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.