Brief History of The ROCOR's Anathema Against Ecumenism (1983)

by Archbishop Vitaly of Montreal and Canada


The Council of Bishops of 1983 was a most special council, whose distinctiveness lay in its modesty and inconspicuousness. This was, of course, the first time in the history of our Church that a council had been held at Holy Transfiguration Skete—not even in a monastery. The fourteen hierarchs who took part in the Council traveled from all parts of the free world—at their head the First Hierarch of our Church, His Eminence Metropolitan Philaret. Ten of them were elderly men over seventy years old. In addition, no previous council had been so brief, continuing in all for just under two weeks. The skete, in which all the sessions were held, is situated in a very beautiful locale, far from heavily-traveled roads and surrounded on all sides by coniferous and deciduous forests: one might even describe its location as overgrown.... The wooden "tent" church of our skete, designed by our Russian architect V. G. Glinin, who reposed in the same year of 1983, blends quietly with the tops of the pine trees that crowd around on all sides

Of course, neither the international nor the local press made a single mention of our very insignificant council, which only further emphasizes its modesty. Indeed, none of these members of the press had time for us when at the other end of Canada, 4,800 kilometers from Mansonville (Quebec), a world-wide ecumenical council was being held. All religions were represented there: Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants of every sort, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and even simple shamans (or to put it more directly and simply: sorcerers). If one adds to this motley collection women priests and the presence among the participants of bare-footed dancers in the style of Eleanora Duncan then one simply cannot find words fit to describe the character of this great world-wide assembly.

It has been almost a hundred years now since ecumenism began its attack upon the one true Church of Christ, invested by Him with the authority to bind and to loose, and began to unite all the countless heresies, both small and great, acknowledging them to be, as it were, sparks of the truth, from which the future ecumenical church is to be formed in place of the historical Church of Christ, which in their opinion has proved to be a failure. Against this monstrous teaching a vast literature has grown up, revealing ecumenism to be the heresy of heresies, but we cannot in such a short article review it in detail. Without doubt, the time for discussion and polemics has passed and the time has come to judge this movement and, however insignificant our Council of 1983 may seem, it has at last condemned ecumenism and anathematized it in the following words:

Those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ's Church is divided into so-called "branches" which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all "branches" or sects or denominations, and even religions will be united into one body; and who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore, to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or who advocate, disseminate, or defend their new heresy of Ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, Anathema!

The Russian Church Abroad, now headed by Metropolitan Philaret, professes itself to be an inseparable part of the historic Russian Church. As a local Church it has the right to summon its regular Councils and to enforce its resolutions, which are thereupon fully obligatory for all of its children, scattered throughout the world. Time will tell whether or not the other local Churches will adopt our resolution on ecumenism as the acts of the Ten Local Councils were, in their time, entered into the Book of the Canons of the Holy Apostles, the Sacred Ecumenical Councils, and the Holy Fathers of the Universal Church. We well know that all our conciliar resolutions against the Moscow Patriarchate, whose hierarchy is completely subject to the atheist Communist Party, were merely taken note of by the other local Churches—to their spiritual detriment. The local Orthodox Churches tried to justify themselves by saying that their silence was due to the difficulty of discerning all the internal affairs of Russia and that our resolutions against the Soviet Moscow Patriarchate were more political than ecclesiastical, although it is now clear to all reasonable persons that the doctrine of Communism is atheistic and materialistic. Russia is not Nicaragua, and when such a great people, occupying one sixth of the earth suffers, the whole world suffers. The disease of Communism has now penetrated every nation and to say that anyone cannot understand the internal affairs of Russia would be, to put it mildly, amusing if they had not had such a tragic influence on all the Orthodox Churches and peoples. In regard to ecumenism, every local Church has had ample time, more than a century, to spend examining it and, if the local Churches base their teachings and life upon the canons of the Holy Apostles and the other Orthodox Councils, then they cannot but recognize that ecumenism is clearly the most pernicious of heresies, for it has gathered all the heresies that exist or have existed and has called this union a Church—a deed that savors of Antichrist.

By proclaiming this anathema, we have protected our flock from this apocalyptic temptation and, at the same time, have reluctantly put before the conscience of all the local Churches a serious issue, which sooner or later they must resolve in one way or the other. The future spiritual fate of the universal Orthodox Church depends on the resolution of this problem. The anathema we have proclaimed is de jure a manifestation of a purely local character of the Russian Church Abroad, but de facto it has immense significance for the history of the universal Church, for ecumenism is a heresy on a universal scale. The place of the Russian Church Abroad is now plain in the conscience of all the Orthodox. The Lord has laid a great cross upon us, but it is, however, no longer possible to remain silent, for continued silence would be like a betrayal of the Truth, from which may the Lord deliver us all!

