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An Interview with Charles Ajalat on Orthodox Unity in America, Part 1

by Kevin Allen

KA: My guest today is Charles Ajalat, one of the pre-eminent lay leaders and advocates for the administrative unity of the various Orthodox jurisdictions in North America and Chancellor of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Since you’re an attorney, I guess it would be prudent for us to begin with a disclaimer by saying that the views expressed on the program are not necessarily the views of the Antiochian Archdiocese or of Ancient Faith Radio/Conciliar Press. They represent the opinions of you and me, the guest and the host.

CA: Right, I’m not speaking on this program officially on behalf of anyone other than myself.

KA: What’s your best estimate of how many church members of all of the canonical Orthodox jurisdictions in North America there are, and is the number stagnant or growing?

CA: Although regular churchgoers are less, the broader number of adherents that is often thrown around is as much as three to five million for the jurisdictions that are part of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, SCOBA. Alexi Krindatch’s recent study, on the other hand, implies there are somewhat less than a million of such adherents. Whatever the numbers, the Orthodox Church, precisely because it is the historical, apostolic church, can have a great influence on the culture of our society if it can be seen for what it is and not as a collection of ethnic communities. Even if the real number is, say, 2 million people, that is a lot of people. For example, the Episcopal Church in the United States, I understand, has only about 2 million people.

In terms of numbers, one could also look at the number of church communities. There are probably about 1,800 Orthodox churches of the SCOBA jurisdiction in the U.S. and Canada. Regarding your other question, some jurisdictions may be stagnant, while in various others, such as the self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, there is significant growth.

KA: How many separate SCOBA Orthodox church jurisdictions or bodies are there currently in North America?

CA: I would say approximately ten, and my understanding of the numbers is as follows: The four largest are the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, about 500 churches, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), about 450 churches, the Antiochian Archdiocese, perhaps the fastest growing, about 250 churches and the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, (ROCOR, which recently came into communion with the Moscow Patriarchate) and their sister Moscow Patriarchal churches, approximately 200 churches in North America (neither of these latter two groups has yet been admitted to SCOBA). Then there are the Serbians and the Ukrainians (each about 100 churches) and the Carpatho-Russians, the Patriarchal Romanians, the Patriarchal Bulgarians, and the Albanians under the Ecumenical Patriarch (I think the latter may have only two churches here). The majority of the Albanians, Bulgarians and Romanians are under the OCA, not the respective Patriarchates, although it is the Patriarchal churches that have seats in SCOBA.

KA: Was the situation always this way, one of multiple and overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions on the continent?

CA: No. Orthodoxy was brought to North America over 200 years ago by Russia, back in 1794, through Alaska and then through California. However, the major influxes of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East didn’t come until the 1890s. This had to do with immigration policy in this country and famines and other situations overseas. And at that time the canonical structure in North America was one, all under the Church of Russia. For example, St. Raphael Hawaweeny, although an Antiochian, and the first Orthodox bishop consecrated on North American soil, was under the Moscow Patriarchate.

When the Russian Revolution of 1917 came about, however, and the Russian Church was under persecution, the division began. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese was formed in 1921. Then there was the Antiochyie-Russiye split, where some wanted to go under Antioch and others wanted to remain under Russia. The people in North America of Russian background either stayed under what was called the Metropolia, which is now the OCA (granted independence or autocephaly by Moscow in 1970), or went under ROCOR, recently reunited with Moscow as an autonomous or self-governing church.

But, getting back to your question, the real point is that administrative unity isn’t so new. We need to get back to the Orthodox administrative unity that we all once had up until the early 1900s.

KA: So, each church jurisdiction, as the reality is in this country, has its own and separate ecclesiastical infrastructure, archbishops, bishops, that runs its own affairs separately from the other jurisdictions?

CA: This is true, Kevin, even though we are one in faith and doctrine, one in worship, one in polity and canons, one in spiritual life. The administrative separatism in North America is such a waste of the meager resources that the Orthodox churches here have to work with. It makes absolutely no sense to have multiple departments of religious education, of youth ministry, etc.

And, the dollar spent on, say, seminary infrastructure per theological student caused by the divisions is something no business would tolerate. Multiple extensive libraries, for example, for a relatively small number of students. And all of this is in addition to the even more pressing canonical and ecclesiological problems resulting from the multiple juris dictions.

