The “Myth” of Unity: A Response to a 2009 Address Given at St Vladimir’s Seminary

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ABSTRACT: Last year, a symposium entitled The Council and the Tomos: 20th Century Landmarks Towards a 21st Century Church, was held at St Vladimir’s Seminary (Crestwood, June 18-20, 2009). One of the speakers, Matthew Namee, presented an expanded version of a paper he delivered the previous year at the Orthodox Theological Society in America. His paper was titled, “The Myth of Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in North America.” Namee expanded an earlier thesis to argue that the story of the Russian Mission and the implicit unity it fostered in the early years of the Orthodox presence in America was largely mythical. Rather, the history is one of jurisdictional rivalry and division from which we can draw little or no guidance for our present situation or the future. Namee implicitly issued a challenge: Which historical narrative that describes the Orthodoxy presence in America is correct? Is it the Russian Mission narrative which prescribes a Church guided by the Orthodox missionary imperative? Or is it the narrative of ethnic protection that has little interest in engaging American society and culture? The resolution of this question will impact the future of Orthodoxy in America. Will American Orthodoxy become a local church in the canonical tradition of mission-minded Orthodoxy, or will it remain divided by ethnic interests, essentially a Balkanized entity subject to overseas leadership and political interests? What follows is my response.

I. Introduction: The “Creation Myth” of American Orthodoxy

Recently, an insightful analysis on the origins of American Orthodoxy was given at St Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York. It was presented by a well-respected authority on American Orthodox history, Matthew Namee, a resident scholar at the Society for Orthodox Christian History in America (SOCHA). Namee’s thesis is that there was never a “golden age” of administrative unity and thus the primatial claims of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) — which is the direct descendant of the original Russian missionary diocese — are invalid. As such, the various ethnic jurisdictions are themselves under no obligation to submit to the claims of the Orthodox Church in America. Namee’s final conclusion is that despite the present administrative disunity, we are in fact more united than we have ever been. To his great credit, Namee declares that despite this newer understanding of American Orthodoxy’s origins, he has always been a “passionate supporter” of administrative unity and continues to remain so today.1

To support this analysis, the importance of the year 1917 is minimized. As is well known, this is the date considered by many to be the end of Orthodox unity in America. That year the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Romanov dynasty, thereby ending the subsidies of the Russian Orthodox Church to its diocese in North America. Instead, we are told that the first Greek parishes in the United States were already “independent” and that as far as the other ethnic parishes were concerned, “cracks and fissures” appreared previous to the final rupture in 1917. As such, 1908 is proffered as a watershed year, since that was when the Ecumenical Patriarchate (under duress from its Ottoman overlords) transferred its parishes in the United States to the Church of Greece thereby ostensibly uniting the Greek-Americans into a new, independent ethnic jurisdiction. (As we shall see, this act was resolutely ignored by a significant majority of the Greek parishes in the United States.) Left unanswered in this newer narrative are several questions. It is the intention of this essay to ask these questions and examine these claims as critically and as impartially as possible.

The Primacy of the Russian Mission

Namee's research is diligent; the facts as laid out are impressive. Indeed, I used many of these same sources for my own book, The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings.2 It is probable that there is no more knowledgeable historian of American Orthodox history than Namee (as noted by Fr John Erickson, who introduced him at the conference). Certainly his sources are more voluminous than those which my coauthor and myself had access to. The quarrel therefore is not with the facts, but with the interpretation of these facts. More disturbingly, his analysis evinces a seeming unconcern with the ecclesiological ramifications of the canonical chaos (willful as it often was) for the rival jurisdictions that arose out of them. It is my contention that the original thesis, that is to say, the primacy of the Russian Mission and its internal administrative unity still stands. Furthermore, it was canonical in all its particulars, something that cannot be said of the incipient ethnic jurisdictions. Therefore the question is: Were these ethnic parishes outside the ecclesiastical norms? I will endeavor to examine only the evidence that Namee provides in order to attempt an answer.

The Russian Mission functioned as a coherent diocese, one recognized the world over as an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose bishops were fully integrated into the life of that church and who was dependent upon it for material support.

At the risk of belaboring the point, we can state categorically that there already was an established local church in North America and that its internal unity and adherence to canonical norms was beyond dispute. It was recognized not only by the established Orthodox patriarchates, but by secular authorities in America as well. As shall be demonstrated in this response, the Russian missionary diocese (henceforth called the Russian Mission) functioned as a coherent diocese, one recognized the world over as an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose bishops were fully integrated into the life of that church and who was dependent upon it for material support. Such support included stipends for priests, monies for properties and the erection of churches and donations of liturgical items. It should be noted at this point that in stark contrast to the Russian Orthodox Church, no other foreign Orthodox patriarchate provided any means of support to their émigrés or financially assisted any immigrant priests that came to the New World. Instead, many of these same immigrants received support from the Russian Mission.

Russian Orthodox Christian Church in Sitka, AK - 1895

Russian Church in Sitka, AK - 1895

The origins of the Russian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Diocese of America, the official name of this diocese, can be traced to 1794, to Sitka, Alaska, when eight Russian monks from Valaam monastery established the original mission. Among these men included future saints such Juvenaly and Herman. Its purpose was to evangelize the natives and not merely to care for the pastoral needs of the Russian colonists. Indeed, at great personal risk to themselves, they often ignored the dictates of the Russian colonial administration and conducted mass baptisms of entire native villages, an act which conferred a degree of political protection on them, most especially from the depredations of the Russian colonial government. From the efforts of this this original mission natives, such as Peter the Aleut and Jacob Netsvetov arose and have been added to the roster or glorified saints. More to the point, all of its bishops stand in a direct line of succession from St Innocent (who later became Metropolitan of Moscow). Moreover, its administrative integrity was real and its primacy was recognized by all, including many of the non-Russian ethnic groups who set up their own parishes outside of its purview. It was the local established Church.

