On the Question of the Order of Reception of Persons into the Orthodox Church, Coming to Her from Other Christian Churches

By Archimandrite Ambrosius (Pogodin)

Originally published in Russian in Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniya
(Messenger of the Russian Christian Movement)
Paris-New York-Moscow, Nos. 173 (I-1996) and 174 (II-1996/I-1997).

Translated with permission of the author by Alvian N. Smirensky

Translation Copyright © 2000 Alvian N. Smirensky. All Rights Reserved.
Publication Copyright © 2000. All Rights Reserved.
For information on re-publication write to webmaster@holy-trinity.org

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- FOUR -

How the question of receiving non-Orthodox is resolved by the Orthodox Churches in the United States and Canada.

Decisions on this question and some conclusions.

In contemporary times there are two distinct understandings of how to receive non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church.

The first method, which Greeks refer to as "Russian" consists of dividing non-Orthodox into three categories for the purposes of conversion. In the first category, those who convert are baptized. In the second, they are chrismated. In the third, they are received by the rite of repentance, a repudiation of heresy and confession of the Orthodox Faith. As has been demonstrated above, this practice is based on the canons of the Ecumenical Councils, on the direct authority of St. Mark of Ephesus, the Constantinople Council of 1484, the decisions of the Moscow Councils of 1655 and especially of 1667, the decisions of the Holy Council of 1718 as well as later decisions and directives of the Holy Ruling Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is true that there was a time in the Russian Church when Roman Catholics (and Protestants) were received into Orthodoxy by means of baptism, but throughout the thousand year history of the Russian Church this was only in effect for 45 to 47 years after which that practice of receiving all non-Orthodox without distinction was condemned and repealed once and for all. As a result, three forms or rites were developed for receiving non-Orthodox into the bosom of the Orthodox Church.

In the second method, any and all non-Orthodox are received by baptism followed by chrismation. This was adopted by the Greeks at the Council of Constantinople in 1756 and is described in the Pedalion.

Not a single non-Greek Orthodox Church adopted this practice. Instead, the non-Greek Orthodox Churches firmly adhering to that practice, which is designated as "Russian."

In recent times, the Patriarchate of Constantinople rescinded the use of the second method and now receives non-Orthodox by means of the "Russian" rite.

All of the Greek Old Calendarist jursidictions (of which there are at least seven), both in the United States and in Greece, adhere to the "Greek" rite for the reception of non-Orthodox into Orthodoxy, i.e., exclusively by means of baptism as this was decreed by the 1756 Council in Constantinople. This "Greek" practice, with certain modifications, and the turning away from the "Russian" practice, recently became the rule for the Russian Church Abroad, according to the decision of the Council of Bishops on September 15/28 1971. The complete text of that decision will be given at the end of this chapter.

The Orthodox Church in America (the former "American Metropolia"), founded by Russian missionaries and later forming a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church with its center first in San Francisco and then in New York, and which for a time had as her diocesan bishop the future [Saint] Patriarch Tikhon, inherited the traditions of the Russian Church with respect to the rite for the reception of the non-Orthodox converting to the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church in America receives non-Orthodox by three rites:

  1. Those converting from Judaism, paganism, and Islam, as well as those who distort or do not accept the dogma of the Holy Trinity, or where the baptism is performed by a single immersion, by means of baptism.

  2. Those whose baptism was valid but who either do not have sacrament of chrismation or who lack a hierarchy with apostolic succession (or if it is questionable), by means of chrismation. This group includes Lutherans, Calvinists and Episcopalians (Anglicans).

  3. Those whose hierarchy has apostolic succession and whose baptism and chrismation (or confirmation) was performed in their church, by means of repentance and repudiation of heresy, following instruction in Orthodoxy. This group includes persons of the Roman Catholic and Armenian confessions. If it happens that they were not chrismated or confirmed in their churches or if there is any question about this, they are anointed with the Holy Chrism.

