Thursday, October 14, 2010

When "Orthodox" is Not

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.


Igumen Philip Speranza said...

Just a note: the word is "vagantes" or (in the singular) "vagans," with an "a" rather than an "e." Sorry; but six years of Latin leave their mark!

Matushka Anna said...

Here's a site that tries to keep up with such parishes (and "churches") with an updated list. It gives a lot of helpful information:

Fr John W Fenton said...

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.

An addition: The Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia (ROCOR) has a number of Western Rite parishes and monasteries.

Fr John W Fenton
Assistant to the Vicar General
Western Rite Vicariate
Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

Steve Hayes said...

Another sign that not all is well: if the head honcho of the group in question styles himself "Mar".

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Fr bless

Igumen Philip,
Thanks for the correction. I have made some fixes. Is there an adjective form?


John (Ad Orientem) said...

Matushka Anna
Thanks for the link. That is an excellent website. I think I will link it in the sidebar.


John (Ad Orientem) said...

Fr. Fenton,
I did not know ROCOR had any W/R parishes. The last I head there were just a few monastic communities. It is good news.


mjl said...

When I was looking to join a Church that was apostolic I discovered no small number of Evangelical house churches that set up some icons, waved incense and called themselves either the Orthodox or Reformed Catholic church. Even then, it was more bizarre than any Rock and Roll Mass I've ever been to.

Ingemar said...

When I was first learning about Orthodoxy, I watched a series of videos on YouTube channel greekorthodoxtv. It was only much later that I found out they belonged to the Greek Old Calendarist schismatic group (AKA the Genuine Greek Orthodox Metropolis of North America). And surely enough, while they have a six part series on Original Sin and a three part series on modern day analyses of the Resurrection, they have a FIFTEEN part series on the "panheresy of ecumenism!"

You're absolutely right about the cumbersome naming of these bogus churches. The reader who showed up on those videos was apparently from the "Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils" Russian Orthodox Church.

Also, the owner and webdespota (sorry, Webmaster) of is a priest of the Greek Old Calendarists.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

I forgot about them. I will add "Genuine" to the list of alert words.


Anonymous said...

I have to say that "Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils Russian Orthodox Church" sounds like a perfectly legitimate name for a church - I rather like it. I remember when many of the Russian Churches had very long names such as [St. Name] Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church. I wish we maintained the title Catholic in all Church names.

David said...

I ran into one of these groups in Maine, it claimed to be Western Rite from the Russian Orthodox Church. What it was was a former Russian Orthodox Priest who married a Protestant who wanted nothing to do with Orthodoxy, they compromised and joined some Charismatic Episcopal group that allowed him to be a priest. I figured out very quickly that something wasn't right however they were wonderful Christian people who had faith that I don't always see in the real Orthodox parishes. I do think there is a real danger to these groups in that they can easily develop into cults. I feel in true Orthodoxy I am much more protected from such things except amongst splinter groups who leave the Antiochian parishes for the Jerusalem patriarch so they can have church their way. That kind of church hoping and parish creation is just as dangerous.

I was part of an OCA mission in Folsom that belonged to the Albanian Archdiocese. I didn't know it but we were irregular. I found out after the mission folded that we were looked down on by the other jurisdictions in town. Our priest was wonderful and loved by his brother clergy. It was our Bishop that was considered to be doing something wrong, and an attached priest who ministered to a break away group of Arabs who created an Arab parish. The messes and the problems aren't the divergent groups only, even within the true church there are problems.

Igumen Philip Speranza said...

Dear John,

"Vagans" or "vagantes" is the gerundive adjective...and I find it scary that after some 45 years I can still remember that stuff. Surely there's a better use for my diminishing brain cells.

Fr. Philip

Anonymous said...

The criterion listed under No.: 5 places Serbian Orthodox Church as a non-canonical, bogus, or otherwise suspicious. Namely, "the pan-heresy of ecumenism" is the diagnose used in the book "The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism" (1978) by (then) Archimandrite Justin (Popovic) of Celije Monastery.

He has been proclaimed Saint in May, 2010, and his book is part of the literature used by Serbian Patriarchate, but is also highly regarded at least among some Greeks and Russians.


Agabus said...

Re: No. 2: A lot of the fakes/flakes/scams will include "Inc." in their titles, so you get names like "The Byzantine Independent Catholic Orthodox Church in North America, Inc." Real Churches don't have to flaunt their legal status.

Including the "inc." is usually their strange way of protecting their pedigree from their schisms, which are manifold and meaningless. Their websites contain statements like, "If you see anyone using the name 'The Independent Byzantine Catholic Orthodox Church in Northa America,' but it does not include the 'Inc.,' they are not affiliated with us and are uncannonical, and their farts smell like rotten eggs."

(Just to be clear, I just made up the name the BICOCiNA off the top of my head, but I have no doubt someone probably is using that name.)

Another clue about the fakes I found early on which is not always hard and fast but is generally true is that they tend to have very badly designed websites. Not that webcleanliness is next to Godliness, but it's a good tip.

TruthBeTold7 said...

This is neurotic. The Church of Christ should be visible and easy to find. Stay away from Old Calendarists.