Hindsight, Insight and Foresight in a New Decade: How Unity was restored to the Russian Orthodox Church
May you walk along the Royal Way, turning aside neither to the right nor to the left, but led by the Spirit through the strait gate. Then all our affairs shall prosper, both now and at the Judgement there.
St Gregory the Theologian, Talk 3, 8
To err is human. Therefore, since we are prone to err, we should at least strive not to err again, that is, to repeat our mistakes. In order to do this, we must first recognise our mistakes with the benefit of hindsight. Only then can we hope to have the insight and foresight to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them.
In hindsight, what were the human mistakes made in both parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the MP (Moscow Patriarchate) and ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), before their historic reconciliation in 2007? How did both parts of the Church confuse the Orthodox Faith with worldly values – values which are always at the root of all division – before, by the grace of God, unity was restored to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2007?
Stalin or Hitler
The first mistake was to confuse the Faith with twentieth-century politics. This was at the root of everything. This was the case of a few senior Orthodox representatives inside the Soviet Union who survived after hundreds of bishops and tens of thousands of clergy, many of the best, had been martyred. It was never realistic to expect Metropolitan Sergius and those with him, as hostages, to tell the whole truth. Nevertheless, they gave the impression that they sided with Stalin, the greatest anti-Church monster of history. But who are we to judge an impossible situation?
On the other hand, in the White Russian emigration there were elements, mainly laity, who in the 1930s and even after the invasion of Russia supported Hitler. The majority of these people were not close to the Church. We could also make allowances for them, saying that their mistake came about through the equally impossible situation of their times.
The fact is that Stalin did not beat Hitler – it was the mainly East Slav Orthodox peoples, with the full and open support of the Church, who beat the evil monster of Hitler, whose greatest holocaust was the Slav holocaust of thirty million. No-one who is Orthodox can fail to recognise this as a fact and welcome the Orthodox victory over Hitler, however Stalin later tried to claim the victory for himself and his accursed NKVD. As for Stalin, unbeaten in war, his nemesis came with his inevitable death and later with the death of the Soviet Union he had done so much to create.
There were also monarchists outside Russia, several of them in ROCOR, who would have nothing to do with the Church inside Russia until a monarchy had been re-established there. This was unrealistic politics. It is like saying, ‘I will not marry you until you are perfect’. We do not demand perfection of others, only of ourselves. To live in France or the USA, Republics founded by anti-monarchist revolutionaries, and demand that Russia become a monarchy before you will unite with its Church there, is simply unrealistic, if not hypocritical. Let those who make unrealistic demands about Russia first restore monarchies in France and the USA.
We would all like to see the re-establishment of an Orthodox Monarchy in Russia - and not just any monarchy, as in Western Europe or, for that matter, in Russia during much of the eighteenth century. However, we also know that this depends on the general spiritual level inside Russia, and not just among the small minority of devout Orthodox churchgoers there. The two million abortions per year and the murder of priests prove that the old Soviet mentality is far from eradicated in post-Soviet society. Russia today is far from ready for the re-establishment of an Orthodox Monarchy – though, it must be said, a lot readier than France or the USA.
Interference in Canonical Territories
Another mistake was to accept individuals living on territories of the old Soviet Union into ROCOR. Thus, there developed little communities, often no more than twenty strong, which were inside Russia, but part of the Church outside Russia. These ‘inside outside’ groups were not often taken seriously by the ordinary clergy and laity of ROCOR. Yet, some of the communities included very worthy idealists, who had been disgusted by the compromises and immorality they had seen in the Patriarchate. They have all our sympathy. But several individuals in them were adventurers, defrocked for very good reasons by the MP and later by ROCOR. How well we remember Archbishop Antony of Geneva praying for a snowstorm so that he could not fly from Geneva to Brussels, so that the consecration of Archimandrite Valentine of Suzdal could not take place.
However, this could not justify the Russian State takeover of the ROCOR facilities in Jericho in 1997. Then at least one ROCOR bishop stood up publicly and said: ‘Nothing has changed’. And how could people, who only days before were saying that everything had changed, not sympathise with him? This one piece of crass foolishness by the Yeltsin government, for which the MP received the blame, set back relations between the two parts of the Church for years. The one thing that the MP learned from it was not to interfere in ROCOR. Soviet times and the time of Soviet reflexes inside the MP were well and truly over. At the time intelligent people inside the MP were bitter against the post-Soviet (and not so ‘post’-Soviet) government, which had done this thing.
