How ROC intruded into America: the 4th answer to Abp Chrysostomos, Part 2

01 February 2021 17:00
The Autocephalous Church in America was created legally. Photo: UOJ The Autocephalous Church in America was created legally. Photo: UOJ

We continue our analysis of the last thesis of the head of the Cypriot Church, where he accuses the ROC of “illegally founding” the Orthodox Church in America.

Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus, recognizing the Ukrainian schism called the "Orthodox Church of Ukraine", made a number of claims against the Russian Orthodox Church, choosing for himself the role of "information killer" of the Church of Constantinople. He actually voiced accusations that were previously expressed by Phanariots and their sympathizers only behind the scenes. Some of them concerned the situation in America: “Who gave them the right to found an autocephalous Church in America? This interference of others in jurisdiction caused upheavals in the entire Orthodoxy."

An analysis of the church situation in America was begun in the first part of the publication “How ROC intruded into America: the 4th answer to Abp Chrysostomos, Part 2”. We bring to your attention its continuation.

Heresy of phyletism

The actions of Meletios in 1918-21 to create the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which violated Canon 2 of the II Ecumenical Council, as well as many parallel rules, led to the confusion of the Churches in America, a violation of the canonical order of the church system. The consequences of this were numerous shocks and divisions of the Orthodox communities.

Local Churches, including some of the Greek Churches, did not recognize Meletios's novelties in terms of Phanar's monopoly on the Orthodox diaspora, which in itself testifies that this decision was precisely a novelty, not characteristic of church tradition.

Even the Church of Greece itself did not recognize Meletios's decision to re-subordinate the Archdiocese of America to the Phanar. The Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church appointed an alternate Archbishop, and the split in the newly created structure lasted until 1931.

But the very fact of the creation of parallel Greek church structures in America, based on an ethnic principle, became for many Churches the temptation of phyletism, previously condemned as heresy. After all, Constantinople’s "tomos of diaspora", on which the actions of Meletius were initially based, was already an act that assumed precisely the ethnic formation of communities.

It is worth pointing out that such a principle itself was previously condemned by the Constantinople Church. Moreover, in 1872 it was declared heresy.

The first patriarchal see by honour gave an example of disregard for the canons and the application of phyletism, condemned by it, to the entire Orthodox world, thereby triggering the “domino effect”.

Domino effect in the confusion of Churches

The domino effect launched by Constantinople in violation of the canonical order in America followed not long after.

In 1918, following Meletios, the bishop of the Antiochian Church Germanos (Shehadi) arrived in America. By this time, in the North American Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church, there was already a vicariate for Orthodox Arabs headed by Bishop Raphael (Havavini). Bishop Germanos managed to persuade some of the Arab communities to go under the jurisdiction of the Church of Antioch, thereby creating its jurisdiction in the United States. Some Arab parishes remained in the ROC. This division continued until 1975. As a result of ethnophyletic sentiments, the division of Arab Orthodoxy in America arose one after another.

As a result of one of them, the "American Orthodox Catholic Church" (AOCC) was formed. In 1933, with the assistance of the above-mentioned AOCC, the so-called "Exarchate of the Alexandrian Church in America", the recognition of which by the Church of Alexandria itself is highly doubtful, at least until 1947, when, according to some sources, it received recognition and the name "Alexandrian Greek Orthodox Catholic Church in the United States". After 1950, it split and lost one of its parts of the connection with the Alexandrian throne. In 1986, it proclaimed its autocephaly as the "Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of America and Canada", which is not recognized by the Orthodox world, and the very status and position of this jurisdiction is highly questionable.

In the 1920s, the parishes of the Jerusalem Church appeared in the United States, united in the Epitropy of the Holy Sepulcher in America, reorganized in 2002 into the vicariate of the Palestinian-Jordanian communities in the United States. In 2008, Constantinople succeeded in securing its transfer to its Greek Archdiocese of America.

In 1921, the Council of the Serbian Church decided to create an American and Canadian Diocese based in Chicago and called for parishes from the North American Metropolis to transfer to it. Its first bishop was St Nikolaj Velimirović. Perhaps, it was the personal factor of its first ruling hierarch that saved the Serbian Diocese in America from subsequent schisms that are so characteristic of other jurisdictions on this continent.

In 1922, part of the Romanian parishes was separated from the North American Metropolis. In 1923, one of the Romanian priests (Victor Muresan) was appointed Dean of the American Romanian parishes. In 1930, the Romanian Church decided to establish its own diocese in America. In 1934, this decision was supported by the Romanian authorities. In 1939, the ruling bishop of this diocese, Polycarp (Moruska), went to Romania not to come back because of the outbreak of World War II. The bishop who replaced him refused to accept the clergy of the diocese. As a result, the actual separation of the Romanian parishes from the Romanian Church took place in 1948. Part of the clergy, disagreeing with this decision, created in 1950 "an autonomous Orthodox Romanian bishopric of the Americas", which received the Romanian bishop. The part of the Romanian parishes that broke away from the Romanian Orthodox Church elected their own "bishop", who received "consecration" from the Ukrainian schismatics. After ten years of being in schism, in 1960, this group asked the North American Metropolis to accept it into its membership through repentance and new ordination. Since then, the Romanian bishopric has existed as part of the first North American Metropolis, and since 1970 – as part of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

In 1938, the Bulgarian Church established its diocese in America. It was also based on parishes that came from the North American Metropolis, where the Bulgarian mission existed since 1909. In 1948, due to political reasons, it left the subordination of the Bulgarian Church, which lasted until 1963. But part of its clergy and parishioners, not wanting to return to the BOC, joined the ROCOR, where they created their own Bulgarian Orthodox Diocese. It remained in the ROCOR until 1976, after which it merged with the autocephalous OCA.

