April 10, 1970 is the day that the Orthodox Church in America received the official proclamation [“Tomos”] granting autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church. From then on, the OCA had the freedom to order its own life, both internally and in relation to the other Orthodox Churches around the world. However, to this day the precise meaning of the OCA’s autocephaly has continued to be a source of controversy in the Orthodox world. Indeed, this is a much bigger issue than just the OCA. The very question of what autocephaly means and who has the authority to grant autocephaly remains charged and unsettled, and for that reason could not be included on the agenda of the Great and Holy Council to be held in June of this year. Thankfully, in spite of disagreements over the precise status of the OCA as an autocephalous Church, Eucharistic communion has been preserved, and for that we can be grateful even as we continue to discuss how to resolve the issues of autocephaly and the fragmented state of Orthodoxy in North America.
The history recounted below is a completely revised, updated and abbreviated version of an article I wrote for the Tenth anniversary of autocephaly in 1980, which appeared in the February and March editions of The Orthodox Church, edited at that time by the late Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, one of the architects of the OCA’s autocephaly.
On April 10, 1970, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed the autocephaly of the “Metropolia.” Five weeks later, the official Tomos of Autocephaly, signed by all the Russian bishops and stamped with the Patriarchal seal, was handed over to the delegation of the new Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. What had begun in 1794 as the remotest mission of the Russian Church was now added to the list of fourteen other Orthodox autocephalous churches.
Tremendous confusion over the meaning and implications of this act made it an issue of bitter contention among the various jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church operating in America. The Moscow Patriarchate saw autocephaly as a simple declaration that its mission in America — which for 50 years had been living in de facto autonomy — was now independent, officially and canonically. The motivation to grant autocephaly to one branch of Orthodoxy here was to bring contemporary Orthodox life in step with its canonical tradition and its historical past in America. Autocephaly was viewed as a step toward the full realization of having one bishop in one district and being a local, i.e., American, Church — the ecclesiological and canonical norm of Orthodoxy. Other jurisdictions, however, beginning with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, considered this a rash claim to exclusive jurisdiction, granting a title and rights that are “disproportionate with reality” without consultation with the other jurisdictions that have staked a claim in America.
At the outbreak of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ultimately led to the de facto break with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Metropolia already had more than 100 years of history in North America, and not only in Alaska. There were 320 parishes across the US and Canada, half of which came about as a result of the return of Eastern Rite Catholics (“uniates”) in the missionary work started by Saint Alexis Toth in 1892. The directory of parishes in 1918 includes Arabic, Albanian, Serbian, Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian parishes. This is in addition to the many parishes that were mainly Russian, Galician and Carpatho-Russian. There was a clear sense even then that the Mission in North America could embrace the variety of Orthodox peoples under one ecclesiastical head—“One bishop in one place,” according to the Orthodox principle.
To better understand what led to the proclamation of autocephaly in 1970, it is important to remember that the “Metropolia,” as the OCA was then called, had been living in a canonical limbo since the 1920s. Because of the “Soviet captivity” of the Russian Church, the Metropolia was fairly bold about its claims to de facto canonical autonomy. Nevertheless, regularization of its status was desirable not only to settle its own inner life, but equally to help move toward the realization of Orthodox unity in America. By the 1960s, the internal state of affairs of the Metropolia was stable enough for it to consider options for resolving both its ambiguous status vis-a-vis Moscow and the blatantly uncanonical pluralism of jurisdictions.
The founders of the OCA’s autocephaly saw the step in 1970 as a temporary measure until the time of that a full autocephaly could include all the Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. The main question in the late 1960s was how to regularize our own status vis-a-vis the Russian Orthodox Church, which at the time was still very much oppressed by the Soviet government. Autocephaly answered that dilemma. But it was equally understood that the OCA’s autocephaly was a step along the way to the full unity of the Orthodox Church in North America.
In retrospect, there were three routes that could have been taken as the Metropolia contemplated how to regularize its canonical status.
- The Metropolia could seek the patronage of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. But at the time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate believed that the Metropolia should return to its Mother Church, the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1965, the Patriarch of Constantinople had dissolved its Russian Exarchate in Western Europe (since restored) on the grounds that conditions were now “normal” in the Soviet Russia and that Russian Churches in the West should submit to Moscow.
- The most radical solution would have been to declare the Metropolia autocephalous on its own authority. Many of the modern autocephalies in fact began this way, with formal recognition coming years after the de facto break. Clearly, this was not in the interests of a peaceful resolution to the problem of disunity in America.
- The option that was canonically and practically most feasible was to negotiate with the Mother Church, but with the strict proviso that independence be swiftly given. Anything less would be returning to the past, a return which was unacceptable given the increasing heterogeneity of the American Church and the very different social structures under which the two Churches existed at that time—keep in mind that this was still the Soviet period. A return to the Mother Church purely and simply would only have added another jurisdiction to the already jurisdiction-bound Church in America — one more tacit agreement to the status quo of multiple jurisdictions.
The Metropolia’s reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate began as early as 1961, with informal talks between representatives of Moscow and the Metropolia at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, India. It was understood that autocephaly was an accepted goal. By 1963, negotiations had been formalized, but the initial talks were inconclusive. They resumed again only in 1968, and this renewed effort was a decisive step forward.
The negotiations were not kept secret, and the rest of the Orthodox world was informed. But there was a swift and unexpected reaction from Constantinople. The letters of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Moscow were adamant: only an Ecumenical Council, or at the very least the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, has the right to grant autocephaly. The subsequent back-and-forth correspondence is extremely valuable for pinpointing the difficulties raised by the negotiations. (The Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 15:1-2 is a special issue devoted to the OCA autocephaly and includes the correspondence between the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople plus other articles and documents. This was also published separately as Autocephaly, SVS Press, 1971.)
At the center of the dispute was the very term “autocephaly.” Each side was interpreting the term in quite different ways. To Constantinople, “autocephaly” implied first of all that the OCA was claiming exclusive jurisdiction in America, that it was the only legitimate Orthodox Church in America. For Moscow, the term “autocephaly” had none of the implications that Constantinople claimed it did. Autocephaly meant essentially that the Church, which was formerly under its canonical authority, was now independent. In other words, the whole process of granting autocephaly was “an internal matter of the Russian Orthodox Church.” In contrast, expressing the fear of the Greek Churches, Archbishop Iakovos stated, “They will seek the gradual coercion of others, or the actual subjection to them of all Orthodox churches in America when they believe possible” [Letter to the Patriarch of Antioch, May 1970.] For Moscow, however, there was no question of “interfering in the affairs of other sister Churches, having their own branches in America” [Patriarch Alexis to Patriarch Athenagoras]. There was a great deal of misunderstanding over the 1970 autocephaly because they were not talking about the same thing.
It is important to remember that autocephaly was not granted simply for the purpose of forming another permanent jurisdiction. The OCA claims, therefore, that while it does not encroach upon the rights of other jurisdictions, its autocephaly was granted as a basis for unity pending agreement between all Orthodox Churches in America—and possibly, a final approval of a future ecumenical council. The Church must be unified but also, as Metropolitan Ireney wrote in 1966, it must be “a local, permanent American Church, bound for all time with this land and with this people.”
Visit the photo gallery outlining the granting of autocephaly in April 1970.