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Protopresbyter George Grabbe’s Correspondence with Archpriests Georges Florovsky and Alexander Schmemann

Protopresbyter George Grabbe’s Correspondence with Archpriests Georges Florovsky and Alexander Schmemann

An unusual instance of a conversation and agreement between the prominent representatives of the three very diverse theological traditions in the Russian diaspora.

The infrequent instances of dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the other Russian-tradition Orthodox jurisdictions are generally characterized by polemics.  In the exchange below, however, a common ground between the representatives of three very diverse theological traditions can be observed.  The correspondence is also of interest because of the light it casts both on the writers’ psychological make-up and also on the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement.  The correspondence below is cataloged in vol.5/48 of the Archive of the Synod of Bishops in New York and is reproduced [in translation] preserving the authors’ unique style and orthography.  I would like to express my thanks to  His Eminence, Metropolitan Laurus  for allowing me to publish this material which first appeared  in Vol . 189 of  Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia [=Bulletin of the Russian Christian Movement], 2005. ” Material below is reproduced by kind permission of the editor of Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia.


Letter[1] from Fr. G. Grabbe[2] to Fr. G. Florovsky

3/16 January 1962


My dear Father Georges,

I am enclosing with this letter my book[3] which in itself is the response to the book[4] of S.V. Troitsky.[5] I am not sure whether you have read it; it is so obviously the result of Soviet compulsion or inducement that it perhaps does not deserve a detailed answer.  Nevertheless, I decided to use its publication as an excuse to write a book of my own.

I would be very grateful if you could briefly give me your impressions of the Assembly in N[ew] Delhi[6].  Based on what I already know, my feeling is that the Orthodox have departed from the principles which you expressed so eloquently in Evanston[7]. In particular, how authoritative would you regard Nissiotis’ address?[8]

Please convey my greetings to Matushka.

Asking for your prayers, I remain

Yours in Christ,

[Archpriest George Grabbe]


Letter[9]  from Fr G. Florovsky to Fr G. Grabbe

Febr. 11, 1962

Dear Fr George,

Please forgive me for delaying with my reply.  Many thanks for the book –  I am so short of time that I still haven’t read  it.  Your letter arrived during the busiest period in the academic year, the time when I am snowed under examination scripts while also trying to prepare new courses.  At least, I am done with the exams for now.  By the way, I haven’t been teaching at the Greek Seminary for some time, although I retain a casual association with them.  My main occupation is my Harvard professorship, which is officially in the History of the Eastern Church, but in reality, the general History of the Church.  I lecture in Patristics, the History of Monasticism, Historical Liturgics, etc. Also, as of this year, I am teaching in the Slavic Department. I have masses of students and work.  The best way to reach me is at the University address.

I haven’t read Trotsky’s book, although he sent me a copy. I am totally convinced that his reasons for writing that book was not so much “Soviet compulsion or inducement” as his relentless need to vent his habitual anger.  He always liked to ingratiate himself with the powers that be, even without any expectation of a reward.

It is difficult to be brief about New Delhi.  All the same, I must do so, and write to you about it.  I can say now, though,  that the Orthodox didn’t depart from  the principles of the Evanston Declaration[10] but had no opportunity to make a public endorsement.   The Orthodox delegation issued  a separate statement[11] in the Unity section and this was circulated ‑ within the section only.  I am attaching a copy for you.  Behind the scenes, it caused a storm of objections from the Protestants and had to be removed from the protocols.  Nevertheless, it was unanimously adopted by the general assembly of the Orthodox delegates.  I have to admit that I was the author of the statement.  So, you see, the Orthodox position has not altered, but the general situation has. The Protestants don’t want the Orthodox do have a separate say, and many Orthodox have nothing to say anyway.

Nissiotis’ address[12] expresses his private opinion only and can in no way be regarded as the common Orthodox position.  Nissiotis works for the Geneva center and his address was commissioned by them. This was something new;  public addresses are normally delivered by delegates or members of specific commissions. The situation we had reflects the new policy of the General Secretariat, namely to find the kind of Orthodox spokesmen whose views would be acceptable to the Protestants. Vladyka Michael’s[13] death is a great blow.