Exactly the same rules are found in all the non-Greek Orthodox Churches in America and Canada.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople itself has radically moved away from the spirit which motivated the decisions of the 1756 Council in Constantinople. In its "Circular Epistle to all Christian Churches" in 1920 the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople appealed to all Christian Churches with a proposal to do everything to set aside the mutual mistrust between the churches. Instead, the feelings of love must be regenerated and it must be intensified so the churches would not look upon each other as strangers or even as enemies, but would see in each other their own kin and friends in Christ. The epistle proposes that there would be mutual respect for the customs and practices which are particular to each of the churches which are graced by Christ’s holy name, no longer forgetting and not ignoring His "new commandment", that great commandment of mutual love.[96]

During the last session of the Second Vatican Council at the end of December 1965 there was an announcement by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman Pope and the Second Vatican Council about the mutual lifting of the anathemas which were "exchanged" between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church during that tragic year of 1054, the year of the great division of Churches.[97]

In the chapter "On Ecumenism" in the collected documents and decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the Orthodox Church is spoken of with exceptional warmth. As one who was present at the Second Vatican Council in the capacity of an official observer from the Russian Church Abroad, I can be a witness to the exceptionally cordial and attentive relations towards all of the observers from the Orthodox Churches on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. To be sure, how firm those relations were, remains under question.

Following the Second Vatican Council an agreement was worked out between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Church that, in the case of extreme need and in the complete absence of their clergy, members of the Roman Church could receive the Holy Mysteries in Russian Churches and likewise, the Orthodox in Roman Catholic Churches.[98] We have no knowledge whether this agreement was realized in practice or whether it only remains on paper. Not a single Orthodox Church, with the exception of the Russian Church Abroad, reproached the Patriarch of Moscow for this decision which was called forth by the terrible times and persecutions of Christians under godless regimes.[99] Nonetheless this decision has not been rescinded even now, and the recently printed catechism of the Roman Church published with the blessing of Pope John Paul II speaks of the full recognition of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church. However, there is no doubt that as the result of the proselytism among the traditionally Orthodox population — by Roman Catholics and by Protestants — to which the Orthodox Church reacts with great distress, as well as on the repression against the Orthodox in Western Ukraine and even in Poland — there is no longer that warmth and cordiality towards the Orthodox as there was during the Second Vatican Council and for some time afterwards. However, the incisive question today is this: Has there been any change in the practice of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran Churches with respect to their sacrament of baptism? And the answer is this: Nothing has changed. Thus, our Churches (with the exception of the Russian Church Abroad), recognize the sacrament of baptism performed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans as valid.

So, to return to the subject at hand, we repeat that the Patriarchate of Constantinople and its Exarchates in America and in Europe have adopted that practice for the reception of non-Orthodox to Orthodoxy, which the Greeks call "Russian," and effectively rejected the decision of the 1756 Council of Constantinople (which was motivated by intolerance) and the explanation in the Pedalion.

Thus, in the "Guide for the Orthodox in Connection with Contacts with the Non-Orthodox Churches," published in 1966 by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, recommended for guidance by the clergy of our Orthodox Churches, the following rule is given:

"Upon the reception into the Orthodox Church of one who converts of his own will from non-Orthodoxy, the priest receives the candidate by means of one of three rites, prescribed by the Quinisext Ecumenical Council: by means of Baptism, Chrismation or the confession of faith, depending on the case."[100]

In the "Instructions for the Relations with Non-Orthodox Churches," published by the same Conference in 1972, we read the same rule concerning the reception of the non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church, i.e., "Those non-Orthodox converting to Orthodoxy who were baptized in their churches can be received without a repetition of baptism if such could be accepted by the Orthodox, i.e., by means of chrismation or the confession of the Orthodox Faith, according to the rite appropriate for the given situation."[101]

This rite is found in the "Guidelines" of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, pp. 53-55. Or one can use that rite, which was printed in Russia and is found in the Book of Needs: "The Office for Receiving into the Orthodox Faith such persons as have not previously been Orthodox, but have been reared from infancy outside the Orthodox Church, yet have received valid baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." This rite has been translated into English and can be found in the book published with the blessing of the [Saint] Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon: Isabel Florence Hapgood, "Orthodox Service Book," 1954 ed., p. 454ff.

