Articles Bishop Nathanael Lvov Canon Law Other Orthodox

On the Destiny of the Russian Church Abroad:  A Response to Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Vladyka Nathaniel
Vladyka Nathaniel (1946)

It was with mixed feelings that we read Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s article “The Church and Church Structure,” which is a response to Fr. Mikhail Polskii’s book The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Autority. This article appeared from November of last year [1949] till June of this year [1949] in Tserkovnyi Vestnik of the Constantinople Exarchate in Europe.

It was gratifying for us to see how deeply Fr. Alexander posed the question which is the source of our jurisdictional differences of opinion. And while his assertions led to conclusions with which we could not agree, we rejoiced that with his article Fr. Alexander brings this painful issue out of the shallow quagmire of narrow-minded discourse “about different jurisdictions,” which are in any way to the soul’s benefit very rarely, and into the deep waters of theologizing, where each problem can and must be solved to the soul’s benefit.

But the author did not hold fast upon this pinnacle. The article’s third and final chapter bristles with intemperate attacks both against Fr. M. Polskii and against the Church Abroad in general.  This refers, for example, to the totally unworthy lines regarding demagoguery with which the author hastens in advance to accuse anyone who disagrees with his views.

He can be certain that our Russian Church Abroad, which has been existing for thirty years under beggarly conditions of Russian exile, without any kind of assistance on anyone’s part, took in hundreds of priests and hundreds of thousands of laypeople who underwent horrible jails and prison labor in their native land for their faith. To them we will add, may his humility forgive us, the Protopresbyter M. Polskii, a prisoner of Solovki, whom Fr. Alexander admonishes, and who was a fellow prisoner and sympathizer of that Archbishop Illarion – Troitskii, whom Fr. Alexander cites with deserved reverence. This Church knows from experience and puts into practice on a daily basis what Fr. Alexander conveys to it as a form of instruction, that “truth does not cease being truth, regardless of the degree of its human success.”

On the other hand, perhaps it is better that by the end of his article Fr. Alexander became worried and started speaking intemperately. The issue he discusses is one that is much too burning, much more agitating for the entire soul, to discuss it only on the frigid heights in passionless tones. In order to remain entirely calm while discussing such an issue one should either seek “the most tranquil abyss of passionlessness” or possess a frozen soul.

The question is what should be the destiny of the Russian Church Abroad. Should it remain a purely Russian Church or should it transfer to a jurisdiction of another local Church, be it the Constantinople Patriarchate or those that would become autonomous locally, in America, France, Switzerland, Argentina, etc.

With great erudition Fr. Alexander paints the portrait of the normal canonical structure of Christ’s Church. He reminds us profoundly and correctly the frequently forgotten truth that every Church in every given place must necessarily be an organic part and representative of not just any part of the Church, but of the entire Universal Church, and not only on earth but in Heaven as well.  It is triumphant because the entire fullness of God’s gifts of grace is bestowed upon the Church in its entirety, in all its unity. Fr. Alexander writes very correctly, “The Church’s nature and essence can be expressed by one word – unity.  The Greek term ekklesia denotes, as defined by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a ‘gathering together of everyone in unity. And further on, contrasting this church unity with the earth’s fragmentation, he says, “Everything divides people in the fallen world, citing also Metropolitan Antonii’s words in this regard: “There is no unity on earth, only division.”

Basing himself on this correct principle, Fr. Alexander affirms that “only one Church may exist in one territory. In other words, this refers to a single Church organization, expressed in the unity of its leadership…  Church History starts with such ecclesiastical units, dispersed over the whole world.”

This is absolutely true. That is how it was in the first centuries of Christianity. Such is the ideal, such is the norm of church structure.

Fr. Alexander writes absolutely correctly at the end of the first part of his article, “In the first period of its existence the Church contained many communities that were isolated and independent, and without any canonical connections among themselves, in terms of how we understand them.  And by the same token Christians have never had such an exclusively strong awareness of being one Church later on as it did precisely then, and one Church was not just an idea but a most realistic fact.”

True, everything was different in these absolutely free and independent “autocephalous” ecclesiastical units. Even their services were conducted differently, and even Pascha was celebrated on different days. And yet Christians of Mesopotamia who came into Spain would feel totally at home in a new Christian community. Fr. Alexander correctly points out how this wonderful inner unity of the Early Church was attained in spite of its outer unlimited diversity.  “And the means of the realization of this unity in Christ, for the edification of His Body, is love.  ‘Paul demands from us such love,’ says St John Chrysostom, ‘which would bind us with each other, making us inseparable from each other, and such perfect unity, as if we were members of one body.’”