In 2009, the Georgian Orthodox Church formalized its parishes in North America, which in 2014 were organized into the North American Diocese of the GOC.

As we can see, not only the Russian Church but also the Antiochian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Georgian (and also for a certain time the Greek, Alexandrian and Jerusalem) Churches, did not recognize by their actions any "exclusive privilege of the Constantinople Patriarchate to provide pastoral care for the Orthodox diaspora" neither in the world in general nor in America in particular.

Not only the Russian Church, but also the Antiochian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Georgian (and also for a certain time the Greek, Alexandrian and Jerusalem) Churches, did not recognize by their actions any "exclusive privilege of the Constantinople Patriarchate to provide pastoral care for the Orthodox diaspora".

In 1990, with its practical steps, the Polish Church also rejected this claim of Constantinople, which accepted the Brazilian parishes and created its own diocese in Brazil in 1991.

In 1918, the North American Metropolis created the Albanian Orthodox Mission, which became a diocese in 1919 and still exists today as the Albanian Archdiocese in the Orthodox Church of America. In 1949, part of its parishes transferred to the Greek Archdiocese, due to which there are now two Albanian dioceses in America, within the CP and the OCA.

North American Metropolis after the Russian Revolution

The civil war in Russia, which grew into the Bolshevik persecution of the Church, could not but affect the situation in the North American Metropolis. The first significant problem was the impossibility of making personnel and organizational decisions. Communication with the Moscow Patriarch Tikhon was at times difficult and often simply impossible due to the arrest of the Patriarch.

Another difficulty was the relationship with other Local Churches, which, one after another, opened their parishes and dioceses on the territory of the Metropolis.

The situation wasn’t simplified by the division in the Russian Church itself, from the emigrated bishops and priests of which the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) was formed, which soon broke off administrative ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROCOR tried to take over the reins of government in the North American Metropolis, which led to fundamental disagreements. Released from imprisonment, Patriarch Tikhon, under pressure from the Bolsheviks, was forced to demand that the leadership of the North American Metropolis give up criticism of the Soviet regime, as this put the ROC under an even greater blow. Bishops and priests inside the USSR, who decided not to abandon their flock, could not afford the freedom of speech and action as their foreign counterparts.

As a result, in March 1924, the Detroit Council proclaimed "temporary self-government" of the Metropolis until the normalization of its relations with the Mother Church and a new Council of the ROC was convened. This status quo remained until the arrival in the United States in 1933 of the representative, Archbishop Benjamin (Fedchenkov), whose task was to obtain undertakings from the head of the Metropolis, Metropolitan Platon, that prevented future anti-Soviet statements from the clergy. The strong statements of the American clergy against the Soviet regime served as a pretext for new persecutions against the ROC in the USSR. In turn, the American clergy considered it a matter of their conscience to testify to the world about the terrible persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union. This question inevitably led to a deadlock in the negotiations between the Metropolis and the Patriarchate. As a result, Archbishop Benjamin had to return to Moscow without the undertakings from Metropolitan Platon, having received his unequivocal refusal.

The Moscow Patriarchate found itself in a difficult situation, in which inaction, like cooperation with the North American Metropolis, could lead to new arrests and executions of the clergy and the episcopate.

As a result, on August 16, 1933, the deputy patriarchal locum tenens, Metropolitan Sergius and the Provisional Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to bring Metropolitan Platon to the court of bishops with a ban from the priesthood until repentance or until a church-court decision on him. At the same time, the parishes that agreed to accept the rules of the reunification of the Patriarchate were annexed to it as an Exarchate.

In view of these circumstances, in 1935 the new head of the North American Metropolis, Metropolitan Theophilus (Pashkovsky), agreed to take over the authority of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops, while retaining internal autonomy. By the end of the thirties, the North American Metropolis numbered 8 dioceses, 330 parishes, and about 400 thousand believers.

This division with the ROC was not ill-intentioned, as testified by a lot of historical evidence, but was only caused by the political realities of that time. In particular, in 1946, the VII All-American Church Council in Cleveland decided to withdraw from the ROCOR and asked the Moscow Patriarch to accept the Metropolis back into the bosom of the ROC. But this initiative was never implemented.

In 1947, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church was forced to impose a ban on the entire hierarchy of the metropolis. This ban was not associated with any real canonical or dogmatic violations but was clearly political in nature.

Thus, by 1970 in North America there was an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, consisting of the parishes that agreed to the conditions of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the North American Metropolis, of which the latter remained Russian more and more by name only.

Americanization of the Church

From their first steps at the end of the 18th century on the American continent, Russian missionaries actively worked among the local population. From the very beginning of its existence, the future American Church was not conceived by its founders as "diaspora" or "national." Work was also carried out actively in the 19th-20th centuries among Americans of various origins. As a result, by the middle of the twentieth century, the North American Metropolis consisted almost entirely of "American citizens who spoke and prayed in English, and the overwhelming majority of its members had no human connection with Russia". The Church Slavonic language was used less and less in the liturgical life of the Metropolis. In 90% of parishes, the Liturgy was served in English.

The authority of the Metropolis was also high among the Churches present in America. Here is just one episode:

“Great Lent, 1964. A solemn divine service for all those persecuted for Orthodoxy has just ended in the Greek Cathedral of New York. At the end of the service, Metropolitan Leontius approaches Archbishop Jacob to thank him on behalf of the Metropolis. Something unusual happens: the Greek hierarch in all his majesty bows down to the old man in white, kisses his hand and says: ‘You have a great soul.’”

