1903 Reply of the Russian Orthodox Church to Phanar’s 1902 Encyclical on the New Calendar and Ecumenism

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1903 Reply of the Russian Orthodox Church to Phanar’s 1902 Encyclical on the New Calendar and Ecumenism

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THE EPISTLE OF THE HOLY SYNOD OF RUSSIA TO THE PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE ON THE ATTITUDE OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCHES TO NON-ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS IN 1903

To the Most Holy Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, the Lord Joachim III, together with the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Great Church of Christ at Constantinople, we send a brotherly salutation in Christ.

It was with especial joy and love that the Most Holy Synod of All the Russias received the revered and Spirit-bearing epistle of your Holiness and of your Sacred Synod, impressed, as it was, with that zeal for the welfare of the Church of God, and that invariable care for the salvation of all men, to which we are accustomed from the throne of Chrysostom, and, likewise, with its especial love, and affini9ty to the Church of Russia; and, after attentive investigation and discussion, it now proceeds to reply to your love, and to communicate to you its opinion upon the questions so opportunely proposed by your wise solicitude.

First of all, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “Behold how good and how joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity,” and the commandment of the Apostle “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” we greet with love your thought, dear to God, as to the necessity of consolidating unity and extending the circle of mutual intercourse between those sisters in the faith, the local Holy Orthodox Churches of God, deeming that it is only in mutual love, and in constant and active communication one with another, that the Holy Churches will find the requisite support and strength for their great “wrestling against the rulers of the darkness of this world”–against infidelity, indifferentism, and other noisome blasts. By far the best and most perfect expression of this holy fraternal love and most blessed communion of the Churches of God, and the most effectual means for the healing of our social disorders, would be, without doubt, special assemblies of Orthodox Bishops, and especially of the chief representatives of the Churches, and that they should confer immediately together, “mouth to mouth,” upon questions which, at the time being, were agitating their spiritual flock. If the Bishops, when their hears are so inclined, stimulated by the duties laid upon them as chief pastors, assemble themselves together, and, without dissimulation, regarding themselves as before the face of Christ Himself, Who, in very truth, has promised to be in the midst of those who are gathered together in His name, with a pure conscience, and with unanimous prayer, pronounce before all the world the confession of their faith, or lay down a decision healing the disorders and wounds in the Church, then the Holy Ghost, dwelling in the Church universal, and moving her, without doubt speaks in such a case by the mouths of the Bishops who have assembled themselves together in prayer, although each one of them acknowledge himself to be the most sinful of men. And if of old the place was shaken where the Church was assembled together after prayer, and after having boldly invoked the all-powerful Right Hand of Divine Providence against the foes which surrounded her, so now, without doubt, the united prayer of the representatives of the Church likewise “availeth much,” nor would any forces of the enemy be able to withstand the confession of faith boldly proclaimed by their council; and the life of the Church, having such a clear expression for itself, would without doubt shine forth with an inexplicable light before the face of all the world, and would attract to itself the hearts of all who are seeking the truth, rousing also at the same time the slumbering consciences of those who were begotten in the faith, but have forgotten, or waxen cold towards it.

But, however desirable such an assemblage of all the Orthodox Bishops might be, at the present time, when the local Holy Churches are divided from one another by boundaries of States, and when every sort of inter-ecclesiastical relation of necessity touches also upon international relations, it is scarcely possible that such an assemblage of Bishops, or any such general and universal deliberation by them on Church questions, could be brought about. For the time being one may pray and wish for this. But a more immediate undertaking for the local Holy Orthodox Churches, and for their wise representatives presents itself–to approach as near as possible to the bright ideal, just mentioned, of the ecumenical intercouse of the early Church, by maintaining one with another a constant and living connection by means of written and other intercourse, exchanging brotherly messages upon the occasion of all joyful and sorrowful events in their Church life, asking for brotherly counsel and information in difficult cases, each sharing its own experience in the conduct of ecclesiastical affairs with the rest. And more especially is such an exchange of opinions among the sister Church indispensable in questions which concern the essence of the faith and the fundamental position of the present organization of the Church, or in such as have an inter-ecclesiastical character. May it ever be that in cases when in some local Church any kind of reform has to be entered upon which deeply affects the established order of the Church, when this local Church is required to pronounce, or there has been already pronounced, a sentence upon any kind of new religious movement, more particularly if its influence may be supposed to extend beyond the bounds of the Church in question–may it ever be that on such occasions the representatives of the Church, by means of an epistle or in some other way, shall inform the representatives likewise of the other local Orthodox Churches, asking of their brotherly experience for their advice, and putting them in possession of the facts of what has taken place in his own region. Such constant mutual help and sharing in a common life will without doubt serve as a real and living bond, strengthening all the local Churches in the one body growing up into “an habitation of God through the Spirit.”  But likewise in its own particular life each autocephalous Orthodox Church must always (as, indeed, it does at present) preserve the memory and consciousness of its union with the other Orthodox Churches, and of the fact that only in communion and agreement with them has it the pledge of truth and of eternal life, or manifests itself as the Church of God, and that, if it has lost this communion and union, it must perish and wither as a branch which has fallen away from the vine. May the constant and active introduction into their life and ecclesiastical practice of this principle of ecumenicity, the training of a feeling of its necessity in his ecclesiastical community, be the subject of the special care of the wise representatives of the local Churches, and we believe that their unremitting and sincere zeal will not be slow in bringing forth abundant fruit in the blessing field of ecumenical union, enlivening at the same time the Church life of each local Church, and strengthening the faith of its children, perfecting them in the hope of eternal life, and together with this likewise revealing to all the world the truth in all its splendour, and the power of the Orthodox Faith of Christ.