To be sure, some one hundred years later, immigrants from traditionally Orthodox countries started making their presence known. Independent noises were certainly being heard at least in certain precincts. Even in light of actual independence of some parishes from the Russian missionary diocese, the situation was far from static as some of these parishes transferred their allegiances to the Russian Mission at various times and for various reasons. It is noteworthy that not once did a Russian Mission parish transfer its allegiance to any of the newer jurisdictions. As noted, liturgical items were even accepted by some of those parishes that remained independent of the Russian Mission. Be that as it may, the number of these independent parishes was small in comparison to the overall size of the Russian missionary diocese. Indeed, by the time of the creation of the first ethnic exarchates in the 1920s, the Russian missionary diocese contained over three-quarters of all Orthodox parishes in North America.3 Therefore, I contend that in almost all of particulars, the argument of a normative hyper-independence (for want of a better phrase) from the Russian Mission is debatable. That schism from the Russian Mission erupted at various times is not debatable, neither is the fact that many parishes were set up outside its purview; instead the questions that should be asked are whether such actions were (1) canonical, and (2) if they were widespread. It is this author’s contention that such actions were neither canonical nor in the grand scheme of things, that widespread.

II. A Question of Interpretation

Unity vs. Disunity

Let us therefore begin. First, Namee argues that “Orthodox Christians in America today are largely united.” The key word here is “largely.” Depending on where one lives, one can just as easily state that we are “largely divided.” For example in 2007 the GOA Metropolitan of Boston issued a ban on his clergy preventing them from associating and concelebrating with members of the OCA — a ban which is still in force.4 Metropolitan Philip Saliba of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America (AOA) jurisdiction for his part has banned his clergy from concelebrating with priests of the newly created Palestinian “vicariate” of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA).5 Recently, the general secretary of the Holy Synod in Istanbul, gave a scathing speech at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, in which he castigated two of the primates of other jurisdictions and even slandered the OCA as as “barely canonical.”6 He then went on to lament the state of Orthodoxy in America, parish life in general, and the Athonite monasteries recently implanted here, among other things. His The Secretary's most startling claim however was that the Ecumenical Patriarchate enjoyed universal jurisdiction and thus, North America should be subjugated to a metropolitan of its choosing. Though his speech was ill received at Holy Cross, the faculty of that school recently posted a statement on the prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its claims to extra-territorial domination based on an arguable reading of Canon 28 of Chalcedon.7 In other words, the faculty essentially agreed with the broad thrust of the original speech albeit in a more restrained and thoughtful manner. Interestingly enough, this statement was unsigned.

Recently, during an official visit in the United States, the Ecumenical Patriarch distorted the origins of Orthodoxy’s beginnings in North America when he completely ignored the entire Russian missionary experience.

Other examples of disunity and noxious sentiments abound. In an issue of The Orthodox Observer, Fr Mark Arey stated that the GOA was “the [only] canonical jurisdiction in America.”8 Ironically, Arey is the general secretary of the Standing Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA). Chicanery is also not beyond the pale: In order to increase the number of Constantinopolitan eparchies in North America, a special Albanian exarchate was created, consisting of two parishes. (The Albanian diocese of the OCA by contrast has 14 parishes.) For good measure, the Georgian Orthodox Church recently announced the creation of a metropolitan for its one, lone parish in Brooklyn. Recently, during an official visit in the United States, the Ecumenical Patriarch distorted the origins of Orthodoxy’s beginnings in North America when he completely ignored the entire Russian missionary experience.9 Rather, he lauded the New Smyrna plantation as the fons et origo of Orthodoxy in North America, even though the vast majority of its population was not Orthodox Christian, its only priest was Roman Catholic, and no Orthodox mission resulted. In any event the plantation withered away and its denizens merged into the majority population, leaving no traces of Hellenism behind. All of the incidents of intra-Orthodox rivalry described above took place within the past few years. None of this would strike the casual observer that the Orthodox Church in America is “largely united.” Indeed, estrangement would be not too strong a word.

As examples of inter-Orthodox cooperation, we are told by Namee “…that various Orthodox churches have banded together to form elementary schools, nursing homes, and soup kitchens.” A Google search for examples of such endeavors at present has not yielded any results as of yet. Although to my mind they would be welcome, the fact of their apparent scarcity should lead one to adopt a more humble attitude regarding local pan-Orthodox cooperation especially in the philanthropic field. To be sure, the IOCC and the OCMC do admirable and much-lauded work, principally in the international arena. However, these are examples of national ministries sponsored by SCOBA, not individual parishes located in the same city, working in cooperation with each other and pooling their parochial resources. As for domestic charitable work, the recently created Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS) is receiving less than full support from SCOBA, most probably due to intra-jurisdictional rivalry.10

The Myth of Unity

Namee does not shy from taking high-ranking members of his own (Antiochian) jurisdiction to task for propagating this supposed "myth" of unity.11 That being said, the very hinge of this argument falls apart when he states, “…that from its earliest days in America, Orthodoxy was characterized by ethnic separation.” Let us ignore briefly whether this is desirable or even canonical. This argument in toto rests on this one phrase: “from its earliest days.” But what is meant by “earliest days”? Any objective assessment of the North American church would have to begin from the actual inception of Orthodoxy in North America, that is from 1794. Unfortunately the first century of American Orthodoxy is elided over almost completely without comment. The Alaskan experience is resolutely ignored and/or marginalized. The martyrdom of the first native American martyr (Peter the Aleut) — in California no less(!) — is not mentioned at all. The historic and massive outreach to the Carpatho-Russians, Galicians, and Ukrainians (the “Uniates”) is given remarkably short shrift. Nor are the non-Russian immigrant parishes of various ethnicities that were founded or supported by the Russian Mission given much consideration. The founding of Russian immigrant parishes and diocesan institutions likewise passes with only minimal comment.

