A Short Conversation with Bishop Stefan (Sabelnik) of the Russian True Orthodox Church Abroad
Recovering from surgery, Bishop Stefan (Sabelnik), the new Bishop of the Russian True Orthodox Church Abroad (RTOCA), had not yet eaten, but was polite enough to give me a few minutes. Tomorrow would be a better day, he said. There was a good deal to talk about.
A number of people don’t know what to make of Bishop Stefan’s jurisdiction, which formed with the separation of Metropolitan Vitaly from the Church Abroad in late 2001. By the end of the next year, the two Russian Bishops who had left with Metropolitan Vitaly, Archbishop Lazar of Tambov and Bishop Benjamin of Odessa, had made a temporary Synod in Russia to serve the needs of catacomb parishes throughout the area, who respected the Metropolitan’s stance and were disgusted by his treatment. As well, Bishop Stefan himself, a new Bishop, was a mystery to many people.
Bishop Stefan was himself a mystery to us at NFTU, which led us to some questions the next day. His parents were catacomb Christians, and he was born in 1947. Finally moving to America, having heard of Jordanville, his family moved there, where he was an altar server for Archbishop Averky during his childhood. He went to seminary with Bishop Andronik (of the ROCOR-“Provisional Supreme Church Authority”), and the two had been friends over the years. Metropolitan Philaret put forward his name for elevation to the episcopate before his death. The Bishop recalled fondly that his father told him on his deathbed that he finally understood why God had given him the life that he had.
Bishop Stefan further explained the reason for his elevation to the episcopate, which had appeared in a number of rumors on the Internet. “Archbishop Tikhon and the Synod were extremely busy,” he explained. “The Archbishop told me: ‘To take care of the Church Abroad as well, it is overwhelming, it is too much. We shall make a Bishop for America, and he can take care of the free parishes abroad.’ I didn’t want to be made a Bishop, but it was based upon the needs of the Church.” So the Russian True Orthodox Church made an American Bishop, he explained, to begin the process of rebuilding the Church Abroad. “We are beginning as though with nothing,” Bishop Stefan explained.
We turned quickly to a topic of interest on the Internet– rumors of negotiations with Bishop Anronik and the PSCA, that finally needed to be put to rest.
He began by pointing out that discussions with what would later comprise the PSCA became increasingly difficult, because of their continued involvement with the Cyprianites. They seemed to be unwilling to negotiate without their presence, which struck the RTOC as odd, and for which Bp Stefan had no explanation. He referred simply to a 2001 document where dozens of clergy had repudiated the Cyprianite position. That said, he turned to the rumored meeting with Bishop Andronik of the PSCA this year, before the PSCA officially ceased recognizing the mysteries of the main Russian anti-Moscow jurisdictions.
“We had planned to meet beforehand, but it wasn’t possible,” said Bp Stefan, alluding to illness. They had spoken for a short while, on friendly terms in December and agreed to meet, before their respective elevations in their Synods. They finally met– as Bishops– during the first week of Lent, where Bp Andronik, according to Bp Stefan, offered to receive Bp Stefan and his parishes “as-is”. Bishop Stefan was surprised by the strange offer: “How could I do that, when I am sworn to protect the catacomb flock and the Church Abroad?” he asked, as though asking me the same question, to which I had no answer. He was referring to the fact that the catacomb flock in the ROCOR, by and large, supported Metropolitan Vitaly, and later, Abp Lazar and his Synod. He further added, to cement the point: “if I did something like that, I would be going alone; the parishes and the flock would simply leave me.”
We talked for a short while about the size of the PSCA Church, and he had mentioned that he was surprised how much numbers mattered to some of those who are now confused by the most recent actions of the PSCA. He seemed particularly saddened by one priest’s departure, close to him, to the PSCA. “I don’t understand why they went with them,” he wondered.
We turned to Bp Stefan’s view of the future. “The situation in the Church is heartbreaking today,” he explained. “I write and receive letters–” (he mentioned his recent encyclical, which NFTU is privileged to have the first official translation of into English) “–and the people don’t know what to do, one family asked me if I could tell them which churches are violating the fewest canons, so that our children could receive the mysteries? Well, we understand that the mysteries don’t ‘work’ that way, but how tragic is the world in which we live!” Compromise, he continued, is like sprinkling poison on one’s food; the food tastes only slightly different, but now it kills instead of strengthens. He continued. “Ordinary, everyday laypeople, are required to be faithful and honest, not making deals in back doors. How can we then witness this with clergy, with Bishops? The very servants of these people? We are supposed to be honest in our dealings as well! And yet this is all we see now.”
What was a simple short conversation was suddenly an hour long; and I had to cut the conversation short. Bishop Stefan asked where we lived, and I told him that we lived in New York. He invited us to come visit in Trenton, which I promised we would when it was possible. He was educated, but clearly pious, and of a spirit almost invisible today, from decades past, a loyal son of the Church Abroad. In many ways, Bishop Stefan’s was a voice filled with a deep spiritual freedom– a freedom that was spoken of and written about by Archbishop Averky of Taushev. Many of us are too young to remember Archbishop Averky, and many of us never heard him speak. As one of those who only knew him by his writings, this was, I mused, rather the closest I could have to a conversation with him.