Letter of the Archdiocesan Council of January 17, 2019 to His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, Archbishop of Constantinople, Bartholomew I

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Protocol No. 19.002
Paris, January 18, 2019
His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Istanbul Rum Patrikligi Sadrazam Ali Pasa Cad. No. 35 Fatih 34220 Istanbul TURKEY

Your All-Holiness,

The Archdiocesan Council, having met today under the presidency of His Eminence, John of Charioupolis, ruling Archbishop of the Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, took note of letters which several Greek Metropolitans of Western Europe sent to our priests and deacons in recent days, ordering them to cease commemorating their own Archbishop, to join the clergy of the Greek Metropolia, to consider that our parishes and communities are already part of these Metropolia, finally ordering them to hand over all required parish documents and records. 

At the same time, Archbishop John delivered to the diocesan chancellery today a letter from Your All-Holiness in order to have it translated as quickly as possible from Greek to French. At first glance, it would seem that this letter goes in the same direction as those of the Greek Metropolitans. Nevertheless, His Eminence Archbishop John plans to respond to this letter in due time when he will have been able to read it carefully in the language of the Archdiocese, which is also his native language.

The day after the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s publication of its communiqué of 29 November, 2018 announcing the reorganization of the Exarchate’s status, which had been conferred on our Archdiocese on 19 June, 1999, our Council published a communiqué announcing that we would take all necessary steps to respond in a rightful manner to this decision of the Patriarchate.

Indeed, the structures of our Archdiocese permit no other body except the General Assembly to respond to a question of an existential nature concerning the status of our ecclesiastical body. This reflects at the same time the deep canonical consciousness and legal order of the Archdiocese, to which we shall return below.

On 15 December, however, since no statutory requirement for a mandatory waiting period prevented it, we held a Pastoral Assembly, i.e. a meeting of all the diocesan clergy together with the ruling Archbishop and the Archdiocesan Council. During the course of this consultative (because non-statutory) assembly, at which almost all the clergy participated from all the countries where the Archdiocese exists, numerous comments from the pastors of our parishes showed that our last status within the Ecumenical Patriarchate had been a happy and favourable period in the history of our Archdiocese, a period which we would have liked to continue. Nevertheless, as soon as the news of your decision to abolish the Archdiocese’s status of exarchate was learned by other Orthodox Churches, we were recipients of proposals to integrate our entire Archdiocese within other canonical jurisdictions. 

Our Council has thus made the decision to convene, as soon as authorized according to our statutory order which is both canonical and legal, an extraordinary session of the General Assembly on 23 February, 2019, and to form a special commission charged with preparing for this Assembly.

The first option which the Council was led to consider was to ask of Your All-Holiness that the preparatory Commission might be received at the See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in order to better understand the nature and reasons for the decision which you made this past 27 November, and to explore possibilities how to resolve this situation.

We understand that our Archdiocese finds itself today, de jure, in the same situation as before its reception into the Ecumenical Patriarchate. De facto, however, we would not want this long and fruitful period to end without a human, face-to-face meeting between the representatives mandated by our diocesan structures. Indeed, we would never be able to find the right words to express our gratitude to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for its canonical protection during all these years. The Holy Church of Constantinople took care to respect the particularities of our diocesan structures, which are inspired by the decisions and debates of the 1917-18 Council of Moscow, and for this we are profoundly grateful to the Patriarchate. This shows how much the ecclesiastical vocation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is truly supra-ethnic. 

And this manifested itself very quickly, for barely ten years after its foundation in 1921, our Archdiocese, established in tragic circumstances of modern history, found a canonical refuge within the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. At the moment of the establishment of our ecclesiastical entity in the West, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had not yet founded its first diocesan structure in the same territory. At the time of the reception of our Church into the Patriarchate in 1931, the coexistence of two structures, one Greek and the other Russian, in the same territory, justified for pastoral reasons, did not prevent the Ecumenical Patriarchate from conferring the status of provisional exarchate on our Archdiocese. In 1965, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided, in a unilateral manner and with general incomprehension, to revoke its provisional reception of 1931, this did not lead to the dissolution of the Archdiocese itself, but rather to its mutation into the “Orthodox Archdiocese of France and Western Europe,” fully Orthodox and independent at the same time. Then, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate, at the repeated request of the late Archbishop George (Tarasov), who ruled the Archdiocese at the time, accepted to rebuild the bonds which united the Archdiocese to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, your illustrious predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, stated that the suppression of the reception of 1931 had been due to hopes to ensure “the concord which was indispensable to pan-Orthodox collaboration and to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council” (letter of 22 January, 1971 from Patriarch Athenagoras to Archbishop George). Thus, it was not the disappearance of the pastoral reasons present in 1931 that led to your withdrawal of 1965, but the will to move more resolutely toward the awaited and now completed Great Council, at which our current Archbishop had the honour of participating as part of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. From 1971 to 1999, the canonical status of the Archdiocese was less precise: for almost thirty years it functioned in a self-administered manner, without being formally an exarchate of the Ecumenical Throne, but depending all the same on the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  

