Today, many Orthodox are wondering what’s going to happen to the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe.
Could you first explain why the Ecumenical Patriarchate revoked the 1999 Patriarchal and Synodal Tomos which had created a patriarchal exarchate in Western Europe?
As stated in the Holy Synod communiqué on November 27, 2018, the decision to revoke the 1999 patriarchal and synodal tomos was a necessary and essential step in order to meet the challenges we are facing today in the organization of the Orthodox diaspora to meet the pastoral needs of our time. With new walls being built today in Orthodoxy and real risks of division, the Patriarch and the Holy Synod wished to make the organization of our communities in the diaspora more in keeping with Orthodox ecclesiology. So that, as the Statement says, “there would not be two ecclesiastical authorities of the same jurisdiction in the same territory”.
I understand the questions and concerns raised by this decision, but we have to understand that in the jurisdictional disorder prevailing today in the diaspora, the Ecumenical Patriarchate must set an example. It is up to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the first Church in Orthodoxy, to guarantee unity and catholicity in the Church, both at the local and universal levels. In our Western European countries, notable progress has been made through assemblies of bishops. The one in France, which I have the honor of chairing, is a reality and a witness to this desire for unity, so that the voice of Orthodoxy may be heard.
Here in France, we hear people say that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has the right to give and then to revoke the exarchate status, but that it does not have the right to suppress the ecclesiastical entity created in 1921 in Western Europe by the Russian Orthodox Church. What do you answer to that?
You have to be serious! The Exarchate was born almost one hundred years, on the rubble of the Russian revolution, with millions of refugees sent on the roads of Europe. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has been offering its protection to the exarchate for almost one hundred years.
I would like to quote here one of the last communiqués of the board of directors, the one released on January 17: “We will never be able to find the right words to express our gratitude to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for its canonical protection during all these years. The Holy Church of Constantinople took care to respect the specificities of our diocesan way of operating, which was inspired by the decisions and debates of the 1917-1918 Moscow Council. For this we are profoundly grateful to the Patriarchate. This shows how much the ecclesial vocation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is truly supra-ethnic”.
Once again, I understand the shock created by such a decision, but we must not live in nostalgia for a past. The Exarchate has changed a lot since its origins. I have had the opportunity to see it when I was locum tenens after Bishop Gabriel of blessed memory passed away.
I know some are tempted today to join other jurisdictions. Admittedly, the situation of Orthodoxy in Western Europe does not correspond to any existing canonical rule, but that is not a reason for attempting jurisdiction adventures that are often connected to national or even personal preferences. The history of the past century has shown us that the jurisdiction wandering of some ecclesial entities has always been painful. Painful both for themselves and for the Church as a whole.
Our Archdiocese played a large role in Orthodox thought and theology in the 20th century. This role has for instance allowed the birth of a certain awareness of local Orthodoxy in Western countries. With the dissolution of our Archdiocese, some fear this heritage will disappear and the Archdiocese will be consequently reduced to a simple Russian tradition within the Greek metropolis. What do you think?
I think this letter is clear enough. As you said, these communities have played a prominent role in preserving the rich spiritual tradition that came from Russia, but they also welcomed leading theologians and thinkers who have made invaluable contributions to the theological renewal of Orthodoxy in the 20th century, through Saint Sergius Theological Institute. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is proud to have been able to contribute by protecting this work.
As the Metropolitan of France, I feel compelled not to break with this heritage, as we are all custodians of and responsible for it. Today, we have a great opportunity to bring a new pastoral dynamic and to be witnesses in countries where the Lord has placed us.
Without passing judgment, we must admit that the dynamics and creativity of the early times are losing momentum. We are all aware, for example, of the lack of pastoral vocation in Saint Sergius Theological Institute, or of the difficulties they have been experiencing for some years.
For all these reasons, and in order to avoid any break, it seemed important to me to propose to Archbishop John a form of vicariate, in order to continue the work of Orthodox witness in our society, and to support the life of the communities entrusted to it.
Saying your communities would be reduced to a simple role of maintaining the Russian tradition within the Greek metropolis is unfair. It especially shows a misunderstanding of the reality of our metropolises in Western European countries, where many communities celebrate in local languages and live fully rooted in their respective countries. Here in France, we have many lively parishes or monastic communities in many regions.
This letter is above all about the situation of the ex-exarchate parishes in France. What about the parishes in other countries, where they are subject to worship practices different from the French model?
I am the Metropolitan of France and can only talk about France. The existing association is under French law. It is made up of a number of communities that not only represent a critical mass, but also its historic cradle. This is a real responsibility, and therefore requires special attention.
In other countries, the number of communities is much smaller, so it is difficult to group them together. Sometimes, these communities have begun to disperse and join other jurisdictions.
The 1999 tomos considered Saint Sergius Institute as an integral part of the Archdiocese. What will happen to it with the new organization? And who will it dependant on?
That’s an excellent question. I would like to remind you that as a Saint Sergius Institute alumnus, I am particularly attached to its existence. As many of you, I am concerned about its future. Saint Sergius Institute is an essential or even central part of the life of the Exarchate. But far beyond that, and I am an example of it, Saint Sergius Institute vocation is by nature pan-Orthodox, inclusive, open to inter-Orthodox, ecumenical, and interreligious dialogue. Its theological and intellectual heritage goes beyond the borders of the Exarchate. Thus, I invite its board of directors and faculty to get closer to our metropolis in order to rethink its future.