On 12 December 1452 a solemn liturgy was held in the great cathedral of the Holy Wisdom, in the presence of the Emperor and the Court. The Pope and the absent Patriarch were commemorated in the prayers, and the decrees of the Union of Florence were read out.
-- Sir Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453
Our Orthodox Christian world (especially as it is represented on the Internet) is shrill with the objections of those who are outraged by displays of what is generally called "ecumenism" by our hierarchs and clergy. Indeed, there is a certain strain of current activity by various patriarchs and and other assorted longbeards that can leave an Orthodox Christian serious about his faith feeling a bit cold and uncomfortable. One such example frequently cited is statements by Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople 1948-1972:
The Age of Dogma has passed. (June, 1963)
We see no obstacle on the path leading to union between the Church of Rome and the Church of the East... We do not see an obstacle, for the very simple reason that such obstacles do not exist. (October, 1967)
All of the Christian Churches are journeying, today, towards Church unity. Christian peoples have grown weary of looking at the darkness of the past. The interminable quarrels of nine whole centuries have led to nothing other than the spiritual coldness of many people and an obfuscation of their awareness that the Church is one. (November, 1967)
We Churches are all emerging from ourselves. We are awakening the consciences of Christians to the fact that we belong to the same religion. We are making the longing for union the predominant demand of our age. We are lowering the banners of hatred and, in their place, we are raising the Cross of love and sacrifice. And finally, we are exchanging Holy Cups with each other, praying that we may, one day, commune from the same Cup, as we used to live during the first millennium of Christianity, in spite of the differences that existed then. (November, 1967)
In the movement for union, it is not a question of one Church moving towards the other, but let us all together refound the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, coexisting in the East and the West, as we lived up until 1054, in spite of the theological differences that existed then. (December, 1967)
We are deceived and we sin, if we think that the Orthodox faith came down from Heaven and that all [other] creeds are unworthy. Three hundred million people have chosen Islam in order to reach their god, and other hundreds of millions are Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists. The goal of every religion is to improve mankind. (December, 1968)
We further know that Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the anathemas against the heresies of the Roman Catholic Church in 1965. I can imagine that a Tradition-minded Orthodox Christian (and who among the Orthodox should not be Tradition-minded?) living in the '60s must have choked on his Greek coffee every time he got word of such statements from the Ecumenical Patriarch. It looked rather like the "spiritual leader of world Orthodoxy" (as the Ecumenical Patriarch is so often called by the media) was selling out the Church and her faith, embracing a union which the Church had rejected as heretical and based on a unity which disregarded the Orthodox Christian faith. Scary stuff, no?
There are many such lines that get crossed in our day. "Agreed Statements" are made with Christians of various stripes, debates wage on email listservs about the canonical status of this or that jurisdiction, innovations to the liturgical tradition are embraced or rejected, the length (or lack) of clerical beards is seen as a sign of piety, and myths and demythologizings of various "holy" nations are promulgated (e,g, "Holy Russia," "Holy Byzantium," and so forth). Which modern saints one venerates or fails to venerate are taken as a sign of one's canonicity, and questions are continually raised even about incorrupt or wonderworking men and women who happened to be on the wrong side of a canonical line (not to mention our universal veneration of St. Isaac of Syria, who canonically was a Nestorian!).
Let us look back to our opening epigraph. In it, Sir Steven Runciman, one of the most respected historians of the Byzantine world (even so respected in Greece that a street in Mistra is named for him), recounts what any student of Byzantine history knows all too well. Thirteen years before that 1452 liturgy in Hagia Sophia, the Union of Florence had been signed, in which representatives from among the Orthodox Church's hierarchs (with the exception of Mark Evgenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus) capitulated to the innovative doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome in exchange for military aid against the ever-encroaching Empire of the Ottoman Turks. The hierarchs who signed the Union found that it was difficult to implement back home, however. The clergy and laity (and particularly the monastics) balked at and outright rejected the Union. Their souls were, they believed, more important to preserve than even the supposedly eternal city of Constantinople. The Emperor tried to implement the Union, as well, but he also faced significant division among his advisors.
When the decrees of the Union were read out in Hagia Sophia in 1452, they had already been officially in effect for 13 years. Even after that liturgy in Hagia Sophia, many of the people refused to worship with Unionist clergy, despite the reality that the Turks were virtually about to set siege to the city. Five months later, when a final major assault from the Turks was about to ensue, the anti-unionists set aside their differences and worshipped together with the unionists in Hagia Sophia. In some sense, the Union finally was complete.
One can only imagine what it must have been like to be an Orthodox Christian in the Eastern Roman Empire at that point. Many at the time believed that Armageddon was nigh. All Christians have believed they were living in the last times (and, indeed, we always have been), but it must have appeared particularly eschatological to a Greek manning the walls in 1453. He also was probably rather disheartened by the actions of his Patriarch, who liked Rome so much that he lived there and was largely boycotted by most of his own clergy and laity. The end was coming, and the Church had been sold out in exchange for military aid from the West which, except for the valiance of the Italians already resident in Constantinople and a few brave warriors who made the voyage, did not in fact arrive. Not only had the Church been betrayed, but it was cheated in the deal.
Yet despite the failing of the gates of Constantinople, the gates of Hell did not prevail against the Church. Despite the final destruction of the Orthodox Christian Roman Empire, the Orthodox Christian faith did not get destroyed. The traitors to the faith are largely forgotten except by those who read history, and Mark of Ephesus is a saint of eternally holy memory. Though the Emperor and his soliders lost that day, the Church Militant strode victoriously forward.
In one sense, it is a confusing time to be an Orthodox Christian. With the advent of mass media and especially the Internet, we have informational access to the myriad faults of myriad sinners in our Church. Sitting in front of our computer screens and analyzing the faithfulness to Tradition of various clergy and jurisdictions has never been so easy. After all, if we are serious about our faith, should we not try to cling to that which is good and pure and abhor that which is unfaithful?
Yet what has really changed for Orthodox Christians? Are we not still sinners beset with demonic temptations? Are we not still strugglers toward the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we not still pilgrims in an alien land? How will a perpetual battle to be Orthodoxically Correct (if I may) ever save our souls? God forbid that I should stand before the Throne of Judgment at the Last Day and be found to be canonically pure and yet having been unwilling to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit the prisoners.
This temptation toward correctness is one common to adult converts to the faith, but it is of course not exclusive to them. It seems to be particularly rampant among the recently converted. How can one who has been in the Church only a few months or years be capable of judging another man's adherence to Tradition? How can I know if you are faithful to the Tradition when I have not yet become the Tradition?
My spiritual father sometimes has told me, "Andrew, just come to church, pray, and then get out!" He doesn't necessarily mean that entirely literally, of course, but the essence of his statement is that it is easy to become distracted by the temporal business of the Church. Perhaps five and a half centuries from now, Orthodox Christians will look back on the mess that is Orthodox America in our time and see that the Church still exists, the faith still goes on, and Armageddon did not in fact come.
Yet make no mistake -- Armageddon is indeed coming. But in what state will we be found when our Lord returns? Will we be judging another man's servant, or will we be working out our salvation in fear and trembling?
Andrew Stephen Damick has a B.A. in English Language and Literature from North Carolina State University, and has recently published a book of poetry written to reflect the Orthodox Christian faith and the English poetic tradition. He begins study for the priesthood in Fall, 2004 at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Recently published by Andrew Damick: