Monday, January 29, 2018

The Myth of Orthodox Unity in the New World

(Orthodox History) - Nine years ago, at a conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I presented a paper called, “The Myth of Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” My thesis, basically, was that, contrary to the prevailing narrative at the time, Orthodoxy in America was not administratively united prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Greek Archdiocese.

I planned on publishing the paper in a scholarly journal, or something, and at one point we here at SOCHA had a single-issue online journal that featured my paper, but the journal quickly disappeared, and the paper has remained sitting on my hard drive all these years. Until now, because, reinspired (thanks to my wife) to continue my work on church history, I’ve decided to simply publish the latest version of “The Myth of Unity” here at Orthodox History. This version was revised in 2011, and while some of my references to present-day Orthodoxy in America may be a tad outdated, I stand by my evidence and conclusions. I welcome discussion and criticism, and look forward to re-engaging with all who are interested, as I am, in learning more about the history of the Orthodox Church.

Here’s the paper.

The Myth of Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy

By Matthew Namee

January 2011


Orthodox Christians in America today are largely united. They share the same doctrine, the same liturgical tradition, and the same sacraments. Greek priests concelebrate with their Serbian counterparts; Antiochian students attend OCA seminaries. In many cities and regions, the various Orthodox churches have banded together to form elementary schools, nursing homes, and soup kitchens. English is increasingly emerging as the lingua franca.[2] There is quite possibly more unity among American Orthodox Christians today than at any other time in history.

Having said all that, we cannot ignore the fact that as a practical matter, Orthodox Christians in America are divided along “jurisdictional” lines. In most cases, these jurisdictions correspond to specific ethnic groups: Greeks are usually members of the Greek Archdiocese; most Arab Orthodox are part of the Antiochian Archdiocese. In every case but one, the different jurisdictions are subordinate to “Mother Churches” in the Old World, such as Constantinople, Antioch, Moscow, and Serbia. Episcopal territories overlap one another and churches within mere miles of each other often answer to entirely different bishops. The present situation is both organizationally inefficient and difficult to explain to inquirers. Discipline with regard to marriage, ordination, and the reception of converts can and often does differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is therefore understandable that there is a growing call from many quarters for the full administrative unification of the various jurisdictions.[3] Some advocates of administrative unity cite the past American Orthodox experience as an example and an admonition. They argue that there once existed an American Orthodox Church that encompassed all the various ethnic groups, and that the key to our future unification is the re-establishment of that lost unity. In short, they say, we were once united, and we should be again.[4] Yet this widely believed story of past administrative unity is not supported by historical evidence. In fact, as we will show in this paper, early Orthodoxy in America was quite complex. Orthodox Americans organized themselves along ethnic lines from the beginning, and while varying degrees of administrative unity existed between some of the groups, no single American Orthodox Church ever existed. At the same time, this truth of the past need not be an obstacle to future unity; on the contrary, in that very past lie the seeds of a greater unity which may yet come...
Complete article here.


  1. It is interesting how often we recognize that is was the strong faith of an often illiterate group of immigrants that nurtured the seed of Orthodoxy in North America. While the attempted Americanization this article mentions undoubtedly led many immigrants to western Christian practices, that same pressure also led a small group of new American citizens from the Uniate church back to Orthodoxy via Fr Alexander Toth and to a newly organized American Orthodox church, the ACROD, about 100 years ago. Thank you for your recognition of the leadership of the American churches (OCA and ACROD) in your article on the Rally for Life. While I was a young medical student in the 70’s our university made us watch and study various abortion methods, and the professors did their best to coerce us into assisting them. Having been raised in the ACROD, I am thankful that because of my faith, I had enough courage way back then to resist. Nonetheless, this trial made me an effective pro-life speaker and county pro-life chairman later in life

  2. It was Fr.(now Saint) Alexis Toth. When he reposed in 1909, he had brought many Uniates and Uniate churches into the Russian Orthodox Mission in North America.
    ACROD was not formed until the late 30's when Uniate leadership stopped ordaining married men. They went to Constantinople so as to preserve their unique heritage, rather than be Russified.

