Recent vandalism to the exterior of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Due to how the situation has developed over the last few days, the parish council of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam made an announcement to the parish. For those of you who do not know, this is the parish Jim Forest belonged to, who was cofounder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The announcement by the parish council is followed by a letter by the clergy that explains the details. At the same time it gives interesting historical information about the parish.
Also the clergy made a list of answers to possible questions that may arise. These answers again give many interesting details. The letter of the clergy also reveals some more shocking details of what took place during the last few days, some of which were unknown to me until now. I have been so shocked and worried over all this over the last few days, and feel relieved that it has come to this decision. This decision will cause pain, people will leave because of it. And it causes pain to everyone. I am deeply saddened by the fact that the letter is not signed by one of our deacons whom I consider to be a good friend. At the same time, I am proud to be a member of this parish, where I can continue to feel spiritually safe. One of the most poignant phrases in the letter by the clergy for me: There is no longer a persecuted Church, but a persecuting Church.
Parish council announcement
Today an extraordinary meeting of the parish council took place. The reason for this meeting was the threat to the parish and the clergy which we reported to you previously. During the meeting, the clergy unanimously announced that it is no longer possible for them to function within the Moscow Patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for our faithful. They have asked Archbishop Elisey to grant them canonical dismissal. They have also sent a request to Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) to be received into his diocese. The Metropolitan has expressed his willingness to consider the request and will request a canonical release from Archbishop Elisey. The parish council has decided to support this move by the clergy and proposes that the parish follow the clergy in this.
This proposal will be presented to a special General Parish Meeting on 26 March. Members of the parish will receive notice of this meeting later today. There will be no services in the church in the period leading up to the General Parish Meeting. This is due not only to concerns of safety, but also to pastoral considerations: in this extremely tense situation, it would be virtually impossible to achieve the prayerful atmosphere we strive for during services. This decision is extremely painful and difficult for all concerned. Below you will find a letter in which the clergy give a further explanation. It also answers possible questions. In closing, we would also like to share with you some positive news. On 11 March our parish received relics of St. Nicholas of Myra from Egmond Abbey. We see this as a sign of hope in these difficult times.
The letter by the clergy
As the clergy of the parish of St. Nicholas, it is with pain in our hearts that we are forced to take a very difficult step. As you may know, we signed a petition asking Patriarch Kirill to call for an end to the invasion of Ukraine. We also issued a statement on Facebook. When the Patriarch subsequently expressed his full support for the invasion, we informed Archbishop Elisey on 4 March that it was no longer possible for us to commemorate the Patriarch in services.
On Sunday, 6 March, Archbishop Elisey came to our church unannounced shortly before the Liturgy began. He arrived in a diplomatic car and was accompanied by a subdeacon from London who is unknown to us. We were taken by surprise by this visit, which was partly aimed at ensuring that the Patriarch’s name would be mentioned in the service. The clergy thought it inappropriate to have an open discussion about this in front of a church full of people getting ready for Forgiveness Sunday. After the service, the Archbishop told our priests that our attitude was of great concern not only to the Patriarchate but also to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With this message an important boundary was crossed. Both in the Netherlands and Russia, church and state are separated. Governments are not allowed to interfere in the life of church communities. Then the pressure grew upon our parish. A confused person disrupted the service and smashed a window. Hate messages were spread in Russian-speaking chat groups about our decision.
The church was smeared with the “Z” sign of the Russian army. The Archbishop reported on social media that the “misunderstanding” in Amsterdam had been cleared up. On 10 March he wrote to Father Meletios, “I love you and would be so happy if you could continue to be a Rector that I wouldn’t like to address you with ultimatum but our confused people are waiting for a proper correction in your statements.”
With this ultimatum we are under pressure from our bishop, the Russian government, and strangers from outside. Pressure to go back on our previous very carefully considered position. We are not prepared to do that. This pressure endangers the spiritual safety of our church community and its members. Also, we can no longer morally identify with the position of the Patriarchate. Our ecclesial life is based on a number of principles taught to us by Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom] of Sourozh:
We are human before all else. Then Christian, then Orthodox Christian, and finally Russian, Dutch, Serbian, etc.
We are not connected with the Russian—or any other—government.
We are part of the Church in Russia (in Soviet times: the persecuted Church). Not out of support for the system, but to support the believers there. And out of love for this unique country and its spiritual heritage.
We do not accept financial contributions from the Patriarchate or other external sources.
We live according to the parish statute of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1918, which includes the active participation of parishioners in church life and decision-making, with the church building owned by the community.
As Christians, we see it as our duty to speak out when the Gospel compels us to do so. Our rectors Father Alexis Voogd and Father Sergei Ovsiannikov have brought these principles to life, to the point where our parish is known worldwide as one of the last places where the spirit of Metropolitan Anthony is kept alive. Father Sergei, a former dissident and author of a seminal book on freedom, was fearless when it came to speaking the truth. In November 2014, during his 25th anniversary in office, he said, “If the church unites with the state, it is very, very bad.” The current situation makes it impossible for our parish to continue living according to the principles of Metropolitan Anthony.
