ON NOT ROCKING THE BOAT

Written by Vladimir Moss

ON NOT ROCKING THE BOAT

“Hide the truth,” goes the popular Greek saying, “and you hide Christ.” “Publish – and be damned!” might be the nearest modern equivalent, in which “damnation” comes from the court of public opinion, not God. The difference is important. Publishing the truth often comes at a price. We have to choose the price: damnation by men - or by God…

But is it always necessary to publish the truth? True: the Apostle Paul says: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5.11). But are we not also supposed to hide our neighbour’s sins, leaving the judgement to God? After all, the Lord Himself says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7.1). Not so, says St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the Apostle’s words. “Paul did not say ‘judge’, he said ‘reprove’, that is, correct. And the words, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’ He spoke with reference to very small errors…”[1]

So we should hide our neighbour’s sins when they are small, but reprove and expose when they are large and provide a bad example to others – “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”. Indeed, to hide them, and not to reprove them, is a serious sin, according to the same Apostle. “It is reported continuously that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus… For… do not ye judge them that are within [the Church]?... Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Corinthians 5.1-5, 12-13).

If even the major sins of laypeople should be judged in public by the Church, what about the canonical sins of hierarchs? It seems obvious that they, too, should be judged – and in public. After all, that is what the canon law of the Holy Church prescribes. And if the major sins of laypeople, which are usually done in private and affect only a small group of people, should be judged in public, then a fortiori the canonical sins of hierarchs, which are usually done in public and affect many more people, directly and indirectly, should be judged in public. It follows, of course, that public protests against public canonical transgressions - we are assuming that, as is usually the case nowadays, private exhortations achieve nothing and the hierarchs themselves do not correct themselves - are not only permissible but obligatory.

However, this conclusion is disputed by many – especially among the clergy. The practice among clergy of almost all Orthodox jurisdictions today is to cover up each other’s sins, as if the clergy were (as in medieval Catholicism) a kind of closed corporation that exists only to serve the interests of its members, and not the salvation of all the rational sheep of Christ. When protests against the sins of the clergy arise from the lower ranks of the Church, these are usually sternly rejected as being “ill-conceived” (even when their truth is not disputed), “ill-timed” (there never seems to be a right time to protest), or “not the business of laypeople”. If the protests gather pace, and the transgression can no longer be hidden from public view, then the protesters are accused of “rocking the boat”, of shaming the Church before the world outside, even of preventing other people from joining the Church…

Let us look at these arguments a little more closely.

*

But let us first concede this to those who wish to suppress the whistle-blowers: it would be better for all if the scandals of the Church could be healed by the bishops without the intervention or protests of the laity. That is, after all, the function, or one of the functions, of the hierarchy; we elect a man to the hierarchy precisely because we believe him to have the knowledge and the courage to heal the wounds of the Church through the grace that is given him in the sacrament of ordination. The problem is: by the Providence of God there has not been a time since the Apostolic age when the hierarchy has been able to rule the Church in accordance with the holy dogmas and canons without the help of the lower clergy and the laity…

If we look at the history of the Orthodox Church, we are struck by the constant struggle for the faith and canonical order – and the involvement of all ranks of the Church in that struggle. “Peace on earth”, in the sense of freedom from internal dissension and quarrels, was never the destiny of the Church on earth. In the period of the Ecumenical Councils, not only were bishops and patriarchates constantly warring against each other: the laity, too, often rose up publicly against their hierarchs when they betrayed the faith.

Sometimes order was restored only through the intervention of the kings – as the holy Emperors Marcian and Pulcheria intervened at the Fourth Ecumenical Council. St. Isidore of Pelusium approved of this intervention, writing: “Formerly, when those who had lived an evangelical and apostolic life were crowned with the priesthood, the priesthood was fearful by right for the royal power; but now the royal power is fearful to the priesthood. However, it is better to say, not ‘priesthood’, but those who have the appearance of doing the priestly work, while by their actions they insult the priesthood. That is why it seems to me that the royal power is acting justly.”

It was acting justly, in Isidore’s view, because “although there is a very great difference between the priesthood and the kingdom (the former is the soul, the latter – the body), nevertheless they strive for one and the same goal, that is, the salvation of citizens”. [2]

Nor were these struggles only against manifest heretics, such as Arius or Nestorius. St. Theodore the Studite is noted as much for his struggles against the holy Patriarchs Tarasius and Nicephorus as against the iconoclast heretics. And the major struggles of the mid-ninth century were as much between Patriarchs Photius and Ignatius, both holy men, as between them and the heretical Pope Nicholas…

In this period, Christians of all ranks appear to have been much less inhibited about criticizing their hierarchs than they are today. The argument so often employed today to suppress dissent – “This is the hierarchs’ business, not yours” – was rejected by in the Early Church. Thus we read in The Institutions of the Apostles, “these sheep are not irrational but rational creatures – and we say this lest at any time a lay person should say, ‘I am a sheep and not a shepherd, and I have no concern for myself: let the shepherd look to that, for he alone will be required to give account for me.’ For even as the sheep that will not follow its good shepherd is exposed to the wolves, that is, to its destruction, to also the sheep that follows a bad shepherd is likewise exposed to unavoidable death, since the shepherd will devour him. Therefore, take care to flee from the ravening shepherd.”

The best hierarchs of the time bemoaned the anarchy of conflicting opinions in which the most vainglorious and ill-informed were often the most eagerly heard. But they did not take this as an excuse to suppress dissent, but rather bewailed a general lack of zeal for curing the ills of the Church in a thorough-going manner. Thus St. Basil the Great wrote: “[In the Church] one must get to the bottom of the problems, so as to eradicate the sickness from its very root.”[3] And St. John Chrysostom said: “A want of zeal in small matters is the cause of all our calamities; and because slight errors escape fitting correction, greater ones creep in.”[4]

These holy hierarchs also bewailed the bad impression that the internal quarrels of the Church made on those outside. However, this did not inhibit them from convening synods to depose heretics and evil-doers in the full glare of public scrutiny. Evidently they believed that glasnost’ was the price that had to be paid for true perestroika

From about the tenth century, the internal quarrels of the Churches appear to have died down, at any rate in the East. But this is a deceptive impression: in these periods of comparative peace, leading Christians took it upon themselves to sound the alarm still more urgently, as if this peace was the peace of impending spiritual death. Consider, for example, the Letter on Confession by St. Simeon the New Theologian (+1022):

“It is permissible for an unordained monk to confess us. You will find this to be the case everywhere. This is because of the vesture and likeness [proschema] given by God as the monk’s inheritance and by which monks are named. So is it written in the God-inspired writings of the Fathers, and you will find this to be the case should you chance to examine them. To be sure, prior to the monks only the bishops had that authority to bind and loose which they received in succession to the Apostles. But, when time had passed and the bishops had become useless, this dread authority passed on to priests of blameless life and worthy of divine grace. Then also, when the latter had become polluted, both priests and bishops becoming like the rest of the people with many – just as today – tripped up by spirits of deceit and by vain and empty titles and all perishing together, it was transferred, as we said above, to God’s elect people. I mean to the monks. It was not that it had been taken away from the priests and bishops, but rather that they had made themselves strangers to it…

“… The Lord’s disciples preserved with all exactitude the rightness of this authority. But, as we said, when time had gone by, the worthy grew mixed and mingled with the unworthy, with one contending in order to have precedence over another and feigning virtue for the sake of preferment. Thus, because those who were holding the Apostles’ thrones were shown up as fleshly minded, as lovers of pleasure and seekers of glory, and as inclining towards heresies, the divine grace abandoned them and this authority was taken away from them. Therefore, having abandoned as well everything else which is required of those who celebrate the sacraments, this alone is demanded of them: that they be Orthodox. But I do not myself think that they are even this. Someone is not Orthodox just because he does not slip some new dogma into the Church of God, but because he possesses a life which keeps harmony with true teaching. Such a life and such a man contemporary patriarchs and metropolitans have at different times either looked for and not found, or, if they find him, they prefer [to ordain] the unworthy candidate instead. They ask only this of him, that he put the Symbol of the faith down in writing. They find this alone acceptable, that the man be neither a zealot for the sake of what is good, nor that he do battle with anyone because of evil. In this way they pretend that they keep peace here in the Church. This is worse than active hostility, and it is a cause of great concern…”[5]

St. Symeon’s chastisement of the Byzantine Church at the apparent height of its glory is astonishingly harsh. The Orthodoxy of the hierarchs of his time, he says, is purely formal: they are neither “zealots for the sake of what is good” nor do they “do battle with anyone because of evil”. While pretending to “keep peace here in Church”, they are in fact waging war against God.

The hierarchs he is describing are what the Lord calls “hirelings” in the Gospel. The hireling is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that is, a heretic, but neither is he a true shepherd, for he “is a hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not” (John 10.12). Nevertheless, he may well belong to the external organization of the True Church and receive the honour of a true shepherd. But he flees when the wolf comes and allows the sheep to be scattered, because he “careth not for the sheep” (John 10.13).

