Looking back over the last one hundred years of Church history, we see no acts of primary importance that have been undertaken by the Orthodox Church as a whole, no Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Councils expressing the Mind of Christ on the huge upheavals that have taken place in Church life in this period. However, we have seen at least two acts by Local Councils that are of extreme importance and significance, but which remain highly controversial. The first of these is the anathema against Soviet power hurled by Patriarch Tikhon and the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1918. And the second is the anathema against Ecumenism hurled by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Mansonville, Canada in 1983. It could be argued – although I shall not argue this in this article – that if the whole Orthodox world were to agree to sign up to these two conciliar acts, and follow through their logical consequences in a bold and consistent manner, then the main problems of Orthodox Church unity could be resolved fairly quickly…
The subject of this article is the 1983 anathema against ecumenism: its historical context, its exact content, and the main arguments, some crude and some subtle, that have prevented its being given the critical importance it should have in the ordering of contemporary Church life.
The problem of ecumenism had been on the agenda of the Orthodox Church for a very long time before the convening of the 1983 Council. The first overture by a western Protestant confession to the Orthodox Church had been made already in the late sixteenth century. In the early eighteenth century, the English Non-Jurors started talks with a view to possible ecclesiastical union with the Russian Church. In the 1850s an American Episcopalian mission under Pastor Jung had discussions with Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. A little later, the ordination of an Englishman, Stephen Hatherley, to the priesthood for his English parish by the Patriarchate of Constantinople inevitably raised questions about the relationship between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. It was the Anglicans who took the lead in creating institutional forms for ecumenical dialogue in the pre-war and inter-war years, culminating in the foundation of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. The WCC united many Protestant and Orthodox Churches (mainly the Greek ones) in a permanent forum which implicitly – and only a little later, explicitly – recognized each member-church of the organization to be a part of the True Church of Christ. The Moscow Patriarchate abstained from membership at this time for political reasons (Stalin thought that ecumenism was a plot engineered by the Anglo-Saxons and the Vatican), but at the end of the 1950s – again for political reasons, at the insistence of the KGB – it decided to join the organization, sending two senior metropolitans, Nikodim of Leningrad and Anthony of Sourozh, to the New Delhi General Assembly in 1961.
From an Orthodox point of view, the WCC entered into a critical phase of its existence during the 1960s when a series of heretical statements were officially endorsed by all the member-churches. At the same time, the Vatican entered the ecumenical process as a result of the liberal decrees of the Second Vatican Council – but without becoming a member of the WCC. In response to these developments, an anti-ecumenical movement arose within the Local Orthodox Churches. However, this movement proved ineffective – and has proved ineffective to this day – in persuading the leaders of World Orthodoxy to renounce ecumenism. It was therefore left to the True Orthodox Church, which had broken communion with “World Orthodoxy” for reasons of the faith in the 1920s, to pass sentence on what had now clearly become an anti-Orthodox, openly heretical movement. In 1964 Metropolitan Philaret of New York, first-hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad issued a “Sorrowful Epistle” to the hierarchs of World Orthodoxy on the occasion of the “lifting of the anathemas” between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem. Further well-argued “Sorrowful Epistles” followed, but the general reaction of World Orthodoxy was simply to ignore them.
Two ecumenical events combined to elicit a more powerful response from the True Orthodox Church. The first took place in 1982 when an inter-denominational eucharistic service was composed at a conference in Lima, Peru, in which the Protestant and Orthodox representatives to the WCC agreed that the baptism, Eucharist and ordinations of all denominations were valid and acceptable. The second came in 1983, at the Vancouver General Assembly of the WCC, which began with a pagan rite performed by local Indians and contained prayer services in which Orthodox hierarchs, as well as representatives of many non-Christian religions, took part.
The Vancouver Assembly unanimously approved a statement entitled “My Neighbor’s Faith and Mine, Theological Discoveries Through Interfaith Dialogue: A Study Guide” (Geneva: WCC, 1986). After claiming the need for “a more adequate theology of religions,” the statement declared “that in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the entire human family has been united to God in an irrevocable bond and covenant. The saving presence of God’s activity in all creation and human history comes to its focal point in the event of Christ. . . because we have seen and experienced goodness, truth, and holiness among followers of other paths and ways than that of Jesus Christ…, we find ourselves recognizing a need to move beyond a theology which confines salvation to the explicit personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”
When the Greek Old Calendarist Metropolitan Gabriel of the Cyclades attempted to address the Vancouver Assembly, he was not allowed to speak by the ecumenists. The New York Times, however, published his report, which included the following words: “Modern ecumenism is the reflection of the latest radical, atheistic and anti-Christian anthropomorphism which has as its principle that God is as necessary to man as man is to God. This radical anthropomorphism continues to struggle through the WCC to make the salvific message of Christ simply a servile element of the socio-political and earthly needs of man Thus it struggles for the actualization of the unity of the Christian world without Christ, who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ of the Church and the faithful. Dogmatic and ethical minimalism, spiritual nihilism, humanistic pacifism, and horizontal social activism lead to a union of the Christian world without Christ. So these attempts of the WCC constitute the modern blasphemy of the Holy Spirit par excellence and declare a deep crisis of faith in the Western Christian world…”
The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR), led by Metropolitan Philaret of New York, also happened to be meeting in Canada at this time, and condemned this latest and most extreme manifestation of ecumenism as follows: “In its decision of 28 July / 10 August, our Council explained that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia does not participate in the World Council of Churches insofar as the latter attempts to represent those assembled in it, representatives of religions differing in their opinions, as though they had some sort of unity in faith. In reality, though, this very position is a lie, inasmuch as they, members of various confessions and sects, have not given up their points of disagreement with each other, much less with the Orthodox Church, in dogmas and in fundamental attitudes. In the name of unifying formulas, these differences of opinion are not destroyed but are just set aside. Instead of the unshakable truths of the faith, they try to see only opinions, not obligatory for anyone. In reply to the confession of the one Orthodox Faith, they say together with Pilate: ‘What is truth?’ And the nominally Orthodox members of the Ecumenical Movement more and more deserve the reproach of the Angel of the Church of Laodicea: ‘I know your works: you are neither hot nor cold: O if only you were hot or cold’ (Revelation 3.15). A clear manifestation of such false union was the serving of the so-called Lima Liturgy…”
Then the Synod anathematised ecumenism and the ecumenists, declaring: “To those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ’s Church is divided into so-called ‘branches’ which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all ‘branches’ or sects or denominations, and even religions will be united in one body; and who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or advocate, disseminate , or defend their new heresy of Ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, Anathema.”
As was to be expected, the anathema was ignored by World Orthodoxy. But it was welcomed with joy by the True Orthodox not only in ROCOR but also in Greece and on Mount Athos. Of course, there were criticisms, even from within the True Orthodox camp. Thus some criticized the anathema for not spelling out precisely which bodies fell under it and were therefore outside the True Church. Perhaps it would have been better to name some names. However, many valid anathemas have not named names, as quick look at the Order for the Triumph of Orthodoxy will make clear. And in any case, the implication of this anathema was clear: all Orthodox Churches that were fully participating members of the WCC fell under it. As I.M., a Russian layman, wrote: “There is no heresy without heretics and their practical activity. The WCC in its declarations says: The Church confesses, the Church teaches, the Church does this, the Church does that. In this way the WCC witnesses that it does not recognize itself to be simply a council of churches, but the one church. And all who are members of the WCC are members of this one false church, this synagogue of Satan. And by this participation in the WCC all the local Orthodox churches fall under the ROCOR anathema of 1983 and fall away from the True Church. In their number is the Moscow Patriarchate…”
Another, more substantial criticism came from the ROCOR priest Alexander Lebedev (who later joined the Moscow Patriarchate). He attacked the validity of the anathema, calling the idea that the anathema strikes down all ecumenists “the heresy of universal jurisdiction”. His view was that the anathema could have power only over members of ROCOR, not over World Orthodoxy as a whole. In other words, an old woman in ROCOR who confessed ecumenism might come under the anathema, but not the Patriarch of Moscow or Constantinople…
The present writer replied to Fr. Alexander:- “… It seems to me that you confuse two things: the Church as an external organization, and the Church as a mystical organism, to use the terminology of Hieromartyr Catacomb Bishop Mark (Novoselov) (+1938). It seems to me that you are right as regards the Church as an external organization but wrong as regards the Church as a mystical organism. Let me explain.
