A monk from Esphigemenou monaster, about to toss a Molotov cocktail.
Question: "The Esphigmenou monastery [on Mount Athos] has recently made headlines; what is happening with them and why are the monks being evicted? How do you view Old Calendarists like these monks, who have broken communion with the rest of the Church?"
The history of the Greek Old Calendar movement is a sad one. What is most sad about it is that it was a problem that could have so easily been avoided had the New Calendar not been introduced into the Church of Greece (along with several other local Orthodox Churches) in the manner in which it was.
In the turmoil that followed World War I, you had the Bolsheviks reeking havoc in Russia, and the Greeks having launched a disastrous attempt to recapture Asia Minor from the Turks which led to a mass expulsion of the Greek population of Asia Minor, there were those who seized the opportunity presented by this upheaval to push for various "reforms" in the Church, and one of those "reforms" was to change the Church Calendar. Specifically, the kingdom of Greece had changed the civil calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, and so there were those who wished to push this change in the Church of Greece as well. In 1923, there was a "pan-Orthodox Synod" (which had representatives from less than half of the Church) which was held to consider this change. What they approved was a calendar that was essentially the same as the Gregorian Calendar, but which preserved the Old Calendar Paschalion (which determines the date of Pascha, and therefore all the aspects of the liturgical calendar that are determined by the date of Pascha). In 1924, the Church of Greece adopted this "Revised Julian Calendar," and in reaction, an Old Calendarist movement began.
The Church of Greece in cooperation with the government of Greece began a policy of repressing the Old Calendarists, which only added bitterness to schism. Gradually various divisions emerged among the Old Calendarists. Many of the Old Calendarists declared the New Calendar Church of Greece to be "without grace," and the degree to which extreme stances were taken added to the division among the Old Calendarists.
The history of the various Old Calendarists schisms is very complicated, and having read the conflicting accounts that the different factions have given about their history, it is my opinion that only God knows which of them are telling the truth in any given instance, and there is good reason to believe that none of their accounts add up entirely. But rather than get lost in the woods discussing their history, let me make a few observations, and then get to the key issues to this question:
1. Had the Calendar not been changed the way that it was, there never would have been a schism.
2. Old Calendarists have pointed to many Ecumenical abuses, especially on the part of clergy under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and many of their objections have merit -- though their arguments that the rest of the Orthodox Church has fallen away as a result of these abuses does not stand up to scrutiny. However, those responsible for these abuses have some share in the blame that these groups have not been reconciled with the rest of the Church.
3. However, the Old Calendarists have generally taken a simplistic view of the canons and Church history in an attempt to justify their separation from the Church that has swayed many, but which is not justified by the Tradition and Canons of the Church.
4. Many (probably most) Old Calendarists are sincere, but there are also many who use the issues that motivate the Old Calendarists as an excuse for schism in order to provide a haven for those who simply wish to function outside of the reach of the accountability they would have to face in legitimate Orthodox Churches.
Is the New Calendar a Heresy?
While Old Calendarists cite other issues today, the issue that caused their groups to originally go into schism was the change of the Calendar, and so the question must be asked, is the New Calendar a heresy? Was it a sufficient basis for going into schism, and denouncing the Church of Greece?
I am not on the New Calendar, and I am glad that this is the case for two reasons:
1. I do not believe that the New Calendar should have been introduced unless every local Church agreed to make the change, at the same time. Whatever advantages the New Calendar may have, they are not worth causing division, and that is in fact what it caused.
2. Changing the fixed calendar to the New Calendar, but continuing to use the Old Calendar to determine the date of Pascha causes liturgical chaos. The Typikon was not written with such a strange mix in mind. Personally, I think it would make far more sense to change the entire calendar, so that it still worked with the Typikon. As it is, you have lenten commemorations occurring before Lent (such as the feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste), and you have paschal commemorations occurring during lent (such as the feast of St. George). You also have the Apostles fast often ending before it begins, as it did this year.
But despite these issues, it cannot be successfully argued that the New Calendar is a heresy, and according to the Canons, it is only heresy, preached clearly and unequivocally, that is a sufficient basis for separating from your lawful bishop, or a bishop separating from his lawful synod.
If you ask an Old Calendarist for the canonical basis of their schism, they will point to Canon 15 of the First and Second Council (The Protodeutera Council) of Constantinople, held in 861, which states in part:
"But as for those persons, on the other hand, who, on account of some heresy condemned by holy Councils, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it barehead in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodal verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudobishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions."
Another basis that is often appealed to is the example of St. Theodore the Studite, who broke communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople because he allowed the Emperor to enter into a fourth marriage.. which was certainly contrary to the well established Tradition of the Church. This controversy is known as the Moechian Controversy (from the Greek word "μοιχός," which means "adulterer," because St. Theodore considered this marriage to be nothing more than adultery). During this controversy, St. Theodore the Studite briefly separated himself from two Patriarchs who are also Saints of the Church.The fact that he separated from two saints of the Church suggests that the example is not one that is so clear cut that one could base a great deal upon it.
Aside from that, a few decades after the repose of St. Theodore, the First and Second Synod was called in Constantinople, and while they did say that a bishop preaching heresy bareheaded in the Church was grounds for schism, they made it very clear that personal sins or canonical violations were not a sufficient basis for a schism.