Think of the strength we have together. I would love to see 45 or more dioceses of a United North American Church with one bishop having the title of each major U.S. or Canadian city. For the sake of our children and grandchildren and, more importantly, for the salvation of all on this continent, I would love to see our Church, through Christ, transforming our culture while our Lord is transforming our own lives.

KA: What is the canonical standard for Orthodox structure in a country supposed to be?

CA: The canons provide that there should be one bishop in one city. This is important theologically and ecclesiologically, in part, so that the surrounding culture can see the unity of the Church. Also, a council held in Constantinople in 1872 condemned phyletism or ethnicism as heresy. Many have accused the current structure of North America as violating both of these canonical standards.

If I’m an American law professor of non-cradle background in the Chicago metropolitan area and want to become Orthodox, I find there’s a Serbian jurisdiction headquartered there, a Greek jurisdiction headquartered there, an OCA jurisdiction headquartered there, etc. It’s not only hard to see that the Orthodox Church is one Church, and the Church that Christ founded, but it is not even seen as indigenous to the Continent, but somehow as a foreign implant.

KA: Are there other potentially relevant canons?

CA: Well, the Ecumenical Patriarch interprets Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council to give himself a papal-type jurisdiction over all territories that were not historically under a given patriarchate.

Most other non-Greek Orthodox patriarchs disagree. Archbishop Paul of the autonomous Church of Finland, in 1979, said, “the patriarchates of Antioch, Moscow and Romania strongly opposed the Alexandrian theory on the authority of Constantinople over all the diaspora.”

We should see what Canon 28 says. The canon provides jurisdiction in the Ecumenical Patriarchate for Asia, Thrace and Pontus, the three provinces which correspond to modern day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, and adds that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has jurisdiction over them and the “barbarians.” Perhaps the best explanation of why North America is not such a diaspora is the March 18, 2002 letter by Patriarch Alexis of Russia to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. You should cross-reference it on your website.

KA: In addition to the canonical standards, there’s also a spiritual standard, isn’t that right?

CA: Yes, as Father Alexander Schmemann said, there is a “dogmatical or spiritual essence of the church as unity.” It goes to our whole theology, and our ecclesiology incorporates that theology into the understanding of the Church.

The Orthodox Church is one. No one would dispute that the Church here is one, one in faith and one in worship. Why do we deny this oneness in Christ by having these separate man-made administrative structures that are not reflective of our task of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ and His Church to North America?

KA: Tell us about the historical standard.

CA: Historically, there have been separate sister Orthodox churches on the various geographical territories, but this still keeps as its basis total unity in the Church through the intercommunion of the bishops. As Alexander Bogolepov said, the Orthodox Church retains the concept of church unity, which existed during the time of the seven Ecumenical Councils. It’s a unity in plurality of sister churches, only some of which have the privileges of honor.

KA: So, is it fair to say that the multiple jurisdictional reality, which we have in American Orthodoxy, is in conflict with most or even all of the applicable standards: canonical, spiritual and historical standards?

CA: Absolutely. It violates everything in which we believe. Father Schmemann wrote, “The simultaneous jurisdiction of several bishops in the same territory is a betrayal of both the letter and the spirit of the whole canonical tradition.” The late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople said, “It is truly a scandal to the unity of the Church to maintain more than one bishop in any given city. It contravenes the sacred canons and Orthodox ecclesiology.” Patriarch Elias of Antioch in 1977 said, “The Antiochian Holy Synod has studied in depth the situation of Orthodoxy in the diaspora. Our position is clear. There must be established independent churches in Western Europe, North America, etc. We affirm that in North America there should be an autocephalous Church with its own patriarch and holy synod.”

KA: Is this non-canonical situation that we have both in letter and in spirit, unique to our American situation here in Orthodox history?

CA: We have the same problem in Europe and in Australia in lesser numbers, but looking at the broader historical picture of the Church, I think this whole “multi-diaspora issue” is unique to our times.

KA: Of the ten or so SCOBA jurisdictions, how many are fuller independent or autocephalous, where they elect their own primate, and how many are semi-independent or autonomous, where the head of the Church here is either approved by the Mother Church as happens with Japan) or elected by the Mother Church from three names (as happens with the Antiochian Archdiocese)?

