While the attention of the Orthodox community and the secular world has been focused on the Ukrainian autocephaly, another “hot spot” has appeared on the Orthodox world map - the Archdiocese of Russian Churches in Western Europe[i]. On November 27, 2018, the Synod of Patriarchate of Constantinople announced a decision to revoke the charter (tomos), by which in 1999 autonomy was granted to the Archdiocese, and its own statutes were guaranteed .
In terms of numbers, the Archdiocese is a small church: it includes about one hundred parishes, two monasteries, and seven sketes in different countries of Europe, of which fifty-eight parishes are in France. However, the role that it has played in the history of Orthodoxy in the 20th and early 21st centuries is remarkable. Therefore, its fate for the present and future of universal Orthodoxy is important and symbolic, and it is impossible to consider what is happening with it without empathy.
The Archdiocese was formed soon after the exodus from the former Russian Empire of hundreds of thousands of emigrants fleeing from the Bolshevik dictatorship, and throughout its history, to one extent or another, it attempted, in its structure, to follow the spirit of the decisions of the Moscow Council of 1917-18. A presiding archbishop is elected, there is a functional diocesan council of clergy and laity, diocesan meetings are held, again, with the participation of clergy and laity, and parishes, where as a rule parish councils really work, are actually quite independent. It is this strong element of consultation and election in its structure that makes the Archdiocese unique in contemporary Orthodoxy. It can be compared only with the Orthodox Church in America, which is a product of the same historical development, and whose internal structure also owes much to the Council of 1917-18, and to the theological ideas of the "Paris School" nurtured by the Archdiocese. It is not surprising that both of these churches, in different ways, act as irritants for “traditional” Orthodox Patriarchates seeking to keep their ethnic diasporas in Europe and America under their control.
Although the Archdiocese was originally linked to the pre-revolutionary Russian Church (not the modern ROC!), its present flock consists of Europeans of at least two dozen different nationalities and ethnicities. The official name of this church, the Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe, is traditional and no longer reflects its actual ethnic composition. Despite the fact that the Russian element is still strong, the Russian liturgical tradition prevails, and there is a direct continuity from the Russian pre-revolutionary church, the Archdiocese is the only jurisdiction where the idea of creating a local, multinational Orthodox church in Western Europe is alive, and it is the only jurisdiction that can be the beginning of such a church. And this is one of the reasons why it causes irritation in some “traditional”, ethnic local churches.
Over the past 15–20 years, the Archdiocese lived under constant pressure — from the Moscow Patriarchate, which intended to create its own metropolitanate in Western Europe by merging “Russian” jurisdictions, and from Patriarchate of Constantinople. While technically Constantinople was the guarantor of the independent status of the Archdiocese, its attempts to strangle the Archdiocese have been clearly visible over the last decade. Twice, the Synod of Patriarchate of Constantinople refused to install an assistant bishop for the Archdiocese, and the intervention of Constantinople in the election of the Archbishop in 2013, when by means of Byzantine manipulation Archimandrite Job (Gecha) was elected as leader, is still fresh in the memory of the Exarchate. The short but stormy reign of Archbishop Job (2013–2015), which abounded in conflicts between the primate and his flock, is remembered by the majority of believers of the Archdiocese as a nightmare. As it turned out, this nightmare was not the last.
Decision of the Synod of Constantinople
Observers are wondering why the step towards the dissolution of the Archdiocese was taken at this point in time. It is curious that the decisions in the Patriarchate of Constantinople to proceed to act in Ukraine and dissolve the Russian Exarchate were taken at an interval of 2 months. The official reason for the decision of the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the communiqué sent to the Primate of the Archdiocese, Archbishop John (Reneteau), says only that the historical conditions after almost one hundred years since the establishment of the Archdiocese had greatly changed, and that the Synod had taken this step to further strengthen the relationship of the parishes of the Russian tradition with the Mother Church of Constantinople. Therefore, the parishes of the Archdiocese should merge with the local dioceses of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in those countries where they are located.
