Ecumenism Awareness: Commonly Misunderstood Terms

This section is devoted to helping clear up the misconceptions of various terms that are often misunderstand by Orthodox Christians today.

"Canonicity" and "Canonical"

"No term is used—and misused—among the Orthodox people in America more often than the term canonical."

—Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Problems of Orthodoxy in America, The Canonical Problem

The epistles of Metropolitan Cyril that have come down to us all deal with one and the same question: the canonical position of Metropolitan Sergius in the Russian Orthodox Church. But their significance goes far beyond any mere question of canonical "correctness" or "incorrectness." The canons were made to bring order among Christians, not to force them into a strait-jacket of legalism, and thus the epistles of Metropolitan Cyril, which are full of this awareness, are a guide to us in the difficulties and often unprecedented canonical conditions of 20th-century Orthodoxy.

—Fr. Seraphim Rose of Platina, comments on the Epistles of the Holy New-Martyr St. Cyril of Kazan in Russia's Catacomb Saints

The Problems of Orthodoxy in America, The Canonical Problem: by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. A brilliant article on the meaning of "canonicity."

On Validity and Canonicity, an Orthodox Tradition Q&A.

Some Thoughts on the Holy Canons, by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff. A brief, yet brilliant commentary on the application of the Holy Canons.

An Appalling Incident In Sweden, By the Reverend Dr. Gregory Telepneff

Book Review: Eastern Churches in Sweden: An Overview, by Gösta Hallonstein.

Book Review: The Price of Prophecy, by Fr. Alexander Webster.

St. Theodore of Studios on the Canons and Schism: excerpts from Patrick Henry III's 1968 Yale doctoral dissertation entitled Theodore of Studios: Byzantine Churchman.

Instructive Examples from the Lives of St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Mark of Ephesus

Epistles of the Holy New-Martyr St. Cyril of Kazan, from Russia's Catacomb Saints. If you only have time to scan this, do a word search on "canon" and read the numerous insightful remarks concerning their use and abuse.


There is no such thing, of course, as a "canonical" Orthodox jurisdiction, despite the fact that this kind of terminology has crept into our ecclesiological vocabulary from the West. Nor are there "official" Orthodox Churches, a category produced by the contemporary ecumenical movement. Were this so, and were such terms amenable to the nuanced ecclesiological notions of the Greek Fathers, we would have to concede that the Cappadocian Fathers, the Studite monks, and the Palamite Hesychasts were, in some way, "quasi-canonical" and "un-official." This, if nothing else, warns us against apologetic presentations which unwisely pass over the intricacies of Church history.

—Archbishbop Chrysostomos of Etna, in a review of Fr. Alexander Webster's The Price of Prophecy (Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 2&3, p. 71)

"Union" and "Unity"

It is true that today there are people who speak of the union of the Churches. But this term is worthless theologically. We cannot speak of union, but of a unity of faith. We cannot speak of Churches which are separated and struggling to reach the truth and union, but about the Church which is always united with Christ and has never lost the truth, and about people who have broken away from it.

Some people who speak of union of the Churches use to satiety Christ's archpriestly prayer, which is in the Gospel according to John, and especially the point where Christ asks the Father that the disciples "may be one" and "that they all may be one" (John 17, 20-22). But if anyone reads the whole text attentively, he will discover that Christ is not referring to a union of the Churches which will come about in the future, but to the union of the Disciples which will come about on the day of Pentecost, when they will receive the Holy Spirit. This text speaks of the glorification of the Apostles which took place at Pentecost. Actually, at Pentecost the Apostles became members of the Body of Christ, they saw the glory of God, they reached deification, and so attained unity together in the single Body of Christ. Anyone who experiences Pentecost in his personal life attains this unity. The Apostle Paul, although he was not present with the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, is portrayed by the Church in the icon of Pentecost, because he too reached the vision of Christ and therefore has unity with the other Apostles.

—Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Mind of the Orthodox Church, Chapter II

Concerning the Orthodox Prayers for the Union of All and the Prayer in St. John 17. Excerpts from Ecumenism: A Movement for Union or a Syncretistic Heresy?, by Bishop Angelos of Avlona

Orthodox Unity Today, by Bishop Photii of Triaditza. This is the one of the best articles on the nature of Church unity that I have ever read.

Orthodox Ecclesiology, by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros. Sections XXVIII-XXX from his book Against False Union. In this classic passage he elucidates the proper understanding of Orthodox ecclesial unity.

Christian Unity As Viewed By the Eastern Orthodox Church: The Oberlin Statement, a classic elucidation of the traditional Orthodox view of "unity", written during a time when Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches was still Orthodox!

For What Kind of "Union of All" Do We Pray?, Concerning the Third Petition of the Great Ektenia.

Now since the Church is one, and that oneness consists primarily and universally of perfect agreement in Orthodox doctrines, it necessarily follows that all those who do not conform to those Orthodox doctrines, whether by addition or omission, or by any innovation of their own, thus changing the truth, are outside this one Holy Church, as one may also ascertain from a review of the sixth and seventh canons of the Second Ecumenical Council, and the first canon of St. Basil the Great.

Divine Prayers and Services of the Catholic Orthodox Church of Christ, compiled and arranged by the Late Reverend Seraphim Nassar (Englewood, NJ: Antiochian Archdiocese of N. America, 1979), 1031.

"Heresy," "Heretic," and "Anathema"

For an excellent treatment of these terms
see The Mind of the Orthodox Church, esp. Ch. 9

The Use of the Term "Heretic", by Patrick Barnes

The True Nature of Heresy: an outstanding essay on the use and abuse of this term.

What is Heresy?: St. Nectarios Education Series No. 63.

The Word 'Anathema' and It's Meaning: by St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco

On Caution Regarding Anathematization. An Annotated Translation of St. John Chrysostomos Homily, "That We Should Not Anathematize the Living or the Dead," by Hieromonk Patapios.

Heretical Saints?, excerpts from a letter by Archbishop Chrysostomos on Peter the Iberian, ecumenical dialogue, and the relation of heretics to the Church.

An Orthodox Tradition Q&A on Heresy and Praying With Heretics


"True Orthodox Christians": a short explanation of the term, from Orthodox Tradition, XI-1.

Are the Terms "Christian" and "Orthodox" Accurate in our Times?, by Archbishop Averky of Blessed Memory.