среда, 24. август 2011.

The Serbian Church, Serbian People, True Orthodoxy, and the Greek GOC

The Serbian Church, Serbian People, True Orthodoxy, and the Greek GOC
We rejoice now with great joy as the Serbian Church's episcopate has finally been renewed.  The canonical hierarchy of the Russian True Orthodox Church has consecrated a Serbian bishop - Akakije, Bishop of Resava and Shumadia.  The bishops of the Russian TOC are the successors of the once glorious Russian Church Abroad - a church so close to our Serbian People.  Our Russian brothers, in our most difficult moments, offered unconditional help to their Serbian brothers.  When we say unconditional, we mane to say that they have not the least intention of getting involved administratively with Serbian Church territory, with the organization and internal affairs associated with the rebirth of the Serbian Church.  Their genuine brotherly love consists in providing the basic conditions necessary for the rebirth of the Serbian Church, of which the most important is the renewal of her episcopate.  The only further involvement of the Russian TOC will be brotherly support in the sense of a good relationship between two local churches, including the very important aspect of consultation on questions of church administration, order of the Church services, and, in general, providing the wisdom already obtained through previous experience in church organization.
            It is only now that one can foresee a serious period of development for the Serbian TOC, since finally there has been established a healthy foundation for canonical church order, that is, a local ruling bishop for the historically autonomous local Serbian Church.   This independence is significant, if we keep in mind that it is a question of the large territory of the traditionally Orthodox Serbian people, which for many centuries has been recognized as having its own independent local Serbian Church.  Unfortunately, to mar this most joyous and historical event, there has arisen opposition, approaching open enmity, on the part of the leadership of the Greek GOC and those Serbs who support the latter's stance on the question of the development of the Serbian TOC. 
            As is well known, the Greek GOC gave her help to the Serbian TOC at the beginning of her struggle.  This help from our Greek brethren aroused no doubts of any kind, at the time, as to their intentions.  Three Serbian monks from the Holy Mountain were united to True Orthodoxy at the Monastery of Esphigmenou, but only through an act of repentance.  Later, these same monks sought to correct their baptisms, because at the time when they were baptized, the Serbian Patriarchate was practicing baptism only by pouring.  They were directed to the Synod of the Greek GOC, and this local Church corrected their baptisms. 
            One of these three Serbian monks, Fr. Akakije, on his own initiative, for the love of his people and fatherland, returned to Serbia.  After much time and effort, believers from the "official" Serbian Church who had stopped communing with the Belgrade Patriarchate and wanted to unite with True Orthodoxy began to gather around Fr. Akakije's cell.  These believers wrote a petition to the Synod of the Greek GOC to ordain the Monk Akakije to the rank of priest for the sake of the organization of church life and the expansion of True Orthodoxy in Serbia. 
            After Fr. Akakije's ordination there began the renewal and rebirth of the Serbian (True Orthodox) Church.  Parishes and monasteries were established throughout Serbia.  Fr. Akakije received little help from the Greek GOC, in that for over eleven years not one bishop or clergyman visited Serbia to support him, though he was even suffering persecution from the official Serbian church, which publicly anathematized him and declared him a dangerous sectarian.  Meanwhile, through the efforts of Fr. Akakije, a few more clergymen were ordained for Serbia. 
            At this point, however, there appeared the first internal problems, as there was no clearly defined church government, even in the sense of the presence of an episcopal epitropos.  Bishops from Greece increasingly claimed the right to rule the Serbian clergy and flock in Serbia from a thousand kilometers' away, without, of course, knowing the situation in Serbia.  The Greek church leadership very subtly but steadily reduced the authority of the first struggler for the renewal of True Orhtodoxy in Serbia, Fr. Akakije, along with his co-strugglers on the battlefield for the rebirth of the Serbian Church and her interests. 
            In the meantime, an Administrative Council of the STOC was established - again through the efforts of Fr. Akakije - consisting of the clergy and lay representatives of the parishes and monasteries, which was intended to be the temporary ruling body of the STOC until it had its own episcopate.  This Administrative Council, headed by Fr. Akakije, sent several pleas to the Synod of the Greek GOC to inform them that the situation in Serbia was unbearable and ruinous, and that the ordination of a Serbian bishop for the Serbian Church's needs was urgent.  The Greek hierarchs turned a deaf ear to the Serbs' pleading, and the situation in the Serbian TOC became worse. 
