Will the Russian Orthodox Church Survive as a Church for Non-Russian Citizens?

Since February 2022, the once multinational Russian Church has slowly been breaking apart. First there were the parishes in England, including the largest former ROCOR church in Western Europe, which, incredibly, was expelled from the Moscow Patriarchate by ROCOR with explicit Moscow Patriarchal agreement. 5,000 Orthodox and 12 clergy happily left for the Romanian Church. These churches had merely followed the path already taken by some 300, or 20%, parishes in Moldova that have left the Patriarchate for the Romanian Church over the past thirty years. Then in March 2022 came events in Amsterdam (a very large parish and all its clergy left for Constantinople), a parish in Italy and a parish in Germany (Constantinople too), sanctions against a Russian priest in Spain and four priests defrocked in Lithuania (all for disagreeing with the Moscow Patriarchate). Others elsewhere in Western Europe may face similar sanctions.

Dissidence has spread and the Russian bishop for the UK, Ireland and North America has been confined to Moscow. Its bishop in the Netherlands seems to have disappeared. Its senior Metropolitan in Western Europe, a very young man, was sent back to Moscow, meaning that he is not in Western Europe to look after his dioceses and churches. Then came the events in the Ukraine, when essentially the whole Ukrainian Church of some 10,000 parishes under Metropolitan Onuphry, one quarter of the whole Patriarchate, declared autocephaly and stopped commemorating the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. Then came tensions and divisions of opinion within the 300+ parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. These were tensions between the pro-Russian wing and the pro-Ukrainian wing. Some, especially Ukrainians and other Non-Russians have ceased attending those churches.

Now we have the situation in Latvia. Here the head of the Latvian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Alexander (Kudryashov) of Riga, asked the Latvian Parliament (Saiema) that his church be declared Autocephalous – something he had long been dreaming of. This was duly done on 8 September. Specifically, Artuss Kaimiņš, Chairman of the Human Rights and Public Affairs Committee, said: ‘With the adoption of the Law, the historically existing autonomy and independence of the Latvian Orthodox Church is strengthened, preventing the Russian Orthodox Church from having influence or power over our Orthodox Church’…‘Such a decision is in the interests of Latvian Orthodox Christians, society as a whole and national security’. A few years earlier the Latvian Parliament, again specifically at Metropolitan Alexander’s request, had already passed another anti-Russian law.

That law declared that any bishop of the Latvian Orthodox Church must have lived for at least five years in Latvia serving in the Church and be a Latvian citizen. In this way, the Metropolitan ensured that no outsider from Russia could become a bishop in Latvia, where there are three Orthodox bishops. Now Metropolitan Alexander has by political means obtained his dream of seceding from Moscow. We wait to see the reactions of Moscow, which seems at the moment to be powerless, and, above all, in which countries where they have also long been yearning for autocephaly, refused for decades by Moscow, will Russian Orthodox do the same. The situation looks like ecclesiastical suicide. You simply cannot continue as a multinational Church when you administrate from Moscow on the basis of nationalist centralisation, which is a hangover from the Soviet period.

It is true that Ukrainian nationalism, with its refusal to form a Confederation from the very different peoples in the modern Ukraine, started the problem. However, the correct response was not Russian nationalism. That has only made things worse. It looks as though the Russian Orthodox Church, which has already lost one quarter of its parishes and people, may lose altogether one third, reducing it to a Church of only 100 million, making it only 50% of the whole Orthodox Church. If, as we believe, the conflict in the Ukraine will be won by Russia, this does not solve the problem. The Russian Church may ask all who have left to return to it. It is likely to be met with stunned silence and the question: Why should we? It is one thing to win the war, it is quite another to win the peace. You cannot force people to go to your church. Having committed its very gross and anti-canonical blunders, Moscow has yet to realise this.