Holy Trinity Cathedral - Ecclesiology

Orthodoxy in the United States
(On Nationality and Fervor)

Archbishop JOHN (Shahovskoy)

The significance of the United States of America in the life of universal Orthodoxy is becoming increasingly more important. In a comparatively short span of history Americans have built a great government of world importance and created their own form of life using (perhaps not always) the best characteristics of all races and nationalities. Like streams flowing from different hills and valleys these people and their characteristics have flowed together on the wide open spaces of the North American continent, creating a people of great "multinational nationality." This fact is beginning to manifest itself in the life of the American Orthodox Church.

Faith in God, the Origin of Eternity, is not defined by the criteria of any particular age. It is motivated by the spirit of eternity in the temporal. Faith in God inexplicably unites, within itself, the power of sacred historical tradition with the power of fervent spirit. Yet human imperfection, which divides and destroys everything in this world, also effects this characteristic of faith: its immobility and dynamism in the human heart. The human heart either burns with the unscrupulous flame of an insatiable (and incredibly multifaceted) egoism, or is covered with the gray ash of a prosaic existence, taking the past for the eternal and the familiar for the true. This gives rise to all absence of thought in religion.

Thanks to an inadequately inspired understanding of Church Tradition, the Patriarch of Constantinople long considered it his historical (and almost dogmatic) duty not to release from his guardianship those Local Churches who had ripened and matured under his omophorion. He attempted for as long as possible to keep them under his administrative control, though this was harmful to their development.

After the flames of Pentecost the Church’s spiritual power cannot be forever rooted to any single predetermined geographic locality. The Spirit of God cannot be limited; its breath cannot be strangled. The Spirit of God which founded the Church "blows where it wills" (John 3:8), not only in human hearts, but also in the history of nations. Churches that were known throughout the world, when abandoned by the Spirit of God, disappeared from the face of the earth. Where is the Church of Carthage? The Church of Laodicea? The Church of Pergamum? The sin of Byzantium was not in its opposition to the static Roman idea. Byzantium failed because while opposing Rome, it adopted that very Roman attitude itself. Throughout history, this perpetual desire to be the "Second Rome", the "Third Rome" or whatever number, becomes the spiritual fall of any nation or capital. And the essence of Orthodoxy, of course, is not in seizing the "Roman" psychology, but in guarding oneself from it and from Rome itself.

The myth of "Rome" as the perpetual and unalterable center of Christianity and overseer of all of Christ’s concerns in the world was first sinfully taken up by Byzantium and subsequently by Moscow, from where it has fallen into the abyss like the stone which the angel cast into the sea ("Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and hurled it into the sea…"— Rev. 18:21). In our time this myth is attempting to revive itself, surprisingly, in the very dialectic of the October Revolution. Such is its historical evolution and final failure.

But getting back to America.

At first the American Church, which had been united in its missionary efforts since the end of the 18th century, began to break up "without separation" during the 20th century into a series of national churches within the country. And now in our time the Church has begun in a new mature way to realize its unity in the perception of its American locality. In the continuation of this process the Church in the United States now finds itself in a time of parallel jurisdictions of equally canonical Orthodox churches.

Born as a mission in Alaska, the Church became an Orthodox Missionary Diocese in the United States. At that time many "old country emigrants" joined the Church. In Alaska in the early and mid 18th century Orthodoxy took in the native inhabitants of that land, while the Orthodox Church of the United States, like America itself, was formed by immigrants.

In the American Orthodoxy of the last two centuries we can discern the following time periods: "the Aleutian," "the first continental," and "the second continental" or "the establishment of the Local Church," which is our current time period. The second time period could also the called the "Austro-Hungarian," since it was characterized by the conversion to Orthodoxy of many Uniates, Galician Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians, who had come to America from Austria-Hungary. Liberated by their journey to America from a paternalistic government, which confessed Roman Catholicism, many Galicians and Carpatho-Russians now on American soil chose the faith of their ancestors, which they had never given up in their hearts.

Up until the teens of this century the sole Orthodox Church of America was the Russian Diocese in the United States. Shortly before the First World War, in view of the growth of immigration from Europe and Asia Minor, it began on a path of division by national characteristics. This was a type of "growing pain," a painful yet productive separation, for the purpose of achieving a deeper self-consciousness, and eventually a deeper and better unification. This "pang" is apparently coming to an end; the American Church is beginning to perceive its face in a new way, its objectives and its unity on a new continent.

We are now, at the beginning of the 60s of this century, in the third period of Orthodox Church unification and confirmation of the canonical American locality. This is an important time. Having spiritually outgrown the old nationalisms, the Churches of God in America have come to recognize their proximity to each other and to form through the act of faith and love for each other a new Orthodox collegiality. The Churches of America have the desire to unite in order to grow in their Orthodoxy among the so many dynamic and religious spheres of America. We are finding a new Orthodox unity, better than before. This unity is based on local organization – a principle that is in accordance with Orthodox spirit and the canons of the Church.

