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Church and church organization (4)

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By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

On the occasion of Father Polsky’s book The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Authority in the USSR and Abroad

The only way out of all these difficulties could and can be the joint settlement with the entire Ecumenical Church of the issue of the church life of the Orthodox diaspora. However, this is precisely what Fr. M. Polsky, for whom all other churches are “foreign”, therefore they can only “encroach” on Russian property and illegally “conquer” it. According to him, what is happening is only “expansion of the possessions of the Russian Church abroad” (p. 127), a kind of colonization of no man’s land. The other Orthodox churches not only cannot “encroach on the Russian property or accept it under subjection without the consent of the Russian Church”, but also do not have the right “to take any side in this internal canonical dispute that the latter is experiencing” (p. 131). Such is the final – and inevitable – conclusion of the unconditional promotion of the national principle. The only thing that remains unknown is what the concordance and unity in faith and love in the life of the Orthodox Church actually express (namely, this is how St. Ignatius of Antioch defines the church), how, with such an understanding, the members of the one Body can rejoice and sympathize with each other Christ? However, O. M. Polski does not refer to the council. What he refers to is the “law of autocephaly” (p. 131), that is, simply put, the legal principles, of international law, applied to the Church.

10. The Jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

We have to say it straight: the entire construction of Fr. M. Polski is understandable and convincing only if we give an absolute character to the national beginning in the life and structure of the Church. However, we cannot agree with this. And not because, as Fr. M. Polsky and his like-minded people, we have “changed” Russia and the Russian Church, and only because this construction contradicts in the most flagrant way the very essence of the Church, its entire Tradition, the most indisputable words of the apostles, fathers and the saints of all time. Christianity and the Tradition of the Church cannot be compared to our own tastes and needs, on the contrary – the whole life of a Christian must represent a difficult feat of ascent to the “reason of truth”. We are obliged to measure ourselves by the Church, not by her – by us.

Prot. M. Polski does not see that the hypertrophy of nationalism, which has nothing to do with an authentically Christian enlightened attitude towards one’s own country and people, is a terrible poison that has been poisoning the church consciousness for a long time. He does not see that overcoming this poison is one of the tasks of the great Orthodox diaspora, which today has become truly “ecumenical”.

From his own point of view, Fr. M. Polski is, of course, right when he considers us – “those who crossed over to Constantinople” – to be “Greeks” and “traitors”. Because for him, as, alas, for many others, belonging to the Church is obviously equivalent to national subjection. In unison with the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, he also lists all the manifestations of hostility and church “imperialism” on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – “this Greek papism” (p. 130), which is destroying the Church. What can be answered to this? The writer of these lines teaches the history of the Byzantine Church at the Theological Institute[31]. He is sufficiently familiar with the dark pages and facts of the history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (that where and with whom were they not?) and he devoted his work to them in the pages of an academic journal (“Fate of Byzantine Theocracy” – Pravoslavnaya mysl, 5, 1948). But does this mean that Greek church nationalism justifies Russian? Does it not follow from this – both for us and for the Greeks – the exact opposite – instead of “pitting” ourselves against each other, protecting our own “property”, we should try with all our might to realize again that we are first of all united in Christ and in His holy Church and that He, and not human weakness, is the only living norm of church life? Over the past centuries, so many insults, misunderstandings, provincialism and national self-love have accumulated in the Orthodox world that a real revival of church consciousness is needed. However, it is possible not through “isolation”, not through proud assertion of one’s own “independence”, but through a return to the living sources of church life – to its universal Tradition.

Prot. M. Polski does not understand that we have “moved” not to the “Greeks”, but to the undeniably first patriarch in seniority in the unified Orthodox Church, and not because of any whim of ours, but because such is the objective norm of the church. Expelled from the territory of our own local church to a territory where there is no local Orthodox church, we believe that – pending the general church organization in these countries new to Orthodoxy – it is the Ecumenical Patriarch who should ensure our inclusion in the universal church organism. And from him we have never heard – as from our Russian brothers – that we have become “Greeks”, on the contrary – we have always witnessed attention and love for our Russian tasks and for our Russian peculiarities. If the Greeks, like us, sometimes err with church nationalism, for example on Mount Athos, which Fr. M. Polski, its overcoming both with them and with us is possible only through communication, through real communication in life, through the slow feat of mutual understanding, love and respect, but not through fruitless accusations and bitterness.

