Election of new protohierarch to affirm "age-old path"
September 12, 2022
  • Sergei Chapnin 

    Senior fellow at the Orthodox Christians Studies Center at Fordham University.

Sergei Chapnin writes about the position of the ROCOR in union with the ROC and about the problems that will have to be resolved by whoever becomes the former’s new leader: will the ROCOR be able to defend its autonomy or will it be fully integrated into the ROC? Will it be able to preserve the heritage of Russian emigration?
ROCOR headquarters, 75 E 93rd St, New York. Source: Wiki Commons
The most conservative of all the Orthodox Churches of the Russian tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), on Tuesday, September 13, will elect a new protohierarch. At the Synod building in New York, at the corner of Park Avenue and 93rd Street, the Council of Bishops will convene. Thirteen of the 17 bishops who are members of the ROCOR have the right to vote at the Council.

On the evening of September 17, at the Cathedral of the Sign in New York, the electee will be elevated to the rank of metropolitan, and the next morning the rite of enthronement will take place during the liturgy, symbolizing the transfer of power to the new protohierarch. The proceedings will continue at a traditional meal with 500 guests, including archpastors, clergy and worshippers.
There is still no information about whether official ROC representatives will come from Moscow. The organizers of the Council could well be trying to do everything so that no one comes – “guests from Moscow” look very toxic.

In any case, the celebration will end quickly, and the protohierarch will inevitably have to face rather complex issues. They have piled up. Russia's aggression against Ukraine has put the ROCOR in an extremely difficult position: officially, it has tried to keep quiet, focusing on practical assistance to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees in various countries, but the voices in support of Russia are quite loud. Of course, there has also been harsh criticism of the ROC, but it comes from the laity and escapes comment by the hierarchy. Here is what Elena Zezyulina, a lawyer for 20 years and a parishioner of St Seraphim Church in Sea Cliff, New York, wrote in April:
"The Moscow Patriarchate leader Kirill is not a Christian leader. He is an agent of a foreign government hostile to and at war with all that we are. His support of the invasion of Ukraine is unforgivable. I, for one, cannot worship in a ROCOR church he leads".
The previous protohierarch, Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), passed away on May 16 following long and serious health problems and basically transferred power to a narrow circle of trusted persons. What will the configuration of power be in the ROCOR after the Council? How will the political and practical church priorities be seen?

Russian emigration and the great power myth

Simplifying a little, we can say that after the October Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing civil war, four church jurisdictions arose: the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (until 2018 an exarchate under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, then part of the Moscow Patriarchate), the Finnish Orthodox Church (part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate), the Orthodox Church in America (autocephalous, i.e. completely independent, since 1970) and finally the ROCOR, which was located on different continents (canonically not recognized by most local Churches until reunification with the ROC in 2007).

A plethora of outstanding twentieth-century Orthodox theologians – among them Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) and archpriests Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff – belonged to the Russian Exarchate and the OCA, but their works were not accepted by the ROCOR, which was and remains the most conservative of the local Orthodox Churches, including from the theological point of view.

This conservatism involves the striving to preserve by all means worship in Church Slavonic and conserve other liturgical traditions as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, the ROCOR supports the "great power” myth, the priority of history over theology and thus a skeptical stance toward the theological studies of the 20th century.
“The ROCOR aspires to self-isolation and refuses to interact not only with other Christian Churches (i.e. anti-ecumenism) but also with other local Orthodox Churches."
Separately, the anti-communism of the ROCOR deserves mention, as well as its harsh criticism of the Moscow Patriarch for cooperation with the godless Soviet regime, up to the assertion that the Church in Soviet Russia was deprived of grace, i.e. it ceased to be a Church (although this view was widely held in the ROCOR, it was never officially confirmed).  

