The Future of Russian Orthodox Outside the Canonical Territory of the Russian Orthodox Church

Introduction: A Definition of Terms

At the present time there are three groups of Russian Orthodox which have permanently settled outside the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, but which are for the moment administratively separated. This canonical territory means China and Japan, where there are already Autonomous Churches, and above all the countries formed from the ex-Soviet Union, notably the Russian Federation, the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – with the exception of the canonical territory of the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church.

We naturally exclude from these three groups ex-Russian Orthodox: the Ukrainian nationalist group whose ancestors once mainly lived in Polish Galicia and most of whose descendants are in Canada; the small group whose ancestors once belonged to the Russian Church in Finland; very small communities sometimes of Russian descent in a few parts of Western Europe under the Paris Jurisdiction; even smaller sects which broke away from the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) between 2000 and 2007. These four groups have for purely political reasons consciously chosen to live outside the canonical unity of the Russian Church, the first three under the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

One Faith but Three Administrations

These three groups of Russian Orthodox are:

1. Those who have a disputed autocephalous status in North America. They include above all, but not only, those of ‘Ruthenian’ origin whose ancestors emigrated from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and those who were converted in Alaska when it was still a Russian possession. With their presence dating back well over a century, that is, before the 1917 Revolution, they are grouped in what is called the OCA (Orthodox Church in America).

2. Those in the self-governing Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), whose ancestors either emigrated after the 1917 Revolution, or after 1945, or who have joined the Church since. This group is centred in the USA, but has many members in parts of Western Europe (principally in western Germany and Switzerland), Australasia and also some members in Latin America and the Holy Land.

3. Those who depend directly on Moscow, but live above all in dioceses in Western and Central Europe, but also in much smaller numbers in countries as diverse as the USA, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, Iran and elsewhere. These are mainly those who have emigrated to these countries in the last twenty-five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

These three groups represent different periods and different generations of emigration. The first group dates back five generations and more, the second often dates back three or four generations, whereas the third often dates back only one generation. Is there a possibility that these three groups may one day join together? Surely, that would be a logical, canonical and indeed welcome outcome? And if not, what could prevent them from doing so? Let us look in detail at each of the three groups.

Is an Administrative Merger even Possible?

The first group, in its present form a product of the Cold War politics of nearly two generations ago, appears to be split into two factions. Some more traditional would like to have closer relations with those who in North America are happy to call themselves Russian Orthodox (those belonging to groups 2 and 3), but others for political reasons object to the term ‘Russian Orthodox’. They confuse this term with some narrow, ethnic identity instead of the multi-ethnic reality. These, sometimes quite Russophobic American nationalists, often not of Slav but of Protestant background, are generally very modernistic and have little understanding of the Tradition.

Therefore, they may wish to quit the OCA background which is in the disciplines of the Russian Church and Tradition. Like other political dissidents elsewhere, these latter may wish to join the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Their mentality is after all very similar to those ex-Russian Orthodox already in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in the Paris Jurisdiction (including ex-Sourozh) and in Finland, whose mindset in the eyes of Russian Orthodox is more or less schismatic and even semi-treasonous. Under Constantinople, these dissidents would, like the others who have left the Russian Church, be allowed to operate outside the canonical and liturgical disciplines common to the Church.

The second group, ROCOR, should by its name unite all Orthodox outside Russia (Russia meaning the Russian Lands, that is, the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, as defined at the beginning of this article). However, it does not do so at present, though it is now showing great openness at least in North America to groups 1 and 3, even receiving the former OCA leader. One of the problems for some in ROCOR is that as long as the Soviet Union existed, it had a very clear, even exaggerated identity, but that was a whole generation ago. As a result, some individuals prefer to pretend that the Soviet Union still exists, under the imaginary term of ‘Putinization’, but this fantasy is mere New Cold War propaganda of the basest kind and self-justification for the disobedience of schism and conforms at best to fantasy, at worst to paranoia. We must not live trapped in the past, for salvation can only come if we live in the present.

Today, ROCOR seems to be confining itself to North America and Australasia, with South America and Western Europe increasingly small and detached. Is it to confine itself in the future only to the English-speaking world? The direction of the ROCOR leadership seems to some unclear and ROCOR identity has perhaps been blurred by Western rite experiment. On the other hand, the membership of ROCOR has increased rapidly through recent emigration. All is still possible and ROCOR could still become a federation of regional Metropolias around the world, as Patriarch Kyrill would like. This process of Metropolitanization is precisely what has been carried out on Russian Orthodox canonical territory. However, time is passing and several years have gone by since such strategic decisions could have been taken.

The third group, directly under Moscow, is expanding rapidly by emigration, especially in Western Europe, where most countries are effectively now directly under Moscow and ROCOR is clearly an outnumbered minority, mainly by its own choices. It must be said that this situation looks like being replicated elsewhere too. The situation has indeed been transformed in the last 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whereas once this group was tiny, today it is the biggest. We can remember the situation only thirty years ago of the dioceses in Brussels, Paris and London, where, all told, the flock numbered three bishops, a dozen or so priests and a few hundred faithful! In other words, three ‘dioceses’ totalled no more than a parish.

Today, with large new churches built or being built in Rome, Madrid, Paris, Strasbourg and in several cities in Germany, large dioceses in Italy and Scandinavia, several parishes in Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even Iceland, with well over a million faithful, the momentum is clearly here. However, there are difficulties. Some of its older and senior clergy seem to have problems adapting to life outside Russia and can have ‘Soviet’ reflexes. Not only do they not understand local cultures, mentalities and family life, but some do not understand the local language and so cannot even communicate with and confess the children of their flocks. This is a very, very serious pastoral problem. Little wonder that some recent and better integrated emigrants sometimes prefer to attend ROCOR churches or, in North America, traditional OCA churches.

Conclusion: Three in One in the Future?

One thing is clear – no solution to three separate administrations will ever be imposed from above. No-one in the Centre in Moscow wishes to be accused of imposing some Soviet-style structure or reorganization, as was disastrously tried in the 1920s. In the internet age top-down ‘Soviet Tank’ style is dead, belonging firmly in the past. Unity today can only come organically, from the grassroots. True, the Centre in Moscow strongly, but also understandably, dislikes the extremist fringes with their disloyalty and Russophobia, either of the left-wing Paris/Sourozh type, or of the right-wing sectarian type that once posed a problem in ROCOR. Perhaps the dream that the spiritually healthy parts of the OCA may one day merge with those directly under Moscow and with ROCOR in North America could come true. Thus, a newly formed group called something like The Russian Orthodox Metropolia in North America – ROMNA, could emerge from the past.

As for ROCOR in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, it could become part of some large Metropolia in Australasia, including parishes in Thailand, South-East Asia and the Philippines, called something like The Russian Orthodox Metropolia in Australasia – ROMA. Surviving ROCOR parishes in Western Europe could become part of a Metropolia, centred at the new Cathedral and seminary in Paris, perhaps called the Russian Orthodox Metropolia in Europe – ROME. As for Latin America surviving ROCOR parishes there could simply merge with local parishes under Moscow in one single Metropolia, The Russian Orthodox Metropolia in Latin America, perhaps called ROMLA. This would together make four Metropolias, together forming a renewed and expanded Russian Orthodox Church Outside the Russian Lands of over 1,000 parishes. Dreams? For the moment, yes, but at least food for thought for the long term.