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Protopriest Nikolai Artemoff (Munich) - On the Local Council of 2009

The publication of documents and speeches from the Local Council [Pomestny Sobor] of the Russian Orthodox Church still lies ahead. I would not wish to rush ahead with my own account, and I would not even think of making any type of evaluation or recommendations. This article is only the opinion of one of the participants of the first Local Council of the now-unified Russian Church, and an attempt to bring out some questions which arose during the Council and the discussions that followed.

The Local Council [Pomestny Sobor] held in Moscow in January, 2009, drew significant interest and various interpretations, in particular among our flock abroad. Since contradictory opinions of this Council are connected in large part to hopes laid upon the Local Council as such, it makes sense to clarify a few points regarding the role of the Pomestny Sobor in the Russian Church—what was and was not to be expected from the 2009 Council, and what its function was.

This necessarily brings us back to the Pomestny Sobor of 1917-1918, which to this day remains unique in the history of the Russian Church; there was no other council like it, if only for the fact that there was no opportunity to prepare for it in advance in the same way. There is no need to even discuss the councils which elected the Patriarchs during the days of Stalin and Brezhnev. The Council of 1990, which elected His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II was also not fully prototypical of a Local Council. Further, in accordance with the Statutes [Ustav] of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) of 1988, the Local Council was to be convened every five years, a requirement not followed for several reasons, which would require a separate study. We will limit ourselves here to noting that in refraining from convening a Council, the Supreme Ecclesiastical authorities was guided by the desire to preserve peace and stability in the Church during a crucial and unstable period in the nation.

It is well known how starkly different the opinions and evaluations are of the Pomestny Sobor of 1917-1918. The Local Council is the highest authority in the Russian Church, but the decisions and decrees of the 1917-1918 Sobor are not considered binding today and are rarely applied in practice. Some consider this break by the Church from its own traditions strange and unacceptable, others think that the trash-heap of history is the only place for this “revolutionary” Council. As usual, there is a third point of view, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and that it is important first of all to examine the acts of this Council, to make sense of what is important for the Church and to weed out what was obviously the result of passing political moods and tendencies.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: even the most basic norms for a Council were under question, and they would have been difficult to apply without substantial amendments. Church consciousness mandates that they be reevaluated, but it is obvious that a complete, unbiased examination is premature now. We are in a transitional phase. In many ways, the Council of 2009 was likewise transitional.

So the idea of convening a Local Council is to this day not fully conceptualized, which is reflected in the general ecclesial mood. As a result of certain criticism about the violation of statutes which mandate the organization of a Local Council every five years, the Council of Bishops of 2000 changed this passage in the Statutes. Canceling the five-year cycle, it also assumed for itself several functions of a Local Council, narrowing its scope of competency, changing its points of emphasis. This also provoked objections over the violation of standard practices of the Council from radical groups, who stressed that such changes are the exclusive prerogative of the Local Council itself.

However, the Pomestny Sobor of 2009 confirmed this amendment along with all the other changes to the Statutes. In this way, the 18-year period of the service of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II has come to a conclusion. A plan has also been drawn up for the future.

As far as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is concerned, hopes for a future, free All-Russian Council were expressed throughout the whole Soviet period and forced division. But details of the form that such a Council would take were only considered in the abstract—there was no single concept of whether this would be merely a Council of Bishops or a Pomestny Sobor. And the idea that it should take the form of the Council of 1917-1918 was not shared by everyone, not by far.

The fact of the matter is that in the post-Revolutionary epoch, there were parallels of sorts within the Russian Church (both in the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad) relating to the clergy and laity: the Supreme Ecclesiastical Authority, which gave them the right to participate in church administration, disappeared forever from the ROCOR in 1922. The Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia took upon itself full responsibility for leading the Church and since then elects from among its own members the Synod and the First Hierarch. No one in the Russian Church Abroad would even imagine that clergymen and laity could participate in the election of its Primate. They only had an advisory voice at the All-Diaspora Councils, the decisions rested with the bishops themselves. From 1920 through 2006, there were four such general Councils—there was no discussion of holding them more regularly than that. The Supreme Ecclesiastical Council of the Moscow Patriarchate disappeared that same year, 1922, though for other reasons. 