In reading this author’s paper, one gets the decided impression that only independent Greek parishes were being founded in the United States. Unfortunately we are not told that the majority of these independent parishes were originally founded as ethnic social clubs, as stated by no less an authority than Metropolitan Isaiah Chronopoulos of Denver, 12 a bishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Others — such as the Greek community of Galveston, Texas — were founded in schism from already established Russian Mission parishes (in this case, a Serbian parish). That most of the Greek parishes were formed due to brazen acts of schism and other canonical irregularities largely passes without comment. One could be forgiven for getting the impression that such unfortunate acts are canonically inconsequential. Instead, we are comforted by the fact that Holy Chrism was being received from both the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Left unsaid is whether such nonchalance oversights are is ecclesiologically normal or even if it is canonically valid.

Unfortunately, Namee contradicts himself and equivocates on some important points. The author writes that “…unity can have a variety of meanings.” How to square his statement that “all Orthodox churches are united on doctrine and sacraments,” in light of another of his observations wherein we are told that “…discipline with regard to marriage, ordination, and the reception of converts can and often does differ”? Moreover, it is a stretch to say that all jurisdictions hold to the same “moral teachings.” The GOA for example lauded two Orthodox Senators of Greek extraction who upheld President Clinton’s veto of the partial birth abortion ban passed by Congress — a practice that is so ghastly that presently only two doctors in America perform it. Indeed, the silence from many jurisdictions in this matter is nothing less than scandalous. Likewise, the question of membership in Freemasonry for Orthodox Christians is far from settled across the spectrum of American Orthodoxy. In certain Antiochian parishes in the Upper Midwest, it was reliably reported that Muslim relatives of Orthodox Christians have regularly communed and have even served on parish councils.13 No doubt there are other examples of variances in moral standards, all of which calls into question the contention that “all jurisdictions” share the same “moral teachings.”

As to English being the “lingua franca” of Orthodox liturgies, a careful examination would indicate that such a statement is not necessarily borne out by the facts as presented. The study cited indicates that out of over 2,100 parishes in the United States, only 345 were sampled and of these, 74 percent stated that English was their “primary liturgical language.” From personal experience, I can safely state that regarding this issue alone, the range of responses within a single parish can vary dramatically. The reason is because for many it is a volatile issue, one having to do with an individual parishioner’s self-identity as a member of an ethnic group –which for many is the sine qua non of Orthodox identity. Therefore, even if the universe of responses were more in line with the actual number of churches, I would still be reticent about making categorical statements regarding which is the “primary” language that is in fact being used in most American Orthodox churches.

III. The "Creation Myth” — Its Origins and the Facts

Where then did the “creation myth” come from? The author cites The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and Orthodox America, 1794-1976: Development of the Orthodox Church in America by Alexander Schmemann. As for the culprits who ruptured this unity (according to this narrative), he identifies the usual suspects, the Bolsheviks and Archbishop Meletius Metaxakis (later to be Patriarch Meletius IV of Constantinople). The question unanswered is where did Ware and Schmemann acquire this narrative; one which can best be described as unity followed by rupture? After all, neither Ware nor Schmemann made it up out of whole cloth. A partial answer can be found in the author’s own biography, wherein he writes that he “grew up believing what [he now terms] the ‘myth of unity.’” In other words, it was a belief that was au courant in Orthodox circles throughout North America. (I can attest to this fact based on my own personal experience.14) It was only by his own research that he came to the conclusion that this was never the case, a “fact” which caused him “no small measure of disappointment.”

The Counter-Myth

It is my contention that despite the best of scholarly intentions, what is being proposed here is a counter-myth, perhaps unwittingly; but nonetheless one which has dire implications for the future of Orthodoxy in America.

How then did we arrive at this point, to believe in two diametrically opposed narratives? It is my contention that despite the best of scholarly intentions, what is being proposed here is a counter-myth, perhaps unwittingly; but nonetheless one which has dire implications for the future of Orthodoxy in America. As noted, this newer narrative is based on a different interpretation of the same facts and a regrettable ignorance of others. One of the elements of this counter-myth is the present Constantinopolitan claims of proteia or primacy which by rights supposedly belong to the GOA alone, since it is the major eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in North America. Although the author does not propagate this startling claim nor give it any credence in his own analysis, it does have its proponents and at present it is tightly interwoven with arguments of those who castigate the “creation myth” to justify their claims.

One of these critics is the aforementioned Arey, who boldly asserts that “the myth of a unified Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 needs to be debunked by serious historical and factual research.”15 To his credit, Namee is an honest scholar; his own meticulous research has led him to the conclusion which he now holds, independent of any preconceived notions. Arey on the other hand feels that the matter is settled because the “myth” of unity will be “debunked” once “serious and factual research” (as opposed to “nonfactual” research?) is conducted. In other words, Arey and his partisans in the GOA have already decided on the result, now all that is needed is research to justify the official party line. One can reasonably surmise that the reason GOA functionaries have taken this argument is that it is only by doing so that the primatial claims of the OCA can be trumped.

Weaknesses of the Counter-Myth

Leaving aside for the moment the novel claims of Constantinopolitan supremacy and the sloppy logic of its adherents, the assertion of administrative disunity has been taken up by other honest critics. As shall be seen time and again, it can only be sustained by completely ignoring the first century of the history of the Russian missionary diocese. Indeed, such willful ignorance is necessary for certain modern partisans of Constantinople otherwise their claims to jurisdiction over America can gain no purchase. It is only by going to the heart of the matter, that is to say the grant of autocephaly by Patriarch Alexei I to the Metropolia in 197016 and attempting to delegitimize it, that such grandiose claims over North America can even be sustained. Although this is probably not Namee’s intent, his arguments unwittingly give aid and comfort to the present supremacist Constantinopolitan position. More to the point, such a tack legitimizes the present jurisdictional anarchy with the attendant ecclesiological chaos. Regardless, the counter-myth fails to make its case.

