As was reported on OrthoChristian.com on February 14, the Patriarchate of Alexandria issued a statement that if the Russian priests who are currently visiting and serving in Africa as part of the Russian Church’s African Exarchate don’t stop serving, they will be subject to canonical sanctions. Fr. George Maximov, one of these missionary priest currently serving in Africa, wrote an answer to His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria. This answer was written in English, and we reproduce it here with very slight grammatical corrections.
I have been in Africa for more than two weeks, visiting local communities of the Russian Orthodox Church with the blessing of my Church hierarchy. Archpriest Andrei Novikov has been here for about the same time with the same mission. As it turned out, our modest efforts attracted the attention of many people.
So, the other day I learned from the media that Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria addressed me and Fr. Andrei Novikov “for the last time” with an appeal to “return to the church system, observing the canonical law of the Church, and to immediately stop services with parishioners” in Africa. He even threatens us with eccesiastical punishments if we do not obey.
Of course, I am touched by such attention, but at the same time I am surprised. Because according to the canonical law of the Church, Patriarch Theodoros cannot officially address Fr. Andrei and me by bypassing our Church hierarchy. Moreover, he cannot threaten us with anything and take any measures against us as clerics of a different Church. If Patriarch Theodoros has any questions about Fr. Andrei’s and my activities, he can address Metropolitan Leonid of Klin, with whose blessing we came to Africa, or His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, whose Exarch Metropolitan Leonid is. This is all the easier to do, considering that Patriarch Theodoros has known them both personally for many years.
However, he avoids addressing them, and it’s not hard to guess why: It’s always embarrassing to look into the eyes of someone you’ve betrayed. It is much easier in the circle of his clergymen to act as if these Russian priests came to Africa by themselves.
It was even more surprising for me to see that Patriarch Theodoros accuses Fr. Andrei and me of violating Canon 2 of the Council of Antioch. Let me remind you of the text of the canon: “It is unlawful to commune with excommunicated persons... If any one of the bishops, presbyters, or deacons, or any one in the Canon shall be found communing with excommunicated persons, let him also be excommunicated.”
But I don’t commune with excommunicated people in Africa. The priests with whom I meet and serve here were in communion with the bishops of the Church of Alexandria yesterday and no one excommunicated them from Communion. But you, Your Beatitude, are exactly a violator of this rule. On November 8, 2019, you began commemorating the head of the schismatic organization, pseudo-bishop Epiphanius, at the liturgy, and on August 13, 2021, you concelebrated with him and received Communion from the same chalice. I find it rather cynical that you are trying to accuse the others of your own canonical crime.
Everything that is happening now in Africa is your personal accountability—the consequences of your decision, which you made without asking the opinion of African believers, clergy and even bishops. One of your bishops, sending out to the priests of the Russian Church those meaningless “letters of suspension”, writes: “Remember, you are not a victim of anyone or anything other than your own choice.” It is a pity that this bishop did not dare to address these words to you, because they suit you much better.
Without any explanation, you entered into communication with those whom you had previously openly called schismatics. Here are your words from a 2016 interview: “From the very beginning, when the problem of church schism first arose [in Ukraine], the Patriarchate of Alexandria and I, as its representative, took the position that the Ukrainian Church is an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church <...> When the schismatics tried forcibly, without an invitation, to come to the Holy Trinity Church, which was then a courtyard of the Alexandrian Church in Odessa, I stood at the door and said: This will not happen.” And here are your words from another interview: “As an Orthodox hierarch, I ask believers in Ukraine to remain under the omophorion of the canonical head of the Ukrainian Church, Metropolitan Onufriy.”
Maybe in November 2019 you suddenly began to see clearly and admitted that you were wrong? Maybe there appeared some arguments that convinced you that the schismatics were not really schismatics? No. You didn’t give any arguments. You did not declare any fallacy of your previous position. All you said was, “The time has come.”
Is that the whole explanation? It has not even convinced many Greek bishops of your Church. And, of course, it did not convince many African priests and laypeople who followed the situation. “The time has come” For whom can it sound convincing? And if this convinces you, then why not say that “the time has come” for the Russian Orthodox Church to restore its jurisdiction in Africa?
