A Polemic About the Church

Archpriest Nicolas Afanasiev, Archim. Kiprian (Kern), Fr. Alexander Schmeman at St. Serge Theological Institute, Paris. 1950s

In 1948 St. Job of Pochaev Printshop in Jordanville, NY published  Fr. Michael Polsky’s monograph, Kanonicheskoe polozhenie Vysheii tserkovnoi vlasti v SSSR i za granitsei. This publication marked the resumption of pre-war polemics among Russian church emigres about canonical principles regarding church organization in the diaspora.

With the publication of this article by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, we begin to review various articles produced during this polemics, which persisted until the early 1960s. With the passage of time, we can study this rich canon law legacy dispassionately, in its historical context, rather than trying to impose a partisan adjudication of the issues in question.

“Tserkovnaia Zhizn” (Church Life), a publication of the Bishop Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia based in Munich, published an article by Protopresbyter George Grabbe on “The Canonical Foundation of the Russian Church Abroad” (“Kanonicheskoe osnovanie Russkoi Zarubezhnoi Tserkvi”, nos. 10, 11, 12, 1949, pp. 36-47). It was intended as a response by an authoritative representative of the ROCOR Synod (Father George is the Chancellor of the Synod) to the call and a resolution of our Diocesan Assembly. The article presents “canonical foundations for the establishment and existence” of the jurisdiction of the Synod in Munich.

A careful reading of this article cannot help convince a reader that the polemic between the two “jurisdictions” has long surpassed the area of purely organizational matters, and has turned into a polemic about the very nature of the Church. Behind the polemic escalations and exaggerations from both sides that inevitably increase in the heat of the argument what emerges with truly alarming clarity is the disagreement over the understanding of the very basis of ecclesiology, i.e. the teaching about the Church. And while it is essential to resist “polemics for the sake of polemics” with all our might, this disagreement touches on such deep and fundamental questions that it needs to be fully comprehended.

Prot. G. Grabbe, following Bishop Nathaniel 1, refuses to recognize the local principle as the only normative foundation of church order. Yet while Bishop Nathaniel agreed that this principle remained the norm of church organization, and only rejected its “absolutization” 2, Fr. Grabbe goes much further and denies it completely as a canonical criterion, even a limited one. He relies on the following words of prof. S. V. Troitsky that he quotes, “The foundation of the church order is not territorial but personal… While the episcopal jurisdiction is usually limited to a particular territory, it is not due to any canonical principles, but due to practical conveniences, to the church oikonomia.”

In other words, while Bishop Nathaniel, recognizing the local principle as the norm, considered the possibility of departing from it due to oikonomia 3, Fr. George Grabbe, following S. V. Troitsky, states the exact opposite, that the local principle itself is the “oikonomical” departure from the “personal” (or “national”, see pp. 38-39) basis. This apparent contradiction clearly illustrates the feebleness and ambiguity of the canonical justifications of Synodal jurisdiction 4 , and proves once again that canonical arguments are presented there as a post factum attempt to justify the direction chosen, in fact, for reasons that have nothing to do with canonical order. Herein the different “systems of reference” of our polemic are demonstrated: we look in the canons for the norms of the church order, while the representatives of the Synodal jurisdiction are seeking precedents which can give it a canonical foundation. This, in turn, points to a much deeper disagreement, a disagreement of ecclesiological nature.

Before addressing this key aspect of our polemic we should say a few words about the canonical precedents invoked by both Fr. G. Grabbe and Bishop Nathaniel. It is important because it concerns the very principle of the interpretation of the canons. We believe that such interpretation must be based on understanding the historical context contemporary to a particular canon. And if this is the case, then first and foremost the interpretation by Fr. G. Grabbe (based on the articles of Prof. S. V. Troitsky) of the 1st Canon of the Council of Constantinople of 879 cannot be justified. It is known that this Council concluded a long unrest in the Byzantine Church caused by the struggle of the so-called Ignatians against Patriarch Photios. Allies of former Patriarch Ignatios deposed by Patriarch Photius made their way to Rome and prevailed upon Pope Nicholas I to condemn and depose Patriarch Photius and those bishops who had recognized him. The Council of 879, which has crowned, after a temporary victory of the Ignatians and the “Ignatian” Council of 869-870, the triumph of Patriarch Photios, needed to