Consider: it is noted that both patriarchs Alexei I and his successor Pimen defended this action to Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Their words on this matter, that the authority of the Moscow patriarchate over North America was “recognized by all the Local Churches, including the Holy Church of Constantinople…”17 is left unchallenged. Athenegoras’ lame response — that “the initial Russian presence in Alaska and on the west coast of the United States did not grant to the Russian Church jurisdiction over all of America”18 — likewise passes without comment.

Constantinopolitan supremacy based on a novel interpretation of Canon 28 that has no canonical or historical precedent. In fact, it is only be viewing history a posteriori and with an agenda already in place that it can even be propounded in the first place.

Two things are immediately obvious from the above statement: (1) Athenagoras recognized the precedence of the Russian Mission on American soil but tried to minimize it by limiting it to the “west coast” (which of course is not entirely true), and (2) Athenagoras made no countervailing argument against Alexei’s assertion that the Russian claim in North America was recognized by “all the Local Churches, including…Constantinople.” (What exactly was Athenagoras’ point? That Russia had jurisdiction over the Pacific Rim?) Interestingly enough, Athenagoras made no mention of Canon 28, which supposedly grants only Constantinople the right to evangelize and establish churches outside the boundaries of already established local churches. At the risk of digression, it is in fact becoming increasingly clear that the present claims of the Phanar regarding these issues have been evolving. Indeed, this new claim –that is to say, Constantinopolitan supremacy based on a novel interpretation of Canon 28 that no canonical or historical precedent. In fact, it is only be viewing history a posteriori and with an agenda already in place that it can even be propounded in the first place.19

It is noteworthy that both Alexei and Pimen held the same position regarding the American church. A case could certainly be made that their defense was self-serving. On the other hand, an even stronger case could be made that both men believed that an autocephalous mother church has the right to grant autonomy and even autocephaly to its own dioceses should the political situation warrant it — this was in fact how ROCOR came about (after a fashion).20

Be that as it may, this was also the position of the primitive Church, which saw the proliferation of new dioceses and autocephalous provinces (as is implied in Apostolic Canon 34) in the first five hundred years of the Christian Era. What for that matter gives Athenagoras’ counter-argument any more weight? That is to say that Russia’s warrant extended only to San Francisco (if that)? Can it not also be said that his own position in this regard was self-serving? And since we are traveling down this path, which canon gives only Constantinople the right to grant autocephaly to churches that are not in its patriarchate? More to the point and apropos of the present argument propagated by some professors at Holy Cross, which canon gives only Constantinople the right to preach and evangelize a territory outside the borders of already established local churches, that is, universal jurisdiction? A position that is in fact in direct violation of the Council of Carthage (A.D. 410)?21

IV. Is Ecclesial Chaos Canonical?

To buttress the case that the canonical anarchy that existed from 1908 on was of no consequence, the author Namee marshals a critic from within the GOA, Fr Thomas FitzGerald (currently dean of Holy Cross). Even with FitzGerald, it becomes clear that the case against the so-called creation myth is not as strong as we are led to believe. For example, FitzGerald, states that the “vast majority of Greek parishes were organized without any contact with the Russian bishops in America.”22 This is true. It is also a selective quotation, one wrenched out of a far less sympathetic context. Even its plain words cannot be used as an argument against the primacy of the Russian Mission since FitzGerald accepts the reality of “Russian bishops in America,” and implicitly accepts the fact that at least some Greek parishes (as opposed to the “vast majority”) adhered to the proper protocols and were under its pastoral care. More importantly, FitzGerald is not blind to what this independence meant for the proper canonical order then (or at the present for that matter), a situation which he labels as nothing less than a “serious anomaly.” According to FitzGerald:

…the establishment of “ethnic” and even “political” dioceses rather than territorial dioceses may have served the short-term needs of the immigrants. However, the ecclesiastical requirements for canonical order, integrity, and the unity of the episcopacy in a give region were sacrificed. This led to an undue emphasis upon a policy of “congregationalism” which is alien to Orthodoxy, and to an attitude of phyletism, both which have greatly diminished the mission and salutary message of the Orthodox Church in the United States until very recently.23

The Emergence of Multiple Jurisdictions

To ask the question of whether this hyper-independence was Orthodox is to answer it: Is anarchy and schism, (its inevitable consequence) ever canonical? This is precisely the problem. Certainly FitzGerald is not oblivious to the loss of “canonical order.” As he himself states, not only did congregationalism undermine the correct spiritual relationship between the people and their pastors, it distorted the very nature of the episcopate itself. Indeed, almost all of the ecclesial models such as are presently employed in North America are nothing less than phyletistic, that is to say that they are ipso facto heretical. Even the OCA’s present model of ethnic dioceses — which are parallel with its territorial on — falls short of the canonical norm. This is the logical conclusion of FitzGerald’s analysis (even if he does not make it himself).

Even if a grand, overarching unity never in fact existed, do not the parallel, later jurisdictions — many of which were created from a smattering of ethnic parishes that arose because of schism from the Russian Mission — bear the taint of canonical irregularity?