Beginning with the second generation of immigrants, a process of Orthodox growth in American life is taking place. We must not lag behind this process. It would be dangerous to slow it down like a child who will not be taken from its mother’s breast, although he is no longer a child. He has not only learned to walk, but has built himself a house. He is building the temple of God… Yet there is much that remains tribal, and such a lack of fervor!

Considering the labors, trials and suffering of the Mother Church in the Russian land, and taking accurate account of our spiritual inadequacy in the United States, all the same one cannot ignore the reality that the institution of the "Exarchate of the Patriarch of Moscow," for example, here in America is ecclesiastically a type of "breast feeding child," ignorant of the fact that it is slowing down the evolution of the Church in this country.

Justifiably overcoming the "childish" principle of the "exarchate" and taking upon itself full responsibility for Church life in America, the Metropolia, at the All-American Councils has creatively separated itself from its Mother, for the sake and in the interest of the Church. Every child is separated from its mother in this way, when its umbilical cord is severed. Every daughter is separated from her mother when she marries, and should her mother desire that she remain at her home under her supervision, her daughter would then find disagreement with her own mother. And moreover, if the mother is too dilatory in regard to the first phase of her love, not understanding her daughter’s new life, she may destroy that life, in which case the daughter, in spite of all her love for her mother, would be forced to contradict her in defense of her new, God-given family. (It is furthermore agreed that this becomes necessary when the mother "enters a second marriage," setting up a new household, which is no longer recognizable to the daughter.) These examples may help explain to some degree the position of the American Metropolia with regard to the Russian Church in the USSR and with regard to the Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, founded in America in the thirties by Archbishop Benjamin (Fedchenko), who (at that time) even made certain political demands of American citizens. Everyone is familiar with that awful period of [Stalinist] repressions, during which Archbishop Benjamin, a sincere, although easily allured and emotional archpastor, began his work in America.

The typical psychology of the Russian Church Outside of Russia with their "Belgrade" political affections of the twenties, concentrating mainly on Russia’s past, also does not fit in with the apostolic mission in America. This ecclesiastical psychology was transplanted to the ecclesiastical soil of America shortly before Archbishop Benjamin’s political action. There is no need to charm the Orthodox people of America with mirages of the past or contemporary fiction. An ideal path to eternity must be found.

If during the years of the Second World War the position of the Russian Exarchate in America was somewhat strengthened by the Soviet-American temporal alliance, the postwar years saw an increase in the ranks of the "Church in Exile." ("Displaced persons" upon arriving at the docks of New York, were specifically directed as to the church they must attend in America and cautioned against any other. Such psychological exclusivity could strengthen the "church in exile" in America for a short time only.) The wartime enthusiasm for brotherly love has passed, and the great migrations from foreign shores are over. The faithfulness of the Metropolia to the paths of Christ’s Church in America is more clearly represented in life itself, in its simple truthfulness. And this will be more clearly revealed with each decade.

Unifying Orthodox peoples of varied social convictions and national origins, "rightists" and "leftists" and "moderates", and everyone for whom only the Church is precious as the most exalted Truth of the world, and not as a weapon in any sort of earthly struggle, the American Metropolia continues on its path. Only the Truth of the Lord "endures forever." And we must in every way facilitate the ways of this Truth in the world, freeing ourselves and Christ’s Church from all sorts of political "burrs," which catch on to clothing so easily, the clothes of lay people and especially the cassocks of priests. (The cassock even has a larger area for burrs to attach themselves!)

As the fires of Pentecost cannot be extinguished, so the process of pan-Orthodox unification in the world cannot be pushed aside. This unification is the exaltation of the Church’s consciousness to the Kingdom of Heaven. This process is continuing and must continue in America until it reaches the ultimate institution of a Local Church in this country, recognized by all churches. In the final reckoning all the Local Churches will be obliged to recognize and bless the Orthodox Church of America.

In spite of its pan-Hellenic tendencies, the Greek Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople has become accustomed to the process of pan-Orthodox conciliarity. The Syrian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Albanian Churches, overcoming their particularisms, are also on the path. The outward sign of this was the formation in 1959 of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America, which has already assumed the title of the "Orthodox Church in America." (On January 24, 1961, near New York City at the residence of the Metropolitan of the Russian American Metropolia, the fourth meeting of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America took place. The fifth meeting of the Council took place on August 8 of this year.)

All believers must feel a proximity to each other, not only because of their earthly tribe, but primarily because of the flame which was ignited over the earth on Pentecost. That flame desires to consume all tribes and nationalities. Such is the truth; such is the spirit of the age to come. Christ’s Orthodoxy, Russian, Greek and the multinational Orthodoxy of America, should be determined more in the world by the current of Christ’s universality and ubiquity.

And that is the promised spirit of the "new man," which is "constantly renewed in the image of its Creator and brought to know God. There is no question here of Greek and Jew … but Christ is all, and is in all." (Col. 3:11).

Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco

Russko-Amerikanskii Pravoslavnii Vestnik, August 1961, pp. 115-118

Translated from Russian by Robert Parent

Last modified: October 28, 2006 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.