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On The “Sorrowful Epistle” of Metropolitan Philaret

Fr Alexander Schmemann
Source: Father Alexander Schmemann Chair of Liturgical Theology (SVOTS)

While Father Alexander recognizes the seriousness of Metropolitan Philaret’s concerns he refutes his approach for lack of conciliarity.

The “Sorrowful Epistle” addressed by “Humble Philaret, Metropolitan of the Russian Church Outside Russia” to “Their Holinesses and Their Beatitudes, the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches, the Most Reverend Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops” is the last and probably the most important document in the long series of statements emanating from the “Russian Church Outside Russia,” and which, in the last years, tried to arouse the Orthodox opinion by affirming:

— that the Orthodox Church is falling prey to the “heresy of Ecumenism,” and

— that this “heresy” is spread within the Church, primarily by the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I and his Exarch in America, Archbishop Iakovos.

More specifically, the “Sorrowful Epistle” claims that by signing, or at least by not objecting to, the decisions of last year’s Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, its Orthodox participants have betrayed the original and somewhat more acceptable basis for the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement.

Grave Accusations 

These, as one can see, are very grave accusations. The entire Orthodox Church is implied since virtually all autocephalous Churches were represented in Uppsala, sometimes by their highest hierarchs. Patriarch Gherman of Serbia was even elected to the presidency of the WCC. These accusations, moreover, create a malaise among the Orthodox and threaten the very unity of the Church. They must be taken seriously and discussed at the highest possible level. Before this is done, however, some preliminary questions must be raised, which, I hope to show, are of paramount importance for an orderly solution of any problem that may arise within the Orthodox Church. The purpose of this article is to formulate at least some of them.

From a purely formal point of view, the “Epistle” under consideration is an appeal addressed by one Orthodox bishop to his brothers in the Episcopate, urging them to take more seriously a matter which, in his opinion, his brother-bishops have treated “without sufficient attention.” Most certainly it is the right and the duty of each bishop to communicate with his brothers on matters pertaining to the very essence of the Orthodox Faith, and who would deny that “ecumenism” in general, and more particularly the alarming trends made manifest at Uppsala, fall within this category? We can assure Metropolitan Philaret that he is not alone in having been “greatly shocked” by much of the Uppsala Report. Many pronouncements and actions of Patriarch Athenagoras as well as Archbishop Iakovos, having provoked serious controversies among the Orthodox, are equally open to scrutiny by the Episcopate of the Church Universal. No patriarch, no archbishop, no bishop is infallible, all are accountable to the Church and primarily to its Episcopate. One may even regret that the initiatives, similar to those taken by Metropolitan Philaret and which were a common practice in the early Church, have been virtually abandoned in later times, weakening the solidarity and the common responsibility of the Episcopate. Formerly, thus, the “Epistle,” whether one agrees or disagrees with all or some of its formulations, might have been a welcome invitation, in line with the entire Orthodox Tradition, to take the problem of Ecumenism more seriously and to give it the attention it deserves.

Judgment or Appeal? 

The total flaw, however, lies in the fact of an open contradiction between the perfectly canonical and traditional stand taken in the “Epistle” and the general policy of the “Russian Church Outside Russia” whose Primate is Metropolitan Philaret. The “Epistle” consistently refers to Patriarch Athenagoras as “His Holiness, Patriarch Athenagoras,” and to the Archbishop as “His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos.” And although very serious accusations are stated against both hierarchs, nowhere is their case presented as being prejudged. The very purpose of the appeal is precisely to call the brother-bishops to consider the whole matter, for it belongs indeed to the bishops to judge and to evaluate other bishops’ actions. That this is the meaning of the “Epistle” is obvious from its explicit denial to recognize Patriarch Alexis as the head of the Russian Church. Neither he nor the late Patriarch Sergius are given the title “His Holiness.” Having informed the Primates and the entire Orthodox Episcopate of his accusations and clearly stated his case against the Patriarch and the Archbishop, Metropolitan Philaret obviously accepts the ultimate judgment as belonging to those to whom he writes. Such, I repeat, is the impression consistently given by the text of the “Epistle.”

