The Liquidation of an Archdiocese: What Will Become of the Inheritance of Russian Orthodoxy? 

23 December 2018
The Archdiocese of the Russian orthodox churches in Western Europe faces a decision after being released by Constantinople: cease to exist or don’t submit and… unite with the Russian church? Create the next in a series of interim projects? 

It is very difficult to speak about what is going on in the Archdiocese in the aftermath of its being disbanded, as has been said, “into the other various holy metropolitanates of the Patriarchate” by Constantinople on the 27th of November. It’s difficult not only because this dramatic situation has now become impossible to peacefully resolve in a positive fashion, but because – the decision literally exposes some to the light of condemnation, while rubbing salt in the wounds of others. None of the parties, unfortunately, have shown themselves in their best light: and this goes for Moscow, Constantinople (Istanbul), and those in the Archdiocese.

There are many wonderful pages in the history of the Archdiocese, but there are also many controversial ones. There is both good, and that which is simply not very good – beginning in the 1930s, with the founding of the Archdiocese (or Exarchate). The continuing crisis that has plagued the Archdiocese since the end of the 20th century is related to its understanding of itself on the one hand, as a community of inheritors of the Russian tradition and, on the other hand and magnifying some sort of fantastical idea, as forming some sort of local, autocephalous, Western European, nearly French Orthodox Church. This lack of sobriety and inability to discern its role and place, is a result of the fact that many of the descendants of the first and second waves of the Russian emigration did not preserve the spiritual tension and the resulting creative potential inherent in their parents and grandparents lives. They have become, too often, entirely indifferent to the church and its real problems, as well as to the spiritual problems within the life of society. They are also indifferent to Russia, herself. The brightest counterexample is Nikita Alekseevich Struve. But he was the last pillar of the Russian emigration as it bore its mission within itself – culturally, nationally, and in terms of the church.

Thanks to their love for the Russian church Orthodoxy became a central topic for Christianity worldwide

Of course, it is true that our forefathers gathered together the most precious riches of the Russian spirit, culture and church and took them into emigration, in order to return them, exponentially increased. And thanks to their love for the Russian church, the Russian Orthodox tradition, culture, land and people, the emigres not only glorified Orthodoxy in Europe and the whole world, but made Russian religious philosophy and Russian Orthodoxy a central topic and an important spiritual and theological touchstone for Christianity worldwide. Both St. Serge in Paris and St. Vladimir’s in New York (beyond the Exarchate but an organic extension of its life) – these seminaries have contributed something very particular and important to Christian life and thought in general.

And now the Exarchate has been disbanded and it has been suggested to each of the parishes that they should join the local diocese of the Greek church, wherever they are located. And this is specifically because no one needs those precious Russian riches anymore, other than the Russians themselves. The loss of self-identity that many representatives of the Russian Exarchate have experienced has led to these very sad consequences. After all, if it hadn’t been for the decision of the Synod of Constantinople, it might still have been possible to change something. And again here, we see powerful political forces at work, for whom the lost Russian riches mean nothing – and these forces have taken Constantinople as their ally.

Our forefathers gathered together the most precious riches of the Russian spirit and took them into emigration, in order to return them, exponentially increased

We need to be thankful to Constantinople for what they did in taking under their wing those who were exiled from the Russian church in 1931. This sort of thing should be the norm for churches – helping our brothers in times of great misfortune. And it is understandable that the Greeks wanted to keep the “tasty treat” for themselves, and, frankly speaking, they grabbed it up, speculating on the misfortune of Russian people and Russia herself. They should have been able to overcome this temptation. When the misfortune passed, Constantinople should have been able to say, “yes, we preserved the traditions, but they are yours – here, have them back.” At the end of the day, at least let each person decide from himself, or on a parish level, in which patriarchate they would wish to be. But they should have returned Russia’s own heritage to her, because only Russians can own it, keep it, develop it and manage it for the benefit of Orthodoxy and Christianity worldwide.

This is how the Greeks should have acted, but they turned out to be very narrowly nationalist and egotistical – sick with those very illnesses that everyone is talking about. I’m thinking primarily of ethno-Philetism, a thirst for power and lack of real desire for worldwide church unity. Because when you put only yourself at the center of the world, don’t wait for anything good to come of it. We hear that Constantinople is behaving in an insane and undiscerning fashion, not in any way understanding the consequences of its actions. This isn’t exactly the case. It is very clear that they are conscious and aware –only of their own political, property and national interests. It is also clear that they are harbouring a strong anti-Russian mood, and that all their actions are being determined by these things.