  3. unity will happen when we all divorce ourselves from foreign rule, as our forefathers did from england --- the problem is that we have no leaders with the vision and mettle to make it happen --- those who are ruled by the foreign elements are afraid to pull away, yet their homeland leadership did, that is why we have so many independent churches ---- it is time to stop cutting bait and to begin to fish --- but alas this means that egos need to be left at the door and we all need tomply nicely in the sandbox --- which is not our proven skill set

  4. Mr Klancko, I would point out the Canadians who had a different path to independence might see a different path to unity then you proposed.

    1. This debate tends to hover somewhere above facts on the ground. Unity will happen with outmarriage, and the eventual outcome that there simply aren't any congregants left with any cultural or linguistic attachment to the original liturgic forms. So it's puzzling to me that there is a Carpatho-Russian jurisdiction in the US. How many "Carpatho-Russians" still exist?

      The confounding factor is hierarchies of those mother countries that depend heavily on remittances from the Americas. The "diaspora" congregations still feel deep obligation to their progenitors.

      "the Canadians who had a different path to independence might see a different path to unity then you proposed."

      I'm not sure how this relates. In the case of the US, we left the Empire; in Canada's case, the Empire left you. I'm not seeing the connection.

    2. The C-R diocese exists in the same way the Serbian or Greek or Russian jurisdictions exist. Merging ACROD into the OCA would just wash off all the Rusyn practices in favor of Russian ones. It wouldn't remove ethnic ties. It would just change out one for another. I guess it could go under Metropolitan Rastislav, but that wouldn't actually do much more than tie a patrimony to a hierarch of that patrimony.

      All that said, a flat "American Church" where one bishop for one area serves parishes of all ethnic ties is a nice idea, but having served in parishes of all stripes it's a simple fact that a Greek parish runs nothing like and feels nothing like and doesn't care about the same things as an OCA parish. They just don't. You NEED oversight that keeps rubrics and music tight and organized. We could one day have that and have vanilla local bishops who support all kinds of parishes, but right now the AoB doesn't show me it can do anything at all beyond pay people to do studies. It has literally accomplished nothing.

    3. There was a remarkable interview with Fr. Patrick O'Grady--an Antiochian priest--on AFR in October 2015. The source document is, unfortunately, no longer up. I excerpted it on my blog and came up with the following bullet points:

      1) The Archdiocese will not abandon its Mother Church, and Antioch disagrees wholeheartedly with Constantinople's interpretation of Canon 28;
      2) Unity is a spiritual state, and not a matter of simply drawing up jurisdictions and divvying them out among the bishops;
      3) As such, Orthodox unity in the Americas must be organic, a process which will necessarily take a long time.

      It's a complicated issue. At some point I imagine there will probably be a Great Council to deal with it but that's a long way in the future. In my humble, unschooled opinion it would be a mistake to view the situation as "dire" or "urgent" and force a solution.

  5. I know I swim upstream on this subject. I don't seek "administrative unity" because I don't think it will solve the problems its proponents say it would, and I think it would make existing problems worse. For example, we in the "new world" (and western europe, etc.) have a serious "secularism" problem, in that the average parishioner is very highly secularized. I note that it is often the "progressive" Orthodox who clamour the loudest for administrative unity. They know that their desired reforms (e.g. women's ordination) would be easier to implement.

  6. Jake, having known Mr. Namee for most of his life, it is highly unlikely he is a "progressive".

    That being said administrative unity is not a cure. Right now there may be a defacto schism in the Church which makes any such unity problematic at least in the verticle integration manner in which it is usually perceived.

    The wish for sameness in approach and outcome is understandable but wrong headed IMO.

    Bishops are called to rightly divide the word of truth not administer a law.

    Quite possibly the differences Mr. Namme comments on are part of our salvation. In a one size fits all environment there is an actual fit never.