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The Fourth Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia:
The Notes of a Participant


Church Councils are called whenever major decisions have to be taken. This is as true of the Seven Universal (Oecumenical) Councils as it is of Local Church Councils. Thus, since the foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) effectively by St Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, four ROCOR Church Councils of clergy and laity have taken place. These were in 1921, 1938, 1974 and this year, in 2006, from 6 to 14 May, in San Francisco.

The Four Councils

The First Council was called by a twentieth-century Church Father, Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev, who was the senior Russian bishop forced into exile. It took place in 1921 in Sremsky Karlovtsy, in what later became Yugoslavia, with the blessing of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This was in the formative period of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and this Council was devoted to organizing administrative and canonical structures for the Church. In this way, the thirty-four Russian bishops forced into exile were able to establish a united Church of dioceses and parishes for their flocks, composed of Russian Orthodox refugees.

The Second Council was held in 1938, also in Sremsky Karlovtsy. This Council, headed by the second head of ROCOR, Metropolitan Anastasius (Gribanovsky) of blessed memory, consolidated the organization of the Church. It considered the spiritual rebirth of the émigré flock and the new generation, the struggles against sectarianism, political schisms and the persecutions of the Church inside Russia. Here, ROCOR continued to assert that, as before 'the part of the Russian Church which is outside Russia is an indissoluble, spiritually-united branch of the Russian Church. She does not separate Herself from the Mother Church and is not autocephalous'.

The Third Council was held in 1974 at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, under the third head of ROCOR, Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) of blessed memory. This Council examined Church affairs in the ever more difficult conditions of the modern world. It also called for unity among the parts of the Russian diaspora that were in schism from the Church Outside Russia. It removed the 17th century censure of the Old Rite, noted the dangers of ecumenism and modernism in Church life and drew attention to the continuing persecution of the Church inside Russia.

In 2006, a no less important challenge faced the members of the Fourth Council. With the fall of the Communist government in Russia and the end of persecution there over fifteen years ago, the situation of the Church in Russia had changed radically. ROCOR now had to re-examine attitudes to the formerly-enslaved Church and hierarchy in Russia. Following the long-awaited canonization of the New Martyrs and Confessors in 2000 in Moscow and other acts of repentance, in 2003 the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia entered into dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate. Since then there had been six joint meetings of the Church Commissions.
Very important questions had arisen for the Church, relating to ROCOR's temporary self-governance and future steps towards normalizing relations between the Church inside Russia and the Church outside Russia. Clergy and lay delegates were chosen from each ROCOR Diocese, from the Holy Land and the Russian Federation, from Australasia and South America, from Western Europe and North America, to participate in the Council to consider the above questions. In its decision of 24 May 2005 to call this Council, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia asked the members of the Council to examine the following questions:

a) The establishment of normal relations between the parts of the Russian Church inside and outside Russia.

b) The mission and service of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in the contemporary world.

The Fourth Council

In 1974, the first task I was asked to carry out in relation to the Russian Church was the translation of an account (of a very biased observer) of the First Council. This was duly published in the Eastern Churches Review (ECR vii, I, pp. 59-65 and II, pp. 164-185) in 1975. Little did I realize then that thirty-two years later I would myself be present as a speaker at the Fourth Council. Here follow my notes on the momentous events of this Council.

Saturday 6 May

We rise in England at 4.30 am. Since San Francisco is eight hours behind England, we face a 32-hour day. We arrive in San Francisco at 1.30 pm local time and I register.

At 4.00 pm we meet the Kursk Root Icon and there is a memorial service for Metropolitans Antony, Anastasy, Philaret and Archbishop Antony of San Francisco. We eat and at 6.00 pm begins the Vigil, lasting some three hours. A new icon, painted in Russia and depicting saints of both ROCOR and the Patriarchate, is carried around the Cathedral. A siren wails and a huge ‘San Francisco Fire Department’ truck passes by. At the Polyeleios, two Metropolitans, three Archbishops and seven Bishops come out, making the Apostolic number of twelve. A delegate from Russia says at the end of the Vigil: ‘The atmosphere is good. Everything is possible’. There is indeed an atmosphere of grace here. The Kursk Root Icon gives off a very strong perfume and there is the visible presence of the relics of St John.