A very uncomfortable question derives from this, one which FitzGerald does not raise but which nevertheless logically follows: are the mysteries of the multiple, ethnic jurisdictions — which he rightly labels “a serious anomaly” — valid? Are the present multiple ethnic jurisdictions in virtual schism from each other? If not, are we in fact looking instead at the inception of a new schism based on varying degrees of orthopraxy, which is the inevitable result of our present ghetto mentality? If unity did in fact exist at one time, one could easily make this case. Even if a grand, overarching unity never in fact existed, do not the parallel, later jurisdictions — many of which were created from a smattering of ethnic parishes that arose because of schism from the Russian Mission — bear the taint of canonical irregularity? Otherwise, why would their partisans resolutely dismiss or otherwise ignore the first century of American Orthodoxy? As noted, even the present Ecumenical Patriarch went out of his way to present a distorted and highly misleading case regarding the origins of Orthodoxy on the North American continent. Therefore the fundamental question is: Why should this be the case? It appears that the burden of proof is upon those who are antithetical to the primacy of the Russian Mission otherwise the reliance upon such a massive historical lacunae would not be necessary.

The presence of multiple, redundant, and parallel jurisdictions in North America is not without its canonical and liturgical conundrums. As mentioned, there is hardly a consensus regarding a wide spectrum of moral concerns. Liturgical divergences are real as well. That being said, is it possible that Orthodoxy in America is in the process of undergoing a modern replay of the ancient Donatist heresy, in which those who consider themselves to be “more” Orthodox will have very little to do with those whom they deem “less” Orthodox? If this scenario plays out, which body of American Orthodox will be the Donatists and which the Orthodox-Catholics? Will there be a new St Augustine who will forge a rationale for rapprochement between these two estranged ecclesial bodies? Even if it never comes to this, if we continue this path, it is obvious that disunity and disharmony will continue to be the norm. FitzGerald was being charitable when he wrote these words in 1984. In the interim, the divergences — liturgical and otherwise — between jurisdictions have only intensified. Contrary to the optimism of some, it is just as likely that a break in communion can occur if the present disunity is not resolved. If not inevitable, it is at least foreseeable.

Ignorance of canonical authority cannot negate the reality of the same...It is curious indeed why critics of the “creation myth” feel that they have to justify deplorable behavior in order to break free from the “myth” of the primacy of the Russian Mission.

Ignorance of canonical authority cannot negate the reality of the same, in much the same way that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” (as stated by the famous legal adage). It is curious indeed why critics of the “creation myth” feel that they have to justify deplorable behavior in order to break free from the “myth” of the primacy of the Russian Mission. Regardless of the fact that unity from 1892 on was increasingly ignored by the newer immigrants, FitzGerald’s words cannot be dragooned into the service of those who wish to justify this anarchy as a trivial matter. Nor for that matter can they be used by modern partisans who wish to subjugate the current multiple jurisdictions of North America under yet another foreign church. Indeed, quite the opposite. His own words on this matter are quite explicit: he writes that “Orthodoxy in the United States can only be viewed properly as an emerging local Church comprised mainly of American citizens of a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.” FitzGerald goes on to state:

In due course, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the various Orthodox jurisdictions…will be united into an autocephalous Church which will be officially recognized as such by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches.24

The present essay is not concerned with the present hyperbolic claims made by the modern devotees of Canon 28. To be fair, neither is Namee. (Indeed, the present protocols of the Chambesy conference of June and December of 2009 have laid to rest all references to Canon 28, which was not even referenced in any of the proceedings.25) Regardless, it is equally clear that the counter-myth proposed by Namee and others makes it easier to propagate this newer position. After all, many Old World patriarchates continue to view the Orthodox of America as a part of a dispersion, one sustained by blood ties to the Old World and not because of any concerted evangelistic effort. FitzGerald’s position is in fact the exact opposite. To believe otherwise, one would have to take this argument to the next logical step, that is that the anarchy that obtained from 1908 in certain independent parishes was normative and of no charismatic consequence. Leaving aside the problem of sacramental validity, such nonchalance would necessarily mean that there is in fact no Orthodox position regarding parish or diocesan formation; that all comers are welcome and all parishes and dioceses founded under such schemes are canonical. This is an absurd argument on its face and Orthodox in America were alerted to this fear by Chronopoulos, who wrote that because of our administrative disunity, there is no legal way to stop the proliferation of jurisdictions which call themselves “Orthodox.”26

V. The Historical Context

Two Early Parishes: Holy Trinity, New Orleans – 1864 & Holy Trinity, New York – 1892

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Christian Church - 1866

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church - 1866

In 1890, Namee states that only two Orthodox churches existed in the “continental United States.” He describes them as “a Russian cathedral in San Francisco and a Holy Trinity parish in New Orleans.” Curiously, the ethnic origin of this latter church is not mentioned. There are perhaps several reasons for this, including the fact that although it was founded in 1864, its ethnic identity was only first described in the US Census of 1890, wherein we are told that it was “a part of the Church of Greece, in connection with the consulate of Greece in New Orleans.” Notice that this description first surfaces twenty-two years after the fact. Its “jurisdiction” therefore is not a settled matter. To his credit, Namee points out that according to some contemporaneous sources, it (Holy Trinity) was believed by some to be “under the authority of the Church of Russia.”27 Its conception, in other words, was less than immaculate. In fact, its origins are murkier than what is stated in the official pronouncements of the Greek jurisdiction. Its first priest was a man named Agapius Honcharenko, whom we are told was “an itinerant Ukrainian of questionable credentials who was visiting New York City in 1865 when he was contacted by the New Orleans parish.” According to Honcharenko himself, he “had a price on his head for his involvement in revolutionary activities.” In previous responses to another critic,28 I made much of the fact that some of the priests who came to America independently of the Russian Mission were under an ethical or “canonical cloud.” I stand by this statement. Let us distill this argument to its essence: the concept of an independently founded parish which was congregational in polity, by necessity gave rise to the scandalous concept of the hireling priest. Neither phenomenon is canonical. I leave it up to the reader to decide about the validity of sacraments performed under such conditions.

