Orthodox Church in America (OCA)

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The Orthodox Church in America is an autocephalous church of the Eastern Orthodox communion, formerly known as "The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America," or "the Metropolia." Its "autocephaly" was officially granted on April 10, 1970, by the patriarch of Moscow. The Orthodox Church in America was proclaimed an autocephalous Church on Oct. 19, 1970, during the All-American Council meeting at St. Tikhon's Monastery in South Canaan, Pa. The Metropolia adopted a new name"Orthodox Church in America" (OCA). The OCA is a member of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. Governed by a council of bishops, clergy, and laity, the OCA includes over 650 parishes and other institutions. English is the primary language of worship. Twenty Orthodox monasteries (eight female, twelve male) have been established throughout the United States and Canada under OCA jurisdiction. St. Vladimir's Seminary, in Crestwood, N.Y., is OCA's seminary and school of theology, while St. Tikhon Monastery in South Canaan, Pa., offers seminary studies. There is also a seminary for the training of indigenous clergy in Kodiak, Alaska. Various Orthodox groups in the United States such as Albanian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc., have parishes that are part of the OCA.

The first official Orthodox mission to America was launched on Dec. 21, 1793, when a group of volunteers from the monasteries Valaam and Konevitsa (located on the Russo-Finnish border) left St. Petersburg for Alaska, then a Russian territory. This missionary group included one Archimandrite; three priest-monks; one deaconmonk; one lay monk, Herman (d. 1837, canonized as Saint in 1970), famous for his ascetic life and efforts to defend Alaskan natives from ruthless Russian traders; and several staff members. Guided by Shelikov, a Russian businessman, the group traveled for 293 days and a distance of 7,300 miles before arriving at its destination.

The arrival of the first official Orthodox missionary to Kodiak on Sept. 24, 1794, occurred almost a century after the first Russian-Siberian entrepreneurs had permanently settled in Alaska. The Orthodox faith in North America is believed to have had been brought first by Orthodox laity, primarily men who baptized their indigenous wives, offspring and servants. Mass baptisms took place only after the first official Orthodox mission arrived; Juvenal, one of the missionary priest-monks, is reported as baptizing several thousand natives. Despite its relatively sensitive approach to the pre-Christian spirituality of the Aleuts (in which Orthodox Christianity was presented not as the abolition, but as the fulfillment, of the Aleut's ancient religious heritage), the Alaskan mission had several martyrs. One of them was Juvenal himself, killed by indigenous people in 1796. After the sale of Alaska to the United States (1867), the Orthodox mission spread to other parts of the North American continent.

The permanent establishment of the North American mission owes much to the person of John Veniaminov, a priest (d. 1879 as Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 as a Saint, "Enlightener of the Aleuts, Apostle to America and Siberia") who arrived in Unalaska in 1824 with his family. By translating the Gospel of St. Matthew into the Unangan Aleut vernacular, then inaugurating a parish school in Unalaska in 1828, Veniaminov opened a new chapter in the story of the Alaskan Mission. Years later, when he was consecrated a bishop, Veniaminov appointed Jacob Netsvetov, a priest of Aleut and Russian ancestry who graduated from Irkutsk Seminary, (canonized by the OCA on Oct. 15 and 16, 1994 as "St Jacob, Enlightener of the Peoples of Alaska"), to conduct missionary work in the Yukon River delta. Netsvetov preached Christianity for almost 20 years among the Yupik Eskimo and Athabascan Native tribes, baptizing hundreds of their people in the Innoko River. Netsvetov's headquarters was at Ikogmiut (a village known today as "Russian Mission").

By 1867, when Alaska became an American territory, the Alaskan mission, demonstrating extraordinary linguistic adaptability and cultural sensitivity, had grown to nine Orthodox parishes having 12,000 indigenous Christians organized into 35 chapels with 17 schools and 3 orphanages. The sale of Alaska to the United States, however, altered the Orthodox church's situation. In its effort to "Americanize" Orthodox native peoples, the new territorial authorities preferred to cooperate with proselytizing Protestant missionary groups. Under Protestant influence, Orthodox prayers, icons, and native languages were forbidden in Alaska's American schools. This development caused the Russian Holy Synod to elevate, in 1870, the Alaskan mission to become a diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska." The new diocesan bishop (John Mitropolsky, 18701876) decided to relocate to San Francisco. Mitropolsky saw San Francisco as both a city from which the Alaskan mission could best be defended and as a base for the mission's expansion in the continental United States. In subsequent years, the diocese was transferred two times: first in 1872, when it was moved from Sitka, Alaska, to San Francisco after becoming the diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and North America" (1900); then in 1905, after incorporating a large number of "Uniate" immigrant parishes from Galicia and Carpatho-Russia, the diocesan headquarters was transferred to New York. The intention of the missionary diocese was to extend its ministry to the entire North American continent and to establish a united, culturally and linguistically pluralistic Orthodox Church in America while providing each of the Orthodox communities with a bishop of its respective nationality.