            Soon a division appeared in Serbia, caused by a faction who, because of some personal disagreements with Fr. Akakije, completely submitted themselves to the hierarchy of the Greek Church, in the sense that they no longer regarded themselves as belonging to the Serbian Church but to the Greek Church on the territory of Serbia.  As part of this mentality, they began to declare the Greek Church's temporary help to the Serbian Church as constituting the permanent and lawful authority of the Church in Serbia. 
            On the other hand, the clergy, monastics, and faithful loyal to the Serbian True Orthodox Church, all of whom consider themselves members of the Serbian Church, and who are fighting for the interests and progress of their Church, stood behind Fr. Akakije, advocating that he become the first Serbian TOC bishop, as he is the one most responsible for the appearance and spread of True Orthodoxy in Serbia.  In response to this oft-repeated request of the STOC faithful, instead of the help requested there came rumors and slanders spread in Serbia on the basis of episcopal authority   (from Greece).  It was said that Fr. Akakije was proud, deluded, ambitious, and disobedient to his bishops.  The battle for the interests of the Serbian Church was characterized as nationalism and disobedience to the lawful (i.e., Greek) bishops. 
            Thus, following the policy of "divide and conquer," the Greek hierarchy frightened and confused the Serbian faithful, biasing certain of them against Fr. Akakije and creating ever deeper divisions among them (who historically were already often in disagreement), thus cleverly reinforcing their claim that they needed to rule the Serbs because the Serbs could not rule themselves.  
            Obviously, the clergy, monastics, and faithful united in their devotion to the Serbian TOC had very little chance in such an unequal fight - not being bishops themselves, how could they oppose the statements and wishes of a single bishop, much less an entire synod, no matter how canonically and morally justified their position was?  The Greek hierarchy, naturally being well aware of this, would not give the Serbs their own bishop who would firmly represent the interests of the local Serbian Church.  Indeed, there were hints that the Greek hierarchy was ready to consecrate a bishop for the Serbs, but only on the condition that he be totally dependent on the Greek Church.  He would certainly be from the ranks of the Serbs who were absolutely loyal to the Greek Church and supported her pretensions to rule the Serbian Church.  But how is it possible for a True Orthodox Serb to take this position? 
            At first, the intentions of the Greek church leadership did not come to the surface.  It seemed as if all was in perfect order, that is, that the Greeks were demonstrating to us Serbs sincere brotherly help in giving us the possibility to join True Orthodoxy, ordaining priests for us, and giving us holy myrrh and antimensia, while respecting our fully belonging to the Serbian Church.  But later, and especially recently, an unacceptable - for us incomprehensible - and even insulting stance has taken the place of this earlier attitude.  This stance is based on the theory that with the fall of the Serbian Patriarchate's hierarchy into the heresy of ecumenism, the Serbian Church has disappeared from the face of the earth, and that the Serbian people and the geographical-jurisdictional, canonical territory of the local Serbian Church is now open missionary territory like the once-unenlightened lands of Australia and America. 
            Thus the Greek GOC leadership came to view the Serbian TOC not as the local, historical Serbian Church, but as one more small administrative addition to an undifferentiated exarchate of the GOC over all of Eastern and Western Europe.  In this light, the cessation of communion by the True Orthodox in Serbia with the Belgrade Patriarchate was deemed by the Greek GOC leadership as constituting the Serbs' departure not simply from heresy but from the Serbian Church herself, and entry into the ranks of the faithful of the Church of Greece. The assistance of ordaining priests was used to submit the Serbian Church to the Greek hierarchy: not only did they not these ordinations as help to the Serbian Church, but they even regarded this as creating the Serbian Church anew from the foundations. 
            (How far these ambitions are from true help was only clear to us recently, after the consecration of our bishop at the Lesna monastery.  The idea that giving brotherly help should be used to assert such uncanonical claims is completely foreign to the Russian TOC bishops!)  
            What kind of success and progress could have been expected for the Serbian TOC under such conditions as those outlined above?  Very few
Serbs are prepared to accept that the traditionally Orthodox Serbia must be re-enlightened with the Light of Christ by the Greek Old Calendarists (already divided among themselves), and that the Serbian Church, as a branch or mission from the Greek Church, must be totally dependent on the Greek hierarchy for an indefinite period of time.  When such Greek proclamations were given to the Serbian clergy and faithful, and they - quite naturally - protested,  they were immediately labeled as disobedient. 
