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Greek response to Orthodox Church in America autocephaly

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The Greek response to the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) consisted primarily in a number of letters and statements made in the early 1970s by the ancient autocephalous patriarchates of the Orthodox Church—the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—along with the Church of Greece. Like most autocephalous Orthodox churches worldwide, the Greek churches rejected the grant of autocephaly by the Church of Russia to the American Metropolia (the former name of the Orthodox Church in America), and with the leadership of Patriarch Athenagoras I (Spyrou) of Constantinople, issued various responses detailing canonical, historical and practical arguments against the grant.

The primary documents detailing these churches' response were published initially in the Orthodox Observer, the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and published in 1972 in book form as Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions. The book also includes an introductory essay by Archbishop Iakovos (Coucouzis) of America, a Prolegomena Fr. Nicon D. Patrinacos, and an appendix by Metropolitan Emilianos, permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches. The authors of the responses of the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Greece are Pope Nikolaos, Patr. Elias IV, Patr. Benedictos and Abp. Ieronymos, respectively, the primates of their respective churches. (All page references below are from this volume.)

Most of the arguments detailed below are shared in the responses of all the churches and of the other essays included in the volume, but the Churches of Constantinople and Greece give the most detailed comments (pp. 30–44 and 53-67, respectively).

Some of the above correspondence is also included in a volume published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, The Autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (originally published in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly), accompanied by articles by John H. Erickson and Alexander Schmemann defending the autocephaly.

Shortly after the official correspondences of the hierarchs to one another, Panagiotis N. Trempelas, a former member of the faculty at the School of Theology at the University of Athens, published The Autocephaly of the Metropolia in America, which gave more detailed historical and canonical arguments against the grant of autocephaly, including a rebuttal of the Schmemann article, "A Meaningful Storm".

Arguments in favor of OCA autocephaly[edit]

The Muscovite-Metropolia arguments (made on canonical, historical and practical grounds) being refuted by the Greek Orthodox world may essentially be summarized as follows:

  • Each autocephalous church has the right to grant autocephaly to its ecclesiastical daughter communities.
  • The grant of autocephaly served to regularize relations between the Church of Russia and the Metropolia and gave the latter much-needed self-governance.
  • The Church of Russia had sole canonical jurisdiction in North America prior to 1970 because:
    • Russians were the first Orthodox Christians in America.
    • It was the first to establish a diocese in America.
    • Other Orthodox in America recognized Russia's jurisdiction until the Revolution.
  • The Church of Russia thus has the right to grant autocephaly to the Metropolia based on prior historical presence in North America.
  • Recognition of autocephaly normally takes time but eventually always comes.
  • The OCA's autocephaly promotes Orthodox unity in America.

Arguments against OCA autocephaly[edit]

Canonical arguments[edit]

  • Decisions regarding autocephaly belong to "a Synod representing more generally the entirety of the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and especially to an Ecumenical Synod" (p. 38).
    • This is especially so because a new autocephaly changes the canonical order of the whole Church.
  • "Specific canons exactly characterizing autocephaly are not to be found in ecclesiastical legislation" (p. 36).
  • Establishing missions in what was then part of the Russian Empire (Alaska), a few churches in major industrial centers, and then wooing numerous ex-Uniates to its fold did not canonically give the Church of Russia sole ecclesiastical jurisdiction over an entire continent.
  • It is against canonical and traditional order for a diocese regarded as having been in schism (as the Metropolia had officially been by Moscow from 1933 to 1970) to be suddenly granted autocephaly.
  • Autocephaly by its nature includes a total territorial definition, which Moscow's tomos does not make, especially because it kept dozens of parishes for itself in North America and makes no claim over the majority of Orthodox parishes in America. This is a "paradox... unheard of in the Orthodox chronicles" (p. 51).
  • No autocephalous Church may extend its jurisdictional boundaries without the consent of the whole Church (in Russia's case, those boundaries were defined in 1591).
  • Autocephaly must require the full agreement of the people and leadership in the territory in question, but the OCA's autocephaly only represented the agreement of a minority of Orthodox America. St. Tikhon of Moscow said this regarding the Church of Georgia, that its autocephaly must be "the universal and fully agreed upon wish of the people" (p. 49).
  • Right to jurisdiction does not follow from setting up a bishop; rather, setting up a bishop follows from prior agreed upon jurisdiction: "it is the undoubted jurisdictional rights over a territory that constitute the indispensable condition for the right to appoint a bishop, not the claiming of jurisdictional rights as a result of having appointed a bishop there. The appointment and establishment of a bishop in a particular place cannot be used as a means of jurisdictionally annexing that place" (p. 55).
  • "We wonder how the Church which first established a bishop in Sitka, San Francisco, or elsewhere on this vast continent, could attempt to jurisdictionally subjugate this whole country. Certainly you are not ignorant of the fact that America is larger and of larger population than Europe, and also of the fact that the Ecumenical Synods decreed with precision on the boundaries and other jurisdictional matters of sparcely [sic] populated communities and even villages" (pp. 55–56).
  • "...even if it appears to some that these territories [i.e., North America] are under the jurisdiction of no one, one thing is certain that they are not under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchal Throne of Moscow," but that "The holy Canons have clearly decreed that, 'the Churches of God in the barbaric nations are governed according to the tradition of the Fathers' [i.e., their mother churches, referencing Canon 150 of the 2nd Ecumenical Council]" (p. 59).
  • "The title, mother-Church, as the inspired 150 Fathers implicitly signified, is only a sign of honor, of no rights whatsoever. The Church in Jerusalem never exercised any authority on the rest of the Churches... even though it was from there that all of the Godly Apostles who attracted and tutored us to the state of obedience of Christ set off" (p. 62).

