St. Mark the Evangelist Orthodox Church was founded in 2006 to serve traditional Orthodox Christians in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anyone familiar with the Raleigh area, or who has performed an internet search for Orthodox Churches in Raleigh, knows that there are other parishes in the area, which are well-established and active. Some might therefore question why we began our own mission instead of worshiping in one of the other parishes.
Since 1924, there have been three broad categories of innovations that have affected the Orthodox world, causing division and schism. These issues are Ecumenism, the New Calendar, and Modernism. We will address each one briefly, and why these problems have led us to found a mission unaffiliated with the other parishes in this area.
Ecumenism is a word which is used in different ways by different people, and thus can be difficult to pin down. For our purposes, we will define it as a movement which began in the early twentieth century with the goal of seeking cooperation on a social level between Christian Churches. Seeing the division of Christians has caused thoughtful people great consternation for centuries. However, until the twentieth century, it was viewed in terms of there being truth and falsehood; in other words, there was an original Church, and there were those who have broken off from this original Church. Over time, seeing that there were people who professed Christ in various Churches, the theory of an invisible Church arose, where what matters is not an affiliation with a denomination, but rather a confession of faith in Christ. All those who confess Christ are part of an invisible Church, which subsists in various denominations which may have different beliefs. The doctrinal differences are thus seen as secondary.
Ecumenism began as an attempt by people holding such views to form ways to cooperate on social issues, because they saw the divisions of Christians as irrelevant to social ministry. However, they were not content to remain on this level, and began to discuss doctrinal differences. What was originally a roundtable type of discussion evolved into a type of Parliament of faiths, where members began to vote on issues and release common statements. Orthodox Christians began to participate in these conferences and eventually became organic members of the World Council of Churches, which is an umbrella organization founded to coordinate these efforts on a global scale.
The Orthodox Church has always confessed itself to be the original Church of Christ, and that all other Churches have broken off from it. Christian unity thus can only be return to Orthodoxy, and not an attempt to work out differences by compromise, as there is no way one can compromise the truth of Christ which has been faithfully preserved only inside the Orthodox Church. Some original Orthodox members of ecumenical organizations believed that by attending such meetings, they were witnessing Orthodoxy to others. However, over the decades, so-called Orthodox theologians have participated fully in such meetings, including signing the joint statements of faith and participating in the liturgical worship of heretics. In a short reflection such as this, it is impossible to anticipate and refute any objections that so-called Orthodox Ecumenists may make, and indeed the present author has engaged in numerous conversations on the nature of ecumenism and its effects with members and clergy of the other Orthodox parishes in the area. While many “on the street” object to such ecumenical gatherings, they reason that it is not a big enough issue to warrant breaking communion with their bishops. We obviously disagree with this reasoning, seeing the fact that there are Ecumenists who deny the primacy of Orthodoxy and there are Non-Ecumenists who nevertheless remain in communion with the Ecumenists as one Church presenting an ecclesiological problem as to the nature of the Church and a proper confession of faith. Our conclusion has been that Ecumenism is a heresy that obscures the Church of Christ and reduces the likelihood of people embracing the Orthodox faith, and thus we confess that it is necessary to not commune with anyone who participates in Ecumenism.
The New Calendar. In 1920, the locum tenens (temporary administrator) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople released an encyclical letter “To the Churches of Christ, Wherever They May Be” which detailed a program of proto-ecumenism. In this letter, such things as altering the Calendar of feasts and shortening the fasts, having mutual exchanges of theological students, and other alterations were proposed, as a means to have union between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Churches. The issue of the Calendar was one of the proposed changes which was adopted in 1924 as a result of this letter.
The Church Calendar was based off of the Julian Calendar, and was sanctified by centuries of use in the Church, just as other pagan customs were “baptized” and adopted by Christians. At the Council of Nicea, the date of Pascha (Easter) was set, and the overriding reason for this was to enforce unity of the celebration, since different Churches were celebrating at different times. The Fathers picked an arbitrary date in the middle of a possible range of dates when the Equinox occurs each year and set this as the date from which the tables for calculating the date of Pascha would be formulated.
As is well-known, the Julian Calendar is gradually drifting since it has too many leap years. Pope Gregory in the sixteenth century proposed a New Calendar, which was ostensibly formulated for astronomical accuracy, but which he also used as a way to assert his primacy over the Christian world. The Protestant and Orthodox Churches of this time rejected his new calendar on religious grounds, ignoring the issue of astronomical accuracy altogether. The Calendar that Orthodox use is perfectly designed for Orthodox worship, and the Fathers did not see a sufficiently valid reason to change it. Three Synods were called in the 16th century, and they produced a document known as the Sigillion in 1583 which rejected the New Calendar.
In 1924, however, the Church of Greece unilaterally adopted this New Calendar by force. A large number of the faithful rejected the adoption of it and monks from Mt. Athos served them on the Old Calendar. In 1935, seeing that the Synod would not budge, three bishops who were opposed to the New Calendar broke communion with the New Calendarists and returned to the Patristic Calendar. They rightly saw that this calendar was causing a division in the Orthodox world.
Unfortunately, as time went on, various other Churches adopted the New Calendar, and many who retained the Old, influenced by Ecumenism, did not see the need to reject communion with the calendrical innovators. In this way, there are two Calendars in use in the Orthodox world, causing embarrassment and division. In addition, those who remained faithful to the Patristic Calendar were generally not supported by members of the other Churches, who betrayed them by supporting the New Calendarists. Thus, for instance, the Moscow Patriarchate remains on the Old Calendar, but supports the New Calendar Church of Greece. However, another Church, the Russian Orthodox Chruch Outside Russia, seeing the New Calendar as part of Ecumenism, supported the Old Calendarists of Greece and Romania, thus allowing them to survive and flourish.
Modernism. Again, different people use the term in different ways, but this phenomenon is an inappropriate reaction to the phenomenon of the modern world by Orthodox peoples. Some were genuinely concerned that purely cultural considerations not cause difficulty for missionary work and Orthodox survival in the scientific age. However, it quickly became an occasion for many traditional Orthodox practices to be discarded by those who sought comfort and conformity with the world. Proper clerical dress was labeled as “Turkish” (a rather uneducated assertion to make), and replaced with Roman Catholic clothing or even street clothing when not in Church; the Church services were shortened and altered; fasting was reduced and in some places is rarely practiced; and a general disregard for Tradition is gradually seeping in.
The reason that these three issues are so dangerous is because Orthodoxy is a received Faith. We learn from our spiritual fathers, who provide us with instruction in the Faith. These practices which may seem secondary or external to those untrained in the Faith are actually the result of two thousand years of living Orthodoxy in each generation. What worked was cherished and expounded upon, while what was considered transient or cultural gave way. The practices of the Church which are being eschewed by Modernists and Ecumenists are the very tools that the Fathers have passed down to us in our time to aid us in our salvation, yet they are seen as merely cultural or outdated. The result is that the Modernists, Ecumenists, and New Caledarists make themselves the arbitrators of Tradition and thus superior to it. What is tried and true is put under a microscope by even catechumens and laymen who are not advanced in the spiritual life, and dismissed. In this environment, it is no wonder that there is a general degradation of the Orthodox spiritual life, a gradual shrinking of parishes, and a shortage of clergy and monastics.
We have made it our purpose to worship Christ in His Church in the way the Fathers passed Orthodoxy down to us, which involves the rejection of these three innovations. For this reason, when we founded our mission in Raleigh, we did so under the bishops of the Genuine Orthodox Church, also known as the “Greek Old Calendarists,” who have preserved Orthodoxy faithfully. The other parishes in the area to differing degrees either participate in these three innovations or are in communion with those who do. While we have had generally good relations with the priests and laypeople of these parishes, we must on principle remain separate. We do not judge ourselves as being more pious or more holy than they, nor do we actively solicit them and try to poach them with unfair methods to join our Church. We are here, following the Holy Fathers, and anyone who wishes to join with us is welcome. The separation found in the Orthodox world grieves us, and we hope that those who are involved in these innovations or are in communion with those who do will cease this participation and restore unity. Unity is not just a unity in the present, but a unity of mind with the Orthodox of ages past, whom we believe would have rejected these innovations. This is why we founded St. Mark the Evangelist Orthodox Mission, in our hopes to remain faithful to the Orthodox Church without compromise, and we hope to continue our work of promoting traditional Orthodoxy as long as the Lord allows us to do so.