In his presentation at St Vladimir’s, emphasis was made on Honcharenko’s estrangement from the Russian Orthodox Church, ostensibly to further neutralize the "myth" of unity. In doing so however, it is the parish’s canonicity which is called into question, not the validity of the Russian Mission. Again, nigh-heroic efforts must be made to ignore the elephant in the room, thereby unwittingly strengthening the contrary argument. Therefore incidents such as the chaotic founding of the New Orleans parish cannot be a point of pride (nor should they) and in fact, such parish formations militate against the claims of modern-day critics of the Russian missionary diocese and other propagandists of the multiple jurisdictional model.

This fact requires further reflection; in fact, it boggles the mind. Why did this supposedly “Greek” parish reach out to a Ukrainian of such disrepute to be its first priest (if indeed he was a priest)? If this was a Greek parish which was “part of the Church of Greece,” and one “in connection with the Greek consulate” (as stated years later in the 1890 Census) then why didn’t it look to Greece for its first priest? Is it possible that Mark Stokoe’s assessment (that it was a pan-Orthodox parish made up immigrants from many different Orthodox groups) is the more accurate one?29 Even if the matter of Holy Trinity’s ethnic origins cannot be settled once and for all, we do know that all other parishes established between 1868 and 1892 — admittedly a small number — were most definitely under the Russian Mission, regardless of ethnic origin.


Namee then goes to some lengths to minimize the impact of the Alaskan experience. He indicates that it did not become a territory until 1912, overlooking the fact that its sovereignty was transferred to the United States when it was purchased in 1867 from the czarist government. As for the geographical separation of Alaska from the continental United States, he looks to Fr Michael Oleksa, an authority on Alaskan Orthodoxy for support. He records that according to Oleksa “…by 1917, the vast majority of American Orthodox immigrants…were ‘totally unaware of the history of the Alaskan Church.’”30 This is not completely accurate as we shall soon point out. Regardless, this assertion is superfluous as the vast majority of canonists, theologians, priests, and bishops were at least aware of the antiquity of the Russian Mission — as stated by patriarchs Alexei, Pimen and (reluctantly) Athenagoras. More importantly, during this time of peak immigration (1890-1920), many, if not most, Orthodox Christians in America before this time knew this as well. Indeed, the argument of Alaska’s geographic distance is a nullity since up until 1996, all jurisdictions in North America were transnational in that they include Canada and Mexico as well.31 As to its unique culture, that is neither here nor there: The culture of the Carpatho-Russians of the Monongahela Valley, the Serbs of the Mountain West, the Ukrainians of Manitoba, and the Greeks of Tarpon Springs are equally unique and “worthy of study.”

Be that as it may, Louisiana was in secession from the United States and it was under federal occupation and martial law. Indeed, this church (Holy Trinity) had been founded in the Confederate States of America, a polity which was viewed sympathetically by most of the great European powers (Russia excepted) and whose incipient nationhood would have been recognized had the Army of Northern Virginia prevailed at Gettysburg. Therefore Athenagoras’ attempt to disqualify the legitimacy of the Russian Mission’s claim to being the local church of the United States because it was located in San Francisco falls under the weight of its own logic. It is in fact, historically untenable. California at least was a legitimate territory, thereby placing it within the normative life of the United States whereas Louisiana had forfeited this right because of its secession from the Union. Its citizens in fact were disenfranchised in the immediate aftermath of the War Between the States. Indeed, it was an open question at the time as to whether some (or all) of the Southern states would have been welcomed back into the Union.32

Holy Trinity, New York – 1892

Perhaps realizing that the questionable origin of the New Orleans parish does not help the cause of Greek independence from the Russian Mission, Namee then jumps ahead thirty years to the creation of Holy Trinity in New York City in 1892. This church, which was the product of a secular Greek lodge called the Society of Athena, approached the Church of Greece for its first priest. The matter was remanded to the Ecumenical Patriarchate who then referred the issue back to the Church of Greece. Coincidentally, this is not unlike the scenario which occurred eighty years later, when the Metropolia went to Istanbul to plead their case, only to be told to turn to their mother church in Russia (which then granted them autocephaly). Within a few years, a schism in this Church of Greece parish erupted resulting in the establishment of another parish in New York (Annunciation) which was set up under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This of course brings up another uncomfortable question: Since the closing of the Russian chapel in New York, the fact that the first parish in New York was “founded” by the Church of Greece would indicate that territorial rights belonged to that church, not the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (Of course, the Church of Greece did no such thing, it was founded by its congregants who then turned to Greece for a priest.) Be that as it may, an argument could be made that Constantinople was encroaching upon the jurisdiction of that church.

The Church of Greece was constrained by its own grant of autocephaly from evangelizing outside its borders...This calls into question not only the details of the counter-myth, but the present hyperbolic claims of Constantinopolitan primacy...that no autocephalous church can exercise missionary efforts outside of their own nations’ boundaries.

This is curious in that it was understood that the Church of Greece was constrained by its own grant of autocephaly from evangelizing outside its borders. This grant had been given to Greece by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1850, when it ended the schism that had erupted between the two churches some twenty years earlier when the Church of Greece unilaterally declared autocephaly from the Turkish-controlled Ecumenical Patriarchate. Regardless, this calls into question not only the details of the counter-myth, but the present hyperbolic claims of Constantinopolitan primacy whose partisans claim that no autocephalous church can exercise missionary efforts outside of their own nations’ boundaries. The very fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate remanded the issue of pastoral care for this parish to the Church of Greece shows this type of canonical stricture was not in evidence — or more probably that it was a dead letter. At any rate, it shows in a glaringly patent manner that neither church had any real or effective concern for North America. At the risk of belaboring the point, no claims of primacy over the North American continent were leveled at this time — or of universal jurisdiction for that matter. Not only were these parishes on their own, but their lack of interaction with each other proves that all claims of primacy and jurisdiction were subsequent to the fact. In other words, the reality on the ground was one of pastoral and evangelistic apathy, to a degree that is unfathomable to normative ecclesiastical practice. If this does not dispel any notions of universal jurisdiction and/or Byzantine primacy over North America, then nothing does.

