The MP-EP Schism: It’s Not a Surprise; It is a Big Deal

What are we to make of this recent development in World Orthodoxy which, while percolating for some time, bubbled over this week when the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided that, functioning as a court of last appeal, it would (25+ years post hoc) reinstate the deposed bishop Filaret Denysenko, along with other claimants to being self-headed Ukrainian synods, and their clergy and declare them canonical, thus enabling their participation in a future Ukrainian council to receive a Tomos of Autocephaly?  That’s a really long question that barely encapsulates the rough outline of the dispute which led the Moscow patriarchate, in response, to sever all ecclesiastical relations with the EP, noting that he had joined himself to schism – which is a passive voiced way of saying he is a schismatic.[1]

On the one hand, as members of the GOC/TOC Old Calendarists synods, we can say that truly this has no effect on us, as we recognized the erring ways and papal pretentions on the EP back in 1924 and cut ties with him and his supporters.  As minority claimants, a very different position than Moscow holds, we paid a heavy price with persecutions, official oppression and condemnations coming from most Orthodox bodies, ROCOR excepted.  We have been fighting the EP for almost a century and other than noting that “we told you so” – this present decision does not alter our day to day practice of the faith in the least.

On the other hand, the actions of Moscow surely give new validity to the course of resistance that the GOC/TOC has carved out for the last 95 years.  As I noted in a discussion group with a ROCOR member, “We separated from the EP and their Greek synod over non-conciliar actions by the EP which were adopted by the Greek synod. Is that very different than what has just happened?”  Because it really isn’t.  It’s just bigger, on a larger scale, and much more significant in the world’s eyes, owing to the political undertones attached to this.

If I had a third hand, I would point out that many of the arguments used against us by world Orthodox members are suddenly seen in a whole new light.  “If you aren’t in communion with the EP, you aren’t Orthodox” is no longer an argument any Slavophile can assert.  Likewise the feigned empathy coupled with a rejoinder that one simply does not separate from the EP over non-dogmatic issues[2] is lost to those who side with Russia.

But let’s look at this from a different perspective.  Today there are a lot of people in pain.  Devout men and women who have been attending parishes affiliated with the Russians or the EP went to bed last night in a decidedly different world than the one they woke up in.  As an aside, I have read some westerners claiming this makes no difference to us because we can continue communing wherever we want regardless of what the bishops say.  That’s Protestantism and if you believe that, you should stop taking communion until you have accepted the ecclesiology of the Orthodox church and repented from your rebellion.  The Greeks are being told they are schismatic.  The Russians are being told that they can no longer share a common cup with their friends and neighbors.  Concelebrations, and presumably clergy loan agreements, have come to a stop.  If they hold to an Orthodox ecclesiology, their worlds are profoundly different today.

For these people, let us pray for peace for them and peace for the whole world.  They did not ask to be in the middle of this dispute.  They did not ask to have to choose between friends and family.  Put aside the theological, canonical and ecclesiological arguments and pray for these people who are troubled.

But let us also say this, briefly and with no sense of triumphalism.  The GOC/TOC understands the grave errors present in the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We condemn its papal aspirations and its non-conciliar decision-making.   It’s intrusion into the Ukraine is not a deviation from its prior course.  It is a natural progression of a See that is as attracted to worldly power and glory as its “brother” in Rome.

Let us also give no quarter to the starry eyed who characterize this as “no big deal,” people such as Ancient Faith Radio celebrity priest Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick who contends that “[b]reaks in communion are actually fairly frequent and even normal, despite always being unfortunate.”  Others chime in blithely citing the simmering breach in communion between Antioch and Jerusalem.  This is not a tiff between two men about power, as we see with Antioch and Jerusalem.  This is about nothing less than ecclesiology: how we understand the structure of the Church and the perogatives of the first among equals (who baldly aggregated to itself an official position that it stands as first without equals).[3]  This is a battle founded on many of the same concerns which mirrored the split of the East and West which we now date to 1054.  And let us note the disingenuous arguments of those who say this is not a full fledged schism because of shared communion with other local churches.  The same could be said of the Great Schism circa 1055.  And though it may not have been cemented until a couple of centuries later, the date we attach to the schism is 1054 and the act is the issuance of the papal bull of excommunication.  This is not a small deal; it is a massive upheaval.  The first in power, size and wealth, the See which has always fancied itself the Third Rome, has directly challenged and repudiated the Second Rome, the elderly and ailing pack leader, ripe for being supplanted.    For those who say that Moscow has not declared the EP to be a schismatic, Met. Hilarion states unequivocally “the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has recognized a schismatic structure means for us that Constantinople itself is now in schism.”[4]  This is a big deal and it is not something that can go away quickly without one side capitulating.  Neither Constantinople nor Moscow were surprised to find themselves exactly where they are today.  The decisions of each side were calculated to arrive exactly where they are.  Backtracking is simply not a likely outcome here.

There is no doubt many in world orthodoxy are scandalized by the action of the Ecumenical Patriarch.  We extend to you our sympathies.  You have now experienced personally the same actions we have fought against for over 90 years.  The mask has been removed and the true motivations of the EP laid bare, just as our forefathers in the faith experienced during the time they were dragged from their churches, forcibly shaved and imprisoned because they would not accept the uncanonical imposition of the pope’s calendar.  To those outside Orthodoxy, this must all seem a tempest in a teapot: calendars, lifted anathemas, restoring a bishop, establishing a church.  How are these things worthy of separation? But for the Orthodox it is not about the foibles of an elderly man.  It is about nothing less than how we understand the Church, the body of Christ, and the bishops entrusted to rule over Her.  Synodality and conciliarity are scriptural hallmarks of the Church, not modern inventions.  The EP-MP split is about ecclesiology, one of the same concerns voiced by the Athonite zealots who defended the old calendar in the 1920s!  Nobody came looking for division, but this is where we are.  For our part, we will continue to live out our Apostolic faith, holding to the doctrines of the Fathers and praying for the day that Christ heals all wounds and His One Church is Triumphant.


[2] I do not concede that the Old Calendarist separation is not based on dogmatic issues.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *