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Timothy Curtis: On the Episcopal Election of the Exarchate

To participate in the election of one’s archbishop is a privilege, but to participate in two in short succession may seem to be sheer folly. The challenges facing the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe have been dissected in social media for the last three years, and the selection of Bishop Jean of Chariopolis on the 29th of March 2016 is—God willing—the beginning of a new stage of peace and growth (that is, if the Great and Holy Council doesn’t result in renewed attempts to ‘tidy up’ the Archdiocese by dismantling it).

Archbishop Gabriel of Comana fell asleep in the Lord in October 2013 bringing to an end a decade of his pastoral care of an unusual, if not unique, archdiocese within the Ecumenical Patriarchate. His death prompted the appointment of Metropolitan Emmanuel of France as locum tenens, and subsequently the ill-fated election of Hieromonk Job Getcha as Archbishop in November 2013. Amongst other things, the nature of this election led to Archbishop Job’s recent removal from the Archdiocese by the Patriarch. The election in 2013 was marred with controversy because all the names (bar that of Job) proposed by the Archdiocesan Council (with lay and clergy membership) to the Phanar were removed and two unknown candidates were added. This left the convened Extraordinary Meeting of the Archdiocesan electorate with a dilemma: refuse the new names, cancel the election, and return to the parishes empty-handed (with a lightly disguised threat of breaking communion with Constantinople ringing in their ears) or proceed with an election with only one viable candidate. The fact that most of the electorate had travelled across Europe for the ‘in person’ voting process, being effectively locked in a church until a decision had been made, meant that the candidate preferred and proffered  by Constantinople was accepted. After two years of relentless controversy within the Archdiocese, Archbishop Job of Telmessos was moved to serve World Council of Churches at Geneva, resulting in a new electoral process.

The Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (more snappily known as ‘the Exarchate’ or more snarkily as ‘Rue Daru’) occupies a unique and discomfiting place in Orthodox history in Western Europe. The terrible events of the Russian Revolution eventually led to the existence of three jurisdictions of parishes of Russian (liturgical) tradition: dioceses still under the Moscow Patriarchate (such as Sourozh), the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and its various offshoots, and the Exarchate under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.  There is no room here to rehash the history of the relations between those jurisdictions, but the Exarchate is distinctive in seeking to implement the provisions of the famous Sobor of 1917/18, held in remarkable circumstances during the revolution. The Sobor developed a complex set of rules for the involvement of lay persons and clergy in the decision-making processes of the Sobor. The Sobor is perhaps more important for its participatory rules than it is for the provisions that the Sobor decided upon. Lay delegates were directly elected by parishes, there was equal representation of lay persons and clergy in every decision, and women were eligible for election as voting—a remarkable fact, considering that women did not receive the right to vote in the USA until 1920 and the UK until 1928.

Faced with a second election within only a few years, the stakes were high for the Exarchate this March. In the 2013 election, the statutes had been changed in order to allow those who were not long-term members of the Archdiocese to become candidates, but a short list of eligible candidates still had to be created in a relatively short period of time. In other words, the candidates could not be complete strangers. Because the Archdiocese has not had vicar bishops since the retirement of Bishop Basil of Amphipolis in 2010, the election process depends on the co-operation of the locum tenens bishop, and has to be completed within a few short months. During that period, all normal operating procedures are suspended, including ordinations. There is an understandable urgency to elect a ruling bishop in order to resume normal operations, but at the same time a desire to carefully consider long-term issues. The selection of candidates is made in secret by the Archdiocesan Council and a short list is published for consideration by the delegates from all the parishes of the Archdiocese. Each parish may send as many lay representatives as the parish has priests and deacons, and they are elected by the parishes every three years. In the case of the most recent election, there was no opportunity for parishes to refresh their delegates and many parishes were left under-represented because delegates elected to decide in 2013 were not available a second time.