Since it appears that the Church of Greece chose not to contest the founding of this schismatic parish, and there was no guidance in this matter from either the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate, then the concept of parish foundation and jurisdiction at this time was fluid, one could even say anarchic. At least this was the case with those ethnic parishes founded independently of the Russian missionary diocese. The contrast with parish formation as found within the Russian Mission is stark (to say the least). Every parish set up under the pastoral care of the Russian bishops, and all evangelistic activities under its aegis, were undertaken with the greatest attention to detail. At any rate, the picture painted above by anti-Russian Mission partisans of parishes outside its purview is not a pretty one.

For example, in order to neutralize the primatial claims of the Russian Mission, many critics like to point out that in some cities, Greek parishes preceded the foundation of Russian parishes. To be sure, it is noted that in New York City, a Russian chapel which had been founded in 1870, was closed by the Russian government in 1883. If however, the Orthodox ecclesiological principle as envisioned by this newer narrative is one of independence, or to be more accurate, complete indifference to the established ecclesial presence, then what of this fact? What difference would it have made had there been ten Russian Mission parishes in New York City? Or a hundred for that matter? After all, it does not appear that these newer Greek parishes were concerned at all about the established Russian hierarchy in the New World. Nor were they concerned with each other for that matter.

The Counter-Myth: Selective Comparisons

Why do critics [of the "creation myth"] insist on overlooking this substantial effort with its scores of parishes in favor of the much smaller number of independent parishes which were being founded in a piecemeal, chaotic fashion and under no canonical supervision whatsoever?

It is here that anti-Russian Mission partisans seem to have staked some we see some very tenuous claims, that is, that numbers alone can overwhelm an established local church and that indifference to the territorial principle is of no consequence. This argument however is a double-edged sword. Were there not already scores of parishes in Alaska? Were there not dozens of formerly Uniate parishes in the lower 48 by this time? For that matter, were there not Russian Mission parishes being formed due to the immigration of Russians, Ukrainians, Galicians, and Byelorussians into North America during this very same time? Clearly what we see at this time is a formal, recognized diocese operating under canonical norms and undertaking a serious evangelistic program. Why then do critics insist on overlooking this substantial effort with its scores of parishes in favor of the much smaller number of independent parishes which were being founded in a piecemeal, chaotic fashion and under no canonical supervision whatsoever? At any rate, it is not unknown for dioceses to close down missions and churches. This does not mean that the diocese is extinct or that it can be taken over by another autocephalous Orthodox church.

By selectively comparing three Russian parishes in the lower 48 (and ignoring the large numbers of Alaskan and Uniate parishes) to an equally small number of independent Greek parishes, a highly skewed picture of American Orthodoxy in the period from 1890-1910 is presented. Perhaps this is why some critics of the Russian Mission go to such great lengths to ignore the reality of the Uniate outreach of St Alexis Toth as well as the ecclesiological experience of Alaska is ignored. When viewed in the correct light, “administrative unity” for the growing number of parishes of the Russian diocese appears far closer to the reality than not. More to the point, how was the Russian Mission administered? Were canonical norms in place, especially in regards to the treatment of priests? Specifically, were the priests of the Russian Mission treated as they were in the few Greek parishes that existed before 1910, that is to say, as employees who were hired and fired based on nothing more than the caprices of congregationally run parish councils (as noted by even critics of the so-called creation myth).

To further make the case for administrative disunity, Namee describes the situation in Chicago in which a Russian and Greek parish existed side-by-side, with supposedly little interaction. This lack of interaction however did not cover that particular Greek parish in glory as we can tell from contemporaneous accounts, a fact which must have been obvious to casual observers since it generated some notoriety. According to The Chicago Tribune for example, we learn that “One is the Orthodox or regular Russian Church…while the other is purely Greek in its membership and nationality.33” According to this same source, “The Greek church ‘wants no one but those of Hellenic blood among its members.’” Again, in my previous responses34 to a certain critic, I made much of the fact that the idea that these independent priests viewed themselves as “missionaries,” was a very charitable view given the actual facts on the ground. Exaggerated would not be too strong a word in this regard. I stand by that claim. Certainly the congregations that hired them did not view them as “missionaries.”

Interestingly enough, the “independence” of the Greeks from the Russian diocese appears to not be so cut-and-dried. Namee cites two incidents of co-worship between Greeks and Russians. The first occurred on Oct 7, 1894, wherein we are told that both Greeks and Russians in Chicago worshiped together at the Russian church to “commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Orthodoxy in the New World.”35 Regrettably, this startling fact passes without comment. At the very least, this is clear evidence of the fact that there was clear agreement about the antiquity of the Russian Mission and its primacy in North America. This in fact calls into question veracity of Oleksa’s comment that “the vast majority” of Orthodox immigrants were “totally unaware” of the Alaskan church. Clearly, these Greek-Americans were aware. Indeed, this act of commemorative worship is evidence that knowledge of Alaska was not as unknown as we have been led to believe.

