Written by Vladimir Moss



     Forgiveness Sunday and the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy follow each other in quick succession in the Church’s liturgical calendar. A coincidence? No – there are no coincidences in life, and still less in Church life. So let us search for the reason for this “coincidence”, beginning with the story behind the institution of the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy…

     The last iconoclast emperor, Theophilus, died in February, 842. His widow, St. Theodora, wanted to restore the icons, but she used her imperial authority to impose a bargain on the Church: if her reposed husband could be restored to the diptychs as an Orthodox emperor, she would give carte blanche to the patriarch to restore the true faith as he saw fit. The confessors of Orthodoxy were understandably reluctant to enter into such a bargain, since there was no reliable evidence that Theophilus had repented before his death. However, God inspired the new patriarch, St. Methodius, to resolve the dilemma in the following way. As Nun Cassia tells the story, “On March 4, 843 Methodius was consecrated to the see of Constantinople and immediately proclaimed that the whole Church should pray for the Emperor Theophilus, which continued for the whole of the first week of the Great Fast and ended with the miraculous blotting out of the name of Theophilus from the list of heretics that the patriarch had sealed before the beginning of the prayer and placed on the altar of Hagia Sophia. The reposed emperor was recognized as forgiven by the Church and as Orthodox, and on Sunday, March 11, 843 the icons were brought in a triumphal procession into the main church of the Empire, and icon-veneration has remained forever as an unshakeable dogma of the Orthodox Church…”[1]

     So the Triumph of Orthodoxy, of the true faith over heresy, was at the same time a Triumph of Forgiveness – of God’s forgiveness of a heretic and persecutor of the Church even after his death. Truly with God all things are possible. He “has the keys of Hades and of Death” (Revelation 1.18), and is able to bring even the impenitent sinner to repentance and draw him out of hades and death into paradise and eternal life.

     However, it is important to note how this was done. Forgiveness was not given to the dead heretic just like that. The whole Church fasted and prayed with great intensity for a whole week, and only when God’s forgiveness had been revealed to all by an obvious miracle was his name restored to the ranks of the saved and the Orthodox. And at the same time the heresy that he had championed throughout his life - the heresy of iconoclasm that had ravaged the Byzantine empire for over a hundred years - was officially overturned.


     Many hundreds of years later, in March, 2014, something superficially similar took place. Let us examine this more closely.

     In 1980 Archimandrite Cyprian of the Monastery of SS. Cyprian and Justina, Fili, Greece was secretly ordained, together with seven other archimandrites, to the episcopate by the Greek True Orthodox Metropolitans Callistus and Anthony. This ecclesiastical coup failed; all those ordained – with the exception of Cyprian – repented of their uncanonical ordination and were eventually received back into the canonical True Orthodox Church of Greece under Archbishop Chrysostomos (Kiousis) of Athens. Cyprian, however, together with another bishop, Giovanni of Sardinia, remained aloof from all Greek Synods; and Cyprian now began to lean towards ecumenism, giving communion en masse to new calendarists and even concelebrating with the new-calendarist Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria – although the Cyprianites denied this, saying that the patriarch just happened to enter the sanctuary and sat down. In order to justify these uncanonical practices, in 1984 Cyprian published his Ecclesiological Theses, which proclaimed a new and heretical understanding of the Church’s relationship to heresy and heretics. In this work heretics were said to be “sick” members of the True Church until they had been expelled from the Church by a “Unifying Synod” of Ecumenical or at least Pan-Orthodox status; local Councils, according to Cyprian, did not have the authority to expel heretics from the Church. In accordance with this theory, Cyprian declared that the new calendarist church of Greece was the “Mother Church” of the True Orthodox Church, and that while ecumenism was a heresy, the ecumenists themselves were still inside the Church and had the grace of sacraments - in spite of the fact that the Russian Church Abroad under St. Philaret, which Cyprian greatly respected and was trying to enter into communion with, had just anathematized ecumenism and the ecumenists only the year before.

     In September, 1984 the True Orthodox Church of Greece under Archbishop Chrysostomos summoned Cyprian to a synodal court to give an account of his actions, but he did not appear at the summons. On September 19 the Synod banned him from serving for 40 days, but he continued to serve. Finally, on April 5, 1985 Cyprian and Giovanni, while still under canonical bans, left the Greek Church and formed their own Synod. (They claimed that they had no obligation to answer any summons from a Synod they had never belonged to. But since they recognized the authority of no other Synod over them, this was to all intents and purposes a declaration of autocephaly – in other words, a schism.)

