“I Leave Following Christ, Wholeheartedly Forgiving Those Who Hate and Do Wrongly by Me.”
Protodeacon Petr Utkin is well known to Orthodox Christians in New York. For more than 10 years he served in the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, zealously performing divine services and always offering a kind, welcoming word to parishoners. Recently it became known that he transferred to the Slavic Orthodox Vicariate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Fr. Petr was born in 1959 in Vorkuta, Komi ASSR in the family of a worker and a teacher. Before his ordination he worked as a veterinarian and as a music teacher. In 1994, on the recommendation of Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion (Kapral) and with the blessing of the then First Hierarch of ROCOR Metropolitan Laurus (Shkurla), he entered the Holy Trinity Theological Seminary in Jordanville, while a subdeacon in New York. On February 3, 2008, he was ordained deacon, and subsequently elevated to the rank of Protodeacon on February 5, 2017. He served in the Brooklyn parishes St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Sheepshead Bay, the Church of the Inexhaustible/Non-Intoxicating Chalice Icon in Brighton Beach, and the Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in Bensonhurst.
-Father Protodeacon, it is obvious that your decision to change the canonical jurisdiction was a result of some disorder. Can you kindly share the details with us?
Indeed, the decision was not an easy one for me. It was not a get away from personal problems, but from the general disorder that has been plaguing the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) for several years. I witnessed a woeful decline in the ministry of the Church and gross injustice towards very worthy priests. In order not to judge or condemn and not be discouraged in spirit, I chose to follow those who truly lead the flock to God and care for the flourishing of Orthodoxy on the American continent.
In order to support my words with evidence, I will give you examples of the churches in which I served. I will begin with the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God » Inexhaustible/Non-Intoxicating Chalice» in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Father Vadim Arefiev was Rector. People came daily throughout the day until evening to pray at the church. This parish was notable for being the only one in the Eastern American and New York Diocese established a House of Mercy for the poor and homeless. It was a place where they prayed, worked and ate, living and growing in Christian morality. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, instead of helping this parish, the Diocese launched frequent attacks on it, persecuting Fr. Vadim. He was suspended and then defrocked.
Another church where I served was the parish of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, which is also located in Brooklyn. It was once the largest and most active ROCOR community in NYC. Its uniqueness and wealth attracted many good and bad people. As a result, an internal confrontation arose between the clergy and parish council. The ruling bishop and the Diocesan Council did not intervene. They never attempted to mediate, restore peace, or create harmony in the community. A new rector was eventually appointed, Archpriest Sergei Lukianov, who was then the Secretary of the Diocese. Being very busy, he did not care about the parish and the church began to fall into desolation. Donations became scarce and many parishioners left for other communities. I had a sincere desire to help rectify the problems, but no one wanted to hear me. The reality is that the Rector almost never visits the parish. Financial affairs are arbitrarily and stupidly managed by the Parish Council. For some reason the Assistant Rector, Archpriest Pyotr Kunitsky, shortens and distorts the services. He frugally does not allow lighting of the candles, economizes on coal, incense, prosphora, and other ecclesiastical supplies. The church stays dirty, urgently needing repairs of the building and ventilation. The bathrooms are all either out of order or have some parts broken. They no longer maintain their former excellent church choir of professionals. Instead, a couple of parishioners without the required musical education sing the services, often out of tune. It was all very painful to witness. Fr. Sergei brought the church to a completely deplorable state. Everything that the community’s founders and parishoners had been building for the glory of God for many years has been undone. Being unable to do anything to help the parish, I left.
I returned to the Cathedral of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist, where I had formally served. This decision was not made overnight. I had been thinking about it for a long time. I had faith in the Lord and I hoped that He would show me the right path. Things became clearer to me on the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, which is my name day. On that very special day my rector, Father Sergei, completely forgot about me. My former rector, Archpriest Alexander Belya, remembered my name day and called to congratulate me. I saw this as a sign of what I should do next.
I remembered how different the community at the Brooklyn Cathedral was. There were always good relations between the clergy and parishioners. This is still true. Love, mutual attention and respect reign in St. John’s. Everyone who enters the Cathedral feels welcome. The structure of the liturgical life is very important for me. The beautiful choir and the splendor of the church art create an atmosphere conducive to prayer and spirituality for the parishioners. There is a wonderful Sunday Parish school for children named after St. Sergius of Radonezh. The Rector gently leads his flock to the way of Christ by maintaining the spirit of joy and brotherly love. In my opinion, it is not important which Orthodox jurisdiction a parish belongs to (the main thing is that all Local Orthodox Churches recognize its primacy and truth). The spiritual essence of a community is what really matters.
Taking into consideration everything above, I believe that it was God’s will that at my request I was admitted to the Slavic Orthodox Vicariate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Ecumenical Church under His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros. He is a wise administrator and an exceptional theologian with an excellent knowledge of Canon Law. His Eminence also presides at the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America. I rejoice that the Lord helped me find this Solomonic solution to my situation.
-Father Petr, when you went to serve at St. John the Forerunner and Baptist Cathedral, Metropolitan Hilarion announced that you were under a ban. Do you agree with this decision?
The question is very difficult from the point of view of Canon Law. This issue has been examined very carefully throughout the history of the Christian Church. There has to be a balanced approach. Many things have to be taken into consideration such as the historical time period, the state of the laws, the spiritual state of the people, and whether the decision would be beneficial for all or bring harm. Most importantly, those decisions should be made following the principle of Economy/Oikonomia (a position of charity and condescension) as opposed to Akrivia (strict adherence to the law). This allows discretionary deviation from the letter of the law in order to adhere to the spirit of it. In the decisions of the Diocesan Council of the Eastern American Diocese of ROCOR, unfortunately, there is not a single example that would correspond either to the spirit and letter of the Law of God. Let us recall recent events. When the ROCOR Synod of Bishops elected Archimandrite Alexander Belya a bishop, some of its members immediately began plotting against this decision “behind-the-scenes.” Suddenly there appeared three false witnesses, and despite their complete unreliability, used undisguised slander against the newly elected hierarch. Their testimonies were immediately accepted and taken into consideration. While this secret undermining of the Archimandrite’s new position was going on, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Holy Synod of Russia approved the decision of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops. The opposition group was enraged and in great confusion. They urgently convened a meeting of the Diocesan Council, which was not afraid to brazenly go against the decision of the ROCOR Synod and Patriarch Kirill. In my opinion these conspirators openly showed, for the entire Orthodox world to see, that they have neither humility, nor obedience or faith in the Providence of God. Those so-called churchmen have nothing holy in them, just insolence and pursuit of their personal benefit. Without any trial, investigation, or reason at all, Fr. Alexander was banned and then defrocked by ROCOR. Fortunately, the Archimandrite was warned ahead of time about the impending persecution. He petitioned for a transfer into the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America using a release certificate previously given to him from Metropolitan Hilarion himself. His petition was approved by His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros. Thus, God’s Will was done. Soon after the Slavic Orthodox Vicariate was created by the decision of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. My Rector, Archpriest Alexander, waited for another month after that, hoping Metropolitan Hilarion would investigate the matter and make a just decision. The First Hierarch did not answer his calls, rejected written messages and refused to meet with him in person. Father Alexander realized that he was no longer welcome in ROCOR and left for the Greek Archdiocese also using a release certificate from Metropolitan Hilarion.
All the decisions ROCOR promulgated in this matter should not have any authority because they are based on lies and deceit. Everyone knows this very well. Any Orthodox Christian who wants to find out the truth has the opportunity to open the Internet, look up Church Law with the explanations/interpretations by Balsamon, Aristin, Zonar, and other authorities on the Canons. It should then be quite clear that these decisions reflect ignorance at best and a deliberate distortion of these rules at worst. I think many ROCOR clergy, including myself, question why the bishops did not first investigate the veracity of the initial charges and summon Archpriest Alexander and his son the Archimandrite to a meeting of the Synod of Bishops to find out the truth.
-It is clear from your words that Archpriest Alexander, Archimandrite Alexander, and all the clergy who left for another Orthodox jurisdiction (Greek Archdiocese of America under the Ecumenical Patriarchate) had every reason to do this. Can you explain these?
This is an interesting and important question. We must always remember that of all the gifts given to humans by our Creator, freedom of choice is the first and the most important. This is reflected in Rule 17 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which indicates that any clergyman who wants to leave his bishop, must obtain a release certificate from him, after which he has every right to transfer to another episcopacy. Both priests obtained these from Metropolitan Hilarion. On that basis Archbishop Elpidophorus correctly accepted both priests into his clergy. The Decree dated July 24, 2020, No. 32/7 of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR states, “2) To announce the Decrees No. 9-10 / 16 of September 5, 2016 and No. 10-39 / 17 of October 30, 2017, void of the power of canonical release certificates”. This is a real canonical violation within ROCOR, which leads, if it is followed logically, to nowhere. If the legally issued release certificates from Metropolitan Hilarion are suddenly not valid after the fact, then the First Hierarch’s authority itself turns out to be untenable. To clarify this issue, for those who wish to truly understand it, it is necessary to understand the question of succession in ROCOR. While much has been written on this topic, a short biography of Bishop Barnabas (Prokofiev) would clarify what they did and what is still done with the clergy of ROCOR.