In order to explain the basis of such diversity and such freedom of outer life in those times of overabundant life, let us recall yet more words of the Apostle Paul, “You, brethren, have been called to liberty,” but he adds right away, “only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh;” (Gal. 5:13)

This means that this freedom, this diversity of the endless number of autocephalous city churches of the early Christian world, was based upon principle, and if the Christians of the time had become aware of the numerous subsequent ecclesiastical actions, the actions of the Ecumenical and Local Councils, patriarchs, and metropolitans unifying church life, then the early Christians would probably have considered themselves justified to condemn these actions as being contrary to Church teaching.

So why did the Church decide to purse the unification of ecclesiastical structures that that was sometimes experienced very painfully? (Let us recall at least the dispute over the time of celebrating Pascha between the Churches of Rome and Ephesus.)   Did the Church regard structural unity to be a valued phenomenon? No, it did not. The Church values only inner unity. But, knowing that the inner is supported by the outer, the Church, during the downfall that occurred after numerous insufficiently prepared pagans entered the Christian community, took care to reinforce its inner valued unity by an outer unification of its way of life and rituals, so that even with the lessened richness of love a Christian of Mesopotamia would feel at home in the Church of Spain. And this was not a substitution of the inner by the outer, since the Church’s goal is always inner.

The same can be repeated about subsequent outer forms of church structure. They are always the result of the current inner situation.

In the period when Christianity was of a high level and church life was at its fullness there really could not be two bishops at the same time in one city.  There could be no need of that, since absolutely everything that was needed by Christians of the time, whose interests were focused exclusively on the Church, could be obtained by the bishop, who was a true guide of such a full ecclesiastical life.

Father Alexander elevates this principle of the Church’s territorial and unmixable nature to the level of a basic principle of Church life in its entirety, calling it “a root from which all of the diverse forms of Church organization develop.”

And yet, we know from church history that already in its very early days the Church, recognizing the territorial principle as the norm, started allowing very substantial deviations out of necessity.  Such, for example, is the well-known permission by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, in its 37th and 39th Canons, given to the head and bishops of the Church of Cyprus, who had moved due to persecutions into the territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, to preserve their autocephaly and all of their rights at the place of their temporary settlement.

The so-called representation churches of various local Churches within the borders of other Churches have likewise entered into church practice in violation of the principle of non-interference and remain as such. We know such examples from the earliest days. The first Russian representation churches within the Constantinople and Jerusalem Patriarchates within the Constantinople and Jerusalem Patriarchates hearken back to the very beginning of Russian history, while Greek representation churches played a great role in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. (The essence of the matter in regard to Russian representation churches within the Constantinople Patriarchate in the pre-Mongol period is not changed due to the entire Russian Church being in the Constantinople jurisdiction at the time. These churches, in Constantinople itself, on Mount Athos, in Thessalonica, and in other places, were representation churches of the Kiev Metropolinate).

We are not challenging the territorial principle in its essence.  We understand its importance and recognize that this principle has been and will remain the norm of external church structure.  We only disagree with making it absolute.  This, of course, is not “a root from which all of the diverse forms of Church organization develop.” And mainly, this principle, as is everything external in church life, is auxiliary. It must serve the Church’s inner absolute task – leading human souls to Christ.

Moreover, Fr. Alexander, while extoling the territorial principle in every way and making it absolute, is clearly unfair in his unfavorable attitude toward the national principle in church life, in spite of all his reservations.

For we know, both from Russian history and from the history of other Orthodox nations, including the Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian nations, the profound significance which the national element had in their church history.  Why, if the Church helped Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians preserve their nationality, then the opposite is true – their nationalism did not allow them to become assimilated into Turkey and betray their national character and the faith of their fathers – Holy Orthodoxy. The same can be said about our Russian history and about our Russian current situation.

National feeling has helped many people preserve their soul.  Can the Church regard this powerful help in the matter of saving souls with disfavor?

The task of saving souls is the main, and we could say the only, task of the Church, defining everything.  And the Church attracts to this greatest and holiest task everything that can be attracted, i.e. all the non-sinful aspects of human nature.  Nationalism is not sinful and therefore it can serve and does serve the Church’s task.

As long as nationalism or patriotism like it will enable the Christianization of human souls, the Church will support them. But as soon as these attitudes will be directed against its all-important tasks, it will fight against these attitudes as well.

Here lies the key to the understanding of our attitude toward the current substitution of Russian patriotism by the Soviet kind.  Here lies the key to the understanding of the Church’s attitude to any external phenomenon, be it nationalism, be it autocephaly, or the territorial principle.

The task of saving peoples’ souls was benefitted by the lengthy subjection of the Russian Church to the Patriarch of Constantinople in the pre-Mongol period of our history, when this guaranteed the Church’s freedom and security amidst the intestine strife of the princes.  It suffices to read “Povest’ divnu I uzhasnuiu” [A Wondrous and Terrible Tale] in the Chet’I Minei [Lives of the Saints] for June 5 regarding the Blessed Konstantin, Metropolitan of Kiev, in order to appreciate how zealously the Russian Church preserved its dependence on Constantinople during the lengthy initial period of its history, how, in spite of the high moral and mental qualities of both Metropolitan Illarion and Kliment Smoliatich,  who had been arbitrarily elevated to the throne of the Kievan Metropolitanate, the Russian ecclesiastical self-awareness rejected all of these attempts.

