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QUESTION: My husband was a Deacon for five years in a small Ukrainian Orthodox group into which we were converted and Baptised. Over the years, reading Orthodox Tradition in particular, we came to realise that the jurisdiction to which we belonged had problems and that your Synod and other Orthodox jurisdictions had questions about its status. In good conscience we had to rectify our situation. We were chrismated by a Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, whose parish we now attend. However, we consider ourselves spiritual children of your Church and members of the Synod of [sic] Resistance of Metropolitan Cyprian. …In view of all of this, were we Orthodox before? We were catechised, knew the Faith, fasted, read spiritual books, and studied. In fact, our study of the Faith brought us to understand the canonical difficulties in our former jurisdiction. This question is important for us and for our friends, who are confused about our status. My husband now functions as a layman.
ANSWER: Your question is an extremely important one, especially in America, where there are so many Orthodox groups and jurisdictions that it is almost impossible to determine who is who and what is what.
Who determines who is Orthodox in these circumstances? On the one hand, we can establish bodies like the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America. Such a body can pronounce on the canonicity of any group. But in fact, the SCOBA is essentially a political organization comprised of American jurisdictions which have largely the same attitudes towards ecumenism and modernism in the Church; they are more or less sympathetic to both. The Old Calendarist Greeks and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, as well as some valid Ukrainian groups, are excluded from the SCOBA because of their stand of resistance against these same attitudes in their Mother Churches. Though all of these latter jurisdictions have Apostolic Succession—as admitted by many of the SCOBA Bishops themselves—and while each would argue that it has undertaken a lawful stand of resistance as allowed by the Canons, none of them enjoys membership in the SCOBA.
Thus, if the SCOBA determines who is canonically Orthodox, political, and not actual canonical and ecclesiastical, criteria will prevail. This is hardly Orthodox. And if such criteria were to prevail, then lawful resistance movements within the Church would cease. This, too, is not Orthodox, since the Church has always triumphed over error and misjudgement by the kind of “lawful resistance” to which St. Basil called the Fathers of his day, when many of the ancient Sees of the Church were under the Arian captivity. Moreover, the establishment of a self-appointed group of Bishops as a self-validating agency raises a few questions in and of itself. Neither are we subject to a single Pope or to a Papacy in the form of some collegial system.
On the other hand, not a few ecclesiastical communities in resistance have arbitrarily set themselves up as the judges of all other Orthodox, distorting their resistance to various ills in the Church and embracing a kind of sectarian mentality: “We are the only true Orthodox.” “Only we have Grace.” “Our Church [or monastery, or parish] is the center of Orthodox spirituality.” “True Orthodox,” in the Patristic use of this expression, distinguishes those Orthodox who are ailing in the Faith, but who have yet to be judged or cut off from the communion of the Church, and those true believers who have maintained unchanged the valid teaching of the Church. Sectarian claims to ecclesiastical or spiritual pr.macy violate the catholicity of Orthodoxy and do little to commend groups that make such claims to the sober Christian. When these claims become so ridiculous that the minority of Christians who are today in resistance to political ecumenism and innovation condemn the large number of their ailing brothers as apostates and flatly reject the validity of their Mysteries, then resistance becomes cultism.
It is neither in so-called “official” bodies formed by Bishops of the sundry national Churches in America, nor in the ranks of those separated from such bodies in various resistance movements, that we can find proper criteria for determining Orthodox validity. In either case, political and personal considerations, not spiritual ones, are bound to dominate. This is simply a fact which cannot be questioned in the small, immature Orthodox population of America.
What, then, constitute the valid criteria by which Orthodox validity is established? There are two answers to this. First, the Bishops who head any Church must have Apostolic Succession. They must trace their Consecrations to valid Orthodox Hierarchs. This is the most basic definition of validity in Orthodoxy. In America, where deposed Bishops often retreat from their Mother Churches and establish their own Orthodox jurisdictions, this criterion presents tremendous problems. A deposed Bishop cannot be said unequivocally to be without Grace. Grace is not taken away by human beings, but by God. Nonetheless, the Church refuses to recognize anything that such a Bishop may do, assuming that estrangement from the Church constitutes estrangement from Divine Grace. The faithful should cut off all communion with such a person. Many deposed clergy, however, exploit confusion on this matter and convince their unwitting followers that deposition (we mean, here, valid deposition for true infractions) is not tantamount to a loss of Apostolic Succession.
It is also true that when Bishops separate from their Mother Church over matters of Faith, they are often subjected to invalid suspension, excommunication, or deposition by the authorities to whom they stand in resistance. Such false depositions were pronounced against some of the greatest Fathers of the Church, including St. John Chrysostomos, one of the Three Great Hierarchs. In this case, one must weigh with great care the reason for resistance, the sincerity of that resistance, and the purposes for which resistance is undertaken. Certainly, condemnation by a Mother Church is valid if directed against those who deny the unity (catholicity) of the Church, those who are immoderate, those who deny the validity of the Mysteries of an ailing Church that stands uncondemned by a Church Synod, or who hide under something like the Old Calendar or resistance to ecumenism and innovation simply for the purpose of maintaining an independent status, free from the scrutiny of the Church. Sincere resisters, on the other hand, are the very preservers of Apostolic Succession. Their false depositions have no meaning and bring them honor, not dishonor.
