On the Foundation of New Local Churches

Local Churches

There has been much talk since the 1960s about founding new Local Orthodox Churches, especially in North America and Western Europe. This was the result of the forced dissolution of the Russian Empire, with the foundation of new Local Churches in Poland and the Czech Lands and Slovakia, the autonomy given to the Churches of China and Japan and the needs of the Russian-speaking emigration. This was especially visible in North America, where the Communist-era ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ gave a much disputed autocephaly to an originally Uniat Carpatho-Russian group, called the OCA (Orthodox Church in America).

There have also been the Balkan foundations of the Church of Albania for Albanian Greeks, the much disputed foundation of the Church of Bulgaria which upset Greek nationalism, and the foundation of the Church of Romania, all under the influence of nineteenth-century Western nationalism. What today are the realistic prospects for the creation of new Local Churches by the Church of Russia? (No other Local Church has even contemplated such a move and indeed the tiny Church of Constantinople has categorically ruled it out, on the contrary imperialistically wishing to force others into its nationalistic jurisdiction).

It must be said that most of this talk has been premature, speculative hot air. For example, the Church of Russia was founded 600 years after the first missionaries arrived there. Such processes take time. Thus, the first stage in the foundation of a new Local Church is the foundation of a Diocese in a specific, well-defined territory, which may with time become an Archdiocese and then a Metropolia. A Metropolia means that the territory has a number of bishops under a Metropolitan bishop. Only with time may a Metropolia receive canonical autonomy and only then autocephaly, so becoming a new Local Church.

North America and Western Europe

We would do well at this point to define what a specific territory for a Local Church is. Just as imperialism, Greek, Russian or other, is to be rejected, so too is tribal or language nationalism. The model for Church life is the Holy Trinity, unity in diversity. Thus, a specific territory does not at all have to correspond to national borders. For example, if there were to be a Local Church in North America, it should surely not be a US or a Canadian Church; its territory should include at least both nations, if not Mexico too. Similarly in Western Europe, separate French, German, Italian, Spanish etc Orthodox Churches are to be avoided.

The only exception in Western Europe might be that one day there could be two separate Local Churches, one for Continental Western Europe and one for the Isles (the British Isles and Ireland), with their different history. We stress ‘might be’. Even in the latter case, no grounded Orthodox has ever considered a ‘British Orthodox Church’ (Britain is a purely political concept), still less an ‘English Orthodox Church’. The fact is that all the countries of the British Isles and Ireland are interwoven in a long history. Thus, the conversion of the Isles to Christianity was an Anglo-Celtic operation, with Italians, Greeks and others guiding it.

Currently, the Russian Church is keen to set up a Metropolia in Western Europe, where it already has several bishops, a new cathedral and seminary in Paris, several new churches in France, Italy and Spain, and well over two hundred parishes scattered throughout Western European countries, from Iceland to Portugal and Hungary to Norway. Already, after complex negotiations, in 2003 the Russian Orthodox Church had offered the Rue Daru group, centred in Paris and, then as now, still under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the opportunity to become a Metropolia as the basis for a future Local Church.

However, before its members could even discuss the offer (which most would probably have rejected) and raise the matter with its masters in Constantinople, its last Russian Archbishop, Sergiy, died and the project died with him. In retrospect, Moscow knows that the offer was unrealistic, since the group had rejected the disciplines of the Russian Orthodox Tradition three generations before. Since then, in 2006, it received into itself dissident groups, once under Moscow, which also rejected the disciplines of the Russian Tradition (its traditional theology, spirituality, liturgical practices, the Orthodox calendar, vestments etc).

The Monastic Foundation

Let us now look at the basic building block of any future Metropolia (let alone Local Church), the Diocese. A Diocese ready to become an Archdiocese should have at least fifty parishes, each with hundreds of parishioners with their own buildings (not tiny groups of recent converts in hothouse front rooms and back gardens), and a viable monastic life, with at least one real monastery and one real convent (‘real’ meaning not with a few, but with numbers of trained monks and nuns). Let us recall the old Russian saying: ‘The Orthodox family is the primary school, the parish is the secondary school and the monastery is the university’.

Monastic life is also vital in order to produce candidates for the episcopate. For example, the tiny and unstable Rue Daru group based in Paris has had eight bishops in its ninety years of existence. The first two were monks, who were waiting to return to the Russian Church as soon as She was free (indeed the first one did, but was not followed by the liberals who were in control). Of the six who succeeded them, two were widowed Russian priests, one was a celibate academic, one was a former Catholic monk and the last two had to be imported from outside because there were no more candidates for the episcopate from inside.

In other words, if you do not have monastic life, you will eventually end up without bishops. The same has happened in ACROD, a small ex-Uniat Carpatho-Russian group in North America, which has recently had to import a Greek bishop. Church history clearly tells us that new Metropolias or new Local Churches always start with monasticism, whether it is St Nina in Georgia, Sts Cyril and Methodius in the Slav Lands, St Sava in Serbia, St Herman in Alaska or St Nicholas in Japan. In other words, they do not start with liberals, intellectuals and philosophers, but with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, men and women of faith.