“An anathema excludes the person anathematized from the holy mysteries, from membership of the Holy Church. In the first place, of course, that applies to the local Church of which that person is a member. It applies to other Churches only to the extent that the leaders of those other Churches agree with the original anathema and ‘sign up to it’, as it were. Thus the heretic Arius was originally anathematized by the Bishop of Alexandria, which meant that he was excluded from receiving the sacraments throughout the Church of Alexandria. However, not all the bishops of neighboring Churches agreed with this anathema, so Arius was able to receive communion in other Local Churches. To this extent, the anathema was only of local significance. It required the convening of the First Ecumenical Council before Arius was anathematized “universally” – and even then, the anathema was not universally received, as the history of the Church in the next fifty years demonstrates.
“It is a different matter when we consider an anathema sub specie aeternitatis, in its mystical, super-terrestrial significance. From that point of view, the anathematization of a heretic begins in the heavens. Thus even before Arius had been “locally” anathematized by St. Alexander of Alexandria, the Lord appeared to his predecessor, St. Peter, with a torn cloak, and in answer to St. Peter’s question: “O Creator, who has torn Thy tunic?”, replied: “The mindless Arius; he has separated from Me people whom I had obtained with My Blood” (St. Demetrius of Rostov, Lives of the Saints, November 25). So not only Arius but all those who followed him, had been separated from the Church by the anathema of Her First Bishop, the Lord Jesus Christ, years (or rather, aeons) before even the first “local” anathema had been uttered. All heresies and heretics are anathematized “from all eternity” by the eternal Lord, for just as every truth is approved by the Truth Himself from all eternity, so is every lie condemned by Him from all eternity, being condemned with ‘the father of lies’ to the Gehenna of fire (Revelation 22.15).
“The task of hierarchs on earth is to discern the decisions of the heavenly Church, and then apply them on earth, in space and time. As Bede the Venerable (+735) writes: “The keys of the Kingdom designate the actual knowledge and power of discerning who are worthy to be received into the Kingdom, and who should be excluded from it as being unworthy” (Sermon on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, P.L. 94, col. 219). From this point of view, it matters not a jot whether a heretic is anathematized locally or universally since he has already been anathematized by the heavenly Church. Or rather, it matters in this sense: if the heretic has been anathematized locally, but this anathema is not accepted by the rest of the Church, then the rest of the Church is under grave danger of falling under this same anathema. For the local anathema, if it is just, is the reflection of a heavenly anathema; and the anathema of the heavenly Church is universal….
“This explains why, when local Churches anathematized a heresy, they never qualified the anathema (as you, Fr. Alexander, would like to qualify ROCOR’s anathema against ecumenism) by saying: “but of course, this applies only to the heretics in our local Church”. On the contrary: history shows that local Churches freely anathematized heretics, not only in their own Churches but also in others. Thus Nestorius, a heretic of the Church of Constantinople, was first condemned by the Church of Rome under St. Celestine; the Monothelite heretics were first condemned by a local Synod, again, of the Church of Rome; and the Papist heretics were first condemned by a local Synod of the Church of Constantinople.
“Consider what St. Maximus said of the Monothelites: “In addition to having excommunicated themselves from the Church, they have been deposed and deprived of the priesthood at the local council which took place recently in Rome. What Mysteries, then, can they perform? Or what spirit will descend upon those who are ordained by them?” Note that the saint says that the heretics have excommunicated themselves; for as the Apostle Paul writes, “he that is such is subverted, and sins, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3.11). But the heretics’ self-condemnation and self-exclusion from the Church as a mystical organism must be followed by their exclusion from the Church as an external organization, lest others be infected with their heresy. Hence the need for councils of bishops to anathematize them, following the rule: “A heretic after the first and second admonition reject” (Titus 3.10), and: “If he refuses to listen to the Church, let him be unto you as a heathen and a publican” (Matthew 18.17). And clearly St. Maximus considered that the anathema of the local Church of Rome had validity throughout the Ecumenical Church.
