Saturday, March 5, 2005

Betwixt and Between: Some Thoughts on "Independent Orthodoxy"

In the world, and especially in North America, there are quite a number of faith-communities that call themselves "Orthodox", and may well actually have an Orthodox confession of faith, but are autogenic (self-originating), independent, and have no relationship, canonical or otherwise, to what could generally be recognised as the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church.

I do not speak here of the legitimate Greek Old Calendarists (i.e., those who actually derive historically from the divisions introduced by the adoption of a hybrid ecclesiastical calendar and canon-violating involvement in the Ecumenical movement by the Church of Greece, e.g., the Holy Synod in Resistance, the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece, the Milan Synod, and the Matthewites), or their analogues in Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Or some of the irregular-status Ukrainian groups. Or even the HOCNA, ROCiE and ROAC, the unlawful assemblies that have split off from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as she and Moscow have begun to effect a reconciliation in the post-Soviet age. These bodies, whether or not they are justified in their separation from the main body of the Orthodox Church, are hardly autogenic, and largely exist because of certain problems between them and the mother Church which just have not, as yet, been resolved.

The "Independent Orthodox" movement, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. They vary in every way. Some are really truth-seeking, God-fearing people that are trying to be faithful Christians. One of these, for instance, was the "Evangelical Orthodox Church", which was ultimately received en masse into the True Church via the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.

It is well known, though, that other groups in this class are nothing but smokescreens for some kind of iniquity. A classic example is the "Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Vasilopolous (fancy Greek word for 'Queensborough')", which was the vehicle by which the notorious paederast, Demetrios "Metropolitan Pangratios" Vrionis, kept himself supplied with young altar servers, and networked with other predators and deviants that skulked about on the fringes of the Orthodox Church: men like Samuel "Father Benedict" Greene and Gleb "Father Herman" Podmoshensky. There are other examples of small "churches" that exist for a host of reasons, whether tax-dodge, white-supremacist conclave, sodomite organisation, or just the power-trip of some unbalanced pseudo-hierarchs.

Clearly, a great degree of care is necessary when examining the "Independent Movement". Many of these groups are listed on Alfred Green's "Religious Groups That Use 'Orthodox' in Their Names But Are Not Canonical Eastern Orthodox Churches".

Keeping all of the above in mind, when we Orthodox hear of something like the "Orthodox Church of the Far Isles", alarm bells go off.

I present here some words from Hieromonk Aidan (Keller) of the St. Hilarion Monastery (Milan Synod) in Austin, Texas, bringing to the question of autogenic "Independent Orthodox" faith-communities a perspective that is not often heard in our rush to dismiss the phenomenon.

The comments are reprinted from the Occidentalis internet forum, a Yahoo Group devoted to Western-Rite concerns. A Bishop from one of these independent, autogenic Orthodox faith-communities had joined and introduced himself to the forum. The almost-immediate response of one particular OCA Reader was: "Surprised you don't also trace your descent from Bishop Oftimios [sic] Ofeish! Not impressed by your geneology. Are you in communion with any of the apostolic sees? Keep trying, please!" Such a response, of course, was quite offensive to the other clergyman, and, to his credit, the OCA Reader did apologise sincerely.

Fr. Aidan's Comments:

The recent exchange demonstrated rather neatly the sort of tensions that occur every day due to the coexistence, in the world, of centuries-old Orthodox Churches and newer, small churches which profess the Orthodox Christian faith.

I hope that members of age-old Orthodox Churches will not simply dismiss the members of what, to them, appear to be johnny-come- lately, fly-by-night operations which claim the majesty and martyric venerability of the Orthodox Church via a simple filing of incorporation papers. Orthodox people should ponder that "in- between places," refuges betwixt Episcopalianism and Byzantine Orthodoxy, for example, may be a real necessity--given the disintegration of modern Western forms of Christianity and the apalling indifference not a few Byzantine Orthodox exhibit to the spiritual and human needs of Western people. When an underwater diver rises too quickly from the depths to the surface, he suffers from the bends. He may need to spend time in a recompression chamber. Similarly, those who have, with internal violence and suffering, made a stand of faith, and broken with much of their heterodox past, cannot perhaps always leap into the arms of one's favourite Orthodox Church. A kind of ecclesial recompression chamber may be necessary, and "in-between places" have historically delivered substantial numbers of believers to the official Orthodox Churches in the end. Often, attacking the autogenic Orthodox has the effect of causing them to feel further alienated from, even persecuted by, the Christians with whose faith they have made common cause.

