Some Notes on the History and Liturgical Practice
of the Orthodox Church of France
Fr. Francis DesMarais
Among the many attempts to re-establish a truly Western Orthodox ecclesial witness in the countries whose churches were influenced by, and attached to, the Church of Rome prior to the schism between East and West, or established under Rome’s canonical supervision through missionary activity since that time, none have become enracinated more completely and fruitfully than the restored Orthodox Church of the West in France in this century. To be sure, over the long history of Christianity in the territory of Gaul (comprising modern-day France and parts of modern Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy) this phenomenon did not lack predecessors in that fertile soil. Indeed the Church of Christ was planted in this region at a very early time; there are traces and traditions which identify the existence of small Christian communities in Gaul by the end of the first century AD. By the middle of the second century, the existence of a number of Christian churches along the Rhône, most notable were the churches of Lyon and Vienne.
These churches, like many other churches scattered through the Roman Empire, were established autonomously and grew with a shared spirit of equality and conciliarity. Each was an equal among the Holy Churches of God. It is true that at the First Council of Nicæa, the Bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, were granted a privilege of honor; to these the Bishop of Constantinople was added at the Second Œcumenical Council in 381 AD. These privileges in no way intended or authorized the division of the Holy Church of God into four or five patriarchal jurisdictions. At a time well into the fourth century, the Church had manifested its development into a missionary community of nearly a hundred “sister churches”, each one autocephalous, comprising several dioceses while remaining independent. Each diocese was headed by a “primate” (Apostolic Canon 34) or “metropolitan” (Council of Antioch). The councils of these local churches contained within them the fullness of canonical rights. This principle is restated in made quite evident in Canon 8 of the Third Œcumenical Council at Ephesus concerning the independence of the Church of Cyprus. That canon demonstrated without equivocation or speculation the concept of a lasting principle, witnessing to the freedom which Christ purchased for His Bride by His precious Blood.
The Church in Gaul, since its earliest days, was no exception to this rule. And it was in the spirit of that canonical right that the Gallican Church developed through the first nine centuries of its history. Its growth, and the establishment of its “metropolitan sees”, mostly coincided with the establishment of civil jurisdictions: in southern Gaul, Vienne, Narbonne, Arles-Aix, Eluse, Bourges, Bordeaux, Embrun, Tarentaise, Besançon, Lyon; in the North, Rouen, Tours, and Sens; in Belgian Gaul, Reims; in Germanic Gaul, Trier, Mainz, and Köln. The metropolia of Marseille was at times independent, and at other times attached to that of Arles. Each metropolia consisted of approximately eight dioceses. Alliances among various metropolias created the semblance of patriarchal exarchates, such as Arles and Lyon-Vienne; by the sixth century the bishops of these dioceses were called “patriarchs” or “exarchs”. It was not unknown in the seventh century for the title “patriarch” to be applied to the Bishops of Milan, Lyon, Canterbury, and Toledo, not to mention Rome. The meaning of these terms was to change considerably in the coming centuries. We were to see the same development in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the two Russian metropolias of Kiev and Moscow.
Throughout its life Church of Gaul was nurtured and governed independently through the voice of its councils. It continued to grow, united and equal to the churches of the Orthodox Catholic tradition. It regarded the Church of Rome with a special degree of honor as an “apostolic see”, but it always guarded its rights of self-governance. As a younger sibling, it respected the counsel of Rome which it sought from time to time, but it did not confine this privilege or “right of appeal” to the exclusion of the other churches. This Orthodox Catholic Church of Gaul of the early centuries, which is now restored in the Church of France, is independent, and zealously guards that independence, which is canonically expressed today in its claim to be an autocephalous Church.
The misfortune brought upon it first through the establishment of the Carolingian empire, called the Holy Roman Empire of the West, and eventually through the violent “reforms” of Pope Gregory VII, brought about the destruction of the independence of this local Church. Already in the ninth century, attempts had been made by the Church of Rome to undermine the freedom and rights of the local churches and to impose its juridical power, with the interference of Popes Nicholas I, Adrian II, and John VIII in the affairs of the Church of Reims and its bishop Hincmar. This was but the beginning of the draining of the rights of the leaders of the local churches, the patriarchs and metropolitans, in favor of papal power. Together with the above-mentioned “reforms” imposed upon the churches of western Europe, there was brought about a system of monarchical centralization and cæsaro-papacy vested in the occupant of the “see of Peter”. Thus liberty and equality, so characteristic of the life of the early Church, demonstrated again and again in actions of filial conciliarity, were no longer manifested in the Church of the West. (This is not to say that similar absolutist trends were not being felt in the East at the same time, but that is a topic for another discussion.) In the West the voice of the local church in the Orthodox Catholic tradition was silenced and would not make itself heard in practice until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although it continued in concept through a movement which surfaced in the fourteenth century with statements entitled “The Freedom of the Gallican Church”; this movement became known as “gallicanism”.
