Archpriest Alexander Schmemann Canon Law Other Orthodox


Met. Vladimir (Tikhonitskii) the first hierarch of the exarchate (1947-1959), next to him Archim. Job (Leont'ev) with Kursk-Root Icon, Bishop Nathanael (Lv'vov), Metrop. Anastasii (Gribanovskii), the ROCOR first hierarch (1936-1964) Archim. Leontii (Bartoshevich).
On the left: Met. Vladimir (Tikhonitskii) the first hierarch of the exarchate (1947-1959), next to him Archim. Job (Leont'ev) with Kursk-Root Icon, Bishop Nathanael (Lv'vov), Metrop. Anastasii (Gribanovskii), the ROCOR first hierarch (1936-1964) Archim. Leontii (Bartoshevich). The photo is taken in June 1950 in Geneva.

A reflection on what would be the most Christian organization of the life of the Russian diaspora.

This final piece of polemics, regarding the canonical status of Paris Russian Exarchate of the Ecumenical Throne, responding to the mentioned below article by Archpriest Michael Polsky.

Lie not one to another (Col. 3:9)

I will not give a substantive answer to archpriest Michael Polsky’s brochure dedicated to “the status of the Russian exarchate of the Ecumencial jurisdication”[1]Archpriest M. Polsky. Overview of the status of the Russian Exarchate of the Ecumenical Jurisdiction [For the Russian original bibliography see the Russian text.] . For to continue polemics with the representatives of the jurisdiction abroad in the same tone and using the same methods is an embarrassment to Orthodoxy. For better or worse, we have always tried to maintain a theological approach to the jurisdictional conflict, which itself testifies to the troubling discord among Orthodox about the question of Church order. A correct interpretation of the canons is only possibly from a holistic ecclesiological perspective: after all, interpretation means to see that spirit behind the letter, that is, to see the life of the Church itself, revealed and confirmed in its teaching. More than once the Orthodox Church has endured such “organizational” crises in connection with external aspects of its life, and each time they were resolved by church thought, deep and life-giving tradition, and “coming to the knowledge of truth”. If the Church has changed its forms of organization, it has done so in order not to change the one, grace-filled, divine-human life that it lives, and that is called to teach people. In other words, throughout all these changes was the Church itself – its essence, its fundamental God-given structure. Comparison with this is the only way to tell true growth from corruption, progress from regress, canonicity from pseudo-canonicity. A true canonical analysis does not consist of interspersing the texts of the canons with various decrees, but in the difficult and responsible dividing of the temporary from the eternal, the immutable from the mutable, all done in the light of the complete and holistic teaching about the Church: about its nature, life, and mission. This type of argument about substance, about the most important things is rejected and turned into harmful and fruitless polemics by Fr. M. Polsky and those like him. For them, the idea that we “seek” something, or we dare to “take a second look” and “reevaluate” something (for example, the absolute national principle of church structure and connected with this the new understanding of autocephaly) Is already a sign of “heresy”, “modernism”, and other deadly sins. This is because, for them, the “acting church law” coincides with “canonicity” to such a degree that it is no longer the eternal norm (canonicity in the full sense of that word) that measures and judges any given church structure, but instead the current practice becomes the canonical norm and principle of interpretation. However, this “acting church law”, that is, the gift of life by which church life is regulated in any given time, is always a certain unavoidable compromise between the absolute church norm, the ideal of canonicity, and historical conditions of the time, that is the situation of life. Here is an example. The Petrine reforms created entirely new conditions for the life of the Russian Church, and the Church got used to them. This was a compromise of canonicity with absolutism, introduced into Russia by Peter the Great. Of course, no one would ever think to question the “legality” (that is, de facto canonicity) of the Russian Church of the synodal period by saying that the church rule introduced into the Church by Peter was inspired not by true Orthodox tradition, but the synodal structure of protestant institutions. Since this structure did not disrupt anything fundamental, namely, the apostolic succession, the episcopate and grace-filled life joined with it, it was “legal”, and the Church did not lose any of its fundamental characteristics, without with it would completely cease being the Orthodox Church. However, recognizing its “legality”, the best forces within the Russian Church did not cease to criticize and expose it as a compromise, disrupting and distorting the norms of the Church, and when the time came, they spoke openly about the necessity of returning to the canonical basis of church structure. Here one must read the weighty folios of protocols of the Pre-Conciliar Presence of 1905-1906, and the statements of the diocesan bishops, in order to see how the living forces within the Russian Church regarded this “dreamt up” church structure, to see how much effort was made in church thought to bring back as best as possible the eternal roots of the church, the ideal canonicity in light of changing conditions of life. For it is the duty of the church conscience, of church theology, first of all, to seek that is the difference between the norm and everyday life, between canon law and canonical practicality is as close as possible to zero, even if this is not fully possible due to the circumstances of the Church in its earthly pilgrimage. As far as we are able, with full consciousness of our weaknesses and shortcomings, we have struggled to meet this duty, and this duty alone, in our disputes with those who defend other points of view. This duty is laid upon us by the Orthodox Church, and only the lazy and indifferent consider fulfilling it to be unimportant.