Those who are in small, autogenic Orthodox-believing bodies should also ponder the purpose of the Church. If it is to unite believers before the throne of God, then what (ultimately) is the usefulness of maintaining small, feuding, defensive, un-recognised church bodies in isolation from the principal fonts of historic Orthodoxy? Life-rafts are good, but they can become death-rafts unless the shipwrecked souls make it back to the mother ship.

Much corruption, history-rewriting, and "purple fever" can (I admit) attend small autogenic or separated Orthodox-believing bodies. However, this is by no means always the case (wherefore snap judgments and broad-brushing are inappropriate), and I am not convinced that the politicking and careerism of official Orthodox churchmen is a topic more edifying.

People do a lot of harm when they are convinced too easily that their church-politic actions represent God's Work On Earth. Is it possible that Mary Poppins was existentially spot-on when she said a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?

Time fails me, so the soapbox is now free for the next human bellows.

in Christ our true God,

Fr. Aidan+ a sinner

I, of course, am not suggesting that we Orthodox drop our natural skepticism regarding these faith-communities. But I can't say it would hurt any of us to take Fr. Aidan's admonition to heart the next time we run into one of these folks on an internet forum, or even (if one can imagine such a thing!) out in the real world.

An addendum:

The words of Fr. Ambrose O'Maonaigh (ROCOR-NZ) in response to Fr. Aidan are also worthy of great consideration:

The problem centres not on a lack of charity toward those who wish to create what Fr Aidan aptly calls "autogenic" Churches but on their sheer multitude. These Churches are a great confusion to the faithful and to those seeking genuine Orthodoxy and genuine Sacraments/Mysteries (something absent in the autogenic ecclesial groups.)

A quick read of Al Green's website < > will show that there are dozens of faux-Orthodox Churches in the States. Priests, as pastors of their sheepfolds, have a duty to alert people to this problem and guide them wisely in true Orthodoxy. I recall the case of a young man and his family who entered into, I think, the American Orthodox Church whose Primate was very charming and plausible. He became a deacon, and it took the whole family several years of heartache to discern that they were in a group which was simply not Orthodox and that they were not able to commune in any canonical Orthodox Church. Then they had to move, as a family, into a canonical Orthodox Church which was a strain on the family and on the teenagers who had become accustomed to their American Orthodox Church.

So, what we are confronting is a pastoral problem and it imposes two obligations on the clergy - 1. to encourage and nurture those who are in autogenic/graceless Churches to move towards the fullness of Orthodoxy, and 2. to protect the existing flock from being deceived by those who, whatever their good/naive intentions, are in effect wolves circling the sheepfold.

Fr Ambrose

Another Addendum:

Some correspondence generated by this essay:

[Alfred Green's comments are in italics, my responses in normal type.]


Your thoughts are...well...thought-provoking. I especially like the way you avoid using the word "schism" to describe those groups that have "separated" themselves from their mother church over some dispute. However it is worded, a schism is a schism, and every group that "separates" itself from its mother church is fractionalizing the ONE Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Well, I try to be a bit more charitable in my essay-type writing than I necessarily am in other venues. As I know you are aware, I have not hesitated to use this word with regard to both Suzdal and Mansonville.

At the same time, however, I would probably take exception to the idea that /all/ of the groups I have mentioned are /necessarily/ schismatic, because of various spiritual and historical circumstances. There are times, such as in the ROCOR issue, that "schism" is not the proper word to use. A temporary breach of communion is not always a schism. If it were, then I must ask, in 429, who was the schismatic--Nestorios, who called for everybody to "just get along", or our Father Among the Saints Cyril of Alexandria, who refused to have any kind of Communion, prayerful or otherwise, with Constantinople, and IIRC, even helped to set up parallel structures so the faithful of the imperial city might be walled off from that Patriarch's soul-destroying heresy?

How about the years where there were two Serbian Churches? Who was schismatic? Beograd interdicted the Free Serbs for separating from the Mother Church. Yet the Metropolia, ROCOR, and others remained in Communion with both.

