Chrism vs OCU: chrism-making as coercion to "recognize" schismatics

Is Patriarch Bartholomew preparing a surprise for the Churches during the Blessing of the Holy Chrism? Photo: UOJ

The head of the Phanar invited reps of the Local Churches to his place for chrism-making. Together with them, Dumenko may also attend. What does this mean for Orthodoxy?

​In his Christmas message, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople announced that in April 2022 the Phanar would hold the service of the Blessing of the Holy Chrism – the fourth in his Patriarchal ministry. By tradition, representatives of most of the Local Orthodox Churches take part in this sacred ceremony, especially those who receive holy oil directly from the head of the Phanar.

This year, the rite of chrism-making is of particular importance since a representative of the OCU can take part in it. In this regard, a number of questions arise, the main of which is whether the presence of Sergei Dumenko (or one of his associates) at the rite will become the de facto recognition of the OCU by the Churches.

What is chrism and why is it needed?

Chrism (also called myrrh, holy anointing oil) is, according to Canon 6 of the Councils of Carthage, “a mixture of various perfumed essences”, which is consecrated during a special liturgical rite. Chrism is prepared on the basis of olive oil with the addition of white wine and about 40 different essences (the Patriarchate of Constantinople uses 57 such essences), including: incense, rose petals, violet, spicy and galangal roots, nutmeg, rose, lemon and clove oils and much more.

In ancient times, chrism was prepared only by bishops, who gave it to priests to anoint the newly baptized. At the time of the Apostles and their disciples, the number of those wishing to receive Holy Baptism was not so large. The Apostles (and later the bishops) laid hands on each neophyte after Baptism - in order to give them the Holy Spirit as a gift (according to Archpriest A. Schmemann). However, due to the ever-increasing number of newly baptized (and, as a result, the impossibility of laying hands on each of them), the Church decided to prepare a special oil (chrism, myrrh), through which the believers received the gifts of the Holy Spirit being anointed. By the way, already in the Apostolic Epistles the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Christians possess, is sometimes called “anointing” (1 John 2:20; 2 Cor. 1:21), and according to Canon 48 of the Council of Laodicea, “they who are baptized must after Baptism be anointed with the heavenly chrism and be partakers of the Kingdom of Christ”.

Thus, holy oil has been used in the Church almost from the very beginning for the anointing of newly enlightened Christians. In addition, in church liturgical practice, chrism is used:

  • to anoint people who become Orthodox Christians from other denominations and whose baptism is considered valid;
  • to consecrate the Holy Throne and the walls in new churches;
  • to sanctify icons and the reburial of holy relics;
  • earlier, to anoint Orthodox kings and emperors for kingship.

The Church treats holy oil in an appropriate way – as a great shrine. For example, St Cyril of Jerusalem compares chrism with the sacrament of the Eucharist: "Beware of thinking that this holy oil is simply ordinary oil and nothing else. After the invocation of the Spirit, it is no longer ordinary oil but the gift of Christ, and by the presence of his divinity, it becomes the instrument through which we receive the Holy Spirit. While symbolically, on our foreheads and senses, our bodies are anointed with this oil that we see, our souls are sanctified by the holy and life-giving Spirit.”

Therefore, the rite of chrism-making must not be considered unimportant. This is the most important Divine service, which not all Orthodox hierarchs can perform.

Who has the right to make chrism, and how does this right relate to the autocephalous status of a Church?

As mentioned above, initially the bishops of one or another Church had the right to make holy oil. However, quite early this right was assigned exclusively to the leading sees of the Orthodox Church.

Today, according to the established tradition, the Constantinople, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Georgian Churches independently consecrate chrism.

Today, according to the established tradition, the Constantinople, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Georgian Churches independently consecrate chrism.

From the point of view of the Russian Church, the right of chrism-making is the exclusive prerogative of the autocephalous Church. That is why, by granting independence to the Polish, Czechoslovak and American Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church endowed them with the right to independently prepare myrrh.

A completely different point of view is held by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They believe that the right to make chrism belongs to the head of the Phanar, who can (or should) be concelebrated by representatives of the Local Churches. It is for this reason that in the Tomos on autocephaly of the Greek, Albanian, Polish Churches, the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, as well as in the Tomos of the OCU issued by the Phanar, it is prescribed to receive holy oil from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In addition, the ancient Patriarchate of Jerusalem receives chrism from the Phanar.

