“Our relationship is unwavering, familial, and deeply fraternal”

Interview with Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe

In this interview, His Grace Bishop Irenei (Steenberg) of London and Western Europe, the Synodal Secretary for Inter-Orthodox Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, speaks again about the recent Bishops’ Council that elected ROCOR’s new First Hierarch, His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas, ROCOR’s relations with other jurisdictions, assistance to Ukrainian refugees, and more.

Photo: orthodox-europe.org Photo: orthodox-europe.org     

Vladyka, Metropolitan Nicholas became ROCOR’s new First Hierarch. What impact may this have on ROCOR? And how would you evaluate the council which took place in NYC?

I am happy to speak with you, Dmitry, with our Council of Bishops having just concluded, and I greet you with the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God!

If I may say, the Council was a joy for me, and I believe for us all. This might seem an odd statement, since such Councils are actually very intensive, and involve a tremendous amount of work—after all, they are the supreme governing body for the administration of our entire Church Abroad—but despite the long hours of presentations, discussions and deliberations, I can say that I found the Council to be joyful in spirit. We are living in hard times, and in many ways tragic times, but the Church is not pushed down by such things. It lifted the heart to hear reports on the active growth of our dioceses, the increasing numbers of faithful coming to our churches, the expansion of our seminary programs, missionary works and youth activities, and so much more. Thanks be to God for His mercies!

The election of our new First Hierarch was of course a singular moment within the Council. It signifies, above all, the continuity of our Church life. Death is always a sorrow in this life, and especially of such a beloved archpastor as the late Metropolitan Hilarion. But we are confident in the resurrection on the Last Day, and so do not lament that loss “like those who have no hope,” as it says in the Scriptures; and in the Church, God leads us naturally to select the next to be given the yoke of the Primacy. With overwhelming support our Sobor elected Metropolitan Nicholas to this charge, and we are confident that he will be a wonderful president of our Synod and First Hierarch of our Church Abroad. He is a man of prayer, humility and gentleness, while standing ever firm on the Truth of the Church. I rejoice in his election.

Did the Council send notification to the Moscow Patriarchate about Metropolitan Nicholas’ election? Did you receive an answer?

Of course our Council communicated its decisions immediately to the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate, as is the protocol established by the “Act of Canonical Communion” signed in 2007. While the Church Abroad makes its pastoral-administrative decisions autonomously, in a matter such as an episcopal election or, in this case, the election of a First Hierarch, it submits this decision to the Patriarchate for what is called “canonical confirmation”; that is, fraternal confirmation that all has been done according to the Holy Canons and practices of the Church. This is an important part of maintaining the unity and canonical integrity of the Church as a whole: that nothing is done “privately” or in secret, or in a manner cut off from others (such things really aren’t Orthodox), but instead that one part of the Church willingly submits its actions to the gaze of another, so that there can be mutual assurance that canonical order is always being maintained.

In the present case of our primatial election, the decision of the Council was communicated to the Patriarchate the same day as the election itself, and its Holy Synod formally confirmed the canonicity the next morning. It was thus a simple and very swift matter, since in canonical terms this was a very straightforward event; but, again, such interactions are important. The parts of the Church do not live in isolation from each other, but in a spirit of cooperation ensure a canonical path is always followed. For his part, after the conclusion of that canonical process, the Patriarch wrote a most kind greeting to our newly elected Metropolitan Nicholas and congratulated him and the Sobor with this step in our life. It was read aloud at the conclusion of Vladyka Nicholas’ enthronement, and warmly received by all.

Did the Council discuss questions, somehow related to external affairs with other jurisdictions or with secular authorities? If yeswhich questions, and what was the outcome?

Yes, the relationship of the Church Abroad with all the Local Orthodox Churches, as well as their various jurisdictions in the diaspora, is always a topic of discussion at the Holy Council of Bishops. In my role as Synodal Secretary for Inter-Orthodox Relations, I offered a report on many aspects of this broad topic, which initiated discussion amongst the Council members, as clearly this is a subject that touches upon the life of every bishop and his flock.

Under this heading, we examined the general state of affairs of various parts of the Orthodox world, and how they touch upon the life and mission of ROCOR. The extremely close relations that we maintain with the majority of the Local Churches is always important to our hierarchs, and there were discussions on how these bear fruit in practical as well as spiritual ways in various dioceses. The recognition of the autocephaly of the Macedonian Church by the Moscow Patriarchate and others was received by our hierarchs with real joy, as it represents the healing of a long wound and the furthers unity between Orthodox brethren. Of course, we also addressed the troubled situations surrounding the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which have so dramatically escalated since our last Council, not just with respect to obvious places like Ukraine, but also in the United States and elsewhere. That Patriarchate’s departure from canonical norms, to the degree that its ongoing communion with the rest of the Orthodox world cannot be properly maintained until it returns to proper order, touches on our lives directly, since in the diaspora we live “on top of each other.” These divisions are hard for us to bear, and the source of much sorrow. We hope and will continue to work to help overcome them, but this must of course be in a manner wholly in accord with the teachings of the Church and the order of her Holy Canons. The canonical situation in Africa certainly troubles us, as well, and our hope there, as elsewhere, is to live at peace with all and help those in various roles to follow a canonical path.

Of course, we also talked at length about our relationship with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is extremely close, and our relations with all our fellow parts of the Russian Orthodox Church — especially our relationship with the Patriarchate. The canonical unity of our Church is important to us all, and while I know that these kinds of topics are the subject of endless speculation on the internet, in reality these are settled matters. The sorrowful events of the twentieth century saw the arrival of too much division within our Russian Orthodox family for us to desire any increase in division, or any departure from the unity attained at so high a cost of martyric sacrifice and tireless labor. Our discussions about our relations with the Patriarchate are essentially of a practical nature: areas of cooperation, lines of communication, and so on.

Do you see any grounds for changes in ROCOR's external affairs policies now, with the election of the new First Hierarch?

Not in any fundamental way, no. When we think of “external relations,” that is, our Church Abroad’s relations with other Orthodox bodies, there is a simple vision that always applies: we aim to foster, amongst all, the unyielding and unchanging proclamation of the Gospel, the adherence to the Canons, and the traditional life of Orthodoxy that brings unity between the churches. Where this is maintained, we enjoy the fullest unity with all our brethren. Where it is challenged, we strive actively to restore good order so that unity is not broken. Where it is dismissed, we acknowledge that unity cannot exist in those terms, and strive to restore it.

This is an ancient pattern that we have seen since the time of the Ecumenical Councils. I see no reason why there should be any changes to it simply because one Primate has succeeded another.

How is ROCOR going to maintain its relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate in the current situation? How would you characterize this relationship now?

To begin with the second part of your question, I would personally characterize our relationship with the Patriarchate as being unwavering at the level of canonical unity and integrity, and deeply fraternal and familial at the practical level. That is to say, we interact continuously, in fraternal and respectful terms, each valuing and appreciating the other’s autonomy in its own spheres of pastoral and administrative life. And I say that we interact in a “familial” way, in the sense that on many things we find ourselves of common mind and approach, while on some we disagree or have alternative approaches—but this is entirely normal within a family, just as it is entirely normal between the parts of the Church. It does not shake the firm foundation of canonical unity that binds us together, or the love that we have for one another. So we can speak freely and openly together about all these things, without such conversations becoming rifts or divisions. The idea of division simply doesn’t occur to us. It isn’t part of the vocabulary of our inner life.

Can we expect that ROCOR will strengthen or broaden its autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate? If yeshow is it possible?

I do not sense any movement within ROCOR to broaden our autonomy, because in fact we already possess an autonomy established in the broadest possible terms. In the “Act of Canonical Communion,” which I mentioned before, the Church Abroad, having been established by a Patriarchal decision in 1920, is confirmed as “an indissoluble, self-governing part of the Local Russian Orthodox Church” that “is independent in pastoral, educational, administrative, management, property, and civil matters, existing at the same time in canonical unity with the Fullness of the Russian Orthodox Church.” We have our own Primate (First Hierarch), our own Sobor and our own Holy Synod, which make decisions within their own autonomy, subjecting matters of high canonical significance to the confirmation of the Patriarchate for precisely the reasons I identified in your earlier question: not as a matter of “external control,” but a normal part of fraternal unity in canonical order.