For a person who has only a slight idea of what the Archdiocese is vis-a-vis the Patriarchate of Constantinople is, this justification is not without some plausibility, but few in the Archdiocese consider these motives sufficient and honest. The Archdiocese immediately noted that the Synod’s communiqué was written originally in French, while usually official letters from the Synod meeting in Istanbul are printed in Greek. Apparently, the original of the letter was written in Paris, and the senders of the letter did not even bother to somehow disguise its origins. The Archdiocese links the idea of its dissolution and its implementation not only with the name of Patriarch Bartholomew (without whose participation the idea of dissolution would not have passed), but also with the name of Metropolitan Emmanuel (Adamakis) of Gaul , who in recent years has a lot of weight in the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Emmanuel is remembered by the Russian Exarchate for the organization of the elections of 2013: it was he, who as Locum Tenens appointed by Patriarch Bartholomew, did everything to ensure that his then protégé Job (Getcha) would stand as the head of the Archdiocese . Metropolitan Emmanuel of Gaul would be the main beneficiary in the event of the transfer of the fifty-eight French parishes of the Archdiocese under his omophorion.
I think, however, that Metropolitan Emmanuel and Patriarch Bartholomew are driven not so much by the desire to acquire the parishes of the Archdiocese under the omophoria of the Metropolitans of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Such an acquisition would be only a pleasant surprise where it happens. Yes, the Greek metropolitans have already begun to pressurize the parishes of the Archdiocese in their countries, and the ancient Byzantine tune about the “non-canonical” status of the Archdiocese and the “non-canonical” refusal to join the local dioceses of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has already begun, but the authors of the synodal decision know that the chances of seeing the majority of the Archdiocesan parishes moving to these dioceses are small. The hierarchs in Constantinople appear to have been guided rather by an opportunity to destroy a church which presents a challenge to the ecclesiological model favored by the Church of Constantinople, which disdains the ecclesiological reforms proposed by the Moscow Council of 1917-18, and their implementation. This destruction corresponds to the long-term plans of the Second Rome to strengthen their place in world Orthodoxy and, above all, in the so-called “diaspora”.
The answer given by the Archdiocesan Council to Constantinople three days after the decision to dissolve it was remarkable. The essence of the answer was that no synod or council can be a body that stands above other dioceses (which, according to church tradition, are local churches) and has indisputable command over them; they cannot decide on the liquidation of an existing diocese without its knowledge and without the knowledge of its bishop. The Archdiocese has its own bishop, around whom it continues to remain a church, and according to its own statutes, will decide its own fate regarding this situation at its Diocesan Assembly.
According to feedback from the Archdiocese, the likelihood of a simple dissolution and the transition of parishes directly "to the Greeks" is not under consideration. The point here is not only in the ethnic element which, of course, is present. The fact is that for its clergy and faithful the Archdiocese was an island of freedom, where there was a relationship of mutual respect and collegiality between the archbishop and the clergy, as well as between the archbishop and the parishes that was not typical for most Orthodox jurisdictions. That is why, in 2013–15, the Archdiocese was shocked by the authoritarian methods of Archbishop Job. Generations of believers who had grown up in the Russian Exarchate had no firsthand experience of episcopal despotism. Therefore clergy and parishes are reluctant to abandon the freedom of the Archdiocese for something unknown (or, rather, for something that is known). At the meeting of the clergy which took place on December 15, just over two weeks after the command “Dismissed!”had issued from Istanbul, the desire not to disperse was almost unanimous.