General desire for autocephaly

The state of affairs in American Orthodoxy after 1918 grew further and further away from the canonical order of the Church. Contrary to the principle “let there be no two bishops in the city”, indicated in Canon 8 of the I Ecumenical Council, the principles of Canon 8 of the III Ecumenical Council and many other canons cited above, the opposite situation developed in America. Professor Alexander Schmemann, a cleric of the Metropolis since 1951, writes:

“By 1970, Orthodoxy in America existed in the form of one Greek, three Russian, two Serb, two Antioch, two Romanian, two Bulgarian, two Albanian, three Ukrainian, one Carpathian-Russian jurisdictions and some smaller groups that we do not give here for the sake of simplicity. Within each national division, each group claimed to be the only 'canonical' and denied recognition to others ... This unique and completely unprecedented situation lasted for many decades."

This state of affairs worried the clergy of all major Orthodox jurisdictions, united in the "Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America" (SCOBA), especially the heads of the North American Metropolis, Metropolitan Leontius, Archbishop James of the Greek Archdiocese and Metropolitan Anthony of the Church of Antioch in America.

There was a clear commitment to canonical unity in North America on SCOBA's agenda, and all three of these hierarchs repeatedly spoke out on this topic. Archbishop James, in his opening address at the January 1965 meeting at SCOBA, praised Metropolitans Leontius and Anthony for their vision and emphasized that the Standing Conference should acquire regular canonical status as a provincial Synod of the American Church, according to the canons and with the blessing of the Mother Church.

By “Mother Church”, Archbishop James meant, of course, the Church of Constantinople. First, it was the Mother Church of the Archdiocese headed by him. Secondly, he (like many other supporters of the establishment of the canonical in America) was a supporter of the idea of special privileges of the CP. These views enjoyed popularity in the North American Metropolis. Thirdly, practically no other alternative was observed at that moment since the North American Metropolis was deprived of practical opportunities to resolve any issues in the ROC.

That is why the path to solving American problems began precisely with the negotiations in Constantinople.

Finding a way to solve the problems of American non-canonicity in Constantinople

Subsequently, when in 1970 the North American Metropolis received its autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church, it faced numerous unjust charges from different sides. The Metropolis itself was accused of disregarding the opinion of Constantinople. The Russian Orthodox Church was accused of granting autocephaly "prevent the rapprochement of the Metropolis with Constantinople". In fact, both charges were completely historically unreliable. Due to the historical break with Moscow, antagonisms with the Soviet political system, sympathy for Constantinople dominated in the North American Metropolis.

And in their search for a canonical solution to the situation, the representatives of the Metropolis showed an obvious Christian humility: instead of insisting on their canonical rights in the United States, instead of opposing the presence of Constantinople on their territory, they "recognized themselves as the last" (Mark 9:35), having addressed precisely to Constantinople.

In 1963, another attempt to resolve the contradictions between the ROC and the North American Metropolis ended in nothing: Khrushchev's persecution of the Church was raging in the Soviet Union. The Moscow Patriarchate could not afford such a risk as responsibility for the North American Metropolis, which it did not control because of its position on the issue of communist persecutions, these same persecutions might become even tougher. In turn, the North American Metropolis feared interference in its affairs by the Soviet atheist authorities through the Patriarchate if it was not granted sufficient autonomy. But even if a compromise were found, it would not solve the problem of the confusion of Churches in America.

The North American Metropolis turned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to resolve this issue.

To this end, in May 1966, on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Metropolis, Fr. Alexander Schmemann went to Istanbul to visit Patriarch Athenagoras. Schmemann was very well received and even handed a pectoral cross, but when he raised the "American problem", the Patriarch replied: "You are Russians, go to your Mother Church because no one can solve your problem except the Russian Church."

In December 1966, the newly elected Metropolitan Irenaeus sent a Christmas message to all the Patriarchs. In it, he outlined the historical basis of Russian Orthodoxy on this continent up to the present moment, with a specific request to the Patriarchs to study this issue and try to resolve the canonical chaos. Except for the Archbishop of Finland, no reply was received to this message.

The following year, 1967, Metropolitan Irenaeus once again tried to raise the issue of clarifying the status of the Metropolis during his visit to Constantinople, but at the last moment, he was simply denied an audience with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Why Phanar did not help American Orthodoxy

It is appropriate to recall the chronology of these events now, when Patriarch Bartholomew talks about "salvific intervention" in the affairs of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, allegedly for "peace and overcoming the schism" that has dragged on "because of Moscow's inaction". For a hundred years before the eyes of the throne of Constantinople, there was the problem of American Orthodoxy, which began precisely with Constantinople’s intrusion into these lands. It was asked to participate in solving this problem before the Orthodox Church of America received autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, and after that to this day – to restore canonical order in America.

But Constantinople remains deaf to all these requests, as it was previously deaf to the North American Metropolis, which suffered from an unsettled status. After all, its clergy was under a ban, the political formal nature of which was understood by both parties – both the Metropolis and the Moscow Patriarchate, which was forced to impose it. But at the same time in the North American Metropolis, there was an indisputable apostolic succession, its clergy were neither defrocked not anathematized, they were concelebrated by the bishops of practically all the canonical Local Churches represented in America. And yet, since the granting of autocephaly to the American Church could result in the loss of the American parishes for the Phanar, no one in Constantinople lent a helping hand. The Ukrainian case is completely different: the Phanar got the opportunity to create its own exarchate and receive control over the previously uncontrolled church territory thanks to the dependence spelled out in the tomos.

Since the granting of autocephaly to the American Church could result in the loss of the American parishes for the Phanar, no one in Constantinople lent a helping hand.

