A schism has developed in the Russian Church Outside Russia, one of the larger exile Russian Orthodox churches, over leadership issues and the prospect of rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).
Following the retirement of Metropolitan Vitaly Ustinov, who had been the Primate of the ROCOR, the Council of Bishops elected Metropolitan Laurus Skurla as its new First Hierarch in October. During the previous months, Metropolitan Vitaly — in fragile health and suffering memory losses — had signed a number of contradictory statements.
On the day after the election of Metropolitan Laurus, some visitors persuaded the retired Metropolitan to leave the Synod’s headquarters. But then in late October, Metropolitan Vitaly signed a declaration withdrawing his retirement and declaring the members of the Council to be usurpers. Metropolitan Vitaly was encouraged in this attitude by a group of clergymen and faithful who suspect ROCOR’s new leaders of — among other things — to be eager to unite with the Moscow Patriarchate.
With the assistance of controversial, French-based Bishop Varnava Prokofiev (who had already dissociated himself from the Synod), Metropolitan Vitaly ordained three bishops. The group considers itself as the legitimate continuation of ROCOR. In Europe, the pro-Vitaly branch has a strong following among ROCOR parishes in France: most of them commemorate Varnava, who has now been elevated by Vitaly to the rank of Archbishop of Western Europe.
The situation in North America and other parts of the world is not yet entirely clear: it seems that a few parishes in the USA as well as a number of parishes in Canada have decided to follow Metropolitan Vitaly, although most of ROCOR parishes around the world remain under the jurisdiction of the Synod in New York. In order to distinguish itself from ROCOR, the new group calls itself ROCOR (V) — for “Vitaly” — in order to prevent confusions with the main ROCOR. According to sources well-acquainted with the case, members of ROCOR (V) have different agendas, and it seems unlikely that they will manage to maintain unity among themselves in the long-run.
The ROCOR numbers today less than 150,000 faithful worldwide, but it has played an important role in Orthodoxy. It was formed in the 1920s by Russian Orthodox exiled bishops and faithful, who could no longer communicate with the Patriarch in Russia, and subsequently were unwilling to submit to a church administration which was under the control of the Soviet regime. The ROCOR attempted to keep the Russian Orthodox heritage alive abroad during those difficult decades. In the 1960s, it also became increasingly critical of the ecumenical movement.
Following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, many questions arose regarding ROCOR’s future role. Relations between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate remain uneasy. That the Patriarchate has partially succeeded in taking over ROCOR properties in various places around the world has not helped the situation. The creation of parishes under ROCOR in Russia has also caused conflicts. The current Synod under Metropolitan Laurus seems however willing to take into account positive signs in the religious life of Russia and to develop a cautious dialogue with the Patriarchate.
— By Jean-François Mayer