The choice facing the Archdiocese cannot be called straightforward. Immediately after the decision of the Synod of Constantinople to dissolve the Archdiocese, experts in its history recalled that something similar had already happened in 1965–66. At that time Constantinople withdrew its jurisdiction over the Archdiocese, which declared itself an autocephalous church, and remained such for five years, until 1971. The situation in 2018 is significantly different. In 1965, the theologians of the St. Sergius Institute, gathered around Archbishop George (Tarasov), were not afraid to argue for the possibility of the Archdiocese's autocephaly. Today, the St. Sergius Institute, although still widely known in the Orthodox world, is merely a pale shadow of its past and, even more distressingly, has long considered itself “neutral”, and moreover was the first to publicly wash its hands of the Archdiocese. At present, the Archdiocese suffers from a general shortage of theologians and charismatic leaders. On the few who are, in this situation lies a great historical responsibility. In addition, thanks to the strategic planning of Constantinople, there is only one bishop in the Archdiocese, whereas in 1965–71 there were several. Now, in 2019, declaring autocephaly would be an extremely risky path for which neither the clergy nor the parishioners of the Archdiocese are prepared. Therefore, we have to talk about a search, in the language of the communiqué of the Synod of Constantinople, for “canonical protection”.
In the space of less than three weeks — in the interval between the decision of Constantinople of November 27, and the archdiocesan meeting of the clergy on December 15 — the Archdiocese received three proposals for such protection. The speed with which these proposals arrived also indicates that there is a difference of interpretation of canonicity in different churches, since from the point of view of Constantinople, following the decision of the Synod, the very existence of the Archdiocese is no longer canonical. At the pastoral assembly on December 15, it was announced that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), and the Romanian Church were ready to receive the Archdiocese.
I will not conceal the fact that the proposal of the ROC seems to me the least attractive because of the current state of this church. By virtue of its structure and traditions, the Archdiocese would be a completely alien body in the Moscow Patriarchate, and I do not believe that it could survive there, no matter what promises and assurances Moscow makes today. The only real argument in favor of Moscow is its compliance with the guarantees given to ROCOR during their unification (however, the history of their symbiosis is unfolding). But ROCOR, which represents a very conservative version of Orthodoxy, is ideologically much closer to the Moscow Patriarchate than the Archdiocese. Then there is the catastrophic experience of the Diocese of Sourozh, which Moscow has quickly digested and turned into its typical foreign diocese. It is unlikely that one might persuade that part of the Sourozh Diocese which left the Moscow Patriarchate and joined the Archdiocese as its British Deanery to go under Moscow. The experience of the Archdiocese with the Russian Orthodox Church over the past two decades has seen a series of attempts by the ROC to intensify the “pro-Moscow party” in the Exarchate, and use the might of the Russian state through the courts to appropriate its churches. It is difficult to imagine that, having incorporated the Archdiocese, the Moscow Patriarchate will let it remain autonomous. In addition, in such a scenario, there arises the inevitable prospect of close, systematic communication with representatives of the Russian state, which comes alongside the Moscow Patriarchate. Such communication is completely unpredictable, and few in the Archdiocese will be happy about that. There are also concerns about the fate of church property: as a rule, it belongs to the parishes of the Archdiocese, but the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state has so far shown real and undisguised interest in such properties.
The proposal of ROCOR (details of which are unknown to me) appears better because if it were adopted, the Archdiocese could keep a greater distance from the ROC. However, will this be sufficient to remain at a safe distance from the Moscow Patriarchate? Another problem of this combination would be the fact that the Archdiocese and the ROCOR profess very different ecclesiastical ideologies. Of course, for many members of these two jurisdictions, there was always an awareness of the commonality of emigré destiny, and parish life in the European parishes of ROCOR and some of the parishes of the Archdiocese are not too different. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to harness a horse and a quivering doe together in one cart[ii](especially if this cart is somehow attached to the Moscow Patriarchate).
The option with the Romanian Church appears the most unexpected. Because of the Romanian emigration within the borders of the European Union, the Romanian church now has about ninety parishes in France alone, and the Romanians represent the largest Orthodox diaspora in Europe. Moving to the Romanian Church assumes that the Archdiocese will retain its statutes and autonomy. The Archdiocese does not conceal the fact that the initiator of the proposal of the Romanian Church was Metropolitan Joseph (Pop), the head of the West-South European Diocese of this church, a graduate of the St. Sergius Institute who served for several years in the Archdiocese in the Protection monastery in Bussy-en-Othe. Metropolitan Joseph has good connections in the Archdiocese and an excellent reputation in it. The entry of the Russian Exarchate into the Romanian Church is considered as temporary, offering the prospect of a respite and to gain strength as the circumstances might change - “God will change the Horde”. Transition to the Romanian Church while maintaining autonomy will change little in the inner life of the Archdiocese and, in my opinion, is currently the best solution.
