Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

The seventh meeting of the Standing Conference of Bishops

Two important decisions, far-reaching as to their consequences for the whole Orthodox Church in America, were taken by the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops at its seventh session, held in New York on May 17, 1962. One deals with the painful, yet urgent, problem of the Ukrainian Church and the other with the no-less urgent question of our relations with the non-Orthodox and, especially, the National Council of Churches.

1) The Ukrainian problem has from the very beginning formed one of the major concerns of the Standing Conference. For, on the one hand, the group headed by John Teodorovich is quite numerous and dynamic and there can be no doubt as to its potential importance for Orthodoxy in America. But, on the other hand, there also can be no doubt that on some crucial points this group is in open conflict with the universal consensus of the Church. If not healed in the near future, this conflict may lead to a tremendous tragedy for both the Orthodox Ukrainians and the whole Orthodox Church. The history of all schisms and heresies shows how quickly an initial error becomes "tradition." And one must not forget that by now at least two generations have been raised and educated in an almost blind respect for this tradition and that, as years go by, it becomes more and more difficult to convince these people that a tragic initial mistake hopelessly drives them away from the Church. The problem here is not only that of the "validity of orders." The Ukrainian hierarchs claim that "reordinations" and "regularisations" of various kinds have taken place. The theological importance of the document unanimously adopted by the Standing Conference is in the request of

"a satisfactory profession of faith, especially as it touches upon the so-called consecration of Basil Lipkivsky, the mystery of Holy Orders and ecclesiology. . ."

It is here that the crux of the matter is to be found. The Ukrainian "autocephalists" have never openly and consistently denounced and condemned as heretical and incompatible with Orthodoxy the non-episcopal consecration of Lipkivsky, which is the very source of their existence. The Standing Conference by asking for a clear-cut ecclesiological confession of faith reminds all of us that in the Orthodox Church, validity is meaningless when cut from the Orthodoxy of faith, the unconditional acceptance of the universal tradition of the Church.

The tragic events of 1918-1921 have been studied and evaluated so far with passion and exasperation and almost exclusively within the framework of the unfortunate Russian-Ukrainian clash. Here in America there is no reason for the perpetuation of this narrow nationalistic approach. It ought not to be difficult for the Russians to admit their part of responsibility for what happened in Kiev in 1921: the unanimous rejection by the Russian bishops of even the moderate demands of the Ukrainians, the lack of respect and understanding for Ukrainian culture and language and many other factors that made the tragedy possible. Yet, however important, all these factors do not justify dogmatically the fateful decision to consecrate Lipkivsky without bishops . . . and this the Ukrainians must admit and accept, following in this Lipkivsky himself, who in his recently published autobiography has openly expressed his certitude that the Church Universal cannot and will never accept the decisions and actions of 1921. To admit this takes courage – but is not Orthodoxy worth such sacrifice? We can only hope and pray that our Ukrainian brothers will understand the real spirit of the episcopal decision of May 17th. Radical and harsh as it may seem, it is in fact an act of love and respect: for Christian love is impossible and meaningless without Truth and it is only in the total Truth of the Church, of its universal tradition, transcending all national offenses and frustrations, that our real unity in Christ becomes possible. The Ukrainian problem has reached now the point of no return. At this crucial moment it is not only for the Ukrainians but for all of us to show that Orthodoxy, its love and truth, can indeed be victorious over all obstacles.

2) The same concern for truth marks the second set of decisions adopted unanimously by the Standing Conference and dealing with the problem of the relations between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The Conference considered that Orthodox membership in the National Council of Churches was, at present, realized in an utterly unsatisfactory way, each Orthodox jurisdiction being assimilated with a "denomination" and without any responsible and permanent Orthodox presence being assured in the various organs of the Council. In a common letter, the Bishops advised the National Council that the whole problem of Orthodox participation was entrusted for study to the Study and Planning Committee of the Conference, that no Orthodox appointments were to be made to the various commissions of the National Council until October, that, whatever character it will take, Orthodox representation will have to become united – Orthodoxy being considered as one Church – and that no pronouncements were to be issued by the Council on behalf of the Orthodox Church without preliminary consultation with the Study and Planning Committee of the Standing Conference.

In addition, the following text was adopted concerning "relations with non-Orthodox groups":

"The Encyclical of the Oecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Athenagoras, and the Holy Synod of Constantinople, of January 31, 1952, contains this paragraph:

‘It is meet that Orthodox Clerics who are delegates (i.e., to Conferences with non-Orthodox) should be as careful as possible about services of worship in which they join with the heterodox, as these are contrary to the sacred canons and make less acute the confessional sensitiveness of the Orthodox. They should aim at celebrating, if possible, purely Orthodox liturgical services and rites, that they may thereby manifest, before the eyes of the heterodox, the splendour and majesty of Orthodox adoration.’

"Since the position of the Church in the United States affords the maximum opportunity for contact with separated Christians, and since the presence of Orthodox clerics as participants in non-Orthodox services either scandalizes or confuses the faithful, while confirming uninformed heterodox in their opinion that the Church is simply another denomination, The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas authorizes the following directive:

1) The spirit of the Patriarchal Encyclical, as quoted above, is especially applicable to the circumstances of the Church in the United States.

2) All who have a teaching function in the Church will instruct those committed to their charge that the grace of the Sacred Mysteries cannot he obtained, and should not be sought, outside of the Church. There is no point in the United States so remote from a parish or other Church that any of the faithful cannot receive the Holy Mysteries, at least once annually.

3) Clerics will not attempt to give or receive the Sacred Mysteries to or from any but Orthodox Christians.

4) Clerics will not participate in worship with non-Orthodox, nor wear any of the sacred vestments in non-Orthodox places of worship, nor at non-Orthodox services of worship. Clerics will not be photographed wearing the sacred vestments while in the company of non-Orthodox clerics.

5) The following special regulations will be observed in cases of an exceptional nature:

a) Clerics who are chaplains in organizations which have a large non-Orthodox membership will neither participate in nor conduct worship services of a general or interconfessional nature.

b) Clerics who are delegates to interdenominational meetings will celebrate purely Orthodox services and rites without admitting non-Orthodox to an active part in the service.

c) Clerics invited to preach at non-Orthodox places of worship, and who have the consent of their hierarch to do so, shall wear none of the sacred vestments nor participate in services.

6) Orthodox clerics and laity will not enter local or other Councils of Churches or inter-denominational associations as members thereof, but may participate as observers, according to instructions from the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, and shall not participate in inter-confessional services. Orthodox relations with all such bodies are the responsibilities of the hierarchs.

7) Clerics, and the faithful generally, should remember their opportunities to witness for the Church in all of these matters.

These decisions constitute another step towards the badly needed clarification of the Orthodox position here in America. No progress is possible unless all ambiguities of the past are completely cleared. These ambiguities may have been understandable and excusable before. Today, they are the only real obstacle to a real unification of Orthodoxy and to its genuine and free encounter with other Christians.


St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1962, pp. 93-95