Translated from the Russian from Orthodox Observer, No. 58 (April 1984).

Fr. Alexander Lebedeff's Comments on the Implications of the 1983 Anathema

When considering the approach to be used with regard to the current state of World Orthodoxy, we must remember that the situation with ecumenical heresy is much less clear than it was with the ancient heresies. If the ancient Church could apply Economy to those who had been misled by Arian and Nestorian heretics, whose heresies had been denounced by Ecumenical Councils, how much more do we have to apply Economy to those whose leaders have become entangled in heresy of Ecumenism, when this heresy has not yet settled into the minds of the majority of the faithful, and has been denounced not by an Ecumenical Council, but only by the Synod of Bishops itself?

Let us look once more at the Anathema of 1983, which is being used as the cornerstone of the attacks against the Synod. Here it is:

"Those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ's Church is divided into so-called 'branches' which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all 'branches' or sects or denominations and even religions will be united into one body; who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and eucharist of the heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore, to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or who advocate, disseminate, or defend their new heresy of Ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, Anathema!"

… But are the Serbian and Jerusalem Patriarchates not excommunicated by the 1983 anathema because of their participation in the ecumenical movement?

The answer must be an unequivocal no.

An excellent analysis of why this is so was written by John Hudanish, starosta of Our Lady of Kursk Chapel in Woodburn, Oregon…. After restating the text of the 1983 Anathema, John Hudanish writes:

"This is an eloquent condemnation of ecumenism and a clear statement of our Synod's rejection of it. What is not so clear, however, is the fact that this anathema is legislative in nature, rather than judicial, i.e., it is a codification of a theological principle into law, but not a verdict—much less a sentence. In other words, it identifies a specific phenomenon (ecumenism) as a heresy, and prescribes the penalty (Anathema!) for those who embrace and defend it, or "knowingly have communion" with those who do*, but it excommunicates no one! It is legislation. It is not judgment. And this is borne out by Metropolitan Vitaly in an article he wrote for "Orthodox Life" (No. 4, 1984, p. 32) while he was still Archbishop of Montreal and Canada. He wrote:

"Time will tell whether or not the other local Churches will adopt our resolution on ecumenism as the acts of the Ten Local Councils were, in their time, entered into the Books of the Canons of the Holy Apostles, the Sacred Ecumenical Councils and the Holy Fathers of the Universal Church."

"It is important to understand that since the 1983 anathema was promulgated by our Synod of Bishops, we now have a canonical basis for dealing with ecumenism and its adherents within our midst. But as with all other laws, the penalty prescribed by the 1983 anathema cannot be meted out to anyone without due process. Stated otherwise, before anyone can be excommunicated, there must be a determination of guilt in a canonical trial or synodical investigation….

"Therefore, strictly speaking, neither the Patriarch of Constantinople nor the Patriarch of Jerusalem has been excommunicated by the anathema of 1983... Furthermore, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad has not subsequently convened to investigate allegations against either patriarch, nor to anathematize them under the 1983 resolution.

"Why not?! Why hasn't the Synod excommunicated the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem for their transgressions? Well, for one thing, it's a matter of jurisdiction. As Metropolitan Vitaly had written in the aforementioned article:

"The anathema we have proclaimed is de jure a manifestation of a purely local character of the Russian Church Abroad…."

"No Orthodox body outside the Russian Church Abroad is bound by it, just as the anathema against the three-fingered sign of the cross proclaimed by the Council of the One Hundred Chapters (Moscow 1552) was not binding on the Greeks at that time. About all our Russian Church Abroad can do is to refrain from concelebrating with or admitting to the Holy Mysteries the clergy and laity of those Orthodox jurisdictions which appear to be involved in the ecumenist heresy. Our bishops have no authority to discipline any but their own." (pp. 8-9)

Metropolitan Vitaly confirmed this as the official view of the Church on the 1983 Anathema in his recent Nativity Epistle. In it he also clearly stated that those individual Synod clergymen who, in isolated incidents, have concelebrated with clergy of ecumenist or new calendar jurisdictions have done so by economy. In this Epistle, Metropolitan Vitaly wrote:

"We proclaimed an anathema against ecumenism only for the children of our Church, but by this we very humbly but firmly, gently but decisively, as if invite the local churches to stop and think. This is the role of our most small, humble, half-persecuted, always alert, but true Church. We, de facto, do not serve with either new-calendarists or ecumenists, but if someone of our clergy, by economy, would presume to such a concelebration, this fact alone in no way influences our standing in the truth." (emphasis added)

…[T]he Anathema of 1983 did not excommunicate everyone in world Orthodoxy.