And in contrast, when danger of spiritual harm appeared from subjection to Constantinople, when the Constantinople Patriarchs faltered in their loyalty to Orthodoxy, the Russian Church decisively and unanimously rejected its subjection to them and chose an independent metropolitan, who was subsequently glorified by the Church – St. Iona.

We can make two conclusions out of this necessarily brief historical information: 1. Even in its most radical external reforms the Church is always guided by considerations of internal benefit, rather than the opposite, for the Sabbath is for man and not man for the Sabbath, and 2. The external “jurisdictional” division, so abundant in the earliest period of the Church’s life, does not necessarily violate inner church unity.

In light of all that has been laid out we will ask this: Would it have been beneficial for the Church’s task if thirty years ago the Russian Church hierarchy, leaving Russia, would have done what Fr. Alexander Schmemann sees as the ideal, i.e. if its portion which found itself in the territory of the Patriarch of Constantinople would have unreservedly submitted to that patriarch, while the part finding itself in Serbian territory would have submitted to the Serbian Patriarch, and so on, while those finding themselves outside the borders of local churches would have either created autocephalous churches or submitted to the Patriarch of Constantinople?

Would such a solution of the question be beneficial for the Church’s eternal task, for the defense of the truth, or for the salvation of souls?

In 1924, when the atheistic power in our homeland made its first attempt to capture the Church and created the renovationist schism, having forced bribed or captive hierarchs who joined up with the atheists to take a position against Patriarch Tikhon and against clergy who were faithful to Christ, the Patriarch of Constantinople took the side of the renovationists and demanded that Patriarch Tikhon cede power and abolish the Patriarchate.

In June of the same year the Metropolitan of Athens went even farther, demanding that the Russian clergy in Greece recognize the renovationist “synod,” threatening that if they refuse they would be forbidden from serving within his diocese.

These incidents, especially the first one, are well known and are not isolated.

Both the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Metropolitan of Athens, taking the side of the renovationists in 1924 in their struggle with Christ’s Church, were guided by official messages, inspired and dictated by the atheistic power from Russia.  In view of the extreme cunning, elasticity, and arrogance of the power fighting against the Church in our homeland, it is very hard to discern the actual sense of its measures taken with respect to the Church over there. Personal experience and a living, intimate, and organic connection with that Church over which this experiment is being performed are irreplaceable. This is why such a special and exclusive responsibility lies upon us Russians.

If, of course, when coming out into our exile we would have encountered another Gregory the Theologian or John Chrysostom on the patriarchal throne, all problems would have been easily solved, and with the help of such holy bishops the exiled portion of the Russian Church would have undoubtedly found one way or another, having preserved its existence, to find itself in close union with the most grace-possessing hierarchs. Their being filled with the Church’s conciliarity would have given them the opportunity to overcome nationalistic estrangement. Through the church unity that fills all things they would understand no worse than Russians the actual sense of everything happening in Russia and would never take the side of Christ’s enemies.

But that was not the case.  Fr. Alexander himself, citing from the works of Archimandrite Kiprian, gives us the key to understand why that was not the case.  He writes: “The pathos of the initial Christian universal unity in love had significantly faded in the Greek Church.  It became replaced very frequently by that of Greek nationalism.” This nationalistic narrow-mindedness of the Greeks, absolutely like the nationalistic narrow-mindedness of all other peoples, does not allow them to comprehend the sense of the events taking place in Russia as clearly as we Russians comprehend it.

This narrow-mindedness inflicted a terrible blow in the periods under discussion to the struggle of the Church in Russia against God’s enemies.  Looking at the example of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia at present we can see how significant in this struggle is the presence of moral support outside of the realm of direct rule by evil power.  The eastern patriarchs could have created such moral support and moral authority for the Russian Church in its struggle with atheists in the twenties, and they failed to do so.

Instead we have the monstrous fact of the union of the renovationists with the Ecumenical Patriarch.  If the portion of the Russian Church that is abroad would have been under this patriarch’s subjection at the beginning of its exilic path, he would have had to force it to condemn Patriarch Tikhon and take the side of the renovationists.

The soul grows cold at the very thought of such a possibility.

Having preserved its independence and having boldly come out in defense of truth and for the denunciation of evil, the Church Abroad performed this blessed task according to the law of conciliar unity with the rest of the entire Orthodox world, not only for itself, but also for the entire Orthodox world, and for the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Metropolitan of Athens as well. In 1924 and 1925 the Church Abroad, which was unified at the time, managed to convince the Patriarch of Constantinople and all of the Eastern Orthodox hierarch that Patriarch Tikhon was right and that the position of the renovationists was false.

Apparently, Fr. Alexander understands the legitimacy of the actions of the Russian Church Abroad at the time.  As he writes, “In the émigré Church life everything was unavoidably temporary at first, and this explains, mainly, our Church divisions.”

However, why does he add right away, “But isn’t it time to reexamine this temporary situation and to realize what Church Tradition requires and expects from us in the conditions that God has sent to us?”

But why must we reexamine our positions? What has essentially changed since 1920, from the moment that we went off into our exile? Has church life become more normal?  Have prosperity and quietness returned to the Church? Have the persecutions and alarms shaking it ended? Or does Fr. Alexander feel that the Church’s abnormalities stop being abnormalities after they have lasted for five, ten, or fifteen years?

Our situation is temporary, of course, and continues to be abnormal. All of church life is abnormal, not only in Russia, but in the whole world. And this abnormality of life demands of us the mobilization of all our powers, the utilization of everything that we realistically possess.

The tried and well-known personal and social relationships between archpastors, pastors, and laymen that were etched out in Russian during the fiery period of war and revolution were realistically personal in this way.  The laity knew their priests, the priests knew their bishops, and almost all of the bishops were pupils and trainees of that first hierarch who came out of his homeland along with them.  These relationships not only were not sinful,  but, on the contrary, were permeated by the holy elements of friendship, love, and trust in Christ.  For this reason, just as we have spoken regarding nationalism, the Church could, and therefore had to, utilize these good human feelings for its eternal holy aims.  And, of course, in keeping with the whole spirit of church practice and the sober work method of the Church, it could not, amidst the general instability and demoralization, break down these good bonds of mutual love and trust in the name or principles which, alas, were not justified nor supported at that moment by any reality.

The Church Abroad, carefully preserving all of its inheritance, which is full of grace and is naturally good, had to find its paths in an abnormal church world, one which is abnormal not only within its homeland, which has been overtaken by atheists, but outside it as well.

Does this mean that the Church Abroad had to embark and did embark upon an uncanonical path?

No, such a necessity never occurs for any church body under any circumstances.  The Church can live and always lives canonically. The Holy Spirit, which guides the Church and inspires its canons, does not leave even its smallest portions without its grace-filled guidance, if only these portions do not deviate sinfully from it.

Fr. Alexander indicates quite correctly what these canons are for us Orthodox. “A canon contains instructions on how to incarnate and reveal the eternal and unchangeable essence of the Church,” in other words, this is a church instruction dictated by the Holy Spirit Himself how it should act in a given instance. In the specific capacity of the Holy Spirit they are absolutely authoritative. And of course, when seeking the proper paths, a Christian will first of all try to learn exactly how the Holy Spirit has directed us to act in a similar situation.

The Church Abroad found itself in abnormal conditions of life.  It follows that the canons that can be instructive for it must speak of abnormal circumstances. Such canons are few, but they do exist.  The most important among them are the 37th and 39th canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council regarding the Church of Cyprus, which we have already mentioned.

But Our Lord did not leave us without a direct and straightforward highly authoritative canonical instruction having to do with us.

When we were leaving Russia the Russian Church, in the person of its head, gave us the canon that we needed on November 7/20, 1920, when the White struggle had just ceased over almost the whole expanse of our land and a new stage was beginning for Russia itself and for us exiles. This was:

Decree no. 362 of His Holiness the Patriarch, the Holy Synod, and the Supreme Church Council.

With the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch, the Holy Synod and the Supreme Church Council, meeting together, had a judgment regarding the necessity of conveying instruction to diocesan hierarchs in case a diocese becomes disconnected form the Supreme Church Authority.

  • In case a diocese, due to a change of national borders, finds itself out of contact with the Supreme Church Authority, or if the Supreme Church Authority itself, with His Holiness the Patriarch at its head, ceases its activity for some reason, the diocesan hierarch immediately establishes contact with hierarchs of neighboring dioceses regarding the organization of the highest level of authority for dioceses finding themselves in similar circumstances.
  • Caring for the organization of a Supreme Church Authority for the entire group of dioceses that find themselves in the situation indicated in no. 2 is the absolute duty of the senior hierarch in the indicated group.
  • In case the state of affairs acquires a lengthy or even permanent character the diocesan hierarch: <…> establishes according to conciliar consultation with the other hierarchs new hierarchical sees with semi-independent and independent rights.
  • In case certain persons or parishes cease recognizing their diocesan hierarch, he does not give up his hierarchical prerogatives, but organizes parishes made up of those persons who remain loyal to the parish, allowing, where needed, the performance of services even in private homes and other premises adapted for this, breaking ecclesiastical relations with the disobedient.

