Following the Liturgy celebrated after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion on 18 May 2007, while unvesting in the Church of Christ the Saviour, a very senior ROCOR archpriest from the USA turned to me and said, ‘We’ve won!’ I still had some doubts, but in 2012 when I visited Russia as part of the official ROCOR delegation in honour of the fifth anniversary of the signing, I felt that the sectarian elements that had persecuted us for decades had indeed been defeated. I was wrong. The sectarian hawks of ROCOR had not all left and they wanted their revenge for the victory of the doves in 2007.
Nobody then foresaw the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of democratic government in Kiev in 2014 and their theft of the Ukrainian gold reserves, the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the coup d’etat in the ROCOR Synod in 2018. The Pharisees were back in power again and determined to execute a sectarian schism from the Russian Orthodox Church. All they needed was a pretext. So it was that between 2020 and 2021, within the space of one year, a minor event in the small Principality of Wales became an international scandal over three continents. Let us recall how the tragic ROCOR schism came about.
Cardiff, Wales, 17 December 2020
A Greek Catholic priest, Fr Jacob Siemens, is received into the ranks of the clergy of the MP (Moscow Patriarchate) Archdiocese of Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe, by vesting and concelebration. Fr Jacob has stated that he is happy to be received in any way blessed by Metropolitan Jean of the Archdiocese. Indeed, it is only with the express blessing from Moscow that Metropolitan Jean receives Fr Jacob by vesting and concelebration.
London, England, 23 January 2021
In his Directive 359/E, the Bishop of the ROCOR Diocese in Great Britain, a quite recent American convert to ROCOR from Lutheranism, Bp Irenei Steenberg, rejects the reception of Fr Jacob Siemens and states that it is absolutely impossible for a Catholic priest to be received into the Orthodox priesthood by vesting and concelebration. In the same Directive (issued only four weeks after the reception itself), Bp Irenei, whose name ironically means ‘peaceful’, aggressively severs the sacramental communion and canonical unity of ROCOR in the British Isles with the MP Archdiocese, thereby initiating a local schism. He states:
‘You may neither concelebrate nor participate liturgically, or in any ecclesiastical measure, with the aforementioned James (sic) Siemens, nor with any clergy or local institutions of the Archdiocese / Exarchate (sic) in the British Isles. Further, if you have any spiritual children or parishioners who at times have attended Exarchate (sic, meaning Archdiocese) parishes in the UK for reasons of proximity, etc., you must inform them that until this matter is resolved, they may not receive the Sacraments at any parish of the Exarchate (sic) in the British Isles’.
So extraordinary is this action of interference in the affairs of another diocese and the breaking of communion with it because it was expressing the normal practice of the Russian Orthodox Church that some suggest that Bishop Irenei is in fact using this reception in Cardiff as a pretext to implement his rejection, and that of others, of the 2007 Act of Canonical Communion between the Russian Orthodox Church and ROCOR. This would result in the long-planned schism of the whole of ROCOR from the Russian Orthodox Church. His rebellion against the practices and Tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church is clear to all, as it confirms his previous statements. See:
London, England, 26 February 2021
With his Notice 390/E, Bp Irenei now issues the public announcement that, since Fr Jacob had not been (re)ordained at his reception, he is not a priest, and anyone in authority who says otherwise – i.e. Metr Jean of Dubna (and by implication, the whole episcopate of the Moscow Patriarchate), who receive him – are guilty of ‘spiritual deception’:
‘In December of last year, the Archdiocese, based in Paris, supposedly received a Dr James [sic] Siemens into Holy (sic) Orthodoxy, though without Baptism or Chrismation, and now promotes him as a ‘priest,’ though this individual has no Orthodox ordination – in direct violation of the Holy (sic) Canons of the Church. … Dr Siemens is, according to the Holy (sic) Canons of the Orthodox Church, not a priest but a layman, and therefore has not received the grace of ordination to perform any rite or sacrament of the Orthodox Church. A ‘baptism’ performed by a non-priest is not a Baptism; ‘confession’ performed by a non-priest is not sacramental Confession; the ‘liturgy’ celebrated by a non-priest is not the Divine Liturgy and those who approach a chalice offered therein do not receive Christ’s precious Body or Blood, whatever may be said by the individual offering it or those in authority over him. This is but spiritual deception, and risks leading the unwitting faithful into the trap of false sacraments and false faith’.
