ROCOR Says Overlapping Dioceses are Canonical: An Ecclesiological Analysis

The Manhattan Headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

The Manhattan Headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

Editorial Note: O&H doesn’t usually post about ecclesiastical politics per se, but in this case there were some interesting ecclesiological doctrinal issues touched upon, which is what this post is about. As with all posts on O&H, the views expressed here represent the poster and not necessarily the editors or any other writers for the site. The only comments that will be published are those which deal with the substance of this post, i.e., with the ecclesiological/canonical questions. This isn’t a place to hash out church politics in general. —The Editors

On January 15, 2014, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) clarified its vision for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America. This came in the form of an epistle from Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco, acting as the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops of the ROCOR to Archbishop Demetrios, chairman of the Assembly of Bishops. This letter was subsequently posted to the official ROCOR website. Before we analyze the contents of the letter, some background is necessary.

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops is an institution established out of the decision of the 4th Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, convoked in Chambésy, Switzerland in 2009. Among many tasks, the Assembly of Bishops is charged with “The preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the Region on a canonical basis” (Rules of Operation of Episcopal Assemblies, Article 5). This plan was agreed to by all fourteen Autocephalous Churches, including Moscow, based on their desire for “the swift healing of every canonical anomaly that has arisen from historical circumstances and pastoral requirements.” Pursuant to this goal, in the 2013 meeting of the Assembly of Bishops, the Committee for Regional Canonical Planning presented a Proposal for Canonical Restructuring of the Orthodox Church in the USA, followed by lengthy discussion with the bishops. The centerpiece of this proposal is the restructuring of the various Orthodox jurisdictions so that no bishop’s territory overlaps another’s, according to apostolic custom: one bishop in one city. Some of the details of this proposal were presented by Protodeacon Peter Danilchick in Cleveland in November of 2013.

In responding to this, admittedly ambitious, proposal, the epistle from ROCOR to the Episcopal Assembly makes a bold claim, namely:

…we cannot and do not consider… that the present situation of multiple Sister Churches tending to the diverse needs of the flock in the unique cultural situation of North America is, of itself, a violation of canonical order.

Put simply, ROCOR does not believe that the overlapping dioceses are a violation of canonical order but rather that there are other violations of canons which must be the primary task of the Assembly, especially

the conducting of inter-faith marriages; the practices of reception into the Church; divergent approaches to fasting; issues of confession and preparation for Holy Communion; the release and reception of clergy; etc.

In support of this opinion, Archbishop Kyrill puts forward three arguments:

  1. The unique challenge of the unity-in-diversity of North and Central America.
  2. Previous canonical precedent for diocesan variation.
  3. The achievement of the goal of the “bond of love.”

The goal of this writing is to analyze the claims made in this document to see if they hold up to theological and historical scrutiny. I am not however attempting to put forward any plan of unity, or endorse any such particular plan. The difficulties are great, and indeed many political ambitions are present. However, any such political ambitions as such are not the intention of this work. Rather, the goal is to examine the specific arguments presented in this document and to weigh them against the Patristic dogma of the Church.

Unity in Diversity

The first argument against the reorganization of the Orthodox Churches in this region according to the principle of a single bishop in a single city is that America itself possesses such a high degree of unity in diversity that this gives rise to a new pastoral situation. On this point, the letter begins:

Yet the history of Orthodoxy in North America has been unique, at once plagued by the many troubles of the twentieth century in particular, and at the same time blessed with the unique diversity of peoples this land represents. In this land we find Russians and Greeks, Arabs and Romanians, Bulgarians, French and Germans, Italians and English as well as native peoples; and we find, also, many differing degrees of ethnic life. For many, particularly of later generations of emigration, those past origins may have subsumed into a singularly American identity, whereas for others, there remains a strong, abiding sense of connection to their national or ethnic origins, united to their new cultural life in these lands. For all these things we rejoice, for this is in some sense the true uniqueness of the American lands: that from many, there is one (‘e pluribus, unum’), not by a collapse of those differing identities, but by their peaceful co-existence and united life. This unity-in-diversity is made more perfect in the Church where, as the Holy Apostle says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We remain richly diverse, the manifold creation of God who orders all things; yet we are one in faith, in mission, in communion, in calling and in sacred hope. (emphasis added)