But a new autocephaly in America could be created not only on the basis of the North American Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church but also on the basis of the Greek Archdiocese. It is no coincidence that the request of Metropolitan Irenaeus to Patriarch Athenagoras to accept him on this issue was supported by its head, Archbishop Jacob. It is likely that this could be the reason for Patriarch Athenagoras's refusal to discuss this issue.

Speaking of America, Phanar stated that only Ecumenical Councils grant autocephaly

Another unfounded accusation against the OCA is that allegedly SCOBA ("Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America") planned to organize joint actions to obtain autocephaly, and the unilateral actions of the North American Metropolis disrupted this process. In fact, the North American Metropolis, following the peremptory recommendations of Constantinople, resumed negotiations with the ROC, which was facilitated by a change in leadership in the USSR and an end to Khrushchev's persecutions. These negotiations were restored in 1967 and were transparent to the rest of the Churches, whose bishops were SCOBA members.

Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, an active participant in the events of those years, recalled:

“Neither Istanbul nor other “Mother Churches” aspired to Orthodox unity in America ... The main argument of Constantinople is that autocephalous churches should be established by Ecumenical Councils. This argument is quite surprising for anyone who knows the history of the Orthodox Church since the last Ecumenical Council was in 787. But here it is, proposed by the first throne of Orthodoxy ...."

Indeed, the argument about Ecumenical Councils was used more than once by Patriarch Athenagoras and his successors, which is very strange: when granting autocephaly to the Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Albanian, Bulgarian Churches, Constantinople did not demand Ecumenical Councils at all. Recognizing for centuries the autocephaly of the Georgian Church, which received it from the Patriarchate of Antioch, Constantinople did not demand Ecumenical Councils. As well as in 1990, when it recognized its restoration. Nor did it demand Ecumenical Councils in 1924, severing the autonomous Polish Church from the ROC and granting it autocephaly. The Phanariots did not demand Ecumenical Councils later either: not in 1998, recognizing (in the interpretation of the Phanariots – granting) autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia (in fact, which received autocephaly back in 1951 from the ROC) or bestowing a tomos of autocephaly in 2019 to Ukrainian schismatics.

“Your Beatitude also knows very well that the Orthodox Churches do not agree on a single procedure for establishing autocephaly. Until now, the Church of Greece has taken a wise and impartial position on this issue. For example, Your Beatitude and the Holy Synod has recently greeted the Metropolitan of Prague and All Czechoslovakia, the head of the autocephalous Church, which is also deprived of official recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I would like to propose that a similar attitude of brotherhood and constructive comradeship be applied to the American situation ...,” wrote Meyendorff in a personal letter to Archbishop Jerome of Athens on April 5, 1971.

The Phanar not only refused to participate in addressing the American problem but it itself pushed the North American Metropolis to resolve this issue in Moscow not only with advice but also with practical isolation. On the one hand, neither the ROC nor the CP questioned the blessedness of the sacraments of the Metropolis (unlike the situation with the Ukrainian schismatics in 2018-2019). On the other hand, it was the CP that tried to isolate the Metropolis. This is what Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor), Primate of the OCA in 1977-2002, recalls about this:

“The accusation, voiced in the early 1970s, that autocephaly was organized hastily or was done behind closed doors, without notifying those concerned, in my opinion, simply did not correspond to reality. There were conversations and dialogues with other Orthodox Churches in America.

Bishop Sila, a representative of Archbishop Jacob, and Bishop Mark (Lipa) from the Albanian Diocese took part in my consecration – both bishops were under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

Undoubtedly, proceeding from the above canonical grounds, the Russian Church itself had the right to grant autocephaly to its own part (which, albeit nominally, was the North American Metropolis) on its canonical territory, just as earlier in other parts of the world, the Church of Antioch and the Church of Constantinople did it. As we see, there is no clear procedure for granting autocephaly in canon law. But on the other hand, there are quite a few canonical rules that prohibit some Churches from interfering in the affairs of others and vice versa – allowing the bishops of each Church to make all the necessary decisions regarding its dioceses.

However, at first, the violation of the canonical structure of the Church in America by Constantinople and, after it, other Churches, and then political events and disagreements complicated the situation, making, as it seemed, impossible to resolve the issue between the Russian Mother Church and the North American Metropolis.

And if the Lord allowed the North American Metropolis to receive autocephaly from the CP, then this could be challenged from the point of view of the violation of the canons prohibiting interference in the affairs of another Church (which, however, rarely stopped Constantinople in other situations in the twentieth century).

But the Lord hardened the heart of Patriarch Athenagoras (Ex 9:12), who did not want to let the American parishes go. And the Phanar itself forced the Metropolis to seek a solution in the bosom of the Mother Church, which the Lord granted the end of the Khrushchev persecutions and the opportunity to accept the decision that was ripe and the only possible at that time.

Autocephaly from the ROC. Chronology of events

Contacts of the North American Metropolitanate with the Russian Orthodox Church were renewed in November 1967, when Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) was in New York.

The next major step was taken in August 1968 in Uppsala, Sweden. Three representatives of the Metropolis – Archbishop John of San Francisco, Fr. John Meyendorff and Professor Sergiy Verkhovskoy met with Metropolitan Nikodim. For the first time, the term "autocephaly" was mentioned as possible for consideration. Undoubtedly, this was a big step forward on the part of the Russian Church after past difficulties. After that, the Synod of the Metropolitanate created a committee for negotiations with the ROC.

The first official meeting with Metropolitan Nikodim took place on January 21, 1969, in New York at the New Yorker Hotel where he was staying. This meeting was held to prepare an agenda for future negotiations. The main meeting took place two weeks later, on February 3, 1969. The special negotiating committee of the Metropolitanate met with the Russian delegation at the Metropolitan's residence in Syusset ... A document was developed at this meeting for the first time, which set out the general conditions of the agreement on autocephaly.

Following the approval of the basic agreement by both Churches, the two delegations met on August 24-25, 1969 in Geneva, Switzerland. At this meeting, a set of canonical grounds for future autocephaly was agreed: the canonical principle of the territorial and jurisdictional unity of the Church; recognition of the fact that until 1922 both the territorial and jurisdictional unity of the Orthodox Church in America belonged to the Russian Church; recognition that jurisdictional pluralism clearly contradicts canonical norms; recognition that the proclamation of autocephaly belongs to the Mother Church and to Her alone; recognizing that the growth of the church in America to become the original church requires its proclamation as an autocephalous church; recognition of the fact that the Metropolitanate, by virtue of its historical continuity with the Russian roots of Orthodoxy in America, is a self-evident center of the American Autocephalous Church.

Only two issues remained unresolved: the status of the Japanese Orthodox Church (after 1946 it was temporarily subordinated to the North American Metropolitanate) and the status of some priests and laymen of the Exarchate, who could have personal objections to joining the Metropolis.

On September 19, 1969, the Council of Bishops of the Metropolitanate unanimously adopted and approved the Geneva Agreement.

On November 26-27, 1969, a new meeting took place, now in Tokyo. It was decided that the Japanese Church would become autonomous within the Russian Church, and that the Patriarchal parishes in America, which are not willing to join the new autocephalous Church, can temporarily maintain their status quo.

At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate was actively engaged in trying to obtain the consent of the Soviet authorities to grant autocephaly to the North American Metropolis in every possible way. Metropolitan Nikodim and other representatives of the Patriarchate frightened the communist officials with the alleged threat of the North American Metropolis being transferred to the sphere of influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (as you know, Patriarch Athenagoras was a protégé of American state structures), which could only be prevented with the help of autocephaly. The reasoning was not objective, but Soviet officials did not understand much about the ongoing process. A weighty argument was the high costs of maintaining North American parishes (which, however, partly corresponded to reality). As a result, the consent of the Soviet authorities was obtained.

On April 10, 1970, the Russian Orthodox Church granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America.

Constantinople responded to this news extremely negatively. The main reason for this was the perception of the emergence of the autocephalous Church as a claim to take over the dioceses and parishes of other autocephalous Churches operating in America.

At the same time, the Patriarchate of Constantinople itself had claims for such a takeover since 1923, which under Patriarch Meletios declared its claims to the exclusive right to provide spiritual guidance to the Orthodox Diaspora ("barbarian lands"), including America. The emergence of the autocephalous Church made these plans unfeasible. Phanar viewed the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) as its competitor.

Phanar viewed the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) as its competitor.

“The granting of autocephaly did not have any of these ramifications for Moscow. Autocephaly was a simple de jure recognition of the fact that its former American Diocese, founded in 1794, became a mature and independent Church in 1970. In other words, Moscow viewed autocephaly as an internal affair of the Russian Orthodox Church,” says Metropolitan Theodosius.

Therefore, Moscow resolved the issue of its metropolitanate in accordance with its canonical rights and on its territory. Recognizing the jurisdictional and territorial unity of the new autocephalous Church, the ROC did not interfere in the affairs of other Churches operating in America but only renounced its right to parallel jurisdiction – with the exception of a small number of parishes that temporarily remained in its composition and could not create dioceses or increase their amount. This exception occurred due to their disagreement to join the OCA.

The autocephaly of the OCA was recognized by the Georgian, Bulgarian, Polish and Orthodox Churches of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. On the website of the Romanian Church, the OCA is listed among the Sister Churches without specifying its status. Its grace is not disputed by any of the Orthodox Churches (unlike that of the "OCU"); it’s only that some of them consider it a part of the ROC and some as an autocephalous Church. The main motive for its non-recognition by some of the Churches is either pressure from Constantinople or fears of losing their dioceses or parishes in America. But at the same time, all the Churches stay in the Eucharistic communion with the OCA.

One of its architects, Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, wrote:

“Before autocephaly, the position of all Churches (in the USA – Ed.) was non-canonical, since the canons formally excluded the existence of several jurisdictions in one territory. Today the door is open for the restoration of canonicity. If the Ecumenical Patriarch wants to take on the role that should belong to him, let him be an organizer, arbiter, center of Conciliarity, let him play this role rather than appeal to non-existent rights!

As can be seen from the facts, the OCA repeatedly extended its hand to Constantinople and even folded its hands in a request for blessings. But Phanar did not extend its hand any time it was extended by the OCA...

History shows us that the autocephaly declared by the ROC frequently became the subject of non-recognition by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And every time because of its own monopolistic claims in this regard. This was the case with the autocephaly of the Georgian Church (1943), the Polish Church (1948), the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1951). As a result, all these problems were resolved in one form or another. In the case of the Georgian Church, Constantinople recognized it only in 1990, but pretended that by this recognition it allegedly granted it. In the case of the Polish Church, Phanar chose not to notice the repentance of the Polish hierarchs of the non-canon autocephaly of 1924 and the granting of new autocephaly from the ROC in 1948. They have turned a blind eye to this fact up to this day. In the case of the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, its autocephaly was recognized in 1998 by "granting it all over again" and significantly restricting its rights (far more considerably compared with the Polish Church in 1924).

