The History of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church
When one studies Church history in the light of contemporary events, the Russian Orthodox Church predominates as the center of focus in understanding Orthodoxy today. Christ has spoken with His holy lips the infallible words that the gates of hades will not prevail over His Church. In the 20th century, when indeed the gates of hades were opened and the serpent of Communism came out to attack the Church of Russia, the devil in his cunning sought thereby to destroy all Orthodox Churches. By assaulting the largest of the Orthodox Churches, he hoped to destroy all of Orthodoxy, for the Russian Church, in the thousand years of its existence, acquired a powerful structure and oversaw parishes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
After the Communist-Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the Civil War in Russia, the single Greek-Russian Church (its official name since the 18th century) was found to be split administratively - first by the front line, and then by the USSR borders - into two parts: (1) the Russian Church existing within the homeland, and (2) the "Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia" (ROCOR) or "Russian Church Abroad". As the Church within Russia became persecuted, it acquired illegal status and became the "Catacomb Church". Forced to split administratively by political circumstances, both parts of the Russian Church were still one - spiritually and mystically: they both commemorated the canonical Church power in the person of Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsk. Moreover, the First-Hierarchs of the ROCOR - Metropolitans Anthony, Anastassy, and Philaret - had great authority with the True Orthodox clergy and laymen in Russia. Catacomb priests who had lost communication with their Bishops in Russia would commemorate the First-Hierarchs of the ROCOR during the Divine Services, and even entered into its jurisdiction when they had the opportunity; (for example, in 1975 a group of twelve Catacomb priests, providing spiritual support for a few dozen parishes in Russia, were received under the omophorion of St. Metropolitan Philaret, First-Hierarch of the ROCOR). Sobor and Synodal Epistles were distributed back and forth between the Russian Church Abroad and the Catacomb Church continuously. Although correspondence was not easy, it was maintained nevertheless.
The Russian Bishops Abroad in the western world represented the free voice of the Russian Church within Russia, the Catacomb Church, which was persecuted by the Soviets. Both parts of the Russian Church refused all forms of collaboration with the atheistic Soviet power, which was aiming at the full destruction of religion in the country. By the end of the 1920's, the GPU ("Main Political Office", forerunner of the KGB) managed to sever from the persecuted Church of Russia two church groups - the Renovationists and the Sergianists, both of which submitted to the atheists and thereby fell away from Christ's Church. These groups were recognized as schismatic by both parts of the Russian Church (that is, by the Catacomb Church and by the ROCOR episcopacy). In 1943, when the war was under way, for political purposes, Stalin united what remained of the schismatic Renovationists and Sergianist groups into the new official church of the USSR, upon which he bestowed the title of the "Russian Orthodox Church" ("Russkaja Pravoslavnaja Tserkov", or ROC, which is the present day Moscow Patriarchate). Stalin also established a special Council for the supervision of this "Soviet Church", the members of which were NKVD officers (National Commissariat for Domestic Affairs; another KGB-forerunner). Nominally, at the head of the Soviet's "ROC" was the leader of the Sergianist schism (which was named after him) - Metropolitan Sergei (Stargorodsky), who five days after his "historic encounter" with Stalin became, by the grace of Stalin, "the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia". However, a valid Patriarch could be elected only by the Local Council with the presence of all the bishops, lower clergy and laymen. In 1943 however, up to 150 hierarchs were still languishing in prisons, concentration camps, or exile. This extremely small group of bishops and clergy that had recognized Metropolitan Sergei was given some of the churches closed in the 1930's, and this group was allowed to establish church "educational" institutions and to publish a magazine "for official purposes". In such a way the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), the Soviet "Russian Orthodox Church", was formed. It gradually spread, and with the help of the communist authorities, took the place of the historical Russian Church in the minds of the Russian people. In the meantime, the true Russian Church - the Catacomb Church - remained persecuted. Almost all of its bishops were being held in prisons and camps, along with a considerable part of the clergy that didn't want to enter the Moscow Patriarchate. The canonical Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal See was shot by the Communists in 1937, even though twelve years earlier he had been deprived by the Soviets of the right to govern the Church. As early as the 1930's, there were distinct groups forming among the Catacomb Christians, named as a rule after their bishop-confessors: for example, the "Josephites" so-called after the name of the Metropolitan of Petrograd Joseph (Petrovych); the "Buevtsi", after Bishop Alexiy (Buy), and so forth. The Catacomb Church had no communication whatsoever with the Moscow Patriarchate. The clergy of the Soviet Church, upon orders of the GPU, often tracked down catacomb priests, activists, and even mere laymen, and delivered them up to the state security organs, for imprisonment and death.
