Saturday, November 12, 2005

From a Discussion at the Recent Clergy Conference in Vancouver

Many of the clergy of the Western American Diocese gathered in Vancouver, BC, for a conference over October 24th-26th. During that conference, time was provided for a discussion of the dialogue that has taken place between representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). Unfortunately, Fr. Alexander Lebedeff was unable to be present (please pray for the restoration of his health); but our diocesan hierarch, Archbishop KYRILL, was present, as was Fr. Peter Perekrestov, who serves on the organizing committee for the Fourth All-Diaspora Council to be held in San Francisco in May, 2006.

The session, which ran between 75 and 90 minutes, was by no means exhaustive. Almost all of the time was yielded to Archpriest George Primak, Dean of the western part of the Diocese of Canada, who had, he said, a number of questions and concerns about the proposed establishment of Eucharistic Communion between ROCOR and the MP. While there was not time to ask all his questions (which are reportedly posted on the internet, although I have been unable to find them in English), he was able to ask several; and have answers given by many of those in attendance. What I intend to present here is a recollection of that session, based on the notes I took during the conversations. (This is not meant to be a verbatim report.) What is my purpose for doing this? To let it be known that nothing whatsoever was done to restrain discussion or silence dissent in the consideration of the proposed establishment of Eucharistic Communion between the divided parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, despite what has been claimed in certain circles.

1. Why is the number of participants (particularly priests) attending the Sobor in May so small (certainly less than the number who attended the meeting in Nyack)? There are rumors that the number is limited to reduce the number of those who might question or oppose the proposed union.

Fr. Peter reported that the system for selecting the delegates, and the number of delegates, is consistent with the system used at all previous All-Diaspora Sobors. The sessions of the meetings are closed to all but those who are delegates, as was the practice before. At the first Sobor, there were a total of 95 delegates. At the second, there were 97 delegates; and at the third, 107 delegates. He further noted that the ratio of delegates to parishes in May is 1:5. At earlier such meetings, the ratio was higher; and at the All-Russian Council in 1917-1918, the ratio was actually 1:500. Among other things, this points out the decline in numbers of parishes and people over the last several decades. There are also financial reasons for not having a larger number of delegates; and a desire to avoid the "free-for-all" atmosphere that took place in Nyack. Even so, each diocese has four delegates: 2 from among the clergy, and two from among the laity. The ruling bishops will also be in attendance, as will representatives of approved organizations. Those who were delegates at earlier All-Diaspora Sobors are also invited to attend and participate. Another point in this discussion was that if all clergy who wished to attend and were willing to pay their way would be allowed to take part, then those who are financially better off and geographically closer would have a great advantage over those priests who do not have the financial resources, or who live in a diocese that is distant from San Francisco. The equal representation of delegates, with four from each diocese, ensures balance and fairness. It was also pointed out that, if any clergyman is allowed to attend, how could any parishioners who wished to do so be excluded? But this would make the meeting essentially unworkable.

As discussion continued, the charge was made that the action under consideration next May constitutes a "180-degree" change in direction. Subsequent discussion noted that the decision of the Sobor of 1917-1918 to re-establish the Patriarchate was also a complete change of direction; the implication being that such actions have, in fact, taken place in the past, when this has been necessary. As well, it was pointed out that the decision to break administrative relations with Moscow following the 1927 "Declaration" was not made by an All-Diaspora Sobor, but by a Sobor of Bishops.

2. For many years, our (ROCOR) hierarchs told us that Eucharistic communion with the MP was not possible, because their hierarchs were appointees, even agents, of the Soviet regime; and Pat. TIKHON proclaimed an "anathema" against those who joined the state church. The MP is involved with the World Council of Churches, which our hierarchs anathematized. Also, the act of selling alcohol and cigarettes by the Church to the people prevents Eucharistic communion.

Abp. KYRILL pointed out that there are many newly-consecrated bishops in Russia who think as we do; and that many who were once involved with the KGB have changed their minds, as well. He noted that he once thought the same way as many who have expressed these types of concerns; but the piety he has experienced while in Russia has changed his mind. The act of establishing communion is being done, not for the buildings, nor for the administrative structure, but for the people, who are the voice of the Church. It was, after all, the people who moved the Church to glorify the New Martyrs and the Royal Martyrs. He has met with many of the bishops and people, and says they have repented of, and condemned, the past. It was also noted that the clergy and people of the Church in Russia love and revere Pat. ALEXIY, and have accepted his repentance. One person, having heard that the Patriarch celebrates the Divine Liturgy some 300 times a year, wondered how anyone could think that a man, no matter what he had done in the past, could do so and not be transformed.