This is an autonomy established in brotherly love. One of my favourite photographs from the signing of the Act in 2007 is of the ever-memorable Patriarch Alexei II and the ever-memorable Metropolitan Lavra embracing each other after the document had been signed by them: brother Primates, sharing the embrace of Christian love. The autonomy of the Church Abroad is not antagonistic to the autonomy of the Patriarchate—it is precisely the character in which our canonical and spiritual unity is expressed. We are one family.

Many people consider the current situation as an attack against Orthodoxy and an attempt to weaken it. Do you agree with that, and how should we face it?

If by “the current situation” you mean the war in Ukraine and the broader ecclesiastical situation there, then I absolutely agree that what you have described is “part of the equation” of conflict. While there are many factors that have gone into, and continue to go into, the tragic and indefensible perpetuation of bloodshed, many of which are political, economic and civil and therefore go beyond my competency, the increasing attacks on Christianity in the region—and Orthodox Christianity in particular—must absolutely be considered a significant factor. We are, after all, talking about a region of the world, the vast expanse covered by what are now the modern States of Russia, Ukraine, and their neighbors, that has for centuries been one of the great strongholds of Christian Orthodoxy. The Church has been the unifying “mother” who has, over those centuries, gathered together the profoundly diverse peoples and cultures of that huge region and made them into one family. This is part of what makes our heart ache at the present bloodshed: these are Orthodox brothers raising arms against Orthodox brothers. God help us!

I do not myself like to speak in broad categories of “The West” and “The East”, of one attacking the other, etc., as these are simplistic and mostly unhelpful. But I do not see how anyone could doubt that modern-day political borders, divisions, governments—and the self interests of all of these—find the unity so long provided by the Church to be counter-productive to designs better served by division and suspicion. And we have seen, as a consequence, attacks on the unity of the Church coming from all sides, not just since the start of the present conflict, but really for many years. The establishment of false and uncanonical “churches” in Ukraine, clearly intended to divide the faithful, is sorrowful proof of this. So are laws aimed at intimidating clergy, or seizing church properties, or indeed media and political portrayals of the Church as being a political institution, linked to State interests. All of this serves to divide, to weaken, and this seems to be the desire.

So we can only repeat over and over again what our own Church Abroad has made abundantly clear in numerous messages: the Church is not, cannot, and will not be an instrument of political ideology, of whatever “side” of whatever argument. She is not, cannot, and will not be supportive of bloodshed and fratricide. She is not, cannot, and will not become a mouthpiece of political commentary. The Church has one mission: to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to lead man towards repentance, and to heal him of his sins. She does not take sides in political conflicts, because she seeks the healing of all. She abhors violence and preaches peace. She strives not to speak in the terms of contemporary political ideologies, but with the voice of the prophets, martyrs and saints. The only vision to which she subjects herself, and the only vision she proclaims and promotes, is that of Christ. And she will keep doing this, as she has done from the beginning, knowing that whatever attacks are made against her will ultimately fail. Man cannot divide what God has made whole.

The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate and announced the opening of its own dioceses and parishes abroad. That will affect your canonical territory, particularly in the Western Europe. How are you going to deal with that?

Firstly, let me correct your statement: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church did not declare autocephaly, but rather its intention to live more actively within the autonomy it already possesses. The whole idea of “declaring” autocephaly is actually a kind of nonsense-concept invented by speculators that don’t understand Orthodox ecclesiology. Autocephaly can never be “declared”: it has to be received from its mother Church, with the recognition of the other Local Churches.