And this was not a singular incident. Later that same year for example, memorial services were held for Tsar Alexander III in all three Greek churches in the U.S., Yet further evidence that there was recognition of the precedence of the Russian Mission and perhaps some degree of dependence upon the czarist government. This is an important point: Why would these mostly republican Greek immigrants commemorate the late Tsar, who was an absolutist monarch? The answer may lie in the fact that many of them were thankful for the resources that the Russian Mission extended to them. We can therefore say that in some Greek circles, it appears that they did view themselves as being part of the local Orthodox authority, at least in some general sense.

As to the fact of Greek “independence” being due to lack of proper canonical and episcopal oversight, this is no matter for pride. Nor was it as unyielding as the critics would have us believe: We learn for example that in the time period in question, that is before the final rupture (1916-1918), six “independent” Greek parishes received antimins from the Russian Mission, thereby placing themselves formally under its jurisdiction. In other words, 7 percent of Greek-American parishes placed themselves under the protection of the Russian hierarchy a good eight years after they were supposedly “transferred” to the Church of Greece by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Interestingly enough, this is the exact same time period in which we are told by Oleksa that the “vast majority” of Orthodox immigrants were “totally unaware of the history of the Alaskan Church.” Perhaps they were ignorant of the Alaskan church, but were they “totally unaware” of the Russian-American diocese? Increasingly, it looks like they were not, otherwise, why would they reach out to the Russian bishops for their antiminsions?

Independent Parishes Under a “Canonical Cloud”

Barbara MacGahan - 1893

Barbara MacGahan - 1893 (Photo SOCHA)

My entire contention about independent parishes being under a canonical cloud increases in strength given the more facts we uncover. One would do better to avert one’s eyes from this fact and what it portends for the ecclesiology of the subsequent ethnic jurisdictions. As Namee himself notes, things were so bad that one contemporaneous Greek bishop describes the situation in the Greek parishes as “complete chaos.” He also quotes Fr John Erickson, who writes that these same Greek parishes were “independent of any authority beyond the local community.”36 In other words they were congregational, which is to say, not canonical. Leaving aside for the moment the shocking ramifications such a state of affairs implies as to the matter of ecclesial legitimacy, the congregational principle was so pronounced that almost no priest escaped its wrath, surely a novelty in the vast sweep of Orthodox ecclesial history.

How chaotic was this situation? According to a contemporaneous letter written to The Washington Post, one Mrs Barbara MacGahan goes to great lengths to distance the canonical Orthodox praxis as found in the churches of the Russian Mission from the antics found in some of these independent parishes.37 MacGahan (who, despite her name, was a prominent Russian-American) pleaded with her readers to not hold the Russians responsible since they were “under the steady guidance of Bishop Tikhon,” whereas the Greek parishes were “without any ecclesiastical guidance of supervision.” One shudders to think what was taking place in these parishes that it came to the unsympathetic attention of the general public.

The Tomos of Transfer

The origin of the incipient Greek exarchate requires more study. We are told that the Church of Greece had “established” the first Greek parish in New York City, and that soon after several other parishes were founded by that same church. In reality of course, the Church of Greece did no such thing; instead these parishes were established, founded, and funded by the Greek immigrants usually under the auspices of quasi-Masonic lodges and the Church of Greece merely accepted them as a fait accompli. Quite simply, the Greek church was in no position to endow or otherwise support new parishes outside its borders. At any rate, in 1908 the Ecumenical Patriarchate was forced by the Turkish government to relinquish control of them to the Church of Greece. (This unsettling fact likewise passes without comment.) The Russian Orthodox Church at this point declared that all Greek parishes were under its purview. Constantinople disagreed and stuck to its original diktat, thus officially creating an extracanonical ethnic jurisdiction in North America as one contemporary critic stated at the time. Critics of the “creation myth” however try to mitigate the severity of this transfer by stating that both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece were already “sending priests to America, resolving parish disputes, consecrating Holy Chrism for use in the New World, and even — in the case of Fr Raphael Morgan — commissioning missionaries to evangelize Americans.”38 Left unsaid is whether either church had the right to do so. As for “commissioning missionaries,” the seriousness of Morgan’s mission is an open question, one not easily resolved by simple assertions.39

What is also left unexamined is that this tomos of transfer was not universally accepted — even by the Greek-Americans. In other words, many continued to view themselves as part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate instead of the Church of Greece; again, a rather startling set of circumstances which the critics choose to ignore. At this point, let me raise the uncomfortable question: If the Greek parishes chose to ignore this edict (from their mother church no less), it follows that they were refusing to accept the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well, thereby cutting themselves off from communion with this church. Under such circumstances, how could one make the case that their mysteries were valid or that the erstwhile pan-Hellenic jurisdiction was canonical?

Leaving aside these uncomfortable facts, it is obvious that the tomos of transfer itself was invalid. To be sure, these parishes’ indifference to the tomos may have been due to their congregationalism, nevertheless the plain fact remains that it was issued, even if under duress. No edict or canon that is enacted under such conditions can be considered valid otherwise, the council of Ferrara-Florence (1449) — which ostensibly healed the schism between Greek East and Latin West — is still in effect. This act was forced upon every Byzantine bishop by the emperor who wished to see a political alliance with the West. As is known, every Orthodox bishop present (except for Mark Eugenicus, the metropolitan of Ephesus) was forced to sign it. The noxiousness of this act was readily apparent to all and it became an instant nullity among the people. Partisans of new anti-Russian Mission creation myth therefore can find no consolation in the tomos of 1908 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate — nor for that matter can the present-day universal jurisdictionalists. At best, the most that both anti-Russian Mission parties can say is that ethnic particularism and ecclesial anarchy is of no concern when studying the origins of the multiple jurisdictions. Indeed, the casual reader could be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that the parade of horribles that the critics describe is in fact a point of pride, at least to the degree which these egregious incidents can be used to dismantle the idea of early American Orthodox unity.

Date posted: June 8, 2010