Bishop Barnabas of Cannes (1945–2017) was the Vicar of the Western European Diocese of the ROCOR. On April 29, 1982, he was secretly ordained Bishop of Menton (France) with the aim of being secretly ordained a bishop in Russia for the Catacomb Church (During the period of Soviet rule a secret rival church existed as an alternative to the official one under the Moscow Patriarchate, which was subservient to the state.) On May 10, 1982, with the blessing of ROCOR, he ordained Archimandrite Lazar Zhurbenko as a bishop in a Moscow apartment. Eight years later, on July 25, 1990, ROCOR learned about its secret bishops Barnabas and Lazarus from Metropolitan Vitaly. In 1995, the Synod of Bishops banned Bishop Barnabas from serving. Yet in 1996 he was appointed the representative of ROCOR in the Holy Land. From April 25 to June 20, 2001, Bishop Barnabas was again banned. In October he was banned once more and then deprived of his episcopal rank. By 2006, he was restored as a bishop only to lose it again in 2009. In 2012, Metropolitan Hilarion lifted the ban on Bishop Barnabas and appointed him Rector of the Archangel Michael Church in Cannes. In 2013, he was banned for a final time, and in 2014, defrocked. The fate of Bishop Barnabas reflects the chaos and irrationality of the decisions of the ROCOR and its First Hierarchs. His Grace Bishop Barnabas died in 2017 and was buried as a layman.
If we take Canon Law and the instructions of 31 SS. Apostles, 15-16 of the First Ecumenical Council, it is clearly stated that a bishop should be appealed to three times. After numerous attempts to contact the First Hierarch by phone and letter, the Rector of St. John’s Cathedral came to meet with the Metropolitan on his own, but was not allowed an audience. He was officially summoned to the Diocesan Court only once on March 30, 2020, when all meetings were already banned due to coronavirus epidemic. By that time Fr. Alexander had already transferred under a different omophorion and there was no need for the clergy of the Ecumenical Church to answer the summons of another jurisdiction. It is important to note that the Chairman of the Spiritual Court of ROCOR is Archpriest Georgiy Zelenin, a former Russian artist, and in the Diocesan Council a former dancer, Archpriest Alexander Anchutin, has an important position. Having no church education, Fr. Alexander also holds the position of Rector of two churches and the Dean of three districts. For some reason, such people run the Eastern American Diocese and seem to control the Metropolitan. This is one of the reasons why the ROCOR is in such a deplorable state today.
-Father Protodeacon, over the hundred-year history of ROCOR, have there been periods when the Orthodox Churches, without Release Certificates, allowed their clergy to move to other jurisdictions, or not?
Of course, there have been precedents. All of them depended on external circumstances and special need. The basis has always been the judgements of the primates of the local churches. For example, on April 13, 1945, the Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, led by His Holiness Patriarch Gabriel V, gave permission for canonical leave to all ROCOR priests in Yugoslavia, who were under the authority of the Serbian Church. In April 1945, Bishop Sergius (Larin) reunited the Russian parishes in Yugoslavia with the Moscow Patriarchate. On August 10, 1945, Moscow Patriarch Alexis I appealed to the archpastors and clergy of the “Karlovac Assembly” (held by exiled clergy after the Russian Revolution) to return to the Russian Church. “Those who will remain deaf to our fatherly call this time will be subject to the above-mentioned decision of the year 1934 by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.» In September 1945, Metropolitan Evlogius Georgievsky with 75 parishes in Western Europe and the North Africa (Western European Exarchate), as well as Metropolitan Seraphim Lukyanov (about 30 parishes), the head of the Western European Diocese of ROCOR, transferred to the Moscow Patriarchate. In Yugoslavia, as early as in April 1945, several clergymen, after repentance, were admitted to the Church of Russia. In October 1945, the Russian Orthodox communities of Bulgaria and Manchuria were admitted to the Russian Church. In the same year Russian Orthodox parishes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were also transferred to the Moscow Patriarchate. On October 27 Bishop Eleutherius Vorontsov, who arrived in Harbin, annexed the clergy and parishes of the Harbin Diocese to Moscow. On December 27, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to consider the archpastors Metropolitan Meletius Zaborovsky of Harbin, Archbishop Demetrius Voznesensky, Archbishop Nestor Anisimov, Archbishop Viktor Svyatyatin of Beijing, and the head of the Korean Mission, Archimandrite Polycarp Priymak as well as clergy and laity of the Harbin Diocese, reunited with Moscow Patriarchate as of October 26. Only the vicar bishop of Shanghai, John Maximovich, with his clergy and laity (about 9,000 faithful) remained loyal to ROCOR.
