Should the Church Be In Step With the Times? by Archbishop Averky10 min read
Know that we must serve, not the times, but God.”
—St. Athanasius the Great, Letter to Dracontius
IN STEP WITH THE TIMES!—Behold the watchword of all those who in our time so intensely strive to lead the Church of Christ away from Christ, to lead Orthodoxy away from true confession of the Orthodox Christian Faith. Perhaps this watchword does not always nor with everyone resound so loudly, clearly, and openly—this, after all, might push some away!—The important thing is the practical following of this watchword in life, the striving in one way or another, in greater or lesser degree and measure, to put it into practice.
Against this fashionable, “modern” watchword, perilous to souls however it may be proclaimed or however put into practice, openly or undercover, we cannot but fight—we who are faithful sons and representatives of the Russian Church Abroad, the whole essence of whose ideology, in the name of which it exists in the world, is not to be “in step with the times,” but to preserve an unchanging faithfulness to Christ the Saviour, to the true Orthodox Christian Faith and Church.
Let us recall how the Blessed Metropolitan Anthony, founder and first head of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, in his remarkable essay, “How does the Orthodox Faith differ from the Western Confessions?” wrote concerning the profound difference between our Faith and heterodoxy. He finds this profound difference in the fact that the Orthodox Faith teaches how to construct life according to the demands of Christian perfection, whereas heterodoxy takes from Christianity only those things which are, and to the degree to which they are, compatible with the conditions of contemporary cultural life. “Orthodoxy looks upon Christianity as the eternal foundation of true life and demands of everyone to force himself and life until they attain this standard; whereas heterodoxy looks upon the foundations of contemporary cultural life as an unshakable fact. Orthodoxy demands moral heroism—podvig; heterodoxy searches for what in Christianity would be useful to us in our present conditions of life. For Orthodox man, called to eternity beyond the grave, where true life begins, the historically-formed mechanism of contemporary life is an insubstantial phantom; whereas for the heterodox the teaching concerning the future life is a lofty, ennobling idea, an idea which helps one ever better to construct real life here.”
These are golden words, indicating for us clearly and sharply the truly bottomless abyss that separates genuine Christian faith—Orthodoxy—from its mutilation—heterodoxy! In the one is to be found ascetic labor (podvig), a turning to eternity; in the other, a strong attachment to the earth, a faith in the progress of mankind on earth.
Further, as Metropolitan Anthony so sharply and justly sets forth, “the Orthodox Faith is an ascetic faith,” and “the blessed state which the worshippers of the ‘superstition of progress’ (to use the felicitous expression of S. A. Rachinsky) expect on earth, was promised by the Saviour in the future life; but neither the Latins nor the Protestants desire to reconcile themselves to this, for the simple reason—to speak frankly—that they poorly believe in the resurrection and strongly believe in happiness in the present life, which, on the contrary, the Apostles call a vapor that shall vanish away (James 4:14). This is why the pseudo-Christian West does not wish and is unable to understand the renunciation of this life by Christianity, which enjoins us to fight, having put off the old man with his deeds, and having put on the new man, that is renewed unto knowledge after the image of Him that created him (Col. 3: 9-l0).
“If we investigate all the errors of the West.” Vladika Anthony writes further, “both those which have entered into its doctrinal teaching and those present in its morals, we shall see that they are all rooted in a failure to understand Christianity as ascetic labor (podvig) involving the gradual self-perfection of man.”
“Christianity is an ascetic religion,” concludes this excellent, forcefully and perspicuously-written essay. “Christianity is a teaching of constant battling with the passions, of the means and conditions for the gradual assimilation of virtues. These conditions are both internal-ascetic labors—and given from without—our dogmatic beliefs and grace-bestowing sacramental actions, which have one purpose: to heal human sinfulness and raise us to perfection.”