Commenting on this passage, St. Gregory the Great writes in his Homilies on the Gospel: “He flees, not by giving ground, but by withholding his help. He flees, because he sees injustice and says nothing. He flees, because he takes refuge in silence…”

And “by silence,” as another great Gregory, the Theologian, says, “God is betrayed…”

*

Turning now to the present day, it would be a very bold (and foolish) man who would claim that the True Orthodox Church today is not in an even worse condition than the Church in tenth-century Byzantium. Formally speaking, our bishops are Orthodox: none of them confesses the heresies of ecumenism or newcalendarism or sergianism. They condemn (although sometimes not very loudly) the obviously heretical and apostate patriarchs of “World Orthodoxy”. But “someone is not Orthodox just because he does not slip some new dogma into the Church of God”, as St. Symeon says. If he does not confess a certain heresy, but allows it to infect the flock, then he is a hireling, and not a true shepherd. And this is happening in our Church – notably with regard to the soteriological and other heresies of Fr. John Romanides and his many followers and admirers in World Orthodoxy. Moreover, many other injustices and scandals are not being corrected, and the absolutely necessary sacramental unity that should exist between the True Orthodox Churches of different nationalities is being sabotaged…

The result is that many laypeople, especially (but not only) in the diasporas, are receiving tragically little pastoral care and instruction. Meanwhile, other people from other jurisdictions who are seeking the truth are being repelled by the uncorrected scandals they see in the Church. They look for the good works that will prove our faith – and do not see them.

The Apostle Paul calls on Timothy to “reprove, admonish and exhort” “in season and out of season” (II Timothy 4.2). But for today’s hierarchs every season seems to be out of season when it comes to rebuking and disciplining those who are destroying the Church. In such a situation, one would expect a multitude of whistle-blowers to come forward from the lower ranks in order to call the hierarchs to carry out their duty. But the strange and alarming thing is that as the Church becomes weaker and weaker, so the protests become fewer and fewer and fainter and fainter. Nor - except in a very few cases - does the recent and terrifying example of the fall of the Russian Church Abroad appear to have inspired our leaders with a godly fear that the same could happen to them.

Let us linger a little longer on the example of the Russian Church Abroad. The present writer remembers how, as early as the mid-1970s, hierarchs such as Archbishops Averky and Nikodim and laymen such as Professor Ivan Andreyevsky were deeply worried by the lack of a truly confessing stand in the Church against the heretics of World Orthodoxy. But all three men died in 1976, and the torch of protest was handed on to lesser men who commanded less respect – and were in any case told to shut up. Only the holy Metropolitan Philaret paid heed to their protests and sympathized with them – and to some extent succeeded in stopping the rot through the anathema against ecumenism in 1983. But when he died in 1985, and then Bishops Gregory Grabbe and Anthony of Los Angeles died in the mid-1990s, the way was open for the remaining hierarchs to “reinterpret” the 1983 anathema, join the Cyprianite schismatics, and then, in 2000, to vote for joining World Orthodoxy. From 2001 protests were punished by excommunications. And so it was a “purified” Church that finally joined the apostates in 2007…

In the True Orthodox Church of Greece today, the disease is different, but the situation is no less serious. Only very few seem to recognize that fact. Everything is covered by an eerie silence, as under snow in winter…

But this is not the silence of the prudent man who realizes that there is a time to speak and a time to keep silence. This is the silence of the hireling who is fleeing from the calls of his conscience and his pastoral duty… And the exhaustion of laypeople who have come to believe that nothing can be changed in the Church, that it is not their business, and that they must simply accept the status quo without protest, say “axios!” (worthy) to him who is “anaxios” (unworthy), hibernate, and quietly lose all hope…

But there is always hope, because, as St. Ambrose of Optina once said when he was in conflict with the Russian Holy Synod, “there is a Vladyko above all Vladykos”, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is “the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (I Peter 2.25). And He is the Helmsman who will always guide the ship of the Church to the safe harbour of the Kingdom of heaven.

*

Finally, let us look more closely at the metaphor of “not rocking the boat” and develop it a little.

The Church, as we know, is compared to a boat whose Captain is Christ and whose chief rowers are the hierarchs. When a storm arises from outside the boat, the hierarchs wake up the supposedly sleeping Christ (He gives the impression of sleeping only in order to give them the opportunity to act), and He calms the winds and the waves. That is the right order, the canonical order.

But what if the rowers themselves are asleep? Then the passengers have to act in order to wake up the rowers. And how can they do this without rocking the boat?