It seems to us that in the Church we must always and only seek the authentic church truth. And isn’t it in subordinating everything to Christ’s truth, even if it is difficult for our human self-love, that our true fidelity to the authentic covenants of Holy Rus, who lived above all with her dream of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and did not assert her own ” independence’ and ‘property’? When the young Russian Church at the dawn of its history was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical See, neither the Greeks nor the Russians considered it a Greek Church, nor did they think of its members as Greeks. And this did not prevent her from giving life to the ideal of Saint Rus and spiritually nursing a whole assembly of ascetics. Having reached maturity, it became autocephalous, equal to the ancient Eastern patriarchates. And that was a natural thing. Those familiar with Russian history, however, remember that in the pursuit of this autocephaly, “great-state” politics was no less than true ecclesiastical sentiments. And it is not by chance that out of all the glorious past of the Russian Church, this jubilee of autocephaly appealed the most to the current Moscow hierarchs. But the real creators and representatives of Holy Rus – the Russian saints and ascetics – were inspired by other things, not by autocephaly. And didn’t the crises and upheavals in Russian ecclesiastical life occur exactly when in Russia they began to think more about the Third Rome and less to live with this patristic tradition, which is the “property” of neither the Greeks nor the Russians, and of the entire Orthodox Church, “in agreement glorifying the All-Holy Spirit”? And finally, was not the whole Russian culture, nursed by Orthodoxy, and all its best covenants always “universal” in its design and in its inspiration? And therefore, aren’t we, the Russians, the ones who should be the first to return from the “provincialism of local traditions” to the royal path of universal Orthodoxy?

Let us repeat: everything in the emigrant church life was temporary, and this mainly explains our church divisions. However, hasn’t the time come to review this temporarily and to realize what the Tradition of the Church requires and expects from us in the conditions sent to us by God? Well, it is precisely in them that today we must be faithful to Orthodoxy in all its fullness. After all, everything and always is temporary for the Church, but precisely in this temporary she lives with the eternal meaning, with the eternal truth, isn’t it she embodies it always and everywhere in her earthly wanderings.

It is not at all so important to know who was right and who was wrong in this or any other of the emigrant disputes. Such a polemic is hopelessly biased and fruitless. It is dangerous and regrettable when the unequivocally temporary, accidental and one-sided is justified as truly canonical and absolutized as an eternal norm. And that is exactly what Fr. M. Polski. His whole book is one continuous hymn of the Abroad Synod. This synod is the only one that has never erred, has not been seduced, “has not succumbed to lies, nor has it shown naivety and credulity”, the only one that “has always acted competently, responsibly and seriously” (p. 193) . He alone has the monopoly on “authentically church” and “truly Orthodox”. “The path of truth belongs to the Synod of Bishops Abroad, who have faced the canonically correct path of self-government in the living conditions of the overseas part of the Russian Church” (p. 192). Alas, however, it is precisely on this path that one can notice – and here we have tried to show why – the profound distortion of both canonicity and canonical consciousness.

It is very possible that the like-minded people of Fr. M. Polski not to miss the opportunity to once again scathingly remind us of the “winding path” and “jurisdictional variations” of our diocese. So what? We do not claim, like Fr. M. Polski, for infallibility. It is true that our diocese has repeatedly experienced deep upheavals and crises. However, we think that in these searches – always on the right path, always with caution, in the conciliar unity of the whole ecclesiastical organism – there was more ecclesiasticism than in the proud infallibility of the Abroad Synod. Yes, in church life, falls and mistakes are always possible, and in the history of the Church there are plenty of them. However, it is important that in overcoming them there is a desire to discover the truth, an aspiration for the fullness of ecclesiasticism. In the tragic conditions of emigration, these searches were often difficult. However, whatever the specific reasons were that prompted Metropolitan Evlogius to turn to Constantinople, however he himself understood this action, the essence of the matter is not in this subjective and psychological aspect. Its ecclesiastical-objective meaning is important. And the more time passes, the more we understand his inner ecclesiastical right. It was through this action that the vicious circle of all possible – subjective and random – approaches to the ecclesiastical structure was broken and a solid canonical foundation was found. And we know that only on such a foundation, in the pursuit of the fullness of ecclesiasticism, can one find the correct combination of the national and the universal, of the eternal and the temporal, because only in this pursuit is the exact hierarchy of values ​​discovered.