Here, in this canonical act, the voice of the Holy Spirit is present in no less a degree than in the ancient canons of the Ecumenical and Local Councils and in the canons of the Holy Fathers.  The legitimate leadership of our Church in all of its conciliar unity reflects upon the further fate of its Church, which is beset by all of the powers of hell that are mobilized against it. In such a case, can there not be inspiration of the Holy Spirit? For the Holy Spirit blows in the Church’s entire life if sin doesn’t stand in His way. There is no sin here, neither faint-heartedness, neither self-will, nor self-interest.

And you will know them by their fruits. In the decree of November 1/20, 1920 we recognize the action of the Holy Spirit by its passionlessness, many-sidedness, and perspicacity.

This decree turned out to be valuable for us outside Russia as well, and, under totally different external conditions, for the Russian enslaved Church, in which the entire subsequent struggle for the canonicity of church life against all attempts of the atheistic power to capture the Church was conducted under the banner of this very decree.

Of course, neither Patriarch Tikhon, nor Metropolitan Evsevii of Krutitsa, who apparently edited this decree, nor the Synod, nor the Church Council, probably had any inkling that the decree they issued would have such profound consequences.

This is likewise a characteristic sign of the action of the Holy Spirit. Those who are chosen to fulfill his will usually do not know this. In order to be such fulfillers of the Holy Spirit’s behests they must be absolutely honest and as passionless as possible, performing their duty without bringing in anything personal or passionate. Thus, the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, as they created the Nicene Creed and generally brought out their divinely inspired dogmatic definitions, were not aware that they created the banner of the Church’s struggle against heretical falsehood for all times to come. And in general they did not suspect the whole significance of their Council. Fr. Alexander, who knows church history, knows what we are talking about.

We note the same characteristic feature in this holy decision by our Church as well.

It was on the basis of this divinely inspired canon, which is contemporary to us, that we have developed our church life.

Let us make a reminder once again that the decree that was cited was sent to our Russian archpastors, who had created their church authority in new circumstances outside Russia at  the very end of 1920, when all of them were in Constantinople.

There could be an objection that the Russian Church, even in the person of its legal united leadership – the Patriarch, the Synod, and the Council — did not have the right to prescribe the forms of church life on the territory of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

We agree with this. But the Russian Church leadership did not give instructions for the Constantinople territory, but to Russian people, its own spiritual children as to how they should form their church life, wherever fate may cast them. We have here an example of the collision of two principles, but we are justified to pose this question: what was the Russian Church supposed to do, without any authority on Constantinople’s territory but with the authority and loftiest moral obligation to care for the many thousands of souls of dispersed Russians, who at that moment were starting a new stage in their lives? Due to this loftiest obligation that surpasses everything the Supreme Church Authority could not remain silent at such a moment. And even more so it could not hand over care for them to the Patriarch of Constantinople, being concerned, first of all, not about observing a territorial or any other formal principal, but about the salvation of the souls of its spiritual children. The reason is clear from what was stated above.

And so it gave instructions in its farewell order as to how immigrants in new circumstances should form their church life, which had already been formed not just on Constantinople’s territory, but throughout the entire world, and recognized its center under the brotherly and loving protection of the Serbian Church, which must be mentioned with a word of gratitude in this case.

Based on the example of the relationship of our Church Abroad with the Serbian Church we can be certain of the correctness of the many guesses expressed above as to how the relations of the portion of Russian Church that is outside Russia with the Patriarch of Constantinople would have developed if he, overcoming nationalistic alienation, would have displayed a brotherly attitude toward exiled bishops and correctness in his judgment regarding the struggle between the forces favoring Christ and those opposing Him in Russia. The Church Abroad encountered all of this on the part of the Serbian Church leadership, and relations between the two Churches, functioning in the same territory, developed in the best possible way. These relations have not ever been clouded over during the 23 years of the presence of the Russian Church Abroad on Serbian Church territory, which shows that even in our days, radiant and loving church relations are possible, just as in the early days. And in the period of greater warmth and closeness between the two Churches, in the period when the Serbian Church was ruled by Patriarch Varnava, we saw how he, not in the least infringing upon the independence of the Russian Church Abroad, was able to act with a loving heart and wise instruction upon the very direction of its paths.

Oh, if only we had encountered something similar on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarch!  Then we could have avoided much pain and many wounds.

Going ahead a bit, we will say that in general Fr. Alexander’s idea that all of our church troubles result from the violation of the territorial principle, which appears justified at first glance, actually has no factual basis.

