Following the recent trilogy of articles on gathering together Russian Orthodox of all nationalities and languages in Western Europe into a Metropolia, the first of which was posted on 25 July and the last, the article ’The Path to Unity’, on 5 August, a member of the Paris Exarchate (Patriarchate of Constantinople) has written to reject this vision for an Orthodox Europe, or a ‘Russian Europe’ as he strangely calls it. Since he is not Russian Orthodox and, according to his very undiplomatic words, never will be, his rejection of something which does not concern him seems not relevant. However, if he is interested in one day seeing a Local Church of Europe, we must recall that the only Local Church which is proposing an Orthodox Metropolia in Europe, precisely the basis for a future Local Church of Europe, is the Russian Orthodox Church. In other words, the offer by Patriarch Alexis II over ten years ago is the only offer on the table.
The only purely theoretical alternative consists of a now very old-fashioned, autocephalist, that is, nationalist, ideology. This was once again put forward by the Greek Orthodox ‘Fraternite Orthodoxe in Western Europe’ at its Fifteenth Congress in Bordeaux in Spring 2015. With absolutely no offer of autocephaly (canonical independence) made at any point over the fifty years of its existence to this small, mainly French group by the US-run Patriarchate of Constantinople (to which virtually all its members belong), doubts were long ago raised about its practicality. No autocephaly can ever be given to this small group because it is on a shared canonical territory.
No-one would want to repeat the error that the Soviet-epoch Patriarchate of Moscow made in the USA nearly fifty years ago, giving a canonically disputed autocephaly to a small and rather nationalistic American group, led by Parisian intellectuals, now called the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). One does have the impression of leaders blinded by their autocephalist ideology misleading sincere and idealistic but also blind converts, who have no concept of the practical problems and realities of the Local Orthodox Churches and Diasporas outside their own narrow, intellectual horizons.
A French TV film of their recent Congress shows members of the Paris-based Brotherhood singing in French at a meeting or service (it was unclear what it was) in a modern conference hall in Bordeaux. There were virtually no icons, no iconostasis, no candles and no-one at the meeting or service, standing in lines in front of rows of chairs, appeared to make the sign of the cross. The atmosphere presented was that of a ‘charismatic’ event, common to Catholic modernism (or Protestant modernism – it is the same thing). Present were two Greek bishops, one of them the controversial leader of the schismatic ‘Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church’, and a Catholic bishop. The impression was that many of those present were either Catholics or else ex-Catholics. The meeting was certainly highly ecumenical and also political.
The atmosphere of exaltation, of a lack of sobriety and prayer, and the absence of any Orthodox dress code indeed gave the impression of a political meeting, rather than of a Church service. Most of those shown in the film looked to be middle class people, mostly of the same older generation, aged between 60 and 75. Could this be because they joined the Fraternite in its heyday in the late 60s, 70s and 80s, after the French social revolt of 1968? Enclosed and isolated in the same intellectual ghetto for so many years, without exposure to the realities of the contemporary Diasporas of the Local Orthodox Churches in Europe or in their homelands, members have had no opportunity to evolve. In this way they have not adapted to reality and the generation which has grown up in the Orthodox Churches since the fall of Communism and the liberation of the Local Churches in former Communist countries. Could this be why ‘passeiste’ (living in the past) members still insist that ‘nothing has changed’ in Russia and Eastern Europe and still appear to be living in the Cold War?
Of course, a film can give a false impression. Unfortunately, it is exactly the same impression that was given to us by Fraternite members in the 70s and 80s and also that given to Orthodox from other Local Churches who have visited their Congresses in recent years. They have all said the same thing: that this is a divisive group driven not by spiritual concerns but by political concerns. Its spirit, different and alien to that in the vast majority of Orthodox monasteries and parish churches in Western Europe, gives the impression of a New Age cult or sect. There is a ‘pick and mix’ mentality, for example, you fast and confess only if you really want to, taking communion freely, as in modern Catholicism. It takes what it likes from the Russian Church and the Greek Church, but rejects the disciplines of both the Russian Church, both inside Russia and outside Russia, and of the Greek Church in Greece. (It should be noted that this group is quite outside the discipline of the diocesan jurisdictions of Greek bishops in Europe).
A great many contemporary Protestants will tell you that the empty moralism of their ahistorical and now dying denominations has been suicidal for them. A great many contemporary Catholics will tell you that they do not believe in the Pope and think that compulsory clerical celibacy is wrong. In other words they agree with us. And some look to the Orthodox Church for sustenance. The one thing that the Orthodox Church can offer those who live in the contemporary spiritual desert of the desacralized Western world, whether of Catholic or Protestant origin, is spiritual food. This is the food of faithfulness to the discipline of the Church Tradition that alone unlocks the door to the Holy Spirit, that alone gives spiritual beauty, spiritual nobility and spiritual elegance, the food that feeds the soul. This means not transmitting our little selves, but transmitting that which is far greater than ourselves, that which is both collective (cat-holic) and eternal. This is that which only the Church can give and provide the sense of the sacred, a sacralized faith that brings heaven down to earth and so makes the earthly spiritual.
The impression given, and not only by this film, is the opposite. What appears to be on offer here is a desacralized cult, worship made comfortable for the Western consumer, a castrated and rationalized piece of theatre that makes the spiritual earthly. Nowhere was there any mention of the glorious European heritage of the saints, those who had been earthly but became spiritual, neither of the ancient saints of Europe, like St Irinaeus of Lyon, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Martin of Tours, St John Cassian and others who combated heresies and died for the Faith, or of the new saints of Europe, like the Russian New Martyrs, St Nicholas of Zhicha, St Justin of Chelije and St Paisius the Athonite. This is the result of doing away with the ‘sanctoral’ and applying the other decrees of the Second Vatican Council to the Orthodox Church, as was the heartfelt desire of Fraternite lovers like Fr Elie Melia, the teacher of Pastoral Theology at the St Sergius Institute of Theology in Paris in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The overall impression of the Fraternite is of a disincarnate form of faith invented in the past, of a rather late and old-fashioned monogenerational offshoot of the ‘charismatic movement’ of the late twentieth century, unknown to the Orthodox Church. Theirs appears to be a phyletistic or nationalistic ideology, a Euro-Orthodoxy, that puts modern Europe first and Orthodoxy second, exactly the opposite to what the Russian Orthodox Church is proposing in its forward-looking vision of an ‘Orthodox Europe’. New Local Churches have always been built on strict adherence to the Church Tradition and had a heavily ascetic, monastic and episcopal foundation, for example among all the Slavs, the Alaskans and the Japanese. Unlike their examples, the intellectuals of the Fraternite, stuck in the 1960s, seem to be proposing building a Church on the basis of an ideology that is anti-ascetic, anti-monastic, anti-episcopal, anti-Tradition and therefore in effect anti-Orthodox. Needless to say, this cannot succeed.