I was brought into the Orthodox Church via the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). I was made a catechumen in 2005 and baptised in 2006. At the time, we were in communion with the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as the Orthodox Churches of Sinai and Jerusalem. To the remaining Eastern Orthodox churches, ROCOR was considered “uncanonical”.
At that time there were many articles published on ROCOR clergy blogs and elsewhere expressing the view that this was a strange understanding of what it is to be canonical. This was echoed on a number of Old Calendarist websites. The thrust of their arguments was that canonicity is about faithful adherence to the canonical Tradition of the Church, and that referring to ROCOR as uncanonical seemed to have little to do with this faithfulness and was based instead on the fact that ROCOR wasn’t fully recognised by the churches using the term in this partisan way. I must confess that at the time this seemed to me to be a little like special pleading.
Then, in 2007 ROCOR entered into communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow and was subsequently recognised as “canonical” by the other Eastern Orthodox churches. The language used by ROCOR shifted at this point, and we too began to refer to certain other churches as “uncanonical”. I speak in particular of certain Old Calendar Orthodox churches of Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Despite these churches having altered nothing about their teaching, their faith, or their praxis, their status had suddenly changed from canonical to uncanonical, even though we had been in communion with some of these very same churches only months earlier. In fact, in some cases, it was members of our very own Holy Synod that had consecrated the bishops of these churches which had overnight supposedly become uncanonical. For many of us who had simply sought a stable home in which to live our Orthodox Faith and work out our salvation, this was very difficult to understand.
True canonicity is a measure of faithfulness to the Apostolic Tradition, so that those within a church may know that the faith being taught there and the sacramental life being lived there are in keeping with Holy Tradition: with the Holy Scriptures, the liturgical Tradition, the Great and Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, and the entire Tradition handed down to us from the Apostles, to steer and guide our life and salvation in Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Saviour.
When the word canonical ceases to mean this and instead becomes a reflection of the whims of groups of bishops whose guiding principles are different from those stated above, something has gone very wrong indeed. Canonicity ceases to be a measure of faithfulness to the Tradition of the Church and instead becomes a divisive label devoid of any true significance. A church, a priest, or an activity can become uncanonical for no other reason than we choose not to recognise it; and it can become canonical again when suddenly we choose to extend that recognition once more.
Father Alexander Schmemann makes this observation in his 1964 article The Canonical Problem, in which he surprisingly makes many of the same arguments that were expressed in those aforementioned ROCOR and Old Calendarist articles in 2006/2007 – strange bedfellows indeed! Yet when people who usually do not see eye to eye find common ground, their conclusions perhaps ought not to be dismissed too hastily.
Our parish recently performed the Blessing of the Waters for the Solemnity of Theophany. It was a wonderfully joyous occasion, and a milestone in the life and growth of our little mission parish. By the mercy of God, we were able to confess the truths of the Orthodox Faith publicly, not as private individuals but communally, in the corporate worshipping life of the Church, before people who might otherwise never encounter them. I was able to speak to members of the public who might never pass through the doors of a church, and I was able to tell them about the God Who loves us so much that He makes Himself accessible to us, by becoming human and being one of us, and by sanctifying the elements of creation to be means whereby we are made able to do what we are powerless to do on our own, which is to reach out and touch Him, and be infused and transformed by his grace.
I shared the news and photographs of this event to a group on Facebook about Orthodox life in the British Isles, and the response of a certain Russian Orthodox priest was very simply to label us as uncanonical, with no further comment. There was no expression of hope that some good might come from our witness, nor was there any observation that, however he viewed our canonical status, we are the only Orthodox parish locally to do anything of the sort; there was simply this negation of our effort.
At the time of writing, the Russian Orthodox Church has three dioceses in the British Isles, all overlapping on the same geographical territory. Two of those dioceses are seemingly unable to agree what constitutes an Orthodox priest: a priest of one diocese is considered by the other to be a layman at best (and non-Orthodox at worst). Subsequently, the clergy and faithful of the one diocese are forbidden from taking part in any sacraments or spiritual activity of the other diocese. Other clergy, concerned about the potential for schism, have removed themselves from one diocese and been received into the other, where they now exercise their ministry with a clear conscience, although the diocese they have left considers them to be suspended and their former bishop seeks to forbid them from performing any sacramental functions. I hasten to point out that this is all within the same patriarchate, and doesn’t even begin to touch on the other uncanonical situations among the various jurisdictions within Eastern Orthodoxy.
I say all of this not to delight in the struggles of a sister church but rather to highlight that this is certainly a glass house if ever I saw one, which is why it is very surprising to me that a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church should feel able to refer to others so casually as uncanonical. This has nothing to do with faithfulness to the Church’s canonical Tradition but is entirely about the fact that they choose not to recognise us – it is a divisive term devoid of meaning. However, it is certainly true that the Orthodox Church of the Gauls does not enjoy recognition from Eastern Orthodoxy on an official level. A detailed explanation of why this is may be read on our parish website. However, the condensed version is simply this:
We are Western Orthodox, which is to say that we hold to the Orthodox Faith in our belief, our worship, our life – and we express and live this liturgically, sacramentally, spiritually, and culturally in a western way as did the Orthodox saints who lived their lives in these islands in the first millennium. Our communities were created within the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1936 with the mission that this western expression was to be affirmed and draw western people to Christ, living the fullness of the Orthodox Faith. However, time and time again, after initially being accepted in various Eastern and Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions by one or more supportive bishops, this original mission was later suppressed, rejected, and abolished by the majority of eastern bishops who felt that the only legitimate ways of expressing and living Orthodoxy are those that come naturally to people who come from certain parts of the world – regions that have been steeped for centuries in the Byzantine or Coptic expressions of Orthodoxy.
This is nothing other than thinly-veiled (and sometimes not-at-all veiled) phyletism and a rejection of the witness of the saints of western lands, and has no place in the Church of Christ. However, it is due to the realisation over decades that this attitude pervades almost all of the Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions that we decided to live our Orthodox Faith free from this phyletism, still recognising the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches as sister churches within the Orthodox fold but resigned to facing the reality that the only way to fulfil the mission with which God had charged us was not to be subordinate to them.
This was in 2006, and in the 16 years since then, our church has known stability and growth – both spiritual and numerical – around the world. The Western Orthodox vision of the 1930s is being realised, and the instability of previous decades has become a thing of the past now that our efforts are not being thwarted at every turn by those who believe that Orthodoxy must only be eastern. We still recognise the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox as our sister Orthodox churches, and we hold them in love, even when they look at us and call us uncanonical for resisting phyletism. All that is required for them to be able to view us as canonical is for them to make the choice to recognise us as a sister Orthodox church. In the end, though, only God can be the Judge.
For our part, we seek as best we can to live our Orthodox faith in the Holy and Undivided Trinity and work out our salvation in Jesus Christ as a canonically established parish of the Western Orthodox Church, and we offer a spiritual home to all who wish to walk this path with us.
‘Unfortunately, many of our compatriots, despite being good children of the Orthodox Church, cannot always distinguish the essence of Orthodox doctrine from its manifestations in one form or another, depending on local conditions and the character of the people concerned.
‘You will have to face misunderstanding and adversity in pious men acting not by bad designs, but by lack of understanding.
‘Be brave. Hold all the afflictions and do not be afraid of them. Be benevolent to those who obstruct you; strive, where possible, not to be scandalous and not to induce temptation, so that those who oppose you will come to the knowledge of the truth, because the Lord desires the salvation of all.’Words from St John Maximovitch, spoken to St John of Saint-Denis, on the occasion of the consecration of the latter as the first Western Orthodox bishop for a millennium.