Russian Canonical Territory

in Russian en Francais


 In recent years, many people within Russian Orthodox circles have heard or seen the phrase, 'russian canonical territory'. However, few are capable of attempting a definition of this concept of 'canonical territory'. The use of this concept has been used primarily in relation to the presence and the activities of the Catholic Church be it in Russia or the countries of the ex- Soviet Union. In a few instances the phrase is used with respect to Protestants and various sects, but this use is somewhat limited by various ambiguities.

 In order to arrive at a clearer understanding of 'canonical territory' it is necessary to study its roots, its various meanings, and the implications that this concept leads to. Above all, it is essential that the word be understood theologically and not politically for it is a theological concept that can have political implications. It is not a political concept that either defends itself theologically or canonically.

 Clarifying the words

 Before one can investigate the possible meanings and usage of 'canonical territory', one must be clear what the two words 'canonical' and 'territory' mean. The word 'canonical' comes from the idea of Church canons, rules made by various councils or synods which are aimed at organizing and protecting the various elements of Christianity and ecclesial life. The word territory implies a certain geographical area with defined borders. Accordingly, territory implies the existence of other territories outside itself and which in some circumstances border on itself. However, due to the spiritual nature of the Church, 'territory' can signify more than a geographical area.

 Thus, the term 'canonical territory', implies the existence of not just one territory but rather of many 'canonical territories' of which one is the russian. The various parts of the Christian world are distinguished one from the other as canonical territories.

 Canonical territories in the Sacred Scriptures

 Although one does not find the term canonical territory in the Sacred Scriptures, there are certain parts of the Old and New Testaments which witness to the same principle that lies behind distinctions in or divisions of the Church and Christian world. In Genesis, Abraham and Lot divided the territory before them, Lot choose the eastern area around the Jordan and Abraham took the Land of Canaan to the West. The reason for this division was to avoid tension between the two brothers and between their herdsmen who might disagree over the ownership of goats and sheep .

 In the Book of Numbers, Moses orders that when the tribes of Israel enter the Promised Land that they are to divide the land among themselves. In the Book of Joshua this division is laid forth with different areas and cities being given to the different tribes. Each tribe, had already developed their own customs and traditions, and therefore needed to be geographically distinct and independent from the other tribes. Accordingly, the sociological principle that each culture requires its own space.

 In the New Testaments there are several places where the principle of 'canonical territory' begins to reveal itself as a trait of the Church founded by the Lord. In the Gospel the Lord sends the apostles out in twos to preach the Gospel to the towns of Israel. As He sends them into the various cities and towns, it would seem that the various pairs went to different places and in different directions. After the Resurrection He gives them the mission to go forth into the whole world, so as to convert all peoples, baptizing them and teaching them that which they themselves had learned from the Lord.

 The evolving principle of canonical territory reveals itself in the words of St. Paul when writing to the Galatians he says that he is the apostle to the uncircumcised while Peter is the apostle to the circumcised. Here lies a clear cultural distinction in the structure of the Church in apostolic times. A distiction between Christians of jewish origin and those of pagan origin. The aposotlic mission or pastoral care was divided into different cultural realms based upon this cultural-ethnic difference that marked the early Church.

 In the Acts of the Apostles, various Apostles and disciples are sent to various areas and cities to preach the Gospel. In some of these, such as Antioch, churches are founded and accordingly, one reads of the 'Church of Antioch', the 'Church of Jerusalem', the 'Church of Rome', the 'Church of Corinth' and so forth. Each of these Churches are distinguished one from another, not just geographically but also vitally, each one with its own particular needs and problems, and each one with its own characteristics. When the word 'Church' is used in such a way in the New Testament, it corresponds to what is now called 'diocese' or 'local church'.