The head of our Church expresses his support for the war of one traditional Orthodox people against another, denying the right of one of them—the Ukrainian people—to exist.
Our bishop has sent us a message on behalf of the Russian Embassy.
There is no longer a persecuted Church, but a persecuting Church. Priests within Russia who have signed the petition to the Patriarch are being dismissed en masse. Priests who preach for peace are persecuted. Some are forced to flee.
Since 2018, we have already been under pressure to renounce our own statutes and switch to the standard statutes of the Moscow Patriarchate (as happened in the Diocese of Sourozh in England after the death of Metropolitan Anthony). According to these statutes, the bishop can expel any parishioner from the parish, dismiss the parish council, annul decisions of the parish council and the general assembly. Also, the Patriarchate is automatically the owner of all church buildings. In view of this, it is our wish to join the Exarchate of the Netherlands and Luxembourg of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is headed by Metropolitan Athenagoras of Brussels and Belgium. This decision is extremely painful for us. For almost fifty years our parish has lived within the Moscow Patriarchate. We were nourished by the unique spirituality, the zeal for faith, and the wonderful people of the various countries that made up the Patriarchate. We were inspired and energised by priests and lay people visiting our parish. Our clergy could serve, preach, and organise activities in Russia. We could function as a cultural and spiritual meeting place. For newcomers from the former Soviet Union, our church was a natural place to meet God and each other. Father Sergei helped them on their way by emphasising that Orthodoxy is not “Russian” or “Dutch,” but universal. Countless Dutch people and Orthodox people from other countries have found a spiritual home here.
We were often looked at and asked about our connection with the Patriarchate of Moscow: during communism, because of membership in the “red” church; after communism, because of the position of the church in Russian society, politics ,and economy. Our answer was always: we support the persecuted church. This answer is no longer appropriate. We can no longer justify to ourselves and to you, our parishioners, remaining under the care of this Church. We know that many of the faithful of our parish have similar feelings. However, we also realise that many of you experience this differently. That this decision will bring much sadness, pain, and also unrest. In this way we would like to express our understanding and respect for all of you who do not agree with our decision. We can only promise you that we will work to preserve our parish life, a safe and spiritually enriching parish life, in the spirit of Metropolitan Anthony. In a parish where you are always welcome.
Answers to possible questions
What will change for us?
Two things will change:
— The name of our parish (“Orthodox Parish of Saint Nicholas in Amsterdam”)
— The name of our bishop (in the services, only the name of the bishop will be used, not the Patriarch). Nothing else changes. We will keep our customs, our languages, our calendar. and all the traditions that make our parish our parish.
Shall we commemorate Patriarch Bartholomew?
— No. In the services, only the name of the bishop will be used, not the Patriarch. This is the traditional practice in all Orthodox Churches, with the exception of the Moscow Patriarchate.
May I participate in Holy Communion in our church?
— This choice is entirely up to you. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is in communion with all the Orthodox Churches. It has not broken communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. All Orthodox believers are welcome to participate in the sacraments in our church.
Are we now in schism?
— No, we are not. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is in communion with all the Orthodox Churches—including the Moscow Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate has temporarily broken off communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. All Orthodox believers are welcome to participate in the sacraments in our church.
Do we, with this step, betray the heritage of Metropolitan Anthony, Father Alexis, and Father Sergei?
— We think not. We are taking this step in order to keep the heritage of Metropolitan Anthony, Father Alexis, and Father Sergei alive for our children. This requires a church environment that allows space for this tradition.
Who is the new Metropolitan?
— Metropolitan Athenagoras was born in Belgium as the son of an Orthodox priest. He studied law and theology in Belgium, Greece, and Switzerland. In 2003 he was ordained a bishop, in 2013 he was appointed Metropolitan of Belgium, Exarch of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. He is President of the Orthodox Bishops Conference of the Benelux. He speaks Dutch, English, French, and Greek, and also celebrates services in Church Slavonic. Further information is found on the website of the Archdiocese of Belgium.
Has this happened before?
— In the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, many non-Greek communities have sought refuge within the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Many parishes of the Diocese of Sourozh passed to this Patriarchate after the death of Metropolitan Anthony.
What happens to our church building?
— The church building remains the property of the parish community.
Am I obliged to go with you to Constantinople?
— No, you are not. You are completely free to do so. The church remains open to all Orthodox believers as before.
Are the services still held in Church Slavonic?
— The languages of worship remain unchanged.
Do we now fall under Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Autocephalous Ukrainian Church?
No. The autocephalous Church of Metropolitan Epifaniy [the Orthodox Church of Ukraine] has no churches outside of Ukraine. We are under the Metropolitan of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
Vincent van Buuren is a musician and photographer. He is also a reader, singer, and conductor in the Orthodox Parish of St. Nicholas in Amsterdam.