Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain (Psalm 126:1)
Orthodoxy in the West will revive. There will be Orthodoxy in Britain and Ireland, in France and Germany, in Holland and Spain and in America, too. Every people and nation will have Holy Orthodoxy. This is the charge laid on our Russian Emigration for our repentance.
Prophecy of St John of Shanghai (+ 1966)
Introduction: The Four Diasporas and the OCA
There are four areas of Orthodox Diaspora, that is, four parts of the world to which Orthodox Christians have emigrated. These are: North America, Latin America, Western Europe and Oceania. So far, only in one of these areas has there been any attempt to set up a new Church to care for all the Orthodox immigrants, or rather for the descendants of those immigrants and those who have been drawn to the Orthodox Church since immigration and witness began, in that territory.
This is North America, where in 1970 the Russian Orthodox Church set up a Church called the OCA (Orthodox Church in America). Why? Simply because the bedrock of its members had immigrated there long before, already starting in the late nineteenth century, and their immigration was permanent, for the immigrants lost the country they could have returned to in 1918, as it had collapsed. In any case, there was little desire to go back to grinding poverty. They needed something local.
North America: A Flawed Foundation
- The OCA
Recently some here have expressed regret that there is no equivalent to the OCA in Western Europe. I can understand this perfectly well for various reasons, not least because of the good intentions and hopes for unity that the OCA began with. It was pastorally very necessary, even long overdue, and very brave and very far-sighted. And we hope that something very positive and permanent can come out of the ‘OCA’ phase of Orthodox history in North America – hopefully, it will be the foundation-stone on the path to something much bigger that will lead to a genuine, all-encompassing, North American Orthodox Church.
The first way in which the OCA has been flawed is the fact that though over 50 years have passed since it was established, only five of the Local Orthodox Churches out of the fifteen (fifteen, counting the new North Macedonian Church) have recognised it as canonical in the shared immigrant space of North America. Moreover, arguably, these five are those that were controlled or influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, that is, at the height of the Cold War. In other words, if political strings had not been pulled at the time, possibly nobody would have recognised it apart from the Russian Church itself. This means that the OCA appears to be a Cold War product and as such is a temporary phenomenon, an indispensable stepping-stone to move onwards to the future, but still temporary.
Secondly, even today it is reliably reported that the OCA has only 84,900 total adherents and 33,800 regular attendees. This is despite the fact that there are over 1,000,000 (some say over 2,000,000 and even 3,000,000) practising Orthodox in North America. It is clear that the OCA has failed in its fundamental mission of gathering all Orthodox in North America together, notably it has not attracted by far the most numerous ethnic Orthodox group – the Greeks. Instead it represents at best 9%, at worst only 3%, of Orthodox in North America. Moreover, it has also failed to make any substantial inroads into converting the 360 million North Americans who are not Orthodox Christians. This can be seen even in its name which is, ‘the Orthodox Church in America’, not ‘The American Orthodox Church’. Without wishing to be unduly critical or demanding, there is clearly a problem here.
- Lack of Breadth
Thirdly, a great many who had ties with an Orthodox homeland felt excluded from the OCA, as the OCA founders wanted an ‘All-American Church’ and immediately began trying to erase any hints of ‘the old country’, also siding with the American Establishment in political matters (this was seen very clearly during the covid crisis, when the OCA leadership associated with the State and, incredibly, zealously closed churches). This was disturbing. Perhaps this was because so many of its people were ex-Uniat Carpatho-Russians, who had never been part of the Russian Empire, but of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had terribly oppressed them, refusing them even permission to be Orthodox Christians, and had left them in wretched poverty. As the Uniat Carpatho-Russians had had no loyalty whatsoever to that Empire which they had fled, once they were politically free in their new homes in USA and Canada they returned to the Orthodox Faith of their ancestors. After the collapse of that highly oppressive Hapsburg Empire in 1918, they had little desire to return. Their situation was completely unlike that of other immigrants to the USA, who generally kept close ties with their homelands or, in newer generations, with the homeland of their ancestors.
