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A Letter To The Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning The Situation Of The Diaspora
By Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia
Source: A Statement of Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia


In our first issue of August 1980, Sourozh published a lengthy article by Archbishop Paul of Finland entitled 'Suggestions for Solutions to the Problem of the Orthodox Diaspora' (reprinted in Sourozh, No. 91, February 2003, pp. 3-19). In it the primate of the Orthodox Church of Finland reviewed the various submissions made by four regional autocephalous Churches to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church which has been in the planning stage for some forty years. In his conclusions Archbishop Paul strongly urged the Patriarchate of Constantinople to relinquish the theory of the supremacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the whole diaspora and to reject any talk of 'barbarian areas' as an anachronism.

The fact that in the intervening twenty-five years nothing has changed emerges clearly from the text we print below. On 18 March 2002 Patriarch Alexis wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outlining the position of the Russian Church regarding the claims to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to jurisdiction over the worldwide Orthodox 'diaspora', coming to the same conclusions as did Archbishop Paul. More recently there has been a further exchange of letters, but none has gone over the ground as thoroughly as does the present text. The English version given below is translated from a French version of the Russian original.

To His Holiness Bartholomew,

Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome

Your Holiness, Beloved Brother and fellow celebrant in God,

We greet you fraternally and wish you grace and mercy from God our Saviour.

We have received the message of Your Holiness, No. 129 of 11 April 2002, concerning the situation of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Parishes in Western Europe. Reading this letter, we were very troubled by the great number of bitter reproaches and unjust accusations that you formulate therein. In any case, however, we wish to follow the precept of wise Solomon (Proverbs 17:9): 'He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends'. Not wishing to put to the test for no good reason the feeling of brotherly love between our two Churches, we shall not consider in detail these awkward expressions, for we think that it is more a case of unfortunate misunderstandings deriving, in our opinion, from an erroneous understanding of the problems that you have raised. This is why we think that it is better to move on immediately to the interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council advanced by Your Holiness, an interpretation with which we disagree completely.(1)

This canon in fact defines the area of responsibility of the Patriarchal See of the Church of Constantinople by limiting it to the ancient provinces [called 'dioceses' by the Roman government of the time, Ed.] of [Proconsular] Asia, Thrace and of Pontus, that is, to the provinces that correspond to modern-day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. It does not at all follow from this canon that 'every province not belonging to another patriarchal see' should be subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

It seems obvious that this inaccurate interpretation derives from an erroneous understanding of the term 'among the barbarians' (en tois barbarikois) and of the context of this _expression. It is erroneous in that it assumes that the issue here does not concern 'barbarian' peoples living either in the Roman Empire or beyond its limits, but administrative entities (defined by the State) and inhabited primarily by 'barbarians'. Yet there is no doubt but that this _expression refers not to provinces but to peoples; it is not used in an administrative, but in an ethnic sense. This follows clearly from the considerations that we shall develop below.

As you know, during the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods the term barbaros referred to individuals belonging to peoples whose language, culture and customs were not Greek. Thus St Gregory of Nyssa, in the third of his works Against Eunomius, can speak of a 'barbarian philosophy' (barbariki philosophia), while Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of 'barbarisms in the Greek language' (idiomata barbarika), St Epiphanius of Cyprus of 'barbarian names' (barbarika onomata) and Libanius, the teacher of St John Chrysostom, of 'barbarian customs' (barbarika ithi). Similarly the Apostle Paul thinks of anyone who speaks neither Greek nor Latin, the official languages of the Empire, as a 'barbarian' (barbaros): 'Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian (barbaros), and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian (barbaros) unto me' (1 Cor 14:11). Such 'barbarians' could equally well live outside as within the Empire. The Apostle preached to the 'barbarians' without ever leaving the Roman Empire (cf. Rom 1:14) and the Acts of the Apostles call the inhabitants of Malta 'barbarians', even though the island was part of the Empire, simply because the local language was Punic.