We saw in Serbia a violation of the territorial principle due to the coexistence there of the Russian Church Abroad alongside the Serbian Church, and not in the least degree did this coexistence of two church bodies ever have any harmful influence over church life. On the contrary, the Serbian Church and the Russian Church Abroad helped each other very much in every way both spiritually and externally, and supported each other culturally. The Serbian Church opened wide its brotherly embrace to the Russian Church Center, while the Russian Church Abroad, in the person of its head, saved the Serbian Church from internal distresses, as its Patriarch Varnava himself testified in 1936: “When at the beginning of the postwar years the wave of modernism splashed over almost all of the Eastern Churches, it crashed against the cliff of Metropolitan Antonii,” said His Holiness Varnava

Perhaps here in France a greater violation of the territorial principle exists in the coexistence o one territory not only of several local bodies, but also of two exarchates of the same Constantinople Patriarch.  And nonetheless, neither this presence of two exarchates nor the presence of the Romanian and Syrian Churches in the same territory are never felt to be unhealthy by anyone.

What is unhealthy for us here is the violation actually not of the territorial, but of the national principle in church life.  This is the coexistence in one territory of three forms of one and the same national Russian church life – that of the Moscow Patriarchate, enslaved to the Antichrist, the independent Church Abroad, and the one under Constantinople, which stepped away from the conflict.

But let us return to the beginning of the twenties, to the beginning of the development of the Russian Church Abroad.

We have noted the great significance of the Decree of November 7/20, 1920.  Let us also note that in issuing this decree, the Supreme Russian Church Authority performed a very significant moral deed in an hour of the total triumph of Soviet power. The Patriarch, the Synod, and the Church Council all together unanimously issued the decree, which was not in in the least  degree in accord with the wishes of the victorious atheistic power, but, on the contrary, it established the forms of the church struggle with this satanic power.

Submitting to this decree and in accordance to its exact text, a group of Russian archpastors, at the call of the senior hierarch among them, issued a call to all Russian hierarchs who found themselves in the same situation on this side of the iron curtain, which had already been lowered, to make up the highest level of church authority.  This level was created, and all Russian hierarchs, in Europe, America, and the Far East, submitted to it voluntarily, in the interest of the Church’s benefit.

We have already said with what value this single Church Abroad at the time was of service to the entire Orthodox world, saving its leaders from fatal error. The earnest of its power and influence was in the unity of our Russian Church Abroad.

So why, by what means did we not preserve this precious unity?

Rebukes for our church divisions are frequently cast toward us.  We recognize the harmfulness of out fragmentation with great clarity and pain. But we should recall how this fragmentation occurred.  Father Alexander dismisses this unpleasant question in advance when he says, “It is not at all important to know who was right or wrong in one or another émigré dispute.” But this question cannot be dismissed.

It is important for us to know who was guilty of this horrible crime, of tearing apart our Church Abroad.

Following a series of correct statements about the Church, Fr. Alexander presents it incorrectly at this point when he says, “We don’t claim to be infallible, as does Fr. M. P.” and considers as completely normal for church life that “tortuous path” and those “jurisdictional variations” with which the history of his church group is so rich.

We, on the other hand, considering our church organization to be part of the Universal Orthodox Christian Church, which has neither spot nor blemish, insist on its infallibility.  In vain does Fr. Alexander attempt to make fun of this infallibility. Infallibility, which is the absolute loyalty to the truth in great and lesser matters, can be regarded as the cornerstone of the entire life of the Church, with much more basis than the territorial principle, which Fr. Alexander insists is a cornerstone of the Church. It is incorrect to imagine, as Fr. Alexander apparently does, that infallibility – loyalty to the truth – is obligatory only to the entire Church in all its fullness, while its separate parts may transgress at will.

No, neither the entire Church, nor its local part, nor a diocese, nor a parish can betray the truth and “transgress” with impunity, i.e. embark upon “tortuous paths” and apply countless “jurisdictional variations,” i.e. simply to say one thing today and to affirm something else tomorrow.  This is done by an anti-church, the polar opposite of the Church, the Communist Party, but the Church cannot do this.

The entire Church, young and old, must be infallible. This is its basic quality which Christ willed to it.  Transgressions cannot be made into a principle and regarded as a normal phenomenon of church life.  If human weakness causes one or another portion of the Church to fall into sin, it should, just like an individual Christian, call things by their name, offer repentance, and return to the straight path, for otherwise it stops being Orthodox. In this lies the dutiful responsibility of our appellation.

And so, how and why did the pernicious division in the Church Abroad arise?  What was its basic cause?

This is not some kind of accidental and transitory cause. It is the same question that is posed to all Russians in which our entire life is concentrated. In was the same in 1927 as in 1945 and as now: What should our attitude be toward the atheistic Soviet power, which has captured our homeland?  Are agreements and compromises with it possible?

In 1927 this question was less clear than in 1945. But displaying the grace=filled characteristic of infallibility that belongs to it as part of the Universal Church of Christ, our Russian Church Abroad unerringly understood this temptation, which was still hidden at the time, and condemned Metropolitan Sergii’s first attempts at compromise with the atheistic power. And Metropolitan Evlogii and his followers, splitting off from unity with the Church body to which they had belonged until then, and as a result losing the grace of discerning the spirit of falsehood from the spirit of truth, agreed to the compromise with atheism, and Metropolitan Evlogii pledged loyalty to Soviet rule on behalf of himself and his clergy.

