Orthodox America

  Editorial - Church, State, Mission

Priest Andrew Phillips

With the doors in the former Soviet Union now open to religious freedom, many people there are searching through a maze of different confessions for the path to God.  They are not alone.  Scores of disaffected Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, dismayed by the modernist drifts and shallow theologies of their respective faiths, are likewise seeking for that fullness of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).  Are we doing anything to help them?

Next year the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia will glorify three hierarchs: Innocent of Moscow and Alaska, Nicholas of Japan, and John of Shanghai and San Francisco.  All three were apostles, all three drew hundreds of souls into the saving enclosure of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Their success was due not only to their personal sanctity but also to their well-defined vision of the Church-her nature, her vocation and her relation to the world.

One of the most difficult dilemmas that has always faced the Church is her relations with the State, the paradox of being in the world but not of it. Through the Incarnation the Church, the Body of Christ, has a human nature, but she also has a divine nature, a spiritual ethos, for My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).  Sadly, the delicate and fine balance between being in the world but not of it, of rendering unto Caesar the things of Caesar and unto God the things of God (Matt. 22:21) has rarely been achieved.  We have only to think of the heretical Patriarchs of Constantinople, who signed anything the Emperor told them to; or those Russian rulers and nobles who interfered in the spiritual realm: Ivan the Terrible, Peter I ("the Great"), Catherine II ("the Great"); there is the case of the Romanian Church in the inter-war and post-war period with its State-appointed bishops and vicious persecution of  those who had another vision of the Church.  In the Donatist schism, which plagued North Africa in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, and among the Russian Old Believers who did not accept the seventeenth century Nikonian reforms, there were strong currents of a sectarian mentality.

There have been, however, periods of harmony or symphony between Church and State, when the State saw to the physical well-being and safety of its citizens and the Church was free to look to the spiritual well-being and safety of her flock. Thus the period of St. Constantine the Great or Sts. Justinian and Theodora, or Kievan Rus', or Muscovite Russia before the deposition of Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century, or in England before the martyrdom of St. Edward in 979, or in Ireland after its conversion and for several centuries thereafter.  And there are many other examples from church history.

What is the situation today?  We see church leaders playing the "nationalist card", turning the Orthodox Faith into a nationalist cult in order to keep "in" with a hostile or indifferent State, catering to masses who, though indifferent to religion, will still come along for an ethnic fiesta.  We see extreme Old Calendarists in Greece and certain "catacomb" groups in Russia, modern Donatists, who condemn the sacraments of all other Orthodox as without grace.  Thus contemporary Orthodoxy is dominated on the one hand by churches that are "officially recognized" but have introduced all manner of uncanonical practices, and on the other by groupings that claim to be Orthodox, are pious and persecuted, but seem never to have heard the words of St. Simeon the New Theologian: "Theology without love is the theology of the demons."

Fortunately, this polarized view does not give the whole picture.  There are, for instance, many in the "official churches", laity and clergy, who are sincere and pious and wish to follow the Church's teachings whatever their bishops and "theologians" may declare at ecumenical meetings and in masonic lodges.  Similarly, there are moderate Old Calendarists in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, and those in the Russian catacombs who simply want to be obedient to the Church, not condemning others with censorious pride.

What can be done in this situation?  Here are some observations of a parish priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia on what this Church can do:

1. Conserve the Orthodox Faith among the Russian emigration.   This task is complicated by the secular nature of modern life, with Orthodox of Russian origin being assimilated into the countries where they live.  The result is that in Protestant countries there is a tendency for the Orthodoxy of parts of the emigration to resemble an "eastern-rite" Protestantism or Anglicanism, and in Catholic countries, Uniatism.  At the other extreme there is the temptation to form ethnic ghettos which simply die out after a generation or two, as the memory of the "old country" fades away.  We must conserve the Faith, not merely preserve it- in whatever language it is necessary to do this.

2. Continue the missionary work of the Russian Church in which were involved such holy men as St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, and the three holy hierarchs-Innocent, Nicholas and John-whom we are soon to canonize. Make more use of the local language to attract converts, following the example these hierarchs.  Encourage more non-Russians to enter the priesthood; we should fear not de-russification but "de-orthodoxisation".

3. Help to restore Orthodoxy in Russia. There we must witness that, although in the world, the Church is not of it.  And to do that we must in no way compromise ourselves through possible political temptations, the seductions of power, glory, pride or financial gain.  Our witness must be spiritual; only thus can our help be positive and canonical.

These threefold tasks, carried out in humility, avoiding extremes, are Trinitarian in their inner meaning. To conserve the Faith is to be faithful to the Father.  To continue our missionary tasks is to be faithful to the Incarnation of the Son.  And a spiritual witness in Russia that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world is faith in the Holy Spirit.  And if we seek a living icon of one who did his utmost to carry out these three tasks, I can think of none so clear as Blessed John of Shanghai/Paris/ San Francisco, who embodies the very vocation of our Church: to bring all who wish to follow Her to the life and salvation in Christ, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord of all.

Priest Andrew Phillips
Church of Christ's Resurrection, Meudon-la-forÍt, France (condensed)