Towards the end of the inaugural show of Ancient Faith Radio's Orthodoxy Live, Fr. Evan Armetas was asked a question: what should Orthodox Christians do, if they live in an area where there are no Orthodox Churches nearby? Is it OK to go to a heterodox Church in such a case, when you are not able to go to an Orthodox parish?
Fr. Evan's answer indicated that he knew his answer would be controversial, but he said that his own pastoral response was that it was OK. He said that they should go to those churches in order to hear "the liturgy of the word" and for fellowship. You can hear the question and his answer by clicking this link, beginning at about the 55 minute mark: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/orthodoxylive/november_18_2012
I have no doubts that Fr. Evan's answer was sincere, and I am sure that he thinks it is better than any alternative. And since he was raised in the Church, I think it is partly due to a lack of time spent actually attending such heterodox churches.
I strongly disagree with Fr. Evan's answer, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the canons forbid us to go to Non-Orthodox houses of worship or to pray with non-Orthodox Christians or schismatics:
Canon LXV of the Apostles says: "If any clergymen, or laymen, enter a synagogue of Jews, or of heretics, to pray, let him be both deposed and excommunicated."
Canon IX of Laodicia says: "Concerning the fact that those belonging to the Church must not be allowed to go visiting the cemeteries or the so called martyria of any heretics, for the purpose of prayer or of cure, but, on the contrary, those who do so, if they be among the faithful, shall be excluded from communion for a time until they repent and confess their having made a mistake, when they may be readmitted to communion."
And Canon XXXIII of Laodicia says: "One must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics."
All of these canons have Ecumenical authority, having been approved by the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils.
Sometimes the counter argument that one hears to this is that the heretics at the time of these canons were much worse than the average Protestant and Roman Catholic, but the last canon referenced says were are not to pray with heretics or schismatics. Schismatics differ from us in no theological way at all, at least in the beginning, and so any schismatic group would be a thousand times closer to the Orthodox than any Protestant or Roman Catholic.
To cite a relatively recent example from the lives of the Saints, one should consider the Holy New Martyr Lydia of Russia (you can hear a sermon on her life by clicking here). She lived during the time of the so-called "Living Church" which was a renovationist schism that was established by the Soviets, and for a time it was the "official" Church -- and the only Church allowed by the Soviets to function openly. St. Lydia's own father joined the Living Church, not out of conviction, but out of fear of persecution. St. Lydia departed from her father, and we are told that she only rarely went to Church during that time, because she would not attend the "Official Church", and the Catacomb Churches did not hold regular services. So unless she was able to attend services in a legitimate Orthodox Church she stayed home and prayed. As bad as the Living Church was, it was far closer to Orthodoxy than any Protestant or Roman Catholic church. One would be far more likely to hear something approximating the "Liturgy of the word" in such a Church. But St. Lydia refused to go.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in the oldest recorded Catechism of the Church, stated:
"And if ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it, and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all; which before was barren, but now has many children" (Catechetical Lectures 18:26).
We do not refrain from praying with heretics or schismatics because we are condemning them to hell. We refuse to pray with them because praying together implies a unity of faith that does not exist. As the Prophet Amos observed: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3).
Aside from the canons, there are two practical reasons why I think that Fr. Evan's advice should not be followed:
1). One would not hear anything close to the "Liturgy of the word" in most Protestant or Catholic churches. What one would likely encounter would range from the absolutely heretical to the mildly heretical. If one knows what to reject and what to pay attention to, there are many heterodox clergy who have edifying things to say, but the problem is that the average Orthodox layman does not have the knowledge to know what to reject and what to listen to, and so would almost certainly be led astray by regular exposure to such preaching.
2). In the history of Orthodoxy in the United States there have been many Orthodox who did exactly what Fr. Evan suggested. Some, if they eventually found their way to an Orthodox Church remained in the Church. But in most cases, such people lost their connection with the Church... and this is all the more true of their children, who in most cases grew up thinking of themselves as belonging to the group that they were raised in.
So what should an Orthodox Christian do if there are no Orthodox Churches in their area?
First of all, they should figure out which parish is the closest, and they should try to attend there as often as they can. In our time, this is made very simple by the internet. There is a very good website called "Orthodoxy in America", where you can simply enter your zip code and find any parish that is within a certain radius: http://orthodoxyinamerica.org/ The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North America also have a similar directory: http://assemblyofbishops.org/directories/parishes
Secondly, when they are not able to go to the nearest parish, they should pray at home. Every Orthodox home is a little Church, and if there are no other Orthodox parishes near enough for you to attend, then this is the Church you should be attending.
You can hear the "Liturgy of the word" by serving Typika (or Obednitsa, as it is sometimes called). I regularly update this page, where one can find the text of Typika (when served in the absence of a priest) and the variable portions of Typika for Sundays and Feast days by clicking here: http://www.saintjonah.org/typ/ You can find instructions on how to do lay services, as well as other texts for that purpose by clicking here: http://www.saintjonah.org/services/horologion.htm
With the blessing of their bishop, they may also want to advertize their services. They could do so at no cost, by setting a blog and posting information about their services. They may find that there are some other Orthodox Christians in their area, and their house Church may be the beginnings of a future parish.
As Archbishop Averky (of blessed memory) observed, many Orthodox Christians have the mistaken notion that they are almost unable to pray at all without a priest; but short of the sacraments, any Orthodox Christian can -- and, in the instances we are discussing, should, to the best of their ability -- do the full cycle of services for Sundays and Feast days. See: Comments on Reader Services by Archbishop Averky,of blessed memory.
With all that is available for free on the internet these days, it is not difficult for an Orthodox Christian to at least do some regular services in their own homes, when they cannot attend a parish. And instead of setting your children up to drift into heterodoxy, you will provide them with a vivid example of the effort that one should put forth to maintain their faith in a largely non-Orthodox culture.
Update: Someone reminded me of St. Raphael (Hawaweeny)'s Pastoral Epistle to his flock, at a time when travel was much more difficult, Orthodox Churches were much fewer and farther between. Here is the most pertinent portion to this question:
"Therefore, as the official head of the Syrian Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church in North America and as one who must give account (Heb. 13:17) before the judgment seat of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (I Pet. 2:25), that I have fed the flock of God (I Pet. 5:2), as I have been commissioned by the Holy Orthodox Church, and inasmuch as the Anglican Communion (Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA) does not differ in things vital to the well-being of the Holy Orthodox Church from some of the most errant Protestant sects, I direct all Orthodox people residing in any community not to seek or to accept the ministrations of the Sacraments and rites from any clergy excepting those of the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, for the Apostolic command that the Orthodox should not commune in ecclesiastical matters with those who are not of the same household of faith (Gal. 6:10), is clear: "Any bishop, or presbyter or deacon who will pray with heretics, let him be anathematized; and if he allows them as clergymen to perform any service, let him be deposed." (Apostolic Canon 45) "Any bishop, or presbyter who accepts Baptism or the Holy Sacrifice from heretics, we order such to be deposed, for what concord hath Christ with Belial, or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?" (Apostolic Canon 46)
As to members of the Holy Orthodox Church living in areas beyond the reach of Orthodox clergy, I direct that the ancient custom of our Holy Church be observed, namely, in cases of extreme necessity, that is, danger of death, children may be baptized by some pious Orthodox layman, or even by the parent of the child, by immersion three times in the names of the (Persons of the) Holy Trinity, and in case of death such baptism is valid; but, if the child should live, he must be brought to an Orthodox priest for the Sacrament of Chrismation.
In the case of the death of an Orthodox person where no priest of the Holy Orthodox Church can be had, a pious layman may read over the corpse, for the comfort of the relatives and the instruction of the persons present, Psalm 90 and Psalm 118, and add thereto the Trisagion ("Holy God, Holy Mighty," etc.). But let it be noted that as soon as possible the relative must notify some Orthodox bishop or priest and request him to serve the Liturgy and Funeral for the repose of the soul of the departed in his cathedral or parish Church.
As to Holy Matrimony, if there be any parties united in wedlock outside the pale of the holy Orthodox Church because of the remoteness of Orthodox centers from their home, I direct that as soon as possible they either invite an Orthodox priest or go to where he resides and receive from his hands the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony; otherwise they will be considered excommunicated until they submit to the Orthodox Church's rule.
I further direct that Orthodox Christians should not make it a practice to attend the services of other religious bodies, so that there be no confusion concerning the teaching or doctrines. Instead, I order that the head of each household, or a member, may read the special prayers which can be found in the Hours in the Holy Orthodox Service Book, and such other devotional books as have been set forth by the authority of the Holy Orthodox Church."