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Russian Orthodox Clarity on the Ecumenical Question

Criticism in Moldova, apparently politically-motivated, of the belief of His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill in the importance of good relations with Non-Orthodox has recently surfaced. This natural desire for good neighbourly relations with Non-Orthodox on the part of Russian Orthodox has automatically been labelled by extremists as ‘ecumenism’.

In reality, these criticisms conceal either psychological and psychopathological problems, or else sociological and nationalistic problems. Certainly, they reveal isolationism, sectarianism, fanaticism and the pride of phariseeism. Such attitudes were known in the early Orthodox Church as Donatism, in the Russian Church more recently as Old Ritualism and today in the Balkan Churches as Old Calendarism. Such extremist attitudes, like those of the equally extreme, tiny and politically motivated, pro-ecumenical and philo-Catholic wing of Russian Orthodoxy, prompt us to clarify the real, and not imagined, position of His Holiness. What is the royal way, the middle path, the Patriarchal policy, in this matter?

The fact is that the Russian Orthodox Church has always conditioned its participation in the ‘World Council of Churches’, clearly stating that ‘the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. Patriarch Kyrill has himself always firmly maintained this. Thus, in an interview in 2007, he stated that ‘Unity is the very essence of the being of the Church. Jesus Christ created Her so that people could attain to unity with God and with one another in Her’. The Patriarch does not see unity as a unity of the Church with heresies and schisms, but as unity within the Church. As long ago as 1991 in Canberra, the present Patriarch stated that ‘Orthodox want this house (of the Orthodox Church) to be the cradle of the One Church’.

With this in mind, it is clear that Russian Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches and in dialogues have purely missionary purposes. They exist in order to witness to heterodox who long ago fell away from the Orthodox Church and to tell them: ‘We are still here and await your repentance, on which we will welcome you with open arms’. It is simply obedience to the Gospel: ‘This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations’ (Matt. 24, 14). Self-isolation will not achieve this. Why else did the Apostle Paul go and preach at the pagan Areopagus, where the altar was dedicated to ‘The Unknown God’? (Acts 17, 15-34).

Yes, it is true that politically conditioned ecumenism was practised by individuals of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1970s and 1980s. But we also knew that this was Soviet politics, not the Church. However, all this, together with the branch theory, was clearly and officially renounced in the year 2000 by the Patriarchate. And that is why, by 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had had to act for so many decades as the free and unfettered conscience of the whole Russian Orthodox Church, was happy to enter into full communion with the post-Soviet Patriarchate of Moscow, the restored Russian Orthodox Church inside Russia.

But let us read what the then Metropolitan Kyrill himself wrote well before 2007 in his ‘Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church towards the Heterodox World’:

‘The Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ, built by our Lord and Savour Himself, the Church established and filled by the Holy Spirit, the Church of which the Saviour Himself said: ‘I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16, 18). She is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the guardian and bestower of the Holy Sacraments throughout the world (1), the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3, 15)…In the course of Christian history it is not only individuals who have separated themselves from unity with the Orthodox Church, but whole Christian groups…Separated at present are the Assyrian Church of the East, the Pre-Chalcedonian Churches, the Copt, the Armenian, the Syro-Jacobite, the Ethiopian, the Malabar. In the second millennium, after the separation of the Roman Church, there followed the internal divisions of Western Christianity…The Orthodox Church in the words of the holy fathers affirms that salvation can only be obtained within the Church of Christ’.

Again in 2008, the Council of Hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church accepted a document elaborated by the then Metropolitan Kyrill, entitled, ‘On Issues Concerning the Internal Life and External Activities of the Russian Orthodox Church’, which states: ‘The participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in bilateral and multilateral inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogues exists in order to witness to the truth of Holy Orthodoxy and also aims to affirm traditional moral values in the world and acquire good and just relations between different peoples…In the process of dialogue our Church will not accept attempts to ‘confuse faiths’, with joint prayers or attempts to unite confessional or religious traditions artificially’. We should recall that this is the case even though certain senior ‘representatives’ of three or even four of the fifteen Local Orthodox Churches not only sometimes hold joint prayers with heterodox, but also actually allow limited concelebration with Roman Catholics and give them communion (2).

Right at the beginning of his Patriarchate, in the decision of the Local Council of 2009, ‘On the life and work of the Russian Orthodox Church’, Patriarch Kyrill wrote of ‘faithfulness to the only saving Truth of Holy Orthodoxy’. Indeed, at that very Council, he publicly used the term ‘the Catholic heresy’. In his sermon on the Triumph of Orthodoxy, he also used the terms ‘Nestorian’ and ‘Monophysite’, instead of the politically correct ‘Pre-Chalcedonian’ or ‘Ancient Oriental’. And before this, as Patriarchal Deputy, preaching before the relics of the great theologian and hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), he spoke of how this saint had affirmed our faith, writing that there is only One Church, the Orthodox Church, that there is no Christianity without the Church. This fact was of course ignored by sectarian ‘anti-ecumenists’. They also ignore the fact that St Hilarion, in affirming that the Orthodox Church is the only source of sanctifying grace of God on earth and categorically denying the presence of grace in the ‘sacraments’ of heretics and schismatics (1), nevertheless entertained friendly relations with the representatives of heterodox groups in order to witness to them to the saving teaching and life of Orthodoxy.