And it is therefore surprising, to say the least, to see nowhere mentioned in the same “Epistle” a series of actions and statements emanating from the “Russian Church Outside Russia,” which prove beyond any possible doubt, that both de facto and de jure that Church has already prejudged the whole case and, on the basis of that judgment, does not any longer recognize the jurisdictional and canonical rights of either Patriarch Athenagoras or Archbishop Iakovos or, in fact, of any other autocephalous Church. The facts are well known: the “Russian Church Outside Russia” has unilaterally, without any canonical release, accepted clerics, parishes and monasteries from the jurisdiction of Constantinople, has openly given support and recognition to the Old-Calendarists on the canonical territory of the Church of Greece, etc., and she has done all this explicitly on the basis of the claim that the heresy of the Patriarch and the Archbishop terminates their jurisdiction as Orthodox bishops. If necessary, all this can be substantiated and proven by official statements and all kinds of documents written in support of these actions. The church of Metropolitan Philaret does not conceal these facts; she openly claims her inherent right to accept into their jurisdiction anyone, anywhere who wants to belong to “true and unadulterated Orthodoxy.” She may do all this in perfect good faith and total sincerity; she may be right or wrong — all this is debatable. What is not debatable, however, is that all of this deprives the “Sorrowful Epistle” of the canonical significance it may otherwise have had.

For indeed the appeal by one Orthodox bishop to “Primates, Metropolitans, Archbishops and all brother-bishops,” if it means anything at all, implies first of all this Bishop recognizes them as brothers i.e., as valid bishops, exercising the fulness of their rights, recognizes the canonical structure of the Orthodox Church and seeks the solution of a problem which be deems very serious through established canonical channels. But this is precisely what the “Russian Church Outside Russia” has consistently denied by her words and deeds. By unilaterally prejudging the question on which at the same time she seems to appeal to the universal Episcopate, by openly transgressing jurisdictional boundaries, by interfering jurisdictionally in the affairs of other Churches, she has created a schism and put herself out of communion with the Church Universal. But, then, what meaning could the “Sorrowful Epistle” have?

Controversy Legitimate 

These are not petty recriminations but questions of vital importance for the entire Orthodox Church — for her unity and order. There have often been serious disagreements among Orthodox bishops, theologians, Churches, etc. Only a few decades ago, for example, the very founder of the “Russian Church Outside Russia,” the late Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, was accused by some of his brothers in the Episcopate of holding and propagating an erroneous doctrine of the Redemption. The famous clash between two leading Russian hierarchs of the eighteenth century, Theophan Prokopovich and Stefan Yavorsky, has been described by Fr. Florovsky as the clash, on the Russian soil, between Latin and Protestant theologies. Did any of these cases destroy the unity of the Church? For one thing is to accuse — this right belongs to every one in the Church — and quite another thing is to judge and to decide: this can be done only by prescribed canonical procedure and our canons clearly define how and by whom bishops are to be judged.

It is conceivable that, once the accusation was made and pending the judgment, one Church ceases communion with another. What is inconceivable is that pending that judgment one Church proclaims herself to be the only true Church and assumes, on this basis, a universal jurisdiction and the right to interfere with jurisdictional rights of other Churches.

Schism in the Making 

One may ask, to which “brothers,” to which “Primates” is the “Sorrowful Epistle” addressed? The hierarchs of the Churches behind the Iron Curtain being disqualified as canonical bishops on political grounds; Constantinople as being already condemned; who remains? The Bishops of the Church of Serbia, whose Patriarch, by accepting the presidency of the WCC, is presumably guilty of some heresy? The Church of Greece, where the Church of Metropolitan Philaret openly supports the Old-Calendarists? The Church of Finland which not only has accepted the new calendar but even celebrates Easter according to the Western computation? The Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria who are in communion with both Constantinople and Moscow? Once more, the “Russian Church Outside Russia” may be right or wrong in her doctrinal stand — this is for the entire Church to decide — but on purely canonical grounds and of her own volition, she is in schism with the totality of the Orthodox Episcopate and her appeal to it as “brothers” is, to say the least, illogical and meaningless. One cannot at the same time be in and out. One cannot claim the right to judge the entire Church and at the same time appeal to her. One cannot pretend to uphold the canons and at the same time deny canonical protection to those whom she has already condemned.

All this constitutes exactly the essence of a schism. A schismatic group claims at first to be right against the particular Church from which it secedes, be it on doctrinal or disciplinary grounds. At this stage, it may be right or wrong — the decision ultimately belonging to the Church universal. The irreparable step, however, is taken when this group does not recognize the decision of the Church as binding it, either by not waiting for that decision or by rejecting it once it is reached. The Donatists in Africa appealed to the brother-bishops in Italy and Gaul, but when the decision did not support them, they proclaimed the whole Church to be wrong and themselves to be right. At this moment, the schism inevitably becomes “heresy” because of the denial of the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The logic of the schism is always the same, for it is always rooted in absolute self-righteousness — and it is indeed very instructive to follow the development of that schismatic mentality within the “Russian Church Outside Russia.”

Opposition to the Whole Church 

This church, as several other Russian ecclesiastical bodies, has its roots in the tragedy of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It developed in the context of the mass exodus of Russians from Bolshevik-dominated Russia and the almost total collapse of the ecclesiastical structures in Russia itself. Even then, from the formal point of view, the canonicity of that group was questionable, since it consisted almost exclusively of bishops having abandoned their dioceses (although each one of them kept his territorial title) and therefore formally deprived of their jurisdictional rights which a bishop can exercise only within his diocese, but certainly, not at large, wherever be goes. Some autocephalous Churches — Constantinople, Greece — immediately denied this new and extraterritorial group (“Outside Russia,” i.e., everywhere), any jurisdictional rights on their territories. Some others — Serbia, Bulgaria, Antioch, Jerusalem — in deference to the spiritual needs of thousands of exiled Russians, permitted de facto this group to function within their boundaries but only for ministering to Russian groups and on the condition of full recognition of their own jurisdictional rights. And for a long time the “Church Outside of Russia,” although challenged and not recognized by other Russian jurisdictions which arose from the same Russian tragedy, limited its claims exclusively to Russians, affirming at the same time that the Russian jurisdictional divisions were strictly an inner problem of the Russian Church for her alone to solve when she would recover her freedom. In essence, the “Church Outside of Russia” denied all other Churches the right to evaluate or judge the Russian ecclesiastical problem.

The situation was changed after 1927 (the year of the “legalization” of the Church in Russia) when the “Church Outside of Russia,” in addition to the stand — also taken by the other Russian jurisdictions — that the Russian Church, being deprived of freedom, cannot govern Russians in exile, officially rejected the Patriarchate of Moscow, denying its canonicity and validity even in Russia itself. Since all other autocephalous Churches, after some fluctuation, recognized the Patriarchate, the “Church Outside of Russia” found itself, from a formal point of view, still, in a schismatic situation. But the “Church Outside of Russia” took a paradoxical stand: while, on the one hand claiming to belong to the Church Universal, she, on the other, openly claims to have remained the “only true church,” and on the basis of their “apostasy” denies all other Churches the right to judge and to examine her own position. Her reasons? If it is not the recognition of Moscow, it is Ecumenism; if it is not Ecumenism, it is the calendar; it is not the calendar, it is the refusal to rebaptize the heterodox; and finally if it is not all this, it is “lukewarm piety.”

Open Questions 

Whether one wants to or not, there exist in the Orthodox Church several open questions on which the consensus of the Church has not been reached. A theologian, a bishop, even a local Church, may adopt or defend a particular answer to any of them, but they cannot claim that theirs is already the answer of the Church in her totality. Thus, for example, the leaders of the “Russian Church Outside of Russia” know perfectly well that the Russian Church, whose tradition they claim to maintain, for the last three hundred years did not rebaptize the heterodox whose baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity she could ascertain, and that texts for the three different rites for accepting the heterodox into the Church were approved and printed by the Holy Synod. This practice may have been wrong, for there existed other practices based on different theological presuppositions. The question, therefore, may be reopened and the consensus of the whole Church sought. But the “Church Outside of Russia,” changing the practice of the Russian Church, simply proclaims this to be the only possible practice and all those not accepting it, heretics. There is no consensus on Ecumenism, or on the calendar in the Orthodox Church, but so far, the divergence of views and practices, within a wider unity of Faith, was not considered as an obstacle to full communion, and above everything else, to a truly “Catholic” search for consensus.

