Monday, July 9, 2007

Unity vs. Truth?

I just finished reading the article "Anti-Patristic: The Stance of the Zealot Old Calendarists" (hat tip to Christopher at Orrologion for calling my attention to the article). The author of the article, Monk Basil, largely shares the underlying Old Calendarist and anti-ecumenist stances of those he argues against. Yet, citing Church history and the writings of the Fathers, he disputes and refutes their rationalizations for initiating and maintaining a schism from canonical Orthodoxy. He finds that the Fathers were reluctant to break communion over anything short of a conciliarly defined heresy. And even in those instances they were ready to apply economy (pastoral discretion) generously in order to regain their excommunicated brothers.

The article concludes with a case study, the life of St. Sophronius, which illustrates patristic forebearance toward heretical opponents for the sake of avoiding provocation of an unnecessary schism. In the early 7th century, the Monophysite schism, which had resulted from the Council of Chalcedon, was nearly two centuries old. Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was promoting Monothelitism, which was intended as a compromise that would bring together those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon and those who rejected it. In 633, St. Sophronius traveled to Constantinople and Alexandria in an effort to persuade Patriarchs Sergius and Cyrus, respectively, of their errors in teaching Monothelitism. The following year, St. Sophronius became Patriarch of Jerusalem. In his enthronement epistle to his fellow patriarchs, all of whom favored the Monothelite heresy (including Pope Honorius), he boldly proclaimed the Orthodox belief in Christ's two natures and two wills. "Nevertheless," writes Monk Basil, "he refers to Sergius as 'the most holy of all bishops, and most blessed brother and concelebrant Sergius'. He asked him to acept his dogmatic epistle and to send the 'longed for letters', which will clearly express the correct faith." By this point, Sergius had already been teaching the Monothelite heresy for nearly two decades, yet St. Sophronius did not break communion with him, as indicated by his reference to Sergius as concelebrant, in the faint hope that Sergius would repent. There is no evidence that St. Sophronius broke communion with Sergius and Honorius before they all died in 638.

St. Sophronius would neither compromise the truth for the sake of unity, as the Monothelites desired, nor would he sacrifice unity for the cause of truth, as modern zealots demand. In short, he rejected the false choice between unity and truth.

In this era, when nearly every church has its purist-zealots who are eager to separate over the pettiest of differences, it is heartening to read of the Fathers' extreme hesistation to break communion. I think history shows that the Fathers were correct. Heresies often fade with the deaths of their respective heresiarchs, but schisms can persist long after their intial justifications become moot. Schism should always be a long-delayed last-resort response to persistent, documented, unrepented heresy, not a knee-jerk reaction to a passing fad or weak theology.

In the ongoing disintegration of Anglicanism, we see the spectacle of impatient bishops on both sides demonstrating their contempt for the Anglican Communion – and, indeed, for the Body of Christ – by instituting hasty, ad hoc schisms, ignoring the documents they signed and the procedures they initiated to strengthen the communion and bring to account those who cannot abide by the Anglican consensus.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI this weekend, in the explanatory letter accompanying his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, showed great concern for unity:
I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this Motu Proprio updating that of 1988. It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew. I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return . . . widen your hearts also!" (2 Cor 6:11-13). Paul was certainly speaking in another context, but his exhortation can and must touch us too, precisely on this subject. Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.


abuian said...

Was it intentional to post this piece on the day when, in the new calendar, St. Anthony, founder of the Kiev Caves, is commemorated? You might notice that he began his monastic life on Athos at, of all places, Esphigmenou!

In related news, Matthew Raphael Johnson has an interesting "sermon" on his site about Old Calendarist schismania. As a priest under the Synod of Milan, he writes from a bit further inside the camp he critiques, but it's healthy nonetheless.

Shawn S. said...

I think that an understanding of life in a conciliar church has largely been lost. Many questions loom when considering ordering a new valid council of the Church of God: What would constitute a valid council, rather than simply a synod or other juridical body? Who would gather such a body? Under what understanding could estranged parts of the Body of Christ gather?

In any case, even if a new council isn't convened, there are plenty of examples of conciliarly (four, seven, eight, or whatever) defined heresy being taught around the body of Christ. If such a standard is to be the arbiter of schism and truth, even pastorally applied, there is much pruning that could be done. You're right, though, that schisms are rarely healed and should not be entered into lightly or hastily. What I search for, however, is some means by which disunified parts of the Body that recognize each other, while even imperfectly, can join in council, communion, and potentially, orders.

To me, these issues, more than many others, are ones that the Church needs to address to adequately move forward in its Christian witness and ministry to the world.


Anonymous said...

"St. Sophronius would neither compromise the truth for the sake of unity, ... nor would he sacrifice unity for the cause of [relatively minor] truth." (A quibble on formulation indicated by the square brackets.)

The interesting point in some contexts is that the whole purpose of zealots seeking truth is to give oneself "cause" to split off from others. (How would I know how pure I am if everyone were agreed?) To which there is an interesting consequence for many modern zealots: that having sacrificed unity for "truth," they proceed to sacrifice truth for advancement. (Since I am *so* pure, any association with others is an intolerable compromise, is it not? Therefore, since I must associate, I may compromise whatever I please.)

take care,


Arimathean said...

Trevor - I was not aware of the coincidence of the dates. In fact, I cannot even confirm that St. Anthony is associated with 8 July.

I printed the sermon to read and placed it towards the top of my reading pile. In skimming over it I found some troubling assertions (e.g., his absurd claim that the KGB no longer exists), but I'll try to overlook them, as I did in the original article I was commenting on.

Shawn - There are various levels of councils holding various kinds of authority. But ultimately no council can judge itself. Every council is judged by later councils - and some councils that called themselves "Ecumenical" at the time were later condemned. It can take a few generations for the Church to arrive at a consensus on difficult questions. It is for that reason that it is unwise to jump to a hasty schism that could be later regretted. And, of course, schismatic churches can always find reasons to dismiss councils they don't like.

I don't see how churches that are not in communion with each other could jointly hold anything resembling a council. They can talk about their apparent differences in order to 1) determine whether these apparent differences are real differences, and if so to define those differences, and 2) talk over real differences to try to persuade each other to abandon their respective errors. But until they achieve sufficient agreement to be in communion, there is no basis to hold a council together. Ecumenism in the modern sense is a very different thing than an Ecumenical Council, even if they have the same Greek root.

While the zealots would all classify me as soft on ecumenism, I actually take a pretty hard line against compromising on Orthodox doctrine. (That will come as no surprise to those who know I was arguing for Orthodox doctrine the entire time I was Anglican!) There are some, for instance, who favor a reunion with the Nonchalcedonians on the basis of agreed Christological formulations. As far as I'm concerned, they should either accede to Chalcedon or remain in schism.

As to who could call a council, I think any bishop or body of bishops could call a council within their own sphere of authority, but then it could rule authoritatively only on matters within its sphere - and subject to being overruled by later or higher councils. History is replete with local councils. Most have been forgotten, but a few took on important questions and were later confirmed by higher councils.

The seven (or eight) Ecumenical Councils were all called by Byzantine Emperors. Therefore, it is not clear who could call an Ecumenical Council today. Some suggest that until Rome and the East are reunited, neither has the authority to call its councils Ecumenical, but I suspect that theory would be unpopular in both churches.

There was a worldwide Pan-Orthodox Congress in 1923, but its decisions (including use of the New Calendar) have still not been fully implemented. If the Orthodox cannot recognize its authority as binding on the whole Church, then there is, in practice, no way for us to call anything resembling an Ecumenical Council today.

John - Regarding the importance of the truth that St. Sophronius was defending, I must disagree. He was defending the very truth that I named my blog after - the two natures of Christ. Monothelitism would have revived the Monophysite heresy under a new formulation, essentially setting aside Chalcedon.

I agree that those who pose as zealots often have an ulterior motive for desiring schism. Both the Nestorian and Monophysite schisms, for instance, were as much about nationalistic politics as they were about doctrine.

abuian said...

Sorry--I didn't see the post until the morning of July 10 and assumed you must have posted it the night before (which would be the same day liturgically). I see that it's dated 24 hrs. earlier than I thought, but if blogger acts the way for you that it does for me, that only reflects when you started to write, not necessarily when you actually posted. Anyway, I was referring to July 10, not July 9.

Arimathean said...


I read the "Sermon on the Old Calendarists" by Fr. Matthew Raphael Johnson. I found the too-frequent passing swipes at his ideological opponents tiresome, but I understand that he needed to begin by establishing his credibility with his Old Calendarist audience before he could ask them to consider their own sins.

I think he is correct to emphasize the importance of pastoral concerns. The whole point of teaching and protecting Orthodox doctrine is to protect the flock from the evil consequences of heresy. (This point reminded me of the title of Bp. Fitzsimmons Allison's book, The Cruelty of Heresy.) If, in the process of resisting heresy, a bishop subjects his flock to even greater dangers, then he has failed. Heresy is not the only thing that can endanger one's soul. Therefore, the author does well to counsel humility and patience, two virtues with which it's hard to go wrong.

I think his warnings against clericalism are also well placed. Orthodoxy, at least in its current canonical manifestation, has avoided the excesses of clericalism that one finds in Cathoicism and many other Western churches. It sounds like the Old Calendarists often fall vicitim to Western-style clericalism.

Ultimately, however, I fear that he embraces an essentially Protestant ecclesiology. When he says, "Our identity is to be found in doctrine, our confession and our struggles, not being a 'part' of the 'right' synod," he sounds exactly like Evangelicals when they downplay the significance of denominational structures in favor of a pan-denominational Evangelical movement, united by principles rather than bureaucracy. It is hard to reconcile this loose sort of ecclesiology with an Orthodox understanding of the visible Church, incarnate in the world. It says, essentially, "We have the Mind of Christ and can therefore live without the Body of Christ."

His fourth point reminds me of the Continuing Anglican churches:

Our differences are far outweighed by our sense of purpose. While bishops disagree, the common people do not. When ordinary old calendarists meet one another, the petty disagreements of the bihops disappear, and is rendered irrelevant.

This pretty well describes the relationships between the three major Continuing churches (ACA, ACC, and APCK). The people in the pews see themselves as united by Anglo-Catholic tradition and worship, no matter the petty squabbles between their bishops. But the resulting ecclesiology is inherently, if unintentionally, Protestant. That's the only reason why I could not join one of these churches.

While I'm tempted to go on about the essentially Protestant nature of the whole Old Calendar movement, I'll save that for another time.

abuian said...

I agree about Old Calendarism and Protestant ecclesiology. It's probably the main reason that, as much as I might at times sympathize with their critiques of the canonical jurisdictions (in particular, the EP), I cannot agree with their "solution." It smells much too much like the too-Baptist-to-be-Baptist mentality I've encountered in Protestantism.

At the same time, though, Orthodox ecclesiology has never quite fit into the top-down structure of Rome. For me, it still seems like a slippery thing. On one hand, the hierarchy and apostolic succession are critical in a way that is totally foreign to Protestantism; on the other hand, there is also a bottom-up force that at times allows the Orthodoxy of the masses to overrule the heresy of their leaders. It seems to me the most authentic ecclesiology for its very tension (who would invent such a system?), but it's also difficult to pin down how it all fits together.

On this particular issue, perhaps the key difference between the too-Protestant approach of the Old Calendarists and the more Orthodox approach of, say, the advocates of a united American Church, is that the latter says, let's start acting with each other like we're one Church, and eventually the jurisdictions will sort themselves out, while the former says, let's remember that we're all in this together, because the jurisdictions will never sort themselves out.

Unknown said...