I am writing all this in confidence, at any rate not yet for publication, but something which is of interest in church circles.

In reality, New Delhi was a failure ‑ no inspiration at all;.

I hope the Conference on Faith and Order in 1963 will be better.

Please, convey my filial greetings and love to His Eminence.[14]

Best regards to your family.

With my fraternal  greetings,

Georges Florovsky[15]


Letter[16] from  Fr A. Schmemann to Fr. G. Grabbe

20 Jan/2 Feb. 1962

My dear Fr George,

Yesterday, I returned from my trip to California and found your note together with Nissotis’ address. Many thanks. The address is terrifyingly ambiguous gibberish, a collection of non sequiturs which can have any number of random meanings, but which nevertheless has the general tendency to substitute “the rule of faith”[17] as the  basis for Church unity with vague terms such as “martyria” and “diakonia”[18]. I am surprised that this address was allowed to be delivered, because  it must have been obvious to everyone ‑ even the heretics ‑  that once in print, it would cause objections.  Unfortunately, I am away again until 12 Feb, but once I am back, I am going to call you and arrange to meet up,[19] if possible. I am increasingly convinced that the Orthodox should leave the WWC and I plan to write about this.  I feel the WWC’s main failing is their denial of even the possibility of heresy, i.e., doctrinal errors.  In this, modern Protestants depart from the position of their teachers, such as Luther and Calvin. They at least affirmed some things and refuted others.  Ecumenism is dangerous to the Orthodox when it is accepted as a vehicle  for “mutual enrichment”’ Our participation in the WWC[20] becomes toxic at the exact moment when our conversation about faith changes into a discussion about so-called “ecclesiology”[21]. For the Orthodox, the teaching about the Church depends directly upon the teaching of the Church, devoid from which it is senseless and meaningless. This was our first defeat ‑ the tacit agreement by the Orthodox to move away from the firm ground that is the discussion about faith to the quicksand of various “martyrias” and “diakonias”. This slippery slope has resulted in Nissiotis and by now, this has become so obvious  that it must be discussed openly.  This would be better than any number of “diakonias”.

If I may, I would like to keep Nissiotis’s address until after the 12th, but if you need it, my wife will return it to you immediately.

Sincerely yours,

Archpriest Alexander Schmemann

537 West 121 St.

New York 27, N.Y.

[tel.] Monument 2-3889

[1]  Copy of the letter

[2]  Protopresbyter George, subsequently, Bishop Gregory (Grabbe, 1902-1995) was born in St Petersburg, in the family of the court Stallmeister and had an interest in church matters from his childhood.  Novyi Zhurnal (vol. 232) published “Pages From My Diary” by the fifteen-year-old Grabbe which demonstrated  the remarkable stability of his worldview; the  opinions expressed then mirrored exactly those expressed in his Letters (Moscow, 1998), some 60 years later.  In 1923-1925, he studies at the Faculty of Theology in Belgrade and acquitted himself well as a church writer. He was close to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) who appointed him as a secretary to the Synodal Chancery, a position which Grabbe held till 1986.  He headed the External Relations department of the Bishops’ Council and was its de facto spokesman on topics such as the relations with the Church in Russia, questions of ecumenism and the relations with the other local churches.

[3] The Truth About The Russian Church At Home And Abroad: With Reference To S.B. Troitsky’s Book Concerning The Falsehood Of The Karlovatsy Schism, Jordaniville, 1962.

