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The Russian Orthodox Church: The Return to the Future

Introduction: Two Approaches, One Identical Goal

The two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the one inside Russia and the other outside Russia, are now beginning to know one another and so move together, both having to overcome off-centre attitudes and lack of understanding, born of mutual isolation. For example, for those inside Russia, some outside Russia may sometimes seem rather paranoid and out of touch, as a result of émigré suspicion and distrust. But that is only natural given the events after 1945, when many émigrés returned to Russia and were at once betrayed and bitterly disillusioned. Events of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the secular authorities governing the Church inside Russia forced its captive representatives to embark on lamentable compromises, ecumenism and adventures abroad, placing charlatans in its seats of power, only reinforced the distrust. As a result of this history, the authorities of the Church inside Russia sometimes still have to prove that they are worthy of trust, overcoming certain ‘komsomol attitudes’ of Soviet conditioning. But then many outside Russia also have to learn to trust, accepting change, reality and the march of history.

Some members of the Church outside Russia also have to stop generalising, stereotyping and labelling the Church inside Russia. It is not at all necessarily ‘a Soviet machine’ or ‘a Muscovite steamroller’, but far more varied than some think. They have to see their counterparts as human beings. They also have to learn that there are also very many highly-educated and subtle individuals within the Church inside Russia. Some members of the Church outside Russia also lack a sense of history and knowledge of the Russian Church and misunderstand through ignorance the situation inside Russia today. On the other hand, many outside Russia are often surprised by the lack of pastoral understanding and approach of many clergy who come from inside Russia. They do not always have much to teach us about keeping the Faith in Western societies, in the fabric of whose life we are obliged to be deeply implicated, or about ecumenism, mixed marriages and running parishes in an international context. It has all been part of our daily diet for generations. Often, what surprises them is perfectly normal and obvious to us - and vice versa.

Thus, ever faithful to the Tradition, the Church Outside Russia has again asked the Church inside Russia about its continuing, albeit now much moderated, ecumenical activities, asking it to consider the concerns of our faithful. On 17 November, we received the answer from the highest level that this is an ongoing process, constantly under review and that, for instance, the possibility of leaving the essentially Pan-Protestant World Council of Churches is ‘not at all a closed question’. Once explanations are forthcoming from both sides, it becomes clear to all of goodwill that although, quite naturally, the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church have different approaches, we still have exactly the same goal. It is indispensable to understand this. Our emphases are different, but are objectives are identical. Why? Because we share exactly the same Faith. It is here that we can speak of two processes showing that we are now returning to the structures of Tradition in order to take up the challenges of the future. What are these two processes?


After the collapse and then break-up of the Soviet Union twenty years, almost a generation, ago, it was clear that the Russian Orthodox Church would have to be decentralised. This process has taken place in two phases so far. The first phase involved the establishment of self-governing Russian Orthodox Churches in then newly-independent countries like the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. This phase has been successful. The second phase began more recently and is still under way. This involves the establishment of Metropolias in other countries and areas, such as Kazakhstan, Central Asia and inside the Russian Federation itself.

Here, where some dioceses cover vast areas and have as many as 600 parishes, it is clear that the central bishop must become a Metropolitan and his Metropolia must be divided into several dioceses, each with its own diocesan bishop. For this to happen everywhere, it is clear that the Russian Orthodox Church must have far more than the mere 220 bishops which it had until recently. An extensive program of episcopal consecrations is therefore quite rightly under way, in order to bring the bishops near the people and vice versa, as was the case in the early centuries and still is in the Church of Greece, for example.

The second phase means overcoming not only the old Soviet centralisation, but the centralisation from which, sadly, the Russian Church has always suffered. Even before the Revolution, there were only some 140 bishops and in the more distant past far fewer still. However, there is a third and future phase to this whole process. This is the spread of Metropolias outside Russia. Notably, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia still only has one Metropolitan. It is clear that there need to be developed Metropolitan Districts or Areas - initially at least three. These would be one in Western Europe, one in Australasia and one in the Americas. Arguably, however, there will eventually need to be others, perhaps a fourth for Latin America, and in time a fifth for Central America and a sixth for Alaska - perhaps even others elsewhere.

Just as all the Metropolitans of the Church inside Russia meet together with the Patriarch, so too all the Metropolitans of the Church outside Russia will also meet together with the Patriarch. There is nothing new in having several Metropolitans in the part of the Church which is outside Russia. In the 1920s and 1930s the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was also composed of Metropolitan Districts and had several Metropolitans, notably one in Manchuria and China, one in Western Europe, one in Eastern Europe and one in North America. Thus, the potential future is mirrored in the past.

Unity through Faithfulness

Apart from this first process of ‘Metropolitanisation’ (= decentralisation), there also has to take place a second and complementary process, that of restoring unity through faithfulness to the Tradition. This has already occurred between the two parts of the Russian Church, the one inside Russia and the other outside Russia. However, this process has further to go with regard to other groups, which in the past actually broke away from both the Church Outside Russia and the Church inside Russia. The main breakaway fragments are centred in North America and in France.

