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Religion: An American Orthodoxy?

5 minute read

Eastern Orthodoxy is America’s “fourth faith”—and perhaps its most thoroughly fragmented. The 3,000,000 Orthodox Christians in the U.S. are mostly second-or third-generation immigrants, and their churches have developed as daughter colonies of ancient sees in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Theoretically, nothing would make more sense than to link these assorted Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Syrians, Ukrainians and others—all of whom share a common faith—into one American Orthodox Church. That dream has now reached the talking stage, only to become embroiled in the kind of old-world intra-church rivalry that has plagued Orthodoxy for centuries.

The first concrete step toward creating an independent American Orthodoxy has been taken by the Russians, who have no less than three separate churches in the U.S. By far the largest is the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic hurch of America, known generally as the Metropolia, with jurisdiction over some 350 parishes. The Metropolia has a somewhat irregular status in Orthodoxy. During the early years of the Russian Revolution, it was cut off from contact with the Patriarchate of Moscow and was forced by circumstances to elect its own bishops. When the Patriarchate was restored to ecclesiastical power by the Soviet Union, it refused to recognize the Metropolia and organized instead its own Exarchate, or ecclesiastical province in America, which claims about 65 parishes. Over the years, these rival churches have fought bitterly with each other, and also with another church founded by Czarist White Russian refugees. Last year, however, the Patriarchate of Moscow tentatively agreed to withdraw its Exarch and recognize the Metropolia as “the Orthodox Church of America,” which would then be able to invite other Orthodox bodies in North America to join its fold.

The Russian proposal—reasonable as it may seem on the surface—has thoroughly outraged the largest and wealthiest Orthodox body in the U.S., the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, claiming 443 parishes. The Russians contend that they have a canonical right to establish an “autocephalous” (self-governing) church in America, on the basis of historical preeminence: Orthodox canon law, they say, gives rights over a missionary district to the first hierarchy that establishes itself in a new area—and the Russians have had a diocese in North America since 1840. The Greeks, who did not establish their American archdiocese until 1921, insist that other Orthodox canons give jurisdiction over all believers in the “diaspora churches” to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, first among equals of the world’s Orthodox bishops.

Symbolic Eminence. The argument over the proposed American church is merely the most recent agitation in a simmering rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow that has gone on for centuries. Despite their symbolic eminence, Patriarchs of Constantinople retained little effective power in Orthodoxy outside of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of that city to the Turks in 1453; the Russian Church has tried sporadically to assume a de facto position of pre-eminence ever since. What particularly annoys Patriarch Athenagoras about the Russian proposal is that he has long dreamed of organizing a “holy and great synod” that would bring together all of Orthodoxy for the first time since the last worldwide synod, at Nicaea in 787. One topic on the proposed agenda for the synod would be the creation of a unified American church.

Athenagoras felt so strongly about the Russian plan that last January he wrote a letter to Patriarch Alexis of Moscow, expressing his “surprise and sorrow” and warning that if carried out, it would lead to “disastrous consequences” for Orthodoxy. He also threatened not to recognize the new church—an act that may well lead to a serious estrangement between Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.

Realizable Goals. The man most vitally affected by the quarrel is Archbishop lakovos, 58, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. lakovos is not only Athenagoras’ American deputy (and a possible successor to the Ecumenical Patriarch); he is also the most gifted and charismatic churchman of his faith in the U.S. As chairman of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, lakovos would be the logical choice to preside over a unified American church. He strongly feels that the Standing Conference, which includes bishops of the Metropolia, is the only organization that can create an American church without causing disruption. The Moscow plan, in his view, would seriously divide Orthodoxy in America, just at the moment when both unity and independence for the churches are becoming realizable goals. “Orthodoxy cannot survive in the form of national groups in this country,” he acknowledges, but he adds that “my clergy and I feel that we are following the right path to Orthodox unity, and we will not unite with any other scheme. I can only hope that reason and prudence will prevail.”

Whether prudence in lakovos’ definition prevails now depends upon the decisions of a Russian Orthodox synod that will meet in Moscow, probably next month, to discuss independence for the Metropolia. If it goes ahead with the plan, Orthodox Christians in America may then be faced with a conflict between their yearning to ally themselves with the new independent church, and their traditional respect for the Ecumenical Patriarch as the living symbol of Orthodox unity.

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