The reestablishment of canonical communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Church Abroad did not require an All-Russian Council. It was enough for the Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate to inform the Holy Synod that the reunification process of the two parts of the Russian Church had been completed. The qualitative analysis of the historical and canonical problems stemming from division did not require the participation in Russia of elected clergymen or laity. It hardly would have been appropriate considering the unfamiliarity of the people of the Church in Russia with the fact of the division itself. The issue of true leadership of the Church is raised, which is of course broader than the question of unification, but one senses the problem of leadership here, too. In any case, we see that this process proceeded successfully and conclude under the circumstances which developed in practice in both parts of the Russian Church.

For the Russian Church Abroad, it was necessary before reunification to hold pastoral conferences, in which half of its clergymen participated, and, a year and a half later, an All-Diaspora Council with the participation of clergymen and laity. After this Council, which was held in San Francisco, a Council of Bishops was held, as always. Naturally, the bishops who participated in the All-Diaspora Council carefully heeded the opinions and moods of its delegates, both clergy and laity, but were not bound to them in their decisions.

If delegates to the All-Diaspora Councils were elected in accordance with local practice, procedural problems of such elections in the Moscow Patriarchate are still not resolved. The parish structure itself is not yet clear. From a legal point of view, the process of selecting delegates to the Pomestny Sobor proved to be fairly opaque. Due to the urgency in convening the Local Council of 2009 (50 days after the repose of the Patriarch), it was beyond the capability of many in the Church Abroad to call diocesan conferences and conduct proper elections. (The German Diocese proved one of the few exceptions because the diocesan assembly had previously been scheduled for late December.) So it is not appropriate to accuse anyone in Russia of violation standard procedure.

It was proposed to hold nine plenary sessions at the Sobor of 2009. In fact, its work was finished before the scheduled three days, when the Sobor decided the questions it was able to. Of course, there are many difficult problems facing the Church in Russia which require a Sobor to examine, but it is fair to say that the Pomestny Sobor did not address them specifically because it was not ready to do so.

As a reminder, preparatory work for the Sobor of 1917-1918 began 12 years earlier, in June of 1905, when the Synod requested that the diocesan bishops (there were 66 at the time), render their opinion on a whole series of questions on church life, specifically:

  1. The composition of the future Sobor (the rights and authority of its participants);
  2. The future territorial divisions of the Church (metropolitan districts);
  3. Church administration (centralization or decentralization);
  4. The role of the clergy in civil life;
  5. Spiritual court (its relationship to civil legislation and marriages);
  6. Reform of diocesan administration;
  7. Daily life of communities (parishes);
  8. Church property;
  9. Questions of faith and relations with other Orthodox and other Christians; Lenten periods, divine services, ecclesiastical discipline.

A half a year was set aside to prepare speeches. On this basis, a Pre-Council Office was established at the Holy Synod to work out the questions subject to consideration at the Pomestny Sobor. It consisted of first seven, then ten bishops, and in addition, some of the most eminent canonists and church historians of the time (there were more than twenty professors), to whom other laypersons famous for their work for the Church were soon added. Questions were discussed by topic, and only later were laid out in open meetings. The materials of the Pre-Council Office were published in 1906-1907. On the basis of these, work resumed in 1912. The materials of the Office and Commission were then used by a Pre-Council Conference, which was convened by the Synod after the February Revolution. It was then decided to hasten to prepare for the All-Russian Council. On July 5, 1917, the Synod confirmed “Regulations for the Convening of a Pomestny Sobor of the All-Russian Orthodox Church” [Polozhenije o sozyve Pomestnogo Sobora Pravoslavnoj Vserossiiskoj Tserkvi]. The Council opened on August 15, 1917, and became the largest one in the history of the Russian Church.

