ENGLISH VERSION: Epistle of the Conference of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, on the twentieth anniversary of the open service of ROCOR parishes in Russia
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first open parishes of ROCOR in Russia - or, more precisely, the anniversary of the open service of True Orthodox parishes in our country under the omophorion of bishops who received their canonical apostolic succession from ROCOR. In historical perspective twenty years is a substantial period of time. This is precisely the same interval as between the years 1917 and 1937. Then, the process of the collapse of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Church finished its due course, from the beginning to the end, when the True Orthodox Church had completely disappeared from the face of the earth, as it went underground, into the "catacombs".
In the beginning of this process of destruction of the earthly body of our Local Church, the majority of its hierarchs and leaders renounced their Orthodox Tsar. That was a huge temptation for the entire nation, which had been praying for their Tsar and Royal Family for many centuries. Apart from that, it was also a sign of the moral degradation of the earthly institution of the church, which, with indifference, abandoned him who had been anointed with holy chrism as Tsar by that very same church, together with his family, to the mercy of wild beasts. Not a word in defense of the Royal Martyrs was uttered, neither by the ruling Synod in 1917, nor by the All-Russian Local Church Council. Thus it was futile to hope that the "new" church edifice would be strong, when it was built on treachery, and on the innocent blood of God’s anointed. And the end of the visible legal church life came with the execution of the last three universally acknowledged leaders of the True Church: Patriarchal locum tenens, Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsy; Metropolitan Cyril of Kazan; and Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). All three were executed by firing squad in 1937.
As then, so now, the middle of the twenty-year period was marked by a catastrophe. We all remember precisely what happened in the year 1927 [the Declaration of Met Sergius (trans.)], but we still do not fully realize what happened in the year 2000. It was then, at the ROCOR Council of 2000 - precisely then, and by no means at the council the next year, in 2001 - when ROCOR had for the first time in many decades confessed itself to be a part of the apostasy of "World Orthodoxy". It was then, in the "symbolical" year of 2000, that a conciliar letter to the "Patriarch of Serbia" was approved, in which it was implied that the ecumenistic Patriarchate of Serbia is in communion with ROCOR. Moreover, that letter contained an appeal to the "Patriarch of Serbia", to serve as the go-between in negotiations with Moscow Patriarchate. After that council of apostasy, the forcible and treacherous removal of Metropolitan Vitaly the following year was the logical finale. Just as in the year 1927, the "separation of the sheep from the goats" began not with actions, but with words committed to paper, so, too, did it happen in the year 2000. Also, just as in 1927 this process of separation took many years, so here too we see that the ROCOR Council of 2000 was the beginning of the subsequent division of ROCOR, which in the last ten years has clearly manifested itself, just as separations in the former Russo-Greek Church [the official title of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian empire (trans.)] did by the year 1937.
Today, as in 1937, we still can not drop from our prayers the designation of the Russian Church as a "persecuted" church. Persecutions still continue. Yet, by God’s mercy, the degree of the persecution today is not comparable to that of those early years, and this serves for us present-day Orthodox Christians as both a reproof and a warning. As a reproof - because today, unlike the Orthodox of those times, we do not have such serious causes, which prevented them from organizing their church life. We don’t need such strict measures of secrecy as were necessary then. And as a warning - because we must look back at the Orthodox Christians of 1937 and see what can happen to all of us if we will not make use, right now, of all the blessings of peaceful church life which we currently enjoy.
The chief of these blessings is: "Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity?" (Ps. 132, 1) We are obliged to overcome all the divisions that have arisen among us during the last ten to fifteen years, due to the fact that all of us were more or less affected by the processes of deterioration of ROCOR. And one cannot say that we haven’t done anything in that regard so far. We would like to think that Metropolitan Vitaly, if he were alive today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, would bless our beginnings, and would rejoice over our initial successes, however humble they might be.
It would be wonderful if all of our bishops from the separated jurisdictions of the formerly united ROCOR could meet with Metropolitan Vitaly today in the city where he was born in 1910, in St. Petersburg. But even if this is not possible physically, then it is still possible to do so spiritually, especially since Metropolitan Vitaly is now freed from all the infirmities which would often impede his full participation in church affairs during his service as ROCOR’s First Hierarch.
So, what has been done up until today, when the tall building of the Church Abroad which seemed so stable and solid in 1990, has collapsed into a pile of "fragments"?
