Dispatches from the Western Front The Future of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe

by Paul Ladouceur

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Paris

With all the attention devoted to the Eastern Front (the Ukraine) in the trench warfare between the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) and the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) for preeminence in Orthodoxy, the Western Front is largely ignored. The EP opened the Western Front on November 27, 2018, when it unexpectedly annulled its decree (tomos) of June 19, 1999, establishing the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe as an EP exarchate, thereby placing the parishes of the Archdiocese under the EP’s metropolitans in their respective countries. Subsequently many priests of the exarchate received letters from EP metropolitans in Western Europe ordering them to cease commemorating Archbishop Jean (Renneteau), head of the Archdiocese, but rather the Ecumenical Patriarch and the local EP metropolitan.

The Archdiocese has a long and glorious history. It was established in April 1921 by St. Tikhon (Belavin), Patriarch of Moscow, to serve the needs of the Russian refugees in Western Europe fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war. Evlogy’s task was complex. Isolated from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), persecuted mercilessly by the communists, Evlogy had few resources and had to contend with a rival ecclesial structure, a synod of Russian bishops established in Serbia under the leadership of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). The “Karlovtsy Synod” was a highly politicized and nationalistic body which dreamed of restoring the autocratic and aristocratic socio-political system of imperial Russia. Evlogy represented the more liberal forces of the Russian Church, evident at the reforming council of the ROC held in 1917-18. Before being disbanded by the Bolsheviks, the council restored the patriarchate, abolished by Peter the Great two centuries earlier, and approved a system of church governance which assured an equal role for both clergy and the non-ordained.

Despite criticism from the Karlovtsy Synod, Evlogy did his best to remain faithful to the beleaguered Moscow Patriarchate, even after Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) made his infamous statement of 1927 pledging the church’s loyalty to the Soviet state. The breaking point came in 1931 after Evlogy participated in ecumenical prayer services for the suffering Church of Russia. Sergius attempted to replace Evlogy, not for having prayed with non-Orthodox, but for considering that the Russian Church was persecuted. Evlogy placed himself and the Archdiocese under the Ecumenical Patriarch. This situation persisted, with some variations, over the decades – from 1965 to 1971, the EP withdrew its canonical oversight of the archdiocese, which functioned as an independent ecclesial entity. The Archdiocese’s attachment to Constantinople was restored in 1971, but with no precise canonical status. The tomos of June 1999 established the Archdiocese as an EP exarchate.

Several saints have been associated with the Archdiocese (Maria of Paris, Dimitri Klepinin, Alexis Medvedkov, Ilya Fondaminsky and Georges Skobtsov), and many prominent Orthodox theologians, including Sergius Bulgakov, Nicolas Berdyaev, Nicolas Afanasiev, Lev Gillet, Olivier Clément, Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, and, before their departure to the United States, Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff.

As a multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-national ecclesial body stretching from Norway to Italy, from Scotland to Germany, the Archdiocese is an icon of universal Orthodoxy. Archbishop Jean is based at the Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Paris. It is the Orthodox jurisdiction which comes closest to implementing the church governance system approved by the ROC council in 1917-18. Compared with the parallel ecclesial structures in the Ukraine, the new Orthodox Church of the Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP), each of which claims to have between 8 and 12 thousand parishes, the Archdiocese is minuscule, a mere 120 or so parishes.

But size is not the point here. Despite the decline in recent decades of institutions such as the Saint Sergius Institute, the Archdiocese is still a prize coveted by the MP in its quest for legitimacy as leader of the Orthodox world. In 2003, Patriarch Alexis of Moscow made an offer to the Archdiocese to rejoin the MP while keeping its internal autonomy; it was an offer which could be refused and was. Afterwards, the MP waged a relentless battle against the Archdiocese. It is an uneven struggle. The Archdiocese has limited financial resources, whereas the MP is wealthy of its own resources and has a pipeline to the Russian state treasury. In France, the MP sought to undermine the Archdiocese by the transfer of parishes and churches. It failed in Biarritz but succeeded in Nice, recouping the prestigious Russian cathedral of Nice. In the lengthy legal battle over the Nice cathedral, staged by the Russian government in proxy for the MP, the French courts recognized the Russian government as the legal successor of imperial Russia, which built the cathedral. Russian emigrants attached to the Archdiocese maintained the cathedral for eight decades, but failed to ensure that a local entity became the legal owner. To challenge the Saint Sergius Institute, already grinding down from lack of resources, the MP established its own generously-financed theological institute, based in a chateau on the outskirts of Paris.

