5 thorny issues facing Orthodoxy
The recognition of schismatics, the canonical chaos in the Diaspora and the growing influence of politicians are the challenges the Church has been confronted with.
Contemporary life has posed a number of tough issues before Orthodoxy, the answers to which are worded explicitly and clearly neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the canons of the Church. They must be searched for – in the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition. This search may require continued spiritual and intellectual efforts of the entire Church, but living without these answers is no longer possible.
Local Churches and Dioceses
The emergence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) raised the question of the relationship between the Local Church and its dioceses.
Phanar created and recognized the OCU as autocephalous by the conciliar decision. In any case, the voices of the dissenting hierarchs of Constantinople were not heard.
However, in the second Church to have recognized the OCU, the Church of Greece, some hierarchs objected to this decision despite the resolution of the Council of Bishops. Metropolitans Seraphim of Kythira and Seraphim of Piraeus called it invalid – so did they call the decision of Constantinople on the creation of the OCU and recognition of schismatics.
The Russian Orthodox Church decided to break off the Eucharistic communion only with those Greek hierarchs who entered or will enter into communion with the Ukrainian schismatics.
The situation with the recognition of the OCU by the Alexandrian Church is even more confusing. This issue was not discussed at all or resolved at the conciliar level at this Church. Patriarch Theodore declared that his Church recognizes the OCU – and that’s all. Neither the positive nor the negative reaction of the other bishops followed.
All this generates a number of questions toward these Local Churches both of internal and external character.
"If anyone shall pray, even in a private house, with an excommunicated person, let him also be excommunicated" (canon 10 of the holy apostles). “If any clergyman shall join in prayer with a deposed clergyman, as if he were a clergyman, let him also be deposed” (canon 11 of the holy apostles). These and other rules of the Ecumenical Councils clearly show: whoever enters into the Eucharistic communion and by the letter of the canons only prays with schismatics, becomes a schismatic himself.
The situation with the recognition of the OCU by the Alexandrian Church is even more confusing. This issue was not discussed at all or resolved at the conciliar level at this Church.
What should Metropolitans of the Church of Greece – Seraphim of Kythira and Seraphim of Piraeus – do in this case? What should the hierarchs of the Church of Alexandria do, who also disagree with the recognition of the OCU? Rupture with their Local Churches so as not to become schismatics themselves? Or obey the hierarchy, as required by the oath given during ordination?
Who is the party liable before God for the flock entrusted to him: each individual bishop or the Local Church as a whole? Based on the sacred meaning of the episcopal ministry itself, it seems that it is a bishop. But if the Council of the Local Church decided otherwise, can he not obey? And is there an elementary opportunity to do this, since the Council can simply remove him from his see and replace with another hierarch?
But if each bishop is responsible for himself and his flock before God and, accordingly, can make decisions, then what, by and large, is the role of the Local Church – the institute which was established by the Great Councils?
In addition – how should other Local Churches treat the hierarchs who do not obey to their Council? For example, can and should the Russian Orthodox Church open parishes for Russian-speaking believers in the Greek dioceses that recognized the OCU without the consent of the local bishops? Would this not be an invasion of the canonical territory of another Local Church? Would it not remind what the Patriarchate of Constantinople did in Ukraine?
The Church in the Diaspora
It’s common knowledge that the organization of church life in the countries of resettlement type (USA, Canada, Australia, etc.) is abnormal. However, the situation was influenced by objective factors.
People of different nationalities from different countries of Europe came to these countries, each of which had its own Local Church. And they arranged their church life in a new place in the jurisdiction of their Church. As a result, each national Diaspora has its own diocese and its own bishop.
However, the situation when in one city there are several canonical but independent of each other bishops fundamentally contradicts the numerous rules of the Ecumenical Councils. “Let there not be two bishops in one city,” dictates canon 8 of I Ecumenical Council. The document of the Cretan Council of 2016 “Orthodox Diaspora” says: “It has been stated that the common will of all the Holy Orthodox Churches is to possibly solve the problem of the Diaspora and its structure as soon as possible according to Orthodox ecclesiology, the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church. It was also stated that at the present stage, for historical and pastoral reasons, an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church, which provides for only one bishop in one place, is impossible.”
The situation when in one city there are several canonical but independent of each other bishops fundamentally contradicts the numerous rules of the Ecumenical Councils.
Consequently, there is a problem and everyone recognizes it, but no one knows how to solve it. The Russian Orthodox Church tried to solve it by granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America but was misunderstood by most of the Local Churches, which continue to consider this Church Russian, while it is American. Out of the entire episcopate, only one hierarch is Russian by nationality but even he was born in the United States. The main language of worship is English.
Today, the problem of the Diaspora is aggravated by the emergence of the OCU and rupture of the Eucharistic communion between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Churches that recognized this new church structure. It turns out that in one city there are bishops who not just belong to different jurisdictions but also do not have communion with each other. In this case, subsuming the church life in the Diaspora to one denominator – canons of the Ecumenical Councils – is even more complicated.
I feel like using word "holy" with inverted commas. Because the Diptych is simply an order in which the Local Orthodox Churches are mentioned at the patriarchal service. It does not determine any advantage of one Church over another, nor does it place the Church by antiquity or authority of the people who founded them. It does not take into account the multiplicity of a particular Church or any other factors. The Diptych defines only this notorious primacy of honor.
But the Orthodox Churches have elevated Diptych to such a sacred height that they seem ready to do anything to defend their high position in it.
For example, in 1988, Patriarch Demetrios I of Constantinople did not come to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus due to the “protocol controversies” as it was officially reported. In his opinion, he was not guaranteed due honors according to the Diptych.
Patriarch German of Serbia did not attend the same celebrations either. Russian writer Valentin Kurbatov told that the organizers of the solemn worship gave him a place after the Georgian Patriarch Elijah. The Primate of the Serbian Church did not agree, because he considered himself superior by the Diptych.
In 2014, at the enthronement of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev, Metropolitan of Emmanuel (Adamakis) of Gaul from the Patriarchate of Constantinople refused to participate in the liturgy, because he was also not given the high rank which, in his opinion, he deserved.
Orthodox Churches have elevated Diptych to such a sacred height that they seem ready to do anything to defend their high position in it.
Looking at all these examples, an outsider would conclude that the Orthodox have no other concerns than how to uphold the prestige of their "throne", to establish their place in the Diptych and find out the Mother Church.
The obsession of the Patriarch of Constantinople about his primacy in Orthodoxy has basically crossed all boundaries of decency. As Metropolitan Luke (Kovalenko), Metropolitan of Zaporizhzhya and Melitopol, correctly remarked, “Only the hierarch who forgot what the Gospel is about can tell the whole world that only he is the main one and no one has the right to make decisions without him,” said Metropolitan Luke. “Can you imagine the Apostles Peter, Andrew, or John behaving this way?” Could Peter have come to the place where the other apostles were gathered and chastised them for having gathered without his permission? The way a person who calls himself the Patriarch of Constantinople behaves today does not fit into any gospel framework for a long time.”
This struggle for one’s historical privileges and place in the Diptych directly and very clearly contradicts the words of Christ: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9: 35). I wish a Primate of some Local Church could declare in the Gospel: place me last in the Diptych. But nobody does it. For some reason, the historical prestige of the see is more important for some reason. After all, the Diptychs themselves are sanctified by the authority of the Ecumenical Councils. Yet, it is unlikely that the Fathers of the Councils invested in the Diptych the meaning that occupies the minds of hierarchs today.
Maybe it's time to stop attaching such a sacred value to the Diptych?
Dependence of administrative system of the Church on politics
Patriarch Bartholomew constantly declares that each independent state has the right to its Local Church. In this respect, a lot agree with him. Moreover, this opinion seems to be reflected in the canons of the Ecumenical Councils, which say that the administrative structure of the Church should be similar to the civil one. For example, canon 38 of VI Ecumenical Council: “If any city has been rebuilt by imperial authority, or has been built anew again, pursuant to civil and public formalities, let the order of the ecclesiastical parishes be followed.”
Does this canon say that the organization of church affairs (autocephaly, borders, dioceses, bishops' sees, etc.) should follow the organization of political affairs?
According to this rationale, each African country should have its own Local Church and not be part of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Should the Local Churches disintegrate with mdisintegration of states, and should they unite again with unification of states? If this sounds absurd, then the position “each state should have its Local Church” is no less absurd.
But there is no canon that the Church is not related to the state system among the canons of Ecumenical Councils. On the contrary, some refer to the decisions of emperors and civil authorities.
