Excerpt from Upcoming Book: Finding the True Orthodox Church


The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Finding the True Orthodox Church. The book consists of a series of chapters which address various objections to True Orthodoxy. This is the introduction to a chapter which addresses the question, “Are True Orthodox Vagantes?” This charge is sometimes leveled against the True Orthodox, by comparing them to various pseudo-churches with no legitimate heritage, in an effort to paint the True Orthodox as pretend clergy and poseurs. The chapter will explore the differences between True Orthodox and Independent Orthodox (i.e. vagante) groups, to demonstrate that the two movements have nothing in common, despite the fact that some Independent Orthodox groups call themselves True Orthodox.

Introduction

Orthodox Christians living in the West have benefited from certain relative freedoms available to them which were not available in the Old World. However, with these new opportunities came new challenges. Especially after the confusion of the October Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church in the West became jurisdictionally fragmented, and in the midst of this disorder arose competing bishops and jurisdictions—a canonical irregularity and a serious scandal to all conscientious Christians. With no governmental authority to intervene, and given the chaos that was prevalent in many of the Old World patriarchates due to war and upheaval, the reality of an unhealthy situation was accepted as unavoidable. Out of this confusion arose bishops who were no longer affiliated with any established Orthodox synod or local church, and dozens of independent parishes.

An equally serious setback for Orthodoxy occurred in 1924, when the Church of Greece unilaterally altered the Festal Calendar, replacing it with a hybrid system which maintained the Orthodox Paschalion while replacing the fixed feasts with the Gregorian Calendar reckoning. The schism that these bishops created was exported to other local churches, which divided their flocks by introducing this so-called “New” Calendar. This change was a precursor to further degradations of Orthodoxy, which are now referred to under the common headings of “Ecumenism” and “Modernism.” A notorious example of such was the Lifting of the Anathemas, promulgated under Patriarch Athenagoras in 1965, which led to St. Philaret of New York responding with his Sorrowful Epistles. Those who resisted these changes to the faith were the ones who remained Orthodox, but to distinguish themselves from the innovators—who were in positions of power and continued to use the term Orthodox themselves—they adopted the name True (or Genuine) Orthodox.[1] The innovating State Church referred to them derisively as “Old Calendarists.”

The origins of these Independent Orthodox communities on the one hand, and True Orthodox Churches on the other, were thus distinct. However, from the beginning, there were examples of the Independent Orthodox appropriating the True Orthodox identity in their attempts to distinguish themselves from the “official” Churches, without, however, adopting a concomitant True Orthodox ecclesiology.[2] This was partly natural in some cases; for instance, some communities did not join the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America when it was established in 1922, and consequently they never adopted the New Calendar. Some of these communities began to call themselves Old Calendarists, while having no communion with the Old Calendarist hierarchy which was reestablished on May 13, 1935, when three bishops of the State Church returned to the Patristic “Old” Calendar. Many of these communities were eventually incorporated in to the Greek Archdiocese[3], while others were incorporated in to the Holy Synod of the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece.[4] Some simply ceased to exist.

While the original Independent Orthodox communities were on the decline by the 1950s, two new groups of people began to augment their ranks. The first were simply clerics of the “official” Orthodox Churches who were deposed for various reasons, and began to operate as Independent Orthodox. Some even engineered their ordinations to the episcopate by the remnants of the various Independent groups.   A notorious example of this would be “Metropolitan” Pangratios (Vrionis), a priest of the Greek Archdiocese deposed after accusations of immorality, who was allegedly ordained a bishop by offshoots of the Independent groups mentioned above.[5] The other group consisted of Roman Catholics and Anglicans who had separated from their own Churches and received ordination from episcopi vagantes—wandering bishops with no real diocese—who apparently having grown tired of the label Old Catholic, began to see the word “Orthodox” as fresh and fashionable.[6] Thus emerged a plethora of false Churches incorporating any number of variations on the terms, “Orthodox,” “Catholic,” “Apostolic,” “Byzantine,” and “Western Rite.”[7] In this paper, the argument which allows Western Christians to justify becoming “Orthodox” clergy without having been ordained by Orthodox bishops, namely the theory of the indelible mark of priesthood, and the reliance on a mechanical interpretation of apostolic succession[8], will be addressed. It would be impossible, and indeed fruitless, to address all of the permutations of this phenomenon of Independent bishops[9]; we will instead use representative examples that are culturally familiar to most readers.

Our focus here will be on addressing those aspects of Orthodox faith and ecclesiology which distinguish True Orthodox Churches from Independent Orthodox groups, without engaging in a comprehensive study of the Independent Orthodox considered per se. The aim of this study will be assisting the inquirer in assessing any group calling itself True Orthodox or claiming some affiliation with True Orthodoxy, in the hopes that such inquirers will not be misled. This can happen in two ways—in the first instance, someone seeking out True Orthodoxy may stumble across one of the Independent Orthodox groups that claims to be True Orthodox, and thereby mistakenly become part of the wrong church; in the second, someone investigating True Orthodoxy is confronted by an apologist for a New Calendarist or Ecumenist jurisdiction, who lumps True Orthodox together with the Independent Orthodox groups in order to create the illusion that any church or jurisdiction not part of the “official” patriarchates is a counterfeit, non-canonical pseudo-church masquerading as Orthodox. By highlighting some of the more egregious examples of non-Orthodox practices found in some Independent Orthodox circles, and lumping True Orthodox together with such groups, the illusion is created that True Orthodox claims are not even worth investigating, because the groups are hopelessly divided and their leaders cranks and charlatans.

Our hope will also be that those already in the Independent movement will realize their error and convert to the Orthodox Church, but experience has shown that this does not often happen, and when it does, the conversions are often incomplete. We will never lose hope that it is possible, however, and we pray earnestly for those who are currently members of Independent Orthodox churches.

A Note on Terms

Vagante and Independent Orthodox

The Latin term episcopi vagantes technically refers to wandering bishops, which in Latin Catholic theology would be “validly ordained” but without “jurisdiction” since they are not tied to a diocese and canonically invested. In modern English discussions on such bishops, the word vagante has been coined, which refers to any bishop, clergy, or church which is Independent, self-appointed, ahistorical, or seen as inauthentic. It is a term that is often used as a pejorative. While we do not agree in principle with the Independent movement as it stands, we will refrain from using the term vagante to refer to them in the interest of maintaining a civil tone and being precise, since the term episcopi vagantes has a historical context which is not always applicable to today’s Independent Orthodox. Our use of the term “Independent Orthodox” does not imply that we believe such individuals are part of the canonical Orthodox Church, but is used because such individuals self-identify with Orthodoxy (as opposed to those Independents who identify with Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism, for instance).

True Orthodox

Those who resisted the change in the calendar in 1924 were derisively labelled “Old Calendarists,” but referred to themselves as True (or Genuine) Orthodox in order to distinguish themselves from the innovators. There were also legal reasons for doing so—there was (and still is) no separation of Church and State in Greece, and so the True Orthodox could not simply refer to themselves as “Orthodox” in the registration of their properties and associations, because the State Church had rights over this name. That being said, the True Orthodox consider themselves to be the Orthodox Church, not a part or branch thereof. They believe that the innovating State Church separated itself from the Orthodox Church in 1924 when it adopted the New Calendar as part of its program of modernization and ecumenical relations. The title True Orthodox will be used in this chapter for purposes of clarity, but the reader should keep in mind that the term is not intrinsic to the self-identity of the True Orthodox Christians.

World Orthodoxy

The “official” patriarchates which have joined the World Council of Churches and which participate in ecumenical dialogues and joint prayers have fallen into the heresy of Ecumenism, which first reared its head in an encyclical dating from 1920.[10] In addition, some of the local Orthodox Churches have further adopted the New Calendar, in contradiction to the councils held in the 16th century which anathematized this papal innovation. Finally, the fruits of Ecumenism and the adoption of the New Calendar is the phenomenon of Modernism, which seeks to adapt Orthodoxy to the changing times. These three issues are closely intertwined.

In order to refer to the communion of “official” patriarchates and local churches which have fallen into these heresies as one unit, the term “World Orthodoxy” has been employed by some True Orthodox. This term is not one which the present author favors, but it will be used with reticence in this chapter in order to identify those whose innovation have led them away from the fullness of the faith. It is necessary to use such a term, because while all of the patriarchates and local Churches are Ecumenist in one way or another, not all of them are New Calendarist; and among the local Churches are those who oppose Ecumenism, yet remain in communion with their fallen hierarchs. For this reason, the terms World Orthodox and World Orthodoxy will be employed, but for lack of a more preferred term.

 

[1] Cf. “True Orthodoxy.” Archbishop Averky. Orthodox Christian Witness.[finish citation]

[2] Which would regard such “official” churches as schismatic and eventually heretical.

[3] Such as St. Nicholas Church in New York City, which was destroyed during the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.

[4] Archimandrite Petros (Astyfides) contributed towards bringing several of these communities in.

[5] There have been doubts raised that Pangratios was ordained a bishop at all, but one account states that he was ordained by Bishop Theophil (Ionescu) and Christophoros (Rado). cf. https://listserv.okstate.edu/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind9906D&L=ORTHODOX&P=R5585&1=ORTHODOX&9=A&J=on&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches&z=4, accessed September 26, 2014.

[6] There were several antecedents such as Mar Julius and the Western mission under Metropolitan Platon, but none of these is really connected to later adventurers.

[7] For a catalogue of these groups, there was a site (long outdated) at http://www.ind-movement.org. It can still be accessed via the Internet Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20070915000000*/http://www.ind-movement.org, accessed September 26, 2014.

[8] i.e. Hands-on-heads, divorced from the community of faith and communion with other bishops professing the same faith.

[9] Peter Anson tried; but his work, while only 50 years young, is almost completely unhelpful for identifying any currently-existing group. cf. Peter F. Anson. Bishops at Large. New York City: October House Publishing, 1963.

[10] To the Churches of Christ, Wherever They May Be, 1920.


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