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5.01.09

A Response to Some Objections

by Father Oliver Herbel


Since offering my reflection on the early history of Orthodox Christianity in America, the discussion has only increased. Overall, I think this is good. We need to take an honest look at our past and doing so can often be a painful experience. Some of the responses have been directed at me more with the intention of insulting me rather than engaging me in a discussion of the history itself. I hope we can all begin rethinking this and praying about our responses before we submit them. This is clearly a hot topic and I think we will be better Christians if we can work through this with some charity. We will even be in a position to be open to the kind of discussions that could further Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America, for that is my sincere hope.

I would like to discuss the open letter by Mr. George C. Michalopulos, since he was willing to write such a long piece and because by addressing his letter, I will address parallel concerns noted by others elsewhere. There were several places where he displayed an ignorance of the source material and even attributed arguments to me that are not actually within my reflection.

Let me provide some of these examples.


At one point, he says, “Just because a visionary ideal has not been met doesn’t make the dioceses any less real.” I agree. I never once disputed the existence of the dioceses. In fact, I mentioned the expanding missionary diocese throughout my reflection. A closer reading would have elicited this fact. Michalopulos claimed that I accused the Metropolia and OCA of being hostile to Bjerring and Irvine. I said no such thing, only noting that Bjerring left after his chapel was closed and that Irvine’s request for an English language parish in 1909 was not granted until 1920.

 

He also viewed my portrayal of St. Raphael as follows: “St. Raphael was no freebooter who wandered the length and breadth of North America because he had nothing better to do or because he had his own resources.” Again, I agree. I never said such things. To attribute all of this to the phrase “relative independence” is to read a lot into those words. All that can be done is to note that I claimed a “relative independence.”


Relatedly, Michalopulos “fear[ed]” that I made up “an unfortunate rivalry between Ss. Tikhon and Raphael,” that I presented them as “antagonists,” and that I need to “be aware that both Hawaweeny and Toth have been glorified.” I specifically referred to them as saints in my reflection. Suggesting otherwise is dishonest. As for St. Raphael’s relative independence, this can be noted by anyone willing to take a little time and read from St. Tikhon’s 1905 report to the Holy Synod and note that St. Tikhon considered St. Raphael “almost independent” and envisioned a North American Church with bishops for various ethnic groups, who would act similarly to diocesan bishops do now. Those who cannot readily gain access to the 1905 Russian Orthodox American Messenger (Amerikanski? Pravoslavny? Viestnik) could consult the 1975 St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly English translation (though a 1905 English translation was also made). All I did was introduce an observation from source material. I did not claim any “antagonism.” Tikhon’s proposal assumed a breakdown along ethnic lines, not geographical lines.


St. Raphael himself hedged on his position vis-à-vis the Russian missionary diocese, claiming that his consecration was “by the order and permission of Melatois [sic], the Patriarch of Antioch.” St. Raphael also noted that the patriarch “had instituted the new diocese as one of the dioceses pertaining to the See of Antioch and thus it is in actuality, notwithstanding its nominal allegiance to the Russian Holy Synod.” And furthermore: “[T]he territorial jurisdiction of the See of Antioch became much more extensive during the time of his beatitude [Patriarch Meletios], for Syrians who emigrated to many other countries still retained their spiritual relations with and continued to acknowledge and yield allegiance to their mother church, the Holy Church of Antioch.” Therefore, far from having any antagonism on this matter, both saints acknowledged St. Raphael’s relative independence. Both saints realized America presented a non-canonical situation to the Orthodox Church.


Michalopulos also claimed that I minimized St. Tikhon’s vision “by stating that if it were not for Fr. Toth and Mr. John Mlinar, who made the overtures to the Russian bishops Vladimir and Nestor to bring in the Eastern Catholics, then Tikhon’s vision would have remained that and nothing more.” I did not state this anywhere in my reflection. I would not have claimed that Toth and Mlinar visited Bishop Nestor. Toth was years away from even arriving in America when Nestor was the bishop. I did nothing more than point out that before St. Alexis Toth’s time, the Russian missionary diocese had only one parish in what is now called the lower 48. I then followed up by noting that the Eastern Catholics were the main targets of early Russian evangelization. This is just the way things were.


