Friday, October 12, 2018

Ukraine Issues – Next Steps in the Crisis

Let me first say: I am sad. Of course, we must trust God that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church as He has taught us. And I most certainly do trust God in this regard. But usually we struggle against those outside the Church trying to prevail against the Church. Today I must share with you that those who are part of the Church are working against Her, and this makes me sad. I wish I didn’t have to write this note. But I would be shirking my pastoral duties if I did not. And so I will. But not with any other feeling than sadness. I was sad all day yesterday. I am sad today. I fear I will be sad tomorrow. People are asking me what to do. What you find below is my suggestion – at least until we receive further instructions from our hierarchs.

I am disappointed to have to report that on October 11, 2018, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate took a definitive step towards granting autocephaly to those who had previously left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the shadow of scandal, and then subsequently began schismatic church-like structures in Ukraine (and around the world). Here is what St. John Chrysostom says about schism:


Schism is not a game – it is a very serious spiritual sickness akin to heresy, as St. John writes in his piece linked above. Never before in the history of the Orthodox Church has it happened that someone who left in schism from one Local Church was accepted knowingly by another Local Church. The Local Churches, seeing themselves before October 11, 2018 as equals, were very careful not to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the other Local Churches. Yes, of course, sometimes one Patriarch might intercede privately on behalf of someone or make a suggestion to another brother Patriarch, but never before has such an egregious deviation from the canons of the Church been attempted by any Local Church. The main canon in question (there are several) is Canon II of the Second Ecumenical Council and is printed here in its entirety:

The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs. And let not bishops go beyond their dioceses for ordination or any other ecclesiastical ministrations, unless they be invited. And the aforesaid canon concerning dioceses being observed, it is evident that the synod of every province will administer the affairs of that particular province as was decreed at Nice. But the Churches of God in heathen nations must be governed according to the custom which has prevailed from the times of the Fathers. 

We must stress here the ecclesiological (having to do with the Church) understanding of the Orthodox Church that existed and was universally accepted until October 11, 2018: all bishops are equal and all Local Churches are equal. That is, the Orthodox Church does not have a Pope along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church. To be clear, we do not have a bishop of bishops, who can reach into the other Local Churches and impose his will on them. In fact, more than any other reason, this was the cause of the Great Schism: the Church does not have a “super bishop” and since the Romans sought to impose one on the rest of the Christian world the Romans left the Church of God. More than 300 years ago the Ecumenical Patriarchate gave the permanent right to the Patriarch of Moscow to appoint the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine. In other words, the Ukrainian Church became part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Church exists as an autonomous body under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church, just as our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia does, and the Japanese Orthodox Church does. ALL the bishops of the Ukrainian Church asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to leave the Ukrainian Church as it was and not to grant autocephaly to the schismatic groups found in Ukraine as this would cause chaos within the Church and undoubtedly cause the relationship between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the secular government to become more complicated and difficult than it already was. Yet, despite the pleas of every canonical Orthodox hierarch in Ukraine the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to recognize the schismatics and remove their well-deserved priestly and hierarchal bans.

We cannot over-state the novelty of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s approach here – such things have NEVER been allowed in the Orthodox Church in the past. This is a very strong move away from the Orthodox Church’s history and practice, and thus there is chaos now in the Orthodox world. The Ecumenical Patriarch is respected as the “first among equals” of the Patriarchs since he is the bishop of Istanbul, which used to be Constantinople – the seat of the Byzantine Empire. But 600+ years have passed since that empire ceased to exist, and there is but a very small remnant of Orthodox faithful left in Istanbul. Still – the other Local Orthodox Churches, not wishing to undermine the precarious position of the Ecumenical Patriarch there have not made any moves to change the dyptichs – the Ecumenical Patriarch has been left as first in honor. But we must understand this clearly: first in honor does not elevate the Ecumenical Patriarch above the other Patriarchs.

