Back in June, I gave a paper at St. Vladimir’s Seminary entitled, “The Myth of Past Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” The unwieldy title notwithstanding, the premise of my paper was simple: that the commonly-held story of a unified American Orthodoxy which fragmented after the Russian Revolution is, quite simply, not accurate. In fact, administrative division has been part and parcel of Orthodox life in the United States from the very beginning.
In my latest American Orthodox History podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, I interviewed our own Fr. Andrew Damick on the “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” which was an attempt, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to form a single American Orthodox jurisdiction. This is part of my miniseries on past attempts at administrative unity.
In that interview, Fr. Andrew explained that it was from the American Orthodox Catholic Church (henceforth, “AOCC”) that the “myth of past unity” originated. Until the AOCC came along in 1927, nobody, so far as I can tell, ever claimed that all of American Orthodoxy was administratively united prior to 1917. Sure, from time to time, Russian church leaders would claim that everyone should have been under their authority. That was the ideal, but it was obvious enough to everyone at the time that the ideal wasn’t being lived out in practice. It was only later, with the advent of the AOCC, that people started saying that administrative unity had been a fact prior to 1917.
Who first made this claim? As best I can tell, it was Fr. Boris Burden, one of the leading priests in the AOCC. In 1927, Burden wrote,
The advent of Greek-speaking Orthodox Catholics followed this establishment of the Russian Hierarchy by many years, and the early Greek churches and faithful were naturally and canonically under the protection and care of the Orthodox Catholic jurisdiction thus established by the Russian Holy Synod for all American Orthodox residents. [...]
For nearly fifty years after the Russian Hierarchy in America had thus established the first Greek church in this country [in New Orleans,] Greek churches and faithful continued to increase and multiply under the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America. [...]
We have viewed the history of all these [ethnic groups] in outline down to the period just preceding the World War and seen them, at that time, united solidly under one Hierarchy of the Church in America established for them by the Russian Holy Synod.
Burden wrote that in the first issue of the Orthodox Catholic Review, the short-lived official publication of the AOCC. I won’t bother to refute Burden’s assertions here, since I’ve done that elsewhere. But it’s worth noting that Burden himself only converted to Orthodoxy in the early 1920s, so he wasn’t personally around during the supposed period of blissful unity.
A couple years after Burden’s article in the Orthodox Catholic Review, the head of the AOCC, Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, propounded the myth in a series of letters to Archbishop Alexander Demoglou, who was the head of the Greek Archdiocese. These letters appear in Volume II of Paul Manolis’ The History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents. On January 15, 1929, Aftimios wrote,
[...] I secured from the Synod of Russian Bishops in America, who alone exercise the sole and exclusive canonical jurisdiction and authority in America held solely by the Patriarchate of Moscow from 1764 to 1927, the right and authority to establish and conduct an independent American Orthodox Church.
Aftimios repeatedly referred to the “sole and exclusive” canonical authority of the Russian Church in America, which established the AOCC, but at the same time he spoke of the AOCC itself as the “sole canonical jurisdiction” in America. He said that, for 130 years, the Russian Church had “undisputed [...] administration over all Orthodox people in America.”
Aftimios repeated his claims in another letter, dated February 14. Echoing Fr. Boris Burden, he wrote, “[I]n 1860 the first Greek-speaking church was dedicated in the United States with its Greek Priest [...] under and by the sole and exclusive Russian canonical authority and all without ever a word of protest or claim of jurisdiction on the part of Constantinople.” He went on to say that “the first intimation of any Constantinopolitan claim of American jurisdiction” came in the 1908 Tomos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in which the EP gave over its authority in America to the Church of Greece. Aftimios continued:
In characterizing any claim to Orthodox jurisdiction in America other than the Russian as recent, uncanonical, and unhistorical no offence is intended — only the truth is stated plainly and the foundation of the true American jurisdiction derived from the Russian Bishops set forth in essential contrast to others. All others not derived from the Russian Bishops are recent, because they have appeared only during the last twenty years of more than a hundred and fifty years of American Orthodoxy, uncanonical, because they deliberately ignore the Sacred Canons [...] and unhistorical, because they ignore the fact of a long Orthodox history in America under Russian Jurisdiction still continuing and still canonically excluding their claims.