At present, in North America, an inexperienced but canonically-minded Metropolitan is battling against almost impossible odds to restore a former North American branch of Russian Orthodoxy to canonicity. For over four decades rejected by most other Orthodox, his Church group is faced by the huge task of returning to Russian Orthodox norms. This is in the face of the ‘democratisation’, that is to say, the protestantisation, which already began in 1917, when under pressure from the excesses of the revolutionary Kerensky government, the equally revolutionary concept of the Church as a lay-controlled organism began to spread. This concept was taken first to France and then to the USA. In France some members, clergy and laity, of a much smaller grouping, in less catastrophic but perhaps even more divisive conditions, are also battling to do the same.

After years of bitter feuding and self-isolation, both these groups have recently officially entered into canonical communion and concelebration with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and so through it with the deeper Tradition of the Church. It is to be hoped that a much needed improvement in their relations with the Church inside Russia will follow. One of the greatest obstacles to this is their Russophobia, until 20 years ago disguised as Sovietophobia. Many there still cannot understand that the Russian Orthodox Church is, and always has been, a multinational Church, that the word ‘Russian’ in it does not denote some sort of racial exclusiveness. It is a term that simply means uncompromised and traditional.

If these two groups can overcome through repentance widespread phyletism, that is American and French nationalism or ‘autocephalism’, then there is hope for them. Moreover, if they can join in with the rest of the Church, then we can hope that the dioceses of other Local Churches in the Diaspora will also freely take part, as and when they are ready to do so, in the future Metropolitan structures of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, returning to canonical practices from the decadence of the past. Here again, this will be nothing new. Until the Revolution in Russia which brought such brutal attacks on the Church and so led to an outbreak of ethnic jurisdictionalism and decadent practices abroad and elsewhere, the Orthodox Diaspora had been united under the Russian Church. Once more, the potential future is mirrored in the past.

Conclusion: Metropolitan Laurus and the Purity of Holy Orthodoxy

Towering above all such divisions stand figures of unity. The most notable of these must surely be the ever-memorable Metropolitan Laurus of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the boast of the Rusin people. As a result of his heart-sought and heart-felt achievement of unity within the Russian Orthodox Church, today, accepting the outstretched hand of friendship of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, many of Russian Orthodox origin in North America and France may be brought back into communion and canonical celebration with the whole Russian Church and so the deeper Tradition of the Church. However, we believe that this process of restoration is only just beginning. For the Diaspora, visible Orthodox unity and catholicity can only be achieved through the ‘Metropolitanisation’ or decentralisation of the Church, going hand in hand with its unity through faithfulness to the Tradition. Unity within diversity and diversity within unity are the future. This is the consensus of the Church and the civilisational ‘Orthosphere’ to which we belong by our way of life. Gone are the times when a small, foreign-funded minority can try and impose its will and ideology on the whole Church because the majority are captives of cruel atheist regimes.

Tiny, so-called Orthodox (psychologically Protestant) schismatic groups, such as ‘old calendarists’, prefer to refer to the Church of God as ‘World Orthodoxy’. By this they mean an Orthodoxy which has secularised itself, confusing and confounding itself with the secular world. In reality, we talk neither about ‘World Orthodoxy’ or the futile schisms of tiny ghettoes, but about ‘the Orthodox World’, the opportunity for anyone who lives anywhere in the world to enter into the Church of God and incarnate themselves into the Tradition of Orthodox life, whatever their native language and cultural background. Despite nearly a thousand years of persecution from Muslim and Roman Catholic alike, the Russian Orthodox Church has been able to convert to Christ all those of goodwill in Northern Eurasia, from Poprad in Slovakia to Alaska via Tokyo, and then natives from all the lands of Western Europe and the Americas, people of over fifty different nationalities. In this case, it can also convert many more in lands and climes beyond these.

We have mentioned Metropolitan Laurus, the boast of Carpatho-Russia, and his role in achieving unity within decentralisation. But we have not fully explained his feat. His exploit came about because his priority was, and I quote him as he put it in San Francisco in 2006, ‘the purity of Holy Orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy unity only exists when faithfulness to the Orthodox Church and Tradition exists. Orthodox unity will always be impossible if the Faith suffers from nationalist admixtures and heterodox dilutions, from outside political interference and fraudulent charlatanism, which comes from the impurity and sickness of spiritual delusion. Why is this so? Because, as Metropolitan Laurus clearly and intuitively understood, the purity of Holy Orthodoxy, free from the fatal admixtures and dilutions from both the left side and the right side, is simply Christ Alone. And the Church, like the future and like we ourselves, belongs not to us, but precisely to Christ Alone. For it is His words, the words of the Word of God, which will be, and already are, the last words in human history.

Archpriest Andrew Phillips

16/29 November 2011
Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew

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