughter. The Metropolia became the “Orthodox Church in America” — the OCA, and in the words of an official brochure published at the time, “invite[d] all of the national Orthodox church ‘jurisdictions’ in America to join with it in unity.” This marked the fifth major attempt to unify the various jurisdictions.
Today, of course, there is still no administrative unity. Five decades have passed since SCOBA was created, and four since the Patriarchate of Moscow granted autocephaly to the OCA. SCOBA has been useful — it has fostered cooperation, if not actual administrative unity, and its many agencies are doing great work. For its part, the OCA did bring in Romanian, Albanian, and Bulgarian jurisdictions, although in every case the OCA group has a non-OCA counterpart jurisdiction. I think it’s safe to say that, despite the best efforts of many great people, neither SCOBA nor the OCA will be the platform for future administrative unity.
Before we get to Attempt No. 6, we should ask — why did all five past attempts at unity fail? Why could neither the Russian Archdiocese, nor the American Orthodox Catholic Church, nor the Federation, nor SCOBA, nor the OCA, succeed in bringing all the jurisdictions together into a single ecclesiastical entity? The answers, of course, are many and complex, but several common threads are apparent. The Russian Archdiocese, the AOCC, and the OCA were all unilateral efforts, led by a single group which tried to get the others to join it. The Federation and SCOBA were “pan-Orthodox” endeavors, but the leaders lacked a common vision, and, worse, the support of their “Mother Churches.” Yes, the Mother Churches may have granted permission for their American jurisdictions to join SCOBA, but they certainly didn’t share a vision of administrative unity in America.
There are two really big lessons from all these failures: you can’t have unity without getting broad-based support at home, here in North America, and you can’t have unity without the explicit support of the Mother Churches. Never, in the history of Orthodoxy in America, has an attempt at administrative unity had both of these necessities.
Until now. The Episcopal Assembly, which holds its first meeting this coming week, includes every single Orthodox bishop in America — every one. No jurisdictions are left out. And the Episcopal Assembly not only has the blessing of the Mother Churches; it was actually mandated by the Mother Churches. It wasn’t “our” idea, over here, like the Federation and SCOBA were. The Episcopal Assembly was created by the Mother Churches themselves, who essentially told us, “Get your house in order.” And the end goal is clear and explicit: “The preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the Region on a canonical basis.” (Article 5:1:e of the Rules of Operation) This is not just SCOBA Part II. For the first time in history, the Mother Churches are, openly and in unison, calling for us to unite administratively.
There is no guarantee that the Episcopal Assembly will succeed, and if it does, it’s not clear whether that will be in 5 years or 15. But one thing, to me, is certain: all of us — all who share a desire for canonical unity in America — should throw our support and prayers behind the Assembly, and beg the Holy Spirit to guide its work, just as he guided the work of the Ecumenical Councils themselves. Because, make no mistake — this is the best chance we’ve ever had, or may likely have for many decades to come. May it be blessed by God.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
Our readers may be interested in a recent article by Fr. Oliver Herbel on his Frontier Orthodoxy blog. He reviews an historical narrative of American Orthodoxy offered on the website Catholic.org, and offers some necessary corrections. At the end, Fr. Oliver writes,
Indeed, I think we need to develop a new way of telling the story succinctly so that we don’t risk exposing ourselves to historical inaccuracy. Perhaps this is something I should do in the near term–attempt to write a succinct, blog-post length, history. The point is not to hit all the details, but to have an overview that is as consistent with those details as possible.
I like this idea a lot — a short-and-sweet history of Orthodoxy in America, comprehensible to anyone. When Fr. Oliver writes one up, we’ll be sure to publish it here at OrthodoxHistory.org.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]