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THE BRANCH THEORY, THE CATACOMB CHURCH AND THE KYRIKITE MATTHEWITES

Vladimir Moss

 

The February, 2004 (N 145) issue of Orthodoxos Pnoi, the organ of the Matthewite Metropolitan Kyrikos of Mesogaia, contains an extraordinarily bitter and unjust attack on his brother bishop Metropolitan Epiphanios of Kition (Cyprus). The present writer would not normally devote great attention to yet another impending schism in the True Orthodox world, if it were not that this attack actually highlights in a very instructive manner not only what is wrong with the Matthewites more precisely: with the Kyrikite offshoot from the Matthewites, but also how a fanatically unbalanced attack on one heresy can lead to a fall into the mirror-image of that heresy, just as unbalanced attacks on Nestorianism lead to Monophysitism, and on Catholicism to Protestantism. In this case, the heresy under attack is the ecumenist branch theory of the Church, whose mirror-image, into which the attackers are in danger of falling, is what I shall call the monolith theory of the Church.

 

The cause of the present quarrel is Metropolitan Epiphanios founding, in January/February of this year, of a mission of the True Orthodox Church of Cyprus in Russia. The initial perplexity of the Kyrikites on hearing of this event would appear to be understandable. After all, the Greek Matthewites (with whom Metropolitan Epiphanios is in communion) already have a mission in Russia under Metropolitan Kyrikos, so why create a second administration of the same Church there?

 

However, a closer examination of this quarrel reveals that the Kyrikites have already in effect created a schism from the Matthewites, so their accusing Epiphanios of schismatical activity is hypocritical. For in what other way can we characterize the language that the editor of Orthodoxos Pnoi uses about the Greek Matthewite Archbishop Nicholas, with whom all the Matthewites, including Metropolitan Kyrikos, are still formally in communion? He calls him the pseudo-archbishop Mr. Nicholas (p. 44)!!! This language is repeated by the theologian Eleutherius Goutzides, who calls him Mr. Nicholas Messiakaris (p. 62) and mocks Metropolitan Epiphanios description of him as a canonical and Orthodox archbishop (p. 62). Again, Goutzides writes: His Beatitude Andreas [the former Matthewite archbishop] has fallen as far as possible with the abomination of his resignation in favour of Mr. Nicholas Messiakaris of the Piraeus (p. 47)!

 

Since the Kyrikites reject them so violently, it is hardly surprising that the Matthewites under Archbishop Nicholas feel that they are entitled to found their own mission in Russia independently of the Kyrikite mission. (It appears that Metropolitan Epiphanios step was taken with the full agreement of Archbishop Nicholas). The Kyrikites cannot have it both ways. Either they recognize Archbishop Nicholas as the lawful archbishop, in which case they have a right to feel indignant if the archbishop founds a second mission on their territory. Or they reject Archbishop Nicholas as a pseudo-archbishop, in which case the archbishop has every right to pay no attention to their rights, since schismatics have no ecclesiastical rights

 

But the Kyrikites have another argument: they claim that their flock in Russia (five priests, one deacon, several hundred parishioners) is the Catacomb Church of Russia, so that Epiphanios is, in effect, trespassing on the canonical territory, not simply of another diocese (that of Mesogaia), but of another Local Church (the Russian).

 

Leaving aside for the time being the question how the Kyrikites can claim that their very small flock constitutes the whole of the Catacomb Church of Russia, let us consider another canonical problem that their position raises. Since a Local Church cannot exist without at least one bishop, and since the Russian Kyrikites have no other bishop than Metropolitan Kyrikos, we must presume that the Kyrikites consider Metropolitan Kyrikos to be the head of the Catacomb Church of Russia. But he is also, at the same time, a bishop (one of the very few) of the True Orthodox Church of Greece! So he belongs at the same time to two autocephalous Churches! But this is clearly anti-canonical!

 

The resolution of this anti-canonicity can proceed in one of two ways. Either Metropolitan Kyrikos renounces for his flock the title the Catacomb Church of Russia. Or he consecrates a bishop for Russia, who will be entirely a Russian bishop that is, living in Russia, working only for his Russian flock, and making no claim to have any jurisdiction outside Russia.

