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Time to Come Home?

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) was for decades the only canonical authority for Russian Orthodox outside Russia. From 1920 its thirty-four bishops united Russian Orthodox worldwide, in the Far East, throughout the Americas and all over Europe.

Although until 1922 it was called the ‘Supreme Church Authority’, ROCOR was effectively founded by the saintly Patriarch Tikhon by his decree No 362 of 20 November 1920. This was issued by the Patriarchal Church inside Russia after Communist persecution of the Church had begun there in earnest. In this decree the Patriarch stated that the bishops outside Russia would have to organise Church life for their mainly refugee flock without reference to him. Free and unhindered contact with Moscow would be soon become impossible, as indeed it did.

We should not forget that Patriarch Tikhon had himself been the Russian Orthodox bishop uniting all Orthodox in North America for nine years at the turn of the twentieth century. In charge of the united international Orthodox Diaspora there, he well understood the situation in the Diaspora. Indeed, his unity-seeking decree of 1920 was never countermanded by any other freely-issued document from Moscow.

Sadly, several North American parishes (like several parishes in France at about the same time) split from ROCOR in 1926. Clear Soviet influence and provocation were present in both cases. Soviet policy was to create and then exploit disunity in the Church outside Russia, as was their policy inside Russia also. In North America the 1926 split followed an autocephalist conference of priests and laity in Detroit. This split would last until the death in 1934 of Metropolitan Platon, who had encouraged it for both personal and political reasons.

As in the case of the French schism, there was on Metropolitan Platon’s part a long-standing grudge against Metropolitan Antony, the head of the ROCOR Synod, and also political disagreements. In North America many who had never lived in Russia wanted an ‘all-American’, ‘democratised’, anti-hierarchy Church on the anti-monastic, Protestant model. ‘Everyone for himself’ was the slogan, as capitalist bingo replaced vigil services in certain parishes. In France the breakaway group which became known as the Paris Jurisdiction, changing jurisdictions no fewer than eight times (1), went in for a far more subtle ideology.

Their ruling ideology was also a fundamentally Protestant, humanist philosophy of ‘pre-Constantinian’ disincarnation, as symbolised by its frequent changes of jurisdiction. Thus, this group quit the Russian Church altogether in one act of disincarnation. The ‘spiritualist’, anti-incarnational, intellectual ideology rejected any possibility that the Church could ever influence the State. One of its extreme, former Marxist ideologues thought up ‘Sophiology’, a highly abstract philosophy, which imagined that there was a fourth person in the Holy Trinity, representing human achievements. Sophiology was soon condemned as a heresy by both parts of the Russian Church in the 1930s.

During the nine years of the North American schism, from 1926 to 1935, all the Local Orthodox Churches concerned condemned the breakaway group of Russian churches in North America as uncanonical and schismatic. Finally, in November 1935, now led by a new hierarch, Metropolitan Theophil, the schismatic North American parishes returned to canonical obedience to the ROCOR Synod in Sremski Karlovtsy in Yugoslavia. This return was ratified by the Council of North American Bishops in Pittsburgh in May 1936 and again in October 1937 by a larger Council with priests and laity. ROCOR was then the canonical link for all the Russian Orthodox North American parishes and all of them were clearly part of ROCOR.

After World War II, the ROCOR Synod decided to move from Germany, where it had fled after the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia by the Croat Tito, to New York. This meant that ROCOR could exercise closer oversight over the American parishes. Now came the turning-point in the history of Russian Orthodoxy in North America. This was the Soviet-influenced Cleveland Council of November 1946, a rebellion of many married clergy and laity, mainly former Uniat immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their American-born descendants, against their bishops.

Most of the latter stayed loyal to ROCOR, but many priests and laity did not. The decision the rebels took was most curious. They not only voted to leave ROCOR, but also refused to place themselves under the only possible alternative to it, the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), the Communist-controlled Russian Orthodox Church inside Russia, as many had thought they would. Instead, Protestant-style, they formed a DIY Church, forming their own Metropolia of Russian Orthodox parishes in North America.

Both the MP and ROCOR considered from the outset that this ‘Metropolia’ was a schismatic body. Neither would officially give the sacraments to the members of this self-proclaimed autocephaly. The other Orthodox groups in the US granted the sacraments to Metropolia members only as a dispensation, also refusing to recognise the Metropolia as a canonical body. Thus, the most illuminating fact in the formation of the group is this 1946 act of Protestant rebellion against the Church. Only this explains the repeated aggressive justifications of their error.