One must not ignore the fundamental fact that the “acting church law” of the synodal period ceased to be active, and at the same time, many of the decisions of the 1917-1918 Council did not come into force, for the conditions of life that allowed these norms were changing again. Neither the Church in Russia, nor the Russian Church Abroad is observing the Moscow Council to the letter. This shortcoming in generally accepted practical norms, the lack of a single “acting law” is attested to by our canonical disagreements (often even within a single jurisdiction), as well as by shakiness and uncertainty in the choice of criteria for evaluating canonical foundations. This forces church consciousness again to think over, from all sides, the norms of true canonical structure, forces us to go deep into the Tradition of the Church to find out what eternal church truth demands of us in our modern circumstances. Of course, from this point of view, all Church organizations abroad, starting from 1920, are in essence temporary structures, temporary compromises between the desired ideal – that is most conforming to the canonical norms of the Church – structure and the current temporary forms, which are still being defined by yesterdays “acting practice”. And since none of our “jurisdictions” has broken the apostolic succession of its bishops, and grace-filled life is completely preserved, they are all “valid”, and, thank God, the possibility of common prayer among them is possible. But this does not mean that they are all canonical, or that the question of canonicity is unimportant, as many sentimental people in the jurisdictional world are inclined to think. For some will always be inspired by the ideals of canon law, and strive for them, considering the temporary status of the church and the future. This is the way of the Western European Exarchate. Only someone who is intentionally distorting the facts could say that its position is “the position of final and permanent union with the Church of Constantinople based on its power over all the Churches of the diaspora” (Polsky, p. 6). As a Russian exarchate of the Ecumenical Throne, it is a temporary exarchate, and we have repeated this over and over again, and never denied it, and it is accepted by the Ecumenical Throne. But fr. M. Polsky, for the sake of easy argument and benefit to his own position, in no way wants to admit that the current temporary status of the Russian Church in Europe is one thing, and the consistent canonical structure of the Orthodox Churches to which we should strive, is another. Perhaps he has even already confused the Church with anti-bolshevism and nationalism in their most vulgar forms. Yes, we admit the correctness and advantage of jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Throne over Russian Churches in Europe in view of the impossibility of canonical union of them with the Russian Church (for we cannot in any way, as Fr. M. Polsky does, equate this canonical union with the simple and unfounded statement of its usefulness in light of its de facto absence). Besides this, we consider that the righteousness of the Church and its genuine needs demand the constant union of all Orthodox in one Church, which, in the beginning of its existence was accomplished by the most ancient of the local Churches. The uncanonicity of the Church Abroad synod lies primarily in its confession that uncanonical, and sometimes even openly anticanonical actions are the only true path and norm of the Church. This confession of unrighteousness as righteousness is the main error of the Church Abroad, and is more and more clearly approaching heresy in the original sense of that word – falling away from the conciliar nature of the Universal Church. It has already been long said (and based on a detailed analysis that is unnecessary to repeat), that the Church Abroad’s “Bishops’ Council is an unprecedented jurisdictional organ of recent origin, consisting of refugee bishops without sees and without flocks, and having no jurisdiction and no rights outside the boundaries of the Serbian Patriarchate.”[2]Yu. Kolemin, “The Bishop’s Council in Sremski Karlovci and the contentions of the Church Abroad,” Tserkovnyj Vestnik, 1934. No. 1. P. 22; see also the important article: archpriest G. … Continue reading No number of citations of the fact that metropolitan Evlogy and metropolitan Theophil themselves once recognized this Council at all change this fact, since in the canonical world, “canonicity” does not depend on recognition, decrees, or orders, but from conformity to the given norms and essence of the Orthodox Church. It is impossible to justify the Synod Abroad neither from the point of view of authentic canonicity, nor as an “acting church law” of any period of Church history. No number of citations and references will demonstrate how the Church Abroad Synod and Council could have arisen from the Higher Church Authority in southern Russia, for the smaller cannot give rise to the larger, nor can the part give rise to the whole. Canonically, this is all unthinkable. And even if archpriest Polsky succeeded in proving de facto precedent, all the same nothing will make this strange and unheard-of situation in the history of the Church canonical – the Bishops’ Council Abroad is led by a hierarch that has no see, or flock. Citing the 34th apostolic canon as the basis and source and justification for the Synod Abroad, Fr. M. Polsky forgets, as it were, that the “first bishop” that this canon speaks of is all the same a bishop of a set Church, and not only a “president”. The introduction of this position, in any case, far surpasses the Roman Church, in which the Pope of Rome is the head of the Church and head Bishop simply because he is the head of the Roman Church, and not due to clerical seniority or his own personal qualities or accomplishments. Which canon law allows naming a bishop in Africa against the will of the Patriarch of Alexandria, lead bishop of that region? True, “Pravoslavnaia Rus’” write thus: “Answering the protest of the Patriarch of Alexandria… we have decided to inform him that we have not formed a diocese, but simply given the duty to a bishop to direct the local Russian Orthodox communities, still commemorating the Patriarch at the same time.” But what does this all mean translated into the language of canonicity with at least a minimal respect to the meaning of the words? Is it not clear that even Fr. M. Polsky considers the appointment of a bishop in another’s territory only possibly with the permission of the local first hierarch, and that commemorating that first hierarch at the Liturgy testifies to that permission.

All of these examples show that Fr. M. Polsky and his ilk do not think at all about true canonicity, but that the refusal of the jurisdiction Abroad to measure itself by the eternal norms of the Church and its constant and obvious disdain for the most basic rules of Orthodox Tradition allow us to conclude in uncanonicity. There are, after all, certain norms in the Orthodox Church that cannot be set aside, and sooner or later one must return from the anarchy or self-rule that reign in our days to these norms.

As concerns Fr. M. Polsky’s method of argument, that is, how he sets forth his views and assertions, here are two or three examples. We have dedicated many lines to the relationship between the Universal and the Local Church. Here is how Fr. M. Polsky speaks of them: “There are only local diocesan bishops, and first among them is the ecumenical patriarch, not a local, but universal leader, and thanks to the ‘local principle’ all Greeks and Jews, all nations merge into a single universal Church under a single head – not the Pope of Rome, but the Patriarch of Constantinople” (p. 17). Or again – about the local principle: “For them, territory is the most important principle, even where there is no local Church, for the Ecumenical Church and ecumenical psychology is already there“ (p. 21). What is this? Counting on the readers not to read the articles that Fr. M. Polsky allows himself to interpret thus, not noticing along the way that his irony would apply to the apostle Paul himself? One thing is clear: at this level, arguing is useless.

We can only hope that the thoughtful reader will himself compare the texts and get to the essence of the dispute. Ending this argument – not only for the edification of others, but most of all for myself, for all of us who are trying with our feeble minds to understand the divine-human mystery of the Church, I recall the words of the apostle: “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.” (Col. 3:9-11, 14-15, 23, 25).

Materials of the Ensuing Discussion Posted on This Website

1948. Archpriest Michael Polsky, “The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Authority in the USSR”

1949. Priest Alexander Schmemann, “The Church and Church Structure: Regarding the book by Archpriest Polsky The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Authority in the USSR and Outside Russia”

1949. Archpriest Michael Pomazansky, “Our Church’s Legal Consciousness”

1949. Bishop Nathaniel,  “About the Fates of the Russian Church”

1950. Priest Alexander Schmemann, “A Debate About the Church”

1950. Bishop Nathanael, “The Local Principle and the Unity of the Church”


1 Archpriest M. Polsky. Overview of the status of the Russian Exarchate of the Ecumenical Jurisdiction [For the Russian original bibliography see the Russian text.]
2 Yu. Kolemin, “The Bishop’s Council in Sremski Karlovci and the contentions of the Church Abroad,” Tserkovnyj Vestnik, 1934. No. 1. P. 22; see also the important article: archpriest G. Lomako. On the question of our church divisions. Tserkovnyj Vestnik. 1934 No. 3 and following. [For the titles in Russian see the Russian original text of this article]

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