“But rocking the boat will let in water from outside,” goes the objection. Hardly. After all, the boat is already in a storm, and is already letting in water from all sides. A little rocking from within will hardly make the situation significantly worse. In any case, if the rowers are not woken, the whole boat will inevitably capsize sooner or later.

“But how can that be, when the boat is unsinkable?” continues the objection. However, no boat, in the sense of a Local Church, is unsinkable. In 1905 St. John of Kronstadt gave the Russians a list of distinguished Local Churches, such as the Carthaginian, which had been wiped off the face of the earth, and warned them that the same could happen to the Russian Church. If St. John could say this of a Church that was the largest in history, and was even at that time nourishing hundreds of thousands of future new martyrs in her bosom, then no Local Church, however ancient and venerable, is unsinkable.

It is only the rightly confessing Church that is unsinkable; while the Church cannot be destroyed everywhere, she can be destroyed anywhere – that is, there is no Local Church in any part of the world which can be sure that she will not fall away from the truth. The Lord promised that the Church built on the Rock of the true faith would prevail over the gates of hell, and we must always preserve a lively faith in this truth. Holding it, we know that even if our Local Church falls, there will be another somewhere else that remains in the truth, and that “help and deliverance will come from another quarter”, as Mordecai said to Esther (Esther 4.14).

It is an attribute of fallen human nature to seek the illusion of security, infallibility or indestructibility, in something concrete, material and locatable. Thus the Jews sought to anchor their feeling of eternal superiority in the fact that they were “the sons of Abraham” – in a genetic, not a spiritual sense. And the Roman Catholics sought a guarantee of their Church’s infallibility in its location – Roma eterna et invicta. But the Church, as St. Maximus the Confessor taught, does not consist in genes or spatial location or anything material, but in the right confession of the faith. And that faith can disappear like the wind if God withdraws it from a soul – “the Spirit blows where It wishes” (John 3.8)…

But there is an important corollary to this truth: since the faith can be lost by any Church in any place, whatever its nationality or reputation, it has to be fought for with every ounce of reason, strength and passion. Our respect for the clergy and the grace of the priesthood should allow them time to correct their mistakes themselves. But when we see that the clergy do not deserve respect, and that the grace they have received is being trampled on to the potential damnation of the whole Local Church, it is time for the lower ranks to act. For there is no salvation in following a “canonical” hierarch when he is not following the canons. Such “canonicity” is a lie and hypocrisy…

Let us conclude with some quotations from the Holy Fathers:

“Anarchy is altogether an evil, the occasion of many calamities, and the source of disorder and confusion… However, the disobedience of those who are ruled is no less an evil… But perhaps someone will say, there is also a third evil, when the ruler is bad. I myself, too, know it, and it is no small evil, but a far worse evil even than anarchy. For it is better to be led by no one that to be led by one who is evil. For the former indeed are often saved, and often in peril, but the latter will be altogether in peril, being led into the pit of perdition.

“How, then, does Paul say, ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves’? Having said above, ‘whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,’ he then said, ‘Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves.’ ‘What then,’ you say, ‘when he is wicked, should we not obey?’ Wicked? In what sense? If in regard to faith, flee and avoid him, not only if he is a man, but even if he is an angel come down from heaven; but if in regard to life, do not be over-curious…”[6]

“’But so-and-so,’ you say, ‘is a decent man, is a Priest, lives in great self-control, and does this and that.’ Do not talk to me about this decent person, this self-controlled, pious man who is a Priest; but if you like, suppose that this man is Peter, or Paul, or even an Angel come down from heaven. For not even in such a case do I regard the dignity of their persons… For our reckoning is not with our fellow-servants, but with our Master, and to Him we shall give an account for all that we have done in our life.”[7]

“When there is no one to support the cause of true religion, we ought alone and all unaided to do our duty…”[8]

Vladimir Moss.

December 6/19, 2010.

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.



[1] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 18 on Ephesians.

[2] St. Isidore, Tvorenia (Works), Moscow, 1860, vol. 3, pp. 400, 410 (in Russian).

[3] St. Basil the Great, Letter 156.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 1 on Galatians.

[5] St. Symeon the New Theologian, Letter on Confession, 11, 13; translated in Alexander Golitzin (ed.), St. Symeon the New Theologian. On the Mystical Life. The Ethical Discourses, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997, pp. 196, 198-199.

[6] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 34 on Hebrews, 1.

[7] St. John Chrysostom, First Baptismal Catechesis, 5.

[8] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 30.

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