Staunton, April 30 – Patriarch Kirill says that the Russian Orthodox Church’s canonical territory currently includes all the countries that had been part of the USSR plus China and Japan, and his aides say that it could expand to include other countries where the Russian Church has taken the lead in missionary activity.
Kirill made this expansive claim in an interview he gave at the end of last week to a Greek journal (patriarchia.ru/db/text/2930157.html), prompting the Orthodox magazine “Neskuchny sad” to publish a map of this territory (nsad.ru/pic/canonic_map_01.pdf) and an explanation of what it means (nsad.ru/articles/kanonicheskaya-territoriya-russkoj-cerkvi-karta).
Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk, secretary of the Patriarchate’s council for relations with Orthodox churches, told the magazine that the term “canonical territory” is now used quite frequently, it has only recently been given definition in the Russian Church by a decision of senior clerics earlier this year.
The term itself is “formally lacking in traditional canonical texts,” he said, but “the absence of the term does not mean the absence” of an understanding of the idea. Indeed, the canonical borders of the Russian Orthodox Church are referred to at church councils of the Eastern patriarchates as early as 1590 and 1593.
The ancient church did not need the concept, Yakimchuk continued, because there did not exist major formations larger than individual parishes or bishoprics, “but with time, larger structures began to be formed, and the necessity arose of canonically regulating the borders among them.”
The Eastern churches generally assumed the borders they have today in the Byzantine period, he said, but “the church borders of this or that Church can be broadened” to other territories where they have conducted missionary work. That is why China and Japan are part of the Russian Church’s canonical territory.
Another “important moment” related to this, Yakimchuk said, is that the canonical space of a church is based on territory rather than statehood. “States may disappear or appear, their borders may contract or expand, but these changes do not mean the automatic shift of church borders.”
Asked what happens when “historically a certain territory belongs now to one patriarchate and then to another,” such as for example in Bessarabia, the patriarchate official said that chronology is defining: “If in the course of 30 or more years, the borders between two” such churches “are not disputed, they cannot be changed unilaterally.”
As far as Western Europe concerned, the situation is still confused. A century ago, Yakimchuk said, “no one could imagine” that there would be “hundreds of Orthodox congregations.” But now there are, and to whom they should be subordinate will be the subject of an upcoming Universal Orthodox Assembly.
Opinion on this subject is divided between those who support the right of any autocephalous church to control the parishes near it and those who believe that there should be a more rational division of labor among the traditional Orthodox churches of the world. The Moscow Patriarchate favors the former position, but believes it must emerge “naturally” rather than by fiat, a process that will “require not a little time and patience.”