By Robert Araraki, Ph.D
Saint Mark of Ephesus (c. 1392-1444) lived in times similar to ours. The Orthodox hierarchs were under pressure to modify their Orthodox beliefs at the Council of Florence (1438-1439) in order to secure a short-term advantage. The Orthodox laity, aghast at the betrayal of Sacred Tradition, rose up in protest and blocked the false ecumenism. The recent activities of Archbishop Elpidophoros and Patriarch Bartholomew bear an unsettling resemblance to the false ecumenism of the Council of Florence and have provoked criticism and opposition among the Orthodox laity.
In the early 1400s, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, had fallen on hard times. It had been attacked by Western Christians in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, who pillaged and raped the venerable Christian city. Then it suffered five decades (1204-1261) of Latin rule, during which the laity refused to attend churches served by Roman Catholic priests. When the Byzantines retook Constantinople, it was greatly enfeebled–a shadow of its former self. In contrast, the fortunes of the Roman Catholic West were on the rise with the affluence of the Italian Renaissance and the intellectual vigor of Aristotelian Scholasticism.
Even with the embittered relations between Catholics and Orthodox, there was a greater threat in the east. The Muslim armies were slowly conquering their way across Asia Minor towards Constantinople. The Byzantines were in desperate need of military assistance from the Catholic West. However, there was a catch—they needed to patch up their differences with the Catholic Church.
An Orthodox delegation comprised of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor, and other Orthodox hierarchs sailed to the reunion council at Florence (1438-1439). When the two sides met, it became apparent that they had drifted apart in matters of doctrine, worship practice, and theological method. The delegates clashed on the legitimacy of the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, the Catholics’ use of azymes (unleavened bread) and their practice of serving Communion in one kind to the laity (bread, but not the wine), the teaching on Purgatory, and the mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests. The differences were aggravated by differences in theological method. Where the Orthodox continued to rely on patristic sources, the Catholics relied heavily on the syllogistic style of argumentation favored in Thomist Scholasticism. Overarching all these issues was Rome’s claim to papal supremacy.
Being under considerable pressure, the majority of the Orthodox delegation made outright and implicit concessions to the Catholics and affixed their signature to the decree of union (Geanakoplos p. 334). The one holdout was Mark of Ephesus.
Mark of Ephesus and the Uprising of the Laity
When the delegation returned to Constantinople, they were met by a populace that was outraged that their hierarchs had yielded to the Roman Catholics. The people of Constantinople from the beginning sided with Mark of Ephesus. The pro-unionists found themselves in the minority. The laity shunned the churches where pro-union priests celebrated the Liturgy. Those who went to pro-union churches even out of curiosity found themselves ostracized. Mark of Ephesus led the anti-unionist forces until his death in 1444. In the face of ferocious lay opposition, the majority of hierarchs quickly repudiated their signing of the reunion documents. The remaining pro-union bishops fled to Rome.
In time, the Council of Florence would be rejected by wider Orthodoxy: by the Synod of Moscow in 1441, the Synod of Jerusalem in 1443, in the Apology of the Clergy of Constantinople in 1443, and the Synod of Constantinople in 1484 (Angelakopoulos, Cherniavsky). In addition, Florence was condemned through the special acts of the Churches of Moldavia and Moldavlachia, and Serbia and Iberia (Angelakopoulos). Thus, the repudiation of Florence by the Orthodox laity in Constantinople was later ratified by the Orthodox hierarchy in various church councils. In this way, the whole of the Orthodox Church repudiated the false union of Florence. The stature of Mark of Ephesus is such that his Encyclical is listed among the major doctrinal statements of the Orthodox Church (Ware p. 203).
False Ecumenism Today
Western Christianity today is in crisis. The Episcopal Church, like many mainline Protestant denominations, has succumbed to theological liberalism and has abandoned traditional Christian morality and come to accept the LGBTQ sexual agenda. A similar unraveling has been taking place in Roman Catholicism. Confidence in the Roman Catholic clergy has been shaken by reports of rampant sex scandals among priests, bishops, and even cardinals. The Novus Ordo Mass has supplanted the Latin Mass, opening the way for many liturgical innovations. More recently, in 2019, the Vatican allowed the inclusion of an Andean female deity, the Pachamama, in its worship (Flynn). In the face of the growing disarray in their churches and denominations, many Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics have sought safe harbor in Orthodoxy. They have been drawn by its ancient Liturgy, its unchanging Tradition, and the bravery of its martyrs who died willingly for the true Faith.
In order to make sense of Archbishop Elpidophoros’ recent ecumenical activities, it is proposed that we examine American Orthodoxy, not just theologically, but also sociologically. Despite the small but growing stream of converts, Orthodoxy in America is still predominantly ethnic in character. Many of the ethnic parishes struggle with nominalism. This is the problem of people being Orthodox in name only—rarely going to church, but insisting on having an Orthodox wedding or an Orthodox funeral. Many of the descendants of the first-generation immigrants have assimilated into mainstream American society and along the way have abandoned Orthodoxy for the mainline Protestant denominations or Roman Catholicism. This puts pressure on the hierarchs and priests to keep the numbers up. Oftentimes, someone who grew up Orthodox wants to marry someone who is not Orthodox and who has no desire to become Orthodox. Rather than have the person leave Orthodoxy, the priest will allow for mixed marriages, despite the fact that this is contrary to Orthodoxy (see Farley’s article below). As mixed marriages become widespread, the perception grows that Orthodoxy is just one denomination among many. This leads to awkwardness and tension when people learn of Orthodoxy’s claim to be the one true Church. A similar awkwardness arises when the priest is obligated to enforce the Orthodox Church’s position on closed Communion—that only those who are Orthodox may partake of the Eucharist. This puts pressure on the priest and his bishop to downplay Orthodoxy’s rigorous, exclusivist stance. Ecumenical engagement by the hierarchs in which historic doctrinal differences with the non-Orthodox are minimized or even eliminated can alleviate this awkwardness. Theological relativism makes it easier for the nominal Orthodox and their non-Orthodox spouses and children to participate in parish activities without having to commit to Orthodox doctrines and spiritual disciplines. What is to be noted is that, while theological rigor falls by the wayside, the traditional markers of ethnicity are retained, e.g., ethnic festivals, the language of the ethnic homeland, the name ‘ethnic’ Orthodox Church. These practical concerns can tempt Orthodox clergy to sell their spiritual birthright for the short-term benefits of ecumenism with the heterodox.
