Events in the Orthodox world over the last few weeks have raised doubts among some of our parishioners. These are responses to questions that have been raised.
Q: What are we to make of the recent Diaspora Episcopal Assemblies, which are now taking place after the agreements reached between the Local Orthodox Churches last year?
A; So far there have been separate Episcopal Assemblies, that is meetings of all Orthodox bishops in a particular territory, for the fifty-five bishops in North America, for those in Italy and Malta, those in Great Britain and Ireland, and those in Benelux. In one sense, of course, there is absolutely nothing new here, nothing to get excited about. Certainly in the USA and France, these Assemblies are simply replacing the old standing committees of bishops, which often had their own profound disagreements and tensions, were often used for political domination by one particular jurisdiction and were therefore discredited. In other areas, these Assemblies are new, for example in Great Britain. But to think that this is exciting is to be very insular. We have seen it all before elsewhere.
Q: The bishops of ROCOR are taking part. Do you think that is good?
A: First of all, whatever I think is irrelevant. Who am I to say! We respect the decisions of our bishops. But personally I do think that it is good. We should remember that all agreements in the Episcopal Assemblies now have to be unanimous. There can be no more bullying, imperialism or ‘Eastern papism’ here, where the representatives of one Local Church, involved in political compromises with, say, the Vatican, can lord it over the others. In this respect therefore, these Assemblies are purely consultative, some would call them ‘talking shops’. What is good is that the ROCOR point of view can at last be heard and cannot be overruled. Instead of being denigrated by modernists, it has to be respected. Remember, all decisions have to be unanimous.
I also think it is good that the bishops are consulting and sharing in general. Moreover, when a Patriarchate eventually has the vision and will to set up the foundations for new Local Churches in the Diasporas, these Assemblies could become valuable consultative committees for them and members of the members will be free to participate and contribute to varying extents in the future Local Churches.
Q: So could we be moving to the situation where there will be one Orthodox bishop in each city?
A: In terms of titles, yes. But there will still be several Orthodox bishops in, for example, London. It is just that they will have the titles of different suburbs, just like the ten bishops in Moscow. For example the two Russian bishops in London could take the title ‘of Chiswick’ and the other ‘of Kensington’. The Greek bishops could have titles like ‘of Bayswater’ or ‘of Kentish Town’ etc. the same could happen in New York, Berlin or Paris. This would mean bishops not confusingly having exactly the same titles.
Of course, this could only take place in the long term and may well take decades. It also presupposes the collapse of those pseudo-Roman Catholic inferiority complex mentalities of Eastern Europe Churches, whereby our bishops in Western Europe are absurdly given the titles of villages in Turkey or Russia. It is time that our bishops took the titles of the cities where they and their flocks live. At present only ROCOR does this.
Q: Does this mean that there will be only one parish in each town, which will group all the Orthodox in that particular town?
A: That is quite impossible and in any case quite unnecessary. It is unnecessary because in Orthodox Eastern Europe each town has many parishes, just as in towns in England you can still find several Anglican or Roman Catholic parishes, Nobody would dream of closing down all the Anglican parishes in, say, Oxford, and only having one Anglican parish there. In Orthodoxy, this is all the more necessary since parishes use different languages and, unfortunately, some Local Churches still insist on using the Catholic (so-called ‘new’) calendar, which is so divisive and puts some Orthodox thirteen days ahead of the saints. In general, Russian and Serbian Orthodox refuse to go to churches which use the ‘Anglican calendar’, as it is called here, and those who use it are often not taken seriously. The calendar is a question of principle, for which people have died. Modernists have to learn to respect this and venerate the martyrs who died for the calendar.
As regards having only one parish in each town, can you even imagine an Orthodox bishop asking even for a little parish with rented accommodation to close down simply because there is another parish, which is much bigger and has its own accommodation in the same town? He would be laughed at. No the principles of freedom and independence are very strong in each Local Orthodox Church.
Q: By far the closest groups in the Diaspora are the two parts of the Russian Church. What, practically, can the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) do to help each other in the Diaspora?
A: We are in so many ways complementary. The MP has infrastructure, but ROCOR has kept traditions from before the Revolution. Many in the MP in the Diaspora (I am not talking about inside Russia) simply do not know these traditions. This is because many of the MP members have been baptised, but not catechised (through no fault of their own). Liturgical and pastoral traditions which have been lost by post-revolutionary Russians are something we in ROCOR can show such people. In Russia, a land of mass religion, people do not know their own bishops, they do not know each other. In ROCOR, with our much smaller parishes, we know each other personally, we are much more communitarian, with parish communities. This is an experience that we can give the MP parishes outside Russia. Often in the MP outside Russia there is inexperience and youth.
But ROCOR must also watch out. The MP inside Russia has experience which ROCOR does not have. Here we in ROCOR can learn. For example, ROCOR will have to treat its clergy better, looking after them, both in terms of salaries (often non-existent in ROCOR) and also in terms of awards. It is now embarrassing at concelebrations when in the MP you find 25-year old archpriests and in ROCOR priests, especially non-Russians, who have been priests for 25 years and are still not archpriests. I have seen MP priests with mitres after only fifteen years of priesthood. In ROCOR, if they are given to priests at all (and some bishops never give them on principle), they are generally only given after fifty years of priesthood. ROCOR must also start treating its Non-Russian clergy like its Russian clergy instead of as second-class citizens, and take into account the generosity with which the MP gives awards to its clergy. There can be no more favouritism, the bane of ROCOR in the past. And no longer should awards systematically be given to the worst clergy, instead of suspensions, as ‘encouragements’.
Q: Does the MP suffer from extremism?
A: Only the extremes suffer from extremism! And extremes can occur anywhere, because human-beings will always be human-beings. True, the MP is in many ways a Church of new converts, of neophytes. And some new converts can be inclined to two extremes. These factors are purely human, sociological, not national or jurisdictional. In other words, they are shared by both the MP and ROCOR.
Q; What are these extremes?
A: I have always thought that the words of St Silvanus of Athos which he gave to a young novice (a convert from Hinduism) were meant for new converts who suffer from these extremes. He said: ‘Keep your mind in hell and do not despair’, which is a paraphrase of 2 Cor. 4, 8.
The first part of this phrase ‘Keep your mind in hell’ is for those who are inclined to fall away to the left. In Russia this refers to ‘kotchetkovism’, that is neo-renovationism, ecumenism, modernism. They want to ‘reform’ everything, not understanding that their ‘reforms’ actually mean indulging their own sins, they are self-indulgent reforms in their own half-baked image. They are Western rationalists, often scientists, engineers or technicians, who understand nothing of the sacredness of the Church, of Her mystery. Such people will tell you that women can wear anything in church, not covering their heads, because that is how it is in Orthodox churches in the West. Just because some Orthodox churches in the West allow decadence, does that mean that Russia has to copy decadent Western practices?
In the Diaspora, this extreme mainly concerns ex-Anglicans and ex-Roman Catholics, sometimes ordained in various modernist jurisdictions as clergy without any training. They freely and openly practise ecumenism and intercommunion (even proudly announcing it on their websites), like the philosopher Clement in France or similar groups in England. Often such groups are very left-wing, putting politics above the Church. Many such converts are engrossed in an Origenist pseudo-intellectualism, which is a superficial fashion, which swims with the tide when the Truth is too difficult for them to accept. St Silvanus warns them that God is not only Love, but He is also Righteous, that hell really exists and that this is where they should keep their proud, self-exalted, already self-‘deified’ minds, in the place of humility. They do not understand that the mind is full of sin, it has to be redeemed through prayer, fasting, confession and repentance. They must keep them in hell, instead of imagining that they are with St Isaac of Nineveh and St Symeon the New Theologian in heaven..
Q: What is the other extreme?