Fr. Peter, in reply to the question about selling cigarettes and alcohol, said that part of the problem is the way in which this issue has been reported by the media, who have an interest in undermining the Church. The issue arose when Russia received humanitarian aid from the West, and cigarettes and alcohol were included in these shipments. The Church did not desire to hand these out to the people with the other forms of assistance (food and clothing); but instead made arrangements for the cigarettes and alcohol to be provided to some merchants; who sold these goods and gave the proceeds to the Church. He added that this was a "one-time" event.

To illustrate the way in which media reports can be distorted, the example was cited that Canada now allows same-sex marriages; and that the Orthodox clergy of Canada have been silent, without protest (or even comment) on the matter. Does their silence convey their approval of the action? It is possible to report it that way. Does their failure to protest indicate that they are subordinate to the secular powers, and will not oppose them? Again, it could be reported that way; and the people, without knowing otherwise, could call the Church into question for its actions; as has happened with the reports about cigarettes and alcohol sales "by the Church" in Russia.

3. Are we receiving myrrh (for chrismations) from the MP?

Abp. KYRILL replied plainly that this is not happening, and is not possible at this time. Another priest noted that this is a part of what might take place upon the potential reunion; but that is not the present situation.

4. There was an extended discussion about the question of whether or not there is grace in the MP. As this has been demonstrated many times, our Bishops never made such a statement; while statements to the contrary were made many times. Abp. KYRILL pointed out that the private opinion of a bishop, whether from conversation or in private correspondence, has no bearing on the official position of the Church. It was also noted that there is a distinction between "doubting" and a definitive statement. That is to say, it is possible for someone to question the presence of grace without taking the step to making this as a proclamation. Certainly, the circumstances faced by the Church in Russia under the Communist regime may have caused some of our hierarchs to wonder if there was still grace on the Church in Russia; but this was never the policy of ROCOR.

5. Pat. ALEXIY sent congratulations to the head of state in Vietnam upon the 30th anniversary of their victory over the United States; and gave an award to the head of the government of Kazakhstan, who is a Muslim. How can this take place?

Abp. KYRILL noted that there were occasions in Imperial Russia when awards were given to Muslims (and others who were not members of the Orthodox Church). When an objection was made that this was the action of a head of state, the reply, unfortunately, was primarily in Russian (and so beyond my ability to record and report). However, it was pointed out that our hierarchs, and even priests, must interact with secular authorities all the time; and it is in our best interests to maintain cordial relations with the state. Fr. Peter noted that the message sent to Vietnam also coincided with a decision to allow the re-establishment of divine services there. The general tenor was that the act of "diplomacy" can be understood in a number of ways, and need not be detrimental to the Church; nor be understood as a remnant of the "state mentality" that the Church in Russia had to exercise while under the control of the Communist regime.

At one point, Fr. Peter asked questions of Fr. George, about the way in which his "Thirty Questions" have been handled (having been submitted to “Nasha Strana”; and subsequently posted to the internet). Fr. Peter asked Fr. George if he was indeed the author of 30 questions to the upcoming Sobor. Fr. George replied that he was the author. Fr. Peter, noting that Fr. George had signed the questions in his capacity as the dean of Western Canada (and not just as a private party), asked, did he notify his ruling Bishop that he was doing so as the dean of Western Canada? Fr. George said, "No." "Were the questions posted to the internet with the knowledge of your ruling bishop?" "No." “Since the questions were directed at the upcoming Sobor, did Fr George send his questions to the Chairman or Secretary of the Sobor?” “No.”

Fr. Peter then asked why Fr. George sent his questions to an anti-Church periodical, one that calls bishops of our Church names, spreads lies, publishes articles by schismatics and defrocked clergymen? Fr. George replied, “I didn't think about it.”

The closing comment by Fr. Peter spoke about the last charge given by Abp. ANTONIY (Medvedev) to the clergy of the Western American Diocese at the last clergy conference he attended before his repose in 2000. He urged us to place a high value on church unity, and to weep over the divisions and disunity in the Church.

While there were some tensions in the room throughout the session, the overall tone was one of civility; and an acknowledgement that we all need to be open to those who have questions, and will engage in conversation.

[Again, please remember that these are my observations only; and do not in any way constitute an "official" document or report.]