Is it self-righteousness, this total certitude that she alone possesses the whole truth that finally led the “Russian Church Outside Russia” to the last and irreparable step of assuming the right to invite and accept anyone who shares her stand on any of these questions? By taking that step she has broken her canonical unity with the Orthodox Church both in principle and in reality. She went objectively and of her own volition into schism.


And thus the “Sorrowful Epistle” is wrongly addressed. It ought to have been addressed not to brother-bishops, for that brotherhood, the “Church Outside of Russia” has willingly and consciously broken, but to Orthodox people everywhere informing them that their bishops are no longer bishops, that their Churches are no longer Churches; that their Orthodoxy is no longer Orthodox, and inviting them to join the ultimate “remnant”, i.e., herself. This and this alone would have been loyal and consistent with the acts and pronouncements of the Church. Whenever she does anything unprecedented, the “Church Outside of Russia” always justifies it by the area of “apostasy” which she affirms has begun. But let her then officially announce that “apostasy” makes canons and procedures, jurisdictional rights, and due process irrelevant and unnecessary. Rather than hypocritically appeal to “Primates” and “brothers” whose rights she denies, let her officially inform them that she will accept anyone who comes to her from them, consecrate bishops on their territories, try to create schisms in their churches, judge and condemn without trial and that in doing all his she will be accountable to no one, for everyone else has already surrendered himself to apostasy.

To all those, however, who do not think that “apostasy” did begin in 1917, or with the appearance of Ecumenism, or with the calendar reform, but who knows on the basis of Holy Scripture that it has always been challenging the Church (“Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” I John 2:18) and who, therefore, believe that the canonical order and the canonical structures of the Church were created precisely in order that the Church may defend herself against apostasy; who furthermore believe that the Holy Spirit will heal every infinity and every weakness in the Church (and God knows there are many of them), who constantly see him at work in the patient and humble work of innumerable pastors, in the coming to church of new generations, all that panicking and fear and hatred are incomprehensible. What they see is the tragic and truly “sorrowful” birth of a new schism, which sooner or later, but inevitably, will take the path taken before it by Ebionites, Donatists, Montanists, Old Believers, etc. That path leads ultimately outside the Church herself; that path is literally a dead end.


But now what about Ecumenism and the alleged betrayal of the Orthodox delegates at Uppsala? Since I was not there I would rather see one of the delegates answer that part of the “Sorrowful Epistle.” I can only say that recently I read in “Le Monde”, Paris, an article by a leading Protestant in which he states that, in his opinion, the most significant fact in Uppsala was the “hardening of the Orthodox position” and very vocal Orthodox opposition to much of what was proposed by the “ecumenical establishment.”

Personally, I trust people like Fr. Florovsky, Prof. Verhovskoy, Fr. Meyendorff, Archbishop Basil Krivoscheine, Fr. Livery Voronov and many others who are not likely to “sell out” Orthodoxy, but must be rather credited for making Orthodoxy known in the whole Western world, whose ignorance of it was truly abysmal. No one of them is happy about Uppsala, about the present trend of the ecumenical movement and no one has concealed orally or in writing, his opposition to it. But there are many Westerners also who oppose the same trends and who fight alongside our Orthodox delegates. The unity of “Ecumenism” is a myth which makes it impossible to use this term as the name of a “heresy.” There is good “ecumenism” and bad “ecumenism.” And as long as the Orthodox are permitted to fight for the “good” one against the “bad” one, as long as their voice is heard, as long as their consensus (with a few possible exceptions) remains obvious and in fact increases, the question of the usefulness of our participation in events like Uppsala may be debated as well as that of our tactics, greater unity, better preparation, etc., but there should be no room for accusations of betrayal and innuendos of all kinds.

Most certainly “Ecumenism,” as well as the interpretations are given it by Patriarch Athenagoras or Archbishop Iakovos or Metropolitan Philaret or any other high Orthodox dignitary, must be on the agenda for serious Orthodox discussion. An Orthodox consensus here must be reached. But to use this issue for adding new divisions to our Church, for creating an atmosphere of suspicion, hatred, accusations and ultimately, schisms, seems to me a tragedy and a sin.

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