A: The second part of St Silvanus’ phrase is ‘Do not despair’. This is for those who are inclined to fall away to the right. In Russia this refers to those nationalist extremists who want to canonise Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible, who refuse to accept personal tax codes, who supported the former Bishop Diomid, and who lay great stress on externals and ritual, like the Old Ritualists, though without being Old Ritualists. God does not want the ‘burnt offerings’ of externals from us, in the words of the Prophet-King, he wants ‘a contrite heart’.
In the Diaspora, this extreme concerns those rigid converts who are fanatically anti-ecumenical, who would receive all into the Church by baptism indiscriminately and then so often, before they could integrate, drift away into self-made schisms, like Protestants. This is all a self-defence mechanism, usually such people have been practising Baptists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics before themselves being received into the Church and have family members who belong to those denominations. Often such people are very right-wing and Russophobic on principle. Some in the USA are present or former members of the CIA or at least openly support it. St Silvanus warns them that God is not punishment, that God is Love. They remember the canons, they remember God’s Righteousness, but they forget that God is ‘merciful and loves mankind’. Where is their love?
Fortunately, whether in ROCOR or in the MP, these are fringe views (though they do seem more common among some convert groups in other jurisdictions). The centre holds. Such personal views can be found among only very, very few in the MP in the Diaspora and in ROCOR (most of those few who did hold such personal views left in the last few years).
In avoiding extremes, we should be careful not to think ourselves superior. We all have personal views, and therefore we must all be careful to seek out the views of the Church, its ‘catholic’ or conciliar views. This will preserve us from going off at tangents, to the fringes and margins and even landing us outside the Church.
Q: How do we do this?
A: We must always check our views with the rest of the Church, with the Fathers, with the saints. The saints are the criterion of Orthodoxy, because they have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called Holy, it is not just any spirit, the spirit of men, but the Holy Spirit. Only those who are holy share in this Spirit. Just because a few individuals, even highly placed in the Church hierarchy, have some strange, off-centre views, this does not mean that they are right. We must go with the views of all the bishops meeting in councils. We are called on to follow the Tradition, not the ‘legacy’ of individuals, with all their passions and failings.
Here we should not be narrow-minded either. The Church is not a monolithic Protestant sect. We do not split away from the Church, just because someone does not use pure olive oil in icon-lamps or the candles are not 100% beeswax or because not all the icons are hand-painted or because not every man has a metre-long beard and dresses like a monk, even though he is married. The Church is broad and tolerant, but still there are minimum levels of Orthodoxy. And these are enshrined in the Creed of the Church, which is why we learn it by heart.
Q: Does St John of Shanghai have a role in providing balance in Church life, in avoiding such fringes and extremes?
A: Yes. We only have to look at the wonderful recent events in San Francisco of the last few days. The spouse of the President of the Russian Federation, Svetlana Medvedeva, bows down in front of the relics of St John. Can you imagine Mrs Obama or Mrs Cameron bowing down in front of a saint’s relics? What repentance! What respect for holiness! Less than thirty years ago some in the MP (in some cases only five years ago) said that we were ‘graceless’, ‘a sect’. Even now there are priests in other jurisdictions who call us ‘schismatics’. Can you imagine they are still calling a saint of God, St John, ‘a schismatic!’
Just as the Royal Martyrs were a yardstick for Orthodoxy a few years ago, so today is St John. You will see that modernists refuse to have icons of either of St John or the Royal Martyrs in their churches. They refuse to venerate the saints, because they were not modernists, but simply Orthodox who kept the Tradition. I can remember how only nine years ago at the then Sourozh Cathedral in London they refused to put up any icon of the New Martyrs on their bare walls because they had ‘no space’! St John has now become a criterion of Orthodoxy in the Diaspora.
Of course, it is also true that there are former members of ROCOR who refused to venerate saintly bishops and priests who confessed the Faith inside the MP. These people are reflecting the sins of the anti-ROCOR extremists who still today consider St John a ‘schismatic’, but at the opposite extreme. In both cases, there is spiritual impurity, which is why these people sadly left the Church.