The Synod of Bishops is not an Ecumenical Council, whose decrees would be binding on all Orthodox Churches. Its decisions apply only to the members of the Synod itself.

It is impossible to determine exactly how many Orthodox Christians there are in the world today, because a majority of them are under Communist oppression, and no accurate figures are available. But assuming that reports in the Soviet press are correct, about half of the population of the Soviet Union is baptized. On this basis, one could assume that there are somewhere in the area of 200 million Orthodox Christians in the world today.

If one were to believe [certain extremists] one would get the impression that on one day in 1983, some 200 million Orthodox were excommunicated and declared heretics by the action of the Synod's proclamation of the anathema against ecumenism.

One moment they are Orthodox, then—poof!—heretics.

This is nonsense.

The Orthodox Church has always understood that heresy takes centuries to become entrenched in the minds of the faithful, and that in the meantime, the overwhelming majority of the individual believers in a Church do not even know about, much less understand, the questions that are being disputed.

In order to be proclaimed a heretic, a person must consciously accept the heresy and believe in it wholeheartedly, and he must reject all attempts to persuade him to return to the true faith.

The overwhelming majority of the faithful in any of these local churches has never even heard of Ecumenism. How can they be heretics?

I can guarantee that of the 200 million Orthodox in the world today, only several thousand, if that, have ever even heard of the Synod's anathema of 1983. Even more than that, I can guarantee that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Synod church itself have never heard of this Anathema. I am confident that we have many members of the Synod clergy who never heard of it.

How then can we even think of sentencing to excommunication say the entire Serbian Orthodox church with all its faithful, or any other local Orthodox Church, no matter how wrong their leaders are in tolerating ecumenical activity? …

The Synod recognizes the fact that even in the new-calendar jurisdictions there are only a handful of fervent ecumenists—the type who would advocate the "branch theory" or who would encourage receiving sacraments from the non-Orthodox.

Although the Synod deplores all ecumenical activity, and in its publications openly criticizes those who participate in such activities, at the same time the Synod is very cognizant of the fact that there are many among the clergy and laymen of the other jurisdictions (especially in the Serbian Church), who are openly opposed to ecumenism, and who are working to turn the direction of their Churches to be more consistently Orthodox.

Because of this, the Synod is proceeding very carefully and deliberately on this issue. In the beginning, at the time the Synod was organized, the Synod freely concelebrated with all Orthodox jurisdictions. As time passed, and the Synod watched the Eastern Patriarchates being gradually being swept up by modernism and the new calendar, the Synod gradually began to withdraw from these concelebrations, while continuing to call upon these Churches to return to Orthodox strictness. Later, as these Churches lost their discernment to the point that they recognized the Moscow Patriarchate as being the valid Church of Russia, and as the infection of Ecumenism began to spread into these Churches, the Synod withdrew almost completely from any concelebration with them.

The Synod fervently hopes that the leaders of these Churches will recognize their errors, and that they will take steps to correct them. The Synod will continue to call upon these leaders and inspire them to change their direction.

In the meantime, the Synod continues to advocate a measured approach, with each bishop given the responsibility to determine exactly how the clergy of his individual diocese should proceed.

* Actually, on this point John Hudanish errs. If one reads the anathema carefully, one will see that the words 'aforementioned heretics' do not mean the objects of the Anathema. i e. the ecumenists. These words refer to the heretics mentioned in the first phrases of the anathema. i.e. the heretics previously identified by the Church, such as Roman Catholics, Protestants, etc. The Anathema therefore denounces those who would have communion with Roman Catholics, for example.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 37, No. 2, March-April 1987, pp. 12-17.

+ + +

"[At the urging of Saint Maximus the] Pope convened his bishops, one hundred and five in number, with Abba Maximus in their midst. This was the Lateran Council (A.D. 649): it reviewed the errors of Cyrus, Sergius, Pyrrhus, and Paul, and also the Emperor's heretical confession. The false teachings were anathematized, and the Pope wrote to the faitful in all places, confirming them in their Orthodoxy, explaining the errors of the heretics and warning them in every way to be on their guard against them." [The Life of Our Holy Father Saint Maximus the Confessor (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1982) p. 7. Recall also the Patriarchal Encyclicals of 1848 and 1895 in response to proselytizing papal bulls. These are examples of how true bishops have responded in the past to innovations threatening the Church.—Patrick Barnes

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