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Orthodox Jurisdictions in America

The following is a response by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff in 1996 to a question raised about the history and distinctives of the various jurisdictions in America....

Any answer you could get on this issue would open up the responder to accusations of "jurisdictional squabbling." And during Great Lent, too!

But your invitation was obviously sincere and deserves a response. The one you will get from me will be from the perspective of a priest of the ROCOR for over twenty-five years, so some may perceive it to be biased (I, of course, will consider it perfectly objective...) Legal disclaimer: the opinions I express are my own, etc., etc.

A history lesson: Once upon a time there were no jurisdictions in the US. The Russian Orthodox Church was the first to send missionaries to what is now the territory of the US (namely Alaska, and soon after the entire Western coast—now the states of Washington, Oregon and California. The Russian Church sent priests, and later established the first Orthodox bishopric in the Western hemisphere (in Alaska). Later, Episcopal sees were established by the ROC in San Francisco and New York.

No one in the Orthodox world disputed the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church to be the Mother Church of America, although there were many Orthodox immigrants from other nationalities in the US as well. So the Russian Orthodox Church established Greek and Arab missions under its direction, eventually appointing bishops to head these. Many thousands of former Uniates were also accepted into Orthodoxy in this country by the Russian Orthodox Church, as well

The problems arose with the fall of Imperial Russia. No longer could the Russian Orthodox Church (which was under severe persecution by the communists) adequately take care of the American Missions.

The Russian Orthodox Bishops who happened to be outside the territory of Russia at the end of the Russian Civil War as well as those who emigrated with the remnants of the White Army met together to form the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, under the protection of the Patriarch of Serbia. This was done in keeping with an Ukase by Patriarch Tikhon in 1920, who decreed that if communication with the Central Church Authority will become impossible due to political or other reasons, the bishops should gather together and form a temporary Higher Church Authority until such time as normal order is restored.

The Arab and Greek missions in the US (who had previously been under the control of the Russian Orthodox Church) sought and received support from their own "home Churches" and established independent jurisdictions—now the Antiochian Orthodox Church under the Patriarch of Antioch and the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America under the Patriarch of Constantinople (who expressed that he had ecclesiastical authority over all churches in the "diaspora," a position not accepted by the ROCOR, which sees itself as the rightful successor to the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, as the only free part of it outside of Russia.

Unfortunately, not all the 37 bishops that made up the ROCOR in 1920 remained loyal to its authority. Metropolitan Platon, who had been put in charge of the Russian Orthodox Churches in the US declared "independence" from the ROCOR in 1924 and his followers became self-governing from that time. This was the origin of what is now known as the OCA. Other parishes remained loyal to the ROCOR. In 1934, the Patriarch of Serbia called Metropolitan Theophilus (who had succeeded Metropolitan Platon) to a conference in Belgrade, and unity was restored with the ROCOR, with the American Orthodox parishes operating under a significant degree of autonomy as the American Metropolia.

The end of WWII brought more upheaval. Many in the US thought that Stalin was a "good guy"—an ally, "Uncle Joe," if you will. There was a lot of propaganda that the persecution of the Church in Stalin's Russia had ceased. At an All-American Council of the Metropolia in Cleveland in 1946, the majority of the delegates voted to recognize the Moscow Patriarch as their spiritual head and break with the ROCOR. The bishops loyal to the ROCOR walked out and a split again ensued. The Moscow Patriarchate wanted much more control of the American Church than the Church was willing to give, and so the American Metropolia went its own way, neither under Moscow, nor the ROCOR until 1970, when it negotiated and received "autocephaly" (official recognition of self-rule) from the Moscow Patriarchate.

So, since there are in addition to the Greek, Arab (Antiochian), and Russian Orthodox communities Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbia, Albanian and others, the situation regarding jurisdictions in this country is a mish-mash. Also, since all the churches participated in missionary work, there are many converts to Orthodoxy in each of these jurisdictions, including convert Bishops and priests—so the "ethnic" nature of these jurisdictions has become blurred.

The history lesson I think is important in order to understand how things developed and why we have "jurisdictional soup" here instead of one united and strong Orthodox Church (which had been the eventual goal of the Russian Orthodox Church when it established its missions here).

Now, history aside, there are some pretty clear "distinctives" of another nature that separate the three "jurisdictions" you inquired about. I can't go into this without stepping on some toes, so I apologize ahead of time.

Of the three, the ROCOR is the most "conservative" and "traditionalist." Typically, in its parishes you will not find pews or organs, its clergy will typically appear in public only wearing their rassas, and will typically preserve a traditional beard and long hair. The parishes of the ROCOR are all on the Old Calendar and liturgically conservative. The ROCOR is opposed to Ecumenism in all forms and Freemasonry is condemned.

The Antiochian jurisdiction in America is the most "modernist" of the three and least "traditionalist." It is completely New Calendar. Most of its parishes have pews, some have organs. Its priests (and bishops) wear suits and "clergy shirts," many smoke cigars and cigarettes (virtually unthinkable in ROCOR). The clergy are typically shaven and with short hair. They are liturgically innovative, involved in the ecumenical movement, and tolerant of Freemasonry.

The OCA can be considered somewhere in between. It is predominantly New Calendar, although parishes in some dioceses have been permitted to vote for the calendar of their choice. Most parishes have pews. Many priests wear "clergy shirts" and suits, although many have beards. They are involved in ecumenism as members of the WCC and NCC. Smoking among clergy is tolerated. Their liturgical practices vary widely, from very liberal to quite conservative. They are officially against Freemasonry but it is widespread in many of the OCA's old-line parishes, especially on the East Coast.

Now, I must admit that the above characterizations are by their very nature generalizations. In each of the three groups one actually would find a wide range of practices, so I hope that I won't be attacked by anyone who will tell me that there are ROCOR parishes with Freemasons, or that they know of a ROCOR priest who smokes, or that there are Antiochian priests who never appear without their Rassa and who have long hair and beards, or that there are OCA parishes without pews and a very conservative liturgical practice, just as their are some liturgical innovators in the ROCOR.

But I believe that the generalizations are for what they are worth accurate representations of the range of Orthodox practices and what can be typically found in each.