In the ROCOR, self-isolated for almost a century, the space for myth was constantly expanding, and even in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, monk publicists from the ROCOR wrote dreamily:
"Our Church (the ROCOR – SC) is needed in Russia... Our Church is doing its best to help bring up a new generation in Russia that would value the ideals of tsarist Russia. And then the Russian people – cleansed by repentance – could return to a life that would please God under the rule of an Orthodox tsar. (Svyatitel’ Ioann [Maksimovich] i Russkaya Zarubezhnaya Tserkov’. – Jordanville, N.Y.” Tipografiya prep. Iova Pochaevskogo, Svyato-Troitsky monastyr, 1996, pp.43-44)
By that time it was already clear that the ROCOR's attempts to establish its own "parallel" parishes in Russia had been a complete failure. These parishes had appeared in 1990, but already in 1995 a schism developed. In the 1990s, all attempts at dialogue with the ROC were perceived at best critically within the Church Abroad.

The idea that the ROCOR could somehow "help bring up a new generation in Russia" can only be seen in the program to send out materials through the mail – indeed, in the early 1990s anyone could write to the Jordanville Monastery and receive free religious literature. But if the ROCOR actually made any contribution to the religious revival in post-Soviet Russia, it was very small. Meanwhile, it did contribute to the development of the Orthodox-patriotic-conservative environment in which Orthodox fundamentalism subsequently hatched.
Solemn signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow. May 17, 2007. Source: Wiki Commons
Pivot toward dialogue and reunification

In the early 2000s, the Moscow Patriarchate and President Vladimir Putin made several important symbolic gestures toward the ROCOR, including a meeting between Putin and Metropolitan Laurus. The result was that the ROCOR declared, though not without hesitation, that reunification was possible.

Many wanted to see this as a great historical event. It seemed that the reunification of the most anti-Soviet Church of Russian emigration and the post-Soviet Church in Russia marked the end of the “Cold Civil War,” signaling that the Orthodox Church, having maintained legitimacy and continuity from the tsars to Putin, was becoming a more important socio-political institution.

Speaking after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2007, Putin expressed the political significance of the reunification:
"The revival of church unity is among the most important prerequisites for restoring the lost unity of the entire Russian world [author's italics], one of the spiritual foundations of which has always been the Orthodox faith".
A few months earlier, Putin had delivered his Munich speech, while the annexation of Crimea was still seven years away.

To forge the union between the churches, claims from both sides had to be nullified: the ROCOR abandoned its previous demands to investigate the cooperation of church hierarchs with the Soviet authorities and special services. This issue, which had been key for many decades, suddenly turned out minor and insignificant.

Meanwhile, the ROCOR hierarchs demonstrated some clear thinking: they were fully aware that their Church was rapidly losing touch with reality and was turning into a sect. They sought to avoid that at all costs. It seemed that the energy of the post-Soviet church revival was so powerful that it would spur the development of both the ROC and the Church Abroad. And to a certain extent, such expectations were justified.

At first, it seemed that the two Churches had much more in common than differences. The cheapest fix to overcome the identity crisis turned out equally convenient for both the ROC and ROCOR: instead of faith, Orthodox ideology was offered – the myth of Russia as a “great power” was becoming reality right before our eyes under Putin.

Addressing President Putin while speaking at the Kremlin in 2007, Metropolitan Laurus (Shkurla), the protohierarch of the ROCOR, emphasized:
"Our moral duty is to get involved in the process of Russia's revival and to complete the mission of Russian emigration, i.e. to bring to Russia the great heritage handed down to us by our ancestors".
However, subsequent years showed that modern Russia wasn’t interested in the heritage of Russian emigration – neither the ROC nor the state understands or appreciates its mission. The hopes of Metropolitan Laurus, who died 10 months after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion, didn’t come to fruition.

An obvious problem was the size difference: at the time of reunification, there were about 30,000 parishes under the ROC and only 400 under the ROCOR.

In addition, for the ROCOR the rescue from decline through reunification was painful and accompanied by schisms, which were designated by the first letters of their spiritual leaders. First, the ROCOR (V) headed by Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) broke off, followed by the ROCOR (A) led by Metropolitan Agafangel (Pashkovsky).