Sunday 7 May

The liturgy begins. A mass of people and some fifty or sixty priests and eight protodeacons concelebrate with the twelve bishops. The liturgy will last nearly four hours with the Molieben after it. I think of the extraordinary destiny of Metropolitan Laurus, once a boy orphaned of his mother living in the poorest parts of Eastern Europe, here today in California. The altar servants speak a mixture of pure Russian and broad American. Their efficiency is admirable. The Americans know how to organize. The Trisagion is sung in Greek, reminding us of a thousand years of Tradition and how Orthodoxy was brought to Russia by the Greeks, a fact still remembered here in on the coast of California.

At 4.00 pm, the bishops return to the Cathedral, lining up to venerate the relics of St John first. 130 or so lay and clerical delegates from South America, North America, Australia and Western Europe are present, together with a mass of parishioners. We sing ‘Christ is Risen’ three times and the Council opens. The Bishops sit in a row facing everyone. The Gospel and the cross are in the middle of the Cathedral. This is a historic day. Archbishop Kirill of San Francisco welcomes us and speaks of how we are not here to seek our own will. The Metropolitan speaks of how we are to avoid divisions, opening ourselves to the action of the Holy Spirit. We all sing Eternal Memory to our bishops who went before us. The Metropolitan recounts the previous three Councils. He reminds us how the Patriarchate has changed, having come round to our way of thinking in freedom. He reminds us also of our confessors’ stance for the purity of Orthodoxy.

Archbishop Hilarion of Australia and New Zealand now reads the greetings from the Patriarchs and others. Patriarch Alexis of Russia, the Patriarchs of Georgia, Bulgaria and Serbia send greetings, there are also greetings from others, from St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Mt Athos and from the representative of Russian monasticism, Fr Ilii of Optina, who was here just a few months ago. Finally, there is a message from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California.

Monday 8 May

The hours and liturgy begin at 7.30, as every morning this week. The choir is formed from the delegates and we sing the liturgy by heart, with only the texts of the troparia and kontakia printed and handed around on paper.

In the hall at 10.30 am, before the Kursk Root Icon, the bishops and 126 delegates have gathered for the first lecture, given by Fr Nicholas Karypov from Melbourne. I am pleased to see him again, with the other members of the Australian delegation. He speaks of the heritage of our Church, of how we occupied the middle, royal way, between the extremes of Moscow, under the tyranny of Communism, and Paris, under the tyranny of Western philosophy, of how our ideal of Holy Russia is in fact a form of resistance to Antichrist. The preaching of the Gospel worldwide needs the co-operation of both parts of the Russian Church. Metropolitans Antony, Anastasy and Archbishop Antony of Geneva all gave us examples for this, examples of compassionate love. They refused to judge and were concerned to fight off the spirit of judgement. For them, the Gospel, the canons and Love were all the same.

Archbishop Antony of San Francisco also had the same spirit of mercy. It is for us to pour oil on the wounds of the injured Russian Church. Archbishop Antony had also been against the decision to accept parishes in Russia into our Church. Metropolitan Philaret had said that he would have walked to Russia, had it been free. Archbishop Nathanael said that our religion is the religion of repentance. There is a danger of self-satisfaction. The Kontakion to the New Martyrs should give us courage at a time of temptation. Questions and answers bring out further details. It is said that the Mother-Church for both parts of the Russian Church is the Church of the New Martyrs.

The second talk is by Fr Nicholas Savchenko from St Petersburg. He speaks at length of the history of the overcoming of divisions, giving many examples from the Old Testament and the New, from the early Church and the Church of Constantinople. He indicates that unity is far more important than personal opinions and vindictiveness. The love of peace overlooks being wrong, for disunity is sin. There were those who humiliated themselves in order to avoid divisions. Silence is better than disunity. His conclusion is that divisions have always happened, but can always be overcome. As long as the Faith is confessed in purity, then all can be forgiven. In questions and answers it is mentioned that the Church is higher than the canons. Fr Pimen from the Chicago Diocese draws a very apt parallel between sectarian Old Believers and a very small number of people in ROCOR.

In the evening, Metropolitan Amphilochius of Montenegro, who concelebrated with us on Saturday and Sunday, speaks to us, about the experiences of the Serbian Church and how it too has overcome divisions. The Serbian Church, he says, was caught between the West and the Turks, went through the divisions caused by the Austro-Hungarians, and describes how it suffered both Fascists and Communists. He speaks with feeling of how, after the fall of Communism, Serbia looked towards the West for freedom and, instead of freedom, received bombs.