Fourthly and finally, the ex-Uniat Carpatho-Russians, with modernist Paris Russians ideologues in charge – and the latter were virtually Russian Protestants both by disposition and by intellectual training – initially imposed a liberal, new calendarist ideology and mocked all others. This automatically excluded a great many Orthodox, in fact, all those who valued the old calendar and genuine liturgical and monastic traditions. Some, being mocked, left. Many were not attracted. This mentality was made clear to me by the OCA’s effective co-founder, Fr Alexander Schmemann, in conversations in Paris in 1980. It was why I refused his invitation to complete a further degree at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York.
- Overcoming the Flaws
It is clear that if we are to see a Local Western European Orthodox Church (or indeed an inclusive Local Church in another Diaspora), we must avoid the four above flaws of the OCA, however necessary, valuable, brave and far-sighted its creation was. A new Church must be outside politics, attractive to all Orthodox and to well-disposed Non-Orthodox, it must not exclude attachments to Orthodox homelands, their traditions, calendars and languages. Finally, it must be non-ideological, independent of the local State and its security apparatus, overcoming liberal/conservative polarisation by following the Tradition, instead of following purely secular currents, whether Democrat or Republican, left or right. This may seem demanding – but it is necessary.
Western Europe: A Story of Missed Greek and Russian Opportunities
- Culture and Geography
This Diaspora is quite different from the Diasporas in the New Worlds, the Americas and Australia. This is because it is part of the Old World, with a first millennium of Orthodox history and local saints underlying it and so has a completely different mentality. For instance, some Americans do not understand this and certain Americans come here with a crass lack of understanding, culture and subtlety and all they do is upset everyone, trying to impose a brash and brutal corporate American mentality and language, as if they were running a US franchise outlet for profit.
In our Orthodox context, Western Europe can be defined as all of ex-Catholic and ex-Protestant Europe, except for the largely ex-Catholic or ex-Protestant Slav and Baltic countries. These already have their own Local Churches that cover their territory, for example, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all covered by the Russian Orthodox Church. Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia have their own Churches. As for Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, their territories are covered by the Serbian Orthodox Church. (Largely ex-Muslim and ex-Catholic Albania is covered by the Albanian Church).
This leaves twenty-five Non-Slav countries in all, geographically in Western and Central Europe, which, arguably, can be divided into eight geographical and cultural groups, the first two largely Germanic and ex-Protestant, the middle three racially mixed ex-Catholic/ex-Protestant, and the last three basically Latin and ex-Catholic. These are: the British Isles (which we count here as three countries, England, Scotland, Wales) and Ireland; the Five Nordic Countries (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland); Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg); Germany; Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Hungary; France, Monaco; Spain, Andorra, Portugal; Italy, San Marino, Malta.
- The Patriarchate of Constantinople
During the Cold War and the political captivity and subsequent missionary paralysis of the very large Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church, based in Moscow, and given the nature of its emigrant groups, a broken nature because of their politicisation, there was a chance for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople to found a Western European Orthodox Church (WEOC). However, the Patriarchate of Constantinople excluded itself from this by its stubborn ‘phyletism’ (Greek racial and racist exclusiveness). Although there were a million immigrants from Greece and Cyprus in Western Europe at the time, the Patriarchal authorities and parish priests determined that only Greeks could be members of it.
Non-Orthodox who asked to be received into the Patriarchate were told to go away (often in the rudest possible terms) and become Catholics and Protestants: ‘You are not Greek’. ‘Only Greeks can be Orthodox’. We heard those phrases from Greek bishops, priests and laypeople literally dozens of times. For them, it was clear that doctrinally they could see no difference whatsoever between Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Protestantism. Indeed, as one Greek priest put it to me nearly fifty years ago: ‘There is no difference between any of us, except that the Catholics and Protestants are better organised than the Orthodox’. It was a purely ethnic, nationalist and also ecumenist view of the Church of God and, as such, led nowhere except to a spiritual desert. As a result a great many Constantinople parishes in Western Europe are today dying out and anxious to recruit Romanians and others, who are everywhere, to fill their emptying churches.
