To Leave or Not to Leave One’s Church

by Sister Vassa Larin

exit sign
Image: iStock.com/Cristian Guiton

“…For there must be also heresies/divisions among you, that they which are approved/tested-and-proved-reliable may be made manifest among you.” (1 Cor 11: 19)

In this “Time of Troubles” of the Orthodox Church, many Orthodox Christians, particularly those in the Moscow Patriarchate, are contemplating either changing “jurisdictions” or taking a time out from the whole church thing. I find the above-quoted passage helpful in this context, because it reminds me that our dire state of church affairs is nothing new, nor even unusual. It is inherent to the historical reality that is “Church” or “ekklesia” (from the Greek verb ekkaleo, which means “to call out,” so as Church we are those “called out” by God and are responding to that call, according to our various vocations). Today we are “called out” or challenged in a special way, to re-discover what “Church” truly is, and who we truly are, as Church. Now is an “apocalyptic” time for our Church, in the literal sense of the word “apocalyptic,” which means “revelatory.” What is being revealed to us, first of all, is what “Church” is, and what it is not. Secondly, “we” are being revealed or “made manifest,” as the holy Apostle says, as to how reliable we are, as Church, or members thereof.

Historical Background

For many centuries, we in the Orthodox Church(es) have increasingly “episcopized” our vision of the Church, reducing it to a thing defined by the doings, sayings and geographical/canonical territories of bishops. At the same time, we, both the laity and “lower” clergy, have largely remained just a sort of audience of all those goings-on of the bishops, as if we were not equally responsible for carrying the cross of Church-being or being Church. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this question, of the gradual “episcopization” of the Orthodox Church in Late and Post-Byzantium, as manifested in the development of the Byzantine hierarchical liturgy in the Greek, Kyivan, and Muscovite liturgical traditions. That is to say, it’s an issue with which I have been grappling for years. Now, in our Time of Troubles, I think that the problem with an “episcopized” vision of Church is being revealed most poignantly. It’s collapsing, like a house of cards, as we scurry either to change “jurisdiction,” to one in which the bishop(s) are behaving better than ours; or we are sitting out this storm and keeping quiet, either at home or (if we still go to church) within our parish. I am not criticizing any of these short-term strategies for survival in the Orthodox Church today, by the way, but for our long-term survival as Church, I think we need to rethink our understanding of what “Church” is, so that we can grow, rather than be diminished, as Church. We will be diminished, I think, if we fail to respond to the challenge or crisis at hand in a productive way. And I think that the “productive way” to respond is to deepen our understanding of “Church,” and our dignifying role in it, rather than dismissing ourselves from that role.

The Mystery/Sacrament of “Church”

What is “Church”? In Holy Scripture, it is often compared to a marriage or to a marriage/wedding feast (Eph 5: 25ff, Mt 25: 1ff, etc.). The Mystery/Sacrament of the Church and the Mystery/Sacrament of Marriage (called “Crowning” in Orthodox tradition) are both sacraments of unity; of complicated, oft-difficult unity. Let’s think about that. When we are baptized into the Church (by being immersed into the death and burial of Christ, and then rising out of the baptismal waters into new life in Him), or are “crowned” (like martyrs!) into a marriage, we are “sacri-ficed” or “made holy” (because “sacri-fice,” from the Latin words sacer + facere, means “making holy”). We allow ourselves, voluntarily, to die to our “self” in a certain way, in both these Mysteries/Sacraments, in order to join a certain, larger-than-ourselves, Unity. This makes us holy, this “sacrificial” unity. By “holy” I mean that mystifying aspect of our Triune God, “holiness,” Who is the source of “holiness,” as the “One (Who is) Holy.” Because He “is” in communion, within the Holy Trinity, rather than Self-isolated or on His own, in His timeless and unchangeable existence.

The History of the Mystery of “Church”

But our existence is not timeless or unchangeable in “this world.” We experience time and change, so our communion(s) and communities and also our marital bonds sometimes break, with or without our own culpability for that development. The Orthodox Church, differently from the Roman Catholic Church, in the case of marriage, has allowed for divorce in certain cases, and not only in the case of adultery. Despite Mt 5: 31-32, where Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of porneia (sexual immorality), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Here is an example of the Orthodox Church’s not fundamentalist approach to Scripture and awareness of historical reality, like the reality of our human brokenness and our inability, in some cases, to carry on in broken relationships; when our brokenness cannot carry the brokenness of another. We need not carry on in, say, an abusive relationship/marriage. I will suggest, parenthetically, that the Orthodox Church’s openness to “this world” is also expressed in its allowance for married priests. Our Church allows for its ordained men to be “married” not only to the Church, but also to the not-ordained, women. This is an extraordinary thing, if you think about it. But I can’t explore that further here.

What I want to explore is how the Orthodox Church’s allowance for divorce, in some cases, relates to the “divorce” of an Orthodox Christian from his or her church parish, say, in our day, when we decide to change “jurisdictions.” I want to point out that there is an allowance also for this, in Orthodox tradition, because the sacrament/mystery of the Church “works” like the sacrament of Marriage. But: the “divorce” (from one’s church community) cannot be done lightly, just like divorce cannot be done lightly, as everyone knows, because it is so often devastating for everyone involved. “Sticking it out” and sacrificially contributing to healing the relationship is something we as Church might do better to contribute to. But our Church is not good at ministering either to broken marriages or to the divorced—but that is also a separate topic, on which I can’t write here.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me say a few words in support of “sticking it out” within one’s own church community, at this Time of Troubles. I, for one, am not going anywhere, from my “jurisdiction,” which happens to be the ROCOR (the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), also known as ROCA (the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad). Why am I not leaving, even while we commemorate Patriarch Kirill, and many of our clergy sympathize with Putinism? Because I love my Church. That’s my best answer. And as I’ve said jokingly, you can’t take the “broad” out of the Russian Orthodox Church A-broad, just like you can’t take the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad out of the “broad.” I do feel quite devastated by the whole situation, and I do feel betrayed by the utter failure of some of my “fathers” to discern the truth of this horrible war in Ukraine. I have not been able to post my usual reflections on Scripture on social media, nor have I updated our coffeewithsistervassa.com website, since the war began. I have been at a loss for words, frankly, and instead I’ve been focusing on helping a Ukrainian refugee family here in Vienna, which has been a great blessing to me; this opportunity somehow to help the situation has been healing to me. And as I move forward, I see my now more-difficult vocation as witnessing to the truth within my beloved Church, however insignificant that witness is, or how uncomfortable for me, or whether it matters to anyone. I could just leave, but I don’t think, in my case, that leaving my “marriage” to this Church is warranted. I think that God calls me to love, and to truthful witness, to my church family, and that’s where I will remain. I also embrace the promise of St. Paul, quoted at the beginning of this post, that I might become one of the “approved” or in Greek the dokimoi, if I stand in truth at this time of divisions. Thank you to those of you who have read this to the end. “Let us love one another, that we may with one mind confess, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”


Sister Vassa Larin is a scholar of Orthodox liturgy and founder of Coffee with Sister Vassa.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.