The candidates in this election in 2016 were Bishop Jean (Renneteu) of Chariopolis and Hieromonk Porphyrios (Plant) from the UK. Bishop Jean was a disciple of Fr Sophrony Sakharov of the Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, a graduate of St Sergius Institute, Paris (the primary seminary and theological centre of the Archdiocese), producer of a TV show on Orthodoxy, and parish priest for forty years. Hieromonk Porphyrios was received into the Orthodox Church by concelebration with Archbishop Gabriel after 40 years as a Roman Catholic priest. He has extensive experience working with and for bishops and runs a thriving psychotherapeutic practice, but was clearly less well known than Bishop Jean. Bishop Jean was consecrated in Chambesy by the Metropolitan of Switzerland Jeremiah and assigned to the Exarchate in 2014 to help Archbishop Job, so he had already been directly involved in the life of the Archdiocese. No other candidates were presented, which critics took to be anti-democratic, given the advantage that Bishop Jean had over Hieromonk Porphyrios. There was no official word about whether other potential candidates had been considered, volunteered, cajoled, or otherwise involved in the selection process. Neither the names of the candidates of the 2013 election nor those from previous attempts to create regional vicar bishops were presented.

There is no requirement for a field of more than two candidates, so after the Moleben, the two candidates made their presentations to the gathered clergy and lay delegates in the Dominican convent church of the Annunciation on rue Saint-Honoré, Paris. Over 180 delegates from 12 different countries listened to the presentations and asked questions. The questions to Bishop Jean focused on current controversies over Fr Christophe D’Aloisio in Belgium and the recent claim of the Russian State over the cemetery and chapel in Nice, while questions about the long-term vision and mission of the Archdiocese were largely ignored. Fr Porphyrios was left standing as nobody asked him any questions, despite his thoughtful and spiritually rich presentation. One suspects a lot of nuance was lost in the otherwise excellent translation. After a short pause, the same questions posed to Bishop Jean were directed at Fr Porphyrios, who replied in support of Bishop Jean’s own responses. There was a marked difference between the name-dropping and insider pragmatism of Bishop Jean’s approach and the much more pastoral and missional orientation of the British monk.

The rules require a quorum of parishes and communities, and this was achieved, but much of the talk in the English-speaking circles noted the burden on finances and time and the demand to be physically present. No proxy votes or postal votes are allowed, effectively disenfranchising poor and remote communities. When a proxy vote was attempted to be registered on the day, the vote was firmly rejected. There was some confusion during the voting process, since the two names had been printed on each slip and it was not clear whether a vote for a candidate was registered by a tick, cross, or crossing out the name of the undesired candidate. The election officer further confused matters by suggesting the one could vote for both candidates by not marking the paper at all, but that crossing both names out would render the vote spoiled. The name of each delegate was laboriously called out and the voting slips placed in a basket. Had each voting slip been marked with a unique voter number, the whole time-consuming process could have been shortened, but something of a ritual grandeur was made of the calling of the names and the placing of a slip of paper in a bread basket. The votes were counted and the returning officer declared that Bishop Jean received 153 votes, exceeding the two-thirds majority that was required for him to win the first round outright. Fr Porphyrios received 23 votes.

With over 87% of the vote, Bishop Jean has a resounding mandate as the new Archbishop of the Exarchate. His selection by the Exarchate electorate has to be confirmed by the Holy Synod of Constantinople, because the Archdiocese is not autonomous, but no consecration is required since he is already a bishop. Equipped with a blessing from the Phanar, he and the rest of the Archdiocese await his enthronement, hopefully before the Great and Holy Council at Pentecost. Notably, in his acceptance speech Bishop Jean indicated that vicar bishops covering the different major areas of the Archdiocese are essential, and he endorsed Fr Porpyrios as a candidate for the English-speaking deaneries.

Timothy Curtis is Senior Lecturer in Social and Community Development at the University of Northampton, England. He is also priest of St Anne's Orthodox Parish, Northampton, a community within the Exarchate.