Episode 306 – Russian Orthodox Churches in the US

This week we’re joined by Jason Ward. We wrap up with the Russian Orthodox Church. In the news Russia is fueling the antivax movement, SCOTUS gets one wrong and one right, Theocrats in Alabama are destroying marriage, and more!

Dustin’ off the Degree – Russian Orthodox Churches in the US

This week we’re resuming the Dustin off the Degree series on Orthodox Christianity. That started in Episode 297 and continued in episodes 298 and 299.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s history in Russia is long and it’s history in the United States is convoluted. Why? Empire, revolution, and immigration. The end result is the various Russian churches within the US.

Orthodox Church in America

The oldest is the Orthodox Church in America which got its start when a priest was sent to Kodiak Island where a Russian colony was being established in what was then Russian Alaska in 1794. Part of why the priest was sent was because there were already Russian Orthodox Christians among the Alaskan Natives in the Aleutian islands, having been converted during trade contact with Siberian fur traders. By 1796 one of the priests was consecrated a Bishop and just two years later he returned to Russia to report to the Imperial authorities about how the natives were being treated in the colony. He died during his return and he was not replaced. In 1811 the episcopal see in Alaska was officially closed.

In 1824 another priest was sent to Alaska and in 1840 he was made Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, taking the name Innocent.

In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire, which prompted the Diocese to be reorganized as the Aleutian Islands and Alaska and after a church was established in San Francisco and the episcopal see moved to San Francisco the diocese was renamed Aleutian Islands and America.

Once they were in the continental United States the church quickly became multiethnic as other Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic immigrants joined with them. This all continued until the Bolsheviks took over in Russia. Many of the non-Russian churches joined with their own national churches, such as Greek churches moving to the Greek Orthodox Church of America and the Antiochian Orthodox churches that has been founded by a Syrian priest and under the support and funding of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Tikhon, who had previously been the Archbishop in the US, resisted the communist government. Before he was sent to prison he directed churches outside of Russia to become self governing until normal communication and relations could be restored. However, when communication was restored this group in the US refused to give up their self governance calling themselves the American Metropolia. Finally in 1970 they were able to patch things up with the Moscow Patriarchate which agreed to grant them Autocephaly, making them an independent Orthodox Church taking the name Orthodox Church in America.

They are recognized by the Russian church and a few other Slavic churches, but not by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who objects under the claim that the Russian Patriarch did not have the right because he under Soviet control.

The Orthodox Church in America continues to this day and considering a possible merger with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese in the United States and they are part of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, which churches under the Russian Patriarchate have left as a result of the schism between Moscow and Constantinople over Ukraine.

Most of the members of the OCA today are not ethnically Russian. They have a proportionately large number of members from Alaskan Native and non-Russian Slavic populations within the US and a decent number of members that are Americans of western European descent.

Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

During the Russian Civil War some priests and bishops fled, others were exiled once the Bolsheviks were in control. Initially they fled to Constantinople and in 1921 they settled in Serbia creating a temporary synod claiming authority over all Russian Orthodox churches outside of Russia, including in the United States. The American Metropolita was not willing to accept their authority, but some of their churches were, resulting in some churches staying in what would become the Orthodox Church in America, while others joined what would become the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. When it became possible to have regular communication with the Moscow Patriarchate, they refused since the Patriarchate demanded that they swear allegiance to the Soviet Union.

During World War II the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was granted authority over all Russian clergy under Nazi control and they had a generally favorable relationship, complete with the construction of a cathedral in Berlin and letters to Hitler praising him. When the Red Army was approaching Belgrade, they left for Vienna, then Munich, and in 1950 moved to New York.

The Church Outside Russia continued to oppose the Moscow Patriarchate after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even working on plans to create “Free Russian” churches in former Soviet territories.

Starting in 2000 moves toward reunification with Moscow began, including visits to Russia by the First Hirearch to New York from the Patriarch and Putin. These talks resulted in a schism spawning off the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, which itself broke apart into four separate fractions. Finally in 2007 the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia entered into full communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church in Boise is a part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)

There are also about 50 parishes in the United States that are part of the Russian Orthodox Church directly under the Moscow Patriarchate.


