Why Do The Two Parts of the Russian Church Not Merge?

Q: There are two small dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland. The larger one, called ‘the Diocese of Sourozh’, is directly under Moscow and has a bishop in London and 27 clergy, the smaller one is under ROCOR (the Church Outside Russia) and has a bishop in Germany and 12 clergy. Surely it would make sense if they merged. Why don’t they?

T.P. London

A: Your timely question will be of interest not just to Russian Orthodox in these islands, but to others elsewhere. This is because there is for the time being a similar pattern of double dioceses in other parts of Western Europe, in the Americas and elsewhere. For example, there are even two Russian Orthodox Archbishops of Berlin of different dioceses – a situation which of course goes back to the division of Berlin and Germany during the Cold War. Therefore, I will give an answer that is first local and then general.


First of all, there is the historical reason why this abnormal situation of two dioceses on the same territory exists and then the consequences of that history. For instance, with its origin in the White Russian emigration of four generations ago, the ROCOR Diocese in this country consequently tends to be more independent, better integrated and better established than the newer, more ‘Soviet’, Sourozh Diocese and overall it has a more widespread use of English. It is not without significance that its first bishop had the title ‘of London’ and later two others with the title ‘of Richmond’, which the ‘Sourozh’ Diocese has never had – even its very name refers directly to Russia. Moreover, many of its clergy are recent arrivals from Russia who may only be staying here temporarily.

The Sourozh Diocese has also been through a turbulent and difficult period in recent decades as a result of the controversial personality and practices of the Parisian Metr Antony Bloom, as divisive in death as in life. For instance, it still has two small parishes, founded by him, that use the so-called ‘new’ calendar as well as in some places his practices, like no confession before communion or allowing cremation, that would appear to have been adopted from liberal Anglicanism. The ROCOR Diocese in this country is ‘stricter’, that is, traditional in its practices and its members are very loyal to its stand for the truth. In its day it was mocked and persecuted for this – though now it is admired for that stand, sometimes by the very people who once mocked it.

However, it is also true that there is now increasing convergence as the Sourozh Diocese largely returns to Russian Orthodox norms, and ROCOR has been helped by the fact that some disruptive fringe Anglo-Catholic converts left it some years ago for various sects. Although on paper Sourozh has grown bigger than the ROCOR diocese over the last forty years (the opposite was once the case), its many communities are generally very small and use temporary and borrowed premises with an ageing clergy. It is difficult to foresee which diocese will be bigger in the future, but it is true that ROCOR still does not have a resident bishop.

Thus, each diocese has its own history, with differences of emphasis, one older, one younger. Given these historical differences, which could create human frictions if the two dioceses were merged by force, it was decided at the 2007 agreement between the two parts of the Russian Church to let all such dioceses on the same territory evolve organically before any voluntary merger. This is especially important, given that emigration from the former Soviet Union is continuing and so the situation is fluid.

Thus, any process leading to a voluntary merger will take time – perhaps a whole generation. The main principle is never to force anyone to do anything, but to let the situation develop by itself, as any movement must be purely voluntary. Here is the basic answer to your question. However, nine years after the 2007 agreement we can already make some observations about possible future developments.


Originally, some, including myself, thought that all parishes outside the Church’s canonical territory of the former Soviet Union/Russian Empire and Japan, would simply gradually join ROCOR and that there would be a sort of merger between the two groups, thus creating an expanded ROCOR. However, we can now see a pattern with some interesting developments. I must emphasize that these have not taken place as a result of some top-down decree, but quite naturally, as a result of grassroots evolution.

This pattern is worldwide and it is basically towards a jurisdiction of ROCOR in US-dominated / largely English-speaking countries and of dioceses and parishes being dependent directly on Moscow elsewhere. All this is because such an arrangement is politically expedient and pragmatic. For example:

From the very beginning of ROCOR, Japan always remained dependent directly on Moscow, as part of its canonical territory, albeit outside the Soviet Union. After 1945 former ROCOR dioceses and parishes in China and Eastern Europe were directly absorbed into Moscow. Of course, that was for purely political reasons – they had no choice, However, today, most significantly, there is no movement in any of those countries back to ROCOR. And during that time Orthodox in Poland and Czechoslovakia even formed autocephalous Churches and Orthodox in China became autonomous. In the last five years we have seen that China, like Japan, has also become part of Moscow’s official canonical territory.

