Exile Church Agrees to Accept Patriarch

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has agreed at a historic synod to accept Patriarch Alexy II as its head after more than 80 years of bitter separation following the 1917 Revolution.

The 135 delegates and top church officials at the fourth All-Diaspora Council since 1920 adopted a recommendation on Thursday that called for spiritual unity with the Moscow Patriarchate but administrative autonomy, church officials said.

"We as a church have to do this to be in communion with the masses of faithful in Russia," said Archbishop Mark, who has led the church's negotiations with Moscow. "We can help the church in Russia to develop along a new path."

The Church Abroad's 12 bishops will meet this week without the clergy and laymen who have participated in this week's council in San Francisco to have the final say on healing the divide.

Throughout Soviet rule, the exile church considered the Moscow Patriarchate a tool of the state and the secret police. Feelings were so strong that it has taken 15 years since the fall of communism for the spiritual embrace to take place.

Some exile church officials are still suspicious of the patriarch, saying he once had links to the KGB. Any spiritual reunion with Moscow may prompt some hardliners to leave the church, some clergy predict.

For his part, Alexy has worked to heal the rift in recent years, apologizing for past transgressions and resolving some theological differences. For example, Moscow canonized Tsar Nicholas II, who was shot by the Bolsheviks -- sainthood that was long demanded by the Church Abroad.

Alexy has also expressed hope that the San Francisco council could finally end the long rift.

"The more time passes, the less Russian the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad will remain," he said last month. "This could be the last opportunity to bring together within one church two parts of the Russian people who were divided for political reasons as a result of the 1917 tragedy."

The Church Abroad's spiritual embrace of Moscow still leaves some thorny issues unresolved, including what to do about cities in which both have churches. Dueling churches exist in quite a number of European and American cities as well as in Jerusalem. In New York City, for example, the Church Abroad has its worldwide headquarters just five blocks from an Orthodox Cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate.

"These are questions that will gradually be solved," Archbishop Mark, who oversees his church in Germany and Britain, said in an interview. "In the church we do not like to push things, but to let things grow organically."

The archbishop said the Church Abroad would retain the right to appoint its own bishops although the patriarch would bless its choices. The Church Abroad serves 350 communities worldwide, church officials said.