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The Unfinished Reconfiguration of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Emigration

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Introduction: The Wyoming Syndrome

The ever-memorable and much respected Orthodox academic theologian, Fr John Romanides, used to describe the catastrophic effects of the Fall of Constantinople on the Orthodox world as ‘The Wyoming Syndrome’. By this he invited people to imagine that the USA had disappeared, leaving only the provincial backwater of Wyoming to represent the technological, economic and political might of the former Superpower. Thus, he saw the Balkans, Greece, Cyprus and islands such as Crete and Rhodes as fragments of a disappeared Centre, as ‘Wyomings’, that is, as provinces and backwaters. Without the Centre, sacked and fatally weakened by what can only have been a pseudo-Christian West in its 1204 ‘Crusade’ and then finished off by the Hagarenes in 1453, these fragments of the Orthodox world had lost their sense of unity, wholeness, purpose and direction. Thus, they had become provincialised and balkanised.

What can be said of the effects of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 can also be said of the Fall of Russia in 1917. The immediate consequence of the fall of that Centre, sacked and fatally weakened by what can only have been a pseudo-Christian West in its 1914 ‘Crusade’ and then finished off by the new Hagarenes in 1917, the whole Orthodox world fell back into decadence and so disunity. ‘Mere anarchy’ was ‘loosed upon the world’. The word ‘jurisdiction’ was invented and compromises were introduced into all domains of Church life, whether in calendar and liturgical terms, or in spiritual (ecumenism) and moral (scandals) terms. However, since the fall of Communism and the former Soviet Union, the effects of the Fall of Orthodox Russia are slowly beginning to be reversed. The Centre, that is, the now freed Russian Orthodox Church, has moved back onto the world stage. This has profound implications not only for Russia and its fragments outside Russia, not only for all the Local Orthodox Churches, but also for the whole Christian world.

1. The Moscow Patriarchate inside Russia

Since the millennium celebration of the Baptism of Rus’ in 1988 and especially since the fall of Communism in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church inside Russia (also called the Moscow Patriarchate) has faced the enormous task of infrastructure renewal, both in terms of buildings and of personnel. It has had to rebuild itself in order to cater for the needs of an Orthodox population far greater than that before the Revolution. The destruction, literally decimation (only one tenth survived) of the Russian Orthodox Church by Soviet atheism was unimaginable.

Since the 1990s the Church there has suffered attacks by various sectarian groups, usually US-financed ‘missionaries’ (each bringing their own ignorance and darkness), or else by nationalist fanatics in the western Ukraine and various pseudo-Orthodox, ‘catacomb’ sects, often made up of those who only yesterday were Communists. However, since Her confederal restructuring into national Metropolias, and more especially since 2000 and at last the recognition of Her own martyrs and confessors, the condemnation of sergianism (erastianism) and ecumenism, the Patriarchal Church inside Russia has been transformed.

2. The Moscow Patriarchate outside Russia

Outside Russia, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, KGB appointees, created scandalous situations during the Cold War period. For example, cases of open and crass immorality and corruption in several European capitals on the part of KGB appointee-bishops were common. These only served to reinforce distrust of the Patriarchate and poison its Church life, bringing great suffering to the faithful. We all knew about the scandals. Nothing was secret, except to those blinded by naivety on the fringes of the Church or those outside the Church.

The result was that most who were serious about Russian Orthodoxy joined not the then Communist-controlled Moscow Patriarchate, but the free and independent Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Since 1991, working diplomatically, the Patriarchate has lost each of these scandalous figures, mainly through their deaths, but sometimes through exile to Siberia. By 2006 the last serious cases had gone. The Patriarchate abroad, having cleared up most of its former mess, could now be taken seriously and could look ROCOR in the face again. From 2006 on the coming together of the Patriarchate and ROCOR, the two key parts of the Russian Orthodox Church outside the former Soviet Union, canonically indispensable, was inevitable.


The majority of the Russian Orthodox emigration was always united in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). In 1920 this had been granted complete independence by the holy Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow (an American citizen), until such time as the Moscow Patriarchate was free again. Thus, since 2007 ROCOR has been fully reunited with the rest of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate. This followed a period at the end of the twentieth century when there was a certain risk of a political takeover of ROCOR by unChurchly, right-wing, nationalistic elements, some of them with uncanonical and anti-canonical, sectarian agendas, their naivety ruthlessly manipulated by anti-Russian Orthodox organisations like the CIA. Cleansed of such ghetto politics, which were sometimes more to do with being anti-Communist than pro-Christ, the new anti-extremist unity of both parts of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2007 has been an ongoing process.

The best elements of the Russian Orthodox emigration, like St John of Shanghai or Metropolitan Anastasius of New York, always recognised that the destiny of the Russian emigration would be tragic, if it were not missionary. They never lost sight of the fact that Orthodoxy is not narrow nationalism, but a World Civilisation, an Orthodox Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the final structural configuration of Russian Orthodoxy outside Russia is still unclear, uncertain and unfinished. The only certainty is that it will continue to exist and in a much stronger and expanded form than in recent years. Much here depends on the direction and conviction of the ROCOR and Patriarchal episcopates and their faithfulness to the best of the Russian Orthodox Tradition and episcopal practice. The time when barrels were scraped and the worst promoted is surely now gone. If ROCOR and Patriarchal clergy and faithful should feel abandoned by their own bishops, they will inevitably make their way towards each other’s episcopates, which will locally weaken either one side or the other.