- Paris Russian Protestantism
During the 1980s (specifically, in 1985), the smallest Russian group, the Paris Group, excluded itself from the project of founding a new Local Church, declaring that its exclusively Protestant-style, lay-dominated, liberal ideology, promoted by centralising Paris intellectuals, was in effect too limited to carry out large-scale missionary work in Western Europe outside the Paris ghetto. Sadly, despite the goodwill and positivity of its present inspired Metropolitan, a man of integrity, sincerity and honesty, the group remains a captive of secular liberals. Thus, it has continued its old divisive, political and modernist policy, in spite of the renewed opportunity for missionary work after its return to the Patriarchal Mother-Church in 2019. Its lack of Orthodox vision, largely replaced by secularist lay liberalism, means that it is now very small indeed.
- New York Russian Sectarianism
The second and larger immigrant group, the US-based ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), had a huge missionary window of opportunity in the 2000s. This was specifically after its potentially life-changing reconciliation with the Patriarchal Mother-Church in 2007. This saved it from falling into right-wing sectarianism which had troubled it in the USA (but much less in Western Europe) for over two generations. We had worked for that reconciliation for two decades. Making one catastrophic error after another, it contracted. This became a severe embarrassment after the election of the American nationalist (‘America First’) money-dealer Trump in 2016. For after that, Outside America ROCOR increasingly became an AOCOA, an American Orthodox Church Outside America. It largely renounced co-operation with other Orthodox, often preaching an exclusivist, ultra-conservative, nationalist ideology, similar to that of right-wing US Protestantism, gradually retreating further into a highly political and sectarian money-making All-American ethnic shell.
It often abandoned or persecuted its sincerest clergy and faithful in Indonesia, Western Europe (the scandals in London and Geneva, for example) and even in rare cases within North America (the notorious case of House Springs and the courtroom property disputes in Brooklyn and Miami). Sectarians and cultists had come back in revenge for what they saw as their defeat in 2007. They expelled regular Orthodox and concentrated on trying to seize their churches. ‘We want the keys to your church’ was the mantra and also sorts of strange techniques to try and intimidate were used. This was a spiritual dead end, suicidal behaviour, which meant that ROCOR was shooting itself in the foot, discrediting itself before the Orthodox world. It lost every time, to the advantage of others who did behave like Christians and took no malicious and anti-missionary pleasure in striving, and failing, to close down churches or striving, and failing, to ruin the life’s work of the devoted. Shamefully, the persecuted Church had become the persecuting Church. The Church will never recover from this until it has a new hierarchy.
However, there are still healthy elements within the New York Synod, so perhaps not all is lost. Miracles happen. Those elements at least have heeded the New Testament: ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have’ (Hebrews 13, 5). May they heed the prophetic words of St John of Shanghai about the USA, who did not buy $500 shoes, but gave his shoes away to the poor. Those elements also realise that their old parishioners with their pre-Revolutionary traditions have long since died out. Moreover, since over 95% of their present parishioners come from the ex-Soviet Union, the only reason for them to continue to exist is to keep close to the Moscow Mother-Church and then to merge with it in the very short-term. Many have been saying for years that the merger is long overdue, and that this group can no longer justify its existence at all. Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch told a small group of us in late 2019 that Moscow’s interest in reconciliation with ROCOR had only ever been of political interest. Those sad words spoke volumes to us.
- The Moscow Patriarchal Mother-Church and Russian Nationalism
Finally, there is the far, far larger third group, with nearly 75% of all Orthodox worldwide, the Moscow Patriarchal Mother-Church. Enslaved for three generations by militant atheism with its centralised bureaucracy and love of money, it was finally able in 2000 to condemn its former Soviet atheist captivity and began the long task of canonising its host of New Martyrs and Confessors who were, are, and always will be its glory. It was only in this way that it managed reconciliation with the above two tiny emigrant groups. This was a time of great hope, but as I and others constantly warned from 2007 onwards, the situation was on a knife-edge, it could go one way or another, towards, or away from, authentic Orthodoxy. For fifteen years this knife-edge situation endured until, in 2022, the mainly unrepentant peoples of Russia and the Ukraine (95% or so) were given a war resulting from their stubborn lack of repentance.
Endowed with infrastructure and funds, it had at long last set up a long-awaited Western European Exarchate on 28 December 2018, which initially gave great hope to all of us. However, in the 2020s, specifically from 2022 on via that conflict in the Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchal Church managed to alienate other Orthodox by imposing a political, anti-missionary ideology: ‘Russians only’. Non-Russians were either expelled or abandoned: ‘Too bad for their souls’, said one of their young but powerful bishops when lifelong Orthodox, born before he was born, left the Russian Church because of the persecution they received, persecution they had never encountered even in Soviet times! He had condemned himself out of his own mouth. Even the highly conservative, American-run Patriarchal Russian Orthodox website ‘orthochristian’ had to switch off comments because it received so many negative ones as a result of all this. It is shameful. The Patriarchal Church had fallen into the same old CIA-promoted trap of effectively proclaiming that it is only about Russian nationalism, just as the Patriarchate of Constantinople had before it fallen into exactly the same CIA-promoted trap of effectively proclaiming that it is only about Greek nationalism. It even lost its bishop in Great Britain and Ireland.
- Divine Chastisement
Thus, so far, all three of the ‘divisionist’ Russian Orthodox groups have also gradually excluded themselves from the basic pastoral responsibility for founding a Western European Orthodox Church (WEOC). There is here a kind of self-inflicted, but Divine, shameful punishment on all four groups. The Greek group and the three Russian groups had all been granted God-given opportunities and all, very sadly, dismissed them, blinded by their petty and irrelevant rivalries between the Second Rome and the Third Rome, both of which have long ago fallen in any case. They all had their chances at various moments, but threw them away because of secularist, sectarian, ethnic, political ideologies and intrigues for love of money and petty power, axes they had and have to grind. This is the writing on the wall for all to see: ‘God has numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians’. Unless they repent, they will not be given another chance after this Belshazzar’s Feast.
Conclusion: The Future
So for people like me, whose life’s work has been to work towards the construction of a new Local Church for the sake of future generations, is there any hope of one day seeing a Local Western European Orthodox Church after all these wasted opportunities by the two major Orthodox players? Are there any Orthodox Medes and Persians? Hope here begins with weight of numbers. We are referring to the unprecedented and massive immigration to Western Europe of well over 3,000,000 Romanian and Moldovan Orthodox in the last fifteen years. If minority Balkan Orthodox nationalities, Serbs, North Macedonians, Bulgarians and now, added to them, the new Ukrainian refugees, who have no desire to be with branches of the Russian Church, together they would number well over 75% of all Orthodox in Western Europe. Already the six bishops of the Romanian Metropolia of Western and Southern Europe have autonomy and have taken in Orthodox refugees from elsewhere. If others wished to co-operate with it, they could jointly found the infrastructure for the new Local Western European Orthodox Church. The Romanians and Moldovans alone far outnumber the ethnicised Greeks and the politicised Russians. From dominating majorities Greeks and Russians have become small minorities.
This hope is all provided that these Local Churches can co-operate (and, true, there is little history of this) and that they do not have an ideological, political or above all ethnic axe to grind, as the Greeks and Russians have had before them. Can they learn from the errors of those before them, or, are they too doomed to repeat them? Can they, unlike the Russians and Greeks before them, move into using local languages for the Western European-born children of Romanians, Moldovans and others? If they can remain free of previous errors and accept others not of their own ethnicity, the tiny numbers of members of the Churches of Antioch and Georgia in Western Europe might also take part, though this is not yet clear. As for Greeks and Russians, perhaps individual priests and people, and in numbers, might join the movement. After all, people do vote with their feet….All is still possible. Will we one day see a multinational, bicalendar Western European Orthodox Church, with 3,000,000-4,000,000 faithful, 2,000-4,000 parishes, 20-40 bishops?
If we pray for long enough, we shall find out….