[4] Concerning The Falsehood Of The Karlovatsy Schism: A Review Of Archpriest M. Polsky’s Book ‘The Canonical Status  Of The Higher Church Authority In The USSR And Abroad, Paris, 1960

[5] Troitsky Sergei Viktorovich (1878-1972), a Yugoslav and Russian Church canon lawyer. He was the last canon lawyer of the pre-Revolutionary Russian school.  Lived in emigration and died in Yugoslavia.  Troitsky expressed his position regarding the “inter-jurisdictional” disagreements amongst the Russian church diaspora thus: “I accept everyone […], but condone no one’s errors” (Division Or Schism, Paris, 1932, p. 6). Acted as an adviser to the ROCOR ‘s Bishops’ Council.  In particular, in 1937, he expressed his doubt as to the legitimacy of the Metropolitan Sergius’ claim to be a locum tenens of the Patriarchal throne. (Metropolitan Sergius and the Reconciliation of the Russian Diaspora, Sremski Karlovci, 1937.)  After the war, he assumed a distinctly hostile position regarding ROCOR’s status.

6 3rd General Assembly of the World Council of Churches which took place in New Delhi, in November 1961.

[7] Meaning the 2nd General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) which took place in Evanston, Illinois in August 1954. Florovsky delivered an address (‘The Challenge of Disunity’) aimed against doctrinal compromises masquerading as love and charity. There is only one Church of Christ – the Orthodox Church ‑ and she is called to bear witness of the truth to the world. Florovsky juxtaposed “ecumenism in space”, concerned with the establishment of the universal Christian unity with “ecumenism in time” which he saw as striving towards a recovery of a common faith which once united all Christians. (Georges Florovsky, ‘The Challenge of Disunity,’ St. Vladimir’s Quarterly 1-2 [Fall 1954-Winter 1955]).

[8] Nikos Angelos Nissiotis (1925-1986), an Orthodox philosopher-theologian. Conducted post- graduate theological studies in Switzerland supervised by Karl Barth and psychology under Jung.  Left the University of Leuven with the specialism in “Catholic Neo-Scholastic and Historical Philosophy” Since 1958, an assistant at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey (Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement [WCC Publications: Geneva, 2002], 828-829).

[9] Written on a letterhead of Harvard Divinity School.

[10] As the Assembly had chosen “Christ – the Hope of the World” as the theme and built its work around it, the Orthodox delegation made this topic the focus of their common declaration, which critiqued certain points of the Assembly’s summary document:. The Church is not merely an assembly of “the pilgrim people of God” but a communion of saints; The reality of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the Church must be asserted; The document makes no mention of the operation of grace and as such there is no provision for the providential work of the Holy Spirit; While it is true, that according to the Orthodox teaching, the Church is sinless, being an embodiment of God’s Kingdom on earth, this does not apply to her individual members; The hope in Christ must be understood in its true soteriological and trinitarian context. (Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism: Statements, Messages and Reports on the Ecumenical Movement 1902-1992 G. Limouris, comp., [WCC Publications: Geneva, 1994] 26-28).

[11] The statement makes the following points: problematic issues of ecumenism as they are understood by the ecumenical movement is primarily a matter for the Protestant world; the Orthodox understand ecumenism as pertaining to resolving schisms. The Orthodox recognize only the Orthodox Church as the Church;  validly ordained priesthood remains an essential part of the functioning Church; Again, Florovsky contrasts the “ecumenism of space” with the “ecumenism of time”; If a consensus can be reached regarding the place of the apostolic time as a common ground for the Christian faith, then certain external forms acquired in subsequent centuries by different denominations can be preserved. (G. Limouris, Orthodox Visions, 30-31).

[12] “The Witness and the Service of Eastern Orthodoxy to the one Undivided Church” (WCC press release in the Archive of the Bishops’ Council in New York, vol.5/48)  For Nissiotis, all denominations are to be understood as Local Churches.  He disagrees with Florovsky’s call for the return to the common “rule of faith” and refuses to identify any church movement as “schismatic”. There are no schismatics as such, but a state of schism operates within the Church.  Confessional self-sufficiency should be set aside for the sake of witness and the service of God within the one, undivided Church. The Orthodox Church must become the starting point for the ecumenical movement.

