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Concerning Super Correctness

A Word of Warning to the Orthodox Christians of the West

By Bishop [now Metropolitan] Cyprian of Oropos and Fili

For over fifty years [as of 1976] the Orthodox Old Calendarists of Greece have fought a courageous battle, in the face of sometimes fierce persecution, for the preservation of genuine Orthodoxy against modernism and ecumenism. Unfortunately, their witness has to some extent been undermined by the presence among them of extreme views which have caused unnecessary schisms. In the end, this extremism has only aided the cause of modernism, which rejoices at every division among those of traditional views. This "temptation from the right side" is now making itself felt in America and the Western world in the form of new schisms, over hasty accusations of "heresy" and "betrayal", and the spread of the spirit of suspicion towards everyone not of one's own "party". The present warning, in the form of a letter to Saint Herman Brotherhood from one of the most respected leaders of the Old-Calendarist movement in Greece, is a most timely one. Bishop Cyprian is also Abbot of the Monastery of Sts. Cyprian and Justina in Fili, near Athens.

YOU HAVE WRITTEN asking me to put together a few words describing the dangers of the temptation of a "super-correctness" in questions of Orthodox faith and practice, and the damage it has caused to the Greek Church in our days. This you would like as a warning to those in America who are troubled by this same temptation, and you would like them to benefit from our experience here. Very gladly, therefore, we will attempt to do this, emphasizing from the beginning that we have no wish to criticize persons, but rather the mentality of extremism, the danger of temptation "from the right."

We must begin with a few words on our confession of faith: the Orthodox Church is deeply wounded by the heresy of ecumenism, the betrayal of the hierarchy in some communist lands, the abandonment of every vestige of Orthodox piety in some parts of the Diaspora. We have no doubt that the leaders of the ecumenical movement, in fully equating Orthodoxy with heresy, have fallen away from the Church. With such, and those who commune with them, we can have no communion at all, nor can we regard them any longer as Orthodox, but wolves, all too often in the sheep's clothing of Patriarch's and bishops. Every witness of the Fathers confirms that economy in matters of heresy constitutes betrayal. We regard the new calendar as the first step in the ecumenical movement, and thus can have no communion with new calendarists.

From the above, two questions arise: firstly, have all those with whom we have severed communion fallen into heresy, and placed themselves outside the Church? Secondly, if they have not, what justification do we have in cutting off prayerful relations with them? Both these questions require much thought. Insofar as the ecumenists are concerned, one can discern three categories:

(1) Those who wholly equate Orthodoxy with heresy, and thus voluntarily place themselves outside the Church in some sort of vague "superchurch."

(2) Those who, while they in no way negate their Orthodoxy, nonetheless take part in joint prayer with heretics in transgression of the canons. We may perhaps call them anti-canonical rather than openly heretical.

(3) Those who, while they disagree to a greater or lesser extent with ecumenism, commune with the ecumenists, perhaps considering that they do so using economy.

We, pursuing the purity of the faith, can have no communion of prayer with the clergy who belong to these categories. But the vexed questions are: how are we to treat their flock? What degree of economy is permissible in our dealings with them? Which of the above clergy have definitely lost the grace of the priesthood through their apostasy? It is much the same questions, so far as we know, which wracked the Catacomb Church in Russia in its early years (and perhaps now), and it is disputes over these questions which have caused the greatest troubles amongst the Old-Calendarists of Greece.

These troubles we will summarize very briefly: in 1935, three bishops of the new calendar Church of Greece returned to the observance of the old calendar, and immediately consecrated four new bishops. The subsequent history of these does not concern us here, except for one; he, Bishop Matthew, a man of great personal virtues but extremist temperament, in 1937 separated himself from the other hierarchs, forming a schism which exists to the present day. The reason for his action was that the senior bishop, Metropolitan Chrysostomos, was asked in an interview if he considered that the State Church had lost the Grace of the Sacraments in accepting the calendar innovation. He replied no, only a future council could condemn the new-calendarists as definitely outside the Church; what we know is that they are seriously guilty before the Church, its canons and traditions, and therefore we can have no communion with them until such time as they return to the traditions and discipline of the Church. This truly Orthodox ecclesiology, which can be paralleled particularly in St. Theodore the Studite, met with incomprehension on both sides. Both the new-calendarists and a section of the old-calendarists condemned him as illogical: if they have grace, what justification exists for separation from them? As noted above, one of the newly-consecrated bishops departed and formed a schism which exists to the present day. We can only see this as a fruit of the mentality of over-correctness,"of a neglect of the economy which the Church requires to use for the salvation of souls. The damage caused to the Greek Church is immeasurable, for had this division not occurred, the State Church of Greece would long have been obliged to return to the old calendar.