As regards our relations towards the two great ramifications of Christianity, the Latins and the Protestants, the Russian Church, together with all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, every prayers, awaits, and fervently desires that those who in times of old were children of Mother Church and sheep of the one flock of Christ, but who now have been torn away by the envy of the foe and are wandering astray, “should repent and come to the knowledge of the truth,” that they should once more return to the bosom of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to their one Shepherd. We believe in the sincerity of their faith in the All-Holy and Life-originating Trinity, and on that account we accept the baptism of both one and the other. We respect the Apostolical Succession of the Latin hierarchy, and those of their clergy who join our Church we accept in the Orders which they then possess, just as we do in the case of Armenians, Copts, Nestorians, and other bodies that have not lost the Apostolic Succession. “Our heart is enlarged” (2 Cor. 6:11), and we are ready to do all that is possible in order to promote the establishment upon earth of the unity which we so much desire. But, to our great and common grief of all true children of the Church, at the present time we are obliged to think, not so much of the softening of our relations towards Western Christians, and of a love-abounding drawing of their communities to union with us, as of the unwearying and ever-watchful defense of the rational sheep committed to our charge from unceasing attacks and multiform seducements on the part of the Latins and the Protestants.

Well known to our dearly beloved and highly esteemed fathers and brethren are the secular desires of Rome, which indeed in their time served as the cause of her apostasy; well known in history her various artifices, both open and secret, directed with the object of subjecting to herself the Orthodox East; and well known are the costly schools, the missionary societies, the special monastic orders and other institutions, which indeed exist down to the present day, and whose number does not cease to grow, whose sole object is to ensnare, if possible, the children of the Orthodox Church. Upon Russia, in particular, the eyes of Latinism have long been directed. Not being able to seduce our common people, but pious and devoted to the Church as they are, they turn to members of the higher aristocracy, who have been accustomed to living abroad, and who, for many generations, have been in constant communion with the spirit of the West, and by means of secret propaganda, of literature, the press, etc., they strive to unsettle them in the faith of their fathers and to establish Roman Catholicism amongst them. The conversion of Russian and of the Russian people constitute the secret dream and unconcealable goal of the yearnings of the Papacy of our times. Therefore, however pacific the speeches of the Latins may be, however assiduously they may express and emphasize in all sorts of ways their especial love and respect for the Orthodox Church, and in particular for the Russian people and State, these fair words must not, nor can they, conceal the real desires of Romes from our attention: and we, of necessity, shall only all the more increase our watchfulness and our determination to stand steadfastly upon the immovable soil of Orthodoxy and not to be lured away by any appearances of peace falsely understood, notwithstanding all our longing for the union of faith enjoined upon all Christians by Christ Our Saviour Himself.

And just as inaccessible, if not even more so, Protestantism shows itself to be at the present time. Having no understanding of Church life, and requiring for themselves external works evident to the senses, chiefly of a general societal character, the Protestant communities look upon our Eastern Church as a region of ecclesiastical stagnation, of error and darkness unredeemed by a ray of light, not even stopping short of bringing accusations of idolatry against us, and therefore out of falsely understood zeal for Christ they do not spare material means and forces for the spreading of their Protestant errors amongst the children of the Orthodox Church, losing no opportunity of undermining the authority of the Orthodox hierarchy, and of unsettling the faith of the people in the sanctity of the traditions of the Church. Religious exclusiveness and even fanaticism, mixed with a contemptuous arrogance in relation to Orthodoxy, is the distinguishing mark of the Protestants, one may say, even more than of the Latins. Of course, much of this may be explained by the secular prejudices and general narrowness of the horizon of the German school of theology, and, consequently, likewise of the Protestant Church agents, and this fact imposes upon our scholars the duty of revealing before the consciousness of the West the true majesty and really Christian purity of Orthodoxy. But until this onerous and thankless sowing of seed upon the stony ground of cultured pride and mutual misunderstanding shall come to bear fruit, it behooves us representatives of the Church, and especially of the Russian Church, to exert all our strength in the fight against the multiform allurement of this dangerous enemy of the Church, making prayer without ceasing unto her Chief Shepherd to defend His faithful sheep against its assaults.

The Anglicans assume a somewhat different attitude towards Orthodoxy. With rare exceptions they do not aim at the perversion of Orthodox Christians, and upon every occasion and opportunity strive to show their special respect for the Holy Apostolic Eastern Church, admitting that she, and not Rome, is the true conservator of the traditions of the Fathers, and in union and agreement with her seeking is justification for themselves. Love and goodwill cannot but call forth love on our side also, and nourish in us the good hope of the possibility of Church union with them in the future. But here, also, much still remains to be done and to be explained, before that it will be possible to think of any sort of definite step in one or in the other direction. And, first of all, it is indispensable that the desire for union with the Eastern Orthodox Church should become the sincere desire not only of a certain fraction of Anglicanism (the “High Church”), but of the whole Anglican community, that the other purely Calvinistic current which in essence rejects the Church as we understand her, and whose attitude towards Orthodoxy is one of particular intolerance, should be absorbed in the above-mentioned pure current, and should lose its perceptible, if we may not say exclusive, influence upon the Church polity and in general upon the whole Church life of this Confession which, in the main, is exempt from enmity towards us. On our side, in our relations towards Anglicans, there ought to be a brotherly readiness to their best desires, all possible indulgence towards misunderstandings which are natural after ages of separation, but at the same time a firm profession of the truth of our Ecumenical Church as the one guardian of the inheritance of Christa and the One Saving Ark of Divine Grace.

The so-called Old Catholics, who courageously raised their voice against “him that loveth to have the pre-eminence over them” (3 John 9) and to this day are not ceasing to make every sacrifice in their great fight for the truth and for conscience, from the very first steps which they took found sympathy from themselves amongst our active Churchmen and representatives of theological science, some of whom took a very lively interest in their cause, working unweariedly on their behalf both in literature and at congresses. In response to a general desire a special Commission was instituted in St. Petersburg for the investigation of the question concerning the Old Catholics and for intercourse with them. Our workers were animated by the very best feelings towards the Old Catholics, and, understanding all the diversity in national, historical, ecclesiastical, and other conditions and traditions, maintained throughout a patience attitude towards the disagreements and misunderstandings of the Old Catholics which arose, and were ready to do everything to smooth a way for their entry into the Church. At first this much-to-be-desired work appeared to be near and realizable without any special difficulty. But time goes on. The chief pillars of the Old Catholic movements brought up in traditions which, although not Orthodoxy, were at least ecclesiastical, are one after another passing away from the arena of life, and giving place to new men, it may be, just as sincere and self-denying, but not so firm in their churchmanship, they not having lived a Church life; while they are surrounded, for the most part by a Protestant world, to which, moreover, they are near, both in language and in a common civil life, and in University education, and, lastly, in their very struggle with Rome. To these new men, not particularly firm in churchmanship, under the circumstance of their being far  distant from the East, and of having no clear but a dim conception of it, the Protestant world may naturally appear congenial and near, and it is not easy for them to bear up against its imperceptible but constant influence. And this is the reason that our Russian Church, while not ceasing even now to sympathize with, and admire, the Old Catholics, or to co-operate in every way with their praisworthy search for Church truth, is beginning to look with some anxiety upon the future of this movement, and to ask the question whether the Old Catholics will keep to their original resolution to belong only to the real Ecumenical Church, and will aim at union with her; or whether, carried away by an alluring day-dream, so natural to the rationalistic West, of reinstating the true Church amongst themselves at home by their own powers of learning and by their intellect, they will turn aside into the byways of Protestantism, to the great grief of all their true friends? The task that lies before us in respect to them ought, in our opinion, to consist in this–that while we should not place superfluous obstacles to union in their way by misplaced intolerance or suspiciousness, nor on the other hand be carried away by the easily understood desire to have useful and extremely learned allies against Rome, we should seriously and steadfastly, according to the conscience and before Christ, reveal to them our faith and unchangeable conviction in the fact that our Eastern Orthodox Church, which has inviolably preserved the complete deposit of Christ, is alone at the present time the Ecumenical Church, and that thereby in very deed we should show them what they ought to have in view, and upon what they ought to decide, if they really believe in the savingness of abiding within the Church and sincerely desire union with her.

And, lastly, the question of the change, or merely of some reform of the Calendar, has been troubling the minds of the Orthodox in our country not a little for some time past, just as it has with you. At the command of our Most Religious Sovereign a Special Commission of learned representatives of the various branches of knowledge bearing upon this subject was formed at the Imperial Academy of Science expressly for the purpose of investigating this question. But the labours of this Commission, which are extremely complicated and many-sided, are up to the present not concluded, and it is impossible to say beforehand what will be their final result. It is only necessary, in our opinion, to keep in view the fact that this question has many side, which respectively admit of an elucidation and settlement by no means identical the one with the other. The application of the New Style to the civil reckoning of time only, without changing the Paschalia, and without transferring the Church festivals, but merely changing the figure of the dates agreeably to the New Style. But if we are to touch upon the question of the purely scientific worth of this or that reckoning of time, the scholars of most weight amongst us incline rather in favour of the Julian Calendar, which merely certain corrections admitted into it, and not at all to exchanging it for the Gregorian Calendar, which according to the conclusion they have come to is less skillfully contrived. And this authoritative voice of the scholars constrains us, the guardians of the Church, to maintain an attitude of great caution towards the desires of some people to change the calendar, if thereby is meant an alteration of the Paschalia and of the whole chronology of the Church. Such a change, disturbing the immemorial order of things which has repeatedly been hallowed by the Church, would, without doubt, be accompanied by certain disturbances in the life of the Church, and meanwhile, on the present occasion, such disturbances would not find sufficient justification for themselves, either in the exclusive righfulness of the proposed reform, or in the needs of the Church being ripe for the change. Wherefore, for our part, we would stand up for the conservation of the Julian Calendar in Church practice, admitting at the most only the formal alterations with regard to the New Year, and the remembering of the dates as we have explained above.

Proposing all that we have enunciated above to your love, and to your wise and favourable judgment, we cannot help turning the attention of the representatives of the holy Churches of God to the sorrowful fact that even within the Orthodox Church itself we see a weaking of love worthy of tears, dissensions, and division sometimes going so far as a rupture of ecclesiastical communion. Let our love be extended to our erring brethren who dwell in our midst. Side by side with us stand those ancient Christian communities, the Nestorians, the Armenians, the Copts and others, which have been separated for many centuries from the Church, but have not lost their Church organization nor their hierarchy, and which at the present time, in the person of their leading members, are in some cases beginning to arrive at a sense of the wrongfulness of their apostasy. To draw once more into the bosom of the one Church these men, who live side by side with us, and are extremely near to us in culture, manners, and customs, and more particularly in the fashion of their Church life and in the type of their religion, appears to be the most immediate object for our Church to undertaken, and our direct and absolute duty, in fulfilling which we not only should revive these ancient communities into a new Church life, but in time should discover for the Church herself a new source of strong and zealous labourers in the common work of the Church.

Most heartily beseeching Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ that He may confirm His Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in unanimity and may strengthen the principle of mutual love and communion within her, and that He may grant unto your Holiness and the Holy and Sacred Synod surrounding you, together with all the great Church of Constantinople, peace and prosperity and good success in all things, we remain, with brotherly love in Christ Our God,

ANTONIUS, Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga.                                VLADIMIR, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna.                                  VLADIMIR, Bishop of Vladikavkaz and Mozdok.                                           NICHOLAS, Bishop of Tavrida and Simferopol.                                                     JOHN, Bishop of Saratoff and Tzaritzyn.                                                      MARCELLUS, Bishop.

23 February, 1903

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  • Marlon Scott

    Thanks for this post!