Historical arguments[edit]

  • Autocephaly normally proceeds along secular boundaries only because Orthodoxy has been the established Church in those nations.
  • Autocephaly has been proclaimed multiple times, but always failed without the assent of the whole Church. (The Churches of Carthage, Mediolana (Milan), the First Justiniana, Ochrid, Trnovo, Ipek, and Iberia are all given as examples by Patr. Athenagoras on p. 37.)
  • The period of Russian Orthodox expansion out of Alaska is also the same period during which other Orthodox jurisdictions were established on American soil.
  • The various Orthodox communities in North America did not always recognize Russian jurisdiction; they were often quite isolated and had no real contact with the Russian hierarchy. Thus, they saw themselves as beholden to their mother churches, not to Moscow.
  • Greeks were the first to establish a presence on American soil in New Smyrna, Florida, in 1767, 26 years before St. Herman arrived in Alaska in 1794; at that time both Florida and Alaska were colonial possessions, Alaska being part of the Russian Empire, and Florida a possession of the Spanish Crown. The United States as a political entity dates from 1776.
  • The first Orthodox parish established on American soil was by Greeks in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1864, three years before Alaska became American and four years before the first Russian parish was established in American territory (in San Francisco).
  • The claim that each autocephalous church may grant autocephaly to its daughter churches contradicts Russian history, in which Russia claimed independence for itself more than 150 years before Constantinople and the rest of the Church recognized it: "If the autocephalous status derives from Christ, why was the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America anathematized by you instead of being approved and praised for severing itself from its Patriarchate and its mother Church—as some other Churches did too—by right of its own will and against the Canons?" (p. 61).

Practical arguments[edit]

  • The Metropolia was already self-governing and had been for decades.
  • The grant creates an overthrow and upheaval of ecclesiastical order.
  • Obsessive focus on jurisdictional issues obscures the true work of the Church, especially regarding its youth.
  • Russian Orthodoxy remains disunified on American soil, remaining under three jurisdictions; the OCA's autocephaly failed to produce unity even for the Russians.
  • The issue of unity in the diaspora had already been referred to the agenda of an upcoming Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Churches. Moscow's unilateral move was an affront to the community of the Church. "For this reason we are at a loss to explain the haste shown by the Russian Orthodox Church in announcing as Autocephalous a relatively small section of the Russian Orthodox Diaspora in America, and conferring upon this Church a title disproportionate with reality, after having only recently recognized her jurisdiction" (p. 43).
  • The name "The Orthodox Church in America" is a misnomer, as the body only comprises a minority of Orthodox faithful in America and is not representative of Orthodox America, but mainly represents a certain subsection of Slavic Orthodoxy in America (particularly ex-Uniate, Russianized Carpatho-Russians).
  • Moscow's act creates confusion regarding the true nature of canonicity.
  • Moscow's act is an attempt to extend Soviet influence into America (p. 20).


  • Autocephaly: The Orthodox Church in America. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. 1971. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions. New York: Orthodox Observer Press. 1972. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  • Trempelas, Panagiotis (1974). The Autocephaly of the Metropolia in America. Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross School of Theology Press. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png

External links[edit]

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