by Archbishop Peter (L'Huiller) of New York and New Jersey


On the threshold of the third millennium it is legitimate to reflect on the past of Orthodoxy in North America and to think about the future. Taking a systematic survey of the past is certainly outside the scope of our article. Several studies have been made on this subject but since there is an historical continuity, it would be impossible to speak of the future without alluding to the events which have actually led to the present situation. Some very significant data have to be taken into consideration!

Originally, the Orthodox Faith was implanted in America among the indigenous population of Alaska by missionaries coming from Russia and in 1840 a diocese was established, its first bishop, now canonized was St. Innocent. The next stage began when this diocese extended its pastoral care to the immigrants of various nationalities settled in California. An event which can be considered as a decisive landmark in the development of Orthodoxy in America was the return to their ancestral Faith of a large segment of Uniates in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

In 1890 the name of the diocese was changed and became the "Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America." The ruling bishop and the clergy had to care for the increasing number of immigrants coming from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In that context, Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny, an Arab by birth, was elevated to the Episcopal rank by the Ruling Synod of St. Petersburg and put in charge as auxiliary bishop in order to care for the Arab speaking communities of the diocese (1904). We can notice that at that time both the ecclesiological requirements of territorial unity and the need of taking into account the linguistic and cultural diversity were harmoniously conciliated. Then Archbishop Tikhon, later Patriarch of Moscow, envisioned for the near future the establishment of a status of autocephaly for the Church of America encompassing of course all the Orthodox of the country. Soon after, however, a series of partly connected events modified profoundly the ecclesiastical situation. As a consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution the relations between the Church in Russia and America were perturbed and the material support from Russia was terminated. During the decades following the end of the first World War, the immigration of Orthodox continued under the influence of political and economic factors. Among those new immigrants, there was a majority of Greeks. Although now in regression, this afflux of Orthodox Greeks has thenceforth never ceased and they constitute the largest and the most socially prominent component among Orthodox Christians in the United States.

Albeit highly damaging, the process of jurisdictional fragmentation was almost inevitable, more especially as we should bear in mind that before the First World War such a trend had begun to surface among some ethnic groups. The extension of Communist domination over Eastern Europe after the Second World War led to more jurisdictional fragmentation in America because of differences of opinions about the possibility of maintaining allegiance to Mother Churches in countries dominated by Communism. The establishment of the "Standing Conference of Canonical Bishops of the Americas" (SCOBA) in 1960 was a positive endeavor. It brought about a framework for inter-Orthodox consultation in order to formulate some common answers on social issues and it contributed to manifesting a certain consensus in dialogue with other Confessions.

In 1970 the Orthodox Church in America, which had been known as the Russian Metropolia, regularized its canonical relation with the Moscow Patriarchate and was granted the status of autocephaly. The official document (Tomos) contained some strictures in order to avoid the idea that the jurisdictional authority exercised by other Patriarchates was irregular (13 Section 3). However, the granting of autocephaly to the OCA raised some negative reactions especially in Constantinople, but in America eventually it did not fundamentally alter the inter-Orthodox relations.

With respect to the implementation of canonical unity in America, we should notice a change in the attitude of the Metropolia, subsequently the OCA, before and after the sixties.  When in the thirties a substantial group of Uniats from Carpatho-Russian origin approached the Metropolia to be accepted into its bosom under the condition it constitute a diocesan unit, the episcopate of the Metropolia rejected this request precisely because of that condition. In the late fifties Metropolitan Andrei, head of the Bulgarian diocese in America, petitioned to be received into the Metropolia with the same provision, his request was not accepted, in all likelihood for the same reason. However, soon thereafter the Metropolia did not stick to such a canonical strictness. Thus Romanians in 1960, Albanians in 1971 and Bulgarians in 1976 were united to the Metropolia--OCA and were allowed to keep their own diocesan structures. This organizational model is roughly similar, albeit not completely identical, to that followed by the See of Constantinople for America.

As we have seen, the model of Church administration responding to the demand of Orthodox Ecclesiology was broken toward the very beginning of the twenties as a direct result of the new political order in Russia but, as we have noted above, other factors were also at work. Be that as it may, the aspiration to canonical unity never completely disappeared and recently has been clearly affirmed by an overwhelming majority of the episcopate in America (1994). Nevertheless, it would not be realistic to ignore that reconstituting full canonical order comes against serious difficulties, and here we can only mention some of them. In the hierarchy, clergy and people, we can sometimes find the opinion that, by and large, the present status quo is satisfying since the unity of Faith is absolutely preserved and sacramental communion is the usual practice. Furthermore, the following argument is frequently put forward: The existing situation allows the possibility to maintain a close spiritual and, in some cases material, connection with the Mother Churches overseas. This situation, too, preserves the specific cultural and national heritage of various jurisdictional groups.

Actually, those concerns deserve consideration, but the premises of this reasoning are questionable. One cannot reduce Orthodoxy to a mere attribute of national identities; moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that a larger majority of the faithful in our country have reached a high level of acculturation. Must they be regarded as second-class Orthodox? We should, however, clearly state that canonical unity does not at all entail a cultural leveling which could imply either the renunciation of cultural legacy or of legitimate variants in ritual traditions. We do not expect that the full regularization of the proper canonical order required by Orthodox Ecclesiology can be achieved immediately, but this process comprehending several steps cannot be continuously postponed. In a future article, we shall suggest some realistic ways to attain the ultimate goal.

From Jacob's Well
Winter 1997
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America