It seems as though some politically-motivated groups (3) are deliberately trying to undermine the saving mission and unity of the Russian Church by establishing some sort of marginal dissidence on Her fringes. Let us recall that the Patriarch has halted all dialogues with groups which have introduced priestesses against all previous Christian tradition (4). And this is despite criticism from politically correct liberals both in the West and in post-Soviet Russia. Let us also remember that in his first year as Patriarch, His Holiness celebrated over 220 services. Finally, let us recall these words which the Patriarch has said:

‘We must not only guard the unity of Universal Orthodoxy from any heresies and schisms, we must not only guard like the apple of our eye the unity of our Local Church, the Martyred Church, which has suffered so much to earn the right of being One and Undivided. We must also guard the unity of our parishes and monasteries, remembering that the main criterion in evaluating the activities of any Christian – from Patriarch to the simplest layperson – is love. If there is love, there is Christ! If there is no love, there is no Christ!’

(We express our thanks to Archpriest Andrei Novikov for his article of 17 July ‘On the Threshold of Schism’, The above article is a much condensed, but also altered and augmented version of his article. Translation, additional material and notes by Archpriest Andrew Phillips).


1.See also and in Russian This article was written after one individual in the Russian Church expressed a personal view in a German magazine, which contradicted that of the Church and also, clearly, his own Patriarch. Thus, he threatened to compromise the witness and missionary work of the Russian Orthodox Church in the heterodox world, which is why we had to react to it. See also the almost identical views of one ROCOR bishop on the same issue:

2. This refers to a fairly recent concelebration of a Romanian Orthodox bishop with (Greek) Catholics in Romania, for which he was censured by the Romanian Synod. However, a few Greek-speaking bishops and clergy also on occasion concelebrate to a limited extent with Roman Catholics or give them communion, as in a Greek church in Lisbon. For example, this also happens in the Paris Jurisdiction in Paris, where the philosopher and theorist Oliver Clement freely took communion in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. This also occurred once in the 1970s under Metropolitan Nikodim of the Soviet-epoch Moscow Patriarchate. In England, one tiny, recently-formed and mainly ex-Anglican group under the Patriarchate of Constantinople openly declared on its website that it gives communion to Non-Orthodox in certain circumstances. At least two priests of yet another tiny ex-Anglican group freely give communion to all and sundry.

3. A bishop of one such schismatic group wrote to me, denouncing my moderation and praising the work of the CIA! Thus he betrayed how he put politics above the Church of Christ.

4. In his interview with the Ukrainian media, published on 19 July 2010, His Holiness spoke of such purely secular phenomenon and moral relativism in this way:

‘Today, we encounter such phenomena (of living under secular laws) in modern Protestantism. It’s a very dangerous phenomenon, when under the influence of secular liberal views, the liberal clichés of these secular philosophies are repeated within the Protestant Churches, and become rooted in their religious consciousness.

That arose due to the female ‘priesthood’… something that was not dictated by missionary concerns. When I asked a Protestant leader, ‘Tell me, when you started to ordain women, did you increase your number of parishioners?’ He smiled and said, ‘No’. I said, ‘It was not a missionary project?’ He said, ‘No, it was just respect for human rights’. That’s how a secular concept of human rights was incorporated into theology and Church practice, in spite of the whole tradition of the Christian Church. Everything in the apostolic tradition precludes this practice, but for the sake of a secular liberal standard it was incorporated into Church life. A second analogous problem was their attitude to homosexuality. Here, a decision in favour of secular liberal standards distorted the Word of God. It’s written in black and white, that it’s a sin. What do you think? Our brethren said, ‘Well, no, one doesn’t have to understand it; this isn’t a sin, you know, that was just the cultural context of the time when the Apostle Paul wrote’. Therefore, for the sake of liberal standards, they even abandoned the source of their faith. Recently, I met a very responsible ecumenical leader. I talked to him about what’s happening in Protestantism, it’s alienating the Protestants from the Orthodox and the Catholics, thereby increasing the internal gap in the Christian world, and if it continues to grow, it will make it harder to defend Christian values. What he said to me not only amazed me, but at the same time it helped me to understand how deep the crisis is in Christianity. He calmly said to me, ‘What’s so special about that? We also differ on the problems of the Middle East, we also have different attitudes to the economic crisis… so, we have different attitudes to homosexuality’. I see a very grim future for any dialogue between the Orthodox and Protestant world, it will not change the situation, there will be an even greater alienation of the Protestant world from Orthodoxy, and thus a weakening of common Christian witness. Therefore, the task facing the Orthodox Church is to testify to the purity of the apostolic tradition and the purity of faith, especially to Non-Orthodox Christians’.

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