The members of the Sobor were elected in parishes, monasteries, deaneries and dioceses. The elections were held in three stages for the laity, and in two for monastics and the “white” clergy. All active members of the parishes participated, all the residents of monasteries, and all the clergymen. Participating in the Council were 72 bishops, 192 elected clergymen (among them, 2 protopresbyters, 17 archimandrites, 2 hegumens, 3 hieromonks, 72 protopriests, 65 parish priests, 2 protodeacons and 8 deacons) and 299 laypersons. The Council held three sessions and 170 meetings, working on the order of the Russian Church over the course of a year. And we need more than a year to study in detail all the results of this massive endeavor.

Against this backdrop, one could not have expected a great deal from this year’s Pomestny Sobor. To be disappointed over the haste with which it was convened would be unfair, especially in Russia, where the importance of the role of the person of the Patriarch is very great. It would hardly be wise to leave such a great and important organism like the Church without a Primate for very long. So the first and most crucial challenge for the Sobor was the election of a Patriarch. Thus it is a future Sobor, and not this recent one, that should bear responsibility for first “forming diocesan pre-Council assemblies, which would present proposals to the Sobor which concern the Church in each diocese, while an All-Church Pre-Council Office would sum up these proposals and establish the field of work for the Pomestny Sobor” (from a private, written opinion on the Sobor of 2009).

Many have noted that the election of His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia was preceded this time by a certain pre-election activity in forms appearing more like civil political campaigns. But apparently this did not play a significant role—the result of the election was obvious even without that. This is attested to by the absolute majority of votes for the Locum Tenens, Metropolitan Kirill, as the leading candidate from the Council of Bishops. The bishops picked the one from among their own whom they felt most able to express the intentions of the Russian Church today.

The Council of Bishops needed to offer three candidates. In accordance with the procedure for electing the Patriarch approved by the Council, it was proposed that if one of them withdraws his candidacy, then his place is assumed by the candidate with the next greatest number of votes. The Pomestny Sobor, in turn, could propose more candidates. All that was required was to name someone—every member of the Sobor could do so—and to include him in the list of candidates would require 25 supporting votes. Then, the procedure dictates, the list of candidates would undergo a round of secret voting, incidentally, one could vote for several candidates, so that several candidates could theoretically have more than 50% of the votes, if, of course, more than half of the Sobor delegates did not check the box for “do not vote for anyone.” Finally, the names of any who received an absolute majority of votes would be added to the three candidates already proposed by the Council of Bishops. After that, any of the candidates could withdraw his candidacy.

In other words, the candidate of two hundred bishops could in theory be “vetoed,” that is, completely overturned by an election by five hundred clergymen, monastics and laypersons comprising the other delegates of the Pomestny Sobor. Of course, this scenario would be highly unlikely, but still possible.

The experience of having nominated additional candidates and the long process of electing a Primate at the Sobor of 1990 apparently frightened those who lived through it; there were stories of the meetings stretching deep into the night, and the result was only reached in the end when the Locum Tenens of the time withdrew his candidacy. The delegates of the 2009 Local Council clearly did not wish for a similarly drawn-out process. The proposal to draw lots was expressed not when the Sobor was in the process of voting but during the confirmation of the agenda. It was tabled, and then rejected. Later, when the election procedure was being discussed, it was proposed to limit it to three candidates already presented by the Council of Bishops, and not to nominate new ones, and this proposal was accepted.

After this, His Eminence Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk withdrew his candidacy. Later, Vladyka explained this decision by saying he wished to avoid a second round of voting. From a formal point of view, his withdrawal at this moment was not a violation of procedure.  But it was announced immediately following the decision to limit the number of candidates to the three nominated by the Council of Bishops, and this sudden turn of events evoked unhappiness among some participants of the Sobor.

