A REVIEW OF “THE STRUGGLE AGAINST ECUMENISM”
BY THE HOLY ORTHODOX CHURCH IN NORTH AMERICA
(BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, 1998, pages: 346, ISBN: 0-943405-09-2)
This book has two aims, the first explicitly stated and the second implicit. The first is to provide a history of the True Orthodox Church of Greece, the so-called “Old Calendarists”, in its struggle against the heresy of Ecumenism from 1924 to 1994. The second is to provide an apologia on behalf of the “Auxentiite” branch of the Greek Old Calendarist Church, and in particular of its North American affiliate centred in Boston and calling itself the Holy Orthodox Church in North America. In its first, major aim this book must be judged to have succeeded; it is probably the best book on its subject to have appeared in English, and quite possibly in any language. With regard to its second aim, however, the present reviewer remains unconvinced that the book has proved its case.
The heresy of Ecumenism was first officially proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in its Encyclical, “To the Churches of Christ wheresoever they may be”, dated 1920. In addition to recognizing the Catholics and Protestants as “fellow-heirs” of Christ with the Orthodox, this Encyclical made a number of proposals of a renovationist character, including the introduction of the new, papal or Gregorian calendar, all with the aim of bringing union between the Orthodox and the western heretics closer. That is why the introduction of the new calendar is regarded as the first concrete step (apart from the 1920 Encyclical itself) in the introduction of the heresy of Ecumenism.
In 1924, the new calendar was introduced into the State Church of Greece, and later in the same year into the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Romania. This provoked the emergence of the Old Calendarist movement in Greece, Romania and some other places where the Ecumenical Patriarchate had jurisdiction (e.g. the Russian monastery of Valaam, which was on the territory of the Finnish Church, which had been granted autonomy by Constantinople). From 1924 to 1935 the movement had a predominantly lay character, consisting of several hundred thousand Greek laymen and women with only a few priests (mainly hieromonks from Mount Athos) and no bishops. In 1935, however, three bishops from the new calendar State Church of Greece (two of them consecrated before 1924) returned to the Old Calendar and consecrated four new bishops. They then proclaimed that the State Church had fallen into schism and was deprived of the grace of sacraments.
The years 1935 to 1937 probably represented the peak of the Greek Old Calendarist Church, with a united and rapidly expanding membership that posed a serious threat to the official church. In 1937, however, after persecution from the State Church had reduced the number of Old Calendarist bishops to four, a tragic schism took place between two factions that came to be called the “Florinites” (after their leader, Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Florina) and the “Matthewites” (after Bishop Matthew of Bresthena) respectively. The “Florinites” declared that the new calendarists were only “potentially” and not “actually” schismatics, and still retained the grace of sacraments. The “Matthewites” considered that this was a betrayal of the 1935 confession and broke communion with the “Florinites”.
By the late 1940s the Florinites had only one bishop (Metropolitan Chrysostomos) but the majority of the clergy and laity, while the Matthewites had two bishops (Matthew and Germanos, the latter of whom was in prison). Attempts at union between the two factions foundered not only on the question of grace, but also on Metropolitan Chrysostomos’ refusal to consecrate any more bishops (even after Bishop Germanos had rejoined him). So in 1948, fearing that the Old Calendarist Church would again find itself without bishops, Bishop Matthew was persuaded (not immediately, but only after several years of pressure from his supporters) to consecrate some bishops on his own, the first of whom was Bishop Spyridon of Trimythus (Cyprus).
At this point the authors of “The Struggle against Ecumenism” make their first error of fact. On page 64 they write: “The saintly Spyridon of Trimithus spent the last years of his life in seclusion, refusing to celebrate as a hierarch because he had repented of being consecrated in this completely uncanonical way [that is, by one bishop alone].” This is not true. In 1981 Bishop Spyridon's closest disciple, Abbot Chrysostomos of Galactotrophousa monastery, near Larnaca, Cyprus, told the present reviewer a very different story – which is supported by the letters to him of Bishop Spyridon himself. He said that shortly after starting to serve as the only Old Calendarist bishop in Cyprus in 1949, Bishop Spyridon was exiled from the island to Greece by the British acting at the behest of the new calendarists. After some years, the Matthewite Synod decided to replace Spyridon as bishop in Cyprus. They invited Monk Epiphanius to Greece and ordained him to the priesthood. Then, in 1957 an election took place in Cyprus at which Fr. Epiphanius was elected to the episcopate, which was followed by his consecration in Greece. All this took place, however, without the blessing of the still-living Bishop of Cyprus, Spyridon, who refused to recognize Bishop Epiphanius. And he told his disciples on Cyprus, including Abbot Chrysostomos (who had been his candidate for the episcopate), not to serve with Bishop Epiphanius. Meanwhile, he entered into seclusion in Greece and did not serve with the Matthewites as a protest. After some time Abbot Chrysostomos entered into communion with Bishop Epiphanius, for which he was punished by his spiritual father, Bishop Spyridon. So he again broke communion with Epiphanius. The Matthewites responded by defrocking Abbot Chrysostomos (although he was simply following the command of his spiritual father), but did not touch Bishop Spyridon until his death in 1963. A few years ago, shortly before his death, Abbot Chrysostomos' defrocking was rescinded by the Matthewite Synod. When his remains were exhumed they were discovered to be partially incorrupt...
In spite of this error the schism between the Florinites and the Matthewites is in general treated with admirable fairness by the authors of “The Struggle against Ecumenism”. This is important, not only because the schism still exists (and has now been transposed onto Russian, American and West European soil), but also because existing accounts in English are heavily biassed in favour of the Florinites. But the Boston authors, while in general inclining towards the Florinites, not only note that “Bishop Matthew’s integrity, personal virtue, and asceticism were admitted by all” (his relics are very fragrant, and he was a wonderworker both before and after his death in 1950), but also give reasons for supposing that a union between Chrysostomos and Matthew could have been effected if it had not been for the zeal without knowledge of certain of Matthew’s supporters. They also do not conceal the fact that in 1950 Metropolitan Chrysostomos repented of his confession of 1937 and returned to his confession of 1935, declaring that the new calendarists were deprived of sacraments. In fact, this remained the official confession of faith of all factions of the Greek Old Calendarist Church until the appearance of the “Synod of Resistors” led by Metropolitan Cyprian of Fili and Oropos in 1984…
The Boston authors continue their history of the Old Calendarist movement by relating how the Florinites, after the death of Metropolitan Chrysostomos in 1955, eventually received a renewal of their hierarchy through the Russian Church Abroad in the 1960s, and how the Matthewites also achieved recognition by the Russian Church Abroad in 1971. Again, the treatment of this phase in the history is objective and fair. Especially valuable is the translation of all the relevant documents in full and with a helpful commentary.
The rest of the book is mainly devoted to a defence of the Florinite Archbishop Auxentius of Athens, who was defrocked by a Synod composed of the majority of the Florinite bishops in 1985. The Boston authors do not hide the fact that Auxentius made many mistakes; but their account of these mistakes, and especially of his trial in 1985, is sketchy and biassed. They write: “Some of His Beatitude’s mistake were notable, while others were debatable… His errors were often mistakes made in good faith, often on the advice of clergy who wittingly or unwittingly misled him.” (pp. 125, 129). However, it is one thing for the Boston authors to try and see extenuating factors alleviating the guilt of their archpastor – charity (and the canonicity of their own ecclesiastical position) demanded that. But it is another to slander those other Orthodox bishops who tried to introduce canonical order into the Church in the only canonical way open to them – by a hierarchical trial conducted according to the holy canons. Whatever the personal virtues of Auxentius, in the opinion of the present reviewer the Boston authors have not succeeded in demonstrating that his defrocking in 1985 was not canonical and just.
The second half of the book consists of a number of useful appendices on various topics related to Ecumenism.
In conclusion, this book can be recommended both as a history of the Greek Old Calendarist Church and as a good introduction to the ecclesiological issues surrounding the great heresy of our time, Ecumenism. However, for those seeking to to find a clear answer to the question: which of the many Greek Old Calendarist jurisdictions is the most canonical and true?, this book will provide a mixture of light and darkness. Such seekers for clarity and truth will have to conduct further research, and investigate other points of view.