A recent discussion
over at the Byzantine Forum has brought to my attention a problem that seems to be on the increase of late. I am referring to bogus "Orthodox" churches. Some people, especially the non-Orthodox, have been duped by these groups. This used to be a problem much more commonly associated with the Catholic Church. But in recent years it has become an increasing issue with us as well.
Without going into a long or forensic discussion of the not so Orthodox sects, I thought I would give some brief background on the various types there are and then point up a few signs that might indicate you have stumbled on a less than legitimate group.
Speaking in very general terms the faux-Orthodox typically can be divided into three groups.
1. The mainstream but schismatic Orthodox: These are groups who are doctrinally Orthodox and who generally follow the liturgical discipline of the Church. Their "bishops" often have legitimate historical connections to the Church in terms of their orders though they may have been deposed or excommunicated. Examples of this are most commonly to be found in certain break away "churches" that are attempting to self proclaim their independence or autocephaly. The so called Macedonian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievyn Patriarchate are two prominent examples.
2. The schismatic and non-mainstream Orthodox: These are almost always going to be so called "Old Calendarist" churches. There are a plethora of them out there. Most are small and very few are in communion with anyone outside their own church. They are characterized by a rejection of the "new" or "reformed Julian" calendar which they regard as heretical. One may fairly divide the Old Calendarists (OCs) into two sub-groups, moderate and radical. The moderate OCs while branding as heretical any church that uses the new calendar might accept the grace of the sacraments of those churches which use the old calendar but are themselves in communion with new calendarist churches. Radical OCs by contrast consider anyone who has held communion with new calendarists to be tainted and their sacraments to be without grace. Both types of OCs are frequently infected with all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories involving Jews, Free Masons and the like.
3. The counterfeit Orthodox: These are groups that have simply adopted the word "Orthodox" into their church name in an effort to gain some form of respect or legitimacy to which they are not entitled. Almost without exception they lack any authentic connection to the Orthodox Church and are usually outright heretics. Many of these sects are, or at one time were, Catholic vagantes who decided that a name change might cause people to ask fewer inconvenient questions. There are a lot of Catholics who keep track of these sects and post warnings about them. And many Roman Catholic Diocese also will post warnings about pseudo-Catholic groups. Regrettably, there is generally less awareness within Orthodoxy of such entities. In addition the jurisdictional craziness, especially here in N. America makes it a lot easier for these sects to operate without being closely questioned. Few Orthodox dioceses or jurisdictions seem to be cognizant of the problem or at least have shown little interest in it.Warning Signs
There are a number of indicators that can serve to alert one that you may have encountered a group whose relationship with The Church is questionable. I would however caution that there are occasional exceptions to these indicators so don't assume a group is bogus just because they meet one of the signs listed below. That said if they DO meet one or especially if they meet multiple indicators you should approach with caution and be prepared to ask questions.
1. If the name of the church, excluding the saints name, has more than five words in it you may want to refer to # 2 below.
2. If any of the following words appear in the church's name (as opposed to the parish name) you may have a problem... True, Authentic, Genuine, Real, Holy, Synod, Metropolia, Resistance, Exile, Underground, Old Calendar, Reformed, Inclusive, Liberal or Conservative, Canonical. If you run into the "Really True Old Calendar First Holy Orthodox Church of Dump Truck County Alabama in Exile" don't walk away. RUN!
3. Almost any church that has the world "calendar" anywhere in its name is at least schismatic.
4. Churches (as opposed to parishes) that claim to be "Western Rite" are bogus. Note
: There are a small number of fully canonical Orthodox parishes which have been blessed to the use of the Western Rite. In N. America they are almost all under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Archdiocese. There are at present NO canonical Orthodox churches that are "Western Rite." That means there are no Orthodox Western Rite bishops.
5. Churches that make reference in their website or literature to the "pan-heresy of ecumenism" are likely schismatic or worse.
6. Churches that feel the need to proclaim their bona-fides by listing the lineage of their Apostolic Succession like a pedigree on their website are bogus. Canonical Orthodox churches don't do that. They don't need to. On a side note, I have never seen any so called Orthodox Church with such a lineage posted where their "orders" did not derive from Roman Catholic vagantes. It is exceedingly rare for any of these sects to have any sacramental connection to the Orthodox Church. And it is worth noting that while the Roman Church (owing to its Augustinian approach to Holy Orders) sometimes accepts the validity of their orders, the Orthodox Church does not.
In conclusion one may stumble on a church that seems "Orthodox," but something doesn't feel right. Or maybe they meet one of the above warning signs but your not really sure. In such cases just ask some questions. Orthodox priests will be able to answer simple questions quickly and without evasion. Probably the easiest and most obvious question is "Who are you in communion with?" or "Are you in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate?" While I concede that the EP is NOT the Orthodox Pope, he does occupy the canonical first place of honor in The Church. If someone is not in communion with him that is one giant flashing neon warning sign. For a number of years ROCOR was in a state of (I will borrow an Anglican expression here) "impaired communion" with the EP and just about everyone else outside of the Serbs and the Jerusalem Patriarchate. But that is over now. Today I don't know of any canonical Orthodox church that is not in communion with the EP.
The majority of bogus Orthodox groups are misguided but usually well meaning people. They often believe they are right and we (in the canonical Church) are wrong. Others are heavily populated by people who are ill informed about the true nature of their church and its relationship with Orthodoxy. And sadly a few are scams run by con artists, thieves and in a hand full of cases sexual predators.
Bottom line... When in doubt ASK QUESTIONS.