I want to stress again how close and deep are our bonds with the Ukrainian Church, and especially with its Primate, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry and so many of his fellow Ukrainian hierarchs. Perhaps we are more close to them in spirit and life than to almost any other part of the Orthodox Church as a whole. And this closeness gives us the fraternal boldness also to question certain actions: and the establishment of parishes in the diaspora is one of those about which we have many questions, and also constructive thoughts on better ways to respond to the current influx of Ukrainian refugees in various parts of the world. I think it is safe to say that the multiplication of yet another “jurisdiction” within the diaspora is not the best way to foster unity. As a short-term, immediate measure in response to a humanitarian crisis, we can understand the impulse; but it is clear that there would be serious problems posed by envisaging this as a longer-term solution. So we hope to work together with our brother-hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to develop what we hope will be a stronger and more unified path. After all, our Church Abroad has been a source of unity in the Diaspora for over a century, uniting in herself Russians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Belorussians, as well as French, English, Germans, Swiss, Italians, etc. We arise from the history of Imperial Russia, but ethnicity or nationality is not a defining part of our ethos — indeed, of our four hierarchs in Europe, two are native Germans, one is a native of Switzerland, and I myself am American. We have maintained unity through world wars, communist occupations, the cold war and countless military conflicts and upheavals. Why should we abandon it now, on account of the present conflict? No, we must find a better path, together, and I am hopeful that the deep love between our churches, and the personal bonds between our hierarchs and those in the Ukraine, will make this possible. What is needed is patience, love, and humility. May God grant this to us all.

How are you dealing with Ukrainian refugees, faithful and clergy, who came to the Western Europe?

Extensively! Within Europe, our two dioceses (my own Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe, and the German Diocese, which also includes Austria, Scandinavia and other territories, headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Mark of Berlin and Germany) have been at the forefront of responding to this tremendous need. Not only have we raised tens of thousands of pounds, euros and francs to send to the humanitarian fund of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and other entities within Ukraine, to help with the suffering there, we have taken expansive steps to aid the large numbers of refugees flooding into our European territories. We provide help with immigration matters in various countries; we assist in liaising between refugees and local governments to find housing, schools, and employment; we operate food banks and the collection of supplies for refugees; we visit immigration centers and provide spiritual and practical help; we even organized a special summer camp in Switzerland specifically for children of refugee families.

Those are all “practical” responses, if I can use that term. But perhaps most important is the spiritual help. Our people have really opened their hearts to their Ukrainian brethren in a deep way. They have welcomed them into our parishes, where they discover in Europe the same faith, the same Church, that they had known in Ukraine. They are able to partake of the Mysteries, and live in community and fellowship with fellow Orthodox Christians. They find in our parishes an environment free of political discussions, where they can be at peace with all. And we have welcomed clergy also; I have myself received into our European diocese several Ukrainian clergy, with the blessing of their hierarchs in Ukraine, to serve in our parishes in the UK and on the continent—and they are our welcome brethren for as long as circumstances keep them in this region, until, as most of them eagerly wish, they will be able to return home. And we have informed the Ukrainian Church authorities that we are fully prepared to open new parishes in our diocese, specifically to cater to the needs of Ukrainian faithful. So, all the doors are open—and the hearts of people are open, which is even more important.

Ioann10/30/2022 4:11 pm
Re: “Autocephaly can never be ‘declared’, it has to be received from its mother Church, with the recognition of the other Local Churches.” The Russian Orthodox Church declared its independence from Constantinople in 1467-1470. The other Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs recognized its autocephaly only in 1589–1593, over a century later. Strange that this Bishop of the ROCOR neglected to mention this fact. And so we see the newly independent UOC following the same pattern though it is doubtful that it will take 100 years for the autocephaly of the Mother Church of the Rus to be recognized by the other Local Churches.
Ioann10/20/2022 10:21 pm
On the Union if Orthodox Journalists site, we read about the establishment of a new UOC parish in Berlin, Germany with about 100 members. The UOC Priest said it was established with the help of: first the Antiochians, then the Romanians, and then the Macedonians. ROCOR was not mentioned at all…
Philippe 10/20/2022 2:04 pm
A lot of conflicting things here. One thing which must be understood which rocor fails to see; most Ukrainian refugees no longer want to hear Patriarch Kyrill being commemorated, hence the need for their own parishes.
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