As we can see from history, if desired, Phanar found solutions for recognizing autocephaly while saving its face. But in the case of the OCA, this solution has not yet been found despite its willingness to compromise. Moreover, while granting autocephaly in different parts of the world, Phanar categorically does not want to do the same with its parishes in the United States. For example, with regard to Archbishop James, head of the Greek Archdiocese, they claim that his resignation in 1996 had to do, inter alia, with the conflict between him and Patriarch Bartholomew over the issue of American autocephaly. After his resignation, the Archdiocese was split up in order to reduce the risks of its turn towards unification with the OCA. Its rights got even more curtailed in 2020.

While granting autocephaly in different parts of the world, Phanar categorically does not want to do the same with its parishes in the United States.

The right to grant autocephaly

If the question "who has the right to grant autocephaly" had a clear definition in canon law, then it would not have caused so many doubts and disputes. But the holy canons do not regulate this issue. In the Byzantine Empire of the III-VIII centuries, this issue was not a hot-button agenda. It was successfully resolved by the Ecumenical Councils as needed.

Undoubtedly, in matters not regulated by the canons, the Tradition of the Church – ecclesiastic experience – is decisive for the Orthodox Churches. And this is where discrepancies occur between Constantinople and other Churches.

Phanariots appeal to the practice of the Ecumenical Councils. But after the last of these Councils, nine (!) new autocephalous Churches were granted or recognized by the CP. And only the Patriarchate of the Russian Church was granted by the Council of Constantinople in 1590, in which representatives of the other Eastern Patriarchates participated. That is, it bore the signs of Ecumenical conciliarity.

In 1850, besides the hierarchs of Constantinople, only the Patriarch of Jerusalem signed the Tomos of Autocephaly for the Church of Greece. That is, there is no longer Ecumenical conciliarity. In the subsequent decisions on the autocephaly issue of other new Churches, there are also no signs of any decision other than the Church of Constantinople. Thus, the thesis about the exclusive right of the Ecumenical Councils to grant autocephaly is destroyed by the very history and practice of the Church of Constantinople.

Phanariots put forward the following thesis: as there are no Ecumenical Councils, their rights are delegated to the CP.

Why so? Not a single provision of the Ecumenical Councils suggests such interpretation.

At the same time, Councils often discussed and resolved much less important issues. Indeed, if such a decision had been made, would it NOT have been manifested clearly in the canons?

Phanariots declare: as there are no Ecumenical Councils, their rights are delegated to the CP. Why so? Not a single provision of the Ecumenical Councils suggests such interpretation.

But not noticing this nonsense, Phanar seeks such a solution in a very tense and free interpretation of canon 3 of the II Ecumenical Council and the 9, 17, 28 canons of the IV Ecumenical Council. We analyzed these canons and their interpretations above. They do not even give the CP the right to be the supreme judge over the Churches, without their will. And even more so, they do not give the right to "primacy of power" which is so much claimed by the Phanariots, not to mention the right to replace the Ecumenical Councils.

But even if we do not dispute the judicial privileges of Constantinople, the point of our consideration is not litigation. It is about the right to grant autocephaly.

On what grounds do the allegedly existing judicial privileges of the CP deprive other Local Churches of their right to grant autocephaly to their units? The Phanariots refer to the fact that all cases of autocephaly in history were granted either by the Ecumenical Councils or their Patriarchate. And if so, then only the CP has the right to do so. But this is not true both in the input and output planes.

Yes, indeed, Constantinople gave autocephaly to the Russian Church (conciliarly), the Church of Greece (this time only with the participation of the Patriarch of Jerusalem) and individually to the Serbian, Romanian, Albanian and Bulgarian Churches. But all these Churches were canonically subordinated to the CP and granting them autocephaly from the Mother Church was absolutely logical.

But further, in the twentieth century, contradictions arose. Phanar claims it also granted autocephaly to the Polish, Georgian, Czechoslovakian Churches ...

Just as some children, in addition to real friends, make up fictional friends for themselves, so the CP exists among the Churches, some of which really received autocephaly from it, while with some Churches it was just fantasy or wishful thinking. The latter is done only to support claims of Constantinople to monopoly rights in this matter. There is no other reason for this.

Not only the facts of the proclamation of autocephaly separately from Constantinople, but also the facts of their recognition by other Churches testify to the erroneousness of the Phanar claims to monopoly in this matter. Phanariots are mistaken in their very initial premise: not only did they give autocephaly.

Can all Local Churches grant autocephaly?

If all the above three examples relate to the dispute between Constantinople and Moscow, then there is another example that destroys the Phanar claims.

Below is a direct quote the CP-issued Tomos to the Georgian Church in 1990:

“By the decision of the Synod and lightened by the Holy Spirit, we recognize the Holy Church of Georgia as the same structure and organization that it has been for a long time, as evidenced by Balsamon, who writes, ‘They say that during the period of His Holiness Patriarch of the Divine City of Great Antioch Mr. Peter, a conciliar decision was made on freedom and autocephaly of the Church of Iberia’ (Γ.Α. Ράλλη, Μ. Πότλη, σύνταγμα τῶν θειών και ἱέρων κανόνω. Ἀθ., 1852, τομ Β, σελ. 172)."

It is about the Council of the Church of Antioch, convened by Patriarch Peter III in 1053, at which a decision was made on the autocephaly of the Georgian Church, which previously belonged to the Antioch Patriarchate.

This example, recognized by Constantinople and other Churches, eloquently attests to the right of Local Churches to grant autocephaly on their own, both without Ecumenical Councils and without transferring this role to Constantinople, which refutes the interpretation of the CP. This is what the true Tradition of the Church looks like.

There is a right of Local Churches to grant autocephaly on their own, both without Ecumenical Councils and without transferring this role to Constantinople.

