Rethinking the Myth of Unity

St. Tikhon was uniquely visionary among turn of the century Russian bishops in America

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.]

5 Replies to “Rethinking the Myth of Unity”

  1. “The Syrians did have a close relationship with the Russian hierarchy, but even that relationship was ambiguous enough to confuse the laity.”

    If you could, what specifically are you refering to, in particular your sources for this statement? Did it differ in degree or kind from the confusion the Syrian laity had with the Episcopalians, which eventaul caused St. Raphael’s about face on relations with ECUSA?

    1. I’m out of town and don’t have my usual sources at hand at the moment, but I had two things in mind when I wrote that — one, St. Raphael’s own statements that his diocese was “a diocese of Antioch notwithstanding its nominal allegience to the Russian Holy Synod,” and two, the Russy-Antacky schism that developed immediately after St. Raphael’s death. Even at his funeral, there was a division among his clergy as to which Church they should belong to (Russia or Antioch). For some good material on this, see the Hanna v. Malick court case (1924, I think).

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