Among Russian Orthodox people a weariness of divisions is manifest today - divisions which are caused, more often than not, by the mistaken activities of bishops. There is also emerging an understanding that there are no deep differences between us. In some cases it becomes apparent that there aren’t really any differences at all, not even small ones. Thus, among the laymen, monastics and clergy of Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) and the Russian True Orthodox Church (RTOC) there is growing a climate of ever warmer and more friendly relations, which are natural for those who are united in the Body of Christ, but which do not necessarily require a unity of administration.
With other "fragments" the process of rapprochement is proceeding more slowly, but steadily. Here we must mention the conference in Odessa, which was called in July of this year by the First Hierarch of ROCOR(A), Metropolitan Agafangel, where, along with members of that part of the Church Abroad, representatives of ROAC also took part. Probably the main result of that conference was the establishing of the fact that, despite a different approach to interpreting certain historical events and confessional documents, we have the same understanding of the Orthodox Faith, and, specifically, that we have no contradictions concerning the dogma of the Church.
Our common faith with respect to the dogma of the Church - in that aspect of this dogma which led to especially numerous debates over the course of the twentieth century - can best be summarized thus. On the one hand, it is not possible to determine the exact moment when a heretical group loses God’s grace, and therefore, even an Ecumenical Council can not play the role of a "switch" for the grace of the Mysteries: the "switch theory", as it is ironically called, can not be employed under any guise. On the other hand, at no moment in time it is possible to assert with certainty that a group whose bishops have turned from Orthodoxy unto heresy does still retain Divine grace: even if no Council has yet condemned those bishops and their flock; there can be no certainty of their Mysteries retaining any grace. Heresy is such a poison which undoubtedly leads to the spiritual death of the church organism which it affects, unless a spiritual antidote be found. In such an organism the process of dying is progressing, gradually and unevenly, and so no formula can exist which would "predict" its progress, just as there can’t possibly exist an external way of observing and measuring the progress of such a process. Only God, and those who see in Holy Spirit, can make such observations in full detail. For the rest of us, it is sufficient if we understand the nature of the poison and avoid any ecclesiastical communion with groups affected by it.
Probably the most important and common attainment for all the True Orthodox churches in Russia is the awareness of our internal unity - that true unity of the Church. We have practically abandoned our mutual polemics and attacks, and have begun to realize that all the controversial matters can only be properly clarified by dialog. We are no longer so pained by the transfer of some of our clergy and their parishes from one True Orthodox jurisdiction into another, because, in the end, by such transfers no one is falling away from the Church, which is One for all of us, and we have nothing to fight over in this regard.
Let us strive to pray for one another, for each and every pious and truly Orthodox Christian, including those with whom we have not yet officially established communion. Here prayer should precede the official decisions of church authorities.
Entering upon the third decade of the legal existence of the True Orthodox Church in the Russian land, let us give thanks unto all the holy people to whom we today owe our hopes for salvation. Our Church was resurrected not because of political circumstances, nor because of some administrative talents of certain people. She was resurrected because of the struggles of the great host of the New Martyrs of Russia, whose sanctifying blood became the surest witness of the Truth, and the purification for the centuries of servitude of our church before the civil authorities, and its secularization. We must remember and confess, that our Church, regardless of which "fragment" we belong to, is the Church of the New Martyrs, that they are Her glory, they are Her pledge of loyalty to the Truth, until the glorious Second Coming of our Saviour.
The life of every one of us, inseparable from the Church, must be a worthy continuation of their struggles - in prayer, in labor, in being prepared to bear any persecutions, even unto death. For death for Christ’s sake is a great gain, and life for the sake of the world, and for the false church that serves the world, is worse than death. Beholding the New Martyrs, we must be strengthened in our belief that the True Church cannot be destroyed, that we must bear with courage any persecutions, seizures of our temples, slanders and revilings, for the sake of the eternal glory of the Holy Name of our God. And the historical experience of the last twenty years should become for us a lesson and a protection against those errors which led to the historical collapse of the New York Synod and its supporters, who followed the wide path taken by Sergius (Stragorodsky). And may this purifying experience make the third decade of the official existence of True Church in the land of Russia the decade of reunion and healing of the wounds on Her incorruptible Body.
Gregory, Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov, Head of the Conference of Bishops of Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church
Sebastian, Bishop of Chelyabinsk
July 15/28 2010,
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