21st Sunday After Pentecost - Conflicts and Councils
Today is a commemoration of the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. That council was called to defend the veneration of the holy icons. Throughout her history, the church has weathered storms of various kinds: different heresies challenging the integrity of the revelation of Christian truth and threatening the unity of the Holy Church. And through those storms it has been the voice of the Holy Spirit through bishops in council which has guided and guarded her through those stormy waters.
This has been the strength and the way God’s grace has worked in Orthodoxy… it is through relationship and council. The Orthodox Church does not have a pope. Christ is the head of the Church and He guides her through the bishops in council.
I know many of you are aware of and are troubled by the storms raging within the Church today. I have heard from several of you over this past week, expressing confusion and seeking some clarification about the division which has occurred between the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Russia.
What is occurring is both historic and extremely personal… it is important for Orthodox Christians to understand what is going on.
Let’s start by quickly reviewing how the Orthodox Church is structured. When the Apostles began their missionary labors, they established churches with priests and deacons to attend to the needs of the local flock. Bishops were appointed to oversee a given geographical area of multiple churches. The bishops of important cities and nations were given the title of Patriarch and had administrative responsibilities for the churches under their care. There are nine Patriarchs governing the Orthodox Churches around the world along with some other regions governed by Archbishops. All of these bishops work together in council whenever a conflict arises. It is through this fraternal cooperation and love that our Orthodox Church has been guided and guarded for almost 2000 years.
The conflict that is occurring between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow is arising over the issue of the church situation in Ukraine.
Orthodoxy came to Russia in Kiev, with the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir and the baptism of Rus in the late 10th century. The Mother Church which granted bishops to the region was Constantinople. In the first centuries of church life in Russia, the Russian church commemorated the Patriarch of Constantinople as their spiritual head.
The church within Russia grew and the capital of the nation was transferred first to Vladimir and then to Moscow. Eventually the Russian church was granted autocephaly (which means self-governance) and a Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia was appointed to head the Russian church.
The church in Kiev remained under Constantinople for some time, but by the mid-1600’s a decree was made by Constantinople putting Kiev and its region under the care of the Patriarch of Moscow. For more than 300 years, the churches within what is now Ukraine have been under the spiritual care and an integral part of the Russian Church.
Ukraine has been a political hot spot for many centuries. It is at the border of East and West and this land has undergone tremendous political and religious upheaval over the centuries. The western half of the country looks toward Europe and Roman Catholicism; while the eastern half looks toward Russia and Orthodoxy.
Sadly, the global powers of this world see Ukraine as a chess piece on the front lines between the conflicting worldviews and ambitions of the United States and EU on the one hand, and Russia on the other hand.
One of the root causes of the division we are seeing now between Constantinople and Moscow is worldly politics using the Church as a chess piece in the conflict between the Western Powers and Russia.
The President of Ukraine and representatives of nationalist schismatic church groups within Ukraine have joined forces to petition the Patriarch of Constantinople to grant them canonical status as a legitimate church and to declare this new church to be the self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
To the shock of the rest of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople has agreed to proceed along this path… claiming historic rights to the territory of Ukraine, ignoring the existing canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, dismissing the spiritual disciplines which the Russian Church placed upon the schismatics, and unilaterally assuming he has the right to grant legitimacy to these breakaway groups as the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Regardless of who one may think is correct, if there is to be a discussion and decision about the creation of a self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church, such a discussion would need to be done in an Orthodox, conciliar manner. No one hierarch has the authority to make such unilateral decisions… especially in defiance of the advice of his brother bishops. The Patriarch of Constantinople is not the Orthodox Pope - as he seems to fancy himself, and it is shocking and devastating to the unity of the Church for him to be acting in this manner.
Almost all the brother Patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches – in Antioch, Alexandria, Serbia, Jerusalem, Georgia, and elsewhere around the world, have raised their voices in protest of this most unorthodox action of Patriarch Bartholemew.
Seeing the call for discussion going unheeded, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church made the sorrowful but necessary decision this past week to sever communion with the Churches of Constantinople – here in the USA that would primarily mean the churches of the Greek Archdiocese.
This is certainly a painful situation… and it is one which impacts me personally. I have a number of parishioners and I have immediate family members with familial and spiritual ties to the Greek Church. Such divisions cut not just through nations, but impact parishes and families as well.
So, what should we do? What should be our reaction to all of this?
First and foremost, we should pray for the unity and well-being of the Church. We should pray for our bishops… and we should pray for Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople, that he would repent from the disastrous direction he is currently pursuing. Bishops around the world are calling for a council to peacefully and prayerfully discuss and resolve these issues. Let us pray for this as well.
Second, we should not allow this to send us off the rails. The Church has weathered great storms throughout the centuries and our Lord has promised us that She will stand firm until the end of time. We must face the fact that new and greater challenges will continue to buffet the Church. We are entering an age where the Church will have to undergo many tribulations. We need to be humble, we need to be patient, we need to build a steady endurance of spiritual fortitude and trust that God remains in charge.
Third, in this age of information overload, it is very tempting and addicting to chase after all these political viewpoints. The internet is buzzing with opinions and gossip regarding all of this. We can remain informed, but we should guard ourselves from scandal-seeking and preserve peace of soul.
And finally, we should remain loyal servants of the Church and be obedient to the pastoral direction of our bishops. From now until further notice, there can be no concelebrations with clergy of the churches under Constantinople, nor may the laity receive Holy Communion in their churches. Again, in the US that means primarily the churches of the Greek Archdiocese. This is a restriction of concelebration and receiving Sacraments… not a constraint upon friendship and love. These measures are a cause for sorrow, but they are prescribed in order for the truth to be clear and for things to be sorted out. We need to show patience and allow our bishops to do their work.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ… though storms may rage all around us our task and our focus always remain the same. If we are concerned about the spiritual well-being of our beloved Orthodox Church, then let us look no further than the tip of our nose! The spiritual well-being of the Church is a consequence of the spiritual well-being of Her members. Each of us has an opportunity and an obligation to contribute to the well-being of the Body of Christ by working on our own spiritual health. Let us increase our prayers; let us take our stand here in church on Saturday night and Sunday morning; let us pay attention to our actions, words, and thoughts; and let us take up our cross and follow Christ’s commandments of love for God and for our neighbor.
Have no fear and do not be discouraged. As our Lord said: ‘In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!’ May God grant each of you peace and calm in the face of stormy waters and may He grant peace and unity to His Holy Church!