The proposed Church and Cultural Centre in Paris referred to by M Rehbinder in the article below…
The affair in Nice festers. As French courts had twice confirmed its property rights, the RF thought that it could obtain the keys to the property without a hitch. However, the current occupant, the Russian Orthodox Religious Association of Nice (ACOR), doesn’t want to surrender the premises. It said that the RF has a legal right to the property, but it based its position on the Orthodox canons. According to their interpretation of the canons, since the clergy of the Cathedral in Nice has belonged to Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Parishes in Western Europe (after this, the “Archdiocese”) for 80 years, they can’t transfer to another jurisdiction without the agreement of their diocesan bishop.
What can you think of such arguments? Firstly, it’s difficult to state, as does the ACOR, that there’s a separation of Church and state, and, at the same time, oppose the Church canons against the state law. If I’m getting it correctly, they seem to say that only the Church canons have any relevance to Church life. Let’s say that a parish rents a place of worship from a municipality. If the municipality wants to resume control of the property at the end of the lease, to give it to another parish or for another sort of use, will the existing lessees bring up the canons to forbid them to repossess the property? Of course, they wouldn’t, the very idea would be quite ludicrous. However, they might say, whilst the canons don’t relate to the state, on the other hand, the RF wants to convey its rights in the property over to the MP. Such an observation would be legitimate. Therefore, that should be the basis of the canonical arguments of the ACOR and the Archdiocese. As the statement of the Archdiocesan Council of 28 September 2011 remarked, “The intrusion of the MP Bishop into the life of the Nice parish, by constantly sending clergy to grab the Cathedral following orders that don’t come from Church sources, from political figures, is a violation of the norms of the canonical Orthodox Church. This is unacceptable. The Council expresses its full support for Archbishop Gabriel, so that his rights and prerogatives as a diocesan bishop at the altar of St Nicholas Cathedral are respected as per the ecclesiology and canonical standards of the Orthodox Church”.
In the first paragraph, there are two arguments. The first one’s confused. There was no intrusion of an alien bishop into the Archdiocese, into the life of the Nice parish as personified legally by the ACOR. No bishop attempted to take control of the ACOR, or remove its rector. A priest was assigned to St Nicholas Cathedral, which the court confirmed as the property of the Russian state, which assigned its rights to the MP. The confusion lies in the fact that the ACOR refused to leave the premises and transfer its operations to the other church available to it in Nice. It clings to the premises of the Cathedral, even though its long-lease agreement had expired. In fact, reality forces one to observe that they’re now squatters. The second argument actually resurrects the theory of an unholy alliance between the RF and the MP, to mount an “attack” against the Archdiocese to recoup its real estate. This is the infamous “collaborative plan” (plan concerté) referred to by some members of the Archdiocese.
Recent developments in Russia upset this deficient interpretation. As early as the period of perestroika, the state acknowledged both the crimes that it committed against the Church and the losses that it suffered during the Soviet period. The state accepted responsibility for its incorrect actions and decided to issue reparations. Little by little, it adopted legislation stipulating that buildings that were formerly churches, turned over to other uses during the Communist period, had to be returned to the MP. This process, still in progress, wasn’t simple. Indeed, government offices or workshops occupied buildings that were once churches or monasteries. During privatisation, some of them became part of larger corporate entities. Currently, some of these buildings still find use as workshops or museums, for example. The current occupants think it unjust that they have to give up what they thought was theirs, and it’s sometimes difficult to evict them. In some cases, where the state destroyed a particular church, it sought to help the rebuilding effort, as one could see in the case of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. However, the MP not only lost churches in Russia. One can say that the Soviet régime was directly responsible for the separation of the churches located abroad. In this case, also, the RF does its best to help the Church retrieve these churches. Certainly, it isn’t possible to apply Russian legislation on the return of church property. Nevertheless, when it finds a favourable legal situation, the state must take advantage of it, for one could accuse it of negligence if it didn’t. This was the case in Nice, where the existence of a long-term lease allowed the state to assert its rights. One can think what you will of this policy of returning church property to the MP, but to see it as an action specifically directed against the Archdiocese is a manifest error. Similarly, to approve this policy when it’s a matter of affairs in Russia and to condemn it in the case of the Church’s property abroad lacks logic. We should look at the construction of a new cathedral in Paris with the same perspective.
In the second paragraph quoted above, the Council of the Archdiocese seems to want to transpose the main argument used before the civil court onto the ecclesial plane… a long occupation, without opposition, allows one to acquire a real property or the jurisdiction of an altar, under the concept of “prescription”*. The civil tribunal rejected this argument because the occupation was under a rental lease. In the canonical domain, it’s difficult to determine on what canon the Council relies upon. However, one can note that the MP, rightly or wrongly, has never recognised the canonical legitimacy of the arguments underpinning the separation of the Archdiocese from the MP. It’s always challenged these arguments. Therefore, one can’t assert that the MP never challenged the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese over the cathedral in Nice.
* Prescription is a general concept of law that refers to the time beyond which a legal action, civil or criminal, isn’t admissible. Consequently, prescription is a legal mode of acquisition or extinction of rights by the mere fact of their possession for a certain period. It may relate to rights to real or personal property, whether movable or immovable.
In any event, one must concede that you can’t settle Church problems by using the legal concept of “prescription” (see above). The Church lives in reality, not legalism, in its prayer and sacramental life together. The only way to mend a schism, like the one that took place during the early Soviet period, is through frank discussion, in which each party could explain the reason for its stance. The ROCOR did so, and it doesn’t regret it. The Archdiocese must still do so, and if it doesn’t face this painful historical conundrum with the MP, it runs the risk of refusing both inner peace and external concord. What we need, it seems, is what His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew wrote in his letter marking the 150th anniversary of the consecration of St Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral in Paris, “Times have changed, the spirit of controversy is behind us; we must heal the wounds inflicted by history, and completely abandon all hostility”.
May we attend to his voice!
15 October 2011
OLTR Official Website