4. The OCA

Part of the Russian Church until over sixty years ago, after years of uncanonical isolation the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) came into existence forty years ago during the Soviet-American Cold War as a political compromise. As such it has never been accepted by the Greek Orthodox Churches which still regard it as uncanonical. The small OCA is now in a critical phase, undermined by long-term scandals, financial, spiritual and moral. In many respects, its leadership lost its way because it rejected much of the Orthodox Tradition in favour of a secular, nationalistic, Protestant mentality, introduced by liberal ideologues like Fr Alexander Schmemann against the will of the people. This mentality has never been accepted by the long-suffering faithful in the traditional parts of the OCA, particularly in Alaska and parts of Canada and Pennsylvania.

It is difficult to see that this group has any future outside reintegration with the rest of the Russian Orthodox Church and the return to canonical Orthodox praxis. In this it is at present much hindered by American Russophobia and the refusal to perceive that the Russian Orthodox Church has always been multinational and multiethnic. If its leadership can overcome its nationalistic prejudices and inferiority complex with regard to Protestantism, it can return to the Americo-Russian Church and have a future, albeit under a different name and with a different spirit. If, on the other hand, it continues to live in the past and remain with its old Cold War mentality, it may well die out, sucked down and diluted into the whirlpool of spiritually insignificant secularism born of American Protestantism.

5. Rue Daru

One tenth the size of the OCA, some eighty years ago the leadership of this tiny Paris-based group abandoned the Russian Church for the Church of Constantinople and then also began to lose its way. With only one active but ailing bishop left, an unhealthy and Russophobic atmosphere of fin de siècle has seized it. Decadence of practice in several placesb and smallness of numbers elsewhere – and many of them from the Russian Patriarchate - have left much of it very fragile. Alongside it is the ever-growing Russian Church in Western Europe, including in Paris. With many of its vital forces having long ago and more recently deserted it for the Tradition in either part of the Russian Church, it seems as if Rue Daru is ripe to fall, but its futile agony is long-drawn out. Suffering is great.

The Russian Orthodox Church is already taking back its Church properties in France. It is now only a question of time before the small and weak Patriarchate of Constantinople, ever more politically dependent on Moscow for support against Turkey, releases the Rue Daru group from its jurisdiction. Then it will send it back (together with other Orthodox parishes poached into its jurisdiction, as in Estonia) to the Russian Church. This has already happened once, in 1966. However, 1966 was at the height of the Cold War and then Rue Daru was spiritually far stronger than it is today and was able to survive, however briefly and uncanonically, alone. This is no longer possible.

6. The Loss of Wholeness and Disunity among the Local Orthodox Churches

Fragmentation came to all the Local Orthodox Churches after the fall of the Centre in 1917 and, together with it, the loss of wholeness and unity. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Orthodox Diasporas with their balkanisation. First in the Americas, then in Western Europe and Australasia there appeared ‘jurisdictions’, a multiplicity of national structures outside the Orthodox homelands, giving Orthodox witness a split personality in the Diasporas. Moreover, as at the bidding of the Western Powers weak States forced spiritual compromises onto weak Local Churches in the homelands and the piety of the faithful was outraged, there came inevitable calendar schisms and further weakening. The old unity, guaranteed by the strength and finance of the Russian Church, was lost. However, recent meetings of representatives of Local Orthodox Churches have already done something to counter this disunity, with agreements on the granting of autonomy and autocephaly and assemblies of local Orthodox bishops established in each region and country concerned.

With organisational and infrastructural opportunities provided by the Russian Church, present jurisdictional divisions could disappear in the future and the embryonic structures of new Local Orthodox Churches could begin to take shape. As long as local nationalism and coercion are avoided and none is persecuted to adopt certain calendars, languages or modernistic approaches, in other words as long as the tyrannical ideologies and errors of groups like the old OCA and Rue Daru are avoided, there is no reason why former and present disunity cannot be overcome. If co-operation can be achieved without imperialism, in a voluntary, constructive and confederative way, with mutual respect for different national customs and languages and love for the common Tradition, the word ‘jurisdiction’ will disappear into the dustbin of history. Moreover, all this comes at a time when the heterodox world is collapsing into secularism and spiritual thirst is consequently growing. Here Orthodox must meet our historic and global responsibilities to the wider world.

Conclusion: Saving the Heritage

2017 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the Russian catastrophe. It is only six years away and yet it is possible that already by then, some will look back at recent history as a series of aberrations that exist only in dusty history books. The Centre of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has very largely healed itself and so been able to heal others. Like a mother hen that has long been asleep, it has awoken, looked at its nest, cast aside its own rotten eggs and then been able to gather to itself, like its chicks, ROCOR and others, who had only ever been waiting for their mother’s healing.

It is now vital for all the constituent parts of the Russian Orthodox emigration to save the spiritually viable in our midst, to save the living, not the dead, which will be buried by the dead. We need to make sure that what is spiritually alive among us not only lives, but also spreads throughout a world which is spiritually dying and desperately needs oases of life. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matt. 23, 37).

Archpriest Andrew Phillips,
Colchester, England

1/14 January 2011
The Circumcision of the Lord
St Basil the Great

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