     In February, 1986, the Synod of Archbishop Chrysostomos defrocked Cyprian and the other members of his Synod for their practice of giving communion to new-calendarists (“for without investigation he gives the Holy Mysteries of our Church to new calendarist modernists, schismatics and ecumenists”), and for preaching a false teaching on the presence of the Grace-filled Mysteries among the new calendarists (“because he has fallen away from the Orthodox Faith… and accepted the false and dishonourable faith of the ecumenists – that is, that new calendarist schismatics belong to the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is the only guardian and bestower of Grace”).[2]

     For many years the Cyprianites spread their influence far and wide. In 1994 they entered into communion with the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR), which accepted their confession of faith. As a result, the movement for union with the Moscow Patriarchate inside ROCOR gained strength, and in 2007 ROCOR entered into full communion with the MP. Not content with having helped to destroy this local Church, the Cyprianites now sought to “sweep up” the splinters (oskolki) of ROCOR that had refused to surrender to the MP. Their lot fell on Bishop Agathangel of Odessa, a lone bishop and renegade from the Russian True Orthodox Church (RTOC) who in 1994 had declared that even the Catholics and the Monophysites had grace. He was the last to “jump ship” at the shipwreck of ROCOR in 2007, but then had the effrontery to declare himself the sole True Orthodox Russian bishop in the world! Clearly well suited to each other, Agathangel and the Cyprianites together ordained a new, uncanonical Synod with Agathangel as its head.

     Shortly after this, Cyprian fell into a coma. For several years he was unconscious, in a kind of limbo from which he never emerged until his death in 2013. Meanwhile, two attempts were made to reunite the True Orthodox Church and the Cyprianites. The first, in 2009, when Archbishop Chrysostomos was still alive, failed; the second, in 2014, under the new Archbishop Kallinicos, succeeded. The Cyprianites were not asked to repent, and Cyprian himself was declared “blessed”…

     The canonical question that arises is: can the Greek Synod under its new leader in 2014 reverse the decision made in relation to Cyprian by the same Synod under its previous leader in 1986 without giving any reason for such a reversal – or even proclaiming that any such reversal has taken place?...

     Any attempt to compare the events of 2014 with those of 843 would clearly be in vain. The restoration of Theophilus the iconoclast cannot be compared to that of Cyprian the crypto-ecumenist. In the former case, there was no denying that Theophilus had died in heresy and without repentance. Nor was any damage done to the Orthodox confession of faith – iconoclasm was not restored together with Theophilus. In the latter case, the situation is far less clear. The Church did not publicly pray for the forgiveness of Cyprian. Nor was there any undisputed sign from God that he had been forgiven. Although the confession of faith on the basis of which the Cyprianites were restored to the Church was formally Orthodox, it did not condemn Cyprianism. Moreover, more than one Cyprianite bishop continues to assert that he was neither asked to repent, nor has in fact repented, of his Cyprianite beliefs…

     The Lord, as is well known, gave His apostles and their successors the power to bind and to loose the sins of men. But this power can be exercised only in accordance with, and not in spite of, the will of God. The Church teaches that as a general rule God does not loose the sins of the man who dies in mortal sin, and that in hades there is no repentance. But there are exceptions, and the case of Theophilus the iconoclast is one of those exceptions. In response to the fervent prayer of the Church (for if “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5.16), so how much more the prayer of the whole Church!), the Lord counted him worthy to be released from the mortal sin of heresy. But the Church besought: it did not command, it did not assume that the Head would necessarily submit to the will of His Body. For there are cases when the Lord rejects the prayer even of the greatest saints: as He once revealed to the Prophet Ezekiel, even if the righteous Noah, Daniel and Job had been in the sinful land of Israel at that time, they would only have delivered themselves by their prayers, not the whole land (Ezekiel 14,14, 20). Indeed, the Apostle John forbids prayers for certain sinners: “there is a sin unto death – I do not say that he should pray about that” (I John 5.16). But again there are exceptions. And the Church’s prayer for the mortal sin of Theophilus was one such exception.


     On Forgiveness Sunday we forgive each other our personal sins against each other. Purified in this way from personal sin, we fast and pray in the first week of Great Lent with strong confidence that our prayers will be heard by God. And the most fervent prayer of the Church must be that we may be united “with one heart and one mouth” in the One True Faith with the unbelievers and heretics and schismatics who have fallen away from the Church – or never belonged to it in the first place. This prayer reaches its climax on the following Sunday, the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when all the heresies are solemnly anathematized and the confessors of the faith glorified. And so in this one single week we experience the whole gamut of the Church’s repentance, faith, hope and love; we see the power of God, Who casts sinners into hades and raises them up again; and we understand what the apostle means when he says: “This is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (I John 5.4).


March 5/18, 2016.

Holy Martyr Conon.

First Week of the Holy Fast.






[1] Nun Cassia (Senina) (editor), Zhitia Vizantijskikh Sviatykh Epokhi Ikonoborchestva (Lives of the Byzantine Saints of the Iconoclast Period), vol. I, St. Petersburg: Kvadrivium, 2015, pp. 129-130.

[2]I Phoni tis Orthodoxias, 811, January-February, 1987. Сf. Orthodoxos Khristianikos Agon, 8, February, 1987, p. 7.

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