[13] Archbishop Michael of North and South America within the Patriarchate of Constantinople (died 1958).  Graduated from the theological academy in Russia., he was an admirer of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) and became acquainted with Metropolitan Anastasios when the latter arrived in Constantinople  at the beginning of 1920s.  With regard to the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement, he believed that their task was not to convince everyone to join the Orthodox Church but rather to persuade the other Christians to attune their doctrine to the teaching of the one undivided Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The above-mentioned Orthodox declaration was read out at the Evanston meeting by Archbishop Michael. (Pravoslavnaia Rus’, no. 14, 1955, p.15; no.15, 1957, p.14; no.14, 1958, p. 15; G. Limouris, Orthodox Visions, 26, notes.).

[14]The First Hierarch of ROCOR Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky, 1873-1965).  During the Second World War, while living in Serbia, Florovsky was under the jurisdiction of ROCOR.  He was the secretary of the Synodal Education Committee (“Decisions of the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad”, Tserkovnaia Zhizn=Church Life 10[1940]:1) and was awarded a gold cross by the Bishops’ Synod (“Awards”, Tserkovnaia Zhizn, 2 [1942]:1).  Nevertheless, Florovsky’s attitude to ROCOR’s main theologian, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) was rather critical: “Anthony is regarded as something of a Renaissance man by the Karlovatsy folk and is vigorously promoted as a teacher. To date, there have been 16 volumes of his biography  and writings. I now think that my former opinion of him as expressed in “Puti” was too mild.  This moralistic ‘modernism’ is no less dangerous than the ‘renaissance’ [i.e. Russian religious revival of the early 20th century aligned to the decadent movement]” (“From the letters of Fr Georges Florovsky to IU. Ivask”, Vestnik RKhD, 130 [1979]:50).

[15] Facsimile of the signature.

[16] Written by hand.

[17] It would seem that he means that  “the canon [κα̃̃νών – rule, standard] is itself the faith of the Church. It is preserved in the teaching of bishops, in the liturgical practice and in the ‘baptismal calling’. The word of God is neither  an ‘external’ authority nor a particular ‘text’, but the very reality of the faith and life in the Church” (Archpriest A. Schmemann, Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, Paris, 1979, p. 75).

[18]  Nissiotis says in his address, “‘Witness in the biblical understanding of the word martyria [μαρτυ̃ρια – witness] is the result of Christ’s diakonia [δια̃κονία – ministry] rendered to his Father on behalf of the whole human race which has called to be One in Him (‘The Witness…’).

[19] Despite holding diametrically opposing views (for example, Schmemann published “The Church and  the Church Order”, a critical review of Polsky’s book in 1949 in Paris, well ahead of Troitsky’s monograph), these meetings continued to take place.  It is possible that the similarity of their  backgrounds played a part in this;  Schmemann’s father was a senator and a member of the State Council. (Also, crucially for ROCOR,  the subjugation to the Moscow Patriarchate had not yet taken place– ed. Questions of the History of ROCOR) In his diary entry of 8 March 1979, Fr Alexander records his meeting with Fr George Grabbe as being “peaceful, even congenial, but some things continue to amaze one, such as “the fact” that ‘they’ are nurturing a messiah, i.e. the antichrist, in some Jerusalem cellar, that there are signs indicating this and one needs protection against ‘them’ “ In the  Russian version of the diaries published after this date he says, “Always this constant need for ‘protection’! ‑ ed. Questions of the History of ROCOR)  I am forever amazed at the need to localize evil and the forces of darkness, to believe in an esoteric history in the face of complete historical ignorance. What a stifling, dull world, devoid of joy and light!” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983 [Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000], p. 214).

[20]  The World Council of Churches.

[21]  Apparently, with the meaning attached to it by the WWC.

Publication, foreword and footnotes were prepared by Maria Psarev, November 2004. Translated by Anna Platt.


Alexis Klimoff, On the Sophiological Controversy of the 1930s

Georges Florovsky: Excerpts from Two Letters to Alexis Klimoff


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