Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church
Brief History of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (or Free Russian Orthodox Church)
The beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church goes back to ancient times. The "Baptism of Rus'" by Saint Prince Vladimir was only one stage in the long process of Russia turning to Christ. In the thousand years of its existence, the Greek-Russian Church (its official name since the 18th century) acquired a powerful structure and oversaw parishes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
After the October coup d'etat of 1917 and the Civil War in Russia, the single Greek-Russian Church was found to be split administratively - first by the front line, and then by the USSR's borders - into two parts: the Church existing within the homeland (later, as the persecutions grew stronger, it acquired illegal status and became the "Catacomb Church"), and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, or ROCOR. 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, and they communicated in prayer and the Divine Mysteries. 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 began to 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 nonetheless.
The Russian Bishops Abroad in the western world represented the free voice of 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 aimed at the full destruction of religion in the country.
By the end of the 1920s, the GPU or "Main Political Office," forerunner of the KGB, managed to sever from the persecuted Catacomb Church of Russia two church groups - the Renovationists and the Sergianists, which both compromised with the atheists and broke away from the Russian Church. These groups were recognized as schismatic by both parts of the Russian Church (that is, by the holy New Martyrs 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, the present day Moscow Patriarchate). Stalin also established a special Council for ROC affairs 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 "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, up to 150 hierarchs were still languishing in prisons, concentration camps, or exile.
To this extremely small group of bishops and clergy that had recognized Metropolitan Sergei were given some of the churches closed in the 1930s, and that 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 "ROC," 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 portion of the clergy that did not want to enter the Moscow Patriarchate. The canonical Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal See was shot in 1937, but even twelve years earlier he had been deprived by Soviet power of the right to govern the Church. As early as the 1930s, 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 with the Moscow Patriarchate. The clergy of the Soviet Church, upon the 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 Faith. 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 Konstantin 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 Valentin (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 Valentin, neighboring catacombniks became parishioners of Tsar Konstantin 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 Valentin of Suzdal. As a rule, 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 Archpriest Valentin (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 Valentin 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 the 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) - 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 Valentin, 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 (in which many believers, not without reason, saw a certain "political order"), 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 catacomb views. Bishops of the Free Russian Orthodox Church, who were under the jurisdiction of ROCOR, i.e. Archbishop Lazar and Bishop Valentin, were unlawfully removed from their Sees. After all their requests for a fair judgment and implementation of the violated 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 the five Bishops of the Russian Church at one time. 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 Valentin 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.
In the meantime, 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 Valentin, although it had been many years since he had ceased to belong to either group. Archbishop Valentin was their target because he was interfering in 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.
- Brief History of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church from the website of St. Basil of Kineshma Russian Orthodox Church (ROAC) in Colorado Springs, CO