NEW YORK, May 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Sunday liturgy at the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh went on as usual on May 14. There was almost no sign that the church is facing a significant transformation.
Last week, the All-Diaspora Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA, aka ROCOR) approved a historical resolution that set it on course of reunion with the Moscow Patriarchate after nearly 80 years of separation.
This course was unanimously approved on May 11 by ROCA's council in San Francisco, and is expected to be endorsed by church's senior clergy later this week.
Origins Of The Split
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was formed in 1927 in response to the religious policies of the Soviet Union. It considered itself the voice of Russian Orthodoxy outside the Soviet Union, and an inseparable, spiritually united branch of the Moscow-based church.
Overtures for reunion made after World War II were snubbed due to the fact that the Soviet Union was a communist state. Since the fall of communism, reunification faced hurdles because of ROCA's belief that the values of Orthodoxy had been compromised in Russia.
Nadezhda Mokhova, whose grandparents emigrated to Germany after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, has been attending the services at the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh for several decades.
"They ask us: 'What do you believe in?' I am like, 'What do you mean what do we believe in?' -- and then they realize, 'Oh, you believe in the same in what we do.'"
She tells RFE/RL that the proposed reunion is long overdue. Recalling her first trip to Russia in 1989, she says people there were surprised to learn that their beliefs were nearly identical.
"We travel there (Russia) and when we say that we are from America there are initially smiles," Mokhova said. "But when we say that we are from ROCA they ask us: 'What do you believe in?' I am like, 'What do you mean what do we believe in?' -- and then they realize, 'Oh, you believe in the same in what we do.' It means they've been taught that we are not alike."
Nadezhda says that some within the Russian Church Abroad's community are resistant to reuniting with the Moscow-based church. Many cannot forget the political repressions and property seizures suffered by believers during the Soviet era. While Russia is no longer a communist state, old grudges are hard to overcome for many whose ancestors fled the Soviet Union and joined the Church Abroad.
"In this church there are many who disagree," Mokhova said. "Many people come here but they are on the way somewhere else. Some of them still cannot get over the fact that their property had been confiscated [by the Bolsheviks]. It’s hard to judge, it’s been confiscated so just get over it. They seized all the property of my grandfather, so what? What am I supposed to do -- go back and demand for it to be returned? Why? Somebody else lives now there, so let them live there."
Slow Healing Process
Father Yakim, who was born in California to Russian parents, is one of three priests performing the liturgy at the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh. He says that, if approved, the process of reuniting the two churches will take at least several years. But nevertheless, he says, the time to heal old wounds has come.
"The clergy and the laity of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad feel that a historic moment has come where we can address the issues that have divided the Russian Church for so many years," Yakim said. "The time is right, there seems to be a spiritual rebirth in Russia, there seems to be a genuine attempt by the hierarchs and the clergy in Russia to rid themselves of the obstacles that separated us."
"The clergy and the laity of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad feel that a historic moment has come where we can address the issues that have divided the Russian Church for so many years." -- Father Yakim
U.S.-born Father Mikhail also performs the liturgy at the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh. He says that many parishioners are divided on the issue of reuniting with the Moscow Patriarchate, but notes that the reunion will mostly be in the spiritual sense, as both churches will remain operationally independent of one another.
"The old-timers in New York, those who remember the 'good times,' some of them are against even about discussing the subject of the reunion," Father Mikhail said. "But others are supporting it. The younger generation, those who arrived in America recently, they are, I think, in general ambivalent -- neither against it, nor for it."
Irina Koltsova, is Russian-born immigrant but who has attended services at the Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh for five years now.She tells RFE/RL that the reunification of the two churches will be good for both Russia and Christianity in general.
"I think that the reunion of the churches will first strengthen Russia's position," Koltsova said. "Second, it will uplift Christianity, which is trampled on and persecuted the world over."
The main point of contention between ROCA and the Moscow Patriarchate remains Moscow's activities in the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement.
In its May 11 resolution, ROCA appealed to the Moscow Patriarchate to cease all such activities.