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De-Mythologizing American Orthodox History

Theophilus Eardwine

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As part of the landscape of American Orthodoxy in our time, one of the historical claims that is usually presented is that prior to the establishment of the Greek Archdiocese in 1922, Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America existed under the Church of Russia, a unity which became more and more fragmented in the ecclesiastical chaos which developed after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Yet an examination of the primary documents from the period yields a somewhat different picture.

In the Catholic Enyclopedia's 1909 entry on American Orthodoxy, we are presented with a snapshot of Orthodoxy in America in that year, focusing mainly on population statistics and statements about canonical jurisdiction. While it is true that this is a Roman Catholic publication, the entry is mainly relying on officially reported statistics and declarations from the American Orthodox themselves (referenced at the bottom of the article), so while it may not necessarily be 100% reliable in terms of a representation of American Orthodoxy in 1909, it is probably a fairly trustworthy guide. We will supplement our examination of this encyclopedia entry with information from Orthodox sources, notably The Orthodox Church, by Fr. Thomas E. FitzGerald (1998), and The Quest For Orthodox Church Unity in America, by Archim. Serafim Surrency (1973), particularly regarding events in the years just after 1909.

Among other things, we learn from the Catholic Encyclopedia that the ethnic makeup of Russian-American Orthodoxy (that is, those churches recognizing the Church of Russia as their canonical and traditional authority) in the mainland United States in 1909 is as follows:

Russians: 7,974
Galician Ruthenians: 11,045
Hungarian Ruthenians: 5,820
Bukovinians: 4,180

Of this total of 29,019 in the lower 48 (not all states at the time, of course), only about 27% are Russians. The rest are mainly ex-Uniates.

In Alaska, there are 1,891 "Indians" (not sure what that means), 2,149 Aleutians, and 3,666 Eskimos, bringing the total up to 36,725. The Alaskan contingent of the Russian-American Metropolia thus makes up about 20% of its whole population, and the Russians are only about 22% of the whole. So, even if one were to regard the Alaskans as "Russian Orthodox," along with their ethnically Russian brethren, the Metropolia of 1909 is still a majority ex-Uniate organization.

The Serbs are described as being "closely affiliated" with the Russians, though not as "under" them, and it is explicitly stated that not all recognize the authority of the Russian archbishop. In any event, only four years later, in 1913, the Serbian clergy all came under the Patriarchate of Serbia.

Meanwhile, there are 130,000 Greeks in the US in 1909, and their clergy are subject not to the local Russian bishops (as is usually alleged), but rather to the Churches of Constantinople or Greece. It certainly is true that a Greek diocese was not formed until 1922, but that doesn't mean that at that point a hitherto existing jurisdictional unity was supposedly shattered. The Greek Orthodox in the US, who outnumbered the Metropolia by 3.5 to 1 (and still do, roughly, depending on which figures one goes by), "decline to admit or recognize the authority of the Russian bishops here" in 1909.

Even the description of the Syro-Arabs in the US at the time describes them not as being "under" the Russians, but as having been "assisted" by them in building churches and missions. St. Raphael of Brooklyn, while acting under the auspices of St. Tikhon (the Russian bishop at the time), had been requested by the Syrian laity themselves to come and serve them, presumably because they weren't getting appropriate pastoral oversight in their existing situation.

Additionally, a bishop was sent from the Holy Synod in Antioch in 1914, Metr. Germanos (Shehadi) of Zahle, to organize parishes of Arabic tradition in the US, thus indicating that neither the Holy Synod of Antioch nor the parishes which followed Metr. Germanos regarded the Russians as having sole jurisdiction in America.

The Bulgarians are noted as being under Constantinople, the Romanians under Romania, and the Albanians under the Greeks.

All of this jurisdictional plurality existed prior to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917-1918 and certainly prior to the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1922. The idea of Russian jurisdictional hegemony in America prior to either of these events is clearly a myth.

Moving further into this historical issue, we can consider this state of affairs prior to the formation of the plurality of diocesan structures in the US from the viewpoint of the Patriarchate of Russia, which had effectively claimed ecclesiastical annexation of all American lands by virtue of its having been first (though even that is debatable, considering that there were non-Russian parishes established in the United States before there were Russian ones and that Alaska didn't become American territory until 1867). From that point of view, other churches had been poaching on Russia's American territory for quite some time.

We can also consider this issue from the point of view of the ancient Orthodox patriarchates in the early 1970s, after the Russian claims were reasserted in order to justify the grant of autocephaly to the Metropolia that then became the OCA. They then made the statement that no autocephalous church may annex lands unilaterally, that such territorial definitions can be made only by pan-Orthodox synods. The idea that missionary pioneers can make claims to new lands unilaterally is attractive to Americans, as it reminds us of the establishment of our own nation, but is it really the Orthodox tradition? History seems to be on the side of those who would seek the whole Church's consent rather than acting on their own. There are, after all, autocephalies and autonomies that are now in the historical dustbin, and their commonality is a lack of support from the Church. There are also independent churches who have faced extinction numerous times yet remain, supported by the Church.

No matter which side one takes in terms of whether American jurisdiction rightfully belonged to Russia, the historical reality is that the vast majority of Orthodox in America did not recognize the authority of the Church of Russia years prior to the events of the Bolshevik Revolution. There was not and probably in any real sense never has been jurisdictional unity in America. Even as of now, the Orthodox Church does not, as a whole, recognize America as belonging to the normal, canonical territory of any autocephalous or autonomous church.

Where does that leave the American Orthodox Christian? For now, he remains under his bishop, whether that bishop is near or far, native born or immigrant, an English speaker or in need of an interpreter. He also remains, through his bishop, in communion with the rest of American Orthodoxy and of the whole Church.

The upshot of all this, however, is that American Orthodox unity cannot come about if we falsify or gloss over its historical realities, jockeying for historical primacies of canonical jurisdiction, pioneerism, or strength of numbers. Rather, we must face our mutual history, come together as Orthodox Christians, and seek with the whole Orthodox Church a unification of our administrations in our country. Only with the whole Church's consent will we be able to have a stable, unified Orthodox Church of America. As we do so, we must come out of our factions and ghettos, meet the Orthodox Christians around us, and work and worship together in love and with a catholic vision in humility and self-sacrifice.

Theophilus Eardwine writes on issues of inerest to Orthodox Christians.

Posted: 22-Jul-05

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