 

*

 

Let us now look a little more closely at the concept of the Catacomb Church. The term brings to mind the situation of the Christians in Roman times, and again during the iconoclast persecutions, when the Church was forced to live in a semi-legal or illegal position vis-à-vis the State. If such a move was necessary under the pagan Roman emperors and heretical Greek emperors, then it was only to be expected that it would again become necessary under the militant atheist commissars of the Soviet anti-State, whose enmity towards religion was much fiercer than that of the pagan Roman and heretical Greek emperors.

 

The idea that the Russian Church might have to descend into the catacombs, in imitation of the Christians in early Rome, was suggested as early as 1909 by the future head of that Church, Metropolitan Joseph (Petrovykh) of Petrograd: Now many are complaining about the hard times for the Church Remembering the words of the Saviour with complete accuracy, we must expect still worse times for the Church Without any exaggeration, she must truly live through a condition close to complete destruction and her being overcome by the gates of hell. Perhaps with us, exactly as in the land of freedom, America, they will drive the Name of Christ out of the schools. They will adapt prayer assemblies into ordinary meetings permitted by the police, as in that other land of freedom, France, and will convert the heritage of the Church, together with the very right of faith, into the property of the state. Perhaps the faith of Christ will again hide in the woods, the deserts, the catacombs, and the confession of the faith will be only in secret, while immoral and blasphemous presentations will come out into the open. All this may happen! The struggle against Christ will be waged with desperation, with the exertion of the last drop of human and hellish energy, and only then, perhaps, will it be given to hell and to mankind to assure us with complete obviousness of the unfailing power and might of the priceless promise of Christ: I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16.18).[1]

 

The first Catacomb hieromartyr was probably the priest Timothy Strelkov, who, after being executed by the Bolsheviks in June, 1918 and then having his severed head miraculously restored to his body, was forced to go into hiding until he was caught and executed for the second time in 1930.[2]

 

In the same year of 1918, Patriarch Tikhon himself had called on the faithful to form unofficial, quasi-catacomb brotherhoods to defend the Orthodox Faith. Shemetov writes: The brotherhoods which arose with the blessing of the Patriarch did not make the parishes obsolete where they continued to exist. The brotherhoods only made up for the deficiencies of the parishes.[3]

 

In fact, the organization of unofficial, catacomb bodies like the brotherhoods became inevitable once it became clear that the God-hating State was bent on destroying the Orthodox Church. Thus according to Archbishop Lazarus (Zhurbenko), the catacombs began in 1922, when renovationism began. The Optina elders blessed the Christians to go into the catacombs...[4] Meanwhile, the Danilovites in Moscow and the Andrewites in the Urals were already preparing for a descent of the Church into the Catacombs. They clearly saw that the Church could no longer at the same time serve openly and have a pure confession of faith, untainted by compromise with the communists or renovationists. The history of the Church in the late 1920s and 1930s was to prove them right

 

Shortly before his death, on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1925, the Patriarch confided to his personal physician and friend, Michael Zhizhilenko, that he felt that the unceasing pressure of the government would one day force the leadership of the Church to concede more than was right, and that the true Church would then have to descend into the catacombs like the Roman Christians of old And he counselled his friend, who was a widower, that when that time came, he should seek the monastic tonsure and episcopal consecration.

 

That time came in 1927 with the notorious declaration of Metropolitan Sergius; and Michael Zhizhilenko, following the advice of his mentor, was consecrated as the first bishop (with the name Maximus) of the anti-sergianist Catacomb Church in 1928, for which he paid with his life in Solovki in 1931. Thus was the concept and even the name of the Catacomb Church foreseen by the Martyr-Patriarch himself; it was, and is the Tikhonite Church.