(See ‘Notes’ at the end of this article for an understanding of the implications of this action, which is unilateral, for at no time does the Archdiocese cut itself off from or refuse to concelebrate with any part of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is only ROCOR that does this).
Felixstowe, England, 10 April 2021
In the presence of others, Bp Irenei tells the senior priest of the UK half of his small Western European Diocese, Archpriest Andrew Phillips, who has fought for decades, indeed all his adult life, for Russian Orthodox Church unity, that he, Bp Irenei, is planning to take the UK half of his ROCOR diocese out of communion with the local diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate too, that in effect his schism with the Archdiocese is merely part of a wider-ranging sectarian project.
New York, USA, 7 May 2021
A letter is received by the New York Synod describing what has been happening in Bp Irenei’s Diocese and the clear consequences among ROCOR clergy and laypeople, who are collectively alarmed by the Irenei Schism, and that they wish to talk about the problem of the Schism and if their communion with the rest of the Russian Orthodox Church is broken, they will leave ROCOR. It is impossible to contact the First Hierarch of ROCOR, Metropolitan Kapral and his electronic signature is used in his answer. In the answer, written by Bishop Irenei, the sender of the letter, Archpriest Andrew Phillips, is immediately punished and warned that if he even speaks of this matter again, he will be suspended.
Mt Athos, Greece, 9 May 2021
Elder Evthymios, the close disciple of St Paisios, answers our question about what to do with the words: ‘Your case will be decided at the highest court’, making it clear to us that we must seek a bishop who remains in communion with the Church.
London, England, 10 May 2021
At a warm-hearted meeting at his London Cathedral, the ruling Bishop of the local MP Diocese receives a delegation from ROCOR, who express their alarm at the schismatic activities of Bishop Irenei Steenberg. They are informed that nothing can be done, but notes are taken and it is said that Moscow will be informed of the looming crisis.
Paris, France, 11 May 2021
The delegation of ROCOR clergy and laypeople inquires of Metropolitan Jean of the Archdiocese of Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe, if he is prepared to take them into his canonical protection and so out of the Irenei schism. The answer is positive, but no action is taken in view of the possibility that Bishop Irenei might reconsider his position at the long-planned Inter-Russian Orthodox talks for reconciliation and compromise to take place in Geneva on 23 August.
Geneva, Switzerland, 23 August 2021
On the afternoon of 23 August 2021, a long-awaited, two-hour long, last-ditch meeting for Inter-Orthodox reconciliation is held in Geneva. This is attended by Metropolitan Antony, head of the Patriarchal Exarchate of Western Europe and representative of His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill, Metropolitan Jean of Dubna of the Archdiocese of Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe and two ROCOR bishops, Metropolitan Mark of Berlin and Bishop Irenei of London.
To our great regret and distress, there is no negotiation at all and no agreement is reached regarding the division with the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese of Western Europe and the excommunication of its faithful, initiated by ROCOR following the events in Cardiff in December 2020.
After the failure of this very difficult meeting which is just a series of unjustified allegations by ROCOR, and no longer wishing to remain divided from other parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, three groups of ROCOR parishes and clergy in England who have all, quite independently, come to the same conclusion, take action. Nine ROCOR parishes in England, attended by nearly 5,000 Orthodox and served by sixteen ROCOR clergy, composed of five ROCOR priests and two more who have refused to join a group which acts in such an unChristian ways as the local ROCOR, and allies themselves to us, two deacons and seven readers, in unswerving loyalty and obedience to the Russian Orthodox Tradition and its canonical communion, transfer to the Archdiocese of Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe.
Faced with the choice of being loyal to the sectarian division of a tiny number of isolated individuals, or else of being faithful to the age-old practices of His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill and his 400 bishops and 40,000 parishes, 99% of the Church, we choose the latter course. This reception into his Archdiocese on 23 August 2021 is then confirmed in writing by Metropolitan Jean of Dubna and published.
Great Britain, 28 October 2021
With the express blessing of Metropolitan Jean of the Archdiocese, after theological and canonical consultation, the UK Deanery of the Archdiocese publishes the collectively-agreed Statement and canonical refutation of Bishop Irenei’s rebellion against the practices of the Russian Orthodox Tradition, his meddling in the affairs of another diocese and his suspension, announced on his blog, of clerics of another diocese. This is in reply to the untruthful internet attacks on the transferred group and on Metr Jean personally, which have not been answered earlier because of the hope of reconciliation.
Felixstowe, England, 3 November 2021
Archpriest Andrew Phillips, long known for his struggles for Russian Orthodox unity and his equal rejection of all extremes, both of new calendarism, with its old-fashioned modernism, anti-spiritual ecumenism and free-for-all liberalism, and of old calendarism, with its insecure pseudo-traditionalism, aggressive sectarianism and censorious phariseeism, at last publishes his response to the persecution. It is entitled ‘Reflections on an International Scandal’.
Belgrade, Serbia, 25 November 2021
At his concluding speech after the centenary, ironically, conference on the history of ROCOR, Metr Mark of Berlin confirms that his German-based Diocese of ROCOR is also refusing to concelebrate with the Archdiocese of Western Europe and accuses it (!) of uncanonical acts. Metr Mark also indicates that in some sense ROCOR no longer recognises the Local Church of the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) either. His ‘OneTrueChurchism’ gives the impression that he, also a convert from Lutheranism, wants to belong to a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that is more Russian Orthodox than the actual Russian Orthodox! This speech is first reported by the CIA-financed, pro-Navalny Credo.Press site in Moscow. See:
New York, USA / Moscow, Russian Federation, 17 December 2021
The ROCOR bishops’ website announces that at the Bishops’ Synod the week before, it has cut off communion with the Patriarchal Archdiocese of Western Europe under Metropolitan Jean of Dubna. Moreover, we learn today that the ROCOR Synod has informed Moscow that it will not take part in the Bishops’ Council in Moscow in May 2022 if any of the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate Archdiocese of Western Europe is present. One year has passed since 17 December 2021.
For over two years now we have prayed daily to St John of Shanghai and Western Europe for help against our persecutor. After twelve years as our Archbishop in Europe, in 1962 St John was sent from here to resolve a financial scandal in the USA. There the future Fr Seraphim (Rose) was received into ROCOR by chrismation. There the future St John was put on trial by certain ROCOR bishops and their allies, with the result that within three years he had died. This latest sorry saga, so unnecessary, is just another example of how those who stand up for the Faith are persecuted. The persecutors are in fact anti-Mainstream, anti-Orthodox and anti-Russian.
We were the first to become aware of all the details, intentions and repercussions of the Irenei Schism. That is why we acted before others. Still today, most are in ignorance, still unaware of what has been happening in their Church. However, as all becomes public, all the remaining clergy and people of ROCOR who wish to keep faith with the Russian Orthodox Church, the Church of St Tikhon of Moscow, St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, St Jonah of Hankow, St Seraphim of Boguchar and St John of Shanghai, may also have to quit the rebellion of schismatic bishops. Then they too can return to canonical communion with the Russian Orthodox Church in one of the local groups which faithfully represents it.
- The reception of Catholic priests by vesting and concelebration is the standard practice in Russian Orthodoxy of the Moscow Patriarchate and the MP Archdiocese and was the traditional practice of ROCOR. This form of reception of Catholic priests was the consistent practice of canonised saints, such as St Tikhon of Moscow. Notably, St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre was a Catholic priest received into Orthodoxy by vesting and concelebration. As such, Bp Irenei’s absolute rejection of the reception of Catholic priests by vesting and concelebration is incompatible with, and indeed a rejection of, 350 years of Russian Orthodox tradition. So his act of rebellion and schism initiated on this basis is entirely illegitimate.