As regards the _expression to barbarikon, it is certainly the case that this _expression can be used to refer to territories outside the limits of the Empire, and it is in this sense that the term is used, for example, in the Canon 63 (52) of the Council of Carthage. There it is said that in Mauritania there were no councils because that country was located at the very edge of the Empire and borders on barbarian land (to barbariko parakeitai). Nevertheless, it can also refer to anything that is barbarian, and therefore to territories which, while inhabited by barbarians, form part of the Empire.

It is precisely in this sense that the term is used in Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon. Reference is not being made to the barbarian peoples in general, but to certain well-defined peoples 'belonging to the above-mentioned provinces' (ton proeirimenon dioikeseon), i.e. the barbarians living in the provinces of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, which were an integral part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus the canon subordinates to the see of Constantinople the bishops of the barbarians living within the ecclesiastical boundaries of these three dioceses.

All the Byzantine commentators on the canons -- Alexios Aristenus, John Zonaras and Theodore Balsamon, as well as Matthew Blastaris, author of the Syntagma -- understand by the _expression en tois barbarikois precisely and only those barbarian peoples within those three provinces, thereby underlining that the barbarian peoples in neighbouring provinces were not subjected to Constantinople by this canon, but remained under the jurisdiction of other Orthodox Churches. Thus Aristenus writes that only the metropolitans of Pontus, Asia and Thrace are under the bishop of Constantinople and are consecrated by him; the same applies to the bishops of the barbarians in these provinces, since the provinces of Macedonia, Illyria, Thessaly, the Peloponese and Epirus were at that time subject to the authority of Rome (Syntagma 2.286; Kormchaia kniga [1816], P. 73). According to Zonaras, it is the bishop of Constantinople who is responsible for the consecration of bishops for the barbarians living in the provinces mentioned, while the remaining provinces, viz. Macedonia, Thessaly, Hellas, the Peloponese, Epirus and Illyria were subject to Rome (Syntagma 2.283, 284).

In the Syntagma of Blastaris we read that the bishop of Constantinople also has the right to consecrate the bishops of barbarian peoples living on the edges of these provinces, such as the Alans and the Rousoi, since the former live next to the diocese of Pontus and the latter next to the diocese of Thrace (6.257). In the latter case it is a question of a late ecclesiastical practice (Blastaris' comments concern the fourteenth century) according to which the barbarian lands next to the three provinces mentioned were included in the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople. Moreover, it is stressed that the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople was extended to these territories precisely because of their nearness to the areas assigned to him by Canon 28 of Chalcedon, though in the canons themselves the possibility of such an enlargement is not foreseen.

Thus these ancient and authoritative commentators confirm that the Council of Chalcedon did not give to the bishop of Constantinople rights over 'barbarian' territories except within the limits of the three provinces mentioned, of which only the province of Thrace is situated in Europe. Aristenus and Zonaras, for example, indicate clearly that in Europe the right of the bishop of Constantinople to send bishops for the barbarians extends only to Thrace, since the other provinces are subject to the bishop of Rome. As regards the frontiers of the Church of Constantinople in Asia, Balsamon makes this comment in his interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:

Note that the metropolitans along the Black Sea up to Trebizond are called 'Pontic', while the metropolitans near Ephesus, and in Lycia and Pamphylia are called 'Asiatic', though not, as some say, those in Anatolia, since in Anatolia it is [the bishop of] Antioch who has the right to consecrate (Syntagma, 2.284).

It is also appropriate to note that in this canon it is not a question of a 'diaspora', but of autochthonous 'barbarians' living in their own lands. They became Christian largely as the result of missionary activity and Christianity did not reach them through a foreign homeland, as is the case with a 'diaspora'. This is why one is distancing oneself from historical reality and mixing up differing concepts if one extends the field of application of a canon that concerned autochthonous peoples who became Christian as the result of missionary activity with the phenomenon of a diaspora made up of people who have departed for a foreign land, but who were brought up in the Orthodox tradition in their homeland.