As a result of incessant persecution of the Catacomb Church in the USSR, by the beginning of the 1990s the Catacomb Church of Russia no longer had its own hierarchy. It was quite natural that Catacomb Christians turned to the ROCOR, which was still preserving the lawful Russian hierarchy in the purity of the Orthodox Faith. Metropolitans Anthony, Anastassy and Philaret had guided the Church well. Many Catacomb priests during the Divine Services commemorated Metropolitan Philaret and then Metropolitan Vitaly, the First Hierarchs of the ROCOR from 1965 to 1994. Parishes of "Josephites" in Saint Petersburg and the Northwest region, as well as "Buevtsi" of the Voronezh region and catacombniks of the Moscow region, were served by the priest Mikhail Rozhdestvensky (+1988). A few priests and hieromonks and one archimandrite provided spiritual support for the "Dalyntsy" of the Vyatka region, Tatarstan, Mordovia, and Chuvashia. The head of their branch, Archbishop Antoniy (Galynsky-Mikhailivsky), died in Kiev in 1976, survived by a small number of priests and a great number of parishioners. The lamentable and unskillful policies of ROCOR in Russia led in 1982 to the consecration by ROCOR bishops of Archbishop Lazar (Zhurbenko), who was already distrusted by most of the catacombniks.
Only after the beginning of "perestroika" and after the fall of the Soviet regime, when ROCOR began to open its legal parishes on the territory of Russia, was the catacombniks' confidence in the Foreign Church restored.
The first major parish that entered under the jurisdiction of the ROCOR Synod was the parish of the Tsar Constantine Church in Suzdal, which was directly subordinated to Metropolitan Vitaly. Almost a year after its joining, on February 10th, 1991, in Brussels, the superior of the parish, Archimandrite Valentine (Rusantsov), was consecrated as Bishop of Suzdal. At that time catacomb communities began to join the Free Russian Orthodox Church, or FROC (the name of the canonical Church in Russia under the oversight of ROCOR). At this time, priests and parishes were leaving the MP and were also accepted into the FROC. In Suzdal, together with the flock that had left the MP with then-Father Valentine, neighboring catacombniks became parishioners of Tsar Constantine Church and other churches of FROC. New communities and parishes were also created. Catacombniks' distrust of Archbishop Lazar, who was providing spiritual support for the unregistered and therefore "illegal" part of FROC, prompted them to appeal to Bishop Valentine of Suzdal. It became a practice that the communities sent their representatives to Suzdal in order to find out exactly what FROC was, about its hierarchy and clergy, and whether they really practiced true Orthodoxy. Representatives of the "Josephite" and "Buevtsi" communities of Voronezh and Saint Petersburg, which joined FROC, came to Suzdal. The present Abbess of The Deposition of the Sash of the Virgin Mary Convent in Suzdal, Schema-Abbess Evfimia, came to Suzdal from the community of the Voronezh catacombniks.
In 1992 a large number of catacomb communities of the "Galyntsy" of the Vyatskaya region joined the FROC, and their Protopriest Valentine (ordained in 1965 by Archbishop Antoniy [Galynskiy]) became a monk with the name Anthony in 1997 and was ordained as Bishop of Yaransk. Catacomb nuns came to Suzdal from various places, and Bishop Valentine established a monastery for them in honor of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. (Saint John was the spiritual father of St Antoniy [Galynskiy] and kept up a correspondence with him.)