            Thus further discussion with the Greek GOC leadership became simply impossible, and we turned for help to another local Church, one which could understand and support our aspirations and steadfast stance in regard to the Serbian Church. 

            Our justifiable - indeed long overdue - action, however, has now been labeled a "schism."  In this critical moment of enacting and realizing the historical decisions on which the Serbian TOC's future totally depends, the Greek GOC leadership has decided to commit a major act of intimidation and aggression against the Serbian faithful, frightening and manipulating the uninformed with threats of damnation due to the great sin of schism, which even the blood of martyrdom cannot wash away.  What in the world does the Greek GOC leadership hope to accomplish with this terrible abuse of their episcopal authority?  Is it really so important to maintain their power in Serbia, even at the cost of hardening the split among the Serbian faithful?  This is really incomprehensible. 
            Thus we True Orthodox Serbs are accused of schism.  We wonder:  where did this schism happen?  Our decision to leave the temporary administrative governance of the Greek GOC synod was taken after numerous attempts, over many years, to clarify the matters of church governance outlined above.  This decision was made only when we realized that it was impossible for us to agree with the Greek GOC leadership about the status, organization, and even basic best interests of the Serbian TOC.   We also clearly stated our firm intention that our action does not constitute a severance in sacramental communion between our two local Churches.  In response, it seems, all we are to expect is to be bombastically labeled a schism. 
            Why?  Why does the Greek GOC leadership not care about the true progress of the Serbian TOC but only wants to rule her?  On the basis of what historical or canonical precedent do the Greek hierarchy persist in their desire to prop up their artificially constructed authority over the historically Orthodox Serbian land and Serbian Church?  They have descended to unworthy ad hominem arguments to support their insupportable position, accusing Fr. Akakije of creating a personality cult around himself, and denouncing the supposedly decisive influence of Vladimir Moss, who - it is claimed - "ruined" the previously idyllic relationship between the benevolent Greek GOC leadership and their happy little Serbian brothers. As if the Serbs themselves had been previously completely unaware of their own traditions, ancestors, and glorious history from the very time of St. Sava and his struggle for an independent local Serbian Church, and began to disagree with the policy of the Greek GOC leadership suddenly and unexpectedly, due solely to some outside influence!  This is ridiculous. 
             Nowhere in the current apologetic from the Greek GOC leadership do we read the least hint of their taking any responsibility upon themselves for the unhappy situation which came to exist in Serbia under their rule.  Nowhere do we detect the least interest in understanding or least attempt to understand the objections which the Serbian TOC defenders had to an imposed foreign administration over the Serbian Church which unexpectedly transformed brotherly help into the annulment of the Serbian Church and her forcible takeover. 
            From a canonical point of view, this situation - the fall of one local church into heresy and the petition of a few monks and believers of the widowed church for help from another local church - is not simple.  According to the canons, this situation is not easily resolvable, that is, different interpretations are possible, well-intentioned or not, depending on the stance one wants to defend.  In our present situation we observe that there are two points of view:  one from the angle of the widowed church, and the other from the angle of the local church which offered her widowed sister help.  The widowed church has a contestable canonical basis to invoke her ancient rights and to maintain her independence.  The local church, however, which gave the widowed sister help is now insisting that the church which sought for help is now irreversibly subordinated to her.  The eighth canon of the Third Ecumenical Council says the following:  The same rule shall be observed in the other dioceses and provinces everywhere, so that none of the God-beloved Bishops shall assume control of any province which has not heretofore, from the very beginning, been under his own hand or that of his predecessors.  But if anyone has violently taken and subjected [a province], he shall give it up; lest the canons of the Fathers be transgressed; or the vanities of worldly honor be brought in under pretext of sacred office; or we lose, without knowing it, little by little, the liberty which Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Deliverer of all men, hath given us by His own Blood. 

