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On July 16, delegates to a special convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America met in Pittsburgh to adopt a constitution that will usher in a new era of self-rule. Those who find the workings of the Orthodox Church already Byzantine will be further confused by this action. Is it an act of rebellion, as if the Catholic Church in Ireland broke away from Rome?

No. It's actually a movement toward unity. The Orthodox Church has a less-centralized form of government than the Roman Catholic Church does. In Orthodoxy each nation is expected to have its own self-governing administration, while all honor the Patriarch of Constantinople as a spiritual leader. So in Romania there is a Romanian Orthodox Church; in Greece, a Greek Orthodox Church; in Russia, a Russian Orthodox Church.

So what are these Romanian, Greek, and a dozen other Orthodox churches doing here? Why don't we have an American Orthodox Church instead? The short answer is: the Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1794 Russian monks crossed the Bering Strait, bringing Christianity to the northwest corner of the North American continent. (The monks' letters express joy that the Gospel is being received by "the Americans," by which they mean Inuit, Aleut, and other Alaska natives.) The Orthodox mission spread south along the California coast, and in theory would have continued east until it covered the continent. The Russian church would have guided Americans toward self-rule, until a full-grown American Orthodox Church was ready to stand on her own feet.

But the revolution that toppled Russian government in 1917 disrupted communication between mother and daughter church. At the same time, immigrants from traditionally Orthodox nations in Eastern Europe ...

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July 2004

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