What Orthodox Christian in North America could not heartily agree with such sentiments? Indeed, this does capture perfectly the ethos of both the American lands in general and the experience of Orthodox life in these lands in particular. However, the helpful articulation of the American narrative ends here. The letter continues:

This, we firmly believe, is also the means of forging a stronger unity amongst the Orthodox churches of North and Central America — not by the collapsing of the identities and structures of the nine jurisdictions currently represented in this territory, however well-intentioned a “restructuring” may be, or however attentive intentions may be towards questions of ethnicity — but through an increased bond of mutual love that permits us to live together in our diversity, yet in the more perfect unity of the Spirit.

The opinion of ROCOR here seems to be that the ethnic diversity of the American context necessitates a diversity of institutions. Phrased another way, the opinion of ROCOR is that the unification of episcopal structures necessitates the “collapsing of [ethnic] identities.” This assumption could not be more incorrect. Indeed, the very Latin phrase quoted as being quintessentially American, e pluribus, unum, proves this point. This aphorism was coined in 1776 by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere for use in the Seal of the United States. The plurality mentioned in this phrase may refer to any number of things (states, race, gender, etc.) except the common governance. It is this governance, specifically the US Federal Government, that is the unity that binds together the diversity. ROCOR’s interpretation of American diversity can only be understood as e pluribus, pluria.

In fact, the American project, while being a uniquely noble as a self-conscious goal, is not really all that different from many times and places, the most notable of which is the ancient Roman empire itself. This raises the question, did the Apostles themselves ever face such a challenge of maintaining unity in diversity?

To answer this question, we need search no further than Acts 6. At the opening of this chapter we are greeted with a church in crisis due to ethnic tensions between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. Rather than restructuring the church in Jerusalem into ethnic jurisdictions, the Apostles appoint seven deacons to the task of preserving the ministry of the Church in a single institution across ethnic lines. This ancient Church, united under the apostleship of James, the Brother of the Lord and the local bishop of Jerusalem, assigned the task of managing ethnic diversity to its lowest ranked clergy.

Indeed, the lead proposal of the Assembly of Bishops proposes something very much like this: Ethnic Vicariates. The Ethnic Vicariates provide an avenue for strong participation in one’s ethnic identity. While these vicariates would be organized at a regional level, allowing fraternity across a wider range, this structure would ultimately report to the diocesan bishop. It is not my intention to endorse such a plan, but rather simply to point out that this mirrors closely the apostolic model we see in Acts 6 through the submission to the local bishop, while at the same time providing pastoral adaptation to modern forms of travel through regional fraternity.

And we also have to ask: If ROCOR sees no canonical problems with overlapping jurisdictions based on a sharing of the Orthodox faith and the bond of love, why does it organize itself internally into geographically limited dioceses? If North America is truly a unique situation which permits this kind of territorial pluralism, what prevents its own bishops from overlapping with each other? Perhaps there could be a ROCOR bishop tasked with the care of Russian immigrants, another for Americanized Russian parishes, while still another for parishes of converts. Indeed, both the OCA and the Greek Archdiocese already have ethnic dioceses that seem to imbibe this very notion. Even further, why not let parishioners themselves be divided within a single parish between different bishops? All of these organizational structures seem to be implied if the “bond of mutual love” supersedes “one bishop, one city” as the organizing principle of Orthodox ecclesiology.

Canonical Precedent

In citing two canons as canonical precedent for the “diversity of institutions,” ROCOR makes an implicit acknowledgement that our current situation is a canonical anomaly. Indeed, it is the opinion of ROCOR that the precedents

demonstrate acceptable means by which the historically normative principle of local organization with a singular ruling bishop in a singular physical territory have been accommodated by the Holy Fathers, Councils and hierarchs of the past in ways that befit the pastoral needs of a region.

Three historical examples are given of situations which, ROCOR believes, provides justification for suspending this canonical normalcy, and I will deal with them each in turn.

Canon 39 of the Council in Trullo

The letter explains this canon like this: “[The canon] allowed for an independent ecclesiastical province of the Church of Cyprus in the region of another local Church’s territory.”

Yet, when we read the canon, we get a different picture:

Since our brother and fellow-worker, John, bishop of the island of Cyprus, together with his people in the province of the Hellespont, both on account of barbarian incursions, and that they may be freed from servitude of the heathen, and may be subject alone to the sceptres of most Christian rule, have emigrated from the said island, by the providence of the philanthropic God, and the labour of our Christ-loving and pious Empress; we determine that the privileges which were conceded by the divine fathers who first at Ephesus assembled, are to be preserved without any innovations, viz.: that new Justinianopolis shall have the rights of Constantinople and whoever is constituted the pious and most religious bishop thereof shall take precedence of all the bishops of the province of the Hellespont, and be elected by his own bishops according to ancient custom. For the customs which obtain in each church our divine Fathers also took pains should be maintained, the existing bishop of the city of Cyzicus being subject to the metropolitan of the aforesaid Justinianopolis, for the imitation of all the rest of the bishops who are under the aforesaid beloved of God metropolitan John, by whom, as custom demands, even the bishop of the very city of Cyzicus shall be ordained.

This canon is densely worded and difficult to unpack. Archbishop/Patriarch John of Cyprus was forced to flee Cyprus with his people due to an invasion. He settled in a region outside Constantinople which already had a bishop nearby. This led to a set of canonical restructurings. John retained his rule of Cyprus, but from a new city. This city was removed from the authority of the nearby bishop and placed under John. John’s new city then gained rank over the nearby bishop’s city in order to preserved the dignity of his office. At no time were there multiple bishops in a city. Fr Meyendorff describes the situation this way:

The Council did not admit the creation of a parallel Cypriot jurisdiction in Hellespont, and so preserved territorial unity. It solved quite radically a question of precedence at the expense of the existing authorities – Constantinople and Cyzicus – but it did not divide the Church. The pattern of ecclesiastical structure remained the same: one Church, one bishop, one community in every single place. The canons of the Church have always protected this simple principle against all attempts to create several separated ecclesiastical administrations in the same place or country, and also against the tendency of some big and important Churches (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch) to deprive the local bishops of their authority and to affirm their own power over the rights of the local synods. (Catholicity and the Church, p. 115-116, emphasis added)

It is also important to note that this situation was entirely temporary. The relocation of the arch-episcopal see of Cyprus to Asia Minor was soon reversed. At no time was there more than one bishop in a city nor did dioceses overlap.

Canon 2 of the First Council of Constantinople

According to the epistle, this canon

states “the churches of God that are situated in territories belonging to barbarian nations (i.e. where there is no established local Orthodox Church) must be administered in accordance with the customary practice of the Fathers,” which, according to the ancient explanations of the canons, means the sending forth of bishops from established eparchies to care for them (thus demonstrating that the situation of Sister Churches mutually caring for their flocks in the diaspora and thereby “supplying what is missing for a local synod” is what the canons themselves consider, not an aberration, but the ancient practice of the Fathers) (emphasis added).

The canon itself states:

The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs. And let not bishops go beyond their dioceses for ordination or any other ecclesiastical ministrations, unless they be invited. And the aforesaid canon concerning dioceses being observed, it is evident that the synod of every province will administer the affairs of that particular province as was decreed at Nice. But the Churches of God in heathen nations must be governed according to the custom which has prevailed from the times of the Fathers. (emphasis added)

Little detail is given to us in this canon or in the ancient epitome, and certainly nothing which justifies the wide-sweeping deviation ROCOR is suggesting from the apostolic order. Archbishop Peter L’Huillier reminds us that this is the first place in canon law where the word diocese appears, making any attempt to recast the word diocese to mean something other than geographically based and non-overlapping on the basis of this canon absurd. St Nikodemus, in complete agreement with Zonaras and Balsamon (two historical canonical commentators generally regarded as authoritative in Orthodoxy), records this:

As for the churches of God that are situated in the midst of barbarian nations, where there either were not enough bishops to make up a synod, it was necessary for some scholarly bishop to go there in order to bolster up the Christians in their faith. These churches, I say, ought to be managed in accordance with the prevailing custom of the Fathers. To be more explicit, neighboring and more able bishops ought to go to them, in order to supply what is missing for a local synod. (The Rudder, 2nd Canon of the 2nd Ecumenical Council, emphasis added)

Notice that both St Nikodemus and the ROCOR epistle use the phrase “supply what is missing for a local synod” in drastically different ways. As St Nikodemus intends it, this means simply occasionally sending “some scholarly bishop to go there in order to bolster up the Christians in their faith.” This is clearly not ROCOR’s reading. Where St Nikodemus desires to advance the fledgling churches quickly to independence through the help of experienced bishops, ROCOR is implying an entire church structure made up of their own synod! Surely ROCOR does not intend to imply that her own synod is in some way incomplete.