Thus the statement by Your Holiness that as a result of Canon 28 of Chalcedon 'Western Europe and all the lands recently discovered in America and Australia belong to the area of responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch' seems completely fictitious and is without canonical foundation. These distant lands actually have no connection with the three provinces mentioned in Canon 28 and are nowhere near them. Moreover, the majority of the Orthodox faithful of the Churches in these territories are not native-born; they represent peoples that are traditionally Orthodox and have religious traditions that they wish to preserve. As regards Orthodox jurisdiction in the canonical territories that belonged to the Church of Rome before the schism of 1054, no authoritative pan-Orthodox decision has ever been taken.

All of this is supported by historical facts that indicate that until the 20s of the twentieth century the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority. For example, in Australia the Orthodox diaspora was initially served by Jerusalem, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent priests there. In Western Europe, from the beginning, the parishes and Orthodox communities were dependent canonically on their Mother Churches and not on Constantinople. Similarly, in other parts of the world, in order to follow the commandment of Christ (Mt 28:19f.), zealous missionaries from local Orthodox Churches, including Constantinople, preached the Gospel and baptised the native peoples, who then became the children of the Church that had illumined them by Baptism.

As regards America, from 1794 Orthodoxy on that continent was represented exclusively by the Church of Russia, which by 1918 had brought together some 300,000 Orthodox of different nationalities (Russian, Ukrainians, Serbs, Albanians, Arabs, Aleuts, Indians, Africans, English). The Greek Orthodox were among them, receiving antimensia for their parishes from the Russian bishops. This situation was recognised by all the local Churches, who released clergy for the American parishes into the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate of Constantinople followed the same practice. For example, when in 1912 the Greek Orthodox in America asked His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople Joachim III to send a Greek bishop, the Patriarch did not send a bishop himself, nor did he refer the request to the Church of Greece, but recommended that it be referred to Archbishop Platon of the Aleutian Islands and North America so that the question could be settled by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Jurisdictional pluralism in North America began in 1921, when an 'Archdiocese of North and South America' was created without the agreement of the Russian Church, which was not informed of the matter. It is at this point that the situation you describe arose, i.e. 'In spite of the Holy Canons, the Orthodox, in particular those who live in Western countries, are divided into ethnic groups. Their Churches have at their head bishops chosen on ethnic grounds. Often they are not the only bishops of their cities, and sometimes they are not on good terms with one another and fight among themselves', something that is 'a source of shame for all Orthodoxy and the cause of unfavourable reactions that have negative results for the Orthodox Church'. As we have seen, the blame for this sad situation cannot be attached to the Russian Church. On the contrary, seeking to bring American Orthodoxy into line with the rest of the Orthodox world, as Mother Church she granted autocephaly to her daughter Church. In doing this the Russian Church acted only within the limits of its own canonical jurisdiction and with a view to a future pan-Orthodox decision concerning the establishment of a single local Orthodox Church in America. We might note that, already in 1905, a proposal for the creation of such a Church had been presented to the Holy Synod by Saint Tikhon of Moscow, who was then Archbishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America.

It is sad to observe that the Most Holy Church of Constantinople did not support the action taken in 1970 and has not contributed to the union that was so desired. Until now this remains a source of discord and discontent on the part of many Orthodox in America.

In spite of Your Holiness' affirmation that 'no other Patriarchal see has received the privilege or canonical right' to extend its jurisdiction beyond the provinces that belong to the canonical territories of the autocephalous Churches, history demonstrates that Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council that subjected the three provinces mentioned to Constantinople did not in any way diminish the rights of the other autocephalous Churches, in particular as concerns ecclesiastical jurisdiction over foreign lands. Thus the Church of Rome appointed bishops throughout most of Europe (excepting Thrace), while the Church of Alexandria assigned bishops to the countries south of Egypt (and subsequently throughout most of Africa), and the Church of Antioch did so in the East, in Georgia, Persia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. The jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople, however, for its part, for a long time remained confined within what had been the boundaries of the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace before that Council.

We should also note that historically both the primacy of honour established by Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council and its jurisdiction over the three provinces mentioned above were given to the Church of Constantinople solely for political reasons, i.e. because the city in which the see of Constantinople was located had acquired the status of a political capital and had become 'the city of the Emperor and the Senate'. Thus Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council stipulates that 'In taking this decision as to the precedence of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople, the New Rome, we note that the Fathers [of the Second Ecumenical Council] have in fact rightly granted precedence to the see of Old Rome because that city was the Imperial City. Moved by the same considerations the 150 bishops beloved of God [of this Council] have granted the same precedence to the Very Holy See of New Rome, justifiably thinking that the city honoured by the presence of the Emperor and the Senate and enjoying the same civil privileges as Rome, the ancient Imperial City, should also have the same high rank as she has, in the affairs of the Church, while still remaining second after her.' We do not intend to enter into discussion on this question now, but one should nonetheless not forget an obvious fact: the present situation of Constantinople after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire does not justify constant recourse to this canon, and still less to an excessively broad interpretation of its meaning.

The inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople of new provinces other than those bordering on the original three dioceses, which has taken place in the course of history, is not, in our opinion, linked with Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The reasons were entirely other. Thus the provinces mentioned by Your Holiness -- Illyria, Southern Italy and Sicily -- did not belong 'always' to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but were taken by force from the Roman Church and given to the Church of Constantinople by the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Isaurian, without reference to Canon 28. One of the most important reasons for this action on the part of Leo the Isaurian was that the Church of Rome was opposed to the iconoclastic policies of the Byzantine Emperor, whose political power extended to those territories at that time.

As regards the Russian Church, she was initially subject to the Church of Constantinople not because of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, but because of the general principle according to which converted peoples are subject to the Mother Church that had Christianised them, until they have acquired the conditions necessary for autocephaly. By becoming an autocephalous Church, the Russian Church received the same rights of mission beyond its canonical boundaries as the other local Orthodox Churches, since, as has been shown, the Holy Canons do not give precedence to any particular Church in the realisation of this right.

Such is the authentic pan-Orthodox tradition in this matter, and the Very Holy Church of Constantinople always respected it until the moment when Patriarch Meletios IV developed the theory of the subordination of the whole Orthodox diaspora to Constantinople. It is precisely this theory, which is clearly non-canonical, that is quite obviously 'hostile to the spirit of the Orthodox Church, to Orthodoxy unity, and to canonical order'. It is itself, in fact, the _expression of 'an expansionist tendency that is without canonical foundation and is unacceptable on an ecciesiological level'. By claiming a universal spiritual power, it does not correspond to the Orthodox canonical tradition or to the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and represents a direct challenge to Orthodox unity. In fact, there is no reason to agree with Your contention that the whole of the Orthodox diaspora does not finds itself under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople solely because Constantinople 'tolerates this situation temporarily and for reasons of "economy".' This last _expression has particularly roused our incomprehension and disquiet, since it seems to point to an intention on the part of the Church of Constantinople to continue in the future to pursue a unilateral policy of expansion that is foreign to a spirit of brotherly love and conciliarity. In this respect, it is worthwhile recalling a judicious remark of Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem of blessed memory that is contained in his letter to Your Holiness (No. 480, dated 25 July 1993) to the effect that only a pan-Orthodox Council has the right to resolve the complex question of the diaspora. Neither the Orthodox Church of Romania nor the Orthodox Church of Poland shares the view put forward by Your Holiness of the problem of the diaspora. This is clear from the reports submitted by these Churches in 1990 to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council.