Canon 13 of that council states:
“The All-evil One having planted the seed of heretical tares in the Church of Christ, and seeing these being cut down to the roots with the sword of the Spirit, took a different course of trickery by attempting to divide the body of Christ by means of the madness of the schismatics. But, checking even this plot of his, the holy Council has decreed that henceforth if any Presbyter or Deacon, on the alleged ground that his own bishop has been condemned for certain crimes, before a conciliar or synodal hearing and investigation has been made, should dare to secede from his communion, and fail to mention his name in the sacred prayers of the liturgical services in accordance with the custom handed down in the Church, he shall be subject to prompt deposition from office and shall be stripped of every prelatic honor. For anyone who has been established in the rank of Presbyter and forestalls the Metropolitan’s judgment, and, judging matters before a trial has been held, insofar as lies in his power, condemns his own father and Bishop, he is not even worthy of the honor or name of Presbyter. Those, on the other hand, who go along with him, in case any of them should be among those in holy orders, they too shall forfeit their own rights to honor, or, in case they should be monks or laymen, let them be utterly excommunicated from the Church until such time as they spew upon and openly renounce all connection with the schismatics and decide to return to their own Bishop” (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 469).
Canon 14 says:
“If any Bishop, on the allegation that charges of crime lie against his own Metropolitan, shall secede or apostatize from him before a conciliar or synodal verdict has been issued against him, and shall abstain from communion with him, and fail to mention his name, in accordance with consuetude, in the course of the divine mystagogy (i.e., liturgical celebration of the Eucharistic mystery), the holy Council has decreed that he shall be deposed from office, if merely by seceding from his own Metropolitan he shall create a schism. For everyone ought to know his own bounds, and neither ought a presbyter treat his own bishop scornfully or contemptuously, nor ought a bishop to treat his own Metropolitan so” (Ibid., p. 470).
Essentially, this says that what goes for Deacons and Priests, goes for a Bishop in his dealings with his Metropolitan too.
And then we have Canon 15:
“The rules laid down with reference to Presbyters and Bishops and Metropolitans are still more applicable to Patriarchs. So that in case any Presbyter or Bishop or Metropolitan dares to secede or apostatize from the communion of his own Patriarch, and fails to mention the latter’s name in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained, in the divine Mystagogy, but, before a conciliar verdict has been pronounced and has passed judgment against him, creates a schism, the holy Council has decreed that this person shall be held an alien to every priestly function if only he be convicted of having committed this transgression of the law. Accordingly, these rules have been sealed and ordained as respecting those persons who under the pretext of charges against their own presidents stand aloof, and create a schism, and disrupt the union of the Church. But as for those persons, on the other hand, who, on account of some heresy condemned by holy Councils, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it barehead in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodal verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudobishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions” (Ibid., p. 470f).
And so what was said in the previous canons about separating from Bishops and Metropolitans is all the more applicable to one’s Patriarch. There is only one exception given here, and that is when one separates from their Bishop, Metropolitan, or Patriarch, on the basis of heresy that is publicly taught “bareheaded” in the Church. The canon does not say it is justified merely on the grounds that a bishops holds a heretical opinion. It also does not say it is justified because such an heretical opinion might be inferred from his actions or vaguely worded statements. It is only when it is a heresy that has been condemned by the fathers or councils, and is taught publicly, and “bareheadedly”.
These canons, coming as they do in the wake of the Moechian controversy, were clearly designed to ensure that another such controversy would not occur. They clearly define the only basis for schism prior to a conciliar verdict, and that is the clear preaching of heresy. Furthermore, even this canon does not provide for the establishment of parallel jurisdictions prior to a conciliar verdict. In other words, you could withdraw from communion from a bishop who is preaching heresy, but until the Church deals with the matter, you have no grounds for establishing rival Synods, as the Greek Old Calendarists have done.
Now getting back to the monks at Esphigmenou, while all the monasteries on Mount Athos have at times raised objections to actions and statements of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and while they all have remained on the Old Calendar, all of them remain in communion with the rest of the Church... except for this monastery. It has unfortunately attracted the most extreme monks on the Holy Mountain, and they have painted themselves into a theological and ecclesiological corner.
There have been other examples of Orthodox governments using military force to remove heretical or schismatic monks from a monastery, but I think it would have been better in this case for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to focus their attention on removing the points of scandal that have inspired these monks to take the extreme position that they have, and then to attempt to reason with them in good faith, rather than resorting to the use of force at this point.
The shame of it all is that among the Old Calendarists there are many people who are very pious and devout, and were it not for the issues that have led them into schism, they would be great assets to the rest of the Church and contribute much to its strength. We should pray that they will see their error in their position, but we should also speak out against examples of modernism and ecumenism when we see them, because these things are not only a temptation that has led many into schism -- they are also things that could eventual divide the Church even further. The more we all embrace the Tradition of the Church, the more we will be united; but the more that people in the Church disregard that Tradition, the more division will be the result.
I would recommend that you read "Anti-Patristic: The Stance of the Zealot Old Calendarists, by Monk Basil of the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory (Grigoriou), Mount Athos.
I would also recommend you read "A Rejoinder to Hieromonk Patapios’ essay: “The Deficient Scholarship of Monk Basil’s Comments on the Allegedly Anti-Patristic Stand of the So-Called“Old Calendarist Zealots”.