Council of Bishops of 2001 and the Election of the New First Hierarch
An extraordinary session of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was held from 23-31 October 2001 in the Synodal building in New York City. Thirteen bishops took part in the Council. Those hierarchs who did not attend the Council had the opportunity to come and openly declare their positions on a series of matters, but declined to participate. The main reason for the convening of the Council was the election of a new First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Metropolitan Vitaly over the course of several years had not served in church, did not visit parishes and dioceses and also as a result of his health due to his old age could not delve into daily church matters. Certain forces constantly tried to exploit Metropolitan Vitaly's weakness for their gain.Vladyka Vitaly very much desired to mark the 50th anniversary of his episcopacy in July 2001 and after that, as did the Blessed Metropolitan Anastassy, to retire.
In the tradition of the Church Abroad, all the sessions of the Council of Bishops were held in the presence of the Protectress of the Russian Diaspora, the Kursk-Root Miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God. A moleben was served before the Icon before the start of the Council. Every day during the Council one of the Bishops performed the Divine Liturgy in the lower church of St. Sergius of Radonezh—one of the bishops helped in the altar and the others sang on the kliros.
On Wednesday, 24 October, the bishops convened in the Cathedral of the Our Lady of the Sign. A panikhida was served for the reposed First Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Metropolitans Anthony, Anastassy and Philaret; and then a moleben before the Icons of the Kursk-Root Mother of God, the Holy New Martyrs of Russia, St. Patriarch Tikhon and St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker. Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart opened the submitted ballots (all of the bishops of the Church Abroad, including those who were absent and retired had the opportunity to submit their ballots) and announced the candidates. After counting the votes, the result was announced: for the first time in 65 years the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was elected after the first round of ballots. By the Will of God, His Eminence Archbishop Laurus was chosen. Vladyka Laurus, with his characteristic humility, quietly accepted his election as an obedience, relying on the Lord and on the support of his brethren.
Metropolitan Vitaly came to the afternoon session of the Council, assumed the president's seat, congratulated the new First Hierarch and the entire Council of Bishops and called upon everyone to work in peace and unity of spirit. The Council of Bishops thanked Vladyka Vitaly for all of his labors for the good of the Church.
The enthronement of the First Hierarch was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Vladyka Laurus asked that his cross and panagia be brought from Holy Trinity Monastery, which had belonged at one time to Metropolitan Anastassy of blessed memory and Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko)—these two hierarchs had a special influence on the spiritual formation of the new First Hierarch.
On Sunday morning, Metropolitan Laurus was greeted by the bishops vested in their mantles. A special joy could be sensed in the Synod Cathedral, a certain simpleness, and all present truly felt themselves to be members of a single church family. At the end of liturgy, a moleben was served to the Mother of God and All Russian Saints, and then Archbishop Alypy of Chicago and the Midwest read the prayer for the enthronement. Metropolitan Laurus uttered the words of response of the prayer and blessed the flock.
Vladyka Metropolitan then made an appeal to the flock. He said that what he feared most proved to be his fate and that he accepts the election only in obedience to God, obedience to the Church, obedience to the Council of Bishops.
At the end of liturgy a feast was held at Protection Church in Nyack, NY, but the sorrowful events following the election of Metropolitan Laurus could not go unmentioned, specifically, the departure of Metropolitan Vitaly from the Synodal house and his declaration bearing his signature that he does not recognize the Council, and his call to schism. At the end of the feast, Metropolitan Laurus remembered the past labors of Metropolitan Vitaly for the good of the Church. He said that he genuinely loved Vladyka Vitaly and his soul was very, very burdened with grief that Vladyka Vitaly was surrounded by ill-wishers who dragged him into schism.
The subsequent sessions of the Council of Bishops were mainly devoted to the events connected with the new schism. Epistles to the flock were composed, as well as a response to the Moscow Patriarchate. Both the “left” and the “right” expressed their opinion to the Council of Bishops that a unification of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia with the Moscow Patriarchate either had already occurred or was about to occur at any moment—the “right” threatened schism, and the “left” was jubilant. But the Council of Bishops of 2001continued on the traditional path of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: it stated that the unity of the Russian Church is to be desired, but only when there is unity of mind with regard to fundamental Church matters. As a result, both the “right” and the “left” were disgraced, and the sober, middle, royal path was taken—the path of truth and love, devoid of extremes.
In the first interview with Metropolitan Laurus the question was posed: Your Eminence, what problems faced by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia require the speediest resolution?
Vladyka Metropolitan responded:
“Before the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which is a part of the Universal Orthodox Church, lie all those same eternal problems which the Lord Jesus Christ laid before His Church.
These are, first of all, the preaching to the world of the Gospel of Christ; secondly the spiritual nourishment of the people of God, and thirdly, prayerful and repentant expectation of the Second Glorious and All-Praised Coming of the Lord.
Unfortunately, we contemporary Orthodox Christians often forget these truly important aims. We concentrate our attentions on what is temporary and fleeting, spend inordinate amounts of time on empty quarrels that we should be using for repentance.
I must say that at the present time the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is subject to attacks and misunderstandings both from the left and right for the reason that it is alien both to the extremes of liberalism, modernism and ecumenism and to the extremes of fanaticism, militant fundamentalism and feelings of proud contentment.
To walk along this middle, royal path as does the Russian Church Abroad is very, very difficult, but it is the true path and one cannot stray from it.”