We cannot forget this. The schism in our Church Abroad, which has caused so much untrammeled harm and has ruined so many human souls, began from this and no from anything else.

This was a sin, and a grave one. It cannot be dismissed,, calling it a “jurisdictional variant” and demanding its forgetting, because “it is not important to know who was right or wrong” in this “émigré dispute.”

Yes, Father Alexander is right to say that “falls and mistakes are always possible in the historical life of the Church.”  Yes, mistakes are possible, but we cannot be reconciled to them, regard them as the norm, and persist in them. Repentance of them is required.

But three years after the church schism brought about by Metropolitan Evlogii’s agreement with the atheists the wrong nature of his path was discovered with total clarity. Realizing the moral impossibility for a Christian archpastor to maintain loyalty to Soviet rule, Metropolitan Evlogii and those with him did not express repentance for the sin they committed, but went under the rule of the Constantinople Patriarch.

The incorrectness of this step should have been clearly seen in 1945, if Metropolitan Evlogii had not complicated and confused the entire question with new zigzags by his transfer again to the Moscow Patriarch.

In 1945 the Patriarch of Constantinople, again repeating the mistake of 1924, decisively recognized the legitimacy of Patriarch Alexii and took part in his election, sending his representative to Moscow for this.

The duty of us Russians abroad, our primary obligation before the entire Orthodox Church and before the Patriarch of Constantinople himself was here, just as twenty years before, to condemn the new deception of Soviet power, its new mockery of the Church.

This is our duty not only before the contemporary Church, but before all of history, before the Church’s eternal life, because for the Church time is not measured by its length, and a sin committed deep within the Church disturbs and wounds the conscience and produces fruit harmful to the soul even after millennia have passed.

The human soul can be seduced even today by pointing out the weakness and tendency toward compromise displayed by church representatives hundreds of years before.  And the Church’s enemies are doing this today with great effort.

Steadfastness and valor on the part of genuine church representatives renders the consequences of such weakness harmless.  Thus, at least for subsequent generations, the steadfastness of St. Theodore the Studite rendered harmless the weakness of Patriarch Nicephorus, the steadfastness of St. Maximus the Greek rendered harmless the weakness of Metropolitan Daniel, the steadfastness of St. Philipp, Metropolitan of Moscow, rendered harmless the weakness of the hierarchs of the time of Ivan the Terrible, and the steadfastness of Arsenii Matsievich and St. Pavel Koniuskevich rendered harmless our Synod’s weakness in the days of Catherine II.  In all these instances the true Church had representatives who were steadfast, not weak.

This is why we need a steadfast and valiant uncompromising denunciation of Patriarch Alexii’s activity and the eastern patriarchs’ pandering to him, not only for the present time, but also for all the subsequent centuries.

Those shameful and incorrect lines about the Russian Church and the whole Orthodox Church in general, which became a kind of weapon of the atheistic power and which are so numerous in the heterodox press, would have been much less possible if the voice of our Church Abroad would have been louder, i.e. if it had been undivided as in 1924, and these accusation would have seemed totally irrefutable if our voice had not sounded at all. Of course, slander and juggling with facts would have been possible under any circumstances, no matter how loudly the Church Abroad would have explained its positions, but we are interested not in the slanderer, but those who are sincerely erring and sincerely being tempted by the fact that “the Church has concluded a union with atheists.”

Father Alexander states that “the voice of truth has always sounded in the Greek jurisdiction;” Yes, voices denouncing Moscow’s criminal falsehood have also resounded from out of their midst. We will always remember with gratitude the valiant voice of Prof. Kartashev, which resounded so loudly then in that terrible year of 1945.

But we cannot fail to remember that the clerics and laymen of the Constantinople Exarchate take part in denouncing the actions of Patriarch Alexii in spite of their submission to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Their situation in that issue is unnatural – they denounce Patriarch Alexii, while their head, on behalf of the Exarchate that he heads, i.e. on behalf of the Western European Exarchate, sends his representatives to the Moscow celebrations and maintains brotherly relations with the Patriarch, an ally and weapon of the atheists. The value of denunciation gets lost to a significant degree by this before the face of contemporaneity, and, to a greater degree before the face of church history.

It seems that we have sufficiently clarified why we regard our denunciation of the Patriarch of Moscow as such an important ecclesiastic duty. This is not a “hypertrophy of nationalism,” of which Fr. Alexander accuses us. This is an awareness of our duty before the Universal Church, whose children we are through its legitimate portion – the Russian Orthodox Church.

