Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe May Restore Ties With the Moscow Patriarchate

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe in the rue Daru in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

The archdiocese of émigré Russian churches in Western Europe, founded in Paris by refugees from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, is split between rejoining the post-communist Moscow Patriarchate or being merged into Orthodox Christianity’s globalized diaspora.

As of Tuesday (Sept. 10), the archdiocesan leadership was inching toward taking the historic step to restore ties to Moscow, more than a century after the leaders’ forebears fled a homeland that had become officially atheist.

The decision was almost made over this past weekend, but like most things connected with émigré politics and disputes among Eastern Orthodox churches, it got complicated.

The archdiocese, based mostly in France but stretching to Norway in the north and Italy in the south, met in a special general assembly in Paris on Saturday and Sunday that voted by 58.1% to 41.9% to switch its allegiance from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul back to the Moscow Patriarchate.

But as the body’s statutes say the archdiocese needs a two-thirds majority to take such a step, the decision is on hold until a supermajority can be stitched together, or until the archdiocese’s individual parishes supersede the assembly’s vote.

Archbishop Jean of Charioupolis, the 76-year-old Frenchman who has led the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe since 2016, seemed to have another path in mind.

“This two-thirds majority is an old protection dating back to the Soviet era,” he said. “We now have to see with our lawyers how to get support for that,” he said after Saturday’s vote.

The return of the émigré archdiocese would be a victory for the Moscow Patriarchate, which has been using its size and political influence to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the official “first among equals” among the 14 national or regional Orthodox churches.

The Eastern Orthodox churches, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, claim 250 million to 300 million believers, mostly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Moscow Patriarchate is by far the largest, with over half the world’s Orthodox, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate in former Constantinople is among the smallest.

Over the past two centuries, emigration and globalization have scattered Orthodox believers around the globe, especially to Western Europe and North America. This has led to a confusing network of authority and loyalty that Moscow and Istanbul — each in its own way — are trying to iron out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs around him have actively supported Russian Patriarch Kirill over the past decade, lavishing state favors, as well as public and private funds, on his church to expand its reach — and indirectly the Kremlin’s influence — among Orthodox faithful both at home and abroad.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader, has no right to intervene in other member churches’ affairs. But it too has been trying to exert influence by promoting more cooperation among its churches and disentangling some structures that have grown up over time.

One of these odd structures is the émigré Russian archdiocese, which became an exarchate (special diocese) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1931. That shielded it from the Moscow Patriarchate, which had come under Soviet control.

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Source: Religion News Service