Canonical status of hierarchs

The following article is taken from the December 1997 issue of the Diocesan News of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver, reprinted also in the OCA newspaper “The Orthodox Church”. It is excerpted below. The full article, which addresses issues also of the reception of converts into the Orthodox Church, can be viewed on the Denver Diocese’s web page.

In regard to the second concern, there has been widespread, indiscriminate, and irresponsible use of the terms “heretical” and “schismatic” by some individuals to condemn and excoriate those hierarchs and jurisdictions with whom they are not in agreement. First, the distinction between heresy and schism should be clearly defined and understood.

Heresies are doctrines (teachings and beliefs) that contravene revealed characteristics of God’s nature, and are therefore condemned by the Church as fraudulent. Heresies contradict the irrefutable and eternally true statements of fact that have been cautiously proclaimed by the Church as dogmas which describe the correct (orthodox) understanding about an aspect of God. Belief in a heresy cuts one off from the Body of Christ; i.e., puts one outside the Church.

A schism is an administrative breach of communion within the Church. It does not necessarily place the party or parties outside the Church permanently, although it is a separation from the Body of the Church. Schismatics share the same faith and uphold the same dogmatic principles; yet they refute the existing communion in faith because of some lesser disagreement.

It can be said that of the two, schism is worse than heresy. Presuming that a heretic is sincere in his belief – however erroneous – it could be that God may at least judge him on the basis of his sincerity, his personal integrity, and his consistency of action in regard to his principles. The schismatic, on the other hand, has willfully separated himself from others who share the same beliefs, thus denying the truth that unity and communion exist in the very confession of the same truth. Heresy might be seen as a sin of error, while schism is a sin against truth itself.

With this in mind, the canonical principle universally followed in the Orthodox Church is that clergy may only separate themselves from the authority of their Bishop (or from communion with others) when he is/they are in heresy – actually one might say that a heretical hierarch has separated himself from his flock by his heretical act. A determination of heretical standing, however, is a consensus of the whole Church, not merely of clergy and laity but also of the Synod to which that Bishop belongs – it is never a matter of personal opinion and judgment. Clergy are not free to transfer themselves from the authority of one bishop, nor do they even request their own release from their Bishop to another. The canonical procedure is that a Bishop may request of another Bishop the release of a particular clergyman. By the same token, a Bishop may not receive under his obedience any clergyman who has not been released by his canonical Bishop.

The laity, on the other hand, do transfer freely from one parish to another, and from one Dicoese to another, according to the circumstances of their geographic travels. It is most prudent, however, that the laity move between parishes and/or jurisdictions in their immediate locale only after seeking the guidance of their spiritual father, confessor or pastor.

Tragically, however, there are clergy who, without the blessing of their Bishop, separate themselves from him and seek to be recognized and received by another hierarch. Worse, they justify their actions by denouncing their bishop as a heretic and/or declaring their former jurisdiction as being “without grace.” Such actions carry with them the most grave responsibility – and potentially the most severe consequences – because an accounting will be demanded of them by God at their judgment. The most woeful and grievous act that they sometimes commit is that they sometimes even encourage other clergy and laity to follow them. These actions are extremely dangerous and are filled with peril: it should be very clear that to denounce a Bishop as a heretic is an extreme action that can never be taken lightly and certainly never for reasons of personal animosity.

Yet, with increasing frequency Bishops – particularly those associated with SCOBA – are being accused of apostasy and heresy (especially of the “Heresy of Ecumenism”) by renegade and irresponsible (or at least grossly misinformed) individuals. To be sure, the Ecumenist notion of ignoring theological differences between denominations and the supposed union in some sort of world-religion Ecumenical faith is truly a Pan-Heresy insofar as it proposes a ridiculous conglomeration of Western, heterodox Christian theologies, each of which to one degree or another embraces various of the ancient heresies that have been denounced and condemned as anathema by the local and Ecumenical Councils of the historic and Apostolic Orthodox Church.

It should be made very clear, however, that the official Orthodox participation in the international, national, and local Ecumenical organizations has as its sole purpose the opening of dialogue with the heterodox in the hope that they will eventually be united with us in professing the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Orthodox faith. Whether these dialogues will in fact result in such a hoped-for return of the heterodox to the Orthodox Church remains arguable; such discussions necessarily can only take place at the level of secondary or intellectual – rather than essential or spiritual – theology.

During his recent visit to the United States, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stated repeatedly that he prays and hopes for the union of all Christians, while very clearly underscoring that this must be a unity in faith – specifically in the Orthodox faith which he stressed is the only genuine and true Christian faith. Lest anyone believe that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, wishes to capitulate to the Pan- Heresy of Ecumenism, witness the consternation of other religious leaders upon hearing these words from His All Holiness as we widely reported in the national, secular media.

On the other hand, individual participation in the Ecumenical organizations by Orthodox laity, clergy, and hierarchs is solely on a personal basis and might before many and varied reasons or purposes. Should such individuals – or for that matter any other of the faithful – hold a personal view that “all religions are the same,” that “all gods are one,” or other such erroneous and illogical notions, they are in error, misinformed, or not thinking clearly – and such fact can place them outside the Body of Christ.

Likewise a hierarch who personally holds some belief or opinion at odds with the teaching of the Church, and perhaps expresses this to others, is a sinner – and can be outside the Body of Christ. Yet, the personal sins and failures of clergy – however great – do not transfer to, and thus do not negate, the reality of the Mysteries they celebrate. To be sure, it would be tragic if they did because we acknowledge that no one lives and does not sin: for Jesus Christ is alone without sin! Even if a hierarch or other clergyman commits actions that are sinful and even scandalous to the Church, he alone bears responsibility at his judgment before God for his sins and for any attendant scandal. But this does not necessarily place him outside the Church, obviate the Mysteries he celebrates, or invalidate the ecclesial office he holds.

Only when a hierarch, other clergyman, or layperson holds – and moreover maintains in knowing disregard for the teachings and admonitions of the Church – some antithetical belief contrary to the dogma of the Orthodox faith is he ever denounced as a heretic and his beliefs accursed as anathema. It is solely these individuals who are considered to be outside the Church and thus not united to the Body of Christ. Their eternal disposition, however, will be determined by God alone – the only all-good and all-righteous Judge.

Yet, certain clergy and laity have even casually and offhandedly dismissed some hierarchs and synods in America as being heretical and outside the Church. We thus rightly ask: Where are such heretical Bishops? Which of our hierarchs has publicly maintained and held to a heretical belief and refused to submit to the authority and discipline of the Church? Who are these supposedly apostate and dissident Bishops?

Let us be clear to distinguish between heretical and sinful Bishops – indeed between heretical and sinful priests, deacons, and laity. Sinful people are, of course, ubiquitous; each and every one of us is a sinner. But this fact does not obviate the sanctity of the Body of Christ to which we are joined and of which we are members – lest our sins somehow have condemned Christ Himself and the gates of hell do in fact prevail against His Church.

Quite the contrary: we are joined to His Body, the Church, so that our sins might be remitted and that we might receive His righteousness in place of our iniquities. Let us also carefully note that even such luminaries of the Church as the Blessed Augustine and Saint Gregory of Nyssa were never branded as heretics nor declared anathema although their personal writings and thoughts have been deemed by the Church to contain errors and notions inconsistent with our Apostolic faith. Our Bishops always support, teach, and defend the Apostolic faith and the dogmas of our Orthodox Church despite any personal misgivings or doubts and notwithstanding their private and public sins and errors.

.Renascent Donatism. The great danger posed to the Orthodox Church in North America today is renascent Donatism. Individuals who believe that the efficacy or reality of a Mystery depends upon the spiritual condition of the clergyman who celebrates them affirm the heretical belief called Donatism which was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Carthage in AD 404.

The Donatist heresy manifests itself also when individuals proclaim that certain churches or jurisdictions – and thus their Mysteries – are “without grace.” This is a sin against the Holy Spirit Who manifests Himself both within and without the Orthodox Church according to the Divine Will. Such Donatistic denial of grace is often a subterfuge to which individuals may resort when trying to justify either their abandonment of their own Bishop or the condemnation of a supposed schismatic element in the Church. Donatistic positions are often assumed by those who are overly preoccupied by juridical correctness and jurisdictional canonicity. Perhaps it would be better to avoid such legalisms, which in any event are foreign to the Orthodox fronema (mind set), and simply to accept the fact that canonical anomalies are currently unavoidable in the new and unusual administrative circumstances encountered by the Orthodox Church in this multi-national, multi-ethnic, heterogeneous American society.

Legalists who misuse the Sacred Canons and the Holy Fathers to hurt innocent people – or even guilty people, for that matter – are not champions of the Faith and traditionalists. They are misanthropes – haters of their fellow men – which is a terrible sin.

“Love without truth is false; truth without love is ingenuine.”

posted April 15, 1998