It is possible and very likely that the views of Fr. M. Polski to have more success compared to what we write. There are too many people who do not want from the Church either “canonicity” or ecclesiastical truth. They just need it to suit their tastes, habits and understandings. Alas, the poison of demagoguery penetrates deeper and deeper into church life, and in it they are now measured according to what pleases and seems true to the majority. How much easier it is to play with prevailing sentiment than to call for humility before the truth. However, truth does not cease to be truth, no matter what its success may be among men.

* * *

We deliberately limited our dispute with Fr. M. Polski to the sphere of church organization. Father himself. M. Polski wants to give us precisely a canonical analysis – this is what the title of his book points to. In conclusion, however, we cannot help but add that, in fact, the center of gravity in all the reasoning of Fr. M. Polsky, the pathos in his book are far from concentrated on canonicity. In fact, he calls canonical that which corresponds to his own understanding no longer of the canonical structure, but of the very content of the ecclesiastical life in emigration. And in this mixing of the two essentially disparate layers, perhaps one of the main features of “Karlovac” psychology is revealed most strongly.

Its content is loyalty to the Russian Church: “Never to break away from the Russian Church, to live with its interests, needs, struggle, truth, with the protection of canons and martyrs, continuing abroad this old, Tikhonov and canonical path from the first ten years, who fled there into the catacombs from the day of the fall of Metropolitan Sergius” (p. 125). In the words of another representative of the Church Abroad, on her lies “the responsibility to expose the Moscow Patriarchate for its injustice, for its alliance with the God-fighting Satanic power” and it is she who “must be the mouthpiece, the voice of the true Russian Church in the world” (in the Vesna collection, published by Bishop Nathanael, Paris, 1948). It is from this allegiance and from this struggle that we have renounced, having passed to Constantinople. We consider it unnecessary and futile to respond to such accusations. This Russian work, which is done and continues to be done in the “Greek” jurisdiction, this voice of truth, which has always sounded in it, best suits them. Hardly anyone has the right to measure our love and compassion for the Russian Church and our people. It is true, however, that we do not ascribe to ourselves the mission of being the representation of the catacomb church, nor the role of future judges of the Moscow hierarchy, and this is because, in our opinion, our position does not authorize us to do so. It is intolerable for us that a bishop living in America sends telegrams to the Roman Catholic cardinal “on behalf of the Russian Church covered in the blood of the martyrs.” We think that if the others there have their own path, then those who have left also have their own path. And these paths meet and reveal each other – as one and the same path of fidelity to Christ’s truth – in the realization of the authentic essence of the Church, for which the modern Russian confessors suffer.

And that is precisely why we cannot agree that canonicity is determined by this or that task and mission, however important and sacred they may be. Canonicality is determined always and only by the eternal essence of the Church, by its eternal task. And isn’t this perhaps one of the meanings of our exile path: walking along it, to find again the forgotten source of living water – the authentic universal consciousness, the life-giving power of the complete Tradition of the holy, conciliar and apostolic Church?

Yes, Russian Orthodox people abroad have their own sacred duty – a duty of loyalty and witness, a duty to defend justice and to denounce. All this, however, will be a mere human struggle, a very human struggle, if it is not based on the eternal foundation of the Church, if above all in ourselves and in our church life we ​​do not have and do not show the light of Christ, which alone can discover and to expose darkness and evil.

“Save the fulfillment of Your church” – this is what we pray at every Liturgy. Performance is completeness. In the aging of each of us and all of us together in this fullness lies our first “task”. And we believe that everything else will be given to us.

Paris, 1949


* “Church and church structure. About books prot. Polish Canonical position of the highest church authorities in the USSR and abroad” – In: Shmeman, A. Collection of articles (1947-1983), M.: “Русский пут” 2009, pp. 314-336; the text was originally published in: Church Gazette of the Western-European Orthodox Russian Exarchate, Paris, 1949.


[31] “St. Sergius” in Paris (note trans.).

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