Share   Print
Related Content

On Validity and Canonicity


My husband was a Deacon for five years in a small Ukrainian Orthodox group into which we were converted and Baptized. Over the years, reading "Orthodox Tradition" in particular, we came to realize that the jurisdiction to which we belonged had problems and that your Synod and other Orthodox jurisdictions had questions about its canonical status. In good conscience we had to rectify our situation. We were Chrismated by a Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, whose parish we attend. However, we consider ourselves spiritual children of Bishop Chrysostomos of Oreoi and members of the Synod of Resistance of Metropolitan Cyprian....In view of all of this, were we Orthodox before? We were catechized, knew the Faith, fasted, read spiritual books, and studied. In fact, our study of the Faith brought us to understand the canonical difficulties in our former jurisdiction. This question is important for us and for our friends, who are confused about our status. My husband now functions as a layman. (J.C., TX)

Your question is an extremely important one, especially in America, where there are so many Orthodox groups and jurisdictions that it is almost impossible to determine who is who and what is what.

Who determines who is Orthodox in these circumstances? On the one hand, we can establish bodies like the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America. Such a body can pronounce on the canonicity of any group. But in fact, the SCOBA is essentially a political organization comprised of American jurisdictions which have largely the same attitudes towards ecumenism and modernism in the Church—they are more or less sympathetic to both. The Old Calendarist Greeks and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, as well as some valid Ukrainian groups, are excluded from the SCOBA because of their stand of resistance against these attitudes in their Mother Churches. Though all of these latter jurisdictions have Apostolic Succession—as admitted by many of the SCOBA Bishops themselves—, and while each would argue that it has undertaken a lawful stand of resistance as allowed by the Canons, they do not enjoy membership in the SCOBA.

Thus, if the SCOBA determines who is canonically Orthodox, political, not actual canonical and ecclesiastical criteria, will prevail. This is hardly Orthodox. And if such criteria prevail, then lawful resistance movements within the Church will cease. This, too, is not Orthodox, since the Church has always triumphed over error and misjudgment by the kind of "lawful resistance" to which St. Basil called the Fathers of his day, when many of the ancient Sees of the Church were under the Arian captivity. Moreover, a group of Bishops which establishes itself as a self-validating agency is subject to a few questions in and of itself. Neither are we subject to a single Pope or papacy in the form of a collegial system.

On the other hand, some Churches in resistance have set themselves up as the judges of all other Orthodox, distorting their resistance to various ills in the Church and setting up a kind of sectarian mentality. "We are the only true Orthodox." "Only we have Grace." "Our Church [or monastery or parish] is the center of Orthodox spirituality." "True Orthodox," in the Patristic use of this expression, distinguishes those Orthodox who are ailing in the Faith, but who have yet to be judged or cut off from the communion of the Church, and those true believers who have maintained unchanged the valid teaching of the Church. Sectarian claims to ecclesiastical or spiritual primacy violate the catholicity of Orthodoxy and do little to commend groups that make such claims to the sober Christian. When these claims become so ridiculous that the minority of Christians who are today in resistance to political ecumenism and innovation condemn their ailing brothers for apostasy and question the validity of their Mysteries, then resistance has become cultism.

It is neither in so-called "official" bodies formed by Bishops of the various national Churches in America, nor in the ranks of those separated from such bodies in various resistance movements, that we can find proper criteria for determining Orthodox validity. In either case, political and personal considerations, not spiritual ones, are bound to dominate. This is simply a fact which cannot be questioned in the small, immature Orthodox population of America.

What, then, constitute the valid criteria by which Orthodox validity is established? There are two answers to this. First, the Bishops who head any Church must have Apostolic Succession. They must trace their Consecrations to valid Orthodox Hierarchs. This is the most basic definition of validity in Orthodoxy. In America, where deposed Bishops often retreat from their Mother Churches and establish their own Orthodox jurisdictions, this criterion presents tremendous problems. A deposed Bishop cannot be said unequivocally to be without Grace. Grace is not taken away by human beings, but by God. Nonetheless, the Church refuses to recognize anything that such a Bishop may do, assuming that estrangement from the Church constitutes estrangement from Divine Grace. The Faithful should cut off all communion with such a person. Many deposed clergy, however, exploit confusion on this matter and convince their unwitting followers that deposition is not tantamount to a loss of Apostolic Succession.

It is also true that when Bishops separate from the Mother Church over matters of Faith, they are often subjected to suspension, excommunication, or deposition by the authorities to whom they stand in resistance. This was true of some of the greatest Fathers of the Church, including St. John Chrysostomos, one of the Three Hierarchs. In this case, one must weigh with great care the reason for resistance, the sincerity of that resistance, and the purposes for which the resistance is undertaken. Certainly condemnation by a Mother Church is valid if directed against those who deny the unity (catholicity) of the Church, those who are immoderate, those who deny the validity of the Mysteries of an ailing Church that stands uncondemned by a Church Synod, or who hide under something like the Old Calendar or resistance to ecumenism or resistance to innovation simply for the purpose of maintaining an independent status, free from the scrutiny of the Church. Sincere resisters, on the other hand, are the very preservers of Apostolic Succession.

Now, Apostolic Succession is not understood in the Orthodox Church in a legalistic way. One may have Apostolic Succession, violate the Canons, ignore the conscience of the Church, and preach heresy. This, too, estranges him from the Grace of the Church, though again we cannot unequivocally point at what time and hour that Grace was lost. (It is for this reason that various heretics were received in various ways in the Early Church: some by confession, some by Chrismation, others by Baptism.) When the Church openly condemns such a person (or an entire Synod of Bishops or a national Church, for that matter), then most certainly the Faithful are to avoid him, as we have mentioned above. Apostolic Succession without an adherence to the Canons and beliefs of Orthodoxy has no meaning. This extends to cover instances in which the Canons dictate that deposition is automatic (a failure to keep the fasting rules—except under exceptional cases allowed by Canons, a violation of moral conduct, etc.).

In essence, then, we judge the validity of any Orthodox group by its possession of Apostolic Succession, its adherence to basic Canons, and, in the cases of Churches in resistance that are separated from their Mother Churches (and even condemned by their Mother Churches), by the Patristic foundation, canonical justification, and sincerity of their resistance. There are no easy answers, there are few clear-cut cases, and there is no infallible authority to adjudicate matters ex cathedra. True Christianity demands that we exercise our consciences, make the best possible decisions after careful meditation and reflection, and place ourselves under the guidance of Providence. We are judged more by our sincere intentions than by our inadvertent and unintentional errors. This is as it should be in a religion of love and forgiveness. And Christianity is just that.

With regard to your particular case, you and your family were most certainly Orthodoxy in mind, spirit, and intention. Is it possible that these mean nothing before God? Your knowledge of the Faith, no doubt prompted by Providential Grace, led you to the fullness of Orthodoxy. What was imprinted on your heart was made manifest by your entry into a canonical Orthodox Church. You are not converts in this action. You are not called to dismiss all that you were before. Your Chrismation corrected a canonical problem. It did not bestow upon you Orthodoxy.

As for your husband's ordination to the Diaconate, this presents a difficult problem. Ordinations by uncanonical groups in Apostolic Succession and in the early Church even the ordinations of some heretics (as in the Iconoclastic period), are not repeated in the Church. Rather, "chierothesia," or the imposition of hands is utilized, the acting Bishop or Bishops asking that whatever it might be that is absent from the ordination be corrected, or that past misbelief be forgiven. In your husband's specific case, it is impossible to determine with absolute accuracy the status of the Bishops who Consecrated the Bishop from whom he received ordination. No doubt, under such circumstances, a very conservative approach, foregoing economy, is called for. But this decision is ultimately one to be made at a synodal level. In the meantime, you are covered by your intentions and by the quality of your spiritual lives. You are NOT new Orthodox and your five years of experience in the Church have no doubt taught you much from which you can draw.

So much in the Church today smacks of legalism and of personal opinion. It does not bear the mark of true Church Tradition. Thus, what we have written, which is drawn from the historical, canonical, and pastoral experience of the Church across the centuries, may seem unpleasant to those who have an inadequate knowledge of Holy Tradition or who bring with them, into Orthodoxy, baggage from heterodox traditions. This should not be the case. We must always strive to acquire the purest Orthodox vision, for it leads us to compassion, a certain open-mindedness, and a clear vision of the philanthropic nature of God's interaction with man.

We have answered your very personal question at length because the matters which you have raised are important both from a theological standpoint and from the standpoint of personal Faith in an Orthodox society where confusion reigns. We have at other times, when circumstances have demanded it, spoken in a very conservative way. For instance, we have staunchly stood up against the theologically illiterate and spiritually dangerous practice of making Chrismation a standard for receiving converts and Baptism, the actual standard, a virtual "act of economy." We have pointed out that Orthodox do not "accept" non-Orthodox Baptisms, and that Chrismation, which should be used for the infirm or in very unusual circumstances (and ideally with the permission of the local Bishop), fills the empty form of a non-Orthodox Baptism. In this instance, we lean, as the Patristic witness prompts us to do, towards a more "liberal" view, if only be use matters of the Christian heart and conscience are not subject to formal pronouncements or canonical interpretation. They belong solely to the realm of God, "Who alone knows the hearts of men."

When anyone begins to pontificate about who is or who is not Orthodox in the confusing atmosphere of contemporary American Orthodoxy, be cautious. This is not within the domain of idle speculation and personal opinion. We should seek to correct those who may have wrongly entered the Church. We should chastise those who, because of the dictates of political ecumenism, try to abuse economy and extend the Orthodox Church beyond its perimeters, accepting non-Orthodox under "conditions" and with certain "qualifications." One should avoid any who teach that the way is wide and not narrow. Abuses of the Mysteries of the Church should be flatly condemned, especially, again, when they serve the ends of political ecumenism. But the inner faith of a single individual, Orthodox or not—here we must exercise the greatest possible latitude. Here we must forego all judgment. God alone knows who is Orthodox in his heart. God alone knows his saints His Saints. God alone knows who will and who will not be saved!

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 11-15.