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Jurisdictional Disunity

and the Russian Mission

After thinking and praying about some of the discussion on OCANews about the history of Orthodoxy in America, I decided to present an overview of the history of the Russian Mission in order to show that we should be careful about the claims we make based on that history. Specifically, I wish to address the misconception that the presence of the Russian Mission on the North American continent precludes the canonical presence of any other jurisdiction in North America. Often this belief is paired with a belief in Orthodox unity prior to the Russian Revolution, a simplistic view unsustained by the actual history of the Russian Mission itself. Typically, this is argued in response to the manner in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate interprets Chalcedon canon twenty-eight, in order to argue for the right to oversee Orthodox Christians in the New World, but I will not argue for such a misapplication of the canon. I do not think we should place our hope in either error (that from history or that from the canon). I realize that some may be concerned about the upcoming meeting in Constantinople in June and where that will leave the OCA in relation to worldwide Orthodoxy, but I do not think it is healthy in the long-run to base our position on a faulty argument from history.


It is correct that Russia established a diocese on North American soil. In 1840, St. Innocent (1797-1879) became the bishop of Kamchatka and the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, the latter of which are on North American territory. A separate diocese for The Aleutian Islands and Alaska was later formed and moved to San Francisco (1870, officially by 1872) and later renamed and moved to New York (permission granted to do so in 1904), being known as the diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America.


When discussing the history of this expanding diocese, however, we must distinguish between a vision promoted by a person or persons within this diocese and the actual context of such a visionary. A vision is something someone has because he or she is looking ahead. A vision is not something like the Encyclopedia Britannica, where we record current facts. I am not using such an analogy to offend the intelligence of the reader but only to show very bluntly and clearly that there is a big difference between current circumstances and someone’s vision. We need to keep this in mind, even when we speak of the vision of St. Tikhon (1865-1925), who oversaw the Russian Mission from 1898 to 1907. He was fully aware that there was not jurisdictional unity and yet he did not treat such people as uncanonical. He wished them the best. One easily attested example of this occurred in 1903 when Fr. Sebastian Dabovich (1863-1940) informed him of the Greeks in San Francisco having a priest and antimins from Greece. He wanted Russia to establish an autonomous diocese, perhaps with autocephalous-like powers, in order to bring order to the chaos he saw around him.


Furthermore, in the report to the Holy Synod of Russia, which was published in November 1905 and in which St. Tikhon proposed an autonomous diocese, he was simply making a proposal, hoping to address what he saw happening. Nowhere in that report to the Synod of Russia did he treat the Orthodox who were not part of the Russian Mission as schismatics, or uncanonical.

He did not complain about foreign bishops adversely affecting his own ecclesiastical prerogatives. He was aware of the relative independence of St. Raphael (1860-1915), who was the bishop of Brooklyn from 1904 until his death in 1915, and oversaw the Syro-Arab community. St. Tikhon also explicitly noted that the Greeks were asking for a bishop from Athens. Tikhon was optimistic and considered it possible that America could become an exarchate of national churches. He did not claim such was already the case. What Tikhon was attempting to do was create canonical order out of a non-canonical situation. For possibly the first time in the history of the Church, several different autocephalous Churches simultaneously viewed their immigrant flocks as missionary outposts in a new land.


As an aside, the issue of the use of English in Orthodoxy is sometimes raised as part of St. Tikhon’s vision for America. Even if one considers the translation work of Isabel Hapgood, however, we are left admitting that St. Tikhon’s vision was good but English was not the dominant liturgical language. That was something for future generations to achieve.


As important as St. Tikhon was and still is for Orthodoxy in America, we often treat him as though he were the only visionary or that all other visions are to be subsumed under his. Why is this? Is it because we fear that if we let St. Raphael step forward as a visionary, we would learn that he considered himself the head of a diocese that was somewhat beholden to both the Russian Mission and Antioch?


Or, let’s take another visionary, one not as well known: Nicholas Bjerring (1831-1900). I’ll mention Bjerring later for other reasons, but I raise him now because he published English translations of liturgical texts. He had converted in 1870 and established an Orthodox chapel in New York later that year (after spending a short amount of time in St. Petersburg earning a doctorate and getting ordained). He was the first convert-priest for the Orthodox Church in the New World and published many English translations of liturgical services. In this way, he envisioned an English-speaking Orthodoxy that could relate to the American setting. Ironically, his translations were hardly used (if ever at all) beyond his own chapel. I have not yet found anyone later in American Orthodox Church history who credits him and his translations (though I’d be greatly obliged if someone were to correct me with an exception or two).


