The Word Magazine March 1998 Page 14-15
ONE BODY, ONE LORD
BY FR. SAMUEL SEBRING
Here in the Southeastern part of the United States those of us within the Holy Orthodox Christian Church find ourselves facing a dilemma that can pose much confusion to the faithful. This situation strikes at the very heart of order within the Church. There are several priests, at least one deacon and some men in minor orders who have abandoned their bishop in rebellion and disobedience. This has taken place in two canonical Orthodox jurisdictions which are recognized and in full communion with all of the ancient Orthodox patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem) and the patriarchate of Moscow. These men have joined a body (Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, also known as the Synod) which is not recognized as holding canonical jurisdiction by any one of the above-mentioned patriarchates.
One of the points made by this non-canonical body in an attempt to justify their activities in North America is that the presence of multiple jurisdictions in Canada and the United States is not Orthodox. They further claim to be the continuation of the Moscow patriarchal diocese of Alaska and North America as established in 1794, and the only legitimate Orthodox jurisdiction in North America. This claim can not be justified by any true historical record. The canonial body known as the Orthodox Church in America is the legitimate continuation of the jurisdiction established in 1794 and this claim can be historically substantiated. In addition there are also parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate, in this country, which are in full communion with all of the jurisdictions represented in SCOBA.
All of these issues must be seen in some degree of proper perspective. In so far as the issue of canonical jurisdiction is concerned, it is a disorder for there to be multiple Orthodox jurisdictions overlapping each other on the North American continent. There are, however, historical circumstances for this anomaly. The United States and Canada, at the present, are not Orthodox nations. This present jurisdictional disorder is a momentary hiccup; a sneeze for the body of the Church. It is not a malignancy. The healing of this disorder will be accomplished at the episcopal level. The schismatic rebellion of priests and deacons from their bishops does not heal the disorder. It only compounds the problem by placing these misguided souls outside the Orthodox Church.
The skeleton of the body of the Church is the episcopacy and the mutual accountability of all Orthodox Bishops to apostolic faith and order. The sinew which unites the body in an identifiable organism is the relationship of each bishop with his priests, his deacons and the faithful. In his letter to the Trallians, St. Ignatius of Antioch writes, “And do ye also reverence your bishop as Christ Himself, according as the blessed apostles have enjoined you … For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ of God?”
As a Priest in the Orthodox Church my relationship to my Bishop is one of obedience. In the community where I serve, it is the Bishop who is the pastor. I am an extension of his pastoral ministry. On Sunday morning I stand before an altar and celebrate the Divine Liturgy on an antimins that bears both the image of Christ and the name of my Bishop. I stand before that particular altar because that is the altar where my Bishop has appointed me to stand. If on the following Sunday my Bishop appoints me to stand before an altar in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I am going to be in Oshkosh or up to my waist in snow trying to get to Oshkosh. I may question my Bishop’s judgment; I may have a thousand reasons why this is not the place for me; but Oshkosh here I come.
The only justification for anyone, clergy or layman, to abandon the authority of a bishop is for that bishop to have become a heretic or an apostate, thereby ceasing to be an Orthodox bishop. The clergy who have abandoned their bishop must either proclaim their bishop’s heresy and/or apostasy in order that all Orthodox Christians may anathematize him, or else these same clergy must stand guilty of the sin of schism.
The greatest contribution which all orders of the clergy can make toward healing the jurisdictional disorder of the Orthodox Church in this land, is to be obedient and loyal to the episcopal authority of the Orthodox jurisdiction in which it has pleased God to place us. When we take matters into our own hands, we embrace the heterodoxy of presbyterianism and congregationalism and fulfill the proverb which proclaims, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
Another factor in the rebellious and disobedient action of some of the clergy involves the issue of rebaptism of individuals who received the sacrament of baptism outside of the Orthodox Church but have been chrismated and in some cases ordained in the Orthodox Church. Throughout her history, the holy Orthodox Church has both rejected and accepted non-Orthodox baptism, depending on a multitude of historical circumstances. The one thing which the Church has never sanctioned, however, is the baptism of one whose baptism has been accepted and completed by Chrismation. The Church has understood that the dispensation of redeeming and sanctifying grace, in the sacraments, is communal, in behalf of all and for all. The efficacy of that grace is, indeed, individual. However, it is individual only in the sense that the believer is embraced by the grace within the life-giving Bride of Christ. The individual believer does not embrace that grace independently.
When I received Chrismation in the Orthodox Church after having received baptism outside of the Orthodox Church, I was told, “Thou art justified. Thou art illumined. Thou art sanctified; in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God. Thou hast received anointment with the holy Chrism, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” When I was ordained a Priest in the Orthodox Church, the Bishop proclaimed, as he laid his hand upon my head, “The grace divine, which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting, elevateth through the laying-on of hands, Samuel, the most devout Deacon, to be a Priest.” It would seem that my presuming to second guess the effectual working of the Holy Spirit to fulfill anything lacking in my baptism, by receiving baptism after my having been Chrismated and Ordained in the Orthodox Church, would come perilously close to spiritual blasphemy.
At a personal level, I think there is a very good case to be made for a rigorous interpretation of the Apostolic Canons and for those who have received non-Orthodox baptism to be baptized upon entering the Orthodox Church. This is especially true as many of the sectarian bodies outside the Church slide further into the abyss of heresy and in non-sexist (and non-Christian) terms, baptize in the name of the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer. Such a decision, however, is not one for me, as a priest, or even a group of priests, to make. That is a decision reserved for my Bishop; moreover for the Synod of Bishops.
One of the questions which we must confront is, “What is the political character of the Orthodox Church?” Within the political atmosphere of North America, the correct answer to that question is a hard pill to swallow. “The Holy Orthodox Church is the Kingdom of God on earth.” The only correct response to kingship is submission and obedience. This, of course, violates our every sensibility about governance and order. We have all heard these or similar claims: After all, am I not master of my own destiny, captain of my own ship?” “At the very least, the church ought to be the Free peoples’ democratic republic of individual need and preference.” “If this church does not teach what I believe, I’ll go find one that does; or better yet, I’ll create one of my own.” It’s just me and God?… Right?” Wrong!!!
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account…” (Hebrews 13:17)
Fr. Samuel Sebring is pastor of St. Barnabas Church, Lexington, South Carolina.