Q: How can we forgive our former persecutors? Only a few years ago, and, as you say, actually by some today, ROCOR is still slandered.
A: It is true that instead of encouraging us as confessors, there were those who stood by and took part in the stoning of ROCOR. They still refuse to concelebrate with us, telling Anglicans that we are schismatics and Orthodox that we are Uniats. ROCOR has been persecuted for decades for telling the Truth. Non-Orthodox respect us for that, for not mixing everything up, but being firm, consistent and lucid in the defence of our Faith. The modernists do not and I have seen among them expressions of hatred towards the Russian Orthodox Church.
But we must forgive, especially those who persist in this sin. The Gospels tell us to love our enemies. The alternative is the sectarian Donatism of those who think they are better than others, those who are pharisees. We too are sinners. Thus, true, ROCOR is the Church of the Confessors, but the Patriarchate of Moscow of the simple clergy and people is the Church of the Confessors and the Martyrs.
Q: Some people criticise the compromises made by the MP. For example, they seem to have so many young priests without real experience. There are stories of cutting corners, corruption, careerism, mafia or ex-KGB elements, big money among some clergy, especially in Moscow itself. What would you answer?
A: I would not call having young priests a compromise. Surely that is the grace of God! We were all young priests once and by definition, inexperienced. But I know what you mean. But to criticise the MP for this is to be blind to our own faults. Over the years I have witnessed awful corruption among a few ROCOR clergy. That is why they get defrocked or are allowed to leave for other jurisdictions. Does anyone seriously think that all has always been well in ROCOR? That is simply the naivety of the convert ghetto. The fact is that there will always be a ‘bad apple’ among a basket of good ones. It was ever so and always will be. But repentance is always possible. And we certainly do not reject Christ and His Church just because one of the twelve was Judas. We must see all this in proportion.
The point is, and I have said this several times before, is that God has given us a window of opportunity. We have a very short time in history where we as Orthodox can operate freely in the world and even have some decent infrastructure. Every sacrament, every baptism, every chrismation, every confession, every communion, every wedding, every ordination, every unction that we Orthodox clergy can do now is a victory. We only have a short time. A race against time is on, we have to sow now in order to gather in the harvest later.
Then the time of new persecutions will come. Then the Church will have buildings but the Faith will be superficial. There will only be externals, only golden domes, as the saints have prophesied. Monasticism will dry up. Parishes will turn into community associations with luxurious carpets and pews, not a single woman will cover her head or be modestly dressed, confessions will be ‘by appointment only’ (i.e. no confessions at all), the Lives of the Saints will be unknown. This process of spiritual decline has already been under way for years in the modernist jurisdictions in the USA.
Then the end will come. What will we answer at the Last Judgement, if we are asked why we did not use this window of opportunity that we now have? In Russia they ordain young, but they need clergy desperately. I know that if I were young and had no family attachments, I would serve the Church inside Russia. There is so much more to do there and more freedom to do it, unlike in the West. People are receptive to Orthodoxy there, unlike in the West, where everything is a battle against ingrained cultural prejudices and historic anti-Christian mentalities.
Q: How long will this window of opportunity be open for?
A: Only God knows. It may be for just a few years, or we may have generations, in which time the repentance of Russia, which is only just beginning, will go much further and the Orthodox Monarchy will be restored there. But at the moment Russia today is nowhere near ready for this. There is great decadence in Russian, or rather, post-Soviet, society. The Church does not have power there. A great battle is being fought there. My greatest fear is that this is it, that repentance will go no further, that the window of opportunity will close soon before the essential, greater changes can take place. But as God wills. We must pray and repent ourselves. Although we are called on to defend Christ and His Church against inherently anti-Orthodox and blasphemous movements, we have the right only to judge and condemn ourselves, never others personally.