A New Year Message: Flee Extremes!

One of my favourite photographs in our Church hall shows the Serb St Justin of Chelije standing side by side with the Romanian Fr Cleopa (Ilie). The former lived and became a saint on the old calendar. The latter, his saintly fellow-ascetic, lived on the new calendar. Despite his views that this calendar was an error, he naturally, as all must, preferred humble obedience to the pride of schism. The photograph shows the balance that I have always sought, away from the ridiculous extremes of the trolls, be they naïve and deluded amateurs or paid and hardened professionals. Although I have only ever seen physical violence from two old calendarists, it is today the new calendarist ones who are the most violent verbally, even to the point of issuing a death-threat. It is interesting that such people call themselves Orthodox Christians!

Looking back at controversies in the USA in the late sixties, seventies and onwards, the state of polarization between those on the old calendar and the new calendar made such photographs and such harmony impossible. Why? Because of extremism, that is, not so much because of the old calendar and the new calendar as because of old calendarism and new calendarism. The dread isms again. In the 70s and 80s I met representatives of the two groups, who summed up the two extremes for me. One was Bishop Gregory (Grabbe), an old calendarist. I met him and discovered in him an incredible and depressing negativity. He later died tragically, in a sect outside the Church. The other was Fr Alexander Schmemann, a new calendarist. I met him in 1980 when he was dressed as an American businessman and discovered that he was a chain-smoker who was not strong-willed enough to give up the deadly habit.

The old calendarist tendency was profoundly negative and gloomy, indeed depressing. It appeared to have no hope, mankind was doomed, almost Calvinistically. (And Calvin is a heretic). Everything new was bad, mankind faced the Apocalypse tomorrow. Possible salvation could come only through hiding out in ghettos. For the rest of the world there was only criticism and censorious condemnation; conspiracy theories thrived. This was the ideology of the sect and the pharisee. The attitude to regular communion was singularly negative – only with the strictest preparation could it possibly be contemplated. I remember well being told that I was unacceptable to membership of such groups – apart from being the wrong nationality (!), I was too young and too well-educated. Two cardinal sins, ‘unforgivable’, as one such senior and very elderly ‘Christian’ said to me in 1986! I was certainly destined for hellfire.

The new calendarist tendency was over-positive and over-optimistic to the point of fantasy. Everything was possible, the modernist fantasy of salvation for all (the heresy of Origenism, so beloved of Protestants claiming to be Orthodox) was on the agenda; no room for gloom and doom here. With an unreal ideology, it was over-open to the world, wanting somehow wanting to merge the Church with it, it was ecumenically-minded, wanted to revolutionize and change everything and had only spite for those who thought otherwise. The attitude to communion was singularly positive – it was more or less open to all without any preparation at all. I remember being welcomed on first meeting members of such groups – I was young and well-educated. As to whether I believed in anything, that seemed to be totally irrelevant. Far from the dark, all was light. With them I was certainly destined for heaven.

The two things that both tendencies had in common were intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

Looking back, as a Non-American, ironically I see in the culture of Bishop Gregory (Grabbe) and Fr Alexander Schmemann, both apparently Russians, the extremes of American culture. Bishop Gregory appeared not so much to represent Russian Orthodoxy as New England doom and gloom Calvinism (Let us remember that the Calvinists left England because of their intolerance). The world was predestined to perish and there was no hope. Ahead there was only darkness. Fr Alexander, as his Swiss cousin, a faithful of ROCOR, said to me in 1989, had ‘become a Protestant’. For him, in typical 60s, Kennedy-like fashion, the future was with the young and everything was possible for such ‘All-Americans’, as can be heard in SVS recordings of the time. Sometimes Fr Alexander sounded like a US self-help manual: ‘Just do it’ seemed to be his slogan.

All of this was alien to sceptical Europeans who found such Americans naïve and extreme. Fortunately, both tendencies are now dying out, apart from among the to be ignored, anonymous trolls, as we mentioned above. Thus, the extremist fringes and margins of the Church Outside Russia, infected by old calendarist sectarianism, have gone, just as the extremist fringes and margins of the Orthodox Church in America are apparently being buried with the plastic 1960s, where they came from. The Church, now in unity with the freed Church inside Russia, has moved on and both extremes now seem hopelessly old-fashioned, museum-pieces, indeed, totally irrelevant to the new generations.

The extremes forgot that Christ is both the Merciful Saviour and the Just Judge, that both Truth and Mercy are met together (Ps 84, 11). To the old calendarists let us recall that we are called to save the one lost sheep among the ninety-nine (Luke 15), that, as the proverb says, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, that repentance happens even on the death-bed, for God does not want the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 33, 11) and with Him all things are possible (Luke 18). To the new calendarists let us recall that death is the one thing inevitable, that the Apocalypse and the Second Coming are drawing closer with the passing of every single day, that the Last Judgement will certainly follow and that not all will be saved, for not all will repent.