 Consequently, another vital element appears as the principle of canonical territory develops, that is the episcopal office. Without a bishop, a successor of the Apostles there is no canonical territory, there is no local church. For instance, in the Apocalypse, there are the seven churches. According to some traditional interpretations, the angels of these churches are considered to have been monarchic bishops. St. Paul handed over his power to Timothy and Titus. St. Clement of Rome wrote that the apostles preached in countries and towns and appointed their neophytesas bishops and deacons of the future faithful, after they had proved these in spirit. St. Ignatius of Antioch affirms that even in the furthest countries there stands in each community a single (monarchic) bishop in whose hand the whole religious and disciplinary conduct of the community lies. Thus, each bishop cares for his own flock, in his own diocesan territory. The basic or strictest form of canonical territory is a diocese or local church which has its defined geographical boundaries with other dioceses.

 The first christian congregations were established in cities, but in the course of time the larger cities required several churches and were, thus, divided into several parishes. After the third century, churches began to appear in country places too. This development did not effect the presidency of the bishop of the city. He remained the superior of the various churches of the city as well as those in the surrounding areas. As the number of faithful began to increase in the rural areas, bishops were also appointed to these districts and new dioceses were established. As a rule the ecclesiastical leader of a province was the bishop of the capital city, who since the fourth century has been referred to as a metropolitan. The borders of an ecclesial province under a metropolitan tended to be coterminous with the borders of the civil provinces. This concurrence of ecclesial and political divisions was based primarily on geographic and historical reasons. However, there is also an ecclesial factor, as the churches (dioceses) of a province were ordinarily established from the capital city and were regarded as daughter churches of the older church. A further factor in the formation of metropolitan sees were the cultural, racial, linguistic and traditional elements which connected the peoples of one area and distinguished or separated them from the peoples of another metropolitan and geographical area. Thus, it is possible to speak of metropolitan canonical territories.

 Early in the fourth century, there were dignitaries, who might be called, chief metropolitans whose position was of long standing. The Council of Nicaea expressly mentions the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, whose jurisdiction respectively included the West, Egypt with the neighboring provinces, and the East (Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia and Palestine as far as Sinai). The Council also indicates that there were other metropolitan bishops of high rank with special privileges and evidently refers too the bishops of Ephesus, Caesarea in Cappadocia, Caesarea in Palestine and Herclea in Thrace. Of similar rank was the bishop of Carthage who also claimed according to an ancient right the privilege of consecrating and deposing the bishops of dependent (daughter) churches. Accordingly, the diocesan and metropolitan forms of canonical territory developed into the patriarchal canonical territories.

 The evolution of ecclesial structures from early christian (apostolic) churches to patriarchates was synonymous with an extending of the concept and principle of canonical territory. This extension depended greatly upon geographical, cultural and political factors which united the local churches of various areas into greater unities. Thus, it is possible to speak of three extensions of the principle of canonical territory, the territory of the local church or diocese, the territory of the metropolitan sees (equivalent to autocephalous and some of the national Orthodox Churches, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate) and the territory of the patriarchates.

 Russian canonical territory

The question to be considered regards the meaning of russian canonical territory. What exactly does the adjective 'russian' refer to and what are the other canonical territories which are non-russian. Does 'russian' refer to the political entity of the Russian Federation or does it refer to the historical Rus', or to the later russian Empire? Or maybe it refers to the russsian people as distinguished from other peoples, or the russian culture distinguishable from other cultures? In my opinion, the use of the word 'russian' leads to a certain confusion and hence, the difficulty of most people to adequately explain what russian canonical territory means. If one were to rather speak of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, then the significations that ought to be attached to the word 'russian' are easier to grasp.

 In fact there are many different dimensions or types of Moscow Patriarchate canonical territory. Due to various historical events, to cultural and political influences, to development in ecclesial life and traditions, the use of the principle of canonical territory today is much more complicated than the application of the same principle in the early Church. Accordingly, this principle has developed beyond the geographical and political and into cultural and pastoral realms.

