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Canonical Assessment of the "Act of Canonical Communion"
(Lecture at the IV All-Diaspora Council)

Protopriest Alexander Lebedeff

The published "Act of Canonical Communion" is based on canonical principles and concepts which are not at all commonly known. It is therefore necessary to clarify in detail several aspects of canonical terminology.

Firstly, one must stress the canonical definition of the concept of an "autocephalous Church." The Church teaches that an autocephalous Church is completely independent in its administration. The very term "autocephalous" means that such a Church has the right to elect her own Primate with complete, without the need for confirmation by any other authority.

Also, no Church can declare itself autocephalous. This status must be bestowed by a universally-accepted autocephalous Church through the granting of a special formal document called a "Tomos."

If the declaration of autocephaly is accepted by all the other autocephalous Churches, the name of the Primate of the new autocephalous Church is entered by the Patriarch of Constantinople into the so-called "Dyptich," that is, the official roster of Primates of autocephalous Churches, commemorated during a certain rite at divine services.

In accordance with a centuries-old tradition, which has become the rule, only the Primate of an autocephalous Church has the right to consecrate Holy Myrrh.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia never considered itself to be autocephalous, but, as it is stated in its founding documents, is but "an indissoluble part of the Local Russian Orthodox Church, and for the time until the extermination in Russia of the atheist government, is self-governing on conciliar principles" ( Regulations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia , par. 1).

This is stated in the Encyclical Epistle of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia of 1933:

"[T]he organs of the Ecclesiastical Administration Abroad have in nowise striven to appropriate the rights of autocephaly for itself, as Metropolitan Sergius accuses us. To the present day the entire Church organization abroad has considered and still considers itself an extraordinary and temporary institution, which must be abolished without delay after the restoration of normal social and ecclesiastical life in Russia."

Therefore, point 4 of the Act—on the necessity of the confirmation of the election of the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia by the Primate of the Local Russian Church, of which she always considered herself to be an indissoluble part, that is, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and his Holy Synod—is a canonical requirement.

It must be remembered that the historical Russian Church, for hundreds of years after the Baptism of Rus' (from 988 until 1448), was not autocephalous, and her First Hierarch was confirmed, on canonical foundations, by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

In accordance with the proposed Act, the canonical confirmation of new bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia by the Patriarch of Moscow and the Holy Synod (point 7), and also the preceding point 6, on the confirmation or liquidation of dioceses, are connected with point 8, according to which "the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are members of the Local Council and Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church and also participate in the meetings of the Holy Synod in the prescribed order." If all the bishops of the Russian Church Abroad become members of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, then the election of new bishops, who become members of this Council, must be confirmed by the head of this Council on a canonical basis. There is no other procedure in the Orthodox Church.

Point 13 of the Act, on receiving Holy Myrrh from the Patriarch of Moscow, is a canonical necessity, stemming naturally from the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia does not claim autocephaly.

All these canonical stipulations must be viewed not as a sign of subjugation; they are the normal and necessary elements of the relationship between any self-governing part of a Local Church and her Primate. If in the past, their observance was impossible for the Russian Church Abroad due to exceptional circumstances, now their observance becomes possible, and for this reason, in light of the reestablishment of normal relations with the Church in Russia, ecclesiastically necessary.

The same should be said of point 5, on the commemoration of the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church; that is, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia before the commemoration of the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Prayerful commemoration of the Primate of a Local Church—the Patriarch—is a direct requirement of the Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church.

Canons 13, 14 and 15 of the First-and-Second Council clearly spell out the need for all clergymen to commemorate their Patriarch. They thereby attest to their ecclesiastical communion with him. Refusing to commemorate the Patriarch, according to Canon 15 of the First-and-Second Council, is equated with introducing schism into the Church, and such a cleric is subject to defrockment.

