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Orthodox Unity Today

By the Right Reverend Photios, Bishop of Triaditza

BISHOP PHOTIOS received his theological education at the Academy of Theology in Sofia and his training in classical philology at the University of Sofia, where he was an assistant professor of ancient Greek. A spiritual son of the renowned Archimandrite Seraphim (Alexiev) and an erudite scholar, His Grace serves as the sole shepherd of the Old Calendar Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, a Sister Church of our Church in Greece.

One year has passed since the date (15 March 1992) that representatives of the local Orthodox Churches, meeting in Constantinople, signed a joint communiqué which purports to constitute an expression of "the unity of all Orthodox." [1] This communiqué was signed on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. By bitter irony, the same day that the Church celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Primates of the "official" Orthodox Churches signed a document, the basic prescriptions of which it would be difficult to call Orthodox. In the present article, we propose to examine the fundamental notion, indeed the most debatable point, of this communiqué: its concept of Orthodox unity and of the unity of Orthodox Christians today.

It is well known that the unity of the Orthodox Church is, above all, unity in the Orthodox faith, or, in other words, unity in the fullness of revealed Truth, unity in the Word Incarnate (cf. St. John 14:6), that is, unity in our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is He Who is the founder and the supreme Head of the Church, which is His Body (cf. Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:15; Colossians 1:18). The members of this Body are all of those faithful having the same Orthodox faith in the Holy Trinity and in our Savior, the God-Man Jesus Christ, and who are baptized with an Orthodox Baptism in the name of the Trinitarian God.

The classical expression of this concept of the unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church was formulated by St. Maximos the Confessor († 662). The enemies of this intrepid combatant against the Monothelite heresy posed the following question to him: "To what Church do you belong? To the Church of Constantinople, of Rome, of Antioch, of Alexandria, or of Jerusalem? Now, take note that all of these Churches, together with their dioceses, are in union. Thus, if you belong to the catholic (that is, universal) Church, as you say, you should join yourself to these unified Churches, for fear that if you follow a new or strange path, you will bring upon yourself some unforeseen danger." The Saint responded: "God, the Master of all creation, has declared that the universal church lies in the correct and saving confession of faith in Him, calling Peter blessed for having confessed His Divinity (St. Matthew 16:18). Besides, I would like to know the criterion on which the union of all of these Churches is based, and if it is suitable, I will not remain separated from them." [2]

The Orthodox Church, as the Body of Christ, is indivisible, invincible, and unerring in its "correct and saving confession of the faith." It is, however, possible for individual Orthodox and even entire local Churches to betray the truth of Orthodoxy, such that they lapse, being cut off from the universal Church, just as the Western Church long ago fell to the heresies of Papism and Protestantism. It is also possible for Orthodox to separate and for there to exist "contentions" in the bosom of the Church, as St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (I Corinthians 1:10-14). The criteria of truth in such instances are the dogmas and canons of the universal Orthodox Church or, to cite the words of St. Vincent of Lérins († ca. 450), "that which is believed always, that which is believed by everyone, and that which is believed throughout the whole world." [3]

Thus, the proof of Orthodox unity is, above all, "the correct and saving confession of the faith." Now, it is precisely this confession which is missing from the text of the communiqué in question. This document reckons the panheresy of ecumenism, in principle, a positive phenomenon, despite the fact that ecumenism denies the doctrines of Orthodoxy regarding the Church and, in practice, seeks to destroy the Orthodox Church of Christ, which was established as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:15). It is precisely ecumenism which, in our days, has abolished the unity in faith of Orthodox Christians. The participation of the Primates and Synods of nearly all of the local Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement has divided the members of these Churches into those who follow the heresy of ecumenism and the calendar reform which it produced, and those who have defended the pure and whole Orthodox faith and the unity of the Orthodox Church in that faith. This division has become ever deeper with the progress of the ecumenical movement, which at two of its recent assemblies, in Vancouver (1983) and Canberra (1991), openly revealed its intentions: the accomplishment not only of an amorphous "pan-Christian" union, but the formation of a syncretistic community which will represent all religions. The way that ecumenists think, their theological language and the terms that they employ, and their declarations and actual activities adequately demonstrate these intentions.

It is often the case that little importance is given to the participation of local Orthodox Churches in the World Council of Churches. This participation is presented as an official act without real consequences for the bulk of the clergy and laymen, who constitute the Church of Christ. But is this true? Effectively, a few official representatives of the local Orthodox Churches decide on questions of crucial importance without the knowledge of the millions of Orthodox clergymen and laymen. So it is that on November 28, 1990, at the ecumenical center of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Chamblésy (Switzerland), theologians from the local Orthodox Churches and the "non-Chalcedonian" Churches signed a common Declaration—a document bringing to a conclusion the ecumenical dialogues carried out between them. In practical terms, this declaration has opened the road to union with the non-Chalcedonian heretics, who have in no way renounced their heresy or accepted the decrees of the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Œcumenical Synods.

This action has not been slow in manifesting its disastrous consequences. In a letter to his Synod, dated July 22, 1991, and in an Encyclical addressed to the clergy and laity, Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch proposed the common celebration of services, including the Divine Liturgy, by Orthodox Priests and the (non-Chalcedonian) Syrian Jacobites. From his side, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, in a message dated August 12, 1992, informed the local Orthodox Churches that an inter-Orthodox commission has been convened for the purpose of discussing the practical realization of the decisions made at Chamblésy. The consequences of this false union are all too obvious. All of those who accept the Declaration, or who enter into communion with clergymen who have accepted it, can no longer be considered members of the Orthodox Church. The objections that can be made with regard to this statement ("Of what importance to me is it if a Priest or Bishop is an ecumenist?" "Why should I care if he accepts decisions at odds with the Orthodox Faith?" "I go to Church simply as an Orthodox Christian—ecumenism is of no concern to me") seem to us misplaced, in this instance. For ecclesiastical communion, sacramental communion, and, above all, the Mystery of Holy Communion presuppose that all who participate therein have the same ideas, the same faith. To quote the words of St. Paul, "we are members one of another" (Ephesians 4:25), just as we are members of the Church of Christ, which is His Body (Ephesians 5:30). The Mystery of Holy Communion is the most profound expression of the unity of Orthodox Christians in this Mystical Body, of which the Head is our Savior, Jesus Christ, the very source of Truth (cf. St. John 14:6; Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18).  Anyone can understand why, according to the tenth Apostolic Canon, one who comes into communion with a Priest rightly deposed by the Church is himself deprived of communion, since he has "trodden upon the Church of God." Thus, it is important that we not shirk our responsibility with regard to God and with regard to the holy Orthodox Truth, in searching out excuses that are wrongly based on the individualism of contemporary man.

The union with the non-Chalcedonians which we have just cited as an example is but one course among many by which ecumenism—as a way of grappling with these problems in theology, and as an actual institution, the World Council of Churches—seeks to destroy the unity of Orthodox Christians in the fullness of Divine Truth.

The result of this distressing division is the creation of two distinct groups in opposition to one another: on the one hand, the supreme administrative agents of the local Orthodox Churches—members, along with the clergy and laity who support them, of the World Council of Churches—; and on the other hand, the strugglers for the integrity of the Orthodox faith and the preservation of unity within that faith.

Orthodox Christians have the right, based on the canons of the Church, to break ecclesiastical communion with any Bishop who teaches heresy publicly and openly in the Church and to cease his commemoration in liturgical services. [4] If a Bishop or a clergyman of lower rank is faulty in the domain of the faith, "flee from him and separate yourself from him, whether he be a man or even an Angel from Heaven," St. John Chrysostomos tells us. [5]

Orthodox Christians who have separated from the "official" Churches for these reasons are not subject to canonical punishment. They are, rather, deserving of the "honor befitting Orthodox," [6] since they have not threatened the unity of the Church by schism, but, on the contrary, have demonstrated themselves diligent in seeking to avoid division and schism. [7] It is indeed the person who teaches heresy or introduces innovation into the Church who provokes schism and division. By contrast, it is one who opposes heresy and separates himself from it who truly demonstrates that he has endeavoured to preserve the unity of the Church. For canonical separation in such an instance has as its object the defense of the Orthodox faith and the preservation of the unity of Orthodoxy itself.

The division caused by ecumenism has made it necessary to employ a distinctive term: "official" Orthodox Churches. This term has been appropriated by the local Orthodox Churches, members of the World Council of Churches, whose directors, synods, and administrative agencies defend ecumenism. On their side, "Orthodox" ecumenists and their followers characterize as "schismatic" those who are separated from them in an effort to preserve the purity of their faith. In the communiqué from the Primates of the Orthodox Church that we cited at the beginning of this article, it is indeed these separated Orthodox who are accused of endangering the canonical and spiritual unity of the Orthodox Church: "Unfortunately," we read in the text of this communiqué, "...[Church] unity is often threatened by schismatic groups which are on the fringes of the canonical structure of the Church. Having exchanged views on this subject, we have agreed on the need for all of the holy Orthodox Churches, acting in full solidarity, to condemn these schismatic groups and to abstain from communion with them." [8] We behold here a tragic confusion in thinking. The representatives of the "official" Orthodox Churches, fervent followers of ecumenism, caught in the snare of the World Council of Churches, are striving to transform the unity of Orthodox in the faith, which they have themselves abolished, into a purely external unity—the unity of administrative structures, institutional unity, which they accept as canonical.

The following example demonstrates just how this kind of thinking is erroneous. It is well known that the Orthodox Church of Finland celebrates the Feast of Pascha (Easter) according to the new calendar, separately from all of the other Orthodox Churches, but at the same time as the Catholics and Protestants. Nonetheless, this disgraceful fact is completely ignored by the "official" Churches. It is of no importance to them that the unity of Orthodoxy, expressed in the common celebration of Pascha, is ruptured by this Church, which is self-condemned by inviting the severe sanctions appointed by the canons (the seventh Apostolic Canon [which deposes any clergyman for deviating from the universal formula for the celebration of Pascha—Tr.]; the minutes of the First Œcumenical Synod [which reiterate Canon VII of the Apostles—Tr.]; and Canon I of the Council of Antioch [which, in addition to reiterating Canon VII of the Apostles, calls those who resist the rules for the common celebration of Pascha "alien" to the Church—Tr.]). The Church of Finland is simply considered a wholly "official" Church, the canonicity of which is unquestioned. At the same time, the defenders of Orthodoxy, separated canonically from the "official" Churches, are considered "schismatics" and the communiqué in question suggests that "all of the holy Orthodox Churches...condemn these schismatic groups and...abstain from communion with them." A strange logic which speaks adequately for itself!

The result of this confusion in thinking is truly tragic. In reducing the unity of the Orthodox Church to a visible unity, a matter of the administrative structure of the "official" Churches, the "Orthodox" ecumenists strain to hide their flagrant violations of the very canons which they themselves evoke and to disfigure the Orthodox faith. In other words, under the guise of the exterior unity of institutions, they have prostituted the "correct and saving confession of the faith," which is the measure of true Orthodox unity. It is perhaps useful to recall, in this regard, the warning of the American Hieromonk Seraphim Rose: "In the final analysis, all of the official institutions will submit to the Antichrist." [9]

It is also worthy of note that the "Orthodox" ecumenists often shamelessly and in a brutal manner betray their Orthodox brothers, who have the courage to defend the purity of their faith. Let us recall, for example, the expulsion of the monks of the Skete of the Prophet Elias on Mt. Athos, who had refused to commemorate the ecumenist Patriarch of Constantinople in their services. By contrast, the "Orthodox" ecumenists are, if anything, overly friendly towards heretics and their communities, following the prescriptions of ecumenical diplomacy. If perchance they direct any critical remarks to the heterodox [e.g., various complaints from the national Orthodox Churches with regard to Uniate and Protestant missions in their territories—Tr.], these are carefully meted out in the context of this same diplomacy. In fact, these critical remarks are nothing more than words which are immediately forgotten.