When voting began, two candidates remained, Metropolitan Kirill and Metropolitan Kliment. The results of the voting were only announced five hours later, at 10:00 pm Moscow time. If the final hour was simply one of awaiting the results of the vote count, then before the refreshments that replaced dinner were offered, there was a fairly frank discussion taking place. Not least of which was discussion of whether the practical manifestation of this vote corresponded to the spirit of conciliarity [sobornost’], and it drew pointed criticism. The Locum Tenens, Metropolitan Kirill, expressed the hope that no one would leave the Sobor disappointed with the method of voting. He expressed his complete readiness to revisit the procedure and proposed to clarify how strong was the desire of those present to broaden the scope of candidates. His proposal drew the support of 16 persons, including a few bishops. Yet the “nay” vote raised a forest of hands.

Most of those present did not wish to hold up the vote. It is probably fair to guess that the 23 abstentions were mainly an expression of dissatisfaction over the voting procedure. This number shows how inconsequential was the probability that any additional candidates named by the Pomestny Sobor would garner 25 supporting votes, and moreover that they would advance in the voting.

But the discussions that followed at the Sobor shows that in the future, placing such limitations on promoting candidates is undesirable. The crux of the matter is the very approach to the voting process. Metropolitan Kirill’s readiness to revisit the situation, after voting was concluded, attests to his understanding of this matter. 

Here it is worth pointing out for future use a series of notions that developed in one form or another  during the lively discussions between members of the Sobor.

Firstly: only 16 persons stood up—seemingly an insignificant minority. But it stood up for an important principle: for the right granted by the Local Council itself to expand the roll of candidates. The Sobor could have responded differently and allowed them to nominate the candidates they desired. But in fact here there is an entirely different next step in the voting. Having been already named, one or another potential candidate could have garnered the needed number of votes in the next round. Such is the law of gradually revealing and ascertaining the will of the Sobor. This may seem to be an unessential detail, and this approach may seem impractical, but in the whole it would have had a positive effect on the atmosphere of openness in the discussions, it would have stimulated the work in the spirit of constructive conciliarity rather than orient towards the will of the vast majority of delegates. In the absence of a positive and friendly atmosphere, many of the worthy candidates may not wish to participate in the vote and will choose to withdraw—but is that good?

Secondly, there is a related thought: if the procedure is adopted in which the Council of Bishops names its three candidates to the Patriarchal Throne to the Pomestny Sobor, giving it the right to make the final election, and even to make additional nominations, then it would be logical, while naming the candidates, not to report on the number of votes given to each of them by the Bishops. For knowing in detail the preferences of the Council of Bishops, the Pomestny Sobor could not ignore them. Most likely the delegates would naturally decline to exercise its right to propose additional candidates and accept the nominees of the Council of Bishops, as this Pomestny Sobor did with a majority of votes.

But then, the “voting rights” granted to the clergymen, monastics and laity participating in the Pomestny Sobor are moot.

But of course it is true that there is some canonical impropriety in the idea—however hypothetical—that it might happen that the laity, clergy and monastics can reject the choice of the bishops, and through a majority of votes impose their own will. Indeed, a layperson, deacon, priest, or even honored protopriest or archimandrite cannot have an equal voice in the election of a Patriarch with that of a metropolitan, archbishop or bishop. In the ancient Church, the vox populi was taken into account in an election (if we use the example of the installation of a bishop), but only where it concerns the qualities and abilities of possible candidates. But the actual right to elect bishops belonged to the local Council of Bishops themselves.

According to the Church Canons, bishops must elect a Primate from amongst themselves, the First among the Council of Bishops (Apostolic canon 34, Antiochian 9 and 19, I Ecumenical 4 and others). The spirit of these canons would be more closely followed if it were not the Council of Bishops that presented the Pomestny Sobor candidates for election, but the opposite: if the Pomestny Sobor, which includes the bishops, nominated candidates for Patriarch. Subsequently, the Council of Bishops, with consideration of the voice of the clergy, monastics and laity, would make their choice. Hierarchs could add to the list of candidates presented to them by the Pomestny Sobor, or review it, but in any case, they choose from amongst themselves their Primate, either with the drawing of lots or without.