From that time forward there would be personalities known for their courage and holiness who would speak out for a return to the practice and spirit of the early Church and the rights of local churches. Jean-Charles de Gerson (1363-1429) called for fidelity to the canons of the early Church, an appeal which probably deprived him of canonical sainthood in the Roman calendar. Then there was a witness some 300 years later, Abbé Claude Fleury (1640-1723), and eminent historian and tireless defender of the rights and independence of the French hierarchy. Even among the ranks of the College of Cardinals during the same era was heard a strong voice crying out the same message: this was none other than the “Eagle of Meaux”. Jacques-Bénigne Cardinal Bossuet (1627-1704). The struggle continued into the next century with the efforts of the Cardinal-Archbishops of Luzerne and Bouisset, and the writings of Abbé Denis Comte de Frayssinous (1765-1841), especially True Principles of the Gallican Church concerning Episcopal Power (1818), later verified by the famed patrologist Msgr. Grillon (1760-1847). Through this whole period, most remarkable is the voice of St. Francis de Sâles, the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, who left a witness to this struggle which is indeed poignant: “Rome is intractable, she does not listen. We have but to pray and lament.”
It was these prayers and tears, and the audacious aspiration to a ancient heritage, which found its fruition in the restoration of an Orthodox Catholic witness in France through the canonical recognition of the Orthodox Church of the West in 1936 by Patriarch Sergius of Moscow. This was the blessing of an ecclesial entity which had been in the process of development for over eighteen years—the product of two very different visionary pilgrimages toward the manifestation and fulfillment of the Divine Will. One of these pilgrims, Charles-Louis Winnaert, was a Roman Catholic priest ordained in Belgium in 1905, who left the Church of Rome in 1918 as a matter of conscience. The other, Eugraph Kovalevsky, was a Russian immigrant of Ukrainian extraction, whose distinguished family fled to France at the time of the Bolshevik revolution; he and his brother Maxime brought with them the seeds which would later blossom into the reality of a restored Western Orthodoxy. In France, the land of the ancient Church of Gaul, which some have called the “laboratory of Western civilization”, these journeys were guided together through Divine Grace.
At first, Father Charles-Louis Winnaert led his small community in a path which he believed to be faithful to the rich heritage of Western tradition, and sought the support of Western churches outside the communion of Rome, the Old Catholics and Anglicans. Organizing his faithful, he established a movement in France through the “Liberal Catholic Church” in England, which he believed to be the representation of the Old Catholic Church in that country, and received episcopal consecration from that line of succession and established the Evangelical Catholic Church. Seeking more and more the spirit of the early undivided Church, and agonizing over the isolation of his community, he sought the counsel of Fr. Lev Gillet, a French monk of the Eastern church. Fr. Gillet opened to him the possibility of becoming an Orthodox Christian, while at the same time preserving the canonical and liturgical traditions of the West. In 1932 Bishop Winnaert wrote
“The Evangelical Catholic Church has become positively convinced that its true journey is to be united with the Orthodox Church of the East, not only in dogma, but also canonically.”
Fr. Gillet encouraged Bishop Winnaert to approach the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in order to avoid the difficulties which would arise due to the jurisdictional struggles among the Russian Orthodox in France. This was done through the efforts of Metropolitan Evlogy. The Metropolitan was already favorable to the establishment of a Western Orthodox church; on this subject he had sought the opinion of various professors at the Institut Saint-Serge in Paris, among them being Fr. Serge Bulgakoff, Hieromonk Cassien, Prof. A. Kartachov, and Prof. Nicholas Afanasieff. Their response was positive, from both canonical and liturgical considerations.
However, as with many events in Orthodox life, response is sometimes long in waiting. Petitions were sent to Constantinople in 1932, and again in 1934. Fr. Gillet also traveled to the Phanar to plead the case. As Patriarch Photios was ill, and the appointed bishops could not reach a decision, there was no action taken on the matter, although the cause found general favor by the Phanar.
By 1936, it became obvious that with no response forthcoming from Constantinople, and with the health of Bishop Winnaert becoming and issue to be considered, an opening should be sought elsewhere. This was done through a petition to the Patriarchate of Moscow, through the efforts and strong support of the Confraternity of Saint Photius, a group of Orthodox laymen who had dedicated themselves to the restoration of Western Orthodoxy. Included in this group were Eugraph Kovalevsky, later to be consecrated first Bishop of the Orthodox Church of France by Archbishop Saint John Maximovich, and Vladimir Lossky, one of the founders of the Institut Saint-Denis in Paris and one of the eminent Orthodox theologians of this century. With the enthusiastic support of these Russian Orthodox laymen, the then locum tenens of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Sergius (later Patriarch), lent his support to the movement and quickly issued a decree in June of 1936 which listed the conditions under which the Synod of Moscow would receive Bishop Winnaert and his flock. This action was later considered by Patriarch Sergius to be one of the most important acts of his arch-pastoral life, for he considered the restoration of Western Orthodoxy in Europe to be of prime importance for the world-wide witness of Orthodoxy.