Should the Local Churches disintegrate with disintegration of states, and should they unite again with unification of states? If this sounds absurd, then the position “each state should have its Local Church” is no less absurd.
On the other hand, there is an example of Abkhazia, which shows that the preservation of church jurisdiction when changing state borders (at least de facto) leads to disastrous conflicts within the Church.
After the military operations in Abkhazia in the early 1990s and the fact that this country gained actual independence from Georgia, priests of the Georgian Orthodox Church are not able to provide spiritual guidance to the flock in Abkhazia mainly due to the disagreements amid this flock itself. The Georgian Church views ordinations of priests and even more so hierarchs for Abkhazia by another Local Church as an encroachment on canonical territory. As a result, in Abkhazia church affairs are governed not by the bishop but by the archpriest. Moreover, for more than ten years there has been a split between separate groups of priests, resulting in the rupture in communication, mutual reproaches, and everything else.
Abkhazia’s transfer to the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church could solve the problem, but the Moscow Patriarchate does not want to violate the canonical territory of the Georgian Church.
Interpretation of the canons of Ecumenical Councils: by letter or spirit?
Representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in support of their claims to primacy in the Orthodox world, like to refer to canon 28 of IV Ecumenical Council: “Everywhere following the decrees of the Holy Fathers, and aware of the recently recognized Canon of the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved Bishops who convened during the reign of Theodosius the Great of pious memory, who became emperor in the imperial city of Constantinople otherwise known as New Rome; we too decree and vote the same things in regard to the privileges and priorities of the most holy Church of that same Constantinople and New Rome. And this is in keeping with the fact that the Fathers naturally enough granted the priorities to the throne of Old Rome on account of her being the imperial capital. And motivated by the same object and aim the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved Bishops have accorded the like priorities to the most holy throne of New Rome, with good reason deeming that the city which is the seat of an empire, and of a senate, and is equal to old imperial Rome in respect of other privileges and priorities, should be magnified also as she is in respect of ecclesiastical affairs, as coming next after her, or as being second to her.”
Literally this canon confirms the primacy of the throne of Constantinople (after Rome but Rome fell). But what does it say in essence? In fact, this primacy is justified by the political circumstances of the time. But they sank into oblivion half a millennium ago. Constantinople is no longer a reigning city, there is neither a king nor Sigclitus, and it is no longer Constantinople but Turkish Istanbul.
So what shall we do with the advantages of “the most holy Church of that same Constantinople and the new Rome”? Shall we continue to treat it as the first throne or send it back to the rule of Metropolitan Heracles, as it was before Constantinople gained its capital status?
In fact, canon 28 of IV Ecumenical Council justifies the primacy of Phanar with the political circumstances of that time. But they sank into oblivion half a millennium ago.
We could also extend the question. Are the rules of the Ecumenical Councils obligatory and unchangeable under the influence of variable circumstances? Political, economic, social whatever. Because as for the moral or dogmatic matters, there really cannot be any changes here.
But what about, for example, the following canon: “Let no clergyman be entitled to be on the roll of the churches of two different churches at the same time” (canon 10 of IV Ecumenical Council)? Today, rural fathers sometimes provide spiritual guidance to five or six villages at a time. Should they be forbidden to do it?
Here is another example: “Let neither any woman sleep in the men’s quarters in a Monastery, nor any man in the women’s quarters of a Convent. For the faithful believers must be remote from any offensiveness of scandal, and must regulate their own life to be seemly and accordant to the Lord. If anyone do this, whether he be a clergyman or a layman, let him be excommunicated.” (canon 47 of VI Ecumenical Council). So, is it necessary to excommunicate from the Church all the female pilgrims who stayed for a night in the monasteries and male pilgrims who did the same thing in the nunneries?
Obviously, many of the rules sanctified by the authority of Ecumenical Councils are not enforced in practice. Then who and how should decide what is feasible and what is not? By his actions, Patriarch Bartholomew declares that he has this right. However, it doesn’t seem so.
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Of course, the Church will give answers to these and many other questions. But it can take a lot of time, while the answers are needed today. What to be guided by now? Whose opinion to trust? Who to follow?
The Holy Scripture gives us such a guide. There are people whom God Himself indicates what to do in a difficult situation. Psalmist David says that the Lord “will guide the meek to right judgment, teach the meek His way” (Psalm 24, 9). Let’s look around us – who is meek? At least in Ukraine ...