Another problem was the confusion of Faith with culture, of which the most obvious manifestation is language. There were many parishes in all jurisdictions of the Russian emigration that refused to give up one iota of Slavonic in favour of the local language for the sake of their children and grandchildren or for missionary activity. After all, as they said, and I quote, ‘God only understands Slavonic’. What a limited God they worshipped. The mentality can be understood, insofar as many older Russians considered themselves to be temporary exiles and their duty was to safeguard the heritage they had received, so that it could be taken back to a future free Russia. Understood, yes, but it was still mistaken, for the result of this ethnic club mentality of ‘the Russian God’ was that many in the younger generations were lost to the Church. There is now no need for émigré nostalgia, since we can return to Orthodox Russia whenever we wish.
On the other hand, from the 1970s on there were also aggressive converts who demanded that old Russian parishes give up Slavonic altogether. Their (often Anglo-Saxon) racism was just as unacceptable as the old Russian racism. Both sides put their culture, and so their language, and so their race, above the Faith, contradicting the New Testament, for in the Church, ‘there is neither Greek nor Jew.…but Christ is all, and in all’ (Colossians 3, 11). The balanced solution has only come in the recent generation with mixed-language parishes, where all have something and all can integrate the Church and the Faith. In other words, nationalism is avoided by ‘multi-nationalism’, that is, respect for all Orthodox of all nationalities and all national cultures.
Both zeal not according to knowledge and zeal according to knowledge (lack of zeal) confuse Faith with worldly values. The episcopate of the Church Outside Russia could not for a long time make up its mind about the often pious old calendarists in Greece and later about those in Romania and Bulgaria. Mistakes were made with regard to establishing communion with such groups. The possibility of communion was rejected by the vast majority of clergy and laity of ROCOR, who simply ignored the old-calendarist influenced decisions of certain bishops. All this was when St John of Shanghai allowed converts the temporary use of the new calendar for the fixed feasts and later when Romanian new calendar parishes were taken into the care of the very bishops who encouraged establishing communion with old calendarists. Ambivalence? Indecision? Inconsistency? We will not judge.
Of course, the Patriarchal Church of Soviet days was also forced by the Soviet State into the crass error of ecumenism. The presence of large, allegedly ‘Russian Orthodox’, delegations at meetings of the de facto Pan-Protestant World Council of Churches simply compromised and betrayed the Orthodox Faith. Worse still than these theoretical heresies, having destroyed the curse of renovationism inside Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate allowed it to thrive in several of its parishes outside Russia, even exiling renovationists there. The results were - and are - disastrous. The MP totally discredited itself, lost great numbers to the Church Outside Russia and eventually the whole affair resulted in schisms and the canonical dilemmas in Western Europe and North America. These have still not been resolved, even though the division between the MP and ROCOR has been resolved.
This unfinished business with groups in Western Europe and North America which broke away from unity with ROCOR because of their renovationism, and encouraged to do so by the MP, still hangs over the MP. And this is in a way that the 2007 schisms of tiny groups from ROCOR, even in South America, do not. The MP is still gaining the courage and skills to deal with the canonical dilemmas it created for itself from the 1920s on, waiting for a suitable moment to clear up the Soviet-epoch mess. One day, for instance, it is clear that the Russian churches in Paris, Nice and Biarritz will return to the Russian Church, just as the church in Bari did after it had been given away by an émigré to Bari City Council. This is inevitable. Both the practically-minded and the spiritually-minded in France and in North America, and there are many of both, will one day return to the Russian Orthodox Tradition and Russian Orthodox unity. This much is plain.
If mistakes on both sides had been avoided, conversations (‘razgovory’) between the MP and ROCOR could have started in 1991, immediately after the fall of Communism. Instead, mistrust built up and even after the Jubilee Council of August 2000, when the MP finally fulfilled all the demands of ROCOR and of free Russian Orthodoxy inside Russia, negotiations (‘peregovory’) did not start. If they had, then reconciliation could perhaps have taken place as early as 2001, instead of six years later. Repentance had to be shown by all for the spiritual impurity which lay behind the lack of vision and human failings which caused the delay.
In the end, it was to take the Estonian-born, émigré Patriarch of the MP and the Slovak-born, refugee Metropolitan of ROCOR to reconcile the two parts of Russian Orthodoxy and see the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church restored. The fact that fragments inside Russia and outside Russia, but above all in North America and France, are still left outside Russian Orthodox unity is partly the result of the mistakes made by both sides. Partly, however, it is the result of sectarian stubbornness, Russophobia and, it must be said, the Orthodoxophobia, among certain of those fragments. The end to the story of Russian Orthodox unity is not quite complete, but with the benefit of hindsight, insight and foresight, we can go on with confidence in this new decade.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
19 December 2009/1 January 2010