The All-Diaspora Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which comprises both clergy and laypeople, overwhelmingly voted to reunite with the Moscow Patriarchate at a synod held today in San Francisco.
"One can't say who made the first or the second step here. What is important is that all of us, with one mind and soul, are following the path that the Lord foresaw for us," Archbishop Mark of the Berlin, Germany, and Great Britain Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad told journalists after the synod.
The New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was founded by Russian emigres who fled after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In 1920, it severed ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, accusing it of cooperating with the atheist communist government.
The recommendation adopted today says it aims to "heal the wounds dividing the Russian Church." The branch's 12 bishops are due to make a final decision next week.
The Moscow Patriarchate today hailed the resolution. "The decision of the All-Diaspora Council is an event of great significance," said Father Nikolai, the secretary for inter-Orthodox relations at the Moscow Patriarchate. "It is an important step toward restoring full unity between the Moscow Patriarchate and the part of the Russian emigration that was isolated from it as a result of the revolution, the civil war in Russia, and the ensuing impious persecution against the Orthodox Church."
Father Nikolai is also the head of the patriarchate's commission for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a working group set up in 2003 to attempt to bridge the rift between the two churches.
The Moscow Patriarchate has actively sought a rapprochement since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Aleksy II recanted a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet government issued by Patriarch Sergy in 1927 and canonized Nicholas II, the last tsar killed by the Bolsheviks -- a decision the emigre church had long called for.
But despite these concessions, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad so far had been reluctant to give up its independence. Many officials of the emigre church remain suspicious of Aleksy II.
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad's efforts to set up missions in Russia and Ukraine created further hurdles to reunification.
Father Nikolai, however, believes both churches are now ready for spiritual reconciliation. "The ground for this had long been prepared," he said. "According to our own perception of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, according to the behest of its founders -- Russian hierarchs who were forced to leave the motherland -- this event had to happen as soon as the church became free in our country. But a few years were needed for us to understand each other better, to overcome the stereotypes that formed during long decades of mutual polemic."
Father Nikolai is convinced the bishops will approve the recommendation next week. But even in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad will retain control over its more than 350 communities worldwide.