Ecumenical Omissions

Jane M. Swan, Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon (Jordanville, New York: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, ISBN 9781942699026. Softcover, $20.00.

Visitors to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (the world’s largest or second-largest cathedral depending on how one measures) are all met at the entrance by a large icon of St. Tikhon of Moscow at the counter where one now shows proof of vaccination and a QR code to take a self-guided tour.

Tikhon was the name in religion of Vasily Ivanovich Bellavin, born in 1865 in Pskov, not far in distance or time from where Mussorgsky had been born. He was the son and grandson of priests who was consecrated bishop for Russian Poland in 1897 after a distinguished career as a lay seminary professor.

In the next year, he was appointed Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, with moving headquarters in San Francisco and eventually New York City. Tikhon shaped the life of Orthodox Christians in North America during a crucial decade that saw immense immigration to the United States and Canada from Eastern Europe and Russia. He founded a monastery and seminary in Pennsylvania that bears the dedication of his namesake, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, and worked to integrate many former Eastern Rite Roman Catholics into the life of what became (mainly) the Orthodox Church in America today but also several other Orthodox jurisdictions.

In the United States, Tikhon developed a strong relationship with Episcopalians, attending the consecration of a Bishop of Fond du Lac in 1900, requesting Moscow’s review of the Book of Common Prayer to determine whether it could be used by Episcopal parishes converting in toto to Orthodoxy, receiving a doctoral degree from Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, and corresponding extensively with leaders such as Charles Chapman Grafton and members of the Protestant Episcopal Church Advisory Commission on Ecclesiastical Relations. Tikhon had a falling-out with several of his Episcopal Church associates over the reception of a defrocked Episcopal priest in a then-nationwide scandal, but there are indications that Tikhon held onto keepsakes of his American church-friends through the end of his life.

Tikhon was recalled to Russia in 1907 and served dioceses in Russia and in Lithuania until he was elected Metropolitan of Moscow in 1917 on the very eve of Russian revolution. He was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia — the first patriarch since the 1700 abolition of the office by Peter the Great — three months later.

For the next seven years, Tikhon lived through the horrors of Church life under the Red Terror: granting independence to Orthodox churches abroad, condemning the murder of the Romanovs, living under house arrest from April 1922 to June 1923 following his protest of the nationalization of church property and goods, attempting to mobilize church aid in response to Soviet-engineered famine, and responding to Soviet efforts to create a parallel and cooperative Renovationist “Living Church” with married bishops, services in modern Russian, permission for monks and nuns to marry, and making the Orthodox Church a subsidiary entity of the Soviet state.

Tikhon’s life after his return to Russia was covered extensively in The New York Times and in Anglican periodicals such as The Living Church (Milwaukee) and The Church Times (London). He fell ill in 1924, succumbed to an unknown cause of death in 1925, and was recognized immediately throughout the world as a new martyr and confessor of the Christian faith.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) glorified (canonized by adding him to the church calendar and creating a service to him) Tikhon in 1981 along with a vast number of other New Martyrs and Confessors of the Soviet Yoke. ROCOR was followed by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1989, the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 1992, and by the entire Episcopal Church in the United States in 2003. Icons of St. Tikhon are in most Orthodox churches in North America as well as many in Russia itself; I have also seen them in perhaps three dozen Episcopal churches (mainly in the Diocese of New York and in the three Wisconsin dioceses). Nashotah House Seminary has a stained glass window featuring St. Tikhon. The liturgical calendar of the new Anglican Church in North America also commemorates St. Tikhon. The offices of the Episcopal bishops of New York, Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, and the Office of Federal Ministries (military chaplaincy) all traditionally contain icons of St. Tikhon that were gifts from his successor Patriarch Alexei II in 1996.

Jane Swan’s biography of St. Tikhon is the longest treatment of his life to date, and the careful editing by pre-eminent Russia scholar Scott M. Kenworthy sets the biography itself in its historical situation. A small selection of photographs from Tikhon’s life and from the discovery of his relics in 1992 supplement the narrative. There are end notes, a helpful index, and a bibliography of sources for further reading.

The biography covers Tikhon’s ten-year American sojourn in just five paragraphs (less than half of one page out of 162 pages) and makes no mention of his activities with Episcopalians. Primary sources, academic articles, archival newspaper coverage, and social media posts about Tikhon’s extensive involvement with Americans have been available for free online since the late 1990s, and the elision of this material and the work it represents from a dedicated biography will be confusing to many otherwise interested readers. Maugre the fact that the Episcopalians who venerate St. Tikhon may often do so in a self-congratulatory way (because he condescended to participate in our worship and expressed interest in our internal life), St. Tikhon’s significant ecumenical activities should not be overlooked. As he returned to Russia and indeed to martyrdom, he did so with the keen affection, attention, and prayers of American Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. The ongoing honor of his memory in the communities that commemorate his Christian life should be served with a more accurate and thorough historical record of it.

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