To the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Holy Church of Cyprus.
Your Beatitude and Holy Brothers,
I received the text that was approved as the decisions of the various Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Committees, which occurred for the preparation of the forthcoming Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, and the submission of the various approved texts and agendas to which this Synod will address.
I thank you most kindly for forwarding these important documents to me, since in line with these texts, the procedures and canonical functioning of the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, and in line with article 12, paragraphs 2 and 3, cites that we are able to express our thoughts firstly to our local synod. And in accordance to my humble conscience submit my personal concerns and beliefs to the Holy and Great Synod of our Sacred Church in regards to the topics I address in this epistle.
In the text of the 5th Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Committee which was convened in Chambesy (Geneva), on 10th-17th October 2015, and entitled, “Decisions: Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World”, I wish to declare the following:
I agree entirely with the first three articles of the text. However article 4 and onwards, I need to highlight that; The Orthodox Church has always prayed for “the unity of all”, and I believe that this particularly means the return and reunion of all those who cut themselves off and distanced themselves from the Holy Church, such as heretics and schismatics. Since, it was through heresy or schism, that these denied and rejected the Church. And that through repentance and the enforcement of the procedures set down by the holy canons, the penitent can be enjoined and united to the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church of Christ never denied, forsook or lost the “unity of the Faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit”, and it does not accept the theory of the restoration of unity of all “the Christ believers”, since unity amongst those who believe in Christ can only (truly) exist in the union to one another in baptism with Christ in the True Faith. A reality which does not exist amongst heretics or schismatics, and for this reason we pray for them to come to repentance and return to Orthodoxy.
I therefore believe that what is cited in article 5 as “the lost unity of Christians” is a grave mistake and misnomer, as the Church as people of God, united amongst themselves and with the head of the Church who is Christ, never ever lost this unity and has no need to “find” or “discuss” it; because it has existed, it exists and will always exist, since the Church of Christ never ceased or will cease to exist (-to say otherwise is a blasphemy and be calling God a liar).
What did and has occurred, is that various groups, peoples or individuals departed from the body of the Church; and the Church through prayer, devotion and missionary effort encourage and guide all those towards repentance and return via canonical path to the Orthodox Church. Therefore, there does not exist “other Churches”, but only heresies and schisms if we wish to be precise in our terminology and perspectives.
The wording and formulation “towards the restoration of Christian unity” is incorrect and misleading, because the unity of Christians, that is members of the Church of Christ, have never ceased to exist or break unity, as there has always been faithful who are united to and with the Church. Separations and departures from the Church have unfortunately occurred many times throughout history, particularly due to heresies and schisms, but never was the internal unity of the Church compromised.
Furthermore, I wonder and question as to why the text makes multiple references to “Churches” and “Confessions”? What is the difference and what are the distinguishing characteristics that define some groups as “Churches” and others as “Confessions”? So what are Churches and which are heretics, and which are schismatic groups or confessions? We (Orthodox) confess that there is One Church and all the rest are heresies and schisms.
I regard from a theological, dogmatic and canon law standpoint, that the attribution of the title “Church” to heretical or schismatic communities is entirely wrong as there is only One Church of Christ, as is cited in article 1, and we cannot, nor have the right to, name a heretical or schismatic community or group as a Church, except the Orthodox Church.
Nevertheless, there is no reference at all within the text, that the sole way that leads to unity with the Church is only through the return of heretics and schismatics in repentance to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, which in line with article 1 is the Orthodox Church.
The reference to “understanding of the tradition of the ancient Church” gives the impression that there exists a differing ontology to the ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and to the genuine continuation of that Church into our own era, which is our Orthodox Church. Therefore, we believe that there is absolutely no difference between the Church of the 21st century and the Church 1st century, for one of the attributes of the Church is the fact that we confess in the Symbol of Faith (the Nicene Creed) is that the Church is Apostolic.
Meanwhile in article 12, it states that the common goal of the theological dialogue is “the final restoration in the correct faith and the love of unity”. This statement gives the impression that even we Orthodox are seeking our own restoration within the correct and true Faith and the unity of love, as if we lost the True Faith and are now searching to find it through theological dialogue with the heterodox. I consider this theory is theologically unacceptable and intolerable to all of us.
The reference of the text to the “World Council of Churches” gives me the opportunity to formulate and express my opposition to what for some time has been various anti-canonical circumstances and practices that manifest themselves within and outside this strange organization, that considers the Orthodox Church as “one amongst many Churches”; that it is but one branch of the “One Church” which searches and struggles to constitute the World Council of Churches. However, for us there is only one unique Church of Christ which we confess in the Symbol of Faith and not many.
As for the view that the maintenance and preservation of genuine Orthodox Faith is insured only through synodical structures as the “sole and ultimate judge/criteria on matters of the Faith” has given rise to exaggeration diverges from the truth; since throughout ecclesiastical history there have been many synods which have taught and enacted errant and heretical dogmas, to which the faithful laity rejected outright, and preserved the Orthodox Faith and triumphantly proclaimed the Orthodox Confession.
Therefore, a synod without the faithful laity (who are the fulfillment of the Church), or a laity without the synod of Bishops, cannot ever consider itself the body of Christ or the Church of Christ, nor express truly and correctly the life and dogmas of the Church.
I understand very well Your Beatitude and holy Synodical brothers, that we cannot in current ecclesiastical texts of this nature to formulate tough or offensive expressions, and I think that it is correct that no one wants to put in such harsh language into the text. However, the truth must also be expressed with precision and clarity always, and certainly with pastoral discernment and sincere love towards all.
As a result, we have a responsibility towards our brethren who are found within heresies or schisms, and that we must be entirely sincere and honest with them, and to pray for them with much love and pain, while making every effort to assist and ease their return to the Church of Christ.
I humbly consider that such important and significant texts, as this work of the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, needs to be very cautious in its wording with every care given to theological and canonical accuracy and precision, so as to avoid unclear or brand new/innovative theological terminologies or errant formulations that would create misinterpretations and alterations to the true mindset and ethos of the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, for a Synod to be valid and canonical, it must not depart at all from the spirit and teaching of previous Holy Synods, the teachings of the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture, and it must not have any shadow hanging over the exact articulation of the True Faith.
For where did our Holy Fathers, or where and when in the Sacred Canons, or in the Divine Ecumenical or Local Synods, that heretical and schismatic groups were referred to as churches? And if the heretics are churches, then where is the One true and unique Church of Christ and of the Apostles?
Humbly, I object to a new and dangerous precedent that has never existed in any Sacred local or ecumenical Synod before, whereby the participation of as many bishops who by right each have one vote, is now replaced by each Church (jurisdiction) only having one vote and being represented by their primatial figurehead.
I also have many other disagreements and opposition to various other points raised in the text, but I do not wish to tire you any further, thus I confine myself to the themes that I consider to be of grave importance and that I humbly express my disagreement, thoughts and beliefs,
I do not wish that what I have written causes anyone sorrow, nor do I wish to be considered that I am lecturing or judging my brothers and fathers in Christ. I simply sense the need to express those things which weigh upon my conscience. For this reason, I ask that my points be raised within the deliberations of the Holy Synod.
I beseech your holy prayers, in concluding,
The least brother in Christ,
Athanasios of Lemessos
11 February 2016
Translated by Mode of Life
We have endeavoured to try and stay as close as possible to the Greek original, but still ensure the proper idiom of the English language.