 The geographical canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate

 The geographical area that coincides with the canonical territory is some what complicated due to the various stages of russian political history. The first stage corresponds to the Rus' of St. Vladimir which converted to Christianity. At this time, of course, there was no Moscow Patriarchate, and the canonical territory of the Rus' corresponded to a metropolitan see within the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. A second stage occurred when the autocephalous status was granted to russian Christianity and the Moscow Patriarchate was established. Those geographical areas in which there were dioceses and therefore, russian Orthodox bishops in communion with the Moscow Patriarch made up the first form of Moscow Patriarchate canonical territory. As the russian Empire extended itself, primarily towards the non-christian lands to the South, the East and to the North, so also did the geographical boundaries of the Moscow Patriarchate. Various people converted to Christianity through the missionary work of russian Orthodoxy. Also, russians established towns in these new areas allowing for an extension of canonical territory.

 Although, the geographical extension of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate of imperial times is basically the same as that of today, the political boundaries have undergone various changes. Accordingly, it would be very difficult to support a theory that all of the Soviet Union corresponded to this geographical canonical territory: countries such as Georgia, Armenia and Lithuania correspond to the canonical territories (in the strict sense of the term) of other non-russian churches who have safe-guarded apostolic succession and the sacraments.

 Similarly, it would be erroneous to suppose that the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate corresponds only to the present day Russian Federation. The break up of the Soviet Union and the formation of the CIS, meant politically independent and geographically distinguishable countries, and in many cases, distinct cultures also. When one remembers that the principle of canonical territory is in the first place ecclesial and not political, it becomes evident that the canonical territory was not reduced but has remained the same. Thus, the Ukraine and Belorus (disputably, with the possible exception of the western fringes), for example remain a part of the Moscow Patriarchate canonical territory.

 Cultural canonical territory

 Besides the geographical, another fundamental aspect of canonical territory is the cultural. Although the Church has a geographical extension, it consists of people and these people, while united in faith are also bonded together through common cultures and traditions. Accordingly, the russian people bear and share the russian culture. Within this culture, which marks the russian people even more so than their physical traits, one finds a certain mentality and view or views of the world. There are various traditions and historical experiences which have marked Russians in a way that makes them distinguishable from other nations and races.

 A second cultural factor strongly at play within the domains of russian canonical territory is the development of russian culture alongside the growth of Orthodoxy in Russia. The russian culture, in other words, is essentially Orthodox, and Orthodoxy in Russia is undeniably bonded to the culture. Hence, the cultural canonical territory extends to those peoples of russian culture, even if they are outside of the geographical canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate. Consequently, communities of Russians living outside Russia, for instance in Georgia, in Poland or in Estonia belong canonically to the cultural sphere of the Russian Orthodox Church. Taking into consideration the closeness of russian culture and religion, one realizes that even the non-baptized russians fall into this cultural territory of the Russian Church. In other words, the Moscow Patriarchate has a cultural right to care for the lapsed and un-baptized russians. It is also more fitting that russians convert to Christianity through Russian Orthodoxy, rather than any other rite or christian tradition, for through the reception of their national culture, russians have a certain russian way of understanding the various aspects of religion, of theology, of worship and of the Church. It is only proper that they practice the christian faith in a way which is harmonious with their psychology and culture. This way is through the medium of the Russian form of Orthodoxy and byzantine ecclesial traditions. Otherwise, there is a danger that a psychological disharmony will develop in individuals, leading to other difficulties in striving towards a healthy and mature spiritual life.

 The canonical ethnic territories of the Moscow Patriarchate

 Although the Moscow Patriarchate consists primarily of ethnic russians, there are many other ethnics groups which fall within her canonical territory. Thus there are komi, tartar and mordovian Orthodox. There are also ukrainian, belorussian, estonian and jewish Orthodox. These peoples, who in some cases are not entirely Orthodox, converted to Christianity, or in the case of the estonians, for example, to the fullness of Christian faith, through the activities of russian Orthodox missionaries. They are daughter churches of the Moscow Patriarchate to whom they give a multi-ethnic and a multi-cultural character. To various degrees the cultures of these various ethnics have also become closely tied to and dependent on Orthodoxy and in some cases inseparable from it.