Specifically, Canon 15 states:

"[I]n case any presbyter, bishop or metropolitan dare to secede or apostatize from communion of his own Patriarch, and fails to mention the latter's name in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained, in the divine Mystagogy, but, before a conciliar verdict has been pronounced and has passed judgment against him, creates a schism, the holy Council has decreed that this person shall be held an alien to every priestly function, if only he be convicted of having committed this transgression of the law."

Point 11 of the Act, on the right to appeal to the Patriarch as the highest instance of appeal, is also based on commonly-accepted canonical law.

Therefore, the Act of Canonical Communion contains only points which are stipulated by concise canonical requirements.

The Canonical Consequences of Adopting the Act of Canonical Communion

The acceptance of the Act of Canonical Communion by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia places the Russian Church Abroad on a solid canonical foundation, making clear that she is a living and active part of the pleroma , or the fullness of the entire Orthodox Church. This is related to the recognition of her as lawful and canonical by all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, as provided by this regularization.

The signing of this Act will fulfill the self-definition of the Russian Church Abroad as an indissoluble part of the Local Russian Orthodox Church, "self-governing on conciliar principles until the extermination in Russia of the atheist government," and must now change her temporary status to a permanent one, with consideration of its historical path.

The execution of the Act will not lead to the abolishment of the Russian Church Abroad, but to her complete preservation, with her own First Hierarch, her own Council of Bishops, her Synod of Bishops, along with full self-government, while yet observing the given requirements of the canons of the Orthodox Church.

The signing of the Act opens the opportunity for bishops and clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia not only to serve in all churches, monasteries and holy places in our homeland, Russia, but also at the Sepulcher of the Lord and all the churches in the Holy Land, and on Holy Mount Athos.

The adoption of the Act allows us, specifically, to speak openly on the danger of participating in the World Council of Churches, and to be heard.

The adoption of the Act will serve to end the sorrowful division of the Russian Orthodox people. The participation of our clergymen and faithful in the work of the spiritual rebirth of the Russian people will rise to an entirely new level.

The Canonical Consequences of Rejecting the Act of Canonical Communion

The rejection of the Act under the present historical opportunities would mean the total break of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia with all the Local Orthodox Churches, which will then have every reason to deem us schismatic.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, our last link with the fullness of canonical Orthodoxy, will doubtless refuse communion with us.

The rejection of the Act may in a very real sense persuade the Church of Jerusalem to deem us schismatic, withdraw the existing blessing for our bishops and priests to serve in the Holy Land, and retrieve the antimensia upon which we now serve. It threatens the total loss of our Holy Sites.

Rejecting the Act would make us, in the eyes of the Russian Orthodox Church, schismatics, like the followers of Valentin Rusantsov, and will exclude the possibility of participating in the church life of our homeland. At present, our voice is being heard, and we are invited to participate in ecclesiastical and historical conferences. Rejecting the Act would end such activity.

Regarding the possible timeline of adopting the Act, that is, of reestablishing unity, as a participant of the negotiating process, I can say the following:

If the Act is not signed, the opportunity we have been given would quickly disappear. Not only the Moscow Patriarchate, but the entire Orthodox world would thereby be convinced that cannot be dealt with seriously, that we ourselves prefer to be essentially sectarians, torn from the fullness of universal Orthodoxy, and do not wish to be united with our much-suffering Church in the Fatherland and with canonical Orthodoxy.

If this occurs, and if once again we were to desire to hold talks with the Russian Church in the Fatherland, then—even if they agree to speak to us—it would be an entirely different conversation. We will never again be given the opportunity to preserve the entire Church Abroad as a completely self-governing Church. The best we could hope for would be that the unconditional demand is made that we merge into the Moscow Patriarchate, which will then indeed fully control our church matters—they will appoint and transfer bishops and clergymen, etc.

We now have the opportunity, through signing the Act of Canonical Communion, to ensure the future of our dear Russian Church Abroad , specifically, by governing ourselves, and to place her on a sound canonical foundation—this is necessary, since our right to fully independent existence, which was only temporarily afforded on the basis of Ukase No. 362 by Patriarch Tikhon, cannot be canonically justified at all under the present circumstances.