Nor did I dismiss Hapgood’s translation. It is important. I simply stated that one cannot use that to claim English was widely used early on in order to bolster the Russian missionary imperative. Michalopulos claimed, “nobody” ever made such a claim, but I remember hearing a homily not too long ago that pressed in this very direction. Michalopulos also said he was ignorant of those claiming a “golden age of unity.” Perhaps, he is technically correct with respect to the adjective “golden,” but the myth of pre-Revolutionary unity has been published, even in sources that Michalopulos and Ham limited themselves to in their work. Ironically, Micahlopulos himself argued against me in favor of pre-Revolutionary unity.
With regard to some counter claims, let’s start with St. Alexis Toth and the Eastern Catholic Carpatho-Rusyns. St. Alexis Toth was a Russophile. Those who may be interested in his conversion can soon read either my dissertation or the forthcoming book version (though there will be some lag time with the latter). St. Alexis Toth did not publish a reflection in which he debated which bishop to find. He was only going to look to Russia. Another counter claim Michalopulos made was that one or two examples of non-whites as missionaries did not equal “evangelical fervor.” Michalopulos needed to perform a closer reading of my reflection. My point was only that Morgan was commissioned specifically to reach out to those of African descent and that this was one example of non-Russians being open to others and considering their own presence as missionary. He was not the only one. The Greeks were receiving priests through Athens and Constantinople and the priests themselves were calling their work “missionary.” This can be gleaned from a simple reading of newspapers and letters from the time. Even my observation that Dabovich noted the Greek priest and antiminsion in San Franscico is verifiable. Although Michalopulos doubts Dabovich’s claim, a church historian ought only to doubt if a reason for doubt exists. I am unaware of any reason to be so skeptical. St. Tikhon himself accepted this at face value.


His final five points are easily addressed. The fact that the Russian diocese was the first diocese in North America and the others came after the Russian Revolution proves nothing more than that simple fact. It does not undercut the fact that Greeks and others were establishing parishes with priests with antimensia. Further, it does not mean the Russian Revolution caused the other dioceses to come into existence. Like always, we need to be careful to conclude only what the sources allow us to conclude. As for the second point, that only the Russians had a bishop physically present in North America, that does not negate what Athens and Constantinople and Bulgaria and Bucharest were doing with their missionary communities. Priests were being sent with antimensia to be missionaries to immigrant flocks. This, by the way, is why we have antimensia in the Orthodox Church. The bishop is often not physically present at our parishes for Divine Liturgy. As a side note, one should observe that antimensia are replaced over time, so we would be remiss to make the presence of century old or older antimensia the touchstone of historical proof. As for the third point, that non-Russian parishes were under a canonical cloud, Russian parishes could be under a canonical cloud, too, at times. Bjerring’s parish in New York was not within diocesan territory during his time, either. St. Tikhon wished to structure the archdiocese along ethnic lines rather than territorial and began to do so with St. Raphael and Fr. Sebastian Dabovich. America as a whole was “cloudy.” In his fourth point, Michalopulos objected to the way in which the various dioceses were established, but they were recognized by their patriarchates. Again, America is a canonical mess for everyone.

As for point five, I did not argue that the Metropolia could not claim any continuity to the Russian Mission that went before. I simply noted the Russian Orthodox Church reestablished the diocese in 1933, which meant that at that time, the canonical Orthodox would have looked to that diocese as the canonical one and they should not be condemned for doing so. Noting this does not mean I gave full assent to the Soviet regime.


In conclusion, Michalopulos has not provided a single piece of evidence contrary to my initial reflection. He has argued vociferously against arguments he thought I gave (or wanted me to give) but he has not shown a healthy engagement with either my reflection or relevant historical sources. As this conversation moves forward, I hope people will feel encouraged to sign their names to comments and begin to research the sources themselves. Let us not be held captive to the conventional mendacity built up over the decades.

 
 

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