All those who receive chrism from the Patriarchate of Constantinople consider it as an act of brotherly love rather than canonical dependence. But the Phanar has a different view on this matter.

For example, in the tomos on the autocephaly of the Romanian Church, issued by the Phanar in the 19th century, there was also a clause according to which this Church was to receive chrism from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. But the Romanians did not agree with this state of affairs and, having received the tomos, they themselves made chrism in the Bucharest Cathedral, drawing up a special act on this occasion, which emphasized that the chrism-making was done "in accordance with the holy canons and decrees of the Orthodox Church". This act of the Romanians outraged the Phanar, and Patriarch Joachim considered that the Romanian Patriarchate had broken the unity with the Church of Constantinople. In other words, the Phanar saw in giving chrism to the Romanians not a manifestation of "brotherly love" but a canonical dependence.

The matter was not over there, and the Synod of the Romanian Patriarchate, accusing the Phanar of claiming ecumenical primacy in the Church, declared that “Church canons do not assign the right to sanctify chrism to any one Patriarch ... Anointing is a sacrament, and the Church must possess all means to administer the sacrament for the elevation of Christian life. To seek this means of sanctification in other Churches would mean that the Church does not possess the full means of sanctification and salvation. Sanctification of chrism is therefore an indispensable attribute of every Autocephalous Church.”

The Synod of the Romanian Patriarchate, accusing the Phanar of claiming ecumenical primacy in the Church, declared that “church canons do not assign the right to sanctify chrism to any one Patriarch".

After several years of confrontation, in 1885 Constantinople recognised Romanian autocephaly on new terms, while the Romanian Patriarchate still prepare holy oil independently.

Thus, if for the Russian Church chrism-making is one of the signs of the Church’s independence, for the Patriarchate of Constantinople it is another "privilege" of the Phanar, which can be used in certain situations. For example, to "pacify" those who are too defiant or to "persuade" those who are disobedient. 

Chrism-making 2022: a possible development

Today in the Church of Constantinople (just during Bartholomew’s patriarchy), there has been a tradition established according to which chrism is made once every 10 years. Thus, the current head of the Phanar performed the rite of chrism-making in 1992, 2002 and 2012, with the next one taking place in the current year 2022.

It should be emphasized here that on all three previous occasions representatives of the Local Orthodox Churches attended the services of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, during which myrrh was consecrated. For example, in 2012, the hierarchs of the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, the Churches of Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland and the Czech Republic, the bishops of Crete, Finland and Estonia visited the Phanar. All of them could be present in 2022 if not for one "but" – Sergei Dumenko may very well attend the service of the Blessing of the Holy Chrism. What does this mean?

To answer this question, we need to recall that the rite of chrism-making is performed during the Divine Liturgy. Let us skip the details of the three-day preparation for this event and proceed directly to the main thing. On Holy Thursday, during the Divine Liturgy, following the invocations "May Almighty God have mercy on us..." and "Let us attend", all those praying kneel and the patriarch reads special prayers for the consecration of chrism. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the newly blessed myrrh is transferred from the church to the patriarchal chrismarium, followed by the dismissal of the Divine Liturgy.

In other words, all those who participate in the rite of chrism-making are celebrating the joint liturgy. This means that if Dumenko attends the service in the Phanar in April 2022, all those who receive communion with him will "automatically" recognize the OCU. This is most likely what Patriarch Bartholomew hopes for.

The fact is that the Patriarchate in Constantinople understands that the question of the legalization of Ukrainian schismatics has entered a "freezing" phase. Among the Local Churches, certain positions regarding the OCU have already been established. There are those who have recognized this organization (parts of the Greek and Cypriot Churches and the Patriarchate of Alexandria), there are those who are openly opposed (Russian, Jerusalem, Albanian, Polish and Serbian Churches), there are those who express only tacit disagreement (Romanian, Georgian, Antiochian, the Church of Czech Lands and Slovakia). This situation does not suit the Phanariots, because they clearly see that time is not playing in their favour: the longer the current state of "cold war" between the Churches lasts, the more chances that the influence and authority of the Russian Church will grow and that of the Phanar will diminish.

