Road to Autocephaly 1963-1970

By: Dr. Constantine H. KallaurRead time: 11 mins2875 Hits

Road to Autocephaly 1963-1970

Talk given by Dr. Constantine H. Kallaur on the 35th anniversary of Autocephaly

“Receive them with love”  – Metropolitan Leonty, 1963 

I was present at the creation… the creation of the Orthodox Church in America. I suspect that is why I was asked to give this introductory talk on the years leading up to our autocephaly, 1963 to 1970. I served for 30 years in the Department of External Church Relations of the Metropolia. In that capacity I traveled to Russia as one of the two laymen in the delegation of seven (one bishop, four priests, two laymen) to receive the Tomos of Autocephaly. I would like to begin by quoting the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, who, being caught up in the excitement of Tsar Alexander II’s reforms, at one point said, “He who was not alive in 1856 does not even know what life is.” I would like to say that he who was not alive in the 1960’s and 1970’s does not know how exciting church life can be.

These were difficult, challenging years for our church. At the same time they were filled with determination and hope. It was that determination and the strong episcopal leadership of the Metropolitans Platon (1924-1939), Theophilus (1939-1950), Leonty (1950-1965) and Ireney (1965-1977) that brought the Metropolia through those difficult years.

It is astonishing to recall that the Russian Mission arrived in Alaska at the end of the 18th century, established the first diocese on the American continent by 1848, moved to San Francisco in 1870, and to New York in 1906. It is even more astonishing that in today’s ethnic and canonical confusion here in America, that until 1922 all Orthodox faithful of all ethnic backgrounds were in one Church under one Russian Bishop. I’ll give just a few examples of that unity. In 1892 the first Serbian parish was established in Jackson, California. In 1895 the first Arabic speaking parish was founded in Brooklyn, New York. In 1904 the first Romanian parish was founded in Cleveland, Ohio. All these parishes were consecrated by the Russian bishop and had no difficulty being administered under his omophorion.

This clear, unified canonical situation was transformed into confusion in 1922 with the formation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. This was followed later by the establishment of other jurisdictions as a result of the large migration to the US of Orthodox of varying ethnic backgrounds around that time.

The Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism also had a profound effect on our Church. The Detroit Sobor, in March of 1924, proclaimed a “temporary self-government” until there could be a normalization of its relationship with the Mother Church. Over time, the Metropolia was not satisfied with this “temporary” status. By the 1960’s, attempts were being made to find some form of cooperation among the Orthodox jurisdictions here in America. As a result of these attempts, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) was established. However, the Metropolia’s situation did not improve. We were considered a poor relative by the other jurisdictions who were proud of their canonicity.

It is against this background that completely unexpected contacts began, initiated by the Russian Church. On a rainy March afternoon in 1963, Dr. Paul Anderson, an Episcopal layman who was very involved in ecumenical affairs, a person that I had traveled with often as an assistant interpreter, and a good friend of the Orthodox, telephoned Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He said that he was at the moment with a Russian delegation, headed by Metropolitan Nikodim, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Nikodim had expressed the desire to visit St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Fr. Alexander Schmemann replied that he would have to check with his Metropolitan. Fr. Alexander immediately called Metropolitan Leonty. At the end of their conversation, Metropolitan Leonty said to Fr. Alexander, “Receive them with love.”

An hour later a bus with some fifteen Russian hierarchs, priests, and laymen arrived at the seminary. Fr. Alexander welcomed them and took them to the chapel where Vespers were in progress. The delegation prayed with the students and after the service, praised the student choir. At the end of the visit, Metropolitan Nikodim took Fr. Alexander aside and said that, in his opinion, the time was right for “resolving our misunderstandings.” Was the Metropolia ready to discuss them? Fr. Alexander again said that he would inform our Metropolitan.