“Administrative matters and moral falls are the business of local Churches and councils. However, heresies of their very nature are of universal significance, having the potential to infect the whole Church. That is why the appearance of a heresy in one local Church is not the business only of that local Church, but of all the local Churches – and every local Church can and must anathematize it.
“Even the anathema of single bishopric has universal power and validity if it is uttered in the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the eternal Truth. Thus in 1069 the bishops of the Metropolitanate of York, in the north of England, solemnly anathematized both the Pope of Rome and his stooge, William the Conqueror, the first papist king of England. All the evidence is that they did not know that the Church of Constantinople had already anathematized Rome in 1054. So they were not simply confirming the word of a higher authority. They did not need a higher authority. They were successors of the apostles, with the power to bind and to loose. And they used that power, not for personal gain (on the contrary: they paid for their boldness with their lives), even against the most senior bishop in Christendom
“In the same way, in 1983 the Sobor of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad, using the power to bind and to loose given them by the Bishop of bishops, the Lord Jesus Christ, translated onto earth, into space and time, the completely binding and universally applicable decision already arrived at from all eternity by the Council of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Ecumenism is, was and always will be a heresy, indeed ‘the heresy of heresies’, and the ecumenist heretics are, were and always will be outside the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. The decision of the ROCOR Sobor in 1983, confirmed with no change to its universal wording in 1998, expelled these already self-condemned and Divinely condemned heretics also from the external organization of the Church – and woe to any man, of whatever Church, who despises that decision, for he will then surely fall under the same anathema…”
Another influential attack on the anathema came from the Old Calendarist Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and File. Writing his “Ecclesiological Theses” in 1984, the year after the 1983 anathema, he did not mention that anathema by name. But there can be no doubt that that was the work’s intended target.
Cyprian agreed that ecumenism was a heresy and that the World Orthodox were ecumenist heretics. However, he argued that they were not outside the True Church, but were “sick” or “ailing” members of it and that their sacraments remained valid. In other words, while agreeing with the first part of the 1983 anathema, he rejected the second part, which condemned those “who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation”. In fact, strictly speaking, Cyprian himself fell under the sword of this second part of the anathema. For while accepting that the World Orthodox were heretics, he did not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the True Church from those of the World Orthodox but rather accepted their baptism and Eucharist as effectual for salvation.
Cyprian’s main argument in defense of this position was that only “Unifying” Councils – that is, Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Councils at which the heretics are present – have the power to expel heretics from the Church. But since ecumenism has not been condemned by any such “Unifying” Council, the ecumenists remain uncondemned and therefore inside the True Church. It is right and proper to “wall oneself off” from these heretics in accordance with the 15th Canon of the First-and-Second Council of Constantinople (861), but not to condemn them as outside the Church and graceless.
We have already seen that this thesis in relation to Local Councils is false: there have been many Local Councils of the Orthodox Church from the earliest centuries that have expelled heretics from the Church. If it was true, then we should have to conclude not only that very many Local Councils of the Orthodox Church had exceeded their competence in attempting to expel heretics from their midst, but also that at the present time, when there has been no “Unifying” Council for hundreds of years and no such Council seems capable of being convened in the foreseeable future, the Church is deprived of the power to bind heretics! An even more startling consequence is that if the Antichrist were to arise in our midst at this time, we would not be able to expel him from the Church!
Cyprianism was officially accepted as the ecclesiology of the Russian Church Abroad in 1994, causing Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) to opine that ROCOR had fallen under her own anathema (of 1983). And there can be no doubt that Cyprianism was one of the major causes (although by no means the only cause) facilitating the fall of most of ROCOR into World Orthodoxy in 2007… Since then, the Russian True Orthodox Church under Archbishop Tikhon has again reaffirmed the rejection of Cyprianism and loyalty to the 1983 anathema in her Council in Odessa in 2008…
We may end this article by examining a third kind of argument against the 1983 anathema which is not so much dogmatic or canonical in character, as “pastoral”. As such, it cannot be considered to represent a serious objection to the dogmatic truth and validity of the 1983 anathema; nor do its proponents present them as such. Nevertheless, it is influential and may even be considered to be widespread, and so needs to be considered…
The argument goes something like this: “We do not deny that the World Orthodox are heretics and that they deserve to be anathematized. Nor do we deny the validity of the 1983 anathema. Nevertheless, we consider the anathema to be pastorally ineffective and even divisive. You cannot simply tell the Russian people that they have no grace and expect to be taken seriously. We have to apply ‘economy’ and avoid the question of grace altogether for the sake of the salvation of the greater number of people…
Something like this argument was employed back in the 1970s and 80s by Bishop Gregory Grabbe, as we see in these reminiscences of his daughter, Matushka Anastasia Shatilova: “[Metropolitan Philaret] had especially many quarrels with Archbishop Anthony of Geneva… mainly on ecumenist questions… with the Serbs, the Antiochians and all kinds… Unfortunately, Archbishop Anthony was distinguished for his very sharp character and wrote several very boorish letters, to which the Metropolitan replied a little sharply… Vladyka Gregory was distinguished by somewhat greater diplomacy and was afraid that to speak in this way could create too great problems… [and] restrained the declarations of the Holy Hierarch Philaret concerning the lack of grace in the MP. For example, he used to say: ‘… tell 60 million Russian people that they are not chrismated, and have been baptized only according to the laymen’s rite…’ The Metropolitan was prepared to say this, but Vladyka Gregory thought that for the sake of Church construction it would be more correct not to put it so sharply…”
Now, as we have seen, by 1994 Bishop Gregory had changed his tune to the extent of expressing the fear that ROCOR, by accepting Cyprianism and ignoring the 1983 anathema, had actually fallen under that anathema. Evidently, he realized late in life that the price of ignoring – or rather: disobeying – the conciliar decisions of the Church could be the destruction of the whole Local Church organization. Nor did he live to see the real collapse that took place in 2007…
It may well be the case that from a pastoral point of view it is not necessary, and would even be harmful, to proclaim the 1983 anathema in certain situations. Our interlocutor may for one or another reason be unable or unready to discuss or absorb or believe in this teaching. In such a situation, to proclaim the whole truth would be at best tactless, at worst casting pearls before swine, at best.
But the fact that we cannot or should not proclaim the whole truth the whole of the time does not remove from us the responsibility to speak the truth and nothing but the truth – the whole of the time. Thus if asked directly, we should confess the truth without shame or qualification: the World Orthodox are outside the Church and their sacraments are graceless. To give any other impression, either by our words or our deeds (for example, by accepting a blessing from a World Orthodoxy priest), would be to betray the truth, to disobey the Church and to mislead our interlocutor in a matter that may be vital to his salvation.
The Lord said: “Let your yea be yea, and your nay nay” (Matthew 5.37). And St. Paul said: “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” (I Corinthians 14.8). The witness of the True Orthodox has been severely divided and compromised in recent years by attempts to speak with forked tongues on the question of the 1983 anathema. Are the World Orthodox really Orthodox? No. Do they have valid sacraments? No. We can assert this with full confidence on the basis of many teachings and decisions of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, but especially on her most authoritative pronouncement in recent times, the anathema against ecumenism of the Council of Bishop of the Russian Church Abroad in 1983. That Council contained two bishops whose relics have been shown to be incorrupt many years after their death – St. Philaret of New York, and Bishop Constantine of Great Britain. In this way, the Holy Spirit has witnessed to the truth of their confession and the holiness of their life. We must obey the voice of holy men speaking through the Holy Spirit. The trumpet of their words make no uncertain sounds, but prepare us for battle with the enemies of the Holy Church. Only by heeding their call can we be assured of victory and of not falling into the abyss with the rest of this world that lies in iniquity. For “thus it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28).
May 12/25, 2015.
Week of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.
Saints Epiphanius of Cyprus and Germanus of Constantinople.