If the canons do not clearly define the procedure for granting autocephaly, then they quite clearly define the right of the Councils of each Church to make decisions regarding its structure. And they prohibit interference in its affairs of the other Churches, just as they prohibit their activities in its territory. We examined this in detail above in the relevant sections.

It was on the canons of the relevant content that the response of the Moscow Patriarch Alexy to the claims of the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras regarding the granting of autocephaly to the OCA in the Message of March 16, 1970 was based: “According to canon and ecclesiastical law, legal autocephaly can be obtained only from the legal authority. For the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America, as the American Russian Metropolis is called, and for Orthodoxy in America as a whole, such authority is the Russian Orthodox Church. No one can dispute the fact that every autocephalous Church is empowered to grant autocephaly to a part of its Church." 

Counter-arguments of Constantinople

The entire argument of the Phanariots against the autocephaly of the OCA was set forth in the letters of Patriarch Athenagoras dated January 7, 1970, to Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow and dated June 24, 1970 to the locum tenens of the Patriarchal Throne of Moscow, Metropolitan Pimen. Since the second letter includes the argumentation of the first, we will try to briefly consider it:

Patriarch Athenagoras voiced in his letter a number of claims against the Russian Church, incl. part of the theses used by Phanar now and which in 2020 were actively cited by Archbishop Chrysostomos. These include claims about the borders of the Polish Church (we have previously considered this issue in detail) and about the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

However, in a rather extensive text, Patriarch Athenagoras admits:

"Specific canons that accurately characterize autocephaly cannot be found in church law." Then he tries to build his rationale on false messages from the history of the Church, which we examined in the previous section.

Cyrus Athenagoras writes:

"As for its (ROC’s) alleged right, like the right of any other autocephalous Orthodox Church, to grant autocephaly status to another Church, such a right does not correspond to either canonical requirements or existing practices within the Church."

We agree only partially with this statement: it does not correspond if we are talking about someone else's territory or part of another Church. If we are talking about a part of our own Church, then it is fully consistent, which is proved to us by the history of the CP, the history of the ROC, and the history of the Georgian Church which received autocephaly from the Antiochian Church.

Further, in paragraph 5, follows a very important statement of Patriarch Athenagoras: “From the very meaning of autocephaly as an ecclesiastical act, from which certain changes regarding ecclesiastical boundaries and the emergence of new jurisdictional and administrative powers leading to a new order in the Orthodox Church as a whole, one can conclude that the granting of autocephaly is a right to which the Church is basically entitled, but which cannot at all be considered the right of ‘every autocephalous church’, as the letter of Patriarch Alexy of blessed memory says."

The granting of autocephaly is a right to which the Church is basically entitled, but which cannot at all be considered the right of ‘every autocephalous church’.

Patriarch Athenagoras

How much I would like to agree with these words of His Holiness, how much peace they would bring to the Church of Christ! Especially now to the Ukrainian lands!

But for some reason his predecessors on the throne of Constantinople did not recourse to this rule – both by giving autocephaly to parts of their Church and by tearing parts away from the Russian Church. Likewise, the successors of Cyrus Athenagoras, including the current Patriarch Bartholomew, have neglected this position – both resolving the issue with the Czech Church in 1998 and granting autocephaly to Ukrainian schismatics in 2019.

Further, in paragraph 7 of his Epistle, Patriarch Athenagoras cites an interesting pattern: “The need for a general decision on autocephaly is confirmed by history, which shows that autocephalous Churches that have not received Ecumenical recognition and blessing, such as the Church of Carthage, the Church of Mediolana (Milan), the Church of Lyon, the Church of the First Justinian, the Church of Ohrid, the Church of Tarnovo, the Church of Ipek and the Church of Iberia, as well as some others in this category, lost their autocephaly over time. On the other hand, those Churches that received ecumenical recognition of their autocephaly, although they went through many trials and almost came to collapse, remained autocephalous Churches and got a new life, such as the Churches of Cyprus, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria did. The new autocephalous Churches also need this seal of validity by the Ecumenical Council for their final and continuing autocephalous existence due to the unfavorable circumstances in which they can sometimes find themselves. These include the Churches to which the Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical See has given the seal of autocephaly with the approval of other Orthodox Churches."

Hence, the autocephaly that is not approved by the Ecumenical Council, according to Patriarch Athenagoras, is temporary. Do the so-called "New Churches" know about it? Did Patriarch Bartholomew warn the recipients of his tomos on autocephaly in the so-called "Orthodox Church of Ukraine" about its temporary nature? How does this position coincide with the entire history of the CP in the XIX-XXI centuries, when Phanar issued tomos of autocephaly having no universal discussion and recognition of them?

All autocephalous Churches mentioned by Patriarch Athenagoras lost their autocephaly precisely because of imperial arbitrariness: being absorbed by the Roman Church, which declared itself “the first without equal” or Constantinople. The Georgian Church temporarily lost its autocephaly by the decision of the Russian imperial authorities, when the Russian Church was deprived by the same authorities of the opportunity to express its conciliar opinion on this issue. Is it correct after that to cite similar examples from Constantinople?

In addition, the Tarnovo Patriarchate was re-established in the person of the Bulgarian Church, while the Church of Iveria today is the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Moreover, the ancient Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, founded by the Apostles, did not receive their autocephaly at the Ecumenical Councils. They received their autocephalous status before the era of the Ecumenical Councils, which also testifies to the fact that autocephaly is a matter of the decision of the Churches themselves within their territory. Only the Church of Cyprus and the Church of Constantinople received their autocephaly during the era of the Ecumenical Councils, which Patriarch Athenagoras preferred to keep silent about.

