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Sourozh Received by Constantinople

Nearly thirty years ago, we recall a personal conversation with the then Fr Basil Osborn, in which he advocated belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate, 'because it is the only Local Church which gives autonomy and autocephaly, unlike the Greeks'. Clearly, he has changed his views. We cannot help feeling sorry for him, as he is now revealing the weaknesses of the late Metropolitan Antony (Bloom) on his website (, rather than discreetly concealing them, as many would have wished.

The news on 8 June 2006 that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has received this renegade Bishop and some members of his clergy into its Western European 'Exarchate of Churches of the Russian Tradition', led by Archbishop Gabriel in Paris, will surprise many. Not because Sourozh did not fit in with the post-1917 modernist Constantinople identity - 'Birds of a feather flock together', but rather because Constantinople has aggressively dared to take on this small dissident group against the wishes of Moscow. This now raises many broader issues between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. What are they?

1) Bishop Basil had already been retired by the Patriarchate of Moscow and forbidden to leave it for another jurisdiction. He has now left it. Is he then to be suspended by Moscow for gross disobedience? Since Bishop Basil has been received by Constantinople, does this also mean that the latter does not recognize the canonical authority of the Patriarchate of Moscow over its own bishops and internal affairs? Does this mean that Constantinople sees itself as an 'Orthodox Papacy', as the late Metropolitan Antony (Bloom) held, and Constantinople itself denounced Moscow for in the Athens newspaper 'To Vima' of 8 July 2004? Notably, the Patriarchate of Constantinople quotes in favour of its decision to receive Bishop Basil the notorious and dubious Canon 28 of the Fourth Oecumenical Council, allegedly giving it authority 'in barbarian lands'. Once again this opens up very old wounds.

Indeed, it almost seems tantamount to a Constantinople declaration of war against the Patriarchate of Moscow. Constantinople has now aggressively intervened in the internal affairs of Moscow, on the grounds that it has committed an injustice against one of its own bishops. But what injustice? Moreover, since, unlike in the 1980s, when one priest in England tried to join the Paris Russians and was refused, because at that time Constantinople's policy was to wind down the Paris Russian group, today they are trying to expand it, does this mean in general a declaration of jurisdictional war against Moscow everywhere in Western Europe?

2) What will now happen to the Sourozh clergy who wish to join the Patriarchate of Constantinople and, apparently, have already been received by it? After all, their canonical releases were given to them (they should have been given not to them, but to the receiving bishop) by Bishop Basil, after he had already been retired. Although they were, irregularly, backdated to 1 February, they cannot therefore be considered to be legal documents - and yet Constantinople appears to recognize them as such. What is to happen to these clergy?

3) What will become of the Patriarchal London Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens and other Patriarchal property in London? Although the trustees who run the Cathedral appear in their majority to be in favour of Bishop Basil, the vast majority of the parishioners are most certainly not. Legally, the trustees are supposed to represent the beneficiaries, i.e the churchgoers of Ennismore Gardens. Therefore, in law, they cannot take the Cathedral with them. If they did attempt to act anti-democratically, against the popular will, there could be disruption of services and there would surely be a court case. If there were a court case, brought in the name of Bishop Basil by his supporters against the Patriarchate, it seems difficult to imagine how the Patriarchate could avoid suspending and defrocking Bishop Basil. And let us not consider the bad publicity, costs and bitterness that a lengthy court case would inevitably bring.

Moreover, legally, it seems impossible for Bishop Basil's supporters to win such a case. After all, the Cathedral was bought by many donors in the mid-seventies for £80,000, in the name of the Russian Church, not in the name of a splinter-group of the Russian Church, supported by less than 5% of its members. There is little use putting out propaganda that Moscow's only interest is the alleged £16 million value of Sourozh real estate in London. The real estate concerned is simply not for sale, just as, although Queen Elizabeth II may on paper be very wealthy, in fact Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and everything else she 'owns', is not actually for sale.

4) What is the destiny of the small Sourozh parishes and communities (the 'Sourozh Diocese') outside London? Obviously, those that divorce themselves from the Russian Church will in future depend on the support of Non-Russians, that is, of small numbers of English people. But the English members themselves have divided loyalties. At the present time, many of these tiny communities seem to have been left split, and in limbo, without services. What is their future?

5) This last point raises the real problem for Bishop Basil's group. How can this modernist, liberal elite survive, when it does not enjoy the popular support of the mass of the people? Are not the people the guardians of the Faith, according to Orthodox teaching? Surely a bishop should act on behalf of his flock, not on behalf of a mere fraction of his flock? Could it be that the flock is unwanted, because the flock is Orthodox, whereas the Orthodoxy of the leadership of the splinter-group is for some dubious?

The trouble is that the rejection of the people by the Sourozh elite has been going on for over forty years. The defection under pressure of the then Moscow loyalist, the late Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) and his then skete (ironically to Constantinople), in the early 60s, the continual 'leaking' of members from the Sourozh Diocese to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), as Sourozh persecuted those zealous for Holy Orthodoxy, especially those who wished to venerate local saints, especially those who spoke Russian, then the Sourozh rejection of missionary work in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to the formation of many English parishes within the Patrarchates of Constantinople and Antioch, all indicate its long history of rejectionism.

The transfer of a part of the Sourozh jurisdiction to the Paris Exarchate, means that that Exarchate in size now represents perhaps a third of the combined Russian Jurisdictions of the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR in Western Europe. It is still a minority and moreover it still basically exists only in France, where it is losing both parishes and clergy, not to mention people, to Moscow. And Moscow is expanding rapidly all over Western Europe. Therefore, even with the addition of a few in England, the Paris Exarchate is rapidly becoming a minority phenomenon, a minor sideline in international Orthodoxy.

The Moscow Patriarchate may be bitter about this splitting of the Russian Church in Western Europe, in open contempt of the Patriarchal hopes of April 2004 for a multinational Russian Orthodox Metropolia in Western Europe and just at the time when it is in the process of uniting with ROCOR. However, it is also possible that the Russian Church will take this latest episode in the long-running Sourozh saga serenely. After all, it has now, at long last, rid itself of 'troublemakers', without lifting a finger. Tiny Constantinople, already besieged by Turkish nationalism, has little to gain from the Sourozh episode, but much to lose. As for the huge Russian Church, with its forthcoming unity with ROCOR, it can now proceed to its planned Metropolia in Western Europe, without the grating presence of dissident modernist intellectuals in England.

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