The Fourth Anniversary: ROCOR 2007-2011
ROCOR (The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) was founded in 1920 by the holy Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, who reposed in 1925 inside Russia, tormented and probably martyred. ROCOR was founded precisely because St Tikhon foresaw the imminent impossibility of free communication between the persecuted Centre of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and the million and more Orthodox refugees and immigrants and their thirty-four bishops, who were outside Russia. Indeed, as hundreds of bishops, tens of thousands of clergy and monastics and millions of laypeople were massacred inside the atheist Soviet Union, from 1927 to 2007 ROCOR stood alone, for most of that time the voice crying in the wilderness.
ROCOR Herself came to be indirectly persecuted by the atheist authorities of the Soviet Union, which attempted, sometimes successfully, to use their political influence abroad to divide or isolate Her. This eighty-year period ended in 2007, by which time the Church inside Russia had become free, and so ROCOR was able to resume free communication with the Church inside Russia, though retaining Her autonomy. What has happened over these last four years? What can we say of the future? Since and even before May 2007, rather sectarian elements hostile to the uncompromised Tradition and the freedom of ROCOR have asserted that ROCOR has lost Her purpose. For them, She is becoming like a rudderless ship, without direction and suffering a crisis of identity. It is time to reply to such critics and doubters.
Once ROCOR was criticised because She bravely refused to obey the Church inside Russia, which had become Soviet-controlled, a process known to history as ‘Sergianism’. Today ROCOR is criticised because She is now not only an independent part of that now free Church, but also in full communion with Her. Critics say: ‘Look at what happens in Moscow, where there are rich monks with luxury cars, ecclesiastical members of a corrupt elite who have huge bank accounts and are compromised in politics and scandals. ROCOR is now compromised too’. It seems curiously pharisaical to condemn others. Surely Christianity is about saving our own souls and showing compassion and love, not judgement and condemnation, towards others, who have to bear the burden of a Soviet past? This is puritanical moralism. Above all, such criticism is not at all historical. Before the Revolution, rich presents were also showered on senior members of the clergy. It was left to their consciences whether to keep such gifts or else, in the spirit of the Gospel, give them away for the benefit of the poor, including to very poor clergy in the countryside or clergy widows.
ROCOR is also criticised by those hostile to Her for the large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who now make up Her membership, especially in Western Europe. It should be noted that some of those who criticise in this way are elderly former members of ROCOR. Where are their children and grandchildren and the fruits of their missionary work? Why are their descendants not active in ROCOR, ready to pass on the ROCOR heritage to those who have immigrated from the Soviet Union? Surely they should rejoice that new members of ROCOR have appeared, rather than regret it? For example, the fact that the few remaining ROCOR parishes in England are now 99% composed of newly-immigrated members or else of English Orthodox can only be because others failed to pass on the Russian Orthodox Tradition to the younger generations, who have been lost to the Church. The rule of history has always been that if you do not fill the Church, others will do it in your place.
A few prominent individuals in the Church inside Russia appear to be very keen on ecumenism. For critics, this appears to be connected with the temptation of Sergianism, the political compromises forced on the Church by the State. They say that only being a member of a supposedly corrupt Russian political establishment inspires such ‘diplomacy’ and ecumenical compromise. However, the fact is that, apart from dogmatic issues, the Church has always been broad enough for personal viewpoints, even unusual ones, as we can see from nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Church history. And if a few exceed the limits, we only have to recall that this also happened long before 1917. Then, by economy, Roman Catholics were for centuries received into the Russian Orthodox Church through confession and communion. Indeed, by extreme economy, in western Belorussia from the nineteenth century on, Catholics were even given confession and communion. Let us look to our own salvation first before we criticise others.
In terms of inter-Orthodox ‘ecumenism’, critics of ROCOR also oppose the Local Assemblies of Orthodox Bishops, which have recently been established in the Diaspora and in which the ROCOR episcopate duly takes part. They would call them mere talkshops. But surely to talk is good? The fact is that these Assemblies, which already existed for decades under different names in both the USA and France, can only make changes where there is unanimous agreement. The fact that certain Local Churches are inclined to practices which for ROCOR are uncanonical (for instance, giving communion to Monophysites) does not mean that ROCOR, or the vast majority of Local Churches, takes part in these practices or agrees with them. Surely, ROCOR should not stand outside such Assemblies and condemn them because of the errors of a few individuals? Surely we should stand inside and witness to the uncompromised ‘White’ Tradition of the best of ROCOR, supporting persecuted or politically weakened Local Churches?
The engagement of some ROCOR bishops in the Western rite has also been criticised. For example, it is said that converts to the Western rite will never learn how to be Orthodox. Others have said that today the Western rite does not exist, since hardly any Roman Catholics know or use the Tridentine Rite and hardly any Anglicans know or use the Book of Common Prayer. Yet others say that there is a danger of ‘liturgical archaeology’, of encouraging clericalism and sectarian vagantes, and some people point to the ECOF Western Rite disaster in France. However, the permission to use Western rites is surely an act of pastoral charity by ROCOR, allowing converts a temporary bridge into the Church. And this goes back to the charity of both the founder of ROCOR, St Tikhon of Moscow, and to that of another ROCOR saint, St John of Shanghai and Western Europe.
The permission to use Western rites also shows the local knowledge of the Western world, which few, if any, other Local Orthodox Churches have. ROCOR has much experience with liturgical translations, with the composition of new but traditional services to local saints, the writing of their lives and the painting of their icons, which leaves other Local Churches, including the Church inside Russia, decades behind. Only now are others even discussing venerating local Western saints, who have been venerated for generations within ROCOR! Only now are they discussing incorporating our heritage into their midst! The use of liturgical languages other than Slavonic, is nothing new in ROCOR, and is part of the ROCOR mission to all local Orthodox, who wish to keep faith with the uncompromised Orthodox Tradition. And it is in this area of local knowledge and local mission that ROCOR can offer a great service to other Local Orthodox Churches, including the Church inside Russia, which also much lacks experience in this field.
The last ROCOR bishop resident in London and in good health reposed in 1932. This fact illustrates one weakness of ROCOR, our lack of bishops. Over the generations we have suffered much from this in Great Britain and Ireland. However, the Church has suffered even more from this in South America and to some extent in Australia. Some parishes have hardly even seen a bishop and parishioners do not even know how to take an episcopal blessing. A resident bishop makes all the difference. In fact ROCOR does have many bishops, but the Church is very poor and very scattered and, as a result, our bishops are vastly overworked. However, it is clear that the ROCOR episcopate has avoided all temptations of sectarianism in recent years and that was the only alternative to the path steered by our episcopate. By the prayers of the faithful, more candidates for the episcopate can appear in the years to come and this problem can be resolved.
We can hope that the Tradition faithfully kept by ROCOR will become the most invaluable element in future Metropolias in Western Europe, in the Americas and in Australasia. From Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Sydney new Local Churches could one day appear, but only if the best of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, uncompromised by politics, is faithfully adhered to. Here the heritage of ROCOR, received from the past like a family treasure, kept in freedom despite persecution, and handed down to the present, can play a vital role. Today, in freedom, like the rest of the Russian Church, we can have only one enemy. This is ourselves, our own sinfulness and failures to live, guard and transmit the living Tradition to future generations and to those around us.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips,