American Orthodox Catholic Church
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The American Orthodox Catholic Church (in full, The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America) was the first attempt by mainstream Orthodox canonical authorities at the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church for North America. It was chartered in 1927 by Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky) primate of the Russian Metropolia and his holy synod, and its history as part of the mainstream Orthodox Church ended in 1934. During its short existence, it was mainly led by Aftimios Ofiesh, Archbishop of Brooklyn.
A Promising Beginning
Fr. Serafim Surrency's book, The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (1973) begins its account of the formation of this body thus:
- Starting in 1927 the first move was initiated to found a canonical American Orthodox Church with the blessing of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church and with the hope that world Orthodoxy would recognize the legitimacy of the new body. The initiative for this attempt belonged to Bishop Aftimios (Ofiesh) of Brooklyn and a member of the Council of Bishops in his capacity as Diocesan for the Syrians (Arabs) which acknowledged the authority of the Russian Church (pp. 32-33).
In this project, Aftimios had the assistance of two American-born Orthodox clerics who had been ordained to the priesthood in the early 1920s, Hiermonk Boris (Burden) and Priest Michael Gelsinger. Both men were particularly concerned about the loss of Orthodox young people to the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in the US—the Episcopal Church was of special concern, as it was a liturgical church in some ways similar to Orthodoxy and generally enjoyed a special status of prestige in American society.
At the outset, the new venture appeared quite successful—within the space of only four years, with the support of the synod of the Russian Metropolia, four bishops were consecrated and an impressive charter was granted from said synod, titled An Act of the Synod of Bishops in the American Dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The charter itself—referencing the authority of a letter from Metr. Sergius (locum tenens of the Patriarchate of Moscow) which indicated that autonomous Orthodox churches could be founded outside Russia—granted to the new church body the full name The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, with The American Orthodox Catholic Church as its "short name." Additionally,
- We hereby, on this 2nd day of February (new Style) in the year 1927, charge one of our number, His Eminence the Most Reverend Aftimios, Archbishop of Brooklyn, with the full responsibility and duty of caring and providing for American Orthodoxy in the especial sense of Orthodox Catholic people born in America and primarily English-speaking or any American residents or parishes of whatever nationality or linguistic character or derivation not satisfactorily provided with proper and canonical Orthodox Catholic care, ecclesiastical authority, teaching and ministrations of the Church or who may wish to attach themselves by the properly and legally provided means to an autonomous, independent, American Orthodox Catholic Church.... a distinct, independent, and autonomous branch of the Orthodox Catholic Church... (pp. 34-35).
Signed by the entire Metropolia synod at the time—Metr. Platon, Aftimios, Theophilus, Amphilohy, Arseny, and Alexy—it further named Aftimios as the primate of the new church and elected and gave order for "the Consecration of the Very Reverend Leonid Turkevitch to be Bishop in the newly-founded [church]... as assistant to its Governing Head..." (p. 35). Fr. Leonid eventually did get consecrated to the episcopacy, though not in the new church body, and is better known as Metr. Leonty (Turkevich) of New York, primate of the Russian Metropolia. His refusal at the time was based mainly on a "press of family obligations" which led to his insistence on "a specific stipulated salary which could not be met" (p. 36). To replace Fr. Leonid as the first assistant to Aftimios, Platon chose Archimandrite Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), who was consecrated on September 11, 1927, by Aftimios, assisted by Theophilus and Arseny.
Fr. Serafim's analysis of the failure of this church is as follows:
- There can be no question that while the movers of the new Church were sincere and highly motivated that nonetheless they were fostering an idea whose time had not yet come, or to use more appropriate phraseology: Almighty God in his infinite wisdom did not see fit to bless this first attempt to have an American Orthodox Church. On the human level it is clear why the movement did not succeed. The Orthodox in America were still in their own particular ghettos... [the church] was unable to attract or find clergy theologically trained in the Orthodox tradition and able to communicate with the young people with immigrant parents (p. 33).
External pressures on the movement also contributed to its demise:
- While the Russian Council of Bishops gave initial support, it was only moral support, and the first person elected to be a Hierarch of the new Church in fact turned down the nomination because it was not possible to guarantee him any kind of salary—which is indicative of another primary deficiency of the movement, no adequate financing.... [The] new Church lost its most important supporter, Metr. Platon, because of antagonism of the clergy initiators towards the Protestant Episcopal Church.... [some of whose authorities] resented the American Orthodox Church as being a challenge to... the "senior Orthodox Church in America" [i.e., the Episcopal Church], and that pressure was put on Metr. Platon to withdraw his support or the financial assistance he was receiving from the Episcopal Church... would be cut off and perhaps he would be deprived of the use, on a temporary basis, of Episcopal churches (pp. 33-34).
- ...it would be most unjust to blame the failure of the "Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" solely or even primarily on Protestant Episcopal opposition. One can state it more strongly: the various Orthodox groups in America at that time simply were not ready in terms of church consciousness for the establishment of an American Orthodox Church (p. 34).
- The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (1973), by Archim. Serafim (Surrency)