It was this selfsame ‘Metropolia’ that in 1970 became the Orthodox Church in America, or ‘OCA’. There is much myth surrounding the granting of its ‘autocephaly’ by Moscow in 1970, when Fr Alexander Schmemann, who had joined the Metropolia from the impoverished Paris Jurisdiction, transformed the Metropolia into the OCA thanks to the help of the MP. For one thing, it was quite unexpected and the faithful were not prepared or consulted on it. It was done by the Cold War elites behind the people’s backs.

The main actors in it on the MP side were the highly controversial Metr Nikodim (Rotov) and Metr Philaret (Denisenko). The former is claimed by Roman Catholics (and many Orthodox) to have been a Vatican Cardinal. Indeed, he died in the Vatican in the arms of Pope John Paul I in 1978 at the age of 49. Metr Philaret, however, was defrocked after the fall of Communism, whose KGB stooge he was (in the early 1970s he even had himself and his wife and two children built a palace in Kiev on Soviet money). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, having only just failed to become Patriarch, he then formed the schismatic ‘Patriarchate of Kiev’. This his own highly political and nationalist pseudo-Church. It still exists, a thorn in the side of the MP.

As regards the formation of the OCA in 1970, it seems that the Metropolia may have been given an ultimatum. ‘Accept this or we move in the courts against all your property’. The OCA had already lost St Nicholas Cathedral in New York to the MP after a legal battle in the 1960s. The Metropolia, desperate for some sort of canonical recognition after decades in the wilderness, was in no position to bargain. Metr Nikodim had already used the participation of the MP in the Pan-Protestant World Council of Churches to mitigate the persecution of the MP by the Communists. Perhaps he had similar plans for the OCA.

At that time the OCA St Vladimir’s Seminary, now housed in buildings it had taken over in the 1960s, became, and remains, the ideological flagship of the autocephaly of the OCA. It began as a ‘paper’ institution, which used rented facilities and only gained accreditation in 1953 under Fr George Florovsky. The circumstances behind his removal as Dean remain murky. Since Metropolitan Leonty was 79 years old at the time, the day-to-day operation of St Vladimir’s seminary ended up in the hands of Fr Alexander Schmemann from 1955. This was the true beginning of St Vladimir’s Seminary. However, until the death of Metropolitan Leonty in 1965, Fr Alexander was still limited in his field of action. In that year, he began preaching his novel ideas in earnest, receiving the sharp disapproval of ROCOR.

The OCA Council of 1977 surprised everyone. The OCA Synod of Bishops chose Bishop Theodosy (Lazor), for many an equivocal figure, as its new Metropolitan. At the time the word was that Fr Alexander Schmemann had urged the election of Bp Theodosy. This was so that the power behind the throne, Metr Nikodim, could exploit the OCA for his own political manoeuvres. Fr Alexander Schmemann may well have been told, ‘Do this, or we will remove your autocephaly’. This autocephaly has always been the MP’s power over the OCA, which has made it into its slave. The idol of autocephaly was had by the OCA, but at a very heavy price.

What ruined everything was Metr Nikodim’s unexpected death in 1978 and Fr Alexander’s death in 1982. Blinded even by relative power and fame, people sometimes forget that no-one is immortal. At Metr Nikodim’s sudden death, it was Metr Philaret, unlike his predecessor a corrupt plaything of the KGB, who took over the MP Foreign Relations Department. And in the OCA there was no-one with the ideological conviction of Fr Alexander. Things started going wrong. The period from 1978 to 1991 was a sad period of compromise, when the OCA slavishly and shamefully followed the KGB line, mocking the ROCOR canonisation of the New Martyrs and Confessors and declaring that ROCOR was uncanonical.

It should be said that the ordinary clergy and people of the OCA and ROCOR suffered equally in the Church war which began in the early 1960s. This worsened immensely after the Metropolia was transformed into the OCA in 1970 through the efforts of the Communist-run, anti-ROCOR MP and Fr Alexander Schmemann. On ROCOR’s part some showed much aggression in response to attacks on it and then in the 1990s the very ill Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinov made mistakes.

