“The Russian True Orthodox Church”


          Of recent days, those most vocally opposed to the Act of Canonical Communion between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), have suggested that membership in the socalled “Russian True Orthodox Church” (RTOC) would be an alternative to accepting any compromise with Moscow. However, not everyone is aware of who or what the “Russian True Orthodox Church” is and where it comes from.


          Like so many other schismatic groups the “Russian True Orthodox Church” tries to give itself an aura of historical legitimacy. Allusions to it being the natural successor to the Catacomb Church as founded by St Joseph, Metropolitan of Petrograd, are not founded on fact. In reality the last of the Catacomb bishops, Archbishop Antony GalinskyMikhailovsky died in Kiev in 1976 and was survived by a number of priests, but no bishop. Consequently, the Catacomb Church, having no bishop came to an end.


          In 1981, the Synod of ROCOR secretly consecrated Fr Lazarus Zhurbenko, an archimandrite, who had been ordained to the diaconate and priesthood by a Moscow Patriarchal hierarch, Archbishop Benjamin Novitsky of Irtutsk; to be bishop for the various catacomb traditions in Russia. By the time Bishop Lazarus was consecrated, the Synod had realised that there were no canonical catacomb traditions left that could show clearly they possessed Apostolic Succession. This was confirmed by Bishop Lazarus himself when he first attended a meeting of the Synod in New York. An Ukase was then issued to this effect based on Bishop Lazarus’ deposition. Therefore, from 1989 onwards, all catacomb clergy coming to ROCOR were ordained anew to ensure their canonical status.


          This single act of intervention by ROCOR into Russia, no matter how well intentioned or that it was in response to the pleas of catacomb Orthodox in Russia, created two factions within the Orthodox Church in Russia, they were: the Synod of ROCOR with its official parishes and the Suzdal group headed by the spurious “metropolitan”, Valentine Rusantsev. The ROCOR bishop empowered to oversee the affairs of the Synod in Russia was Bishop Varnava Prokopiev.  He turned out to be quite gullible and was often manipulated by unscrupulous people which brought discredit upon the Church Abroad. He also played a significant role in creating trouble between the Suzdal group and other catacomb communities under Bishop Lazarus.


          In 1991, the Sobor of Bishops of ROCOR, under the primacy of Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinoff declared that “the time had now come to enter into frank discussions with all of the separated parts of the Russian Church without any preconditions.” This became the starting point for a long, often unnoticed, process of dialogue to commence – which has brought the two parts of the Russian Church to formulate and Act of Canonical Communion. Nevertheless, the process was not a secret one and included joint academic symposiums e.g. Budapest 2001, seven meetings of the Joint Committee (established in 2003) representing both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad and innumerable meetings by individual bishops and other clergy. In Australia, two diocesan conferences were held where the issues of Joint Recognition were raised and delegates were sent to attend the 2003 Clergy Conference in Nyack, USA and the VI AllDiaspora Sobor in San Francisco in 2006. To accuse the Synod of Bishops of secrecy in this matter is distortion unworthy of any Christian.


          By the year 2000, it became quite evident that Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinoff, aged 90 years, was suffering from severe dementia. A Council of ROCOR Bishops was summoned and the metropolitan’s retirement as Primate of the Church Abroad was accepted in July 2001. Following the election of a new Primate, Metropolitan Laurus Skurla, a series of events occurred which found Metropolitan Vitaly whisked away to Mansonville, Quebec, Canada, and denied his proper place at the Synodal headquarters in New York. This was engineered by persons close to the metropolitan and who wanted to continue their personal influence on the Church through the aged hierarch. With the decision to commence joint dialogue with Moscow, the opponents to the election of Metropolitan Laurus and the new course of the Church Abroad, decided to use the retired metropolitan to oppose any steps towards unity within the Russian Church.


          The first to approach Emeritus Metropolitan Vitaly was Valentine Rusantsev of the Suzdal group, which first called itself the “Free Russian Orthodox Church” (FROC) and later changed its name to “Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC). However, Metropolitan Vitaly rejected all overtures from this quarter as he firmly believed the Suzdal group to be totally uncanonical and Rusantsev to be deposed. However, in Mansonville, Bishop Varnava Prokopiev, having been suspended in his episcopacy in 2001 for a number of canonical violations, came from France and manipulated the confused metropolitan to renounce his retirement and declare himself to be Primate of the “Russian Orthodox Church in Exile” (ROCiE). In fact, Bishop Varnava became de facto head of this new and uncanonical, organisation and used the name and reputation of Metropolitan Vitaly to further his own ends.  Two other bishops also decided to join the new ROCiE organisation in Mansonville. Archbishop Lazarus Zhurbenko and Bishop Benjamin Rusalenko who had at one time gone to the Suzdal group and returned to the ROCOR, now left again without a canonical release. This meant that the Synod of ROCOR placed both bishops under ecclesiastical ban for breaking their oaths of loyalty to their Synod.


          Whilst now clerics of the uncanonical “Russian Orthodox Church in Exile,” the banned bishops Lazarus and Benjamin, living in Russia and being far from Emeritus Metropolitan Vitaly in Canada, whom they claimed to acknowledge as their ecclesiastical superior, decided in 2002 to consecrate a number of new “bishops.” One of these was Tikhon Pasechnik. Tikhon, (Leonid Alympievich Pasechnik) was born in 1948 and studied at the Kharkov Engineering Institute. He became a builder, married in 1985 and widowed in 1993. That same year he joined the Omsk parish of ROCOR and was tonsured a monk in 1998. The subsequent year, 1999, Bishop Evtihy of Omsk ordained him to the priesthood but found him to be so lacking in theology that he would not appoint him to a separate parish. The following year Tikhon left ROCOR to join Archbishop Lazarus in schism.


          Although Bishop Benjamin sought Metropolitan Vitaly’s permission for the proposed consecrations in 2002, the metropolitan noted that it would be necessary for the election of a new bishop to have the approval of the synod of bishops. Nevertheless, the consecrations took place and Metropolitan Vitaly on two occasions published his refusal to recognise the consecrations as valid. In his first declaration (28 July 2003) Metropolitan Vitaly states that the actions of Lazarus and Benjamin have placed them outside of the Russian Orthodox Church, and in his second declaration (19 November 2004) the metropolitan states that; “the uncanonical consecrations of the hieromonks Dionysius, Herman, Tikhon and Ireinei by Archbishop Lazarus and Bishop Benjamin are invalid” and that he will have no liturgical communion with them.


          Consequently, neither the Synod of ROCOR under Metropolitan Laurus, not the “Synod” of ROCiE under Emeritus Metropolitan Vitaly has recognised the spurious claims of Tikhon Pasechnik, to be a canonical bishop of the Christian Church, let alone the successor of the Catacomb Church in Russia. Therefore, logically the organisation Pasechnik heads and which he calls the “Russian True Orthodox Church” has no basis in fact. The “Russian True Orthodox Church” has neither historic antecedents, legal standing, canonical foundation or Grace to be

called a Church.


          In conclusion, it is important to understand two major principles which have guided the Church since Pentecost.


          The first is the notion of ecclesiastical subordination. The fullness of Divine Grace in the Church reposes in the persons of the bishops, who through the unbroken chain of Apostolic Succession both receive and transmit Divine Grace from one generation of bishops to the next. The nature of the episcopacy is collegial, where each bishop ministers in agreement with his peers and does nothing individually to disrupt the harmony of the Church. In the Russian Church this is referred to as ‘sobornost’. Within this collegial system each bishop has his own duties and responsibilities, but he is also responsible to all the other bishops for his actions so as not to disturb the concord of the Church or cause schism.


          Consequently, each bishop administers his diocese within the rules of common practice, but is responsible to his brother bishops who form the ‘synod’ or ‘council’ of the region or jurisdiction to which he belongs. Each bishop swears an oath at his consecration to uphold the unity of the Church and to leave the authority, to which he is bound by his oath of loyalty without a proper document of release, is an act in contravention of the canons (rules) of the Church, i.e. uncanonical. The punishment for such a violation is to be banned from performing any priestly function until the uncanonical act is expunged through repentance. However, if the bishop ignores the ban and continues to function uncanonically then he is subject to being judged by his peers and deposed, i.e. being defrocked. The same may be said of priests and deacons who uncanonically leave the jurisdiction of their bishop to whom they are bound by their priestly oath of allegiance. They too are subject to interdict and, in the case of continued incalcitrance, defrocking. In the matter of subordination to the norms of the Church there is one standard to all three levels of the priesthood. No individual, patriarch, bishop, priest, deacon or lay person is above the unity of the Church.


          Secondly, the concept of schism in the Church is contrary to collegial church governance and in the words of the Holy Fathers is seen to be “a rendering of the Robe of Our Lord.” St John Chrysostom declares that “the sin of schism cannot be washed away even by the blood of martyrdom.” Hence, any schisms which appear in the Church are always uncanonical; they cannot be justified by personal opinion or self justification.


          Those who have joined the “Suzdalites,” the “Lazarites,” the Mansonvillians, and now the “Russian True Orthodox Church” of the “Tikhonites” have all fallen away from the canonical Russian Church. They have done so because they have scorned their oaths of obedience and fidelity given at their consecrations or ordinations and have thus rendered the Robe of Christ. Their sin is all the more great because they have led some of Christ’s flock into schism also. The truly sad thing is that many lay people are innocent souls who have placed their trust in unworthy men and may find themselves outside the salvific Grace of the Holy Church.


          The devil sows dissent and controversy in the Church to snare as many souls as possible. In such times clear minds and stout hearts are needed to ensure the unity of the Church. The simple measure of what is right and what is wrong can be found in whether one is drawn into leaving the jurisdiction of the bishop and looking for new, often exotic, spurious alternatives.


          If one’s actions take a person outside the Church then that person is outside the Church. There is not alternative. There is not shopping list of churches. There is only One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.


Very Rev Dr Michael Protopopov

9 March 2007