Before October 11, 2018 the entire Orthodox Church worked on the principle of conciliarity – all bishops are equal and all Local Churches are equal. The unilateral and unheard of move by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Thursday of this week breaks with that 2+millenia teaching of the Church and seeks to place the Ecumenical Patriarch at the head of the other Patriarchs not as regards the honor of his See, but as a sort of Eastern Pope. If his decision to ignore the canons and practices of the Orthodox Church as regards Ukraine are ignored by the other Local Churches the question must be asked – who is next? There is a schism in the Holy Land – will the Ecumenical Patriarchate grant autocephaly to that schismatic group? There is a schism in the Serbian Church – with the Ecumenical Patriarchate grant autocephaly to those schismatics? Where will it end? Ukraine is potentially just the first in a series of destructive blows to the Orthodox Church as we know it and have known it from the time of Christ – and this is why the Orthodox world is now in chaos. Will the other Local Churches stand up to Istanbul? If not – they could suffer the same attack as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now suffering. No one wants to undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate, given the very precarious situation of the Orthodox in Turkey. But the Ecumenical Patriarchate is undermining the Orthodox Church. What to do?

As noted previously here, the Russian Orthodox Church ceased commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and joint services with hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate several weeks ago when, in violation of the canons of the Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate established hierarchal exarchs in Ukraine. The Holy Synod meets on Monday, October 15, and no doubt we will receive clear instructions then about how we are to approach this now escalated crisis. Until then, our reaction should be as it always is to any crisis: prayer. We must pray for all the Orthodox hierarchs – that the Lord will guide them during this most difficult time. We must pray for Metropolitan Onuphry and the other canonical hierarchs, clergy, and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. They are likely to suffer greatly now that this decision to proceed to autocephaly has been taken. We must pray for the Holy Synod – that the Lord will grant them the wisdom needed to guide us through this crisis. We must pray for the schismatics – they have been joined to the Church without repentance of any kind. This cannot be a good path for their salvation. The Church and the sacraments are not magic. The path of return and repentance has always been the same – until October 11, 2018. Perhaps the schismatics are in the most precarious situation of all involved here. Deprived of the opportunity to repent in an authentically Orthodox manner they have been confirmed in their rebellion and there is essentially no reason for them to regularize their spiritual situation as far as they (and the Ecumenical Patriarchate) are concerned. Pray, pray, pray. Many need prayers. And our next reaction to this and any other sort of crisis: love. We must show love to those who are suffering most. Yes – love through prayer. But also through our actions. We have many, many Ukrainian parishioners. We do not do politics in our parish and that prohibition remains. It is not any of our parishioners’ fault that such actions have been taken to increase the suffering of the people of Ukraine. Many of our parishioners’ families and friends will suffer from this decision. Some will be injured as they protect their parish churches and monasteries from forcible takeover by the schismatics recognized by Istanbul. Some may even be killed. Blood will be shed. There is nothing we can “do” from here from a worldly point of view. But we can strongly support our ROCOR hierarchs’ future initiatives to provide help in Ukraine. And we can be a parish family imbued with love for God and for our fellow man. I call all our St. Vladimir’s family to strive zealously in this regard.

And we cannot overlook our friends and loved ones who are parishioners of St. Nicholas Church and the other Greek Archdiocese parishes in our area. We have always had a good relationship with our fellow Orthodox and we should continue that now. In fact, we should redouble our efforts! We must take the high road here. Not just the sort of high road – the highest road! Our response must be prayerful, loving, and sober. A real example of how an Orthodox Christian should live – and how one should deal with a crisis. We have emotions – this is “normal” from the human point of view. But the fathers teach us that there were no emotions before the fall – and that should tell us something about letting our emotions guide us. The soul is to guide the fallen body – and that includes emotions – and not the other way around.

May the Lord grant wisdom to the hierarchs! May He grant us sobriety, love, and zealous prayer! And may He grant peace to the much-suffering people of Ukraine!

Fr. Gregory