 

Now one of the disadvantages of a Church in a catacomb situation, hiding from State power, is that it is almost impossible to maintain the organizational integrity of the Church, to have regular Councils to resolve problems and disputes; for the central authority may be unable to contact all the bishops, still less convene them in one place. Even worse will be the situation if the central authority, in the person of the Patriarch, is himself killed, and it proves impossible to elect a new one. Anticipating this, Patriarch Tikhon and his Synod issued ukaz 362 dated November 7/20, 1920, whose first three points were as follows:

 

1. With the blessing of his Holiness the Patriarch, the Holy Synod and the Higher Church Council, in a joint session, judged concerning the necessity of giving the diocesan Hierarch instructions in case of a disconnection with the higher church administration or the cessation of the activity of the latter

 

2. If dioceses, as a result of the movement of the front, changes of state boundaries, etc., find themselves unable to communicate with the higher church administration or the higher church administration itself together with his Holiness the Patriarch for some reason ceases its activity, the diocesan hierarch will immediately enter into relations with the hierarchs of neighbouring dioceses in order to organize a higher instance of church authority for several dioceses in the same conditions (in the form of a temporary higher church government or metropolitan region, or something similar).

 

3. The care for the organization of the higher church authority for the whole group who are in the situation indicated in point 2 is the obligatory duty of the eldest ranked hierarch in the indicated group

 

Now it was anticipated that these autonomous groups of bishops would remain in communion with each other, even if communication was difficult. However, it was also tacitly admitted that if the persecutions intensified (which they did), then communication between groups might be broken entirely. With the loosening of communication, differences were likely to arise between the groups; there might even be ruptures of communion because different groups might suspect each other of canonical irregularities, or even of falling away from the faith; and with the absence of any central authority recognised by both sides, there might be no means of healing the divisions thus created. Such a scenario had taken place in other periods of Church history when the faith had been persecuted for example, in the second half of the fourth century in Asia Minor. So it was only to be expected that it would happen during the much more severe persecutions of the 20th century.

 

So where, in such a situation, was the Church? And on what basis could the Church still be called one if she was in fact divided into many parts unable to commune or communicate with each other? Could two autonomous jurisdictions of the Catacomb Church both be said to be part of the One Church if they not only could not commune with each other, but did not do so because of mutual suspicions of anticanonicity?

 

A very partial and schematic answer to these questions was provided by the Russian Church Abroad in its All-Emigration Council in Serbia in 1938: We must follow the example of the Church prior to the Council of Nicaea, when the Christian communities were united not on the basis of the administrative institutions of the State, but through the Holy Spirit alone.[5] In other words, administrative unity was not the criterion of Church unity in the deep sense. The Holy Spirit can jump the gap created by administrative disunity to preserve true unity in the Mystery of the One Church.

 

A little earlier, in July, 1937, the Ust-Kut Council of the Catacomb Church in July, 1937 had come to a similar, but slightly more detailed conclusion in its four canons:

 

1. The Sacred Council forbids the faithful to receive communion from the clergy legalized by the anti-Christian State.

 

2. It has been revealed to the Sacred Council by the Spirit that the anathema-curse hurled by his Holiness Patriarch Tikhon is valid, and all priests and Church-servers who have dared to consider it as an ecclesiastical mistake or political tactic are placed under its power and bound by it.

 

3. To all those who discredit and separate themselves from the Sacred Council of 1917-18 Anathema!

 

4. All branches of the Church which are on the common trunk the trunk is our pre-revolutionary Church are living branches of the Church of Christ. We give our blessing to common prayer and the serving of the Divine Liturgy to all priests of these branches. The Sacred Council forbids all those who do not consider themselves to be branches, but independent from the tree of the Church, to serve the Divine Liturgy. The Sacred Council does not consider it necessary to have administrative unity of the branches of the Church, but unity of mind concerning the Church is binding on all.[6]

 

So the mystical unity of the One Church is not destroyed by administrative disunity. But unity of mind concerning the Church is binding on all. And anyone who remains in communion with the official, Soviet church of the Moscow Patriarchate, or who discredits or separates himself from the Sacred Council of 1917-18, is outside the One Church.

 

Of course, these two conciliar decisions are only schematic; they do not solve, or pretend to solve, any particular quarrel between jurisdictions. Such quarrels can only be resolved with the re-establishment of central authority that is, a canonical Patriarch and Holy Synod - after the persecutions have come to an end (which time has still not yet come today, in 2004). At the same time, these decisions enable us to say that a jurisdiction such as the Russian Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) under Metropolitan Lavr is outside the unity of the True Church of Russia insofar as it does allow its members to commune from the clergy of the Soviet church. Moreover, they condemns such a clergyman as, for example, Hieromonk Gregory Lourié, who, though belonging to a jurisdiction which claims to be part of the Catacomb Church, declares that the Sacred Council of 1917-18 was a a tragic-comic story, which exerted a minimal, or negative rather than positive, influence on the following life of the Church ![7] What these two conciliar decisions exclude is the idea the Church as an administrative monolith. On the contrary, the Church is like a tree, of which the different catacomb jurisdictions are the branches.

 

Is this a form of the ecumenist branch theory of the Church? No, because the branch theory that was anathematised by the ROCOR in 1983 spoke of branches which differ in doctrine and way of life, whereas the different branches of the Church envisaged in the conciliar decisions quoted above are understood to have the same faith and way of life, even if they may have not agree about everything. In other words, the Catacomb Church has branches in the same sense that the pre-revolutionary Orthodox Church had branches (in the form of national churches such as the Greek, the Russian, the Syrian, etc.) rather than in the sense that the World Council of Churches has branches made up of denominations with completely different faiths.

 

*

 

In view of the above characterisation of the Catacomb Church, it is clear that the Kyrikites have no right to call their own tiny Russian flock the Catacomb Church. It may be one branch on the tree of the pre-revolutionary Russian Church and that only if its bishop ceases to be a hierarch of the Greek Church. But it cannot claim to be the one and only branch unless it can be proved that every other branch has not only committed some kind of canonical transgression which merits excommunication, but completely graceless and such proof the Kyrikites have never provided.

 

However, the Kyrikites have to prove that all other branches of the Catacomb Church are graceless for another reason: that they hold to the monolith theory of the Church, according to which there can be only one True Church on any one territory, while all others are false. Of course, they apply this theory not only to Russia, but also to Greece, which is why they refuse to accept that any other ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Greece, whether of the Old or the new calendar, can have the grace of sacraments. And this is also the reason why they are so passionately opposed to Metropolitan Epiphanios, whom they accuse (whether rightly or wrongly is not the subject of this article) of practising Old Calendar ecumenism, that is, of believing that there might be more than one Old Calendar jurisdiction in Greece having the grace of sacraments.

 

Their reasoning is as follows. If we are true, then they are false, and if they are true, then we are false. But we know that we are true, so they must be false. This theory is held completely sincerely; they see no other way of understanding the dogma of the Unity of the Church. If we are not to fall into the ecumenist branch theory, they think, we have to believe in the monolith theory.

 

But their reasoning is false because they confuse the Unity of the Church as understood in the Symbol of the Faith, which is a dogmatic unity, with canonical or administrative unity. St. Maximus the Confessor declared, Christ the Lord called that Church the Catholic Church which maintains the true and saving confession of the faith.[8] Thus faith alone is the criterion of unity. And that does not mean agreement on absolutely every Church question. Even the apostles did not have such agreement. Thus the Apostles Paul and Barnabas could not agree on how to conduct the mission to the Gentiles but both remained in the True Church because both had the true and saving confession of the faith. As long as the Church on earth exists, there will be such disagreements; but they will not lead to anyone falling away from the Church as long as the true confession of the faith is maintained.

 

Of course, the two kinds of unity, dogmatic and administrative, are related. Dogmatic unity should be expressed in administrative unity, so that the inner unity of faith of the Christians is expressed outwardly as well; hence the canonical requirement that there should be only one ruling bishop in any one territory. But history shows that there have been many occasions when there has been administrative disunity in the Church while dogmatic unity and therefore the grace of sacraments has been preserved.

 

Ah, but it is not only heresies that lead to falling away from the Church, they will object, but also schisms, in which there are no dogmatic disagreements. True, but is every division in the Church leading to a break in communion equivalent to a full schism leading to the loss of the grace of sacraments on one side? Church history seems to indicate otherwise, as the following divisions show:-

 

(i)between the Roman Church and the Asian Churches over the date of Pascha (late 2nd century), (ii) within the Roman Church over the legitimacy of Pope Callistus (early 3rd century), (iii) between the Roman Church under St. Stephen and the African Church under St. Cyprian over the question whether schismatics have the grace of sacraments (3rd century), (iv) within the Antiochian Church over the legitimacy of St. Meletius (4th century), (v) between St. Epiphanius of Cyprus and St. John Chrysostom (early 5th century), (vi) between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Churches over the date of Pascha (6th-7th centuries), (vii) between St. Wilfrid of York and the rest of the English Church over the division of his diocese (7th-8th centuries), (viii) between St. Theodore the Studite and St. Nicephorus over the lawfulness of restoring Priest Joseph to his rank (9th century), (ix) between St. Photius the Great and St. Ignatius over who was lawful patriarch of Constantinople (9th century), (x) between the Arsenites and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the forcible deposition of Patriarch Arsenius (13th-14th century), (xi) between the Serbian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over Serbian autocephaly (14th century), (xii) between the Russian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (15th-16th centuries), (xiii) between the Greek kollyvades and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (18-19th centuries), (xiv) between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek State Church over the Greek War of Independence (1821-52) (xv) between the Bulgarian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the Bulgarian exarchate (1872), (xvi) between two contenders for the throne of the Cypriot Church (late 19th century), (xvii) between two contenders for the throne of Antioch (late 19th early 20th centuries), (xviii) between several contenders for the throne of Constantinople (late 19th early 20th centuries), (xix) between the Russian Church and the Georgian Church over Georgian autocephaly (1917), (xx) between the Russian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the latters seizure of many Russian territories (1920s).

 

Now some may argue that some of these divisions were in fact full schisms, leading to the falling away of one of the parties for a greater or longer period. Perhaps But this list proves one thing: that the mere fact of a break of communion between two ecclesiastical bodies does not necessarily entail that one or other of the parties has become schismatic and lost the grace of sacraments. Why? Because in several of these instances there were saints of the Church on opposite sides of the debate.

 

Consider, for example, the division in the Church of fourth-century Antioch. On the side of Meletius (himself a saint of the Church) were Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, while on the side of Paulinus were St. Athanasius the Great and the Church of Rome. If this were a schism in the full sense of the word, we should have to conclude that either Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom or St. Athanasius the Great and the Church of Rome fell away from the Church and became schismatics! But nobody, not even the Kyrikites, believes this.

 

Again, let us take the Bulgarian schism of 1872. The Kyrikites, being Greeks, would probably argue that the Ecumenical Patriarchates anathema against the Bulgarian Church was valid, so that the Bulgarians ceased to be Orthodox at that time. However, both the Russian Church and the Church of Jerusalem remained in communion with the Bulgarians, and the Russians even provided the Bulgarians with holy chrism. According to the logic of the Kyrikites, therefore, the Churches of Russia and Jerusalem fell away from the Church and became schismatics at that time, because he who communicates with an excommunicate is himself excommunicate, as St. John Chrysostom says! But nobody, not even the Kyrikites, believes this.

 

It follows that the monolithic theory of the Church is false. The Church is not divided into different branches differing in faith and life that is the heresy of ecumenism. But neither is it an absolutely monolithic structure in which the slightest deviation from the norm of unity as understood in the holy canons immediately entails the deviant branch being deprived of the grace of sacraments.

 

We can come to a better understanding of the true meaning of the phrase the Church is One by studying a distinction between the Church as organism and the Church as organization made by the Catacomb Church Hieromartyr, Bishop Mark (Novoselov) of Sergiev Posad: "It is necessary to distinguish between the Church-organism and the Church-organization. As the apostle taught: 'You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it' (I Corinthians 12.27). The Church-organism is a living person, and just as the cells of our body, besides having their own life, have the life that is common to our body and links between themselves, so a man in the Body of Christ begins to live in Church, while Christ begins to live in him. That is why the apostle said: 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me' (Galatians 2.20).

 

"The basis for the affirmation of the Church-organism is love for Christ. The Lord Himself saw the basis of His Church precisely in love for Him. He asked Peter: did he love Him? And He added: 'Feed My sheep'. The Church of Christ is the union of mutual love of the believers ('United by the bond of love and offering themselves to Christ the Lord, the apostles were washed clean', Canon of Holy Thursday). Only in the Church organism can true democratism, equality and brotherhood come into being; we are equal and brothers only if we are parts of one and the same living body. In the organization there is not and cannot be organic equality and brotherhood."[9]

 

"Only to the Church-organism can we apply such titles as we meet in the Word of God, for example: 'glorious, holy, spotless' (Ephesians 1.4); 'the Bride of the Lamb' (Revelation 19.7; 21.9); 'the Body of Christ' (Ephesians 1.23; Colossians 1.24); 'the pillar and ground of the truth' (I Timothy 3.15). These concepts are inapplicable to the Church-organization (or applicable only with great qualifications); they lead people into perplexity and are rejected by them. The Church-organism is the pure 'Bride' of Christ (Revelation 21.2), but the Church-organization has all the faults of human society and always bears the marks of human infirmities... The Church-organization often persecutes the saints of God, but the Church-organism receives them into her bosom... The Church-organization rejects them from its midst, deprives them of episcopal sees, while they remain the most glorious members of the Church-organism It is possible to belong externally to the visible Church (organization), while one belongs only inwardly to the Body of Christ (organism), and the measure of one's belongingness is determined by the degree of one's sanctity."[10]

 

The unity of the Church as organism can remain intact even when her unity as an organization is damaged. A person or church body is cut off from the Church as organism only when the damage done to the Church as organization reaches a certain critical degree, or when union is effected with another, heretical body. In the same way, a couple can remain married even when one spouse walks out on the other. Separation leads to final divorce only when a certain degree of alienation is reached, or when one of the spouses commits adultery. May God preserve us from the spiritual adultery that leads to a falling away from the Body of Christ, and also from a rationalist, mechanical understanding of Church unity which leads to accusing others of spiritual adultery when their only concern is to make externally manifest the true, inner unity of the True Orthodox Christians!

 

May 12/25, 2004.

Holy Hierarchs Epiphanius of Cyprus and Germanus of Constantinople.

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Archimandrite Joseph, Kormchij, 23 May, 1909; quoted in Sergius and Tamara Fomin, Rossia pered vtorym prishestviem, Moscow: Rodnik, 1994, vol. I, p. 413 (in Russian).

[2] Monk Anthony (Chernov), Tserkov Katakombnaia na Zemle Rossijskoj (MS) (in Russian).

[3] N. Shemetov, "Khristos sredi nas", Moskovskij tserkovnij vestnik, N 11 (29), May, 1990, p. 3 (in Russian).

[4] Vladyka Lazar otvechaiet na voprosy redaktsii", Pravoslavnaia Rus', no. 22, 15/28 November, 1991, p. 5 (in Russian).

[5] Cited by Arfed Gustavson, The Catacomb Church, Jordanville, 1960, p. 102.

[6] Schema-Monk Epiphanius (Chernov), personal communication; B. Zakharov, "Vazhnoe postanovlenie katakombnoj tserkvi", Pravoslavnaia Rus', N 18, 1949 (in Russian).

[7] http://www.vestris.com/cgi-agnes/twenty-eight/agnes?PoetAgnes+PoetAgnesHTMLArticle+archive+__5+127.3.1

[8] Fr. Christopher Birchall, The Life of our Holy Father Maximus the Confessor, Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1982, p. 14.

[9] M.A. Novoselov, Pis'ma k druziam, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, Letter 5, p. 47 (in Russian).

[10] Novoselov, op. cit., Letter 18, pp. 252-253, 253-254.