Bearing in mind what has been said, we are completely justified in contesting the statement of Your Holiness to the effect that the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe is 'one of the forms of pastoral care that is incumbent' upon the Church of Constantinople. The theory that this Exarchate is obliged to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is refuted by the very history of this ecclesiastical entity. We must remember that in the official documents of the Church of Constantinople concerning the status of the Russian parishes in Western Europe it is accepted that their Mother Church is the Russian Orthodox Church, and that the system of administration established for these parishes has a provisional character. There is no ambiguity concerning this in the Tomos of Patriarch Photios of 17 February 1931. Commenting on this document, Patriarch Photios himself wrote in a letter (No. 1428, 25 June 1931) to Metropolitan Sergii, Deputy Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne, that 'the situation should remain in this provisional state until, with God's help, unity can be re-established with our Sister Church of Russia'. Similarly, His Holiness Patriarch Athenagoras, in a letter (No. 671, 22 November 1965) to Archbishop Georges of Eudokiada, mentioning the fact that 'the Church of Russia has freed itself of divisions, acquired an internal organisation and freedom of action in its affairs outside Russia', announces the suppression of the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe, 'which had a provisional character', and recommends that it join itself to the Patriarchate of Moscow, 'which can and should always demonstrate and manifest its fatherly love for these parishes'. The fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople received back into its jurisdiction this diocese of Russian parishes in 1971 does not change in any way the provisional character of the current situation of the Russian Archdiocese, since in its first paragraph the relevant Tomos refers back to the Tomos of Patriarch Photios. Thus the Church of Constantinople, in these official documents, has recognised unambiguously the right of the Archdiocese of Russian Parishes in Western Europe to reunite itself with the Mother Church -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- without this being the manifestation of 'an extremely secularised and erroneous spiritual state' or of 'an erroneous ethnic understanding'.

As regards the proposals of His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad made during his stay in Paris from 10-12 February 2001, this subject has already been touched upon in negotiations between delegations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow in Zurich on 19 April 2001 and in a letter of Metropolitan Kirill to Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia (No. 2062, 17 July 2001). While travelling through Paris, His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill was invited by Archbishop Sergii of Eukarpia to a meeting of the Council of the Archdiocese. At this meeting, the hierarch of our Church made no specific proposals, and when he was asked how he saw the future of the Archdiocese, he presented the position of our Church, which has never been concealed and to which we are irrevocably attached.

This position is the following: the existence of an isolated group of Russian parishes in Europe is the result of the tragedy of the Russian people provoked by the Revolution. At the present, when the consequences of the Revolution have been overcome, the return of the parishes of the emigration to the bosom of the Patriarchate of Moscow would be completely normal. This desire for the restoration of the spiritual unity of our people is reflected in the declaration you have mentioned, which was made by the Holy Synod on 8 November 2000, where it is question of those children 'who live beyond the limits of the Russian State' (not 'outside the limits of the Russian Church', as is incorrectly stated in Your letter). We continue to be saddened to see that the legitimate and natural desire to bring together again our own people, who live dispersed for historical and political reasons, is the object of such harsh and unjust attacks on the part of the primate of a Church that has experienced a similar tragedy.

The question of the Orthodox diaspora is one of most important problems in inter-Orthodox relations. Given its complexity and the fact that it has not been sufficiently regularised, it has introduced serious complications in the relations between Churches and has without a doubt diminished the strength of Orthodox witness throughout the contemporary world. Nevertheless, we hope very much that the sustained efforts of the local Orthodox Churches will enable us in the end to find a pan-Orthodox solution to the problem at the Holy and Great Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The historical responsibility is all the greater for any actions directed against the achievement of an agreement pleasing to God on this key question.

This is why, for the true good both of Orthodoxy and the Church of Constantinople, which is dear to us for reasons stretching back over centuries, we call upon Your Holiness to follow the precepts of the Holy Fathers, expressed in Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical council, to wit, 'that the canons of the Fathers not be infringed upon, and that worldly pride and power not slip in under the pretext of holy actions, and that we do not lose, bit by bit and without noticing it, the freedom that Jesus Christ our Lord, the Liberator of all men, has given us by his Blood.' Faithful to the tradition of the Holy Fathers, we ask earnestly and sincerely that Your Holiness renounce an attitude of mind that is an obstacle to the accord so ardently desired, and work hard for the speedy convocation of the Holy and Great Council.

We ask of God peace, health and length of life for Your Holiness, we salute You once again in brotherly fashion, and we continue to respect You and to love Your Holiness in Christ.

+ Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

(1) Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) is discussed at length by Archbishop Peter L'Huillier in his book, The Church of the Ancient Councils (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996), pp. 267-296, where he reaches the same conclusions as the Patriarch (Ed.).

Sourozh, No. 99, February 2005, pp. 1-11