- As a ruling Bishop of a ROCOR Diocese, Bp Irenei’s jurisdiction extends only to those clergy within his own Diocese. However, neither Fr Jacob nor Metr Jean is a clergyman within Bp Irenei’s Diocese, and as such Bp Irenei has no authority to pass judgment over either. Rather, by passing summary judgment over both Fr Jacob and Metr John, Bp Irenei illegitimately assumed for himself the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical bodies which do have jurisdiction to pass judgment over them. Thus, in passing judgment over Fr Jacob, Bp Irenei illegitimately assumed for himself the jurisdiction of the ruling Bishop of the MP Archdiocese. And in passing judgment over Metr John, Bp Irenei illegitimately assumed for himself the jurisdiction of the Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate. Both actions are grave and basic violations of the canonical order of the Church, and as such are entirely illegitimate.
- When a ROCOR Bishop feels empowered to act in such opposition to both the tradition and canonical order of the Russian Orthodox Church, serious questions are raised about the status of ROCOR and its commitment to the 2007 Act of Canonical Communion which reconciled ROCOR to the Mother Church. Schism should be an absolute last resort, not something into which a Bishop jumps in a period of just over four weeks. The speed, if not eagerness, with which Bp Irenei Steenberg, as a ROCOR Bishop, instituted a schism with an Archdiocese of the Moscow Patriarchate – thereby jeopardising the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church more broadly – suggests that such a course of action enjoys broader support within ROCOR. And the Act of Canonical Communion will not remain viable if ROCOR Bishops are so quick to jump into schism whenever a Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate does not fall into line with their criticisms. As such, the events of Bp Irenei’s schism call forth a need for ROCOR to make clear its continued commitment to the Act of Canonical Communion, and hence its commitment to sacramental communion and canonical unity with the larger Russian Orthodox Church, whose internal practices and theology is not always the same as that of ROCOR.
- The stated theological basis of Bp Irenei’s schism makes clear the need for serious discussion and dialogue between the New York Synod of ROCOR and the Moscow Synod of the rest of the Moscow Patriarchate (including of the MP Archdiocese) regarding the question of the reception of heterodox – a question on which ROCOR, particularly in North America, has come to differ greatly from the Moscow Patriarchate. But such a dialogue cannot be simply a one-way criticism, in which primarily North American ROCOR participants survey the history of the Moscow Patriarchate’s practice, making criticisms on points where such practice differs from their own. Rather, what is especially needed at this point is to consider how ROCOR’s sacramental theology and practice has come to diverge so greatly from the Moscow Patriarchate’s traditional practice that a ROCOR Bishop could lead his Diocese into schism from an Archdiocese of the Moscow Patriarchate, ostensibly to “protect” his Diocese from the standard practice of the Russian Orthodox Church itself.
Here, in particular, there is need for a serious consideration of the transformation of North American ROCOR’s sacramental theology since the late 1960s under the innovations of Greek Old Calendarism. A discussion on the question of reception with reference to ROCOR can only be fruitful if there is an understanding of how Greek Old Calendarists were able to lead substantial elements of ROCOR to reject the settled sacramental traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – the very Church whose traditions ROCOR, ironically, was established to preserve – in favour of extreme positions of modern Greek origin which diverge so greatly from Russian Orthodox Tradition. It is to be hoped that – through such a consideration, in which not only do ROCOR participants offer criticisms of the Moscow Patriarchate’s historical practices, but in which the Moscow Patriarchate’s participants criticise these historical transformations and innovations in ROCOR – a new clarity would be achieved, across the Russian Orthodox Church, of the need to hold fast to the standard Russian Orthodox practices regarding reception. After all, these are expressed not only in the liturgical books of the Moscow Patriarchate, but above all in the living witness of Russian Orthodox saints such as St Tikhon of Moscow and St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.