Even more important is the very fact of the existence in history of the Local Churches named by Patriarch Athenagoras, since this obviously proves that even though only two of these Churches have survived to this day (losing autocephaly and restoring it), they existed. And this practice was generally accepted since they were universally recognized. However, they acquired their autocephaly not in a way being affirmed by Patriarch Athenagoras as the only possible one.

In paragraphs 15-16, ignoring the real historical circumstances, Patriarch Athenagoras denies the rights of the Russian Church in America due to the sale of Alaska. He is trying to reduce the role of the ROC to Alaska, although, as we remember, since 1872 the diocesan center of the ROC in America was St. Francisco, and since 1905 – New York. Constantinople first declared its rights to the American Greeks in 1908, the Greek diocese began to be created there in 1918, and the CP began to lay claim to the whole of America in 1923.

Cyrus Athenagoras also expresses his indignation at the violation by the ROC of the interests of other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, which does not prevent him from pointing out the “special rights” of the CP in providing pastoral care for the Orthodox Diaspora. But these "exclusive rights" are the general denial of the rights of other Orthodox Churches to diaspora parishes.

The historical role of the Russian Orthodox Church in America is reduced by Athenagoras only to pastoral care for the Russian diaspora, which is absolutely not true. And even if it was, it still does not cancel the canonical prohibition on the confusion of Churches. However, let us recall that 90% of the parishes of the North American Metropolitanate in the middle of the twentieth century were English-speaking, in no way connected with Russia and there were no more representatives of the Russian Diaspora in them than the diasporas of other countries.

According to Athenagoras, the issue of Orthodox jurisdictions in America should have been resolved at a Pan-Orthodox Council. Let us recall that earlier Patriarch Athenagoras refused to bring this issue up even for preliminary discussion at an interchurch meeting in Chambesy ...

In para 19, Patriarch Athenagoras even calls on the Russian Church to observe the boundaries that “cannot be expanded beyond what was given to her by the golden seal of the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II in 1591. The Russian Orthodox Church owes its independent existence to this document, as well as to the newer tomos of February 1593, published by the same Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II. This new tomos informs the Russians of the decisions regarding the recently created Moscow Patriarchate, made at the Great Council of Constantinople, in which Patriarch Meletios of Alexandria, who also represented the absent Patriarch Joachim of Antioch, as well as Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem and 76 other hierarchs took part." Thus, if from the point of view of Pat. Athenagoras, the borders of the ROC cannot be expanded in comparison with 1593, then aren’t Central Asia, Siberia and other territories of the ROC part of it at all?

Then, proceeding from the principle of historical continuity, one should be guided by the same principle in terms of determining the boundaries of other Churches:

The boundaries of the Church of Constantinople should be determined by virtue of Canon 28 of the IV Ecumenical Council: “…so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople; every metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the bishops of his province, ordaining his own provincial bishops, as has been declared by the divine canons", rather than by virtue of "wherever I want, because I am the supreme ecclesiastical court " rule, which the CP has applied for the last 100 years.

It’s worth recalling additionally Canon 2 of the II Ecumenical Council, which states the following:

“The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs. And let not bishops go beyond their dioceses for ordination or any other ecclesiastical ministrations, unless they be invited…”

Obviously, not all of Africa was part of the Alexandrian Church, as Patriarch Meletios revised it, which was described earlier.

Applying absurd rules and requirements to other Churches, the CP obviously “forgets” to apply them to itself.


As we can see, until 1970 North America was the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church for about 170 years. The invasion of this territory of the Russian Orthodox Church was organized only in 1918 by Metropolitan Meletios, which violated all accepted canonical norms. The CP's claims to these territories have no canonical or historical grounds. These claims were an innovation on the part of Meletios, who became Patriarch of Constantinople, which had not been previously practiced by the CP. Meletios violated the rights of Constantinople declared by him by becoming the Patriarch of Alexandria, however, most of the Local Churches did not and does not recognize these claims.

Other Orthodox Churches began to create their jurisdictions in the United States and Canada after the invasion of Meletios. Despite the canonical disorder, the North American Metropolitanate approached their emergence like it did in relation to the Greek Archdiocese – with condescension in the spirit of love and goodwill.

Phanar, in turn, withdrew from deciding the fate of the North American Metropolis and discussing the possibility of American autocephaly despite the repeated petitions for granting it, fearing for the fate of its American parishes and the proceeds from them. The CP continues to this day to hinder the creation of a single Local Church in the United States and Canada despite the fact that the OCA offered him leadership in this process.

After analyzing the facts of church history, Orthodox Tradition and holy canons, we did not find the slightest actual grounds for the CP's claims to being "first in power" power (not just “first in honor") in the Church, unless it is about secular legal norms which were common exclusively in Byzantium and then the Ottoman Empire. We did not find any canonical and historical justification for the right of the CP to be the highest church court of appeal unless it is wished so by the parties to the dispute, for the monopoly right to provide pastoral care for the Orthodox Diaspora, for the monopoly right to issue autocephaly. Instead, we have found a number of contradictions and refutations of these claims.

We did not find any substantiation of why the issue of autocephaly of the OCA is generally considered in the context of the so-called “Barbarian lands".

But we have found a lot of examples of CP using not just double standards but hypocrisy in substantiating its claims. We are now convinced that establishing the truth and seeking correct canonical decisions were not a motive for actions of the Patriarchs of Constantinople – Meletios, Athenagoras, Bartholomew, and all their argumentation, unfortunately, is built selectively with only one purpose – to find excuses for their imperial ambitions and arbitrariness.

The author thanks Professor A. Dvorkin, a student of Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, one of the main founders of the autocephaly of the OCA, for his help in finding sources, as well as the authors of the telegram channel “Labarum. Sim pobedishi" for their help in preparing the publication.

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