The reader may ask, “Why do we need to save some Archdiocese with its one hundred parishes? Why do you need to save this charming relic of emigration and some councils? What is wrong with joining the Greek dioceses or dispersing into different jurisdictions?”
The answer to this question has already been given above: the Archdiocese is one of the few examples of an alternative organization of Orthodoxy, as it were, an alternative to the centuries-old authoritarian hierarchical model based on the imperial structures. This otherness - with freedom, conciliarity, understanding of the church as a joint work of the laity and the clergy - is well grounded both theologically and canonically. The structure of the Archdiocese is completely viable, although, of course, the earthly path of this church has not always been successful. The Archdiocese is important as such, as a whole, as an organization, as a church. It represents the opportunity of the Orthodox engagement with modernity, beyond the historical monarchical structures and ethnic delineations. Therefore, the scenario of the collapse of the Russian Exarchate and the absorption of its parishes into different jurisdictions is bad both for worldwide Orthodoxy, and, of course, for the Archdiocese itself.
In the current conflict between the Archdiocese and Constantinople two epochs of church life have come together. On the one hand, post-Byzantine Orthodoxy of ambitions and certain “rights” obtained either in the 4th or in the 5th century, rights over which time, allegedly, has no power; an Orthodoxy, which, apart from its external forms, has nothing to show a modern European, and apart from its rights, has nothing to tell them. On the other hand, a small and poor church that wants to bring Christ to the Europeans of the twenty-first century and which is, albeit imperfectly, successful.
Diocesan Assembly, February 23, 2019
On February 23, the Diocesan Assembly of the Archdiocese has to make a choice. If the assembly confirms the intention of the December 15 clergy meeting to preserve the Archdiocese, then the decision to move will depend on the balance of power between the various currents in the Archdiocese, two of which are clearly formed.
First, a not numerous “Russian” direction. It consists of people for whom “Russianness” is an important element of their Orthodoxy. There are few parishes where such people predominate, but representatives of this movement have some propaganda advantages. In the time remaining before the Diocesan Assembly, they will, of course, be actively supported by Moscow propaganda from outside the Archdiocese (in the form of assurances that Moscow can and should be trusted, that there is simply no other way out for the Russian Exarchate).
The second trend can be called the party of a local, European Orthodoxy (and there are many Russian-born immigrants in it). They see in the Archdiocese, first of all, an Orthodox Church in Western Europe, and they are faithful to the traditions of the Moscow Council of 1917-18 and the Paris School of Theology, because these traditions correspond to their vision of Orthodoxy in life and in Europe. This group is rooted primarily in the multinational parishes of large cities. In my observation, they are more numerous and have several leaders who know how to articulate their position well and are ready to fight for it.
Between the two directions, as between two poles, as usual, there are the faithful and parishes, which will follow those who manage to convince them. The decision of the Diocesan Assembly on February 23, 2019 will largely depend on the ability of supporters and especially the leaders of these two trends to argue their position.
If the Archdiocese is to continue, then its current crisis should serve as a lesson for it and make it think again and again about its vision, mission, and how to become stronger to resist the poisonous winds blowing from the capitals of world Orthodoxy.
[i]Better known as the Russian Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and also often called rue Daru from the name of the street on which its cathedral in Paris is located.
[ii]An allusion to the image from Poltava by Alexander Pushkin.
Translated from Russian by Peter Scorer. Russian original can be found at Ahilla.
Victor Alexandrov is a historian and theologian living in Budapest, the author of works on the sources of medieval Orthodox canon law and ecclesiology.