Tikhon (Belavin) (d. 1925, canonized Oct. 9, 1989) was appointed bishop of Alaska in 1898. A future patriarch of Moscow (1918), he became Archbishop of the American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church of North America, residing in New York City from 1905 to 1907. In 1905, in keeping with the initial plan of the mission, Tikhon submitted a proposal for an autocephalous church in America to the Russian Synod of St. Petersburg. Foreseeing the inevitable Americanization of his flock, Tikhon believed that only an autonomous ecclesiastic structure, governed in America, would best reflect and help to accommodate the ethnic pluralism of its membership. From 1905 to 1907, Tikhon decentralized ecclesiastical control, adapting Russian ecclesiastical structure and worship to the local cultural environment. Tikhon encouraged services in English and published the necessary liturgical books containing translations of the liturgy into English.

Extremely rapid expansion of the missionary diocese in North America encouraged Tikhon to establish several Russian Orthodox theological schools, among them a seminary and women's college. Such establishment allowed the missionary diocese to grow into a multi-ethnic American diocese, becoming the foundation for a new autonomous immigrant Church. By 1917, the Orthodox mission in North America included more than 350 parishes and chapels, with monasteries, orphanages, fraternal societies, and schools. It was also publishing its own printed materials.

The Russian Revolution (1917) and subsequent anti-ecclesiastical legislation in the new Soviet state hampered Tikhon's project of establishing an autonomous American Orthodox Church. During 1918 and 1919 when The Third "All-American Council" took place, the missionary diocese attempted to defend its canonical jurisdiction over the Orthodox community in North America, but it was unsuccessful. Unable to maintain canonical unity in an increasingly polarized ethnic situation, the missionary diocese lost a substantial number of its Carpatho-Russian parishes. In 1922, these formed their own national jurisdiction. Neither could the American diocese react effectively to the establishment of a "Greek Archdiocese of North and South America" by the ecumenical patriarch, Meletios IV Metaxakis, in 1921. Intended to bring together numerous immigrant (600,000 Greek immigrants came to the United States between 1890 and 1920) Greek independent "trustee" parishes, the new Greek archdiocese became the largest Orthodox body in America; yet it was politically divided until 1931. In the same period the American missionary diocese began to decline. In 1924, after refusing to offer a statement of loyalty to the Soviet atheist government, the diocese proclaimed its self-government in cooperation (until 1926) with "the Synod in Exile," also known as "the Karlovtsy Synod," now known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad or the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. Due to internal divisions, the American diocese lost much of its influence as a multi-ethnic American diocese, increasingly becoming more a Russian "Metropolia," the name by which it eventually became known. The older, typically multi-ethnic parish that had previously characterized the missionary diocese fragmented into smaller, ethnic parishes that sought to change the church's jurisdiction. The appearance of the Greek Orthodox diocese in America plus the lack of regular canonical status for the old missionary archdiocese (metropolia) caused new non-Russian groups of immigrants to affiliate with their mother churches abroad by inviting priests directly from those countries. This process contributed to continuing division of the Orthodox community in America into a number of national dioceses and archdioceses, each of which was designated by its ethnic origin. Since the early 1920s, the majority of Orthodox parishioners in America have belonged to the denominational family of "ethnic churches" rather than to one "missionary Orthodox immigrant church."

Currently, the Orthodox in North America remain divided into 32 distinct administrative "jurisdictions," divisions based principally on ethnic origin. However, OCA's proclamation of autocephaly in 1970 opened a new chapter for Orthodox Americans, who have begun to emphasize anew the unity of Orthodoxy in America, regardless of ethnic origin and independent of foreign interests. OCA, in its call to all Orthodox Christians in America, including bishops, clergy, and laity, extended an invitation to every Orthodox body in America to unite so as to constitute visibly one Church. This remains the official position of the Orthodox Church in America, although OCA's autocephaly has not been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate which, being "first among equals," claims that it alone among Orthodox Churches has the authority to grant autocephaly. Recent meetings between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Theodosius, and more specifically the Ecumenical Partiarch's historic visit to St. Nicholas OCA's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1990, indicate the concerns of both churches for unity of the Orthodox Church and for Orthodoxy in America. Relations between OCA and the Greek archdiocese, previously strained at times, improved during the 1990s.

The OCA appears to be the principal church claiming a direct continuation of efforts begun by the first Orthodox missionaries to North America in 1794. The OCA has about 1,000,000 members of Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Romanian, Mexican, and Albanian backgrounds, who represent half of an almost 2,000,000 American population identifying itself as Orthodox Christian. These numbers are based on independent national religious surveys from 1970 to 1993 and on U.S. Census data from 1990, as quoted by OCA's sources.

Bibliography: bishop gregory (afonsky), History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, 17741914 (Kodiak, AK 1977). p. garrett, St. Innocent: Apostle to America (Crestwood, NY 1979). m. oleksa, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality (Crestwood, NY 1992). Orthodox America 17941976: Development of the Orthodox Church in America, c. j. tarasar and j. h. erickson, eds. (Syosset, NY 1975). r. pierce, The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 17941837 (Kingston, ONT 1978). w. sperry, Religion in America, Orthodox Christians in North America, 17941994 (Orthodox Christian Publications Center 1995). m. stokoe, in collaboration with l. kishkovsky, Orthodox Christians in North America 17941994 (Oyster Bay Cove, NY 1994). Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, m. prokurat, a. golitizin, & m. d. peterson, eds. (Lantham, MD 1996).

[m. youroukov/

r. b. miller]