Distrust between the different parts of the Serbian Church was always overcome through Love, not only through the letter of the canons, but also through the spirit of the canons. Let God judge, he says, the Church is not built of human judgements, but of human weaknesses, made good by the grace of God. In questions and answers, he says that the history of the Church is the history of crucifixion, the Church is built on blood.

Fr Stefan Pavlenko from California, speaking as an American citizen, asks tearful forgiveness for the Western bombing of Serbia and the Serbian child killed on Easter Day. The Metropolitan accepts his words with love, but adds that what the Croat Fascist, Ante Pavelic, began, the Americans finished. He goes on to speak of how globalism is the crown of satanic Communism, that globalism is actually worse than Communism, for the West stifles the soul. The unity of the Russian Church is now vital. We should fear God, leaving judgement of figures such as Metropolitan Sergius to Him. ‘The blood of the martyrs is living’. Here speaks a true Orthodox hierarch.

The conversation turns to the Church and Ecumenism. He explains how under Communism the Orthodox Churches looked to the ecumenical movement as a way of escaping from the oppression. In 1997 the Serbian Church passed a resolution to leave the World Council of Churches, if other Local Churches did so also. He says that the Church should leave the WCC but never abandon dialogue. He mentions the views of St Nicholas Velimirovic in his work on the Tragedy of Europe, written in Dachau and also the work of Abba Justin on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. America is the New Babylon, but judging and moralizing is Western and dangerous. We must fear the Lord, not Metropolitan Sergius. Many waverers seem to have been convinced by the Metropolitan.

Tuesday 9 May

The liturgy. It is touching to see how the twelve bishops all queue up to venerate the relics of St John. We make our farewells to Metropolitan Amphilochius, who makes gifts of icons to all the kitchen staff. He speaks of how Europe is intent on setting up two Muslim states in Europe – Kosovo and Albania. We are reminded that he is returning to a Montenegro which faces a referendum on splitting from Serbia. He describes how those in favour, the integrationists, who now want to join the European Union, were all former Communists, who have now rebranded themselves. Those who privatize, he says, are nothing but Mafiosi, who run organized crime. The Metropolitan has already faced death-threats. Bishop Peter of Cleveland says to him that if ever he is forced to leave Montenegro, there is always a place for him as a bishop in our Church. This fearless Metropolitan receives rapturous applause.

The millionaire Russian businessman, Boris Jordan, makes a speech on the changes in Russia and how the Church there has been renewed. Russia, with all her problems, needs unity, he says.

After the minutes have been read, Archbishop Mark of Germany gives a lecture on healing the divisions within the Church. He spoke of how in the 1980s we helped the Catacomb Church, but in the 1990s, we lost our direction by accepting parishes and various unworthy adventurers from the Patriarchate and, in his view, our bishops made canonical errors. We were naïve with regard to certain careerist individuals and did not listen to those who warned us. We also made errors regarding the Old Calendarists. Although the Patriarchate made serious mistakes in the Holy Land, we should have listened to voices of moderation, like that of Archbishop Antony of San Francisco.

Repentance began among the episcopate of the Patriarchate in the 1990s. In the Year 2000 they glorified the New Martyrs and rejected Sergianism and the errors of ecumenism. In questions the issue of the World Council of Churches is raised. The Archbishop explains how the Patriarchate is reluctant to leave because this would leave the tiny Patriarchate of Constantinople alone. We are not going too fast, says the Archbishop, Communism fell in 1991 – 15 years ago! To say that we are going too fast is a delaying tactic on the part of extremists. Questions continue until 4.00 pm, after lunch.

At 4.15 Fr Alexander Lebedev of Los Angeles, Fr Nicholas Artiomov of Munich, Fr Nicholas Savchenko of St Petersburg, Archimandrite Luke of Jordanville and Bishop Ambrose of Vevey all speak on the negotiation process with the Patriarchate. In questions it is mentioned that the USA is the canonical territory of the Russian Church, as it was before 1917, when all Orthodox there were united under her. I think that it is the same in Western Europe.

In the evening there is a magnificent Molieben and Akathist to the New Martyrs and Confessors before the Kursk Root Icon. The Cathedral is packed, the Icon is very fragrant. Bishop Agathangel and Bishop Michael of Boston are among the concelebrants. I remind myself that the New Martyrs and Confessors whose prayers we ask were members of the Patriarchate. A point that no-one else seems to think of. I also reflect that those who doubt on the need to enter into eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate resemble the Apostle Thomas. The Myrrh-Bearers, whom we have listened to this day, are those who have told us that the Church in Russia is risen, but there are still a few among us who doubt. May they be inspired by the words of Christ to Thomas: ‘Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed'.

Wednesday 10 May

The Icon is very fragrant this morning. At the morning liturgy I am struck at just how clean and beautiful the Cathedral is. The laypeople are warm and pious and take great care of their home. As usual, I stand by the relics of St John. This is a miracle, it is as though he were sleeping, and ready to rise up, ready for the Last Day.

At 10.40 Andrei Psariov, a teacher from Jordanville, gives an excellent and throroughly researched talk on the history of the relations between ROCOR and the Local Churches and Ecumenism. It is very clear, as we knew, that everything changed in the 1960s and the 1970s, when certain influences from outside ROCOR came to the fore inside our Church. He quotes St John, who in 1938 said that although we must not be cut off from the Local Churches, we must not keep silent either. The isolation of ROCOR began with the political pressure of the Soviet Communist Party on the Local Churches, starting in the 1950s, after it had had conquered Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had become a nuclear Superpower. The reactions to this of certain individuals in our Church made the situation worse. However, in spiritual strength the Serbian Church always stood by us.

Andrei mentions how, in 1972, the then Bishop Laurus had stood up against these new influences and maintained the traditions of Metropolitans Antony and Anastasy. The same with Archbishop Antony of Geneva. It is clear that those who attempted to divert our Church from her true course have failed and their views are now considered as historic aberrations.

Andrei then talks about ROCOR and Ecumenism. We are reminded of the Orthodox teaching of Metropolitan Antony, that there are no sacraments outside the Church, but that the sacramental forms given outside the Church are completed by reception into the Church. There is no need for the sacramental forms to be repeated. Communion for Non-Orthodox is not salvific. Although the Metropolitan had taken part in the ecumenical movement in the 1920s, in 1929 he consecrated Bishop Nicholas for the flock in England and gave him the title ‘of London’, the first Bishop of London to be in communion with the Orthodox Church for 900 years.

At the Second Council of 1938, it was decided to cease ecumenical activities, but to continue Orthodox witness to Non-Orthodox. Although the Second World War and the Cold War brought isolation, ROCOR sent observers to ecumenical meetings in the 1950s and to the Second Vatican Council. In the 1960s, Archbishop Averky opposed this, but Archbishop Vitaly of Canada and Bishop Savva of Edmonton were in favour of continuing. In 1969 and 1978 the Serbian Church welcomed our stand on Ecumenism. In 1983 ROCOR placed an anathema on the branch theory, an anathema now accepted in principle by the Patriarchate. It is clear that the present stance of ROCOR on Ecumenism is simply a return to the stance of the Tradition after some less moderate views expressed in the more recent past.

At 3.30 pm Fr Alexander Lebedev reads us the ‘Act’, which would entail the two parts of the Russian Church entering into communion with one another. This is the negotiated document which the Bishops will have to consider at their Council next week. We are told that the Patriarchate is ready at any moment to sign it. Its twelve points guarantee that we keep our self-governing status. It is vital that we take this very seriously. After all, our previous canonical status was temporary, until the atheist government had fallen in Moscow. Now that it has fallen, we need to revise our canonical foundation. The ‘Act’ provides the answers. There are 31 questions about it, which last until 8.00 pm. I am surprised that there are still delegates, who do not understand that nobody is talking about ROCOR joining the Patriarchate. We are talking about the two parts of the Russian Church entering into communion with one another, for their mutual benefit. ROCOR will remain independent.

Thursday 11 May

The day of the Council Resolution. The most important day of the week.

On my way to the liturgy, I notice that the mysterious black SUV is not yet outside. It has been there all week so far. I cannot of course be sure, but I presume that the hall is bugged. This affair is surely too important for the US government. It has been rumoured that the CIA had funded Internet and other propaganda against the two parts of the Russian Church entering into communion with one another. It may, or may not, be true.

