Food for thought about schisms and divisions even amongst those who are “orthodox” in doctrine.
A correspondent, himself a former Orthodox priest and now an Anglican, believes that there is a very powerful cautionary tale for contemporary Anglican seceders to receive concerning the many splits within Orthodoxy in North America. Here are extracts from notes he has sent to me. (Note that the splits are not about basic doctrine or liturgy as such but about other things including ethnicity.)
“I have read the comments at David Virtue's posting regarding your [Peter Toon’s] article and I stand by your observations. I hope that these bishops [from overseas and within Common Cause] take a lesson of what not to do from the Orthodox who have been divided in the US and Canada since the Russian Revolution. There have been only two, albeit, uneasy reaties/reconciliations, those being the split in the Serbian Orthodox Church which lasted thirty-five years and the recent unification of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia with the Moscow Patriarchate, which itself has caused at least three more splits within the ROCOR since July. It is always much easier to break Humpty Dumpty than to put him back together.”
Then he explains in more detail:
“To understand anything about the current divided state of Eastern Orthodox Christianity as it exists in the diaspora, one must go back to its first efforts here in the New World. Prior to the purchase of Alaska from Russia, missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church had been quite active amongst the native peoples of that region for some time. Wherever Russians went they brought along their church. Because the Russians constituted the largest and most influential political power in the Orthodox World it was quite natural that they had assumed the leadership role amongst all Orthodox in both Canada and the US. It was only much later that other Orthodox nationalities began to have their own bishops in North America. Besides the Russians there were Greeks, Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians as well as Syrians; but there were smaller groups of Orthodox Hungarians, Albanians, Georgians as well. Not to speak of Ethiopians, Copts, Assyrians and others as well. At the time of the Russian Revolution there was a lot of problems in the Russian Church in the entire diaspora. At first most sided with the emigre bishops, who later found themselves under the leadership of Metropolitan Anthony Krapovitski of Kiev who moved to Constantinople and later to Sremski-Karlovatski in Serbia. At the time of the Revolution the Russian Church was still operating under the old Synodal system without a Patriarch since the abolition of the Patriarchate under Peter the Great. In 1918. Patriarch Tikhon was elected to the restored office, but he was martyred under the Soviets in 1921. In America, and elsewhere, other Orthodox Churches began to appoint their own bishops and thus began the separation that exists to this day. The Greek Archdiocese of North America, the Antiochian Archdiocese, The Serbian Orthodox Church and others began to administer themselves and there began the overlapping of jurisdictions. There were further disintegrations when the Patriarchate of Constantinople adopted the "New" calendar. There began to appear numerous Greek bishops each claiming to be the lawful hierarchs who continued to observe the Julian or "Old" Calendar. To this day there are several Greek bishops each claiming to be the bishop of Astoria, New York. Some were good men while some were completely uncanonical by any stretch of the imagination. By the 1940s the Russians in North America had for the most part been under the authority of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. I think it was at the Cleveland Sobor that the American Metropolia broke off from the Synod and there began to be two churches both claiming to be the true Russian Orthodox Church in North America. Meanwhile the Moscow Patriarchate held control of several churches. By the late 1960s the American Metropolia sought autecephaly from Moscow and were granted it, we know them now as the Orthodox Church in America. The OCA had some parishes which were Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian, but for the most part they were Russians and Ukranians. There was no independent Ukranian Orthodox prior to 1918. Another group which played a big role in the history of the OCA were the Carpatho-Russians who had been for the most part uniates with Rome but who had joined the Orthodox in a wave of converts spearheaded by Father Alexis Toth. As I indicated there were further jurisdictional break-ups including Macedonians, but in the early 1960s there was a major split in the Serbian Orthodox in North America. This split was so harsh that families exhumed their family members from cemetaries and formed there own. I know this personally because before I became Anglican I had been a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate.”
“The whole mess can be characterized in the following story. There was an English ship sailing past what had been thought to be a deserted island when the watch spotted smoke. The captain ordered a landing party to check it out. When they arrived on the island they were met by a Serb, the only survivor of ship which had sunk long before. The English sailors said that they would rescue him. Before leaving the island the Serb insisted on showing them what he had done while he was marooned. He had built a little house with a small library of books he had salvaged and a small farm with animals he had managed to capture. The sailors were impressed and insisted on getting back to the ship; but the Serb insisted on showing them his greatest achievement. They humored him and followed him through the jungle to a small clearing where before them stood two identical Orthodox churches next to one another. The sailors applauded the Serb's piety, but "why", they asked "did he ever build two identical churches when he was the only person on the island"? The Serb answered that he did so because he was Orthodox, therefore this church I go to and that one I don't go to. So you see the Orthodox situation is very much like that.”
The Revd Dr Peter Toon
President of the Prayer Book Society 2007