On February 20, 2019, Pierre Sautreuil, a young journalist of the French daily La Croix, offered his analysis of the situation at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. This is on the eve of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe, which will take place on February 23 in Paris.
Here is our translation of Sautreuil’s article:
St. Sergius Institute was a prominent theological center in the 20th century. Since then however, it has been continuously losing its influence in the Orthodox world, and its current crisis has recently caused its president to resign.
As the ocean is reflected in a drop of water, so does St. Sergius Institute seem to experience a crisis similar to the one currently afflicting world Orthodoxy. On the background of major ecclesiological questions and minor real estate squabbles, the most prestigious Orthodox theological institute in Europe has been declining for a while. The resignation of its president, Jean-François Colosimo, last January, is the most recent sign of it.
Founded in 1925 by Russian intellectuals and theologians who fled the October Revolution, St. Sergius Institute rapidly became one of the most dynamic centers of Orthodox theology, thanks to a brilliant generation of exiled thinkers. Since its beginnings, the Institute has been taking on a double mission.
Anchored in the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (AROCWE) dependent on the Constantinople Patriarcate), it trained its priests and deacons, and aimed at being a free focal spot for Pan-Orthodox unity, like “a bridge between East and West”, to use Jean-François Colosimo’s words to describe it.
Cleaning up the accounting records
When this theologian and director of the Cerf editions was elected president in June 2015, he discovered a very different situation. The Institute was ruined because of misappropriated funds, was experiencing an open crisis with the AROCWE. Archbishop Job Getcha wished to directly supervise St. Sergius. But having trouble attracting new students, the Institute had to temporarily close until the Fall of 2016, in order to catch its breath.
Jean-François Colosimo, a business leader and network man, began by streamlining the Institute’s administration and cleaning up its accounting. He admitted having played “a big role” in the departure of Archbishop Job from the archdiocese.
St. Sergius Institute welcomed students again
Unfortunately, Archbishop John of Charioupolis’s (who refused to be interviewed by La Croix) election in Spring 2016 did not clarify the relationships between the AROCWE and the Institute, relationships challenged by a real estate conflict. Tenant of part of the buildings at 93, Crimée Street (property of the AROCWE), the Institute was required to finance repair work worth several million euros, part of an “unfair and legally questionable” lease, according to Jean-François Colosimo. Faced with the risk of its historic premises collapsing, the decision was made in May 2017 to move the Institute, and to create a committee to safeguard the site.
“Quelling the quarrel”
Despite this, the real estate dispute kept festering, as evidenced by exchanges of letters uncovered by La Croix. On October 22, 2018, the ARCWE demanded that the Institute pay € 462,000, under penalty of injunction. Fearing bankruptcy, the Institute board of directors unanimously decided to “quell the quarrel” by dissolving its association and re-founding it. But the great upheavals of world Orthodoxy in the Fall of 2018 reshuffled the cards.
Everyone was bewildered on November 27, when the Patriarchate of Constantinople removed the exarchate status of the AROCWE, which de facto implied its dissolution, making then the French parishes dependent on the Greek metropolis of France. The following day, Jean-François Colosimo took note of the announcement and reaffirmed the independence of the Institute vis-à-vis the AROCWE. In the Institute and in the AROCWE, his statement provoked the anger of some who criticized Jean-François Colosimo for not being in solidarity with the AROCWE. They spoke of “treason”.
Beyond the immediate threat to the AROCWE, there is also a debate on the vocation of the Institute: although legally independent, should its future be tied to that of the AROCWE? “Jean-François Colosimo’s resignation marks the victory of those who are entrenched in the ecclesial body of the AROCWE,” laments a teacher. “It’s a missed opportunity to look to the future.”
Michel Stavrou, the theology professor elected as acting president to replace Jean-François Colosimo, is however more nuanced. While the Extraordinary General Assembly of the AROCWE will meet on Saturday, February 23 to decide on its possible dissolution, he asserts that the future of the Institute is “obviously connected” to that of the AROCWE because of its history, but that its dissolution would not prevent it from pursuing its mission. It is not a choice between “the AROCWE or death “.
A century-old diocese
Stemming from white Russian emigration in Western Europe at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (AROCWE) has been connected to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1931.
At the time, emigrant clergy and faithful had refused to remain under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate, perceived then as subject to Soviet power. Marked by exile, these parishes have preserved their Russian spiritual tradition and they celebrate all or part of their liturgy in Slavonic.
Source in French