A few days later a meeting was arranged between Metropolitan Nikodim and Metropolitan Leonty at his residence in Syosset. As Fr. Alexander recalls, “No serious matters were discussed” However, he concluded that “it was an encounter in depth: that which was not said was…more important than that which was said.”

In the summer of the same year (1963), while at an Ecumenical Conference in Rochester, NY Metropolitan Nikodim met again with our representatives: Archbishop John of San Francisco, Fr. John Meyendorff and Fr. Alexander Schmemann. When they sat down for discussion and started enumerating the number of problems facing them, it appeared that there were too many obstacles to overcome. The meeting ended in an impasse that was to last for 5 years. Although the meeting produced no results, Fr. Alexander, the ever -joyous optimist, said of the meeting that “the psychological climate was certainly altered.”

From 1963 to the end of 1967, there were no new contacts. How can this be explained? There was the long illness and finally death in 1965 of our Metropolitan Leonty; there was the election of a new head of the Church – Metropolitan Ireney; changes were made to the administrative structure of our Church; conditions for the Church in the Soviet Union under Nikita Krushchev were extremely difficult. During his so called “Thaw” period, while Krushchev personally read and approved the publication of the first book by Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he was at the same time responsible for closing many, many churches. Many other factors as well prevented new contacts from taking place.

The Metropolia, however, did not sit idle. It continued to explore all avenues to rectify the situation of its status and seek a canonical solution. To this end, in May 1966, at the request of the Holy Synod of the Metropolia, Fr. Schmemann traveled to Istanbul to visit the late Patriarch Athenagoras. As Fr. Alexander reported, he personally was received very well and even given a pectoral cross, but when he raised the “American problem,” the Patriach replied, “You are Russians, go to your Mother Church, for no one can solve your problem except the Russian Church.”

In December 1966, the newly elected Metropolitan Ireney sent a Christmas message to all the Patriarchs. In it, he gave a historical explanation of Russian Orthodoxy on this continent up to that point, with the specific request that the Patriarchs study the matter and try to solve the canonical chaos. With the exception of the Archbishop of Finland, the message received no reply.

It was not until November 1967, while again in New York City, that Metropolitan Nikodim made it known that contacts could be resumed. What was needed was a sign of good will on the part of the Metropolia toward the Russian Church. Such a goodwill gesture was given in the form of our Church’s congratulatory message to the Russian Church on the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Patriarchate in 1918. In restoring the Patriarchal See after 200 years of absence, Patriarch Tikhon was the first primate to be elected. The congratulatory message stressed the fact that Patriach Tikhon was one of the true fathers of American Orthodoxy, since, as early as 1905, he communicated his vision of a united American Church to the Russian Holy Synod. The Metropolia’s message was very well received and the Patriarch expressed his gratitude to Metropolitan Ireney.

The next significant step took place in August of 1968 in Upsala, Sweden during the World Council of Churches General Assembly. Three representatives from our Church, Archbishop John of San Francisco, Fr. John Meyendorff and Professor Serge Verhovskoy met with Metropolitan Nikodim. For the first time, the term “autocephaly” was mentioned as a possibility to be considered. This was certainly a great step forward on the part of the Russian Church after the previous meeting that had ended in a stalemate in 1963.

Subsequently our Synod of Bishops decided to start official exploratory negotiations with the Russian Church. To this end, it appointed a special negotiating committee: Archbishop Kiprian of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and Chairman of our Department of External Affairs, as Chairman, Protopresbyter Joseph Pishtey, Chancellor, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorff and Fr. John Skvir, all members of the Department of External Affairs.

New York

The first official meeting with Metropolitan Nikodim took place on January 21st 1969 at the Hotel New Yorker in New York City where he was staying. This meeting was held to prepare the agenda for future conversations. The meeting of greater importance took place two weeks later on February 3rd, 1969. The Metropolia Special Negotiating Committee met with the Russian delegation at the Metropolitan’s residence in Syosset. The Russian delegation consisted of Metropolitan Nikodim, the Patriarchal Exarch, Archbishop Jonathan, and his secretary, Fr. Matthew Stadniuk. This meeting produced, for the first time, a document outlining the general terms of agreement for autocephaly.

  1. The termination by the Patriarchate of its jurisdiction in America
  2. The granting by the Patriarchate of the autocephaly
  3. The transfer to the Autocephalous Church of all property and rights with the exception of St. Nicholas Cathedral in NYC
  4. The securing by the Moscow Patriarchate of the recognition by all Orthodox Churches of the new autocephaly

This agreement was signed by Metropolitan Nikodim and Archbishop Kiprian.


After approval of the basic agreement by both Churches, the two delegations met on August 24 and 25, 1969, in Geneva, Switzerland. Our delegation was the same. The Russian delegation included besides Metropolitan Nikodim, Archpriest Vitaly Borovoy, representative of the Russian Patriarchate to the WCC, Archpriest Livery Voronoff, professor at the Theological Academy of Leningrad and Hieromonk Kirill of the same Academy.

At that meeting Fr. Schmemann drafted a set of canonical presuppositions that were unanimously approved. These included:

  1.  the canonical principle of territorial unity of the church.
  2.  the canonical principle of the jurisdictional unity of the church.
  3.  the recognition that prior to 1922 both the territorial and the jurisdictional unity of the Orthodox Church in America belonged to the Church of Russia
  4.  the recognition that jurisdictional pluralism obviously contradicts the canonical norms.
  5.  the recognition that it belongs to the Mother Church, and to her alone, to proclaim autocephaly.
  6.  the recognition that the growth of the Church in America into a native Church warrants its proclamation as an Autocephalous Church
  7.  the recognition that the Metropolia, because of her historical continuity with the Russian roots of Orthodoxy in America, is the self-evident focus of the American Autocephalous Church.

Two questions remained : 1) the status of the Orthodox Church of Japan which was at that time under the protection of the Metropolia and 2) the status of some priests or laymen of the Exarchate who might have personal objections to joining the Metropolia. It was agreed to put those items on the agenda for the next meeting, pending the approval from both Churches. On September 5, 1969, Metropolitan Ireney received a full report on the Geneva meeting. After hearing the report, he decided to convene the Synod of Bishops and in addition, to send Fr. Schmemann to Japan to brief our Bishop Vladimir (Nagosky), head of the Japanese Orthodox Church at that time.

On Sept. 19, 1969 the Synod of Bishops met and unanimously accepted and approved the Geneva report. It accepted as well the report of Fr. Schmemann on his mission to Japan. The Synod also authorized the next negotiating meeting to be held in Tokyo in November and instructed the delegation to give preliminary reports on the state of negotiations to all the dioceses of the Metropolia.


The meeting was held on 26-27 of November 1969 and dealt with the two problems mentioned earlier. Our delegation again was the same. In addition to Metropolitan Nikodim, their team was represented by Bishop Philaret, Dean of the Moscow Seminary and Academy, and Hieromonk Kirill from the Leningrad Academy. It was resolved that the Church of Japan would become autonomous under the Russian Church, and that Patriarchal parishes that did not want to join us, could retain their status quo.

New York 

The last and final meeting was held at the Metropolitan’s residence in Syosset on March 31,1970. They labored on the final version of the agreement which was signed just before midnight as they did not want the document to have the date of April 1st.

Fr. Schmemann, in giving his impressions of all the negotiations, characterized them as “difficult, sometimes painful, more than once reaching what seemed a breaking point.” He further added that the sincere desire on the part of all and particularly on the part of Metropolitan Nikodim to reach an agreement rescued these negotiations more than once and finally brought them to a successful conclusion.

In going through the material in preparation for this talk, I could not help but notice how all participants wanted to preserve the canonical and historical vision of a united American Church as outlined by Patriarch Tikhon some sixty-five years earlier. They all deserve our deepest gratitude.

May their memory be eternal!