The session begins at 10.30. Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart speaks to us of how we have a unique opportunity to prepare an All-Russian Council, the first since 1918. Clearly, this can only happen if the two parts of the Church are united. Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan speaks to us of taking care, of not being over-hasty.

Archbishop Hilarion reads us the draft Resolution. Bishop Peter and Bishop Michael explain various points. There are many points to be made. The atmosphere in the hall is extremely tense. Some very positive textual changes are made. They are many in number, many are made by Canadian, Brazilian and Argentinian delegates. While the second draft is prepared, a letter from our nuns in Lesna in France is read. They are represented here by their bishops. The second version of the Resolution is read. Many good changes, word by word, are made to this too. Then comes the third version. It is voted for paragraph by paragraph. Virtually everyone is happy with this; only a few stylistic quibbles are left in some paragraphs, and even here fewer than 5% have doubts on mere details. It is now 2.15 pm. We have not yet eaten; this Resolution has been far more important than mere food.

We have witnessed a miracle. Truly, ‘today the Holy Spirit has brought us together’. Those of us who feared a division, even of a tiny minority, are relieved. The air is cleared. The Resolution is read before the cameras of Russian television. Women parishioners weep. This is a historic moment, a moment of destiny. We have taken part in history, without realizing it. The message goes around the world on the Internet. It is Number One news in the Russian media. Within minutes, the Orthodox world realizes that the two parts of the Russian Church have now decided to begin a historic and dramatic conciliar process, that they are ready for our bishops to sign, in the near future, the historic agreement to reconstitute the Mother-Church of all Russian Orthodox of all nationalities.

At 3.10 pm, in a very relaxed and quite different atmosphere, we listen to a lecture by Fr Victor Potapov of Washington about the role of the Orthodox parish today. At 5.15pm we hear a lecture by an old friend from Paris, George Skok of Canada, about the problems of young people and how to overcome isolation through youth camps, pilgrimages and conferences. He describes the facts and how we need to do more for young people, who come from very different backgrounds. His concern is pastoral. At 5.50 pm Fr Gabriel Makarov from Brisbane speaks in a Powerpoint presentation of the need to set up a worldwide Youth Organization. He speaks of the challenges of the surrounding world, of how assimilation does not have to be negative. His talk is excellent and shows clearly the challenges of the way ahead. Fr Gabriel is a true pastor.

Friday 12 May

At the liturgy I stand at the relics of St John, asking for strength and wisdom for my lecture today. I place my lecture on the sepulchre, asking his blessing.

The black SUV is missing today. The Resolution passed, they, whoever they are, probably have no more interest. The importance of what was accomplished yesterday is only now beginning to sink in among us. The other parts of the Russian Church, which broke off from ROCOR, the OCA, the Paris Jurisdiction, the newly-separating Sourozh clerics and modernists, and perhaps others, will now have to decide what they too are going to do, in the wake of our decision.

After the Minutes have been read and questions asked from yesterday afternoon’s lectures, at 11.40, Bernard Le Caro from Switzerland speaks to us on confessing Orthodoxy in the West. In the afternoon announcements are made and there are questions on this morning’s lecture. At 3.40 p.m., I begin my lecture on challenges facing our Church in the 21st Century. I speak of how our Orthodoxy must be lived with a warm heart, our Tradition must be lived with humility and our Independence must be lived with compassion. These, I suggest, are the values of Holy Russia, and only these can face the challenges of our times. After me, Fr Luke of Jordanville speaks on Reflections on the Mission of our Church. Questions follow. A number of announcements are made.

Saturday 13 May

After the morning liturgy, announcements are made, our Resolution on missionary work is read and answers are read from a laptop to the greetings from the Patriarchs read at the opening of the Council. There is more or less unanimity on these, though some very good textual amendments are made. Then the Message of the Council is read, followed by yesterday’s Minutes. The Council closes.

After lunch we make our farewells. We will miss the memorial service for Joseph, slain in 1997, an Akathist before the Kursk Root Icon, a Molieben to St John and the Vigil Service, as well as tomorrow’s Liturgy, Molieben and festivities following it. We must return to England and await the results of the Bishops’ Council next week. They will have the hardest decisions to make. They will have much to do. We can but pray for them.

Priest Andrew Phillips

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