While some Russian, either historically or currently Russian churches in the US, and really anywhere else in the Western world, still follow the Byzantine Rite in Old Church Slavonic, most have adopted the Western Rite which uses the local language and essentially adapts the Anglican liturgy, including the book of Common Prayer, with corrections to bring it inline with Orthodox doctrine.

What this means, harking back to the original question, is to find out what a Russian Orthodox church in your town is like, will probably require visiting it and asking the priest which organization he’s a part of and whether they follow the Byzantine or Western Rite. If they’re Western Rite, then except for aesthetics it probably wouldn’t be all that different from an Anglican or Catholic church.

What’s Next

We still have more to cover about the Orthodox churches. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about True Orthodoxy, the Patriarchate of Constantinople and related churches, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Which if I plan it right should segue into Rastafarians and Hippies.


Anti vax movement: Russian trolls fueled anti-vaccination debate in U.S. by spreading misinformation on Twitter, study finds

A study from George Washington University has found that Russian trolls have been helping spread the antivax movement on Twitter. Like every other controversy they get involved in, they used the approach of trying to exaggerate both side’s views effectively throwing gasoline on the the fire.

Maine bars people from opting out of immunizations for religious or philosophical reasons

In the midst of a whooping cough outbreak in three Maine counties and the state having the highest whooping cough rate in the country they have passed a new law that removes all non medical exemptions to childhood vaccination. This will go into effect in September 2021. Students who already have religious or philosophical exemptions will be allowed to continue to attend school as long as they get a letter from a medical provider saying that the risks have been discussed, however no new non-medical exemptions will be granted at that time.

Satanic Temple cites religious beliefs as immunity from Supreme Court abortion ruling on fetal remains

The Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s abortion law requiring that aborted remains be buried or cremated. The finding was that this does not create an undue burden or create a restriction on access to abortion, despite adding a roughly $800 or more price tag to the procedure, a requirement that doesn’t apply if it’s a miscarriage.

To be clear here, if a pregnancy is spontaneously aborted, the remains can be treated as medical waste, but if it’s a medically induced abortion the remains must be buried or cremated.

The Satanic Temple has responded saying that this violates its members sincerely held religious beliefs that prior to viability a fetus is an inviolable part of a woman’s body. They will seek religious exemptions from the state mandated ceremonial requirements and take it court if necessary.

To Spite Gay Couples, AL Legislators Vote to Remove State from All Weddings

Alabama has just destroyed traditional marriage. To avoid judges being required to officiate same sex marriages and clerks from having to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, Alabama just passed a law eliminating marriage licenses and the requirement that vows be officiated by a judge or minister. Now couple will just have their marriages recorded by the county clerk.

SCOTUS rejects challenge to rules accommodating trans students

The US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from conservative Christian group the Alliance Defending Freedom in their lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district policy that allows trans students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. As a result a lower court ruling in favor of the district policy stands.

World Health Organization drops transgender mental disorder list

The World Health Organization has dropped “gender identity disorder” from it’s diagnostic manual and is encouraging governments around the world to reform their laws and health systems to not consider merely being trans or nonbinary a mental disorder.

Vatican hosts major atheism conference with University of Kent

The Vatican hosted the Understanding Unbelief conference to discuss findings of research conducted by the University of Kent with a grant from the Templeton Foundation. Among their findings:

  • Non-believers are not unethical people and most to ascribe to objective moral values.
  • Most non-believers identify as having “no religion” and have a wide variety of supernatural beliefs.
  • Atheists and agnostics make up a minority of non-believers.
  • Most popular assumptions about non-believers do not hold up to scrutiny.
  • The purposeless unbeliever with nothing to ascribe ultimate meaning in the universe to does not bear scrutiny.

Ark Encounter Sues Insurers for Not Covering $1,000,000 Worth of Rain Damage

The Ark Encounter, Ken Ham’s theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s ark is suing their insurance companies for $1,000,000 in flood damage that the companies have decided they are not responsible for. They did pay for some of the damage, but not all. Why? They don’t cover design deficiencies or faulty workmanship.

Florida man speeds down highway while standing out of sunroof praising God. Says he’d rather go to jail than home to his wife

A 70 year old Florida man stood through his sunroof while driving 100 miles per hour down the highway. So, why? He wanted to get arrested so he wouldn’t have to go home to his controlling wife and he was standing out the sunroof praising God.

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