Dangers of Multiple Jurisdictions


As recent history records, Orthodox Christianity entered the American continent by way of Alaska in 1794. At the time Alaska was a part of the Russian Empire. It was therefore a normal consequence for Russian Orthodox missionaries to travel to the farthest outpost of the Empire to plant the holy Apostolic faith among the natives.

On this foundation, and up to the end of the second decade of the twentieth century generally speaking, that is, by 1920, there was one hierarchical and canonical authority over all the newly-planted parishes in the continental United States. In Pueblo, Colorado, for example, the Russian Metropolitan Tikhon, who later became Patriarch of Russia only to die in prison, established both the Greek and the Russian parishes before 1905. As is well-known, many of the new parishes were multi-ethnic and, although they may not have been aware of the fact that a canonical hierarch makes a parish canonical, it was understood by those who knew that there was a canonical Russian Orthodox hierarch who oversaw, or at least tried to oversee, the newly-established parishes. It was interesting to see that the multi-ethnic parishes were steadily growing until a sizable number of one ethnic group saw fit to establish its own parish. One example of this is in Galveston, Texas where the Greek immigrants left the established Serbian parish to begin their own.

Even though Orthodox Christianity initially came to the New World as a missionary endeavor, it soon was transformed into an immigrant movement due to a large influx of Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Serbians, Lebanese, Ukrainians and other Orthodox people from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Near East after the First World War. In regard to the Greek-speaking parishes, a good number of them were not established as churches, but as ethnic and cultural societies. One basic reason for this was that there was a virtual absence of Greek Orthodox priests in the United States in comparison to the number of parishes established. Another realistic factor was that ecclesiastical authorities both in Greece and in Constantinople were not prepared to give direction to the immigrants in America, most probably because of their own precarious positions in regard to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Greek-Turkish War that ensued.

From 1920 to the 1950's several Orthodox jurisdictions came into being in the United States having one or more bishops as their ecclesiastical authorities. Virtually each one was recognized as an eparchy of the particular mother jurisdiction, except for those Russian groups that were forced to organize themselves due to the takeover of Communism in Russia. Thus we see today the existence of the (alphabetically) Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Byelorussian, Carpatho-Russian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian jurisdictions, together with the Orthodox Church in America which also has dioceses of three of the ethnic groups.

In 1960 the presiding hierarchs of the established canonical jurisdictions came together to form the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA). The reasons that brought them together were various. One reason was that Orthodox groups had started emerging which were not recognized as canonical by the members of SCOBA. However, the basic reason for uniting was to have a common voice in religious, cultural, and political concerns which affected the Orthodox Christian faith in America. Unfortunately, SCOBA failed miserably to speak with one forthright voice regarding the criminal bombing by the United States and England of Serbia and other parts of Yugoslavia in 1999.

In the face of these multiple Orthodox jurisdictions the attempt was made by the former Russian Metropolia to unite the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. Unfortunately, the sincere attempts that were made by representatives of the former Russian Metropolia with the Ecumenical Patriarch prior to 1970 met with no positive response. The representatives then made attempts to seek official recognition from the Patriarchate of Moscow, with the intention of uniting Orthodoxy in America. The Moscow Patriarchate responded positively by recognizing the former Russian Metropolia as an autocephalous church with the name, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). This body is still not recognized by the other autocephalous churches.

Unfortunately, this new reality did not really help the cause of Orthodox unity in America, even though the attempts by the OCA church representatives here in the United States were honorable, seeking a greater unity among the various jurisdictions. As conditions were before the OCA was established in 1970 and even before SCOBA was organized in 1960, the reality of multi-ethnic jurisdictions remaining separate in their daily activities continues and the uncertainty regarding real and active unity remains.

In the area of proper translations of liturgical texts there is no consensus. Moreover some translations are grossly inaccurate. In the area of home missions there is no concern for the other jurisdictions. This is why we see two or three mission parishes being established in a town which already has an Orthodox parish and which is struggling to survive. Inequities still exist among hierarchs of the different jurisdictions in whether to recognize a priest as canonical in one jurisdiction, but not canonical in another. In other words, one jurisdiction drops a particular priest and another picks him up.

These observations which only touch the surface of our dilemma are minor compared to the greatest of all dangers facing our canonical jurisdictions. While our mother churches show little or no concern regarding our greater unity in America, the reality of our multiple jurisdictions is an open invitation to existing and newly-established entities and groups which call themselves Orthodox Christians to consider themselves part of the family of Orthodox churches and worse to think of themselves as being more Orthodox than the canonical bodies. In other words, what the organizers of SCOBA feared regarding non-canonical groups calling themselves canonical and genuine Orthodox bodies is now a greater threat to all the canonical groups than ever before. In the past, we have seen Orthodox groups which have claimed to be under the Patriarchate of Alexandria or the Patriarchate of Jerusalem or the Orthodox Church of France or of one of the Ukrainian jurisdictions in Kiev.

The way SCOBA is today, the door remains wide open for any new group calling itself Orthodox to claim legitimacy, especially since in the United States anyone can organize a new sect or religious body. The laws permit it. Compounding the problem, there are now living in the United States Orthodox bishops who have separated themselves from their churches in Europe and are earning a secular livelihood. What would prevent them from organizing their own Orthodox groups in the years ahead?

Multiple jurisdictions up to the present time have been a necessity, due to the continuing emigration of people from Orthodox lands. However, in this twenty-first century the continuation of multiple jurisdictions will bring continued confusion to those who seek historic Orthodox Christianity; and their numbers are increasing.

Sadly, many of the new converts are gravitating to the non-canonical groups, basically because English is used. These new converts also end up with the groups that do not belong to SCOBA because they are told that the SCOBA jurisdictions are not faithful to the teachings and traditions of the Church. What will convince the growing number of converts that the member jurisdictions of SCOBA are the legitimate heirs of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? What will convince our questioning cradle Orthodox that SCOBA represents our holy and unadulterated Apostolic Faith, when each of our jurisdictions does "its own thing?"

On the basis of these threatening realities regarding our multiple jurisdictions, and in the face of what SCOBA presently is, our multiple jurisdictions can become our worst nightmare. Will we allow this scandalous situation to continue?

March 26, 2001

Metropolitan Isaiah Photo

Metropolitan Isaiah