After the EP’s unilateral revocation of the 1999 decree—Archbishop Jean was informed of the decision after it had been taken—the Archdiocese responded in accordance with its internal regulations: major decisions concerning the Archdiocese must be made by the Archdiocese’s own bodies, the council and the assembly. The suppression of exarchate status does not automatically abolish the Archdiocese, which can still claim its legitimacy from its establishment in 1921 by St. Tikhon of Moscow.

There were three offers on the table to receive the Archdiocese: the MP, ROCOR and the Romanian Patriarchate. Romania may have been the most interesting, but Romania is in an awkward position, since it is unlikely that Constantinople would give its canonical blessing for the Archdiocese to transfer to another jurisdiction. This constraint would not apply to the MP, which would simply ignore the technicality of canonical dispensation for transfers from one Orthodox jurisdiction to another.

The only decision, by a majority vote of 93%, made an Archdiocesan assembly on February 23, 2019, was that the Archdiocese wished to remain together, and not be dismembered. A pastoral assembly composed primarily of Archdiocesan clergy was held on May 11. This is not a decision-making body, but the wind seems to blowing towards the east, towards Moscow. Archbishop Jean appears to favor the Moscow option. The next Archdiocesan assembly is scheduled for September 7.

In the past few months, the Archdiocese has had discussions with both Moscow and Constantinople. Most issues have been resolved with the MP, especially those pertaining to identity and internal governance of the Archdiocese, but there remain several sticking points: Moscow is insisting that the Archdiocese break sacramental communion with Constantinople, which the Archdiocese apparently does not want to do; the status of parishes in Great Britain in the Archdiocese; and church-state relations. Constantinople had previously refused to consecrate additional bishops for the Archdiocese, but Moscow promises to consecrate two auxiliary bishops – Archbishop Jean is currently the only hierarch. Discussions with Constantinople are leading nowhere, although there was a friendly meeting of a delegation with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on March 27, 2019. (All major documents, including summary reports of discussions with Moscow and Constantinople, are available on the Archdiocese’s multilingual website.)

The option for the Archdiocese to function as an independent Orthodox body, as occurred between 1965 and 1971, seems to have little support. There are fears that this would lead to a break in communion with world-wide Orthodoxy (which did not happen between 1965 and 1971). The status of the Archdiocese would be somewhat analogous to the ambiguous canonical situation of the Orthodox Church in America, whose autocephaly granted by Moscow is not recognized by a majority of Orthodox churches, yet it is in communion with all.

The motives for opening this Western Front are unclear, but may involve more than ecclesial house-keeping, a desire to end the parallel structures represented by the overlapping jurisdictions of the Archdiocese with the EP’s own metropolises in Western Europe. The decision to abolish the exarchate has provoked strong resistance and manifestations of solidarity within the Archdiocese: the vote at the Archdiocesan Assembly in February 2019 against dissolving the Archdiocese and in favor of preserving the Archdiocese as united ecclesial entity was nearly 93% (191 out of 206). This could have been foreseen from the outset. Should the Archdiocese, or even a large part of it, end up with Moscow, the MP would then have three parallel ecclesial entities in Western Europe: its own dioceses; ROCOR in Western Europe; and the Archdiocese. The EP would be left with its own dioceses in Western Europe.

Even at this eleventh hour, the EP could turn the tide by retracting its decree abolishing the exarchate. But this seems unlikely to happen. More likely, and to the dismay of many, this episode could embolden Moscow’s claim to leadership in worldwide Orthodoxy.


Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.