Letter to a priest concerning the origin and status of the Moscow Patriarchate

By Metropolitan Vitaly

The following is extracted from a letter written by the Most Reverend Metropolitan Vitaly, President of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. It was written to a priest who had circulated a letter calling for a rapprochement with the Moscow Patriarchate, and also calling for our bishops to attend a Church Council jointly with the Moscow Patriarchate in order to decide the future fate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

I have received your letter, which takes the form of a "pastoral letter" or "encyclical epistle." You would never have written such a letter if you had known all the facts. I presume that you do not know them all. However, the question of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia is one of such supreme importance in our days, that you can only presume to write about it if you are in possession of full information. From time to time the Lord allows temptations to arise in the history of the Church. We know of all the Ecumenical Councils, which were assembled as a result of heresies which were disturbing the souls of the faithful. What is the temptation facing us now? The European Christian religions or various sects? No. At the present time the principal trial and temptation facing us is the question of the Moscow Patriarchate and the question of whether we adopt the right, Orthodox attitude towards it or not, which amounts to the same thing as whether we adopt a right or a wrong attitude towards Christ, towards Truth Itself. This is why the Moscow Patriarchate is the most serious question for each Orthodox Russian, for on this depends our eternal salvation or our perdition. You probably do not know everything about this and this is your fatal error. You have not examined all the documents about what happened to the Moscow Patriarchate, beginning with Metropolitan Sergius. Without full knowledge you let yourself write your "pastoral letter" which was ill considered and unjust as concerns the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia which, for nearly 80 years, has been keeping to a straight path, without turning aside or losing its way. This is your sin, dear father.

Now let us look at the issue most closely. We do not have any communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, either in prayer or in the sacraments. This is not because we are critical of it, but because there are canonical rules on which the Church of Christ has stood since its very foundation by Christ our Saviour, which have been transgressed by the Moscow Patriarchate. And transgressing the canons is equivalent to destroying the Church. The breaking of canons by the Moscow Patriarchate amounts to a breaking of the Apostolic Succession. Clearly you are not aware of this and so have allowed yourself to write such an unworthy "epistle."

What is this all about? It is a very serious matter. From the very earliest years the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has had no communion at all with the Moscow Patriarchate for very good reasons. Let us recall how, in a document dated 25th December 1924, Patriarch Tikhon appointed one of three Metropolitans - whichever of Metropolitans Kyrill, Agathangel or Peter of Krutitsa could manage to be present in Moscow - to replace him after his death until such time as a new Patriarch could be elected. Metropolitans Kyrill and Agathangel were not allowed to travel to Moscow from their places of exile by the Soviet government. The 58 bishops who assembled in Moscow for the funeral of Patriarch Tikhon examined the document left by the late Patriarch, and then recognized Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsa as locum tenens of the Patriarchal throne until the lawful election of a new Patriarch. He was loyal to the Soviet government in the sense that he did not speak out against it publicly, but he completely refused to make any untrue statements in support of it or to meet any of its demands which were unacceptable to the Church. On 27th November / 10th December 1925 he was arrested. At first he was imprisoned in the Butyrka Prison, in a large cell together with common criminals, and then he was exiled to a remote part of Asia. A few days before his arrest Metropolitan Peter appointed Metropolitan Sergius, who was then in Moscow, as his deputy, and indicated two other possible deputies - Metropolitan Michael, the Exarch of the Ukraine, and Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd, who was then still Archbishop of Rostov.

At first Metropolitan Sergius Stragorodsky did not sign the "Declaration" and was put in prison, but he was let out very soon after. This seemed highly suspicious to all the faithful. It turned out that now he had signed the Declaration. In other words, he had betrayed the Church to the Bolshevik government. He thereby deprived it of its own internal freedom in spiritual and administrative matters. When Metropolitan Peter learned that Metropolitan Sergius had signed this Declaration - in other words, that he had changed the whole course of the life of the Church - he wrote him two letters from prison, copies of which have been preserved. In these letters he said, very politely, "You, your eminence, had no right to change the course of the Church" i.e. to betray it to the Bolsheviks. He received no answer to these letters. And he was the real authority over Metropolitan Sergius. Clearly Sergius had concluded that by being arrested Metropolitan Peter had also been deposed from his position of authority in the Church, which is completely contrary to the Orthodox canons. Then Metropolitan Peter sent a letter by hand, thinking that it was the postal service that was at fault, and even then Metropolitan Sergius made no reply to his ecclesiastical superior, who was still his superior, even though confined to prison! For no Bolshevik government authority can deprive a single bishop or a single priest of his spiritual authority. This is something which you should know. Despite this, Sergius decided that he need no longer reckon with him as someone in a senior position. When Metropolitan Peter returned from his exile, the Bolsheviks realized that Metropolitan Peter was senior to Metropolitan Sergius in the Church, and then they immediately arrested him and shot him. None of the ruling bishops (and there were about ten of them) submitted to Metropolitan Sergius as the successor to the Patriarch. So they were all arrested, sent into exile, and ultimately killed. The Bolsheviks did everything possible to smooth the way for Metropolitan Sergius. Thus Metropolitan Sergius set out on a path drenched in the blood of the martyred bishops of Russia. On one occasion Lenin said, "If you need a Church, we will give you one, we will even give you a Patriarch, but it is WE who will give you your Patriarch. And it is WE who will give you your Church." Of course, Father, you do not know this, and so you have allowed yourself to write your composition. At the moment when Metropolitan Sergius ceased to recognize Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsa as his spiritual authority he deprived himself of the Apostolic Succession and became a usurper. Such was the path taken by Metropolitan Sergius, and after him by all the other patriarchs and metropolitans up to the present day, which is why we do not have any communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. It is a pseudo-patriarchate with a pseudo-patriarch at its head. This is the fundamental reason. So we do not point at it and say there, look what it's turned into, because the very heart of the matter is, that the Moscow Patriarchate has lost the Apostolic Succession, which is to say, that it has lost the Grace of Christ.

We have not the slightest intention of taking part in a Bishops' Council, or Sobor, jointly with the Moscow Patriarchate, and based on your statement this means that we will turn into a sect. How, after asserting this, do you have the moral right to be a rector of a parish in a Church, concerning which you have no faith at all in its canonical foundation?

12 / 25 June 1998

Translated and adapted from the original letter with the approval of the author.

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