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Vol. 2 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2007

Tearing the Family Album:
A Crime Against Love

"First remove the plank in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother's eye." Luke 6:42

In the midst of the celebration of the joyful reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia with the Moscow Patriarchate, one tiny news story was almost universally missed.

Perhaps the mainstream and Church media outlets missed it because the backwoods of Alberta, Canada, do not enjoy a speedy newsfeed to CNN or other news outlets. More likely, it was the nature of this rather obscure story - one which speaks to the heart of the struggle of Orthodox Christians in North America - which simply did not garner wider interest.

The Russian Orthodox Convent of the Protection of the Mother of God is the oldest continuously functioning Orthodox monastery in Canada, situated in Bluffton, Alberta. Up unto the spring of 2007, the convent functioned under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, until certain fears and concerns about the upcoming reunion with the Patriarch of Moscow led the tiny community to switch to a Greek Old Calendarist jurisdiction, breaking communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church. The Convent joined a few other parishes of the ROCOR, along with monasteries in both England and France in placing themselves under the Old Calendarist Greeks - a small number of faithful, to be sure, but a group which shared in common a serious concern about the directions of Orthodox involvement with the ecumenical movement.

It must be made clear that for the Orthodox, so-called "ecumenical" involvement with organizations including Protestants, Roman Catholics, and various sectarian groups, has never been widely condemned as heresy by councils of the Orthodox Church, although such a decision could happen at some time in the future. As such, the departure of the Convent from the fold of the Russian Church is a schism - a break in normal relations with the Body of the Church for reasons not grounded in Canon Law. The responsibility for such a decision can only be placed at the feet of those making such a choice.

That being said, one must ask: what was it which was so repellant, so scandalous, about the Church in Russia and in the West, that would bring faithful people - indeed, faithful monastics - to such a move? There was no hint that bribery was involved. There were no sexual scandals, or accusations of the misuse of Church funds. While personality conflicts may well have existed, these are a regular part of human existence. What, then, brought about such a split?

The heart of the concerns, fears, anxieties, or scandal which motivated these small schisms, including one in the heart of Canada, is to be found in the current tone of the discourse of the Church itself with those outside Her. For traditional Orthodox faithful (indeed, for all true Orthodox faithful, since without Tradition, one cannot be Orthodox), the direction and acceleration of so-called "dialogue" with those outside the Church - the misnamed ecumenical movement - has already led to endless rancor and division among those inside the Church. To judge the ecumenical movement by her fruits - the internal division of the Church, the creation of parties and factions, and the increased disharmony where love should abide - the logical impact on faithful Orthodox, and on monastic communities - was easy to foresee.

Each time some Orthodox "representative" stands shoulder to shoulder with heterodox Christians at a joint prayer service, thousands - even hundreds of thousands - of Orthodox observers, many of them converts, are dealt a hand of confusion about the nature of the Church. Each time some Orthodox academic issues a treatise equating the Holy Mysteries of the Orthodox Church with the rites of various other groups, it is individual souls - not factions or "wings" of the Church - who are scandalized, and sometimes even lost. The effect on the Body of the Church is not an attack with a single blow, but death by a thousand cuts, each one inflicted on the fragile conscience of a single member, caught in the spiral of parish politeness and Internet gossip, leading down and down into spiritual oblivion. It is not simply a crime against the truth: it is a crime against love.

Whatever the ecumenical advocates might say in support of their responsibility to "dialogue" with those outside the Church, the first responsibility of every Orthodox Christian is to love those within the Church, and to do everything possible to ensure that the faithful - particularly those new to the faith - do not stumble. This is where the Orthodox who involve themselves in ecumenical dialogues fail: they fail to put the spiritual safety of other faithful ahead of their hopes for union with those outside the Body of Christ.

And if the cost of such involvement is so high - numbered in souls caused to stumble, and souls lost from the Church - what is it that such involvement offers in exchange for these lost and scandalized souls? Certainly, the repayment is not new souls, won to the Church through ecumenical efforts, since such are almost never produced. Is the prize in fact the esteem gained in the eyes of those outside the Church, or in the eyes of the popular media, who value secular humanitarian efforts in the name of unity? Perhaps - the potential gains of Orthodox involvement are impossible to quantify. The losses are much easier to count, because each loss is personal, individual, and eternal.

Years ago, at my ordination to the priesthood, a brother priest approached and reminded me that each fringe on the priestly stole represented the soul of one person entrusted to my pastoral care. It was a statement which still hangs heavy on me each time I place the stole around my neck.

Yet as the Russian monasteries announced their departure, one by one, from the fold of the Church, scandalized by the ecumenical dancing of some individuals in the Church, the image of that stole, those fringes, flashed through my mind - this time, with the fringes cut through, scandalized souls dropping to the ground.

For those who remain in the Church, the question we must ask ourselves has nothing to do with the agenda items of ecumenical dialogue, nor does it have anything to do with how we might find better ways to articulate our positions to the unwashed - or washed - masses. The only question that really matters, as we watch souls drop from the stole that is the pastoral care of the Church, is whether we are the ones holding the proverbial scissors.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.