From this it is already clear the Greek GOC does not have the canonical right to take over the territory of the Serbian Church, much less such moral rights before the Serbian Church and people.  On the basis of our petition for help, the Greek Church had the right only to set up a temporary governance over our widowed Serbian Church and to ensure the establishment of a Serbian bishop for the Serbian people as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, this did not happen, and the temporary governance stretched out for fifteen years, during which there occurred between the Serbian clergy and flock exactly what the 74th canon of the Eight Local Council of Carthage warned of: 
 “… however it has happened that these bishops, who should have preserved love among the people and facilitated the choice of a new bishop, only for the sake of their own personal interests provoked disorder and fed quarrels in order for the church to stay without a permanent bishop, so that they could be in authority for as long as possible. In order to prevent such misuse, the Carthaginian fathers forbid a bishop to be in charge of a widow church for longer than a year, and if during that time he does not succeed to put in order everything necessary, a new bishop must be put up; the canon orders that the bishop should be removed from this rule and that a  new bishop should be elected. “ (Canons of the Orthodox Church, Bishop Nikodim Milash, Novi Sad, 1896)
            Knowing this, we asked to change the bishop temporarily in charge of Serbia, but the Greek GOC synod - intentionally or not - exhibited no understanding for our request. 
            After the Serbian Church's attempts for many years to free herself from just such unjust treatment (as described in the canon cited above), which provoked division and greatly impeded the progress and development of the Serbian Church, we were forced to take more decisive measures for the renewal of the whole canonical structure of the STOC which necessitated departing from the temporary administrative governance of the Greek GOC and seeking help from another canonical True Orthodox synod.  There was no other choice, for the continuation of this uncanonical and morally unjust treatment of the Serbian Church by the Greek would cause the STOC unforeseeable, harmful consequences.  Thus no kind of schism is in question here.  The part of the clergy and flock of the STOC which remained loyal to the heritage of the Serbian Church and "Svetosavlje" continued to fight for the interests of the Serbian Church.  This decision in no way necessitates the destruction of brotherly relations with the Greek GOC or even with those Serbian clergy and faithful who remain under the rule of the Greek synod and its policies, unless these latter parties choose to destroy these relations with us. 
            Thus, if a schism arises here, it is being caused by those who have chosen to label this event as a schism, for it is they who sow discord and confusion among the Serbian flock.  The reaction of the Greek GOC leadership to this turn of events has heightened our concern, because it confirms what we have asserted previously:  they really do consider the Serbian Church, clergy and faithful, as members of the Greek Church's jurisdiction.  This was confirmed by the possessive statements of the Greek bishops during their dialogue with the RTOC, during which the Russians were told to stay out of their (the Greeks') territory - i.e., Serbia! 
            Of course, the Russian bishops understood the alarming and inescapable situation in which the Serbian TOC had found itself.  Sacrificing union with the Greek GOC, they stretched out a hand of brotherly help to the Serbian TOC, and with this act they finally solved a problem which had lasted more than a decade.  The Greek GOC are not accepting this turn of events, and they deny the right of the Russian Church to help the Serbian Church, because they do not consider them the Serbian Church but rather their missionary territory. 
            We wonder, with what right do they claim this, even if we accept the absurdity that once again the Greeks are enlightening the Serbian people?  What Greek missionary came and labored in the vineyard of the Serbian Church over the past fifteen years?  What Greek took even one step among the Serbs and for the Serbs?  Who suffered the humiliations from the Belgrade Patriarchate?  We know that for eleven years no one from the Greek GOC synod visited the suffering believers in Serbia! 
            Financial help from Greece - which is loudly spoken about and put forward as one argument why we Serbs are dependent on the Greeks and have no right to leave their administrative rule - has been truly inconsequential considering in what conditions the Serbian TOC actually exists.  This financial help has arrived in the same quantities from other jurisdictions and even from individuals in World Orthodoxy.  Involuntarily the question arises:  did the Greeks help the Serbian Church only in order for her to be under their rule?  The New Calendar Greek Church constantly gives financial help to the Belgrade Patriarchate without demanding its submission to their rule.  Is this submission a criterion for one church to help another or not? 
            We have been told that our exit from under Greek administrative rule means the end of friendship and help:  "You will lose your friends and no one will help you anymore..."  Where is their genuine brotherly love for us, which we True Orthodox Serbs still cherish for them?  Does this mean that we Serbs are only their good friends as long as we are submitted to the Greek GOC?  Is the progress of the Serbian TOC not also their joy as well as ours?  We hope that the irrational resentment exhibited from the side of the Greek GOC is temporary and that their sharp words spoken and shot at our hearts are only an involuntary and short-lived reaction.  Although such positions and statements of our Greek brothers, like those of their Serbian followers, have caused much harm and hurt us, we will not harbor hard feelings, but will wait with patience for them to become more sober, praying to the Lord of all to sow brotherhood, mutual love, and understanding between us. 


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