It was not by our own will that we laid this responsibility upon ourselves, dictated as it was by an actual bond with our own people which was greater than in other nations and better at understanding them and all of the experimentation over them.  God’s will has laid this upon us by our own birth and we cannot divest ourselves of this responsibility on our own will, especially at this extremely crucial time.

Fr. Alexander decides, in a totally arbitrary way, that “it is precisely the Ecumenical Patriarch who is required to guarantee our inclusion into the universal Church organism.” In saying this, he apparently forgets that entry into the Russian church guarantees our inclusion into the universal Church organism to a degree no less than entry into the Church of Constantinople. And all canons without exception state that not a single portion of the church body has the right to arbitrarily change its place in the general church body.

And for us Russians being under the rule of the Patriarch of Constantinople is at the very least therefore less natural, because the obligation to correctly discern all of the devil’s tricks regarding the Russian Church is laid by God upon the Constantinople Patriarch to a lesser degree than upon us. He is not Russian and does not have an organic bond with our people. As for any foreigner, for him everything in our life remains incomprehensible, and it is up to us to explain to him and to other nationals the actual meaning of the events in our homeland. And for us to be able to do this freely we must not be under his immediate rule, bound by his decisions, and binding him by our statements, whose truth he can comprehend only through a more or less lengthy process.

Even less can we, at these current terrible moments, search for a “safe harbor” with a foreign (not because he is foreign to us, but because he’s not ours) patriarch.

Fr. Alexander feels it is “unnecessary and useless” to respond to this accusation and declares that “We went off to the most senior Orthodox hierarch not because we were looking for a safe harbor.”

But it was not we who came up with this accusation. The leader of those who have departed himself, Metropolitan Vladimir, writes in his archpastoral response in that same Tserkovnyi Vestnik in which Fr. A. Schmemann publishes his articles, in the no. 6 issue for 1947: “We are not looking for struggle, for being firmly established on an unshakeable foundation, we are able to avoid it.”

We cannot avoid this struggle, nor do we wish to, but we regard it as our primary church duty. Our very existence is an unremitting reminder of the faithlessness and illegitimacy of the current leadership of the Church in Russia.

It is not without disdain that Priest Alexander Schmemann casts an accusation at us that we  “attribute to ourselves the mission of representing the Catacomb Church,” while another of his sympathizers, Bishop John Shakhovskoy, accuses us of “dressing up in the toga of martyrdom.”

Both accusations are either a “polemical device” or serve as evidence of a misunderstanding of the structure of church conciliarity. If we are in the same church body as the martyrs of the Catacomb Church, have a reverential attitude toward their feat, and catch each testimony about them and from them, then, according to the law of church conciliarity, we are of one whole with them, and we need not dress up in a toga of martyrdom or attribute to ourselves the mission of representing the Catacomb Church in order to be glorified by its glory and express its thoughts and feelings.

We sing according to the same law to the Mother of God that we “exult in you,” although in no way do we have any pretensions that our sinful life is in any way commensurate with her sinless life. When we Orthodox speak on behalf of the Orthodox Church before the heterodox, we speak on behalf of the apostles, the bishops of the Ecumenical Council, all of the great ecumenical teachers, martyrs, and venerable fathers.

Therefore, if it seems to Fr, Alexander that there is something unbearable when a bishop in America sends a telegram (regarding the Cardinal Mindzenty case) to a Catholic on behalf of the Russian Church, which is drenched in the blood of martyrs, this spitting in the face of the Russian Church Abroad by a young priest of the Constantinople Exarchate seem unbearable to us.

Together with Father Mikhail Polskii, that confessor of Solovki and fellow pastor we confess that “the portion of the Russian Church that is abroad, headed by the Bishops’ synod and Council, not only confesses itself, but is actually within the Russian Church.  It has never broken away from it, living by its interests, needs, struggle, truth, defense of the canons and martyrs, and continuing outside Russia that old tikhonian canonical way of the first ten years, which went off into the catacombs from the day Metropolitan Sergii fell.

And in the fact that all of the best representatives of the Church from there who had come to us over the past few years understand these problems so absolutely in unison with us, we see a clear and profoundly joyful testimony to the truth of our way, as well as the invincibility of church conciliarity, which can in no way be broken even by iron curtains placed by Satan.

Materials of the Ensuing Discussion Posted on This Website

1948. Archpriest Michael Polsky, “The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Authority in the USSR”

1948. Priest Alexander Schmemann, “The Church and Church Structure,”

1949. Archpriest Michael Pomazanskii, “Our Church’s Legal Consciousness”

1949. Archpriest George Grabbe, “The Canonical Basis of the Russian Church Abroad”

1950. Priest Alexander Schmemann, “A Debate About the Church”

1950. Bishop Nathanael, “The Local Principle and the Unity of the Church”

1952. Priest Alexander Schmemann, “Epilogue”

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