The small émigré Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which was formed after 1917 largely from White Russian refugees, has desperately been in search of an identity since 2007. Then, as it joined up with the rest of the much larger Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate or MP), at a ratio of 1% to 99% (300 parishes to 30,000 parishes), it gave up being a museum or heritage church. After all, the old generation, adults before the 1917 evolution, had completely died out by then. Many of their children had abandoned Church life and it was increasingly dependent on people and clergy from the ex-USSR.
The traditional ROCOR position was to keep its pre-Revolutionary heritage, to stand with the New Martyrs and Confessors and to condemn the collaboration of bishops inside the USSR with the atheist State. However, once the USSR and the atheist State had ceased to exist in 1992, once the post-Soviet MP had begun canonising its New Martyrs and Confessors and reviving its pre-Revolutionary heritage in 2000, then ROCOR had to find a new role to justify its existence. There was nothing distinctive any more. Since 2007, there have been discussions as to what that role should be. Two schools of thought have appeared in the past fifteen years.
The First Choice
The first choice was to be absorbed by the Moscow Patriarchate and their immigrant parishioners all over the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, clearly outnumbering the old ROCOR parishioners, who were dying out. Unfortunately, at the same time corruption from inside the oligarchic ex-USSR spread to ROCOR too. Bishops became corrupted by the temptations of money, prestige and property. Some ROCOR churches became virtual embassy churches for the Moscow Patriarchate and its nationalist policy in the Ukraine, others became nationalist nostalgia clubs, ghettos which are irrelevant to others. Others became tiny, inward-looking and sectarian and cultish groups for rather right-wing US Protestants with the OneTrueChurchism of some converts with their conspiracy theories, as also in England and Belgium, for example.
I have been to ROCOR churches in the USA four times since 1996, once as a speaker at the 2006 ROCOR Council in San Francisco under the ever-memorable Metropolitan Laurus (only six out of the nine ROCOR speakers there remain in ROCOR). No fewer than three ROCOR bishops (I know them all) told me since 2017 that their hero is Trump. I was told never to say anything against Trump or else face censorship! If ROCOR follows this political, indeed totalitarian, path, it will not only fall out of communion with the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria and the Western European Archdiocese of the Moscow Patriarchate, as it already has, but with all the other Local Churches, as seems highly likely. In fact one of their bishops told us that this was his aim!
The Second Choice
The second choice is to insist on ROCOR autonomy and freedom, realising the full potential of ROCOR, and remain faithful to the Russian Orthodox ascetic and liturgical tradition of the old bishops, clergy and laity, whom I knew and loved so well. Completely unmercenary, they had no love of money, prestige, power, fancy apartments and cars and of what we may in general call ‘bling’. This is faithfulness to the New Martyrs and Confessors and the Three Diaspora Saints: St John of Shanghai, St Seraphim of Boguchar and St Jonah of Hankou. It would be well if ROCOR ceased commemorating Patriarch Kyrill, as they have already ceased doing in the Ukraine and Latvia. No Ukrainian refugees will ever set foot and stay in any church that commemorates him. We know: we do not commemorate him, as we are not under him, and so plenty of Ukrainian refugees from the canonical Ukrainian Church come to us.
The fact is that the only long-term purpose of any Orthodox presence and structure in Western Europe, North America, Latin America and Oceania is to help lay the groundwork for future Local Churches in those four Continents and regions in the local languages. Witness is essential. This has been patently obvious for at least two generations. And this means inter-Orthodox, inter-calendar and multinational co-operation, being part of the mainstream, not being part of a schismatic sect or cult. Down with politics and racist ideologies! Long live Orthodox Christianity!
The choice for ROCOR is simple: Either to side with the Persecuting Church or else to stand with the Persecuted Church. The first way is spiritual death, as some with suicidal tendencies here have already done, the second way is spiritual life. The clash between these two visions of the Church has already taken place here. The result of this was that, because of years of persecution and being ignored, half a ROCOR diocese and most of its people left for the Patriarchate of Romania. Will this pattern be repeated elsewhere? Today we have heard that the new First Hierarch of ROCOR is Metropolitan Nicholas (Olhovsky). It was the obvious choice, since the two senior candidates had compromised themselves in politics. Metr Nicholas is a candidate of the Lukianov group, but also has many qualities, not least that he is a son from the post-1945 generation and knew Metr Laurus very well, as his cell-attendant. But some fear that this young bishop may be manipulated by others and compromise himself by obeying them again.
If Metr Nicholas wants to survive in the much contracted ROCOR (that has all but lost South America, where forty years ago it had six bishops, Indonesia and much of Western Europe), he will now have to allow parishes to cease commemorating Patriarch Kyrill, deal with the Western Rite problem, the House Springs scandal and the Belya scandal in the USA, and then all the scandals in what remains of the tiny ‘Western European Diocese’. He may be tempted to avoid many problems by doing the swap that Moscow has long wanted and exchange the ROCOR parishes in Western Europe (after, or as regards the 20 mainly small parishes of the Western European Diocese even before, Metr Mark has gone) for the bishopless MP parishes in North America. This will leave him with his American Synod in control of Russian and convert parishes in North America and Australia. Then he will have to steer ROCOR towards co-operation with the OCA. Otherwise, ROCOR will simply die out.