‘Members Only’: The Church is not a Club

It is well-known that small parts of the Church can degenerate into sects and cults. This can happen when a church is small, set up in private chapels or domestic dwellings, and also when there is no local bishop (stavropegic churches) or where there is contact with only one bishop in a very small diocese. Here it is vital that clergy and people alike have a consciousness of the synodality and broad catholicity of the Church, of what goes on outside their little world, – a particular and shocking problem on a small island like Britain.

Sects can be defined as small groups which put forward a personal opinion or opinions as Church dogma. For example, you may the find the sect of those who only use olive oil in lamps, or only use beeswax in candles, or only have handpainted icons, or in which all men have long hair and beards and all women wear a uniform of long dresses, and which condemn all others who do otherwise. To the normal, outside the sect, all this seems strange, but those inside the cult are cut off from normality and imagine that the4y are normal. Such is fantasy.

Cults can be defined as small groups which put forward a personality in place of Christ, ‘Apollo’ or ‘Cephas’, see I Cor 1, 12. If the personality is strong, self-willed or particularly ambitious, the cult becomes even more well-defined and isolated. Soon intolerance of others is bred and the cult becomes sectarian, casting out and condemning others, often with curious customs or its own uniform. Cults were a particular danger during the Cold War period in the lives of Moscow Patriarchal parishes outside Russia due to their isolation, but not only here.

All sects and cults, ‘private churches’, eventually die out, though it can take time. They generally become increasingly decadent as time goes by – thus sects often become cultish and cults sectarian, especially if the cult founder has died. There is a particular danger in an island like Britain and among ex-Anglicans. Anglicanism can often resemble an insular, middle-class club, with no concept of concelebration and a profound, if often unconscious, racism. However, this bourgeois mentality can also be found among the Continental-based Rue Daru splinter group.

We have already said that it is vital that there be a consciousness of the catholicity of the Church. This has been a problem in an immigrant splinter group, the OCA, in North America. Isolated and with its canonicity not accepted by most Orthodox in North America, some parts of it have wandered far from the Orthodox Tradition. Consciouness of the catholicity of the Church is manifested not by passively being in communion (everyone in the canonical Orthodox Church is in communion with one another), but by actively concelebrating.