1) defend the Church of Constantinople from the possible renewal by the Ignatians of their intrigues in Rome, and

2) affirm the ecclesial peace between Constantinople and Rome. This

This dual purpose defines the meaning of the 1st Canon. On one hand, it obligates the bishops of Rome and Constantinople to mutually recognize the excommunication of clerics and laypeople by each side, even if those excommunicated find themselves outside the limits of their Church. The acuity of unrest was precisely demonstrated by the fact that the Pope had received in communion the Constantinople refugee clerics, ignoring the fact of their deposition by Photios. On the other hand this canon, pointedly maintaining a strict equality in the pronouncements on Rome and Constantinople, emphasizes the equality of the two sees, which has been violated by Rome’s unilateral “papist” decrees related to the Church of Constantinople. 5  In short, this canon emphasizes in the application to a very complicated and delicate situation the fundamental principle that a cleric or a layperson excommunicated by their bishop cannot be received and reinstated by a unilateral action of another bishop. It points out that the deposition maintains its validity outside the limits of the church in which it has been pronounced, as opposed to allowing the “jurisdiction” of a bishop outside of his territory. Fr. G. Grabbe, following Troitsky, has no historical basis for drawing from this canon the idea of the existence on the territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople “whole extraterritorial dioceses” (p. 38), moreover subjected to Rome, because “ecclesiastically and culturally they were more connected to Rome than to Constantinople” (p. 39.)  How can one seriously state in a responsible article on canonical matters that in the ninth century it was possible “to belong to the Vine of the Universal Church as a branch of the Roman Church, although residing on the territory of Byzantium” (p. 39)? We do not have any evidence about even a single such instance, and if the articles of Prof. Troitsky provide a reason to draw such conclusions form the 1st Canon of the Council of 879, then this is simply an example of a very cavalier interpretation of the canonical texts and historical reality. On the other hand, one can find many proofs of the inviolate character of the local principle in the ninth century. Let us, for example, consider the existence of many Greek monasteries in contemporary Rome. In spite of many “church and cultural” connections to Byzantium, they were all under the jurisdiction of Rome, and there wasn’t any question of their subjugation to Constantinople. The Greek igumen of one of these monasteries was a legate, or an official representative of the Pope, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787. Let us also remember that when during the height of the dispute of Patriarch Photios with Pope Nicholas the Byzantine teachers of the Slavs Sts. Cyril and Methodios arrived in Moravia, the territory subjugated to the Roman Church, they “automatically” entered the jurisdiction of Rome, although they were Greek and members of the clergy of Constantinople. On the other hand, if, as Fr. G. Grabbe insists that “church and cultural” connections would indeed determine the church jurisdiction, then where else other than on Mount Athos, a shared asset of the Orthodox East, could we expect the application of such “national” principle of church order? And yet, in spite of the existence of true national spiritual centers on the Holy Mountain, no one there revolts about the unity of its church jurisdiction. Similarly indefensible, both historically and canonically, is a repeated reference to the 39th Canon of the Council of Trullo, which supplemented by canonical activity the dogmatic pronouncements of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, about the Church of Cyprus. Moreover, this canon proves exactly the opposite than what Bishop Nathaniel and Prot. G. Grabbe conclude from it. When Cypriot Christians with their archbishop fled the island in the wake of the Arab conquest, Emperor Justinian II granted them a territory in Hellespont and built the city of Nova Justiniana, while the Fathers of the Council of Trullo by the 39th canon bestowed upon the archbishop of that city the rights and privileges of the Church of Cyprus. The local principle was thus strictly adhered to, because the archbishop of the Nova Justiniana had jurisdiction over all the dioceses on that territory, including the ancient Metropolis of Cyzikos. 6

Therefore this canon can be utilized only as confirmation of the local principle rather than an example of its violation by the ancient church.