Hence, all this canon supports is the pastoral mentoring of missionary bishops by more established bishops. One bishop in one location is still assumed everywhere.

Hefele (a 19th c. Patristics scholar) gives us one example of a church which was missionized “according to the custom” of both the canon and the ancient explanation: Abyssinia. This church grew under the missionary efforts of Alexandria and eventually received a diocesan bishop. This church’s development is, in a word, unremarkable in the sense that there is no dispute over territory, but the establishment of a normative canonical boundary.

Stavropegial Institutions

This precedent is given no explanation in the letter, just a mere mention. However, contrary to the assumption, stavropegial institutions do not prove an exception to the rule, but rather depend on the traditional order. To understand this, we need to look at the origin of such institutions.

The earliest stavropegial communities were exclusively important institutions typically along important waypoints of travel. Canonical travel restrictions for clergy can be quite stringent. Stavropegial status provided a solution to this travel difficulty by placing the institution under the control of a bishop for a larger region. Occasionally this status would also be granted to places of great sanctity, facilitating easier travel restrictions for pilgrims. In time this came to apply to educational institutions too, as it provided a convenient place for clergy gatherings for many reasons. It was not until the time of Patriarch Nikon that such institutions were chosen based upon the good pleasure of the Patriarch/Archbishop, and even this is done rarely.

The emergence of the concept of stavropegial institutions is entirely dependent on the traditional order of the church by geography without overlapping dioceses. If dioceses overlap, there is no serious travel restriction across diocesan lines. Without this restriction, the stavropegial status would never have developed. Thus, the concept of stavropegial institutions is entirely a complement to, not a variation from, the apostolic order of geographic church alignment.

The Bond of Love

We come at last to perhaps the most important part of the letter. The significance of the concept of the “bond of love” in this letter entirely relates to our theology of church or ecclesiology. The word “bond” appears in the epistle eight times, and seven time it is used to describe a close personal relationship of mutual affection. What does the phrase “the bond of love” mean in this epistle? And how does this relate to ecclesiology? To answer these questions we need to first look at one of the central passages of the letter. In describing the reunion of ROCOR and Moscow, the epistle says this rapprochement was

not through the conglomeration of administrative entities or the restructuring of canonical territories, but by an act of reconciliation which allows the Church abroad and the Church in the motherland to exist side by side, in mutual love and work, each free and operating within that freedom, yet bonded inseparably like a mother to her daughter. And within our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, this renewed bond with our Mother Church came to us as a longed-for prize, a pearl of great price, and a bond of spiritual strength that shall not be broken.

Indeed, the healing of this schism is a pearl of great price for all in the Christian World, not simply for ROCOR alone, and should be celebrated as such. However, two things should be noted about this passage.

First, what is described here is not unity but fraternity. If ROCOR is truly side-by-side with Moscow, then there should be no harm in normalizing the diocesan structure in North America. Only if ROCOR is subject to Moscow could the realignment of dioceses jeopardize this relationship. For example, what prevents the existence “side by side, in mutual love and work” between Romania and Serbia? Nothing—precisely because this bond is one of fraternity and not of submission. On the other hand, if diocesan realignment is truly a threat to ROCOR’s relationship with Moscow, then it is not a matter of the “bond of spiritual strength” but rather of choosing one hierarchy over another. But admitting this is precisely the problem: the choice to prefer submission to Moscow instead of diocesan regularity is a novelty and antithetical to the Apostolic custom.

Second, this understanding of the unity of the church is not the assertion of a “temporary abnormality” to be healed over time but rather the new canonical norm. ROCOR is not pr