Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D.
(The following is an editorial this writer wrote a few years ago in connection with a very serious canonical infringement that was about to take place in America. It is republished with few changes in view of the reported violation of Sacred Canons by the Episcopal Synod of Malankara regarding the remarriage of priests)
Unfortunately the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church is facing a very tragic situation in America. A good number of clandestine groups that claim to be descending from orthodox lines have been asserting themselves to be orthodox and approaching for union with the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church. Most of these groups have more priests and bishops than laity. Some of them claim their priestly succession line from the Old Catholic sects, and others claim to have been ordained by defrocked or genuine orthodox bishops. Some of them have already adopted the eastern liturgy according to the Byzantine tradition, and others have adopted the Nestorian liturgy, and still some groups claim to have adopted a Syrian liturgy. There are also groups that use a strange liturgy, a mixture of Roman and Byzantine liturgies. In some churches, bishops have adopted the Syrian honorific title, Mar, to signify that they are Syrians. In many of these groups there are also married bishops, which is the least scandalous of all the problems they carry.
A good number of groups claim that they were descendants of the Villatte succession. Rene Villatte was a French man who was ordained a bishop by Metropolitan Mor Julios Alvarez (an illustrious champion of Orthodoxy who embraced it as a Roman priest, but suffered enormously from the torture and persecution the Roman hierarchy in Goa), Mor Athanasios Kadavil, and St. Gregorios of Parumala as ordered through a bull of the Patriarch of Antioch during the latter part of the 19th century in Sri Lanka with the name, Mor Timotheos Joseph Rene Villatte. Villatte promised to uphold the Orthodox faith and start orthodox congregations in the eastern hemisphere, but after coming to America he gave up his faith and identified himself with the Old Catholic movement. He subsequently practiced simony and consecrated many bishops and ordained many priests. He later ended up in a Roman Catholic monastery in Belgium, and the Roman Catholic Church stripped him off his priesthood; and he died as a layman! Unfortunately this apostate is still venerated by many Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Christians highlighting St. Gregorios of Parumala as one of the co-consecrators at his episcopal ordination. Although he received his episcopal ordination from the Malankarese Orthodox Church this man does not receive any recognition in the history of the Syrian Church. His groups are also unjustifiably considered orthodox by some of our bishops who capitalize on receiving westerners into our Church! These groups also claim a valid priestly succession, as the Roman Catholic Church recognizes them to be of valid apostolic succession because of their legalistic approach to sacraments. We warn our readers that these groups do not maintain a valid priestly succession, a theological position this author maintained for many years, which the late Metropolitan Gregorios Paulos of Delhi, one of the modern scholars of orthodoxy, also has concurred. Most of these ordinations are said to have taken place in closets and hotel rooms without an assembly of believers that constitute a church and the true orthodox faith that are foundations for not the licitness, but also the validity of apostolic succession, which is crucial to impart grace in the economy of salvation.
Most of these groups actually play church. This writer had opportunities to visit one of them and observe their spiritual and liturgical life. Their stationary looked very formal and elegant with high-sounding titles and offices more similar to the bureaucracy of a Roman Catholic archdiocese. This group expressed its desire to be united with the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church, and I thought it would be ideal to have a first hand experience of their church life. When I went there, the sight was shocking. I did not see a liturgical community there. The man claimed to be the archbishop simply had a tee shirt. He claimed to have a couple of priests and a subdeacon to assist him. One of the priests who received me at the airport was dressed in shorts and an armless undershirt. There was no evening or morning prayer. There was no chapel at all where he resided for prayer. They conducted Sunday worship in a rented facility, where I saw less than five people. They came home every evening after their work, and cooked and ate with their cats and dogs, and watched TV all evening. There was no liturgical life at all. Of course, the archbishop said a Roman mass with some eastern interpolations in order to create an orthodox look. There were very few congregants. It was said that this man was consecrating bishops and ordaining priests from time to time. My inquiry proved me that they had more clergymen than laymen.
Why did he desire to join the Orthodox Church of Malankara? Just to secure legitimacy and recognition by a canonical orthodox church. But do they have or intend to embrace the Orthodox faith? They say they will do. But the motive is not genuine. I told this group to build their membership and then apply to the Holy Synod. But people like them wanted to be accepted as bishops without congregations behind them. Without any scruple such groups show the willingness to be ordained again and again as a condition for acceptance into churches that satisfy their expediency. I have heard of a bishop who was ordained many times by different churches. Their only intention is to be a bishop in a canonical church. I bluntly told the bishop whom I visited that he had no place in the Orthodox Church without a church life and a group of faithful behind him. The fact is that these groups fail to achieve momentum in building up their membership due to many reasons, (which do not come under the scope of this discourse).
What are the peculiar features of these groups? The bishops are generally married. Bishops and priests would be permitted to be married whenever they want. It is said that homosexuality is an accepted life style in some of them. It is also reported that some priests have been married several times (What’s the wrong with it? An Archbishop of York in England had married three times as archbishop!). There is no consistency in what these groups believe. Their doctrines change almost every month depending on their immediate agenda. And many of these groups claim to be Orthodox! Other orthodox priests and bishops are so naïve to call the “Orthodox”!
After observing these groups some of our bishops wonder why the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church has to be antiquated with all the meaningless canons and other rules, which are irrelevant in our modern society where men are no more chaste, girls are no more virgins, marital fidelity has no moral value, marriage is just a convenience, divorces are more honorable than endurance in marriage, values are relative, hedonism rules all areas of human conducts, and utilitarian ideals enjoy widespread recognition. In one of the recent Family and Youth Conference sessions in America this writer heard a metropolitan lamenting on the traditional character of the Malankarese Church. According to him, our canons or Hudaya Canons did not help the Church to grow. He said he was going to open the doors and windows of the Church so that everyone could get into the Church regardless of their moral or doctrinal orientation, and experience the salvation achieved by Christ! His declaration reminded this writer about the aggiornamento initiated by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960’s by opening the windows of the Roman Catholic Church for fresh air! Look at the mess it created! Nowhere else can you find a mess as messy as that in the Roman Church. Look at the number of priests that exited from their priestly commitment! Look at the demoralized state of the present Roman Catholic clergy. Look at the sad condition of spiritual life within the Roman Catholic Church!
This lengthy introduction is required for us to understand the seriousness one of the most scandalous abominations that might stage very soon in the history of our Church. It is reported that one of our bishops in America with the support of some of his colleagues (who are recent arrivals in the Church) might accept clergymen from groups similar to the ones discussed above. These clergymen are said to be coming from churches similar to the ones mentioned above. If they are an ideal persons like those accepted into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese by Metropolitan Philip Saliba from the Evangelical Orthodox Church, there is nothing more pleasing than that. In this case, this writer is not very much concerned if they possess valid ordination or even their chrismation is acceptable. The Orthodox Church does accommodate men of such backgrounds like a good mother. Here the most important issue is that these clergymen under consideration have canonical impediments to exercise their priesthood or receive priesthood within the Holy Orthodox Church. It is said that some of them have been twice married after baptism, which is a canonical impediment according to the Canons of the Apostles (Apostolic Canons), which were accepted by the Council of Nicea, according to the Hudaya Canons, and according to many ancient Councils that accept the above-mentioned canons.
This writer did explain in his former discourses why marriages after the priesthood are forbidden, and therefore we do not wish to repeat those canons.
Let us examine how Orthodoxy considers the mystery of marriage. Orthodoxy considers marriage not within a legalistic framework like the Roman Church, according to which marriage ends at the death of one of the partners. In western churches marriage is believed to be indissoluble only until the death of one of the spouses. In Orthodoxy, marriage is treated within an existential framework, and therefore it is permanent extending that bond to eternity. These differences are based on the divergent doctrines on the Holy Trinity held by the west and the east and on the different approaches to ecclesiology held by these divisions.
As a mystery (sacrament) marriage reflects the union between Christ and His Church, between God (Yahweh) and Israel. This relationship between humanity and God is an eternal union. The sacrament of matrimony is a similitude of this relationship, and according to Eastern sacramental theology death does not end such a union. It is a union that is perpetuated to eternity in the Kingdom of God. Let me quote from Father John Meyendorff:
“In its sacramental nature, marriage figures and transcends both fleshly union and contractual legal association: human love is projected into the eternal Kingdom of God” (Byzantine Theology, New York: Fordham University Press, 1979, p. 197).
Because of this theological emphasis on one-marriage-forever, up until the tenth century marriages of the divorced or widowed were never blessed by the Church in the Byzantine tradition. In the Syrian tradition, this practice was followed even more strictly. Such marriages were performed through civil agencies, but such husbands and wives were not allowed to receive communion until they come to their final repentance before death.
After the tenth century, the Eastern Churches began to permit second and third marriages within the Church, but they were never crowned. Since antiquity, marriages were blessed in connection with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and the bride and bridegroom received communion from the same paten and chalice (this must be revived and restored in Orthodoxy as a regular practice), a custom, which is currently observed in the Roman Church, especially after Vatican II. Although second and third marriages began to be blessed in the Church after the tenth century, as punishment, those who enter a second marriage were not admitted to receive communion for two years, and those who enter a third marriage were not admitted to receive communion for five years.