The ecclesial structures of the Moscow Patriarchate have often done the bidding of the state

And Moscow, of course, isn’t Russia, but the Russian Federation. It isn’t only the USSR that isn’t Russia – the Russian Federation isn’t Russia either! And we understand that the ecclesial structures of the Moscow Patriarchate have often done the bidding of the state, and that the interests of the state were often observed more readily, shall we say, than those of the church herself. Moreover, at various times this was hardly optional, and church hierarchy themselves barely had a clue what to do about it. It is for this reason that people within the Exarchate felt that the Russia church in its current state was/is a “red church”, if we can put it that way. That’s the way they referred to the Russian church in polemic…that is sometimes the way the Russian church herself acted. Of course, for us Russians, as for the Greeks, all of this is associated with material and political interests. Least of all considered, unfortunately, are the life and health of the people, and the return of spiritual riches and cultural wealth. And the return of these riches was important not only because they “belong” to Russia, but because, I repeat, only Russians can understand their own inheritance, as well as discern it in all its dignity and preserve it. Ultimately we need a specific context for Russian literature, art, theology, religious and philosophical thought, and for absorbing and developing the lives of the saints of the Russian church. It’s not possible to preserve and develop these things – to live into them – just anywhere. There are gifts of a particular nation’s spirit, nationality, language of communication, etc, without which the world will simply lose all these treasures, whether they are Russian, German or what have you.

We need, again and again, to thank Nikita Struve and all his close helpers, for the fact that a portion of our inheritance has, despite everything, been returned to Russia. They organized, for instance, the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of the Russian Emigration (Dom russkogo zarubezhja), in Moscow. But even so, this is a tiny portion of everything relating to our tragic and so-significant-for-everyone Russian history, which is preserved in France and in other countries. The great spiritual inheritance of the Russian emigration could not have emerged without this suffering and without these terrible fractures. But if people have lived through these things and turned them into a revelation of God’s will, love, righteousness, truth and freedom, then we need to value them accordingly and understand, that these things actually belong to the whole world. But what can we do so that these things don’t simply perish? What can we do to help returnees who remember their roots and don’t wish to forget them, who wish to find their place of homecoming in our land? What can we do to preserve churches built by Russians and on Russian resources? How can we do this all God’s way, within the fairness and mercy of our Lord?

The revelation of God’s will given through the Russian church and culture belongs to the whole world

Of course, when former Patriarch Aleksij II proposed that the ROC and the Western European Exarchate be united, the proposal wasn’t supported by the leadership of the ROC simply relating normally to the people and the parishes within the Exarchate. It was unnecessary to pressure people, or to break “rules of truth and conscience”, as Nikita Struve sometimes used to say. The Moscow Patriarchy needed to recognize the saints canonized by the Exarchate, as they could do this at this point, too. Then it would have been possible to preserve the authority of the Patriarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church in Europe, and people would have agreed to unity. But now they are very scared that they will be subject to various undignified and contemptable management methods, and that the property and inheritance of parishes, monasteries, dioceses and even specific people, will be misused.  Everyone still remembers the example of the Diocese of Sourozh where, as a result, there was a schism and something that most resembled a hostile takeover. And although we can come up with other sad examples, even so the Exarchate could have come to an agreement with the Russian church as, for instance, the Karlovatskaya church was able to do, under which it entirely preserved its autonomy in terms of hierarchy, management, and property ownership.

So what is the situation today? Now it only remains for us to wait and see what the Archdiocese itself says: will they agree with the Constantinople’s decision or start to search for some way in which they can freely and autonomously exist? Such a solution would also be a polymer, and won’t fix the problem in full. What remains is to pray very, very sincerely that God will somehow help us to at least in some way preserve the most fundamental things of the past and present, so that we can navigate our way into a worthy and dignified future. Western European Orthodoxy is, first and foremost, an achievement of the Russian emigration, the best part of that old Russia, which was able to survive in such difficult conditions. Many simply died, and those who survived and remained in the USSR, unfortunately, often shattered under the pressure. Therefore yes – the witness to Orthodoxy on the part of those in emigration really was the strongest. No one and no other church, whether in America or in Europe, has anywhere born such a strong witness to Orthodoxy. And this is why this inheritance is so important for us: not in order to own it and go on owning it, but so as not to lose God’s gifts, the gifts of the Russian church which are so important to the rest of the world.

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov. Source: 
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