In 1999, when you granted a new, non-provisional status of exarchate to our Archdiocese, it was in fact at our request that you did it, not on your own initiative. At that time, the negotiations between the representatives of the Archdiocese, led by the late Archbishop Sergius (Konovalov), and the representatives of the Patriarchate lasted several years. Even if the Patriarchate alone decreed the Tomos of June 19, 1999, we can rightfully consider that it was the fruit of productive bilateral relations.

Today the revocation of the Tomos of 1999 is unilateral and non-collaborative. No consultation took place with representatives from the Archdiocese for this change in canonical status. Have the pastoral reasons which governed the acceptance of our Archdiocese into the Ecumenical Patriarchate disappeared, especially since 1999 — reasons which justified the creation of a Patriarchal exarchate on the same territory as the Greek Metropolia in Western Europe? Times have not changed much since then: in certain Greek Metropolia, some parishes that use languages other than Greek have appeared, but there are not many of them and they do nothing to alter the fundamental Hellenic identity of these ecclesiastical entities. A few hundred metres from our St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Stephen’s Cathedral of the Metropolis of France has not reached a point of using French as a norm, yet the property belongs to a foreign state; likewise, one loses count of the number of priests of the Greek Metropolia who have been and continue to be paid by the Hellenic Republic and are thus subject to a loyalty implied by this social status. The Archdiocese, for its part, is composed of Russian-speaking parishes, but also of parishes which use local languages: all of these continue to be defined by the Russian tradition with regard to liturgical practices and ecclesiastical administration because of the Archdiocese’s history and in honour of its founders. Our ecclesiastical entity has accomplished a path of inculturation immeasurably greater than all the other Orthodox jurisdictions of Western Europe. This applies equally in diocesan governance, since many of its archbishops have been men born in Western Europe, whereas to this day, in all of Western Europe, only one Greek metropolitan was not born in Greece. 

If the Archdiocese could be consulted on an eventual reconfiguration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s ecclesial entities in Western Europe, we think that more creative and certainly more consensual ideas could emerge from the discussion. We continue to welcome such a dialogue, but we cannot force anyone.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate wishes to see its exclusive jurisdiction over the whole of Western Europe recognized, while multiple Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches do not agree with this understanding. If the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were uncontested throughout the Orthodox Church, it would be logical for the withdrawal of the Tomos which conferred the status of Exarchate on the Archdiocese to result automatically in its dismantling and the subjection of its parishes to single local dioceses. However, this position does not have unanimous support among the Orthodox Churches, proof of which is that the Holy and Great Council of 2016, whose agenda since 1976 included the resolution of this problem, was unable to decide anything on this topic. To this day, and until a conciliar resolution considered authoritative for all Orthodox, it is clear that there remains a place for several visions for the organization of the Orthodox Church’s presence in Western Europe.

Of course, the coexistence in the West of Greek, Antiochian, Moscow Patriarchal, ROCOR, Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, American, and perhaps still other dioceses, is an ecclesiological anomaly. The most recent ecclesiological studies show that the resolution of this situation will be complex; to order by force a solely local simplification is not necessarily a token of a positive contribution to the general, global problem. However, the history of the Church has known so many twists and turns in its theological tradition that we are not prevented from hoping that this problem too will find a solution. It was not normal that the Ottoman Sultans should intervene in the election and dismissal of the Patriarchs of Constantinople—some of your illustrious predecessors paid for this with their blood—but the Church endured this infringement in sorrow and prayer, for she always strove faithfully for the path of Orthodoxy. The immense pressures placed on the synodal operation of the Patriarchate by Turkish power during the 20th century, notably in forbidding non-Turkish bishops to take part, which canonical order would otherwise have, has caused suffering for the whole Church even beyond the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but it was a matter of reasonable accommodation to allow the survival of the Holy Church in her historical birthplace. Examples are numerous for all the Churches, in all regions, in all periods of history. 