More significant was the corruption – widespread in the ROC – that the reunification brought, penetrating the ROCOR in various ways. In particular, the visits of delegations to Russia with holy relics and miracle-working icons is not only a church ceremony but also a big business, done completely in cash.
“Nowhere and never will a report be published on how much money the ROCOR received after a delegation of its representatives traveled to Russia and Ukraine with the main relic of the ROCOR, the miracle-working Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God."
And such trips were made more than once or twice.

There is also still no explanation as to how a number of priests and bishops received Russian citizenship even though they came to Russia only for a short time and even then not every year. What deeds or special arrangements allowed them to obtain a Russian passport? A complete list of these bishops and priests isn’t available. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine this year, the question of on what basis their Russian citizenship was obtained has gained added significance.

Finally, a pro-Putin ideology, having logically grown out of the "great power” myth, has become widespread across the ROCOR. Historical and spiritual short-sightedness keeps a significant part of the ROCOR flock from seeing in the Putin regime a reincarnation of the Soviet totalitarian system and accordingly a new unfreedom for the Church itself.
Archbishop Mark in 2010. Source: Wiki Commons

The Church Abroad was very lucky with the last protohierarchs, Laurus and Hilarion. They were people of astonishing piety, kind, attentive and patient. Not at all politicians, administrators or diplomats. Moving the ROCOR away from sectarian self-isolation, Laurus took a firm course toward reunification with the ROC, believing that by doing so he would fulfill God’s will. Hilarion, also seeking to obey God’s will, didn’t take any drastic steps and simply kept the ROCOR in the condition in which he found it after the reunification.

But the problems multiplied. About seven years ago I asked Metropolitan Hilarion:

- Your Grace, more and more often the Church Abroad is copying the Moscow Patriarchate. It turned out stronger – you’re not influencing it, it’s influencing you. Clearly, in Russia there is money, which you lack. But how cheaply they buy you. You must remain yourself! Have you given up? If things go on like this, then there will be no point in the existence of the ROCOR – you can just go on and dissolve into the ROC.

He replied briefly:

- Yes, it is so… - and he looked at me very expressively, sadly.

It was obvious that he generally agreed with my assessment, but he didn’t know what to do, and there was no one on whose support he could count.

Candidates: What names are being mentioned?

The upcoming protohierarch election represents a choice of the ROCOR’s future path. There are only three options: 1) follow the same path and prepare for full integration into the ROC; 2) follow the same path while defending the ROCOR’s autonomy by all means; 3) \try to conceive a new role for the ROCOR and preserve the heritage of Russian emigration, realizing that for modern Russia that heritage is of no interest.

The war in Ukraine, combined with the toxicity around everything that is directly related to Putin's Russia, should push the ROCOR toward the second option. The third would demand enormous efforts, of which the "comfy" Russian emigration seems incapable.

At first glance, the most obvious contender is Metropolitan Mark (Arndt) of Berlin and Germany. As the oldest hierarch in the ROCOR, he has served as the deputy protohierarch after the death of Hilarion and enjoys great authority. However, Mark is already 81 years old, and the management of the Church, which includes parishes and monasteries spanning four continents, is an unbearable burden for a man of his age. Gerontocracy in the West is not encouraged. Metropolitan Mark, being a German both by upbringing and by culture, understands this very well.

Nevertheless, until the very last moment , and the chances of him being elected are very high.

Archbishop of Montreal and Canada Gabriel (Chemodakov) is not without ambition. He is 20 years younger than Metropolitan Mark and has been an ROCOR hierarch for more than a quarter of a century; however, there are several problems with him as a candidate. Firstly, he doesn’t like his Canadian diocese and hasn’t appeared there since 2020. He lives in New York and serves wherever he wants. More problematic, though, is his scandalously pro-Russia stance. In Gabriel’s rhetoric the cliches of Kremlin propaganda clearly sound:
"In the Western media, we are seeing a very one-sided, anti-Russian and, I would say, Russophobic coverage of the situation. But we Russians must understand the reasons why Russia was forced to resort to such actions (attack Ukraine – SC). We know that that the Russians put forward a list of conditions that they think should be accepted regarding NATO expansion and of course the situation in the Donbass, but as President Vladimir Putin said, the West didn’t budge an inch to somehow try to resolve the issue."
The interview triggered a wave of harsh criticism, and the ROCOR ended up publishing on its official website a statement by Gabriel in which he took full responsibility:
"I expressed my personal opinion and in no way the official position of our Synod of Bishops. My point of view on the matter remains unchanged".
If the members of the Council vote for Archbishop Gabriel, it would mean choosing the first option outlined above, i.e. moving toward the de facto liquidation of the ROCOR and its full integration into the ROC.