We see from Church history that it was the lot of the dissident sects such as Novatians, Montanists and Donatists to re-baptize those converting to them. Considering themselves "pure" and "better" and seeing themselves as the only ones who will be saved, they abhorred everyone else. They could have earned respect because of their high moral demands, but pride did them in. They cut themselves from the main body of the Church where life and grace did abide, and thus completely died out within a short period of time. "The Lord resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble" (Prov. 3:34 LXX). Even in Russia, certain dissidents, especially the Priestless Old Ritualists, likewise performed re-baptism on the Orthodox if they converted to them. The humble, kind, compassionate, benevolent and condescending Orthodox Church possessed and possesses and will continue to possess Grace and along with it, the vitality and the strength to be magnanimous. That re-baptism, which the heretics and the dissidents performed upon the Orthodox, harbored within it their inner weakness. The strong and righteous is not afraid to be magnanimous, but the weak and unrighteous cannot permit this for himself. As we have seen, in ancient times (particularly in the Third century) and within the Orthodox Church there have been tendencies to re-baptize dissidents who convert to the Orthodox Church. But the Church decisively opposed this, forbidding, with her canons, the re-baptism of those who were validly baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. The Ecumenical Councils, the Second and especially the Sixth, directed by their decisions, who should be received into Orthodoxy by means of baptism, who — by means of chrismation and who — by means of repentance, the repudiation of heresy and confession of the Orthodox Faith. By this it piously maintained the rule about the non-repetition of a valid baptism even if it was performed outside the Orthodox Church. In Russia, as we have later seen, for a short time it was decreed to receive all non-Orthodox by means of baptism. But this "re-baptism" called for by the horrors of those times was as something erroneous quickly rescinded once and for all by the councils and decrees of the Holy Russian Church. Finally, as we have seen the patriarchate of Constantinople factually rejected that radical decree about the re-baptism all non-Orthodox converting to Orthodoxy, pronounced by the 1756 Council in Constantinople.

Each of the Orthodox Church’s mysteries has a dogmatic side. Forms may change and the canons may be amended, but their dogmatic aspects remains immutable, For example, the forms of the Divine Liturgy changed during the course of centuries, but the dogmatic essence of the Divine Liturgy remained and remains without change namely, that under the appearance of bread and wine we receive the True Body and Blood of Christ, which change takes place through the sacred action of the bishop or the priest. Thus, in the mystery of baptism its dogmatic foundation, its substance is that it is performed by triple immersion (or by its equivalent)[102] pronouncing each of the Persons of the Divine Trinity, individually, and then — in the non-repetition of this mystery, since it was the spiritual birth of the Christian into eternal life in Christ. Just as our birth in the flesh occurs only once, so does our spiritual birth occurs only once in the mystery of baptism. This non-repetition of valid baptism, as a dogma, is sealed for all times in the Symbol of Faith: "I believe . . . in one Baptism." Even if the baptism was performed in a non-Orthodox church, but in the same form as it is performed among the Orthodox, it is accepted, according to the canons of the Ecumenical Councils.[103] The Blessed Augustine wrote that the sacrament of baptism was instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and even the perversion (perversitas) of the heretics does not deprive that sacrament of its veracity and validity. Thus it follows that re-baptism violates the dogmatic principle of the non-repetition of baptism.[104]

In September 1971, the Russian Church Abroad, rejecting the "Russian" practice for the reception of non-Orthodox, adopted the "Greek" practice, i.e., the practice followed by the Greek Old Calendarists, based on the decisions of the 1765 Council in Constantinople, decreeing that all non-Orthodox Christians converting to the Orthodox Faith must be received exclusively by means of baptism permitting only "for reasons of necessity" their reception by another rite, but only with permission from the diocesan hierarch.

This decision of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad of 15/28 September 1971 reads:[105]

"On the question of the baptism of heretics who accept Orthodoxy, the following decree was adopted: The Holy Church has believed from time immemorial that there can be only one true baptism, namely that which is performed in her bosom: ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ (Eph. 4:5) In the Symbol of Faith there is also confessed ‘one baptism,’ and the 46th Canon of the Holy Apostles directs: ‘A bishop or a presbyter who has accepted (i.e., acknowledges) the baptism or the sacrifice of heretics, we command to be deposed.’