Finally, regarding the “representations” of one Church on the territory of another, a fact that is so belabored by Bishop Nathaniel, Fr. G. Grabbe, and Fr. M. Polsky, we have already noted that it is impossible to consider this example as a canonical norm. For instance, the ancient church knew the institute of apocrisarii, a kind of ambassadors of one Church to the primate of another, but does it mean that it had a jurisdiction on a foreign territory? And the representations fulfilled that same role of connections or embassies, or else the meeting of financial needs (such as, for example, the Athonite representations in Russia.)

Yet, as has been mentioned earlier, the essence of this polemic is not exhausted by the interpretation of one or another canonical text, although the aforementioned examples of such interpretation can be considered at the very least odd in the documents whose stated purpose is to give a canonical basis of a position. The real disagreement is deeper, and the difference in the approach to the canons is but an external manifestation of the difference in the approach to the church and its life itself. We seek in the canons, first and foremost, the norm of the church order, which, no matter how “difficult”, would serve as a guiding principle of our life. Therefore it is in this common return to this norm that we see the only ecclesiastical solution to all contemporary divisions, and not just our Russian divisions, but of the entire state of complete autonomy, scatter, and fragmentation in which the Orthodox Church finds itself. By offering the local principle we do not pursue some insidious and dark purpose, as our opponents unfortunately continue to insinuate, 7  but because such is the objective canonical and dogmatic condition for the incarnation of the church in all her catholic fullness. We do not affirm this in a “cavalier way” (as Fr. G. Grabbe considers possible to characterize the statement of the Diocesan Assembly), but by striving, to the best of our ability, to discern the meaning and spirit of the Tradition. On the other hand we are not attempting to adjust this norm to correspond to our own situation, since we are well aware that our own existence as a Russian Exarchate in parallel to the Greek is also defined along the national lines. We say that such is the Tradition of the church, and that this is what it requires of us if we are truly striving to embody the Orthodox dogma about the church in its fullness. We also know that it requires time, breaking of many habitual views and modes, and first and foremost a spiritual feat – prayer, patience, and love. Calling upon others to walk on the path of the fullness of ecclesiology, we call ourselves to the same thing first and foremost. We believe that divisions can be overcome only by the creative return to the living sources of the church Tradition, by the true unity, rather than the formal “compromises” or “good relations.” Yet the defenders of the Synod Abroad direct all their energy toward finding precedents of the violation of this norm, which can be utilized to justify and substantiate an obvious deviation from it. We see the true value of these precedents. But what is even more important is that the adherents of the Munich jurisdiction de-facto arrive at the acknowledgement of the relative nature of all norms of church order, and that is what constitutes, in our opinion, the most dangerous fault of their ecclesiastical argument. Let us try to clarify this thought.

Let us assume that the way of the Synod Abroad truly offers, as its defenders are claiming, significant advantages for the ministry to the Russians in exile, for the struggle against Soviet lies, for witnessing before the world to the true face of the Russian Church perverted by the hierarchy ruled by the Soviets, etc. All of these are extremely important goals and missions, which no one on our side has ever denied. Let us also assume that this way, more than ours, “meets the expectations of the believers of the Russian diaspora” (Tserkovnaia zhizn’, p. 53). The question is, can these arguments be considered decisive, or even appropriate, when we are talking about church order, i.e., the canonical structure of the church? In other words, what does canonical structure and the external order of the church embody, what does it “correspond to”, and what defines it? Is it defined, first and foremost, by the internal, eternal and unchanging essence of the church, and therefore from within, or by the contemporary historical circumstances, and therefore from without? In responding to the book by Fr. M. Polsky I was coming from the thesis, which seemed to me indisputable and obvious, that the external church order is always based on the dogmatic essence of the church embodied in the present circumstances. That was why I had stated that as the forms of church organization develop and change (from the church community to the patriarchate), the local principle remains their foundation (one bishop presiding over one church in a one locale.) This is the only possible basis for the embodiment of the church as the super-natural unity, revealed and embodied in the natural circumstances for the purpose of their transfiguration and enlightenment. 8 This local principle, which derives from the very essence of the church, is not so much formulated as is presupposed and guarded by the canons, since the canons do not define the essence of the church but rather regulate its presence in the diversity of historical circumstances. In response to this Bishop Nathaniel accused me of “absolutizing” the local principle, while, according to him, “it, just like everything external in the life of the church, is utilitarian, i.e. is called to serve the internal absolute purpose of the church, bringing human souls to Christ.” 9 But it seems to me that to absolutize anything, i.e., a principle, means to affirm it as a purpose in itself. Yet my entire article only asserts that the local principle is irreplaceable, unchangeable, and singularly important due to its utilitarian purpose, which conforms to the essence and purpose of the church.