Thirdly: the reduction of the field of candidates is viewed as a limitation of choice. The idea of the Council of Bishops is to produce no fewer than three candidates, which can be expanded by the Pomestny Sobor. If this purpose has foundation, then the Pomestny Sobor should strive to avoid reducing this minimum. If the Sobor does not see the need to propose more candidates, then, in keeping with the original plan, additions to the list are necessary only if for some reason there are fewer than three candidates left. This problem falls away if the Pomestny Sobor offers candidates to the Bishops.

Fourthly: if it is assumed that the members of the Pomestny Sobor vote then and there, freely and according to their conscience, without obligation to vote for one candidate or another—which is why the voting is secret—then campaigning at the Sobor seems inappropriate. If, in accordance with the election process adopted by the Sobor itself (Moscow, January 27-29, 2009, paragraph 2.a.), the verbal nomination of a candidate “may not contain arguments in favor of the candidate proposed nor should there be public discussion of the nominee” then a candidate’s withdrawal should not be made in favor of one candidate or another.

The fifth point calls into question the equality of conditions for all the candidates. No matter how equal they seem, if the chairmanship over the Pomestny Sobor is granted to one of the candidates—no matter how humble and proper his behavior—he is most certainly more visible than anyone else and has more influence on the Sobor’s progress (especially if the regulations do not allow for the candidates to speak publicly). But if the Pomestny Sobor nominates candidates, while the Council of Bishops itself elects the Patriarch, then this problem likewise becomes moot.

Number six is the drawing of lots. Drawing lots for three candidates has the advantage that it mitigates the fervor of an “election campaign.” Lots in principle can have the effect of blunting desire for power of one group or another who might promote “their” candidate.

The final, seventh consideration is when the Pomestny Sobor is not only called upon to elect a Primate, but decide other matters pertaining to the life of the Church. In this case it would seem wise to begin with the discussion of these matters, and turn to the election afterwards. This would give the participants of the Sobor an opportunity to strengthen their acquaintance, get to know and understand each other, and would lend the nomination of candidates more foundation and knowledge.

In conclusion, it is worth noting: the goal of the Pomestny Sobor of 2009 could only bring to a close the prior period of church life and the election of a new Patriarch. The Sobor was not prepared to do anything else. The consideration of concrete, real problems without serious preliminary work could only lead to a general discussion, or worse, to fruitless argument. 

Yet it is noteworthy that there was no suggestion of canceling the Pomestny Sobor as such during the Sobor of 2009—quite the opposite, opinions were expressed on the importance to begin preparing for the next Sobor as soon as possible, forming working groups and committees to this end. No matter how the Sobor of 1917-1918 is viewed by the participants of the Sobor of 2009, many remembered the questionnaire from that time, and the Pre-Sobor Office and the Pre-Sobor Commission. It became clear that the time has come to think deeply and in a new way and to describe a new role for the Council of Bishops on one hand, and the competence of the participants of the Pomestny Sobor —the clergy, monastics and laity—on the other. The newly-elected Patriarch, bringing the discussion to a close, did not only unequivocally speak out for the need to prepare for the next Pomestny Sobor which will not need to elect a new Primate, but stressed that he does not feel that it is right to neglect to convening a Sobor regularly.

The fact that the Sobor elected an extremely active and dynamic Patriarch with great organizational experience gives hope for fruitful and concrete work, which is so crucial for the Russian Church in this new stage of her life.

There is no reason to doubt the propriety of the decisions of the Pomestny Sobor of 2009. The choice of the majority of the delegates was obvious, the will of the Sobor, representing the entire Russian Church, was expressed very clearly. But the general positive view of the recent Sobor should not exclude the criticism of certain of its aspects. Maybe, as we hope, this experience will flow into the treasury of that which is most dear to us: the conciliarity [sobornost’] of the Body of Christ, in which is found the correspondence between the will of the Pomestny Sobor and the benevolent Will of God. In the words of the Holy Apostle: 

“He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.  And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith… but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4, 10:16).

Protopriest Nikolai Artemoff