"However when the zeal of some heretics in their struggle against the Church diminished and when the question arose about a massive conversion to Orthodoxy, the Church, to facilitate their conversion, received them into her bosom by another rite. St Basil the Great in his First Canon, which was included in the canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, points to the existence of different practices for receiving heretics in different lands. He explains that any separation from the Church deprives one of grace and writes about the dissidents: ‘Even though the departure began through schism, however, those departing from the Church already lacked the grace of the Holy Spirit. The granting of grace has ceased because the lawful succession has been cut. Those who left first were consecrated by the Fathers and through the laying on of their hands had the spiritual gifts. But, they became laymen and had no power to baptize nor to ordain and could not transmit to others the grace of the Holy Spirit from which they themselves fell away. Therefore, the ancients ruled regarding those that were coming from schismatics to the Church as having been baptized by laymen, to be cleansed by the true baptism of the Church.’ However, ‘for the edification of many’ St. Basil does not object to other rites for receiving the dissident Cathars in Asia. About the Encratites he writes, that ‘this could be a hindrance to the general good order’ and a different rite could be used, explaining this: ‘But I am afraid of putting an impediment to the saved, while I would raise fears in them concerning their baptism.’

"Thus, St Basil the Great, and by his words the Ecumenical Council, while establishing the principle that outside the Holy Orthodox Church there is no valid baptism, allows through pastoral condescension, called economy, the reception of some heretics and dissidents without a new baptism. On the basis of this principle the Ecumenical Councils allowed the reception of heretics by different rites, in response to the weakening of their hostility against the Orthodox Church.

"The Kormchaya Kniga gives an explanation for this by Timothy of Alexandria. On the question ‘Why do we not baptize heretics converting to the Catholic Church?’ his response is: ‘If this were so, a person would not quickly turn from heresy, not wanting to be shamed by receiving baptism (i.e., second baptism). However, the Holy Spirit would come through the laying on of hands and the prayer of the presbyter, as is witnessed in the Acts of the Apostles.’

"With regard to Roman Catholics and those Protestants who claim to have preserved baptism as a sacrament (for example, the Lutherans). In Russia since the time of Peter I the practice was introduced of receiving them without baptism, through a renunciation of heresy and the chrismation of Protestants and unconfirmed Catholics. Before Peter, Catholics were baptized in Russia. In Greece, the practice has also varied, but after almost 300 years after a certain interruption, the practice of baptizing converts from Catholicism and Protestantism was reintroduced. Those received by any other way have (sometimes) not been recognized in Greece as Orthodox. In many cases such children of our Russian Church were not even admitted to Holy Communion.

"Having in view this circumstance and also the current growth of the ecumenist heresy, which attempts to completely erase any difference between Orthodoxy and any heresy — so that the Moscow Patriarchate, notwithstanding the holy canons, has even issued a decree permitting Roman Catholics to receive communion (in certain cases) — the Sobor of Bishops acknowledges the need to introduce a stricter practice, i.e., to baptize all heretics who come to the Church, and only because of special necessity and with permission of the bishop it is allowed, under the application of economy or pastoral condescension, to use a different method with respect to certain persons, i.e., the reception of Roman Catholics, and Protestants who perform baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, by means of repudiation of heresy and Chrismation." ("Church Life," July-December 1971, pp. 52-54)

As one who does not belong to the clergy of the Russian Church Abroad, I do not consider myself to have the right to comment on this decision.

Footnotes and Endnotes

Web Editor's note: the original publication had both footnotes and endnotes. For Internet publication all notes have been converted to endnotes.

[96] Guidelines for the Orthodox in Ecumenical Relations, 1966, pp. 8-13. Back to referring section.

[97] See Appendix One. Back to referring section.

[98] See Appendix Two. Back to referring section.

[99] See Appendix Three. Back to referring section.

[100] See note one. Back to referring section.

[101] Ecumenical Guidelines, 1972, p. 11.. Back to referring section.

[102] See Appendix Four. Back to referring section.

[103] Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council; Canon 95 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Back to referring section.

[104] De baptismo, lib. V, cc. 2-3-4, Z.D. 43. Back to referring section.

[105] This document was originally translated into English and published in Orthodox Life, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1979, pp. 35-43. At the time of this publication, it is available in that version at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/strictness.htm. Back to referring section.

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Introductory Notes - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Appendices