That is why, having used the help of his "friends" from the State Department to recognise the OCU and having achieved practically nothing from the "non-Greek Churches" (not all Greek churches recognized the Ukrainian schismatics either), Patriarch Bartholomew decided to resort to the last argument – blackmail. He said that if you refuse to сoncelebrate with Dumenko during the rite of chrism-making, you will remain without the holy oil, and therefore you will not be able to baptize children or consecrate churches.

Patriarch Bartholomew decided to resort to the last argument – blackmail. He said that if you refuse to сoncelebrate with Dumenko during the rite of chrism-making, you will remain without the holy oil, and therefore you will not be able to baptize children or consecrate churches.

On the other hand, all the Primates are well aware that the presence of Dumenko in the Phanar on Holy Thursday is more than likely. Therefore, those Churches that send their representatives there will actually agree to concelebrate with the schismatic, which means that they themselves will become schismatics. So, it turns out that the rite of the Blessing of the Holy Chrism in 2022 will put everything in its place.

Of course, now it is difficult to guess which of the Orthodox Primates will dare to send their representatives to co-serve with Dumenko. One can only hope that among them there will be no hierarchs of the Serbian, Antiochian, Georgian, and Bulgarian Churches. We also hope that the Polish and Romanian Churches will have enough canonical self-awareness to oppose joint worship with Ukrainian schismatics. Who is left?

First, those who have already recognized the OCU – the Churches of Greece, Cyprus and Alexandria. Representatives of these Churches (and possibly Primates) will certainly go to the Phanar.

Secondly, there are those who did not recognize the OCU, but whose participation in chrism-making is in question. These are the Albanian Church and the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

The Albanian Church, although it opposes the legalization of the Ukrainian schism, is still more Greek in spirit than Albanian. So, it can be dictated by ethnophyletism and Hellenism rather than canon law.

The Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, although it speaks negatively about the OCU, is, firstly, the youngest of all the Local Churches, and secondly, it is under the strongest pressure from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And because of this pressure, it can falter (which hopefully will not happen).

Also, we did not mention the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Here also everything is very complicated because if the position of Patriarch Theophilus regarding the “Ukrainian issue” is rather negative, then the stance of the permanent representative of the Jerusalem Church in the Phanar is rather positive.

Phanar’s scenarios

So that the Local Churches do not particularly “object” to co-serving with a representative of the OCU, the Phanar can represent not Dumenko but someone less odious at the sevice of chrism-making. For example, a bishop with an "impeccable canonical reputation" – the former Metropolitan of the UOC Alexander (Drabinko) or another ex-Metropolitan of the UOC – Simeon (Shostatsky). The choice of the latter is even more likely – he is not known for sex scandals, moreover, he did not step back from Bartholomew during his visit to Ukraine. But even concelebrating with Shostatsky is a deviation into schism, despite his canonical ordination.

In any case, it is time for the Local Churches to decide who they are with – Christ or the Phanar. It is clear that those who do not go to Istanbul will have to solve the problem of obtaining chrism for themselves. But there is no need for worries since the history of the Church already knows such cases.

For example, when the Patriarchate of Constantinople declared the Bulgarian Church schismatics, the Bulgarians received chrism before the 1917 revolution from the Russian Church, and after the revolution, from the Romanian Patriarchate. Since 1945, the Bulgarian Church has been performing the rite chrism-making on its own. Those Churches that do not agree to concelebrate with the schismatics in the Phanar can go the same way – take myrrh from the Bulgarian, Romanian, Georgian, Serbian, Russian Churches or prepare it themselves since no canons prescribe who has the right to perform this sacrament. In this case, the example of the Romanian Church (see above) is more than indicative.

Be that as it may, let's hope that April 2022 will be a turning point and show the real situation in the Orthodox Church. If Patriarch Bartholomew finds himself surrounded only by his satellites from Greece, Cyprus and Africa, then he may understand the failure of his idea to legalize the Ukrainian schism.

If not, then all Orthodox Christians will be able to see for themselves which of the Local Churches has become on a par with the OCU.

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