Archbishop Alexander was not impressed. On February 23, he wrote to Aftimios, “[A]s long as Alaska was a Russian territory, the Russians had jurisdiction in their own house, but it makes a great difference thence to jump to Canada, to the United States, etc.”
That logic is reasonable; unfortunately, Alexander had a claim of his own to make. He went on, “The jurisdiction over all Orthodox in the Diaspora, including the whole Western Hemisphere, which includes Alaska as well, being no more a Russian territory, belongs undisputably to the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”
A few days later, in another letter, Alexander said,
It is not true that any group of Greeks in America did ever willingly recognize the asserted Russian jurisdiction in America. [...] And not only the Greeks, but also the most important sections of other Orthodox nationalities in America, did and do reject Russian jurisdiction. [...] 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.
Basically, what we have here are dueling claims to exclusive jurisdiction, with Alexander appealing to Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and Aftimios holding to what might be called the “flag-planting theory.” And, to support his claims, Aftimios also espoused the myth of past unity, saying that not only did Russia have rightful jurisdiction in America, but that everyone — Greeks included — acknowledged it.
How did the leaders of the AOCC come up with this rendition of history? It makes sense that a newcomer like Fr. Boris Burden might not know the true story, but Aftimios Ofiesh had been in America since 1905. He certainly knew full well that there were numerous Greek and other Orthodox parishes which had no connection at all to the Russian Mission well before the First World War.
I suspect what was really happening was spin, pure and simple. The legitimacy of the AOCC depended entirely upon the legitimacy of the Russian Mission in America. If the Russian Mission wasn’t the “sole and exclusive canonical authority” in the New World, then the mission of the AOCC was in jeopardy. That explains why Aftimios would hold to the flag-planting theory, but why bother concocting an obviously false story about everyone actually being under one jurisdiction until 1917?
Well, really, Abp Alexander was right, partly: it was one thing for the Russians to claim Alaska, but to jump from there to Canada, Florida, and all points in between was another matter entirely. To really secure his claim that the Russians were the rightful authority, Aftimios (and Burden) had to act like everyone — the EP included — accepted this reality. He had to act like the very notion that America was up for grabs was, itself, a novel concept. Then, he could make another jump and claim that he, as head of the AOCC, held “sole and exclusive canonical authority” over all of America.
Nobody really believed Aftimios when he made that claim, but the broader myth of unity has hung around a lot longer, all the way up to the present.
ONE MORE THING: A couple of disclaimers, here at the end… I am not saying that the Russian Mission was not the rightful canonical authority in America. I’m not saying that they were, either; as I’ve said before, the question of what was is different than the question of what should have been.
Also, I promised I wouldn’t refute the myth of unity here, but I realized that using the term “myth” might cause some controversy, so I feel like I should justify myself. Here is my point:
- American Orthodoxy didn’t really exist prior to 1890. There was Alaskan Orthodoxy, and there were parishes in San Francisco and New Orleans, but the United States proper just didn’t have a significant Orthodox presence until after 1890.
- As soon as Orthodox parishes started popping up in the US after 1890, there was jurisdictional pluralism. This is a well-documented fact.
Thus, the “myth of unity” is a myth in multiple senses. One definition of “myth” is as follows:
A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.
Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, the “myth of unity” fits this definition. It is a commonly held simplification of our past. Of course, “myth” also has negative connotations, as in, a false story, a fiction. An alternate definition of the word is, “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” I would argue that the “myth of unity” fits this category as well. It is based in truth — in the ideal of the Russian Mission — but it isn’t accurate, and it is often used as a bludgeon with which some American Orthodox Christians beat others over the head.