There is the young Bishop of London and Western Europe Irenei (Steenberg). He is educated and tough, but for most of the old ROCOR members still a complete outsider. Amid a major crisis in the Sourozh diocese of the ROC in Enland, Irenei managed to expand his flock, though the achievement can hardly be called significant against the backdrop of a church scandal when a number of priests tried to leave him and his diocese and join the autonomous Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe.

It is quite possible that in 10-20 years, when the role of English-speaking Orthodox who don’t know either Russian or Church Slavonic increases in the UK and North America, Irenei could be a real candidate, but not at this time. Nonetheless, it is important that some already now mention his name.

Finally, there is Bishop Nikolai (Olkhovsky) of Manhattan, a 47-year-old American who has been a bishop for eight years. He is known as the guardian of the main relic of the Church Abroad, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, with which he has traveled, if not the whole world, then most of it. He is soft and calm, ready to listen and act without haste. He enjoys the confidence of the clergy and laity. Many think that under his leadership the course that was taken by his predecessors would be continued. All this makes Bishop Nicholas the undisputed favorite in the upcoming election.

What does Moscow think?
“The Act of Canonical Communion gives Patriarch Kirill and his Synod the right to approve the elected protohierarch. No surprises should be expected."
All of the candidates listed above are completely loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, and Moscow has no doubt that they will actively cooperate with it. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill should react calmly and with understanding to the potential absence of an ROC representative at the upcoming Council.

Uncomfortable questions

The new protohierarch will have to look for answers to very uncomfortable questions. The first: who needs the ROCOR today and why? What is its mission? Fifteen years ago, Metropolitan Laurus could confidently formulate it, but times have changed and today the ROCOR is at a historical crossroads. The older generation of parishioners are passing away, and their children to a much lesser extent feel the connection to Orthodoxy and Russian culture that Russian emigration kept. New emigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, accustomed to post-Soviet forms of church life, will only be able to partially replace this declining contingent.

A serious factor for the American ROCOC dioceses is the growing number of Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy. There are no official figures, but parish priests estimate that they make up about a quarter of the entire ROCOR flock in the US. On top of the descendants of Russian emigrants who have already lost the Russian language and are practically unfamiliar with Russian culture, this will be at least a third of the total number of parishioners. They form their own parishes and represent a rather specific subculture within the ROCOR. In the coming years, they will also require greater representation in the church administration, though it is still difficult to say how that will be organized.

Finally, the new protohierarch will have to resolve several tactical and strategic issues related to the church administration both within the ROCOR and in its relations with the ROC.

The first and main question is whether it will be possible to maintain autonomy from Moscow, or taking advantage of the situation, Patriarch Kirill will try to bring the ROCOR under tighter control. He is unlikely to try to give the ROCOR its own “curator,” but the possibility cannot be completely ruled out. The new protohierarch will have to build relations with him, and a lot will depend on the approach taken. Moscow could also opt for a different tactic – forming a "pro-Moscow lobby" in the ROCOR Synod. The bishops with close ties to Moscow are known. But to what extent today, in the context of Russia's war with Ukraine, they are ready to lobby Moscow's interests is still difficult to say.

Secondly, it is trust in those who hold key positions in the ROCOR Synod office. It is said in the Church that you should get reacquainted with a bishop who has become the primate of the Church. Let's see if this will be the case with the new protohierarch.

In any case, a conservative version of Orthodoxy both in America and other countries remains very attractive. The question is to what extent the ROCOR will be able to meet the demand.
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