CA: Four of the ten SCOBA jurisdictions are autocephalous or autonomous. Only the OCA is autocephalous, although not all the mother churches accept Moscow’s grant of autocephaly to the OCA in 1970. The Romania Archdiocese, the Antiochian Archdiocese and ROCOR are self-ruling or autonomous. The other jurisdictions are either canonically subordinate to a mother church patriarchate, Serbia, Bulgaria or the Ecumenical Patriarchate (under whom are the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Carpatho-Russians, the Ukrainians and the few patriarchal Albanian churches).

KA: What do you think are some of the problems associated with this multiple jurisdictional reality in matters of governance, growth, and even evangelism?

CA: They include the lack of a unified witness of the gospel to the culture around us, the unwise use of resources, and a lack of church discipline as to pastoral problems (e.g., people shopping Orthodox jurisdictions to allow a divorce) or even parish schisms. There is a lack of effective witness to governments. For example, whereas the American government stopped our bombing in the Gulf War during the Muslim Ramadan out of respect to Muslims, they would not heed the request of our Orthodox hierarchs here to stop bombing in Serbia during the holy week of Pascha. Also, in the first national service after 9/11, my understanding is that the Orthodox were not invited, although in a subsequent service, the head of SCOBA at the time Archbishop Demetrius, was invited.

KA: We spoke about SCOBA, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. Is SCOBA a form of an American pan- Orthodox synod? If not, what is it and has it been effective?

CA: Well, I would say it’s not a synod. A synod, in my view, implies binding internal authority. Because of the control of certain SCOBA churches from abroad, combined with the lack of desire on the part of certain hierarchs here to seek the goal of administrative unity, in my view, SCOBA itself at the hierarchical level is not very effective. On the other hand, SCOBA has served as an umbrella under which the clergy and laity have been able to advance the work of the Church together. We’ve been able to form many different activities and put them “under SCOBA.” International Orthodox Christian Charities is a prime example.

But to have Orthodox administrative unity here it seems to me we need not only to have the grassroots revolution, which is the most important, but we need simultaneously to have hierarchs who are willing to hear the cry of their clergy and laity that we must have an administratively unified Church and witness to our society.

KA: Part of the justification for the continuing governance of ecclesiastical jurisdictions in North America by mother churches is that North America is a continuing diaspora of Orthodox faithful coming from the mother country. Please explain how this concept is understood and employed by the mother churches.

CA: Well, the word “diaspora” is a sensitive term in the Orthodox Church because of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s claim that it is in charge of the diaspora, a claim that others dispute. But some other mother churches use the word also because they aren’t always happy to think about the fact that their daughter has grown up and matured and is ready to get married. They don’t realize that the benefits to the entire Church, including to the mother church, will be much greater as the North American Church becomes administratively unified.

Orthodox administrative unity does not mean giving up our cultural roots and our love for, and contacts with, our mother churches, but rather preserves those roots and love and contacts while focusing on the land in which we live and will die, and the land in which our children and grandchildren will live and die.

The word “diaspora” also doesn’t take into account the fact that a very large, growing number of non-cradle Orthodox are joining the churches and many more “cradle” Orthodox were born right here in the U.S. and Canada.

Again, I emphasize the other side of the coin that anyone considering this issue seriously has to also understand that there are many immigrants still coming from so-called Orthodox countries and their needs must also be addressed pastorally. But there’s no reason why anyone should lose or have watered down their cultural traditions. Just as there are Italian and Irish Catholic churches, but they are Catholic first, there can be Greek and Russian and Romanian and Serbian and Arab and American Orthodox churches, but each parish will be part of a unified Orthodoxy, doctrinally in worship, in action, and in administration. Orthodoxy, not cultural ties, will be their essential primary component.

KA: Who benefits from seeing North America as a continuing diaspora?

CA: I guess it benefits those overseas who either want to control the Church here or to feel closely attached to it. Now, the latter part, I think, is a legitimate desire. I think we should have close relations with the mother churches. I think that’s important. Also, while creating a North American church structure we must strengthen the ties with all the mother churches. After all, we’re Orthodox first. We need to do what is for the benefit of the entire Orthodox Church. But, having one North American Orthodox Church that’s totally autocephalous some day in the future would be to the benefit of the entire Church.

Courtesy of the

March 2008 issue of The Word magazine.

Return to The Word article listing.