In 1991-93 catacombniks from the Caucasus came to Suzdal. To provide spiritual support for these catacomb communities of the Caucasus and the South of Russia, catacomb monk Seraphim, who spent many years in the mountains of Abhazia, was ordained as the Bishop of Sukhumi in 1994.
A famous confessor who had spent 25 years in concentration camps, and the organizer of catacomb parishes in Kuban and Ukraine, nun Seraphima (Sanina), also came to Suzdal. She became the Abbess of the catacomb convent in Suzdal dedicated to the honor of St. John of Shanghai. Thereafter, many catacomb communities of Ukraine and Byelorussia joined the FROC. Later, in 1998, their own Bishop was consecrated - Right Reverend Ilarion Sukhodolsky.
Many nuns, spiritual children of catacomb hieromonk Serafim (Goloschapov), also came to Suzdal from the villages of Kuban. One of them, Mother Alexandra, was later made the Abbess of Saint John of Shanghai convent after the respose of Schema-Abbess Ioanna (nun Seraphima Sanina).
Since the beginning of the 1990s, when publication began of the declassified archives of the Fifth Department of the KGB (which had been controlling religious associations), many communities from the MP entered FROC. However, rapid growth of the FROC was hampered by anti-canonical and provocative actions of some ROCOR archbishops, which eventually lead to the discredit of the ROCOR in Russia and to the conflict between the ROCOR and the Russian Bishops of the FROC. The reason for such actions on the part of those ROCOR hierarchs was their illusion regarding "the true spiritual revival" in a Russia that was distant and little known to them. Also, their totally incorrect view of the MP as the "Mother Church," which had been taken captive by the atheists, was contradictory to the confession of the Catacomb Church.
The appointed representative of the ROCOR Synod in Moscow, the Bishop of Cannes, Varnava (Prokofiev), openly resorted to the protection of the fascist organization "Pamyat," naively believing that it united all the true patriots of Russia and was an influential political organization that would be able to "restore the Orthodox monarchy". Bishop Valentine, seeing that Bishop Varnava's activity was leading to the discredit of the ROCOR, refused to cooperate with him. As a result, "Pamyat," aiming at full control over ROCOR in Russia began its struggle against the Bishop of Suzdal, slandering him in front of the Synod of ROCOR. It was supported by some of the bishops of the ROCOR, who for some time had been striving for unification with the MP, and they seized power in the ROCOR, as the elderly Metropolitan Vitaly was losing control.
Consequently, conflicts increased between the leaders of the Synod of ROCOR and the bishops in Russia, who adhered to the truly Orthodox and catacomb views. Bishops of the Free Russian Orthodox Church, who were under the jurisdiction of ROCOR, i.e. Archbishop Lazar and Bishop Valentine, were unlawfully removed from their Sees. After all their requests for a fair judgment and implementation of the holy canons had been denied, they had no recourse other than to separate from ROCOR administratively and form an autonomous, self-governing Church, on the basis of the Ukase of St. Patriarch Tikhon and his Supreme Church Office, #362 of November 20, 1920. They also consecrated three bishops for the Russian Church: Theodore, Seraphim, and Agathangel.
A year later, after unsuccessful attempts to find an acceptable means of self-government for the Russian parishes, on February 11/24, 1995, the Synod of ROCOR uncanonically suspended all at once the five Bishops of the Russian Church. This action was illegal because it was performed without an ecclesiastical court, contrary to the requirements of the canons. Thereby the Synod of Bishops Abroad was making an attempt to usurp power over the Catacomb Church of Russia/FROC, a decision which belongs only to the All-Russian Local Council.
The result was a schism between the Synod of ROCOR and the Church of Russia. From 1921 till 1991 there was a spiritual unity, and from 1991 till 1994 it was also an administrative unity. This unity of the Russian and foreign parts of the Russian Local Orthodox Church was broken through the fault of the ROCOR Synod, which changed course, desired union with the MP, and saw its own Russian parishes as an impediment to such a union. Illegal actions on the part of the bishops of the ROCOR regarding the Church in Russia made them responsible for the sin of creating a schism. At the Council of Bishops of ROCOR in 1994, a "new course" for ROCOR was officially announced, which in particular was expressed in the Council's acceptance of the ecumenical doctrine of the (deposed) Greek Metropolitan Cyprian of Fili and his Synod of Resistors, and in the open declaration of communion with the official Serbian Patriarchate - a member of the World Council of Churches. Union with the MP could now logically follow.
In 1995, the spiritually weaker Archbishop Lazarus, with Bishops Benjamin and Agafangel, came back to ROCOR, and in FROC only three bishops, with Archbishop Valentine at the head, remained. In May 1995 the long-term secretary of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR, the famous Church historian and canonist, Right Reverend Bishop Gregory (Grabbe), visited Suzdal. He fully approved the decisions of the Russian bishops to withdraw from administrative subordination to the foreign Synod (ROCOR) for the sake of preserving the purity of the Faith and the holy canons. He strongly protested ROCOR's union with the heretical Greek Metropolitan Cyprian of Fili, but Metropolitan Vitaly and the ROCOR Synod rejected him.
Eventually, as a result of the continuous encounters between the Archbishop of Berlin, Mark (ROCOR), and the leaders of the MP (in particular, with the Patriarch himself), the Russian Synod of Bishops and the MP formed a plot to depose Archbishop Valentine, although it had been years since he had ceased to belong to either group. Archbishop Valentine was their target because he was outspoken against the unification of the ROCOR and the MP. This plan was accomplished by the ROCOR in September 1996 and by the MP in February 1997. The Russian bishops recognized these actions as canonically meaningless, for they had been directed against the clergy of the FROC, who were not members of ROCOR, and the MP could not and cannot be recognized as a Church. As early as 1994 Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) in his report to Metropolitan Vitaly called such "suspensions" and "dismissals" an "unexampled illegality".
In October 1998 the "Free Russian Orthodox Church" (FROC) was re-registered under the name of the "Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church" (ROAC). Presently the episcopate of ROAC consists of twelve bishops. The head of the Church was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan in March 2001.
The year 2001 manifested a great improvement for the Church in America. Since 1994, no true episcopal Russian hierarchy had a presence in America. Finally in 2001, Metropolitan Valentine ordained Father Dionysios McGowan to the priesthood for a mission parish in Virginia. This long awaited and welcomed act showed that the Russian Bishops of ROAC had the intention of establishing true Orthodoxy within the United States. This resulted in the return of Archimandrite Gregory and his parishioners to the Russian Church. Archimandrite Gregory left the ROCOR in 1994 and sought refuge with the truly confessing Greek Old Calendarist bishops, who were ordained by ROCOR in the 1960s. He was received by Metropolitan Valentine into ROAC and was unanimously elected by the Holy Synod to be consecrated bishop in America. In December of 2001 he was consecrated bishop of Denver by Metropolitan Valentine, Archbishop Theodore and the Catacomb bishop Anthony in Suzdal. In 2002 he was made ruling bishop of Denver and Colorado and was appointed to serve the faithful and build the Church outside of Russia as Vicar of the Hierarchal Sobor.
The year 2002 was marked by a new turn in persecutions of the Russian Church. At this time the civil authorities, conspiring with the MP, had chosen the path of "legal" prosecutions of the First Hierarch of ROAC, with the objective of discrediting him in the eyes of the Orthodox populace. In the spring and summer of 2002, in Suzdal, a disgusting court farce occurred, organized by the regional government of Vladimir together with the local organs of the FSB (successor to the KGB). Members of the extremist Mafia organization "Nashe Delo" ("Our Deed") also took an active part. Although the alleged "guilt" of Metropolitan Valentine had not been proven, and the court had not even ascertained the date of the "crimes," a "suspended sentence" was pronounced on the First Hierarch of ROAC. This entire shameful procedure was widely covered in the mass media, especially on television. The organizers of the persecution of Metropolitan Valentine, however, did not achieve the expected effect. The legal proceedings did not cause a single parish to leave the ROAC. On the contrary, priests and laymen, searching for true Orthodoxy, keep joining the Church both in Russia and America. The flock of Christ's sheep, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is increasing and will remain according to His promise. Amen.