Or, let’s take Fr. Nathaniel (Ingram Nathaniel Washington) Irvine (1849-1921), a Protestant Episcopal convert in 1905. Upon ordination, he headed an English department at St. Nicholas Cathedral and in 1909, petitioned to have an English language chapel. He was finally granted that in 1920. Both Bjerring and Irvine were visionaries with respect to the use of the English language in worship but the reality of their times was not what their vision entailed.


We might even think of St. Alexis Toth (1853-1909), and remember that he was a Russophile and helped establish Russian language schools for parishes. The Eastern Catholics were the main focus of evangelism for the Russian Mission early on, not the surrounding Americans who were already established in the New World. In fact, Fr. Benedict Turkevich (1873-1928), brother to Fr. Leonid Turkevich (1876-1965), the future Metropolitan LEONTY, thought the converted Eastern Catholics should leave America and help settle Siberia, the settlement of which Russia was actively promoting at the time. The Russian Mission had not yet fully expanded her view of the evangelical potential in America.


Visions are one thing. Certainly, the visions of St. Tikhon, Fr. Nathaniel Irvine, and Nicholas Bjerring on the issues of an autonomous diocese and the use of the English language are ones we would still promote to this day. As forward looking as these visions may have been, they were not the only visions and were responding to the surrounding reality, not reflecting it. So, we need to remember that visions are responses to one’s context, not a direct reflection of what one’s context actually is.


As important as it is to distinguish between the vision and the actual context of the visionary, history allows us to go further and state that the establishment of a diocese on North American soil did not necessarily create sacramental and administrative unity for any and all Orthodox people living in North America. Under proper, canonical procedures, one would hope that would be the case, but the American context did not present that.


Even the territory claimed in the name of the Russian missionary diocese expanded and changed over time. We need to remember that initially, the territorial denotation of the diocesan name was Irkutsk and the Kurile and Aleutian Islands. That was in 1840. Alaska was still part of Russia at this time. Alaska was sold to America in 1867 and there was no doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church was the Orthodox Church in Alaska. The treaty made that clear as did the continuation of the diocese. The diocese did move to San Francisco, a move completed and approved by 1872. It had already been renamed in 1870, when the diocese became called the diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow by this time, did envision this as an opportunity to spread Orthodoxy throughout the rest of America, but that was his vision, not what was actually yet happening and not a claim denoted by the diocese’s name.


At this juncture, it is worth asking: how many parishes in what are now called the lower forty-eight states were in the Russian Mission prior to St. Alexis Toth and John Mlinar, one of Toth’s parishioners, seeking out Bishop Vladimir beginning in December, 1890? One. Ft. Ross, which had never been anything more than an outpost chapel, had been abandoned in 1841. By the time John Mlinar visited Bishop Vladimir (bishop from 1888 to 1891), the Russian Mission had had Bishop John (1870-1876) and Bishop Nestor (1879-1882). Bishop Nestor spent most of his time in Alaska even though the diocesan seat was in San Francisco. Bishop Vladimir set liturgical compositions to English and Fr. Sebastian Dabovich preached homilies in English, but the Russian Mission’s presence outside of Alaska before St. Alexis Toth’s conversion was really no more than the cathedral in San Francisco.


What had happened to Nicholas Bjerring’s chapel in New York? Well, in 1883, the chapel was closed and Bjerring was offered a teaching position at St. Petersburg Academy. He declined, though, became a Presbyterian, and then died a Roman Catholic layman, which is what he had been prior to becoming Orthodox. The Russian Mission had established a chapel to New York but it was closed only thirteen years later. For a diocese that only designated the territory of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is a small fact we should keep in mind when considering the ecclesiastical prerogatives of the Russian Mission at the time. It must also be noted that the purpose of Bjerring’s mission was not to evangelize fellow Americans. Bjerring actually publicly discouraged visitors through newspapers at the time and noted that the chapel’s main purposes were to serve the Russian Orthodox in New York and foster good relations with the Protestant Episcopal Church in order to assist in uniting the Episcopal and Orthodox Churches.


There was a Greek Orthodox parish in New Orleans from the 1860s and in the early 1890s, before the Russian Mission returned to New York, Greek parishes were established in New York. For this reason, we need to be very careful with both the “who was in America first” argument and the argument that might claim “there was a diocese on the continent dedicated to evangelizing the whole continent and, therefore, all Orthodox anywhere on the continent were to be subject to that diocese.”


Also, we would do well not to mischaracterize the Greek Orthodox presence. Early on, the Greeks were willing to be open to those who were non-Greek. In one case, Robert Josias Morgan (ca. 1869-1916), a Jamaican from Philadelphia, was ordained in Constantinople in 1907 and later in 1911 tonsured in Athens as Fr. Raphael. He was commissioned to evangelize fellow African Americans. He does not seem to have been successful, but one should not think that only people in the Russian Mission were capable of envisioning the spread of Orthodoxy.


The case of the Serbs and Montenegrins also does not entirely support the idea of early jurisdictional unity despite Fr. Sebastian Dabovich’s efforts on behalf of the Russian Mission. In 1897, Bishop Nicholas and Fr. Sebastian asked the Serbian Orthodox Church to oversee the Serbs in America. The request was refused not because of concerns for Russian diocesan authority over North America, but because the Serbian Orthodox Church could not sustain the infrastructure at that time. Despite this, Serbian parishes would seek Serbian clergy from Serbia under the supervision of Serbian bishops and in 1913, they pursued the logical conclusion of such autonomy and appealed again to the Serbian Orthodox Church for a bishop.


In addition, the continuity between the Russian Mission and the Metropolia did not remain so neat and tidy in the aftermath of the revolution. In 1924, the former Russian Mission declared itself self-governing, thus becoming known as the Metropolia. Moscow, however, cut off communion, and in 1933 re-established the diocese of the Aleutians and North America under Bishop Benjamin.


It is unfair to discount the perceptions others would have had about the status of the Metropolia based on Moscow’s own actions in 1933. Even for those who accepted the idea of pre-Revolutionary unity under the Russian Mission, the recreation of the diocese in 1933 could affect perceptions. The notion that all Orthodox were united under the Russian Mission before the Russian Revolution was first publicly expressed in writing in 1927 by Fr. Boris Burden (1898-1973), an Episcopal convert. At that time, Burden was part of an attempt to create a single jurisdiction, known as the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America, under Archbishop Aftimios, St. Raphael’s successor. In the jurisdiction’s journal, Orthodox Catholic Review, Burden argued that all jurisdictions were under the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the Russian Revolution. Therefore, in keeping with the rift at the time, he considered the Russian Church Abroad, aka Karlovtsy Synod, schismatic. By 1933, however, the attempt at creating a unified jurisdiction had failed miserably and Fr. Boris Burden joined the recreated diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America in 1933 under Bishop Benjamin. At this time, Burden, the first to claim publicly in writing that there had been pre-Revolutionary unity, considered the Metropolia schismatic.


Based on all of this, there are a few things the historical evidence does not allow us to claim. We cannot reasonably uphold a simplistic view of unity, whereby we claim that everyone (or nearly everyone) was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Mission. By the time the Russian Mission did return to New York and claimed (at least in name) to be a diocese of all of North America, the immigration floodgates had opened. By about 1906 and certainly by the time of revolution itself, approximately half of the Orthodox population did not fall under the auspices of the Russian Mission. Further, we cannot claim that the Russian missionary diocese saw itself as the normative diocese for all Orthodox Christians before the 1904-5 move to New York under St. Tikhon. Even then, St. Tikhon himself realized he was trying to make the best of an exceptional situation. The Serbs maintained ecclesiastical ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church and early on, Bishop Nicholas supported their attempt to create an official Serbian presence separate from the oversight of the Russian Mission.


I believe an honest look at the history should cause those of us in the OCA to be humbler in how we state our claims. To call the other jurisdictions uncanonical is unfair in light of the complicated history of the Russian Mission. Such an argument risks being heard and read as nothing short of inflammatory and should that happen, we are likely to hinder the kind of dialogue many of us would wish to see in order to obtain a united American Orthodox Church.


The reality is that America was a place in which Orthodox Christians of different communities formed their Churches and have had to begin working toward unity. That work has been ongoing. It was attempted with the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America in 1927 and later with the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America in 1943. More recently, SCOBA established itself and pan-Orthodox services and ministries have increased. It may not be as romantic to think of ourselves as a group of separate clusters working toward the goal of full administrative unity, but I think it is more truthful with respect to the history of the Churches in North America and less divisive in spirit. Perhaps such a reconception of American Orthodoxy could help us break the gridlock between a misinterpretation of Chalcedon twenty-eight and a misguided perspective on the history of the Russian Mission in North America.


May the Lord grant us the spirit of humility so that someday we all may be able to cry aloud together as a single, fully united American Orthodox Church:

Christ is risen!


Fr. Oliver Herbel

 
 

 

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Fr. Michael Plekon  

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