And what do we see now in contemporary “Orthodoxy”—the “Orthodoxy” that has entered into the so-called “Ecumenical Movement”? We see the complete negation of the above-cited holy truths; in other words: renunciation of true Orthodoxy in the interest of spiritual fusion with the heterodox West. The ”Orthodoxy” that has placed itself on the path of “Ecumenism” thinks not of raising contemporary life, which is constantly declining with regard to religion and morals, to the level of the Gospel commandments and the demands of the Church, but rather of ”adapting” the Church herself to the level of this declining life.
This path of actual renunciation of the very essence of Holy Orthodoxy—ascetic labor, for the purpose of uprooting the passions and implanting the virtues—was taken in their time by the partisans of the so-called “Living Church” or ”Renovated Church”. This movement immediately spread from Russia, which had been cast down into the dust by the ferocious atheists, to other Orthodox countries as well. Still fresh in our memory is the “Pan-Orthodox Congress” convened by Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios IV of sorry memory in 1923, at which were devised such “reforms” as a married episcopate, remarriage of priests, the abolition of monasticism and the fasts, abbreviation of Divine services, suppression of special dress for clergy, etc.
Notwithstanding the collapse at that time of these impious designs, the dark powers were not, of course, pacified, and continued from that time their obstinate and perseverant activity, finding for themselves obedient tools in the ranks of the hierarchy of various Local Orthodox Churches. At the present time also, by the allowance of God, they have attained great success: almost all the Local Orthodox Churches have already entered into the “Ecumenical Movement,” which has set as its purpose the abolition of all presently-existing churches—including, of course, the Orthodox Church—and the establishment of some kind of absolutely new “church,” which will be completely “in step with the times,” having cast away as useless rags, as something “obsolete” and “behind the times,” all the genuine foundations of true Christianity, and first of all, of course, asceticism, this being the indispensable condition for the main purpose of Christianity: the uprooting of sinful passions and the implanting of Christian virtues.
We have before us, as an example, an official document of this sort, belonging to the Local Church of Serbia: the journal Theology, published by the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Belgrade (8th year, issues 1 and 2 for 1964). In this journal, we find a lead article literally entitled: “The Necessity for the Codification and Publication of a New Collection of Canons of the Orthodox Church.” The author of this article, while cunningly affirming that “the ideal principles of the Church will remain everywhere and always unchanging,” nonetheless attempts to prove that the collection of canons of the Orthodox Church is only the product of a time long since passed into eternity, and therefore that it does not answer to the demands of contemporary life and must be abolished and replaced by another. This new collection of canons, observe, “must be brought into agreement with the fundamental principles of life,” with which the Church supposedly “has always reckoned.” “Our time,” says this cunning author, “is different in many respects from the time of the Ecumenical Councils, at which these canons were composed, and therefore these canons cannot now be applied.”
Let us look now and see precisely which canons it is that this modernist author considers obsolete and subject to abrogation:
—The 9th canon of the Holy Apostles, which demands that the faithful, after entering the church, should remain at the Divine service to the end, and should not cause disorder by walking about the church.
—The 80th canon of the Council of Trullo, which punishes clergy by deposition, and laymen with excommunication, for failure to attend church for three successive Sundays without some important reason.
—The 24th canon of the Council of Trullo, which prohibits clergy and monks from visiting race tracks and other entertainments; to this canon the author adds the entirely naive, strange remark that it was only in earlier times that such amusements were places of depravity and vice, while now they are supposedly “centers of culture and education.”(?!)
—The 54th canon of the Holy Apostles, which prohibits clergy, without unavoidable necessity, from entering a tavern; here again it somehow seems that previously the tavern was some different kind of establishment from what it is now.
—The 77th canon of the Council of Trullo and the 30th canon of the Council of Laodicea, which prohibit Christian men from bathing together with women; why it is necessary to acknowledge these canons too as “obsolete” is completely incomprehensible!
—The 96th canon of the Council of Trullo, which condemns artificial curling of the hair and in general all adornment of oneself with various kinds of finery “for the enticement of unstable souls”—instead of “adorning oneself with virtues and with good and pure morals”; this canon in our times, it would seem, has not only not become “obsolete,” it has become especially imperative, if we call to mind the indecent, shameless women’s fashions of today, which are completely unsuitable for Christian women.
This is sufficient for us to see what purpose it is that the aforementioned “reform” in our Orthodox Church has in view, with what aim there is proposed the convocation of an Eighth Ecumenical Council, about which all “modernists” so dream, already having a foretaste of the “carefree life” that will then be openly permitted and legitimized for all!
But let us reflect more deeply upon what is the terrible essence of all these demands for the abrogation of supposedly “obsolete” canonical rules. It is this: these contemporary church “reformers” who now so impudently raise their heads even in the bosom of our Orthodox Church itself (and terrible to say, their number includes not merely clergy, but even eminent hierarchs!) accept contemporary life with all its monstrous, immoral manifestations as an unshakable fact (which is, as we have seen above, not at all an Orthodox, but a heterodox, Western conception!), and they wish to abrogate all those canonical rules which precisely characterize Orthodoxy as an ascetic faith that calls to ascetic labor, in the name of the uprooting of sinful passions and the implanting of Christian virtues. This is a terrible movement, perilous for our Faith and Church; it wishes to cause, in the expression of Christ the Saviour, the salt to lose its savor; it is a movement directed toward the overthrow and annihilation of the true Church of Christ by means of the cunning substitution for it of a false church.
The above-mentioned article in the Serbian theological journal is still discreet, refraining from complete openness. It speaks of the permissibility in principle of marriage for bishops, but in life we hear ever more frequent and persistent talk of far worse—namely, of the supposed inapplicability in our times of all those canonical rules which demand of candidates to the priesthood and of priests themselves a pure and unblemished moral life; or, to speak more simply, of the permissibility for them of that terrifying depravity into the abyss of which contemporary mankind more and more plunges itself.
It is one thing to sin and repent, knowing and acknowledging that one is sinning and is in need of repentance and correction of life. It is something else again to legitimize lawlessness, to sanction sin, lulling thus one’s conscience and thus abolishing the very foundations of the Church. To this, we have no right, and it is a most grievous crime before God, the Holy Church, and the souls of the faithful who seek eternal salvation.
And for how long, to what limits may we permit ourselves to go on such a slippery path, abrogating the Church canons which uphold Christian morality? Right now in America and, as we hear, in places also in other countries which have accepted contemporary “culture,” there is increasing propaganda for the official abrogation of marriage and the legalization in place of marriage of “free love”; the use of contraceptive pills is being sanctioned for married couples, and even for the unmarried, since marriage supposedly has as its purpose not the procreation of children, but “love”; legal recognition is being prepared for the heinous, unnatural passion of homosexuality, all the way to the establishment for homosexuals of a special church wedding rite (proposal of an Anglican bishop); etc., etc.
And so? Should our Church too follow this fashionable path— “in step with the times,” so as not to be left behind the march of life? But what kind of “church” will this be that will allow itself all this, or even merely look at it with all-forgiving condescension? It will be no longer a church at all, but a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah, which will not escape, sooner or later, the terrible chastisement of God.
We must not allow ourselves to be deluded and deceived, for we do not need such a “church,” or rather “false church.” We may ourselves be weak, and feeble, and we may often sin, but we will not allow the Church canons to be abrogated, for then it will become necessary to acknowledge the very Gospel of Christ, by which contemporary men do not wish to live, as “obsolete,” as “not answering to the spirit of the times,” and abrogate it!
But the Gospel of Christ, together with all the canons of the Church, as well as the Church ordinances, outline for us that Christian ideal toward which we must strive if we desire for ourselves eternal salvation. We cannot allow a lowering of this ideal for the gratification of sinful passions and desires, a blasphemous abuse of these holy things.
Whatever “reforms” all these contemporary criminal “reformers” may desire, the truly-believing Orthodox Church consciousness cannot acknowledge or accept them. And whatever the apostates from true Orthodoxy, from the ascetic Faith, may do, we will not allow the modernization of our Church, and we will NOT go “in step with the times”!
From Orthodox Russia, Nov. 28, 1966. This article also appeared in The Orthodox Word, III, pp. 182-188.