St Vincent, of course, declares a fundamental Orthodox doctrine when he says: "interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent.â
But, as John rightly asks, who can say what is the âCatholic and Universal Churchâ?
Severusâ proposal that âAbiding in communion with those ancient apostolic sees which have jealously guarded the integrity of the faithâ will give some guarantee of Orthodoxy is an excellent theory, but demonstrably unrealistic. Rome, for example, is one of the most ancient apostolic sees and claims that being in union with it guarantees faithfulness to Catholic teaching; not a position the Orthodox would accept.
Orthodox sees, ancient and more recent, have not been consistent exemplars of Orthodox doctrine or practice, and one could cite numerous examples from both ancient and modern times of heterodoxy in their teachings and actions. But, more importantly, to assume Orthodoxy can be identified with communion with a Patriarch is an example of the (essentially Roman) heresy of what I would call âautocratic clericalismâ. Truth is not defined by a person (Roman claims notwithstanding) but by The Church. The People of God, the âPriesthood of all believersâ, have a critical role in the preservation of Orthodox Tradition although they are all too often given second or third class status behind Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and theologians. And are often seen as, at best, impolite or, at worst, schismatic if they challenge heterodox teaching or practice in the clergy.
I agree with St Vincent: universality, antiquity, and consent are the key principles, and sometimes can, and ought to, set the People of God to challenge the authorities of the Church as a worldly institution.
Orthodoxy has generally not sought (with a few fanatical exceptions) to define the limits of the Church too specifically in worldly terms, or to set too many rigid tests for membership (or, conversely, for exclusion). It is not my responsibility as an Orthodox Priest to wander round identifying those