Another possibility to consider is that closer ties with the two major American denominations can give Constantinople a geopolitical advantage in its rivalry against the Patriarchate of Moscow. While Archbishop Elpidophoros heads the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the U.S., the fact remains that Orthodoxy is a tiny fish in a huge lake. Closer ties with the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church would enhance the Orthodox Church’s political influence. Elpidophoros’ superior, Patriarch Bartholomew, like Byzantine Emperor John VIII who initiated the failed Council of Florence, finds himself surrounded and beleaguered by hostile forces. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, after years of decline, finds itself confined to a few blocks in the predominantly Muslim city of Istanbul, Turkey. It was only last year (2020) that the Turkish state converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque over Patriarch Bartholomew’s feeble protests. In 2019, in an impetuous exercise of quasi-papal power, Bartholomew unilaterally issued a tomos granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine leading to ruptured relations with Moscow. Currying the favor and good will of the United States can give Constantinople an added advantage against Moscow. Conversely, Constantinople’s rivalry with the Patriarchate of Moscow over Ukraine provides an opportunity to be exploited by the United States as part of its Great Game against Russia.
Lessons for Today
The Council of Florence fiasco yields lessons that apply to today’s situation. Geanakoplos notes that the failure of the Council of Florence can be attributed to the fact that union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy was viewed as a means to political ends while religious sincerity was overlooked (p. 325). Also overlooked was the formative impact of the Latin occupation of Constantinople following the Fourth Crusade. The Orthodox laity remembered vividly life under papal rule and so their fear and hostility to Roman Catholicism was very real and existential (Geanakoplos, pp. 332-333). It seems that Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Elpidophoros have forgotten the lessons of Florence. They are fixated on the short-term benefits from rapprochement with the West. They fail to take into account the experience of the recent converts to Orthodoxy, who converted out of religious sincerity, not with the expectation of material gain. The converts know from first-hand experience the problems of Western Christianity and its deviant teachings. It is no surprise then that they are deeply distressed by the false ecumenism being espoused by the hierarchs. It is hoped that today’s Orthodox laity will take a stand for Holy Orthodoxy as did Saint Mark of Ephesus and the laity of Constantinople.
The Danger of Complicit Silence
In the 1400s, the threat to Orthodoxy came from the outside. Today the threat is coming from within, from our hierarchs who are promoting false ecumenism by means of stealth and creeping change. This stealth strategy has proven to be effective in mainline Protestantism and also in Roman Catholicism. It worked because most people are reluctant to stand up vocally to their church leadership. In addition, there is the fear of losing friends or employment.
Another danger is complacency. This is the attitude of smug satisfaction with the present situation or a reluctance to face up to the fact that there is a crisis. In present circumstances, quiet passivity will be taken as endorsement. It will then be interpreted by the hierarchs as license to take more flagrant steps away from Holy Tradition. We are in a situation similar to an apartment complex where there is a burning odor in the air. People ought to be pulling on the fire alarm or at least knocking on their neighbors’ doors, asking if they smell something funny. The time has come for the laity to raise the alarm—to call out “Fire!” Express to your priest your concerns about this false ecumenism and ask if he plans to voice this concern with others. Contact your Orthodox friends and let them know your concerns. Let us work together and mobilize to block this false ecumenism, just as the Orthodox laity did in the time of Mark of Ephesus. If enough Orthodox laity take a stand for Holy Tradition, we can help restore stability to our Holy Mother Church.
by Robert Arakaki
M.A., Church History; Ph.D. Political Science
Asian-American convert to Orthodoxy
Angelos Angelakopoulos. “How Orthodoxy Overcame the False-Synod of Ferrara-Florence.” In SotiriosNaus. Lecture delivered in Sofia, Bulgaria, 9-10 June 2017.
Michael Cherniavsky. “The Reception of the Council of Florence in Moscow.” Church History, vol. 24 no. 4 (1955), pp. 347-359.
J.D. Flynn. “Analysis: Why ‘Pachamama’ took a dip.” (CNA) Catholic News Agency, 26 October 2019.
Lawrence Farley. “Mixed Marriages.” In No Other Foundation blog, 4 May 2020.
Deno J. Geanakoplos. “The Council of Florence (1438-1439) and the Problem of Union between the Greek and Latin Churches.” Church History, vol. 24 no. 4 (1955), pp. 324-346.
Mark of Ephesus. “The Encyclical Letter of Saint Mark of Ephesus.”
OrthodoxChristian. “Patriarch Bartholomew Tells Athonites Reunion With Catholics is Inevitable, Reports UOJ.” In OrthodoxChristian.com 27 November 2019.
Steven Runciman. The Fall of Constantinople 1453, pp. 16-18.
Timothy Ware. The Orthodox Church, pp. 70-71.
Lawrence B. Wheeler. “Really, Your Eminence?” Handwritings on the Wall (weborthodox.com), 26 June 2021.