Here is where we get to the key issue of our entire polemic. Indeed, the absolute purpose of the church is bringing human souls to Christ. But how does the Orthodox teaching see this bringing of the souls to Christ if not in bringing people into the grace of the church, and in transfiguration in it and through it of all human relationships and of human nature itself in the image of Christ? Further, what is the church if not the very building in which “Christ Jesus himself being as cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20-21)? Finally, how else does the church fulfill its internal purpose, if not through the embodiment of its essence in the world? I find the differentiation between the internal and external in the church from which Bishop Nathaniel draws his conclusion about the relativity and the limitation of the local principle of the external church organization to be very dangerous since it leads to disembodiment of the church. The dogma about the church is organically bound to the dogma of Incarnation, moreover, these are two sides of the same dogma. The Incarnation of “for us man and for our salvation” the Son of God is salvific for us because it is given to us and is received by us in the church. In other words, the divinity and humanity of Christ is the essence of the church, and this essence is expressed and embodied in its external order. The church is the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and just as in every mystery of the church the internal and the external are inseparable, and the internal is embodied and revealed in the external, so is in the church everything that is external is defined from the internal, and is its embodiment. Similarly just as every Liturgy is not a repetition of the death and resurrection of the Lord, but a mystery of the one, non-repeatable and singular Sacrifice, so does Christ not incarnate anew in the church, but the church itself is the incarnation ever and everywhere of the divinity and humanity of Christ that has been fulfilled once and for all. And that means that it is the measure or the norm of church order, and that it, rather than the current circumstances or our earthly needs, defines the structure of the church. Or better still, the very external structure of the church is the objective sign of its divine and human essence that must serve as a measure of our life, since the Incarnation is inseparable from glorification. Just as in Christ human nature was not simply joined with God without merging, but fully glorified and deified through the death on the cross and the resurrection, so in the church human nature is not only received into the divinity and humanity of Christ, joining to God, but becomes transfigured, glorified, and “accorded” with Christ’s divinity and humanity. “God became man so that man may become god.” (St. Athanasios the Great) Christianity is not simply a “synthesis” of God and the world, the church does not only crown “this world” with itself and blesses its natural life by grace, but, being “a kingdom not of this world”, enters into battle with it for the sake of enlightenment, transfiguration, and deification of human nature. To use the dogma of divinity and humanity of Christ to comfortably and optimistically justify and assert everything that is “natural” is to forget that human nature in Christ has been called to death and resurrection, and that “natural” has no other way to glorification than the same way through death and resurrection in Christ for the new life in Him. The purpose of the church is to allow a man, by receiving in it the gift of the Holy Spirit, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ in the never-ending feat and struggle, to measure himself up to what is given. At the end it means that the church is the new creation alive in Christ, the fullness of the divinity and humanity of Christ already given to us, and it is commanded to us in this life to enter into it and grow in it. And that is the work of the church—“until we all come into the fullness of years of Christ.” Therefore the church organization cannot be based on any natural principle, national or other, because that would mean taking as the foundation of church order that which by that very order, by what it embodies, must be transfigured “according to Christ.” Such is the final dogmatic basis of the local principle. Since if this basis is correct, then there cannot be any other principle of the external order of the church than the local one, for only this principle allows for uniting people into the church, i.e., in Christ and only in Him, without in any way diminishing, replacing or perverting this super-natural, divine gift of unity.

But if this is true, then I couldn’t, as Bishop Nathaniel accuses me, be “unfair” to the national principle or basis of church organization for a simple reason that such principle of church organization does not exist since nationality cannot be a constructive principle of the church. The signs of the church are unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, and these are literally the signs of the ontological unity of the church with Christ, the signs that it embodies and reveals to the world His divinity and humanity. Christ has created the church, and He is its essence that incarnates ever and everywhere, and therefore to speak of the “own” or “strange” church, as the adherents of the Synod Abroad do, is like differentiating between “own” and “strange” Christ. For “where Christ is, there the catholic church is also” (St. Ignatios of Antioch, Epistle to the Smirnians, VIII), and “where the church is, there Christ is” (St. Cyprian of Carthage). Nationality is a natural fact, which as such can be illumined, i.e., turned to the service of God, or can become a conduit of evil, turned to the service of evil. The task of Christians is to illumine everything in this world, to transform everything from a “self-purpose” and therefore an idol into the way to God, to the kingdom of God, which is the greatest treasure and “the only need.” In that sense every Christian is called to serve the world, i.e. his people, state, and culture, so as in them and through them to reveal the kingdom of God given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. But in order to do that he must be a Christian, a member of the supernatural reality that is the church. And the church is the “kingdom not of this world” in a sense that it can never be reduced to this world or derived from it. Just as the lever, in order to lift a weight, needs a pivot outside it, so does a Christian, in order to serve the world, need first and foremost to denounce it, to be fully free of it, to be “in the world but not of the world,” in the words of the Epistle to Diognetos. The church is that pivot.

Bishop Nathaniel and Fr. G. Grabbe point out numerous merits of the nations in the history of the church, and no one is denying those virtues. Every nation, just like every person, brings to God its gifts, and its talents. Christianity is completely alien to “internationalism” in a sense of de-personifying all nations, equalizing them to a soulless measure. A Christian is not called to denounce his nation, to become indifferent to its historical and religious fate. The great Apostle to the Gentiles was ready to be excommunicated from Christ for the salvation of his people. But Bishop Nathaniel and Fr. G. Grabbe seem to forget that even in this national dimension the salvation of Russia (its spiritual salvation) depends not on how Russian do we make our church, but on how much we can enlighten our Russianness by our churchliness, to submit it to the highest treasure of the kingdom of God. This treasure requires first and foremost the “fulfillment” of the church, of its entirety and its essence. Old Russia can be called Holy Russia only inasmuch as it desired, in the persons of its greatest chosen ones, the saints, for everything national to be completely, without reservation, given over to God and to serve only Him. It is not the Holy Russia that is the greatest treasure, but Russia was holy because it desired to submit itself to the greatest treasure and to measure itself by it. If we want to continue the work of those saints, to be connected to them, then this connection is not preserved through “Russianness,” not through the flesh and blood, but in the Holy Spirit Whom they have acquired, and we are called to acquire.

How is it possible not to see that this defense of the national creates a kind of vicious circle, which can only be broken by the return to the complete and eternal Tradition of the church rather than to doubtfully useful justifications and precedents? For if the national sense, as Bishop Nathaniel correctly points out, has helped the Slavs and the Greeks to preserve and retain their Orthodoxy under the Turkish oppression, the same national sense has given birth to such bitter animosity between the Orthodox that not so long ago the Orthodox of one nation impaled the Orthodox priests of another nation solely due to the nationalistic hatred. And finally, isn’t it an obvious paradox that Bishop Nathaniel justifies the truthfulness of the national principle of the Church Abroad by the “national limitation of the Greeks” which prevents them from understanding what is happening in Russia (p. 9)? For that means that the righteousness of one path is proven by the unrighteousness of the same exact path chosen by another Church.