In 1959, ROCOR decided to receive clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate through public repentance and probably without release certificates. A clear violation of Canon Law was committed by the Synod of Bishops on May 15, 1990, when the «Regulations on Free Parishes» was adopted, which assumed to determine the beginning of the legal existence of dioceses and parishes on the territory of the US. After that, the mass admission of parishes to ROCOR began in various regions of the country. There were similar actions in the time of St. John of San Francisco and Shanghai, when he and others received priests from other local churches, even those of the Western Rite, guided by the decisions of the ROCOR Synod on the basis of Canon 15 of the Double Council. In the 21st century these non-canonical transfers continue. The first was in October of 2008 when the seven ROCOR parishes in Brazil left after signing of the Act of Canonical Communion, again without release certificates. No one banned them for this. The most striking illustration of free choice and transfer to another jurisdiction was in Western Europe in 2019 when the parishes of the Exarchate of Constantinople decided to change their ecclesiastical jurisdiction. There was no criticism, interference, punitive actions or intimidation. It was true spiritual freedom and this is how it should be in every Orthodox Church.
-Father Protodeacon, this is a jubilee year for ROCOR as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of its foundation. Due to the pandemic however, the celebrations did not take place. Please tell the readers more about this historic century.
It would probably require an academic conference or a book to really discuss this issue. The history of ROCOR is very short in terms of its existence as it is only 100 years. The story should have been filled with bright colors, but unfortunately it was only black or white. Which was prevalent is hard to say as the ratio changed at different times. I hope that historians will be able to evaluate this over time. ROCOR’s origins begin with the people fleeing from the Russian Empire as a result of the Revolution of 1917. The atheistic Bolshevik regime spared neither the Orthodox faith, nor its servants including bishops and priests, or the people of God. At first the faithful endured suffering with great dignity. As the persecution reached genocidal proportions, many fled. Having great spiritual and patriotic fervor, they hoped to soon return to their homeland and restore the tsarist order. With time realized that this was unlikely as the Communists strengthened their hold on Russia and much of its former empire. They felt obligated to preserve both the traditional culture of Russia and its faith. They made themselves an independent unit of the Russian people and the Orthodox Church. The first and the most significant step in this process was the «First Russian All-Foreign Church Council». It took place from November 21 — December 3, 1921 in Sremski-Karlovts, Serbia. Its decisions were rejected and abolished as non-canonical at the combined meeting of the Holy Synod and the Supreme Church Council chaired by St. Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow, on May 5, 1922. This marked the beginning of a long split between the Church in Russia and the Emigres abroad with bans issued on both sides. The situation deteriorated into bitterness as two separate churches developed. ROCOR’s leadership became increasingly conservative and fanatic in both its internal administration and relations with other Orthodox churches. There were also bright moments in its history, such as the emergence of leaders such as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Bishop Panteleimon (Rudik) and others. Even they however, could not bring significant successful changes because they themselves had endured unjust oppression and attacks from their fellow bishops. There were many internal conflicts and intrigues. They are discussed in the book of Bishop Mitrofan (Znosko-Borovskiy) «Chronicle of One Life» (Moscow, 2006). It can be found on the Internet at the link >>>). His Grace Mitrofan, Bishop of Boston (1909-2002) lived a long, arduous and inspiring life. He served for 56 years, first as a priest in Brest-Litovsk in Belarus, then in a camp for displaced/deported persons at Mönchegof (Germany), and later in Morocco. He also served in the USA, where for the last 9 years of his life he was the Vicar of the Eastern American Diocese. With vast pastoral experience, having gone through harsh experiences in Poland, the USSR and Germany he nevertheless was still full of energy and strength. Father Mitrofan was under the personal supervision of Metropolitan Anastasiy, with whom he conferred monthly. This unfortunately led to interference and intrigues from the inner circle of the Metropolitan. As both a priest and a bishop, he had to endure many sorrows: human malice, attacks, unworthy slander, and absurd accusations from which the First Hierarch himself could not protect him. Perhaps Fr. Mitrofan compared this persecution with the earlier ones he experienced when he served in the USSR, Germany, and Morocco. In the end it was his fellow Orthodox clergy, not atheists or Muslims, who were the cause of his suffering.
In recent years much material has been published on the history of ROCOR by theologians and bloggers, in particular Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev. Only one major work however, the three-volume history by A. Kostryukov titled «The Russian Church Abroad from 1920-1964», was ever published. If there were nothing else, this work alone would be enough. It is already clear that the intentions and decisions of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops on the occasion of the 100th anniversary celebration are not going to be implemented. This is God’s will. There was however, some positive action being taken. Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, held a conference for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of ROCOR from October 28-31, 2020. While it was probably focused on the positive aspects of its history, this is not bad, because at least something is being done.
-Dear Father Petr! On behalf of all readers and myself included, I thank you for your perceptive and informative answers. I hope that the majority of our readers will appreciate your insights, because until now many of them did not know and did not understand what was going on. Now you have clarified many questions for them.
May God bless and save you and all our readers!