We can cite other examples of this "overcorrectness" from our own experience. A fearful example is the following: A few years ago a woman, unfortunately a nun, reading through the works of St. Nectarios, the great wonderworker of our times, came across a few passages which she considered as not in accord with Orthodox teaching. A discerning mind would see in these passages the influence primarily of the westernized theological training which the Saint received, and of the historian Paparigopoulos (from whose book the passages are taken almost directly), and certainly no intentional contradiction of Orthodox teaching. The unfortunate nun, however, proceeded to write three books denouncing St. Nectarios as a "heretic, iconoclast, ecumenist, and Latin." Simple people were influenced, many souls were wounded and scandalized. This fanatical mentality, as so often, had seized a detail while ignoring the whole—the exemplary and holy life of St. Nectarios and his innumerable miracles.

Another example is provided for us by a group of persons who have severed all communion with all the Orthodox in Greece because the hierarchs will not officially condemn as heretical the western-style icon of the Holy Trinity (with God the Father represented as an old man, and the Holy Spirit as a dove). Neglecting everything else, they have seized on this detail, and have been led into schism. Their struggle for the removal of this iconic type has become an obsession, a prelest.

We should, however, in fairness point out that these disputes have often been made much worse by the opponents taking an equally fanatical position. Discretion is needed on both sides. It is also true that extremism amongst the old-calendarists has been fostered by the savage persecutions which the State Church has launched from time to time.

One of the most disastrous examples of the phenomenon of which we are speaking is the disputes between the zealots of the Holy Mountain. Many, to be sure, are clearminded and sure of their purpose, but others waste so much time in useless disputes. In one and the same skete, one can find in each house a different ecclesiology, a different mentality, and not one in communion with their neighbors. They have seized on details, and all too often, in their lack of theological education, have seized on them quite incorrectly. Often their opinions are rational, but taken to extremes; others, however, become very strange; one group believes that the name of Jesus shares in His Divinity, and that all who do not so believe are heretics; another, that those who practice frequent Holy Communion are heretics and excommunicate; another has reached the old-believer position that the grace of the priesthood has vanished from the Church; and so forth. We must emphasize again that we have no wish to criticize persons; many have a holiness which we never dare hope to attain. We only criticize that mentality which leads to division and schism.

Now, to return to the questions mentioned at the beginning, we would like to relate something which we observed recently. A few months ago I visited Romania, and in one of the celebrated historical monasteries (belonging, naturally, to the official Church of Romania), was very kindly received by the Abbot, a man of evident spiritual qualities and considerable education. He began to speak enthusiastically about the ecumenical movement and the reunion of the "churches." To this I replied with such words as God enlightened me with, and I observed from his reaction that he had never before heard a point of view opposed to ecumenism. After the meeting, he told the Romanian bishop who was accompanying us that he had been much edified by the conversation. This gave me occasion for thought: it would be easy to condemn him immediately as an ecumenist and a heretic. But this was not the case; despite his education, he had never given the matter deep thought (though certainly he should have done so), he had never heard any criticism of ecumenism, it had never occurred to him that it was a denial of Orthodoxy. To place him in the same category as, let us say, Meliton of Chalcedon, would be quite unjust. Perhaps it would be fair to use the same criteria to judge the faithful in the Soviet Union, who, with few exceptions, are obliged to have recourse to the Moscow Patriarchate, or the many faithful in outlying parts of Greece who have no conception of the calendar question. For every category we must use discretion; it is impossible in all cases to apply the same strictness, while on the other hand, we must remember that economy used as a measure in itself becomes an abuse, and that in matters of real heresy there can be no use of economy.

In conclusion, we would say that the error of "over-correctness" is a form of prelest, and like the other forms, this means a blindness, an obsession. The Fathers say that prelest begins with self-reliance, and so it is: whilst pursuing some probably very laudable particular end, the general picture becomes forgotten, there sets in a hardening of mind and heart which results in dispute and fanaticism. The history of the Church provides us with many examples, and most obviously, the old believers of Russia.

We hope that these few words may help your American readers in the understanding of the mature Orthodoxy which your publications always seek to put forth.

From The Orthodox Word, July-August 1980 (93), 164ff.