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Friday, May 11, 2007

That they may be one, as we are One

The day fast approaches. Since my reception into the Orthodox Church last year, I have heard much about the difficult history of the Church since the Russian revolution of the early 20th century, and of the upcoming restoration of normal relations between the Church in Russia and the Russian Church Abroad. I have read and conversed and learnt a fair amount, and have received e-mails telling my why reunion is right, why it is wrong, why now is the right time, why now is the wrong time, which are the "true" and "genuine" Orthodox churces, and which are Orthodox in name only. I have seen people leave my parish and diocese, and seen the tears shed.

Now that is past and gone. Those who, in their heart of hearts, could not see this as anything but bad have now left. We must continue to pray for them and ask them to do the same for us, in charity, and not a sense of smug pride that we are right and they wrong. Many who remain have concerns but also have faith, and they trust our bishops. There is still some sadness. It seems that one of our convents will keep true to its declaration that it would leave us when the day comes. Let us pray that this is the last of the divisions and that both those who have left and those who remain may now get past the upset of the past few years. This seems to be the message of the emotive statement of Fr Pimen Simon.

Deo volente, on Thursday of next week, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, when the human nature which He fully possessed, raised from the jaws of death, was raised gloriously into the heavenly state, the Russian church will once again be one. Our cup will be a common cup, we will share in full Eucharistic Communion at the Lord's Banquet. I cannot wait. I was updating our parish schedule of services recently, and saw that we are to take part this year in the pan-Orthodox pilgrimage to St Winefride's well at Holywell. We had Fr Dcn Joseph from the cathedral at Ennismore Gardens in our congregation on Sunday just gone. There is a real sense that we are fast approaching the fullness of relations with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. It is a lovely feeling. I get the sense of the Ascension here, of God bringing that which was fallen into himself and restoring it to wholeness. In the same way as our human nature, He is restoring the unity to the Orthodox Church that it perhaps had not maintained to the best of its ability, through human failings in Russia and a lack of willingness to forgive outside of Russia. The Soviet days are behind us and Christ is making all things new. And what better a place could be found to host this wondrous event than Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, itself a symbol of the resurgence of Orthodoxy after the attempts of the godless authority to suppress the Faith of Christ?

I'm extremely excited about the whole affair. Please continue to pray for our hierarchs and our people as we enter this joyous feast of Ascension and once again enjoy the fullness of the Catholicity of the Church.

In the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us, to shine upon those in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

from the Benedictus

There is to be a live webcast of the services on Russia Today. The greeting of His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus is to take place at 9.15 a.m. Moscow time. It would be wonderful for as many people as possible to know about this so do spread the word.

O Master all-good, watch over Thy flock and all the children of the Russian Church Abroad, that we may bring about the structuring of our Church in a manner well-pleasing to Thee. Grant us the spirit of wisdom and understanding; instill in our hearts the spirit of the fear of God, the spirit of piety and zeal for the glory of Thy holy Name. Guard us against all temptations, stumbling-blocks and divisions, that, bound together, one to another, by the bond of love for Thee, our Master, we may without hindrance perform the work of our ministry for the edification of the Holy Church as the one Body of Christ. We pray Thee, O greatly Merciful One: hearken and have mercy!

O good Shepherd, Who hast promised to gather Thy scattered sheep into a single flock, put down scandal and division within the Church; all who have strayed from Thy path do Thou lead to repentance and a knowledge of the Truth, and return them to Thy fold; and confirm us all in the Orthodox Faith and the doing of Thy commandments. We pray Thee: hearken and have mercy!


Elizabeth said...

for what it is worth, I think it is brilliant news and I pray that all goes smoothly next week.

I grieve at the loss of Brookwood and Lesna, but doubtless God will draw much good out of the reunion nevertheless.

Ut Unum Sint..........

Michael Astley said...

Prayers offered here as well, Elizabeth. What a wonderful thing to be able to be part of! This is history right here in the making.

May God continue to direct the hearts of our bishops.

seasick said...

Before I say any of the following, may I say that I rejoice at the restoration of communion between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate and continue to pray for the restoration of full communion throughout the church. I don't want to spoil the party, as it were, but the following raised a question that has been in my head for a while, so I thought I'd beg your indulgence to ask it.

He is restoring the unity to the Orthodox Church that it perhaps had not maintained to the best of its ability, through human failings in Russia and a lack of willingness to forgive outside of Russia.

This is the sort of language that ecumenists like me would use of a great swathe of different Christian traditions, and from which, as I understand it (and please correct me if I have misunderstood) Orthodoxy would wish to distance itself. Furthermore, I've often seen Orthodoxen argue that a division of the church would suggest a prevailing of hell's gates against it, contrary to Our Lord's promise. How do you/does Orthodoxy see the divisions within Orthodoxy against that context?


Michael Astley said...

Goodness, Mark! You're not spiling the party at all. Thanks for your good wishes and for joining in the jubilation. :-) I really can't wait until next week. It's having some positive effects for us locally as well but that's all I can really say for now about that.

About the second point, bearing in mind that I've come late to the show, as I understand it, the poor relations between Moscow and ROCOR have not been at their core matters of faith. Neither the Church in Russia nor the Church outside Russia was ever guilty of departing from the Orthodox Faith.

In fact, if I have understood correctly, there was never an actual severing of communion, but rather a suspension of concelebration, partly because of the political situation in Russia, which led to the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate (out of necessity and for its own survival) portraying to the outside world an image of a free church in Russia (of which its initial involvement in the World Council of Churches was part), the encouragement by Metropolitan Sergius of the Russian people to submit to the Soviet will over that of the Church, and ROCOR's reaction against all of this, leading to its establishing communion with, and ordaining hierarchs for, Old Calendarist groups.

I'm not passing judgement on any of the above. I cannot possibly begin to imagine the situation under which people lived and under which the Church in Russia tried to survive. Hand on heart, I cannot say that in Met. Sergius's situation, I wouldn't have been sorely tempted to do the same thing for the sake of survival. That isn't to say that it was in any way right, or to condone what many perceive as cowardice at a time when Martyr-blood was being shed all around. My point is that, while these were practices fell short of our Christian, yet free-world perceptions of honesty and morality, they do not indicate a doctrinal stance of the Church in Russia that was at variance with Orthodoxy.

My knowledge of the history isn't exhaustive but I am not aware of an actual doctrinal position having been adopted by the Moscow Patriarchate along the lines of what is referred to as Sergianism, teaching that the Church must be subordinate to the state, however godless it may be, or that all Christian confessions are indeed part of the Church (which is another concern raised by many who oppose the union). The Church of Russia was never declared by ROCOR to be without grace or outside the Church, and during the Soviet years, the ROCOR Liturgy prayed for the "suffering Church of Russia". I have been led to believe (and I am willing to be corrected on this), that while Archbishop (now Saint) John of Shanghai was in China, he was temporarily under the omophor of the Moscow Patriarchate because he was cut off from the ROCOR Synod. This would never have been the case if they had been seen to have departed from the Orthodox Faith.

Even if it had, Orthodoxy has the concept of economy, in which the Church's normal mode of operation may be dispensed with temporarily where particular circumstances make this pastorally beneficial or necessary for survival. The situation with the Russian Church in Russia and Abroad over this past century was canonically unprecedented. Many have called ROCOR uncanonical but the fact is that it cannot be so called because we have no canons to conver such an eventuality. It is true that our existence was certainly outside of canonical norms and if the Church in Russia compromised itself during Soviet times, then its existence was much the same.

The fact, though, is that, a decade after the circumstances that caused the irregular situation came to an end, the process began to restore canonical norms, by ROCOR seeking to submit once again to its canonical parent church, even though this has meant the end of the relations it had with the Old Calendarists and much internal turmoil, and by the parent church seeking to alleviate concerns about its behaviour under Soviet Rule by publishing its stance on matters such as Sergianism and Ecumenism, which are in accordance with Orthodox doctrine, and by glorfying the New Martyrs, thereby being honest about what its leaders had previously denied: that the Church in Russia was indeed persecuted under Soviet rule.