If the line is quite as hard and fast as you say, then the American Metropolia (now the OCA) was certainly schismatic at least from 1946-1970 (remember--they were under interdict from both Moscow and ROCOR until just before the Autocephaly), maybe from even before that. Now, as I believe you are aware, I am not one of the ROCOR guys that thinks the OCA is actually schismatic--I try to be a little more dispassionate in my view of history, and I realise that 1946 was a confusing time for the Russian Diaspora; the MP was looking like it was on the resurgence, the Synod Abroad was in disorder, fleeing to the West as the Allies allowed the Iron Curtain to fall across the continent and the repatriation teams flooded out of the Kremlin. I can understand why 1/3 of the Metropolia Bishops opted to remain with Metr. Anastassy while the other 2/3 tried to return to Moscow, only to reject the demand for clergy loyalty-oaths, and become independent. And I fail to find reason to condemn either side, while I pray for a reunification of the Russian Church, inclusive even of the schismatics in Mansonville, Suzdal, etc., who need to be called to repentance.

Many times, the situation occurs because of an entire lack of loving behaviour on the part of the Mother Church. The Greek situation could easily have been averted had the Church of Greece shown any kind of charity toward the 10% of the Greek population that took the issue of Ecumenism (of which the calendar issue was the symbol) seriously enough to disobey the innovation of the Venizelos-inspired hierarchs who imposed it on them. They left no room for discussion, but rather immediately began using the coercive power of the government to persecute those people, killing them in the streets, breaking up their services just after the Anaphora and trampling the Holy Gifts, arresting the priests, shaving them and stripping them of their ryassa, and removing all civil rights from the adherents of the Old Calendar.

The proto-martyr of the Old Calendar movement was a housewife named Catherine Routtis, who was bludgeoned to death by a policeman, under orders from the Archbishop of Athens to break up an Old Calendar Liturgy, when she refused to allow the priest to be arrested.

How was our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ served by the Church of Greece on that day in 1924?

The situation in Romania at the same time was similar, but the bloodshed was even worse.

If, as you have often asserted, there was no real issue of faith and dogma in all this, why did the Mother Churches feel it necessary to seal the division with the blood of the resisters? I submit that there was indeed an issue of faith and dogma, and that issue was the course of modernising and Ecumenising the churches in accord with the 1920 Encyclical of the Phanar and the 1923 renovationist "Pan-Orthodox Congress" of Meletios IV. All this was the zeitgeist--it was in the air after WWI--it produced the League of Nations, the Living Church, and the Calendar Reform. Sure, it faded away for a while after that, until Athenagoras breathed new life into it in the 60s. But we should certainly take it into account in dealing with the Old Calendarists.

(I remind you that your own jurisdiction only avoided the defection of parishes over the calendar by allowing both calendars. At least Syosset showed some regard for the welfare and convictions of those who did not agree with the calendar-change.)

And this isn't the first time things like this have happened. How much different might things have turned out had Nikon and Alexei Mihailovitch shown an ounce of compassion toward the Staroobriadtsy, and refrained from burning such luminaries as the Protopriest Avvakum at the stake?

I imagine these "separations" in Orthodoxy is exactly how the plethora of protestant denominations, sects, cults, etc., got their start. The church of my birth is a classic example of the "separation" you describe in Orthodoxy: Because of some unresolved dispute or disagreement, the Methodist movement started by the Wesley brothers in the Anglican Church and which after their deaths became the Methodist Episcopal Church, has spawned The Primitive Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church, The Evangelical Methodist Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Wesleyan Evangelical Church, etc. I see the same protestant breakaway spirit developing in Holy Orthodoxy. We, as Orthodox, may point to the 30,000+ divisions in protestantism, but we are not that much better.

I can't argue with you there. And I know that you have watched me dispute with actual schismatics enough times to know that I am not fundamentally in disagreement with you. I suppose where we differ is in what you say below--I am not sure there are only two categories: internal strugglers and external separationists. As with various situations in the Church from time immemorial, from the two Orthodox jurisdictions that existed in Antioch in the Fourth Century, to the the situation with the Russian and Serbian Diasporae in the Twentieth, it seems evident to me that there have occurred many times divisions within the Church, illnesses that must be healed. And I hope that we will all work to bring such about, following the model that we have seen in Beograd, and which we are now seeing between the ROCOR and the MP.

As I said, a schism is a schism regardless of the "separation" spin one places on the terminology. And, I believe that schism, or separation, places one OUTSIDE the Holy Church. I'm unshakable in this belief. Change can only come from internal struggles, not external separations.