 The canonical missionary territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Originally these peoples or nations can be considered to have been part of the missionary territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. In a similar way today, there are many nations or ethnic groups within the geographical canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate who as of yet have not fully accepted Christianity. There are Buddhists in Asia, there are Moslems throughout Russia, and after the fall of communism, there are many atheists and agnostics who have still to accept Christianity. These peoples make up the canonical missionary territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, as they have already been partially christianized by russian Christianity and since they are to be found within geographical areas which correspond to the most basic form of canonical territory, that is to dioceses (of the Moscow Patriarchate) all of whom are overseen by a bishop.

 Canonical pastoral territory

 After the October Revolution, many russians left their home land and went to live in various parts of the world. Thus, in France, England, Germany and the United States there are sizable russian communities. These russian Orthodox have kept their religious traditions, have their own churches and seminaries and are cared for by bishops and priests of the Moscow Patriarchate. Although the faithful find themselves outside the geographical canonical territory of the Patriarch and frequently inside the geographical canonical territory of another Church maintaining apostolic succession, they remain culturally and ethnically tied to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch has a canonical duty to care pastorally for his flock wherever they might be. This provision of pastoral and spiritual care falls into the realms of the canonical pastoral territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

 Disputed forms of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate

 There are other aspects of Russian Christianity which have, however, in the course of time placed themselves outside of the Russian Orthodox Church or have broken away from her.

 Historically, there is the situation that has arisen from the raskol' and the communities of old believers who are ethnically russian, as are the russian Orthodox. They share to a great extent the same russian culture and russian religious traditions (to be distinguished from the byzantine), but they are outside the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church.

 There are also the various russian sects that sprung up through the course of the centuries. These ethnic russians of hetrodox beliefs can be considered to be a part of the canonical missionary territory of the Russian Orthodox Church.

 Greek Catholicism in western Ukraine was one of the most up-setting events to effect russian canonical territory, which had only received its autocephalous status a few years earlier. Although a large part of the Christians of this area were originally part of the metropolitan canonical territory within the Constantinople Patriarchate and later of the Moscow Patriarchate, through the influence of polish politics and of Roman Catholicism they have become culturally and theological estranged from Russian Orthodoxy.

Over a million russians fled to the West to avoid the communist terror. In 1920 over 20 Russian Orthodox bishops who had been banished or fled, met in Constantinople and decided to create an autonomous church for émigré russians. Although at first they intended to reestablish links with Moscow when conditions permitted. By 1934 the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia was out of canonical communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. Although, this autonomous church is not of the same geographical canonical territory (except for the activity of some of their bishops within Russia and the establishment of many parishes) as the Russian Orthodox Church, there are strong ecclesial principles which indicate that it should be an integral part of the pastoral and cultural aspects of the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

 Another difficulty within the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, was the decision of Constantinople to grant the Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia autocephalous status. Although, Estonia is outside of the Russian Federation, the russian ethnics living there are culturally and ethnically the same as the Russian Orthodox in Russia. The estonians who are Orthodox, while culturally and ethnically distinct received their faith through the Russian Orthodox Church. There is thus, a daughter-like relation to the mother Church. Therefore, the Orthodox Church in Estonia ought to be considered from all sides as part of the Patriarchal canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.


 Although the phrase canonical territory has been used primarily by the Russian Orthodox Church so as to defend itself against the expansionist desires of other Patriarchal Churches, be it with regard to the establishment in 1991 of ecclesial structures in Russia by the Patriarchate of the West, or be it the attempt by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1996 to make the Church of Estonia autonomous from Moscow, the principle behind this very term canonical territory, has an other important ecclesial signification. Canonical territory is a call on the various Churches, be they patriarchal or autocephalous, to respect each other. It is a call to respect the traditions, the culture, and the peoples of the other. Similarly, it is a protection of fundamental ecclesial harmony within a church, a harmony that ought to exist between specific cultures, mentalities and the ancient religious traditions of Christianity as they express themselves differently in the various parts of the world.

 The challenge for the future is for the Churches of Rome and Constantinople to promote ecclesial harmony and to respect the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate. Similarly, through the use of the same principle the Russian Church affirms her respect for the canonical territories of the other apostolic churches.

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