Other Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are heading the same way, simply because ROCOR has never had any presence there, whereas Moscow has. Moreover, the same thing is happening with parishes in Africa (with the blessing of the Patriarch of Alexandria), India, Iran, the Middle East, Cuba, North Korea and the Philippines. In most of these areas existing parishes basically depend directly on Moscow, mainly because Moscow has political access, a recent emigration, missionary and building activity or simply priests there, which ROCOR does not.

On account of the undermining schism in ROCOR in South America nine years ago, which took place largely because of the inability of ROCOR to appoint a local bishop, it would seem that South and even Central America now also seem to be entering into the direct orbit of Moscow. It seems likely that Moscow will set up a Metropolia at least for South America. ROCOR is simply too small to do this.

On the other hand, in North America (Canada, the USA and also, it seems, Mexico), in Australia and New Zealand (including Indonesia and Polynesia), it is clear that ROCOR is in control. In Australasia, Moscow is more or less inexistent and in North America it cannot expand, but only contract. This is as a result of the agreement of its own making with the Non-Russian Orthodox OCA, which still has a canonical decision to make as to whether it will reintegrate the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church or else continue on the margins.

However, we have also seen that ROCOR has more or less ceded territory in both the south and the north of Western Europe – Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria (with two exceptions) and Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and also the Netherlands – to Moscow. For example, in Italy there is now the largest Russian Orthodox diocese in Western Europe, with over 70, mainly Moldovan, parishes and a bishop with a purpose-built Cathedral in Rome. By and large, ROCOR remains present only in former western Germany, Switzerland (its three European bishops are here), Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Denmark. However, in Belgium and even in western Germany new churches directly under Moscow are opening.

Thus, although it is still much too early to come to any firm conclusions, it appears that the ROCOR jurisdiction may become limited to all Russian Orthodox in and around the English-speaking world – in North America, including Mexico, Australasia and that part of continental Europe which happens to be nearest the British Isles. They may yet come to form three distinct Metropolias, in New York, Sydney and a third somewhere in North-Western Europe, perhaps in Geneva, or else in Munich or Brussels.

On the other hand, Russian Orthodox in the rest of the world, that is, outside the canonical territories of the thirteen other Local Churches, may come to belong directly to the jurisdiction of the Church based in Moscow, again forming Metropolias. Here we are concerned with Western Europe, South America and Asia. For example, we can foresee a possible Metropolia for South-Western Europe, centred perhaps at the new Cathedral and seminary in Paris. Then there could be a Metropolia centred in South America, perhaps centred at the new Cathedral in Caracas.

As regards Asia, we can foresee that one day the autonomous Chinese Church may have the freedom to become a Metropolia, centred in Beijing. There should surely be a Metropolia in South-East Asia, perhaps centred in Bangkok. Beyond that, one can dream of Metropolias in New Delhi, covering the Indian subcontinent, and in Teheran, covering the Middle East. But that is far off. We stress that all this is an organic process and not a premeditated plan. However, we do not know the future and unexpected events may still occur before the situation settles.

The Future

To those who may be alarmed at these possibilities and see in them a sort of competition for jurisdiction or Moscow imperialism, we would say that such alarm belongs to the past. There is no such competition or imperialism. The fact is that with the present convergence between the Church Inside Russia (and its dependent dioceses and parishes outside it) and the Church Outside Russia, the distinctions between the two parts of the Church are increasingly irrelevant. For the younger and even middle-aged generations, there is now little difference, for people go freely from one parish to the other, without any distinction.

When, in Russia and the Ukraine, monasteries, convents and churches dedicated to St John of Shanghai open, and books written by ROCOR clergy, like Archbp Averky (Taushev), Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) and Fr Seraphim Slobodskoy, against modernism and ecumenism or about the Royal Martyrs are reprinted in large numbers, and when outside Russia we read books written inside Russia on similar themes, there is complete convergence. With more and more contacts between the two parts of the Russian Church, a merger is happening from the grassroots.

There is no greater example of this than that of the newly-canonized St Seraphim of Sofia, for 25 years the ROCOR hierarch in Bulgaria, denouncer of the heresies of Paris and the error of the new calendar, but also the towering voice of Orthodoxy at the 1948 Council of Moscow. A figure of unity indeed. And he may yet be followed by the ever-memorable ROCOR Metr Philaret of New York, canonizer of the New Martyrs and Confessors, whose relics are incorrupt – for many years a priest under Moscow and his widowed father a bishop there. As post-Soviet Russia heads towards the restoration of a Christian Emperor, the future and unity are being lived today.