Bishop Nathaniel also justifies the departure from the local principle by the abnormality of contemporary circumstances and above all by the terrible evil which holds our motherland in its throes and the struggle with which must take priority and define everything in the life of the church. Of this we can only ask, did the church of the time of the persecutions live in “normal” or “abnormal” conditions? For if this question is presented, it becomes obvious that the very distinction between the normal and abnormal conditions is essentially inapplicable to the church. For the church by its very nature presents the eternal challenge to evil and eternal struggle with it. That is what it is for, and its “order”, including the main local principle, is the “military” order, initially created for the fight with the “prince of this world.” Those periods in the life of the church are abnormal when Christians forget about it and fall into a happy oblivion in the “Christian world.” That is when the Christian world turns into the kingdom of antichrist. Yet now, at the time of the great increase of that struggle, the church has nothing to offer against the triumph and threatening power of evil except to be the embodiment of Christ and His kingdom in us and around us. Can Bishop Nathaniel and Fr. G. Grabbe, and those like-minded with them truly believe that the unification of Orthodox Christians everywhere they live into one church which elevates above all the unity in Christ, incarnating Christ in this place, by this unity alone revealing Christ and His life-giving victory over the world, can decrease and not increase our service to the truth, our faithfulness to the true, Christian Russia, our confession of the name of Christ before the world “lying in darkness”?

 Translated by  Inga Leonova;
Photo : Prot. Aleksandr Shmeman: Dnevniki, M. 2007

Source: “Tserkovny Vestnik Zapadno-Evropeiskogo Pravoslavnogo Russkogo Exarchata”, Paris, 1950, no. 2(23)

Footnotes

  1. Bishop Nathaniel, “O sud’bakh Russkoi Tserkvi Zagranitsei (Otvet sviashchenniku Aleksandru Schmemannu” (On the Fate of the Russian Church Abroad: a Response to Priest Alexander Schmemann). 1949
  2. Ibid, p. 37, my emphasis – A.S.
  3. Ibid. “…we know from church history that the Church, while recognizing the local principle as the norm, very early began to allow departures from it due to necessity.”
  4. Synodal refers to the ROCOR as a body guided by an assembly (Synod and Council) of Russian émigré bishops in diaspora. Editor
  5. V. Grumel, Regestes des Actes du Patriarcat de Constantinople. p. 520. Professors Lebedev and Suvorov offer the same interpretation of this canon.
  6. This last paragraph of the canon is invariably suppressed by those who want to use it as proof of the violation of the local principle. However, while conveying to Nova Justiniana the rights of Constantinople (Constantia of Cyprus), the Fathers of the Council continue, “that new Justinianopolis shall have the rights of Constantinople and whoever is constituted the pious and most religious bishop thereof shall take precedence of all the bishops of the province of the Hellespont, and be elected by his own bishops according to ancient custom. For the customs which obtain in each church our divine Fathers also took pains what should be maintained, the existing bishop of the city of Cyzicus (i.e. the former metropolia of the region – A.S.) being subject to the metropolitan of the aforesaid Justinianopolis, for the imitation of all the rest of the bishops who are under the aforesaid beloved of God metropolitan John, by whom, as custom demands, even the bishop of the very city of Cyzicus shall be ordained. “
  7. “A terrible purpose is revealed to us. And one torturous question stings the conscience: can those who turn themselves into its weapons realize what they are doing? An idea of the “council” is introduced, a treacherous idea! (Pravoslavnaia Rus, no. 21 (449), p. 2) “The fight against the Russian Church Abroad is to the death… Who rejoices in this evil deed?” (Ibid, p. 14) Such examples abound.
  8. C.f., my pamphlet “Tserkov’ i tserkovnoe ustroi’stvo”, 1949, pp. 5-10.
  9. Bishop Nathaniel, pp. 6-7.

2 thoughts on “A Polemic About the Church”

  1. And there’s Fr. Schmeman in his canonical Roman collar & black suit. “Canons” have been replaced by “economic.” Which means in practice, “whatever we wanna do.” Once “done,” it’s the new practice.

  2. Glad to see fr Schmemann, my beloved prof at st Vladimir’s Seminary, and Afanas’ev on whom I wrote my lycence dissertation in Fribourg.
    Sometimes the Roman collar obscures the mind altering the other’s thought. SCHMEMANN never reduced canons to economy, but because they reveal the external nature of the church, they have to be correctly incarnated into the history.
    To reduce everything to economy are those who believe that the church is surrounded by walls: oitside the church nothing. And the ritual of receiving heterodox has become the ritual of receiving heretics, that is everything is economy.

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