As Metr Vitaly fell ever more ill, he finally retired from ROCOR in 2001 – only to be forced in his distressing confusion into taking the figurehead role of a tiny breakaway group. His successor, Metr Laurus, was a holy man, but he was also from a poor peasant background and therefore deeply pragmatic. He knew that New Russians, who were making up more and more of the ROCOR parishes, as well as many of the Old Russians and integrated converts, would leave for the MP, if reconciliation with the MP, at last free after 2000, did not come soon.

In 2007, after separating itself from various, widely unaccepted compromises of the recent Cold War past, ROCOR was reconciled with the now free MP. ROCOR remained self-governing, in effect autonomous. And, after an eighty-year gap created by Communism, it was now in canonical communion with the repentant, post-Soviet MP, ust as the MP now was with ROCOR. Only tiny groups of the isolated, sadly ill-informed or sectarian left ROCOR. Their sad departure came to the relief of many in ROCOR. We were tired of being discredited and labelled as ‘fanatics’, ‘sectarians’ and ‘pharisees’, all because of a tiny but vocal minority. Similarly, tiny groups also left the MP, again they were the isolated, sadly ill-informed or sectarian.

Today His Holiness Kyrill, is Patriarch of 150 million Orthodox, three-quarters of all Orthodox. Patriarch of the whole reunited multinational and multilingual Russian Orthodox Church, the MP and ROCOR, he is greatly concerned by the unity of the Church, including that of the rest of the Russian Diaspora. The OCA and Paris Jurisdiction fragments are historically part of that Diaspora, but they remain separated from the Mother Church, sometimes expressing feelings of paranoia and Russophobia.

There are among them those who dream of an ‘American Orthodoxy’, a ‘French Orthodoxy’, an ‘English Orthodoxy’ or generally a ‘Western Orthodoxy’. They are in fact speaking about their own local phyletism. ‘American Orthodoxy’ and the others do not exist, any more than in the tenth century ‘Russian Orthodoxy’ existed. Let us wait a few centuries for some American-born or European-born saints, then we can talk. The late Fr Alexander Schmemann’s autocephalist dreams have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, just like so many other dreams from the 1960s and 1970s. His attempt to impose a new Orthodoxy with American culture, a local parallel to the modernist and disastrous Second Vatican Council of Roman Catholicism is over.

Like the Paris Jurisdiction, today the OCA is running out of money, whatever the source. New Age platitudes and dreams of ‘togetherness’ will not help here. However, the Mother Church, either the MP branch or the more obvious ROCOR branch, is ready with compassion to take back any part of the OCA that so wishes. It will also take back any part of the fragile Paris Jurisdiction that so wishes, including the fragments of the dissolved and leaderless Amphipolis Vicariate, which dream lasted for only three years. We hate delusion, but love those who have been misled into delusion. For they are the victims.

The leaders of the MP and ROCOR have both said sorry for their twentieth-century Cold War compromises. Have the leaders of the two other fragments of the Russian Diaspora done so? It is the ordinary clergy and people on all sides who have been the victims of the compromises. In 2010, on its fortieth anniversary, the OCA elite, as well as the Paris Jurisdiction elite, which has now been in and out of the Constantinople jurisdiction for eighty years, have not yet turned back from their Cold War mistakes.

The OCA autocephaly, recognised by no-one, has still to disappear into the confines of Cold War history. And the writings of the Parisian Fr Alexander Schmemann and the other ‘Parisian’ theorists and modernists, have still to disappear onto library shelves, as the twentieth-century ‘Protestant Orthodox’ curiosities they are. OCA and Paris, is it not time to come home? It is not simply a matter of ethnic roots, but above all of spiritual roots. There is no need to be homesick any longer. You will be welcomed back to the Tradition with open arms. The Cold War is over.


1. The eight changes of jurisdiction were:

a.From ROCOR to Moscow in 1927.
b.From Moscow to Constantinople in 1930.
c.From Constantinople back to ROCOR in 1935
d.From ROCOR back to Constantinople in the same year.
e.From Constantinople to Moscow in 1945
f.From Moscow to back Constantinople in 1945.
g.From Constantinople to an uncanonical, independent grouping in 1966.
h.From being an uncanonical grouping back to Constantinople in 1969.

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