The services for the blessing of second marriages were not meant to be a joyous and festive event. Recently this writer officiated at such a wedding. Since it was a private wedding ceremony, he asked the bride and bridegroom to read the antiphons and hymns for themselves so that they could understand the true significance of a second marriage. In the Service of Blessing of a first marriage, all hymns reflect joy and happiness and liberally supply portions of Song of Songs of Solomon from the Old Testament; whereas in the Service of Blessing of a second marriage all the hymns are of repentance and petitions for forgiveness. The man and woman were not crowned either. After a regular wedding, the atmosphere is generally of great joy. At the end of this second marriage, none seemed to be in that happy mood, including the children of the bride and groom. What this writer means to emphasize is the fact that the very Service of Blessing of a second marriage does not reflect a totally sacramental encounter. Why? Because in the eyes of the Holy Church, there is only one marriage, which transcends this world, and extends to eternity.
Why did the Holy Church later begin to bless such marriages? The Church began to tolerate such marriages because of human weakness (I Cor. 7:9). But the ideal norm in Christian marriage still remains that the first marriage is the real union between a man and woman for eternity. This is the mind of the Church, this is the essence of marriage according to the Gospel of Christ and the exhortations of St. Paul. Let us read the Gospel according Matthew:
“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one in flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:3-6).
Since marriage is a journey to the eternal Kingdom of God, the Church clearly teaches that the relationship, which is based on the coming together of two fleshes and on becoming thereafter one flesh, is a permanent union. Even after death this union should remain indissoluble, a position not embraced by the Roman Church. Let us go back to the same chapter:
“They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and put her away?’. He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’ “ (Matt. 19: 7-8).
Every priest of the Church should be an ideal Christian in his marriage and family life. Hence the ideal norm for marriage prescribed for an ordinary Christian was emphatically stipulated for her priests. That is why the early canons clearly demanded that a person twice married after his baptism could not become a deacon, or priest or bishop. A person who married a widow or divorced woman was also forbidden to receive holy orders. Because such marriages did not reflect the “ideal and real” marriage in accordance with the sacramental theology of marriage, men who remarried were forbidden from receiving holy orders.
Let us go the Canons of the Apostles (Apostolic Canons):
“He who has been twice married after baptism, or who has a concubine, cannot become a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list” (Canon 17, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Peabody, MA: Henderson Publishers, 1994, p. 595).
In one of the editorials in this series, this writer has already indicated that the Apostolic Canons were all accepted by the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea and were incorporated into the Canons of the Council of Nicea. These canons were also accepted by subsequent ecumenical and provincial synods. We have already explained that a second marriage is only tolerated for a layman. Actually this canon excludes priestly candidates from this toleration. A priest is to preach the truth and doctrines of the Church, and it is also his duty to proclaim the uniqueness of Christian marriage as elucidated earlier. This stipulation is also extended to his wife as mentioned above. Let us see Apostolic Canon 18:
“He who married a widow, or a divorced woman, or an harlot, or a servant-maid, or an actress, cannot be a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list” (op. cit.).
This is consistent with absolute monogamy, which is the ideal in Christian marriage; sexual intercourse with any woman other than one’s first wife, or first husband is considered adulterous and against the concept of absolute monogamy. As we discussed earlier, a second marriage was tolerated because of the sinfulness and weakness men and women, and it is not the ideal for Christian marriage according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Hence, a second marriage is totally antithetical to the life of a priest whose duty it is to proclaim the uniqueness of the ideal marriage of a Christian.
The Hudaya Canon, the official book of Canons of the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church, also stipulates that no one twice married can be admitted to the holy orders and practice his priesthood. The Hudaya Canon directly quotes from the Canons of the Apostles (Hudaya Canon, Translated by Fr. Abraham Konatt, Pampakuda: Mar Julius Press, 1952, p. 102). Once a bishop talked about Hudaya Canon as if it is a bunch of meaningless rules coming from the Middle East, which have no relevance in America or India. However, this bishop does not really know where these canons are taken from. Thanks to his ignorance!
As we conclude this part of the editorial, we would like to reiterate that we are dealing with issues of canon laws, which are being violated or are about to be violated within the Holy Church. We are not targeting any persons, but issues are very important for us, Orthodox Christians. If any bishops or other persons feel uncomfortable about this editorial, we deeply apologize it. As Christians, our intention is not to inflict pain upon anyone; but we have a deontological task to defend and protect the canons of Holy Orthodoxy, which is one of the purposes of this publication. +kct