Now, Apostolic Succession, we should emphasize, is not understood in the Orthodox Church in a legalistic way. One may have Apostolic Succession, yet violate the Canons, ignore the conscience of the Church, and preach heresy. This, too, estranges him from the Grace of the Church, though again we cannot unequivocally point at what time and hour that Grace is lost. (It is for this reason that various heretics were received in various ways in the Early Church: some by confession, some by Chrismation, others by Baptism. The details and extent of their heresies were different and their consequences not all of the same order.) When the Church openly condemns such a heretic (or an entire Synod of Bishops or a national Church, for that matter), then most certainly the faithful are to avoid the condemned, as we noted above. Apostolic Succession without an adherence to the Canons and beliefs of Orthodoxy has no meaning. This extends to cover instances in which the Canons dictate that deposition is automatic (a failure to keep the fasting rules, except in exceptional cases, violations of ethical or moral conduct, and so on).
In essence, then, we judge the validity of any Orthodox group by its possession of Apostolic Succession, its adherence to basic Canons, and, in the cases of Churches in resistance that are separated from their Mother Churches (and even falsely condemned by their Mother Churches), by the Patristic foundation, canonical justification, and sincerity of their resistance. There are no easy answers, there are few clear-cut cases, and there is no infallible authority to adjudicate these matters ex cathedra. True Christianity demands that we exercise our consciences, make the best possible decisions after careful meditation and reflection, and place ourselves under the guidance of Providence. We are judged more by our sincere intentions than by our inadvertent and unintentional errors. This is as it should be in a religion of love and forgiveness. And Christianity is just that.
With regard to your particular case, you indicate that you and your family were most certainly Orthodox in mind, spirit, and intention in your original jurisdiction. Is it possible that these things meant nothing before God? Your grasp of the Faith, undoubtedly prompted by Providential Grace, led you to the fullness of Orthodoxy. What was imprinted on your heart was made manifest by your entry into a canonical Orthodox Church. You are not converts in this action. You are not called to dismiss all that you were before. Your Chrismation corrected a canonical problem. It did not bestow upon you Orthodoxy.
As for your husband’s Ordination to the Diaconate, this presents a difficult problem. Ordinations by uncanonical groups in Apostolic Succession, and in the Early Church even the Ordinations of some heretics (as in the Iconoclastic period), are not repeated in the Church. Rather, “cheirothesia” or the imposition of hands, is utilized, the acting Bishop asking that whatever it might be that is absent from the Ordination be corrected, or that past misbelief be forgiven. In your husband’s specific case, it is impossible to determine with absolute accuracy the status of the group of Bishops who Consecrated the Bishop from whom he received Ordination. No doubt, under such circumstances, a very conservative approach, foregoing economy, is appropriate. But this decision is ultimately one to be made at a synodal level. In the meantime, in all things you are covered by your intentions and by the quality of your spiritual lives. You are not new Orthodox, and your years of experience in your former jurisdiction have obviously taught you much from which you can draw.
So much in the Church today smacks of legalism and of personal opinion. It does not bear the mark of true Church tradition. Thus, what we have written, which is drawn from the historical, canonical, and pastoral experience of the Church across the centuries, may seem unpleasant to those who have an inadequate knowledge of Holy Tradition or who bring with them, into Orthodoxy, baggage from heterodox traditions. This should not be the case. We must always strive to acquire the purest Orthodox vision, for it leads us to compassion, to a certain open-mindedness, and to a clear vision of the philanthropic nature of God’s interaction with man.
We have answered your very personal question at length because the matters which you raised are important both from a theological standpoint and from the standpoint of personal faith in a non-Orthodox society where confusion reigns. We have at other times, when circumstances have demanded it, spoken in a very conservative way. For instance, we have staunchly stood up against the theologically illiterate and spiritually dangerous practice of making Chrismation a standard for receiving converts, while making Baptism, the actual standard, a virtual “act of economy.” We have pointed out that Orthodox do not “accept” non-Orthodox Baptisms and that Chrismation—which should be used for the infirm or under very unusual circumstances (and with the permission of the local Bishop)—fills the empty form of a non-Orthodox Baptism. With regard to your inquiries, we have leaned, as the Patristic witness prompts us to do, towards a more “liberal” view, if only because matters of the Christian heart and conscience are not subject to formal pronouncements or canonical interpretation. They belong solely to the realm of God, “Who alone knows the hearts of men.”
When anyone begins to pontificate about who is or who is not Orthodox in the confusing atmosphere of contemporary American Orthodoxy, be cautious. This is not within the domain of idle speculation and personal opinion. We should seek to correct those who may have wrongly entered the Church. We should chastise those who, because of the dictates of political ecumenism, try to abuse economy and extend the Orthodox Church beyond its perimeters, accepting non-Orthodox under various “conditions” and with certain “qualifications.” One should avoid any who teach that the way is wide and not narrow. Open abuses of the Mysteries of the Church should be flatly condemned, and especially, again, when they serve the ends of political ecumenism. However, when considering the inner faith of a single individual, Orthodox or not—here we must exercise the greatest possible latitude. Here we must forego all judgement. God alone knows who is Orthodox in his heart. God alone knows His Saints. God alone knows who will and who will not be saved!
—Orthodox Insights — Archbishop Chrysostomos, Bishop Avxentios, and Archimandrite Akakios