Certainly, the Patriarchal decision of 27 November, 2018 to abolish the Tomos of June 19, 1999 constitutes an inalienable right of the Patriarchate, which was the sole signatory of this document. On the other hand, the second decision to subject our parishes and communities to the Greek Metropolia is not the unique remit of the Holy Church of Constantinople, but of all parties involved, beginning with the Archdiocese which is subject to this decision. If the Greek Metropolitans of Western Europe accept this decision without most of them even having taken part in it, Archbishop John does not have this possibility, because the operation of our Archdiocese provides necessarily for a dialogue between the ruling Archbishop and the statutory authorities for every important question.

We know the reticence of a large proportion of the current clerical world concerning lay participation in the governance of the Church, and especially, concerning the election of bishops by an assembly composed of clergy and laity from the local ecclesiastical body. Yet this is the most authentic ecclesiological norm for election to the episcopate, as attested by the consistent doctrine of Orthodoxy. We hold firmly to this teaching, inherited from the ecclesiastical renewal inspired by the 1917-18 Council of Moscow, but this does not lead us to demand that all other dioceses apply this ancient and venerable tradition.

In conformity with the Orthodox ethos, in keeping with the 1917-18 Council, and for that matter, as the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Tomos of 1999 invited us, the Archdiocese is organized as a legal person according to French law, autonomous with regard to its administration; and likewise, the parishes and communities which make up the Archdiocese are also organized according to the laws of the ten countries in which they find themselves established. As ecclesiastical entities they depend on the Archdiocese, of which they are legally member associations; as legal entities enjoying juridical status as persons according to diverse national laws, they possess the autonomous faculty of self-determination. Neither we nor any outside authority can interfere in their administration. 

These statutes of the Archdiocese have been known to the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1931. They have even been repeatedly approved by the Patriarchate throughout the whole of the last century and most recently as 2013. The intervention of certain Greek Metropolitans with our clergy members, even before the extraordinary General Assembly is held to deliberate on the subject of your decision, demonstrates their characteristic lack of understanding with regard to the particularities of our mode of operation. The top-down style of power, so strongly professed in Eastern hierarchical structures, is inapplicable to the Orthodox Churches of Western Europe: among our faithful, ever more accustomed to a participatory manner of working, the absence of dialogue prior to a decision is not a testimony to pastoral care. The priests and deacons who have received letters and calls from Greek Metropolitans, as well as the laity who have been informed of this, have experienced this as a form of violence. We cannot believe that this could be the vision of our Ecumenical Patriarchate which we know, which we appreciate for its openness, and to which we are grateful to have belonged—a Patriarchate so attached to the dignity of each person, to the defence of the weak, and to the protection of nature.

In fact, the direct intervention of bishops external to the Archdiocese with our priests and deacons, even if they come from the same Patriarchate as us, makes a mockery of the catholicity of the episcopal ministry of our ruling Archbishop, who never asked to be discharged from his functions. Elected by our clergy-laity General Assembly and confirmed in this election by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate, Archbishop John remains to this day the sole legitimate bishop of the ecclesiastical flock which is entrusted to him; even to resign voluntarily — please God that he does not! — he should consult with those around him. Indeed, the episcopal ministry is not one of solitude, but of communion, and this communion begins in the Eucharist which the bishop celebrates surrounded by the presbyters of his diocese in the midst of the entire people.

We are convinced that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, so attached to the Church’s authentic canonical tradition, did not encourage the Greek Metropolitans of Western Europe to contravene the ecclesiological definition of the episcopate itself. The dismantling of the Church’s catholic structures which this contravention would entail would signify a terrible historical catastrophe, going well beyond the status of our Archdiocese. To conclude, we would like to reiterate our desire that the special commission designated to prepare for the next General Assembly might be received, within a reasonable time in advance of the General Assembly of this coming 23 February, at the See of the Patriarchate, in the context outlined above and in the hope of being able to envisage a future within the Ecumenical Patriarchate which we fully recognize as the first Church in Orthodoxy. And we are certain that Your All-Holiness will understand that our wish is and remains to serve Christ and to witness to His love in the world.

With the most faithful respect we assure you, Your All-Holiness, of our devotion and our love. 

Unanimously, on behalf of the Archdiocesan Council, 

† JOHN of Charioupolis, Ruling Archbishop of the Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition, President of the Diocesan Directing Union of Russian Orthodox Associations in Western Europe

Nicolas LOPOUKHINE, Secretary of the Archdiocesan Council

Deanery: