Twentieth Century: 1950 – 1973

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By: Fr. Thomas Hopko
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Twentieth Century: 1950 – 1973

Church in Russia

In the late fifties and early sixties, the soviet state again began to persecute the Orthodox Church in Russia. There were no violent purges as in the Stalin era, but the new persecutions came in the form of “administrative” measures with supposedly legal foundations. There was the closing of schools and churches – from 22,000 churches open in 1960 to 7,000 in 1964. There was the heavy taxation and restricted registration of clergy. Severe punishments were meted out against churchmen for trivial or nonexistent “crimes.” In 1961, new decrees of the government gravely limited the powers of the parish priests by giving all legal and administrative authority in the churches to the lay councils, the “twenty” members required by soviet law for the formation of a local corporation with rights to use a church building for worship. The pastors were thus reduced to mere liturgical functionaries devoid of official involvement in the life of their churches. These “administrative” measures were the attempt to destroy the religious faith which according to marxist doctrine, should long since have died a natural death in the USSR. Official atheist propaganda of the period shows a grave concern over the persistence of religion in the land.

Churchmen Appeal

Because the leading members of the hierarchy of the Russian Church were silent and passive in the face of the new persecution of the church by the state, voices of protest arose from the church members. The most powerful appeals for just and proper action concerning the church came from Archbishop Yermogen of Kaluga and the priests, Nikolai Eshliman and Gleb Yakunin. These spokesmen in behalf of the rights of the Russian Church – on the basis of soviet law as well as the statutes of the Russian Orthodox Church promulgated at its council of 1945 – sent open letters of criticism to both church and state officials in December 1965. They, together with a number of lesser known colleagues, were deprived of their churchly positions. Agitation among the clergy and laymen for reform in the Russian Church, for strong leadership and just treatment, goes on until today.

Pasternak and Sovlzhenitsyn

In addition to churchmen, men from academic and literary fields also made appeals in the name of faith and freedom in Russia. Boris Pasternak (d.l960) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both Nobel Prize winning authors and Christian believers, are in this number.  Solzhenitsyn addressed his famous Lenten Letter to Patriarch Pimen in 1972. This letter was extremely critical of the policies and actions of the Russian Church in the face of state control. It received great international attention as well as causing much controversy within the Russian Church. It received, however, no official response from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Patriarch Pimen

Upon the death of Patriarch Alexei in 1970, Archbishop Pimen Izvekov was chosen as primate of the Russian Church at its council in 1971. This same council officially confirmed the administrative decrees of 1961 so opposed by the parish clergy. Patriarch Pimen, who has made visits to the other patriarchates since his elevation, has been silent in response to all criticism of church leadership in Russia, and has continued the policies of cooperation with the soviet authorities of Sergius and Alexei before him.

Japanese Autonomy

Among the last acts of Patriarch Alexei in 1970 was the official declaration by the Moscow Patriarchate of the autonomy of the Orthodox Church in Japan. Bishop Vladimir Nagosky, the American-born primate of the Japanese Church, which was affiliated with the American Metropolia since World War II, was made Metropolitan of Tokyo as the church became fully self-governing. The Moscow Patriarch reserved the right to confirm the election of the Japanese primate and to participate in his consecration. In all other respects, the Church in Japan is fully independent. At the time of Japanese autonomy, the founder of the Church in Japan, Archbishop Nikolai Kassatkin, was canonized a saint by the Russian Church. In 1972, Metropolitan Vladimir returned to the United States as the native Metropolitan Theodosius Nagashima replaced him as primate of the church.

Metropolia Development

The fifties and sixties in the American Metropolia were difficult years. The problems of this period were internal difficulties arising from the theological and spiritual development of the church and the desire for a more adequate churchly life. There was an eagerness for admin.istrative and liturgical reform that generally took the form of clergy-laity struggles over respective rights and privileges. By the end of the sixties, however, a consensus was developing among the majority of priests and people in the church for the implementation of proper liturgical worship, administrative order and spiritual development in the metropolia. The theological schools by this time were firmly established. St. Tikhon’s Seminary had developed considerably. St. Vladimir’s had received a number of famous European professors – N. Arseniev, A. Bogolepov, G. Fedotov, Fr. G. Florovsky, S. Verhovskoy, Fr. A. Schmemann, Fr. J. Meyendorff – and, in 1967, received the right from the State of New York to grant the degrees of bachelor and master of theology.

Metropolitan Ireney

Metropolitan Leonty died in May of 1965. At the twelfth council of the American metropolia, the assembly nominated Archbishop Ireney Bekish, the acting administrator, and the American-born Bishop Vladimir Nagosky of the Japanese Church as candidates for the office of Metropolitan, as no candidate polled the required two-thirds votes on the first ballot. Archbishop Ireney was subsequently elected by the Synod of Bishops to succeed Metropolitan Leonty.

Metropolitan Ireney, who continues to lead the American Church, immediately addressed a letter to the primates of all autocephalous churches upon his elevation, urging an urgent discussion about the confused situation of Orthodoxy in America. His appeal at this time went unanswered. His requests of leading patriarchs for audiences to discuss the Church in America were refused.

Metropolitan Ireney presided at the thirteenth council of the American metropolia in 1967 as the feeling ran high for action to declare the metropolia as the self-governing Orthodox Church in America without recourse to or recognition by any patriarchate across the seas. Although no official action was taken, a “straw vote” of the council showed the overwhelming majority of delegates ready to drop the name Russian from the church and to carry on officially as a church in and for America.

American Autocephaly

In the late sixties, informal talks began between representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and the American Metropolia, usually at ecumenical gatherings, about the American problem. Official negotations to settle the difficulties between the two churches began in 1969. The official delegates of the American metropolia – Archbishop Kiprian of Philadelphia, and Fathers Joseph Pishtey, John Skvir, Alexander Schmemann and John Meyenclorff – insisted upon a totally self-governing status for the metropolia, with the complete removal of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Russian Church from American territory.

After long and difficult negotiations, with many hesitations and compromises, and many meetings and discussions within both churches over this complex and sensitive issue, on March 31, 1970, Metropolitan Ireney and Metropolitan Nikodim, head of the external affairs department of the Moscow Patriarchate, signed the agreement whereby the Russian Church would recognize the American metropolia as the fully autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

Autocephaly Proclaimed

On April 10, 1970, six clays before his death, Patriarch Alexei, together with fourteen bishops of the holy synod of the Russian Church, signed the official tomos proclaiming the metropolia as the fifteenth autocephalous church in the Orthodox family of self-governing churches, the Orthodox Church in America.

At the fourteenth council of the American metropolia held at St. Tikhon’s Monastery on October 20-22, 1970, the tomos of autocephaly – which had been formally received on behalf of the American church by a delegation of churchmen led by Bishop Theodosius Lazor of Sitka – was officially read and the event was solemnly celebrated. The new status of the church was accepted and affirmed by the members of the council by a vote of 301 to 7, with 2 abstentions. The council thus became the first general council of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

The second council of the Church, held at St. Tikhon’s, adopted the official governing statute of the new church and officially accepted the Albanian diocese headed by Bishop Stephen Lasko into the Orthodox Church in America.

Canonization of St. Herman

On August 9, 1972, the Orthodox Church in America celebrated the canonization of its first saint, Father Herman of Alaska. A member of the first group of missionary monks to come to Alaska in 1794 from the Valaam monastery in Finland, Saint Herman, a simple lay monk, remained among the Alaskan people as their protector, teacher and intercessor before God. The canonization ceremonies attended by Archbishop Paaveli of the Finnish Orthodox Church, took place in Kodiak.

Autocephaly Aftermath

The act of recognition by the Moscow Patriarchate of its former missionary diocese in the new world as the fifteenth autocephalous Orthodox Church has not been officially received by all of the churches. Only the churches of Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Finland have issued official statements of recognition. Violent opposition has come from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its American-Greek Orthodox archdiocese, and other Greek-speaking churches. All churches, however, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople, are in full sacramental and spiritual communion with the Orthodox Church in America, thus giving it the recognition de facto, which, for various reasons, they have refused to offer de jure.

Ecumenical Patriarchate

The ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople from 1950 to 1972 was led by the imposing figure of Patriarch Athenagoras I. This world-famous hierarch was concerned primarily with the survival of the patriarchate in Turkey and with ecumenical activity. In January 1964, the patriarch met with Pope Paul VI of the Roman Church in Jerusalem, the first meeting between the primates of the Orthodox and Roman churches since 1439. The two prelates met again in 1967 in Constantinople and in Rome. In 1965, they issued statements nullifying the anathemas of 1054 (see eleventh-century), thus signifying an era of friendship between the churches in the mutual quest for complete unity in truth and love. The patriarch also met personally with leaders of the Church of England and the World Council of Churches.

Athenagoras Criticized

For his bold words and deeds directed toward Christian unity – particularly in his relations with the Roman Church – Patriarch Athenagoras was both admired and attacked. While being virtually identified with the whole of Orthodoxy in the minds of most non-Orthodox, the patriarch was severely criticized by some members of the Orthodox Church for acting independently and irresponsibly, without proper consultation with the leaders of all of the Orthodox churches. Others in the church, primarily in the Church of Greece, on Mt. Athos, and in America, criticized not merely the manner of the patriarch’s acting, but the actions themselves as betraying the Orthodox Faith.

Great Council

In 1961, Athenagoras I called the first conference of representatives of all autocephalous Orthodox churches in Rhodes to discuss the common problems facing the Orthodox, and to begin serious preparations for the calling of a Great Council of the Orthodox Church which had already been discussed for decades. Several other such meetings were held in Rhodes and Switzerland, but the convocation of such a Great Council of all Orthodox bishops in the world in the near future is most unlikely. In 1967, the ecumenical patriarchate refused to place the problem of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America on the agenda of the pan-Orthodox conference held that year in Switzerland. The request was made by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America. (See below)

Inner Troubles

The ecumenical patriarchate continues to have trouble with the Turkish government. The hasty election of Patriarch Demetrios 1, Papadopoulos, to succeed Athenagoras I in 1972 showed the power of the Turkish authorities over the affairsofthe Orthodox Church within its territory. The patriarchal seminary on the island of Halki was closed because of Turkish regulations in 1971. The ecumenical patriarchate also is engaged in controversy with the Church of Greece over the jurisdiction of dioceses in the “new lands” of northern Greece, while the monks of Mount Athos – whose number reduced from about six and a half thousand at the beginning of the century to about one and a half thousand today – continue to rebel against Constantinopolitan leadership because of its ecumenical policies.

Church in Greece

The Church of Greece has had its own inner turmoils since the time of the civil war in the forties. In 1967, Ieronymos Cotsonis, for eighteen years a chaplain at the royal palace, became the Archbishop of Athens by decree of the military junta that seized power in the country in April of that year. The archbishop has effected many reforms in the Greek Church along the line of his moralistic Zoe background, while opening the church to greater ecumenical activities. He has not been received well by the Greek hierarchy because of his manner of appointment as well as his strong control over the church. He offered his resignation in 1973, but it was not accepted by the synod of bishops as inner struggles in the Greek Church go on.

Greek Archdiocese

The ecumenical patriarchate continues its jurisdiction over the Greek Orthodox Church in America. In 1959, Constantinople appointed Archbishop Iakovos Koukouzis to succeed the late Archbishop Michael. The new primate of the Greek-American archdiocese immediately established .himself as the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy in America by an active participation in the social and political affairs and ceremonies of the nation. Archbishop Iakovos’ policies are those of Athenagoras I, and have received the same general reaction both within and outside the Orthodox Church.

Archbishop Iakovos has also been criticized by some in America for being inconsistent on his positions concerning Orthodox unity in the new world, while a number of his own archdiocese – mostly recent immigrants – have attacked him for his ostensible pro-American, anti-Greek actions. In reality, the diplomatic archbishop has continued to foster the specifically Greek identity of his archdiocese, following official instructions sent from Constantinople, while keeping close contacts also with the Church of Greece.


In March of 1960, Archbishop Iakovos hosted a meeting of the primates of all canonical Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States to discuss their closer cooperation. On June 7 in the same year, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas was established. Although a consultative group with no canonical jurisdiction or authority, SCOBA has provided a symbol of Orthodox unity in the new world, and has given a structure for the coordination of inter-Orthodox activities. The most fruitful of the projects carried on under the official auspices of SCOBA are the Campus Commission for work among students, and the Orthodox Christian Education Commission, the outgrowth of inter-Orthodox action in the area of religious education which began in 1957 under the leadership of Sophie Koulomzin. The OCEC produces a complete curriculum of materials for Orthodox Church schools.

SCOBA continues to exist today, although the presence of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America has forced it to reconsider its structure and policies. Having failed to improve the canonical situation of the many Orthodox jurisdictions in the Americas, SCOBA continues as a coordinating agency and a platform for discussion among the Orthodox under the chairmanship of Archbishop Iakovos.