But we don’t need such weak arguments. Both Fr. Andrei, I, and other Russian priests who will soon come to Africa, in fraternal cooperation with African priests, specifically work to fix the Church order that you have hurt. Orthodox Africans who do not want to bear the spiritual consequences of your sin have every right not to do so. If they remained in ecclesiasticl communion with you and the bishops who supported you, they would become accomplices in your violation of Canon 2 of the Council of Antioch. They would become together with you a single Church body with a schismatic organization. The only way for them to avoid this is to join a Church that is not in communion with the excommunicated. Most Local Orthodox Churches do not recognize Ukrainian schismatics, but the Russian Church could not ask any of the other Churches to accept Orthodox Africans. She took on this holy mission as the Church that suffered the most from the schism you supported.
Fr. Andrei and I are in Africa following the decisions of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, of which Your Beatitude is well aware. These decisions explicitly state that you “deviated into a schism” (Journal No. 100 of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church dated December 29, 2021). This is a conciliar canonical assessment of your act and your position. By uniting with the schismatics, you have taken yourself out of the protection of the holy canons, because the canons do not protect schismatics. Schismatics have no canonical territory that could be violated. Schismatics have no power over Orthodox priests, so any of your decisions about me or about African clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church mean nothing. To use the paper of your “encyclicals” for domestic purposes is the only way to make them anyhow profitable.
They won’t stop us.
The same media report says that “the Patriarch calls on all African clergy, enticed by the material promises of the aforementioned [Russian] clergy, to return to the embrace of their mother Church.”
This is what Patriarch Theodoros thinks about the African clergy—that they are greedy people who ran for material goods, and nothing else. I find this offensive to all Orthodox Africans who joined the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s as if they can’t have a conscious Church position. As if they can’t have an opinion. As if they are unable to understand the problem of the split and the consequences of its recognition.
And this is what the Patriarch of Alexandria says after the publication of the letter of the African priests, who opposed his decision to recognize schismatics! A letter that you officially ignored, and unofficially your bishops began to persecute many priests who signed it. Though nobody even spoke about joining the Russian Orthodox Church at that time, the whole “fault” of these African priests was that they remained in the ecclesiastic canonical position that you held earlier and that you did not have the courage to stay in. I heard that in private conversations you later made excuses: “I was pressured, I was forced to recognize the Ukrainian schismatics.” If this is true, then I can recommend you to learn courage from African priests, many of whom your staff could not force to change their Church position.
But besides the letter that the priests signed without any material promises from anyone, you could remember your meeting with the priests of Western Kenya in 2020. When they expressed their feelings to your face because of your recognition of Ukrainian schismatics, you simply waved them away: “It’s not your business, I know better.”
And now, when you pretend that you did not know about this position of many African priests, and they are just corrupt and the Russians bribed them with material promises, I am ashamed for you.
This is what I actually promised the African priests at our meetings: “Think carefully before you decide! It won’t be easy. The Greeks will expel you from churches, take away all church things, demonize you in the media, turn parishioners against you, they will use everything they can use against you.” African priests heard such promises from me and you have already begun to implement these promises!
Of course, only God knows what is in a person’s heart, what reasons he is really guided by. I know that there is a belief among some bishops of the Patriarchate of Alexandria that now they just need to engage more money and “the problem will be solved.” In their opinion, it is enough to shake money in front of faces of the African priests and they will quickly run back to them.
Well, we’ll see.
If there are indeed those among the African priests who joined the Russian Orthodox Church only because of the expectation of material benefits, then the Church of Alexandria will help us to purify our ranks, leaving only principled people. But I think that the majority are principled. I believe in African priests and I know that they are able to understand Church issues no less than Russians and Greeks. Your bishops, who have already tried unsuccessfully to bribe some of our priests, also know this.
When you further make a claim that the Alexandrian Orthodox Church “has never cultivated ethnocentrism,” it looks like a mockery of common sense and of your African flock. To understand this, just look at the photo of the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The overwhelming majority of the bishops of which, by a strange coincidence, are representatives of one small European nation. Do you think Africans don’t notice this?
One would understand this if you had started a mission in Africa five or ten years ago. But you’ve been in East Africa for eighty years. How did it happen that over all these decades, when the question of episcopal consecration arose, in most cases a Greek turned out to be more worthy than all representatives of African peoples combined? And we are no longer talking about Greeks born in Africa. No, calling yourself the “Church of All Africa” You are looking for bishops not in Africa, but someone from Greece or Cyprus, no matter that he was born on another continent and does not know the local realities—he is still more worthy in your eyes than a person born and raised in Africa. Many of the bishops of the Church of Alexandria do not even live in Africa after their ordination, they continue to live in Greece, coming to their dioceses a couple of times a year—and still they turn out to be more worthy of episcopacy in your eyes than those Orthodox African pastors-monks who live in Africa all the time. And it’s not related to ethnocentrism? Seriously? If you think this will sound convincing to your African flock, then you know it very poorly.
For comparison, look at the Japanese Orthodox Church. Russian missionaries created it, but how many of its bishops are Russian now? None, all Japanese. If you did not have the task of “preserving the heritage of Hellenism in Africa”, there would be no ethnocentrism and Greek ethnophyletism, then the Patriarchate of Alexandria should have come to the same result long ago, since almost one hundred percent of its flock and priests are Africans.
My answer has already turned out to be too long, but I would like to comment on another phrase from Patriarch Theodoros’s address. Namely, that the Alexandrian “Patriarchate will continue its martyric process.” We can agree here, but in the sense that you provide this process for Africans who do not want to be with you. When representatives of your Church blocked access to the only well with clean water in the village of Sokoyne, saying that access to water would be only for those who would continue to go to the church of the Patriarchate of Alexandria—is this how you want to arrange a martyric process for the villagers who decided to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church? And when, in the Mwanza district, a Greek priest kicked out of school the children of those African priests who did not want to follow you into the schism, is this also the same “martyric process” that you are talking about? To take revenge on children for the choice of their fathers? Very dignified. I am sure that you will continue this “martyrdom”, or rather, torture of Africans, further. And this will cover with shame the very heritage of Hellenism in Africa that you are trying to protect. We will make public all the cases of your persecution of Orthodox Africans who do not want to be with You. Let people know how you really feel about Orthodox Africans.
In response to the appeal of the Patriarch of Alexandria addressed to me, I would like to repeat the recent appeal of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church addressed to him: “We call on His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and the archpastors of the Most Holy Church of Alexandria to abandon support for the Ukrainian schism and return to the canonical path in order to preserve the unity of Holy Orthodoxy”.
And for my part, I would like to call on Patriarch Theodoros to repent of the sin of recognizing the schism, and of all his sins and mistakes that made the lives of many Orthodox Africans unbearable, for all the pain he caused to many believers in Africa, Ukraine and other places.
I understand that these calls are unlikely to be heard. There are no signs that Patriarch Theodoros is ready to admit his responsibility for at least something. His position is simple: It’s all the evil Russians and greedy Africans who have created problems, and we, the innocent Greek bishops of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, are suffering martyrdom for nothing.
Maybe this position sounds convincing to Patriarch Theodoros himself, but I don’t think it will convince many in Africa—even from among those who, for various reasons, still remain in the Church of Alexandria.
Anyway, the Russian Orthodox Church came to Africa at the invitation of Orthodox Africans and it will not leave its new children here. We did not come to fight with anyone, but to take care of those who chose our Church to protect themselves from schism. They have the right to do so.
PS: After this answer was written, I was sent messages from the media that allegedly “the court of the Patriarchate of Alexandria sent a summons to the church court” to me and Fr. Andrei. It’s like a media spectacle in a desperate attempt to impress their audience.
I answer again: As a cleric of another Church, I am in principal not subject to the court of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, even if it were not in schism. And after falling away into the schism, even more so. All the “prohibitions” of schismatics against Orthodox clerics will be like God’s blessings. And I personally will take this as a sign of recognition of the success of my modest efforts in Africa. Your Beatitude, please send me the decisions of your “court”, I will hang them on the wall and smile looking at them. It will help me to become closer to my African brothers priests, who got “Suspension letters” from their previous bishops. I am happy to be in the same boat with them.
I think the clergy of the Patriarchate of Alexandria were surprised to learn from this news that, as it turns out, there is a church court in the Church of Alexandria! I wonder how many complaints of African clerics sent to Patriarch Theodoros against Greek bishops were considered in this court? As far as I know, not at all. Although such complaints took place and I am aware of them.
To what a pitiful end did Patriarch Theodore lead the great and glorious ancient Church of Alexandria! Κύριε ἐλέησον!