Finally, let us draw some general conclusions. Those whom the communiqué signed in Constantinople calls "schismatic" are in fact Orthodox Christians who stand firm in their correct and saving faith, "which was once delivered unto the Saints" (St. Jude 1:3) and which was bequeathed to them by the Fathers of the Church. To cite once again Father Seraphim Rose, these servants "follow Bishops who oversee a small number of Orthodox dioceses and who stand in resistance to the apostasy of our age. One can mention, here, one part of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and the True Orthodox Christians (i.e., the Old Calendarists) of Greece." [10] We can add to these the Old Calendar Orthodox Church in Romania and the Old Calendarist Orthodox in our country [Bulgaria—Tr.]. It is precisely this "small remnant" of the children of Israel—the Israel of the New Testament—who are characterized by a "correct and saving confession of the faith," the sole criterion of true Orthodox unity. Scorned, slandered, and often even persecuted by those who supposedly hold to the same faith—individuals who pretend to be Orthodox—, this "small remnant" is nothing less than a "stumbling-stone" (Romans 9:32) for ecumenism and a solid buttress of Orthodoxy. Small in number, perhaps, but true to the faith of the Fathers, the Old Calendar Bulgarian Orthodox Church rallies unreservedly around this "small remnant," which responds, to be sure, to the inspired words of the Russian Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) of Blessed Memory: "Ecumenism will not celebrate its victory, so long as it has not encompassed within its worldly fold all of the Orthodox Churches. We must not permit it this victory. Knowing its true nature and aims, we must wholly reject the ecumenical movement, since in it there are made manifest apostasy and the betrayal of Christ." [11]


1. Tcherkoven Vestnik, XCIII, No. 12 (March 23, 1992), p.1.
2. "In Vitam ac Certamen Sancti Patris Nostri ac Confessoris Maximi," Patrologia Graeca, XC, col. 93C,D.
3. "Commonitorium Peregrini pro Catholicae Fidei Antiquitate et Universitate Adversus Profanas Omnium Haereticorum Novitates," Patrologia Latina, L, col. 640.
4. Canon XV of the Protodeuteron (First-and-Second) Council in Constantinople.
5. "Homiliae in Epistolam ad Hebraeos [34]," Patrologia Graeca, LXIII, col. 231.
6. Protodeuteron Council, op. cit.
7. Ibid.
8. Tcherkoven Vestnik, op cit.
9. Hieromonk Seraphim Rose, Sviatoe Pravoslavie (Donskoi Monastyr: 1992), XX, p. 26.
10. Ibid.
11. Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev), "Nado li Rousskoi Pravoslavnoi Tzerkvi Outchastvovat v ekoumenitcheskom dvijenii?," Deyania Sovechtania Glav i Predstavitelei Avtokefalnyh Tzerkvei v Sviazi s Prazdnovaniem 500-Letia Avtokefalii Rousskoi Pravoslavnoi Tzerkvi, July 8-18, 1948 (Moscow: 1949), II, p. 383.

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On Division

You are constantly decrying the ecumenical activities of the Orthodox Patriarchates, all the national Churches, and American Orthodoxy. This spirit will lead to division. You know so much about the Faith. Why not just instruct? (J.M., OR)

There is only one thing which divides Christians: deviation from Holy Tradition, or that which has been believed at all times and in all places by the Faithful. Today, almost all of the Orthodox Churches have fallen to the pan-heresy of ecumenism, which denies the primacy of Orthodoxy. This deviation from the fundamental principle of our Faith, that it alone preserves the fullness of the Apostolic Church, accounts for the divisions among us. And just as it has divided us by compromising the Church’s traditions—beginning with the calendar innovation—, so a rejection of the pan-heresy of ecumenism and a return to the Church’s traditions will once again unite us.

If we have any instruction to offer, it must always rest on an understanding that no lesson, no bit of knowledge about the Church, can be significant unless it first counsels the believer consciously to embrace the Orthodox Church as the True Church and her Holy Tradition as inspired and divinely established, whether that Holy Tradition be expressed in the basic dogma of Orthodox ecclesiastical primacy or something so seemingly insignificant as how we Cross ourselves. If by stating the truth we seem to divide, this is only because those who have deviated from or revile the truth are already separated from the spirit of Orthodoxy.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, No. 4, p. 11. Translated from the French by Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna.