The Ecumenical Patriarchate Thinks St. John of Shanghai was a Schismatic. We’d Like a Word.

The level of canonical understanding of schism has reached a new low in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with a recent article on by Bernard le Caro in response to Metropolitan Emmanuel of Gaul claiming St John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco died a “schismatic” and directed towards one Elias Damianakis (allegedly an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate), who apparently publicized the Patriarchate Bishop’s position and has now written a public response to it. The convoluted hoops through which both authors are forced to respond demonstrates the confused nature of modern understandings of ecclesiology versus the clear historical lens through which schism can be seen.

To clarify flatly, there is a difference between a claim of schism and actual schism. Schism requires a splitting off from the main body of the Church. In times of heresy, the lines of where the Church is can become become blurred, and often accusations of schism that the Church may judge later as real have happened so often in history that “heal the schisms of the Churches” can be found in daily prayer books. In this, the Church on earth relies on the wisdom of human Bishops to guard the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This can lead to a variety of errors that look terrifying from a present-day perspective, but rather like nitpicking from a historical one. One can look at the confusion during the Meletian schism when figures no lower than Sts Basil and Jerome were involved in controversies concerning whether or not they were in schism (due to Lucifer of Cagliari’s vehement anti-Arianism).

One does not have to look far in either argument to see that neither side is addressing the issue with any sort of clarity. On the surface, Mr. Damianakis’ article on the surface seems consistent: the argument that ROCOR was “in schism” from the official Churches of the Pentarchy for much of its existence and due to the developing schism between Moscow and Constantinople is in schism now. Meanwhile, Mr. Caro counters (correctly) that ROCOR didn’t really isolate from other local bodies until 1969 with the rescinding of the anathemas of 1054 and subsequently the Sorrowful Epistles of Metropolitan St. Philaret of New York, which turned a “cold war” of sorts between ecumenists and anti-ecumenists into an open conflict. From our perspective (being consistently alleged “schismatics” and “Old Calendarists”) we can sort the history out more clearly, because a fuller understanding of the nature of this particular “schism” and its underlying causes can be revealed.

In the first place, no one is arguing that the Kyiv Patriarchate was not, until the formation of the OCU last year, a schismatic group. Every side in this discussion– including ours– saw Philaret Denisenko as a schismatic running a schismatic body. In fact, most of the entire debate in World Orthodoxy is about whether or not the Ecumenical Patriarchate can make schismatics non-schismatics with the wave of the hand, as well as whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate can declare regions autonomous for dioceses outside its jurisdiction. (This of course also leads to the question of whether other Patriarchates can do this as well, such as in the case of the Orthodox Church in America in 1970.)

But the argument over whether ROCOR was schismatic is far more complicated, because of the actions that were taken when the conflict over ecumenism became more defined and open. ROCOR sided with the Greek Old Calendarists and gave them Bishops. While part of ROCOR’s warm attitude towards the MP was noted in Mr. Caro’s article, this was never a universal sentiment, and in 1990 it was revealed that ROCOR had participated in the creation of the Free Russian Orthodox Church, which eventually became ROAC and RTOC today. Meanwhile, while there has been no official declaration of schism on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate, there certainly has in the case of the Church of Greece, and New Calendarists and Old Calendarists usually go so far as to declare the other side heretical, not simply schismatic.

Nor, as Mr. Caro notes, was the separation of those who favored union between ROCOR and the MP amicable or relatively peaceful, but one that was fraught with confusion and acrimony, with the previous first-hierarch being subject to mental examinations by the succeeding one. By the time ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate united, there were no less than four Russian organizations which claimed either a succession from or the title to ROCOR.

Of course, over a decade has passed since the union and more has taken place than before to muddy the waters. The overwhelming majority of traditionalists who have broken communion with the official Churches in Russia and Serbia alongside the Old Calendarists in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria are now united under umbrella organizations which function as technical diptychs. By contrast, the official Churches of Constantinople and Moscow have broken communion, largely over a body that everyone agreed was schismatic anyway until two years ago. And everyone is picking a side. Unfortunately, the only valid grounds for separation from one’s hierarchy– heresy– has been brought up in some Russian quarters, but is giving people at the higher echelons of the Moscow Patriarchate splitting headaches, with even repeated calls for non-commemoration at different levels of the hierarchy.

Of course, from our perspective, the root cause of all these divisions has been the ecumenical program which has been in place since the 1920’s, and heavily accelerated since the 1960’s, of which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been at the forefront. Thus, from the perspective of the True Orthodox, or non-commemorating traditionalist who commits to hierarchies who also refuse to deviate, not only was St John of Shanghai not a schismatic, neither were the Old Calendar hierarchies ROCOR associated with and helped to create as late as 20 years ago, because their justification has always been to avoid the heterodoxy of the West, an idea which the Russian government and Moscow Patriarchate are only recently and slowly warming to.

While it is unrealistic to think that such traditionalists as a whole will flock to Moscow, as has been mused by some Bishops of the Patriarchate, it is also unrealistic to think that Patriarchs of the Ecumenical Throne, whose local flock numbers in the hundreds– and whom have been commemorating no less a heretic than the Pope of Rome in joint liturgies– have any right to decide who is a “schismatic” at all.