National Dioceses

The Antiochene diocese in America elected Metropolitan Philip Saliba as its primate in 1966 upon the death of Metropolitan Antony Bashir. The smaller diocese of Toledo, headed by Metropolitan Michael Shaheen also continues under the patriarchate of Antioch which in 1970 elected Elias IV as its primate in the place of the late Patriarch Theodosius.

The Serbians in America split in 1963 when the Church in Serbia retired Bishop Dionisiye and replaced him with Bishops Sava, Firmilian and Gregory for three American dioceses. Bishop Dionisiye rejected his retirement and was unfrocked by the church authorities. He led a large group of clergy and people into his independent Serbian Church in America. Although the most violent period of strife between the two Serbian groups is over, the Dionisiye group remains outside of canonical relationship with the Orthodox churches while the patriarchate in Belgrade led by Patriarch German since 1958 continues to govern the three American dioceses.

The small Bulgarian diocese in America also split during this period, with some members remaining faithful to the patriarchate in Sophia – with – Patriarch Maxim replacing the late Patriarch Cyril in 1971 – while the others have formed their own independent group outside of canonical relations with the other Orthodox churches.

A small Roumanian diocese in America remains in the jurisdiction of the Roumanian Church headed by Patriarch Justinian, while the Patriarchate of Constantinople continues to exercise jurisdiction over Albanian, Carpatho-Russian and Ukrainian jurisdictions in America.

OCA Additions

The Roumanian episcopate in America, headed by Bishop Valerian Trifa, officially affiliated with the American Metropolia in 1960 and thus is an integral part of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

The Albanian diocese led by Bishop Stephe Lasko – the remnant of the diocese of Bishop Fan Noli – joined the Orthodox Church in America in 1971.

The Orthodox Church in America opened its twenty-thousand member Mexican exarchate in 1972, headed by Bishop Jose Cortes y Olmos.

European Churches

In 1951, the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia became autocephalous, while in 1967, the communist government of Albania declared the Orthodox Church there to be non-existent.

The Russian Exarchate of Western Europe, which was under the jurisdiction of Constantinople since the time of Metropolitan Eulogius, was “returned” by the ecumenical patriarchate to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1965. The exarchate refused to go under Moscow and declared itself independent and self-governing. In 1971, however, it appealed once more to Constantinople and was again received under its jurisdiction. The primate of the exarchate, which received five new bishops from Constantinople in the last two years, is Archbishop George of Brussels.

The Moscow Patriarchate continues to operate its exarchate in Western Europe with Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in London and Archbishop Basil Krivosheine in Brussels as its most famous leaders.

In 1973, the Patriarchate of Alexandria consecrated four bishops for the Orthodox Church in East Africa, among whom are two of its original leaders. Reuben Spartas and Theodore Nankyamas.

Ukrainians and Synod

Negotiations between the Ukrainian “self-consecrated” and the Patriarchate of Constantinople developed in the seventies, but without clear and conclusive results.

The Russian Synod in Exile, now centered in America with its main monastery in Jordanville, New York, continues outside canonical relations with the other Orthodox churches. The group’s anti-ecumenical and anti-communist views are propagated under the guise of uncompromising orthodoxy.

Ecumenical Movement

In 1961, in New Delhi, the churches of Russia, Roumania, Bulgaria and Poland joined the World Council of Churches at its third assembly. The Russian Church in the sixties was extremely active ecumenically, led by Metropolitan Nikodim. This activity has been greatly curtailed in the seventies, most likely due to the changing political needs of the Soviet government which continues to dominate official church policy.

Within the ecumenical movement the Orthodox, as a whole, continue to stress the priority of faith and order in the ecumenical dialogue, and to insist on perfect unity in the Orthodox faith as the sole condition for Christian unity and sacramental communion. The bishops of The Orthodox Church in America issued an official encyclical on this issue in 1973.

Roman Church

In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced the convocation of an “ecumenical council” of the Roman Catholic Church. This council, called Vatican II, opened in 1962 and closed in 1965. Pope John died in 1963 and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI. Attended by all Roman bishops and many non-Catholic observers, the council published official documents concerning all aspects of Roman Catholic church life. The council caused great changes in the Roman Church and the post-conciliar period has been one of confusion and conflict. The most significant changes of this time have been the radical questioning of the Roman system of ecclesiastical authority and the enthusiastic entrance of Roman Catholics into ecumenical activity. The recent changes in the Roman Church have had a tremendous impact on the entire Christian world.