If we want to draw a comparison between Moscow & ROCOR and Orthodoxy & the non-Orthodox, then what I see here is Moscow saying, 'Okay, this is what we believe, this is our Faith. See how it is Orthodox. We want to show you that we are making right what went wrong', and ROCOR saying, 'Yes, we are satisfied that your Faith is intact, we submit to you as our parent church, making right where we went wrong'. This is what I don't see happening in the ecumenical movement. Rather, I see attempts at compromise and to find common ground in beliefs and practices currently adhered to, as though the Truth isn't already revealed, and while I know and accept that this is a perfectly legitimate standpoint from a particular perspective, and while I respect those who see things from that perspective, I don't see it as analogous to what is happening between ROCOR and Moscow, where the the divisions are of a different nature nd are being resolved by adhering to a mutually-accepted ecclesiology, which is itself seen as an article of the faith common to both.

Does that make any sort of sense or have I just waffled in that way that I often have occasion to do?

Anonymous said...

Many prayers from Down Under; God willing, I'll be at a Russian church here on Ascension Day to celebrate. [And I'll watch the video too.][

Thank you Mark for asking, and Michael, as always, a helpful explanation -- to me, I had misunderstandings in a few areas you've cleared up.

Michael Astley said...

Thanks, Ian, for your prayers and kind words.

I don't know how good my explanation is. As you know, I'm fairly new to all this. Even as recently as two years ago, I was largely oblivious to the situation in Russia over the past century. I grew up on a small island where Russia was a far, distant land that people on the American news channels (the island had one TV station that broadcast for 12 hours out of the day) occasionally talked about, but we never saw any Russian people, heard any Russians speak, and had no Orthodox churches. There was nothing to connect our experience with the goings on on the other side of the world.

Only last year did I begin to get to know about this business but it has all been by reading articles, essays, and speaking with the people who lived through much of it - not through any first-hand involvement. I cannot claim to speak with authority, especially as there are conflicting reports from various people.

One constant that I have heard, though, and that I think is worth mentioning in light of what I said above about ROCOR never having declared Moscow to be outside the Church, is that there was a definite shift in the stance of ROCOR in the 20th century. There are those who see this as a good thing and others as not so good, but they all agree that it happened. ROCOR has a reputation for being conservative before it is Orthodox. I think that in the current climate of false Ecumenism and the unfortunate actions of understandable desperation of the Oecumenical Patriarch, there does need to be a healthy degree of caution, but ROCOR was not always seen as being arch-conservative.

From what I have been told, this change was due largely to "the Grabbe brothers" (of whom I know nothing), and the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (which left us many years ago to form its own jurisdiction), which at one time was responsible for ROCOR's publishing and gained a hefty degree of influence. It sought to teach that Moscow was without grace, and it seemed to have had a following among ROCOR people. Would you believe that there was a time that ROCOR was involved in efforts along the lines of the World Council of Churches? I think it's a good thing that this particular practice came to an end but I say this to highlight how different ROCOR was from its present-day image. Now that the shift has begun to be reversed, and ROCOR is returning to its more moderate (but still cautious and traditional Orthodox) positions, there are many who find it difficult, and that's understandable. I came too late to the show to have been immersed in the ROCOR that was seen as the last bastion of Orthodoxy and so I cannot condemn anybody. I wouldn't want to anyway.

The point is that both the Church in Russia and outside Russia have had their dark hours, but this is now in the past. I think that this move towards canonically normal relations, including the restoration of all that comes with being in full communion, is a right and good thing.

Pascha! With joy let us embrace one another.

seasick said...

Michael, thanks for that helpful explanation. I suppose the summary of my question is something along the lines of 'When is a division in the church not a division in the church?' and the answer is 'When it's not on a matter of faith', which I think makes sense.

Michael Astley said...

Oh that I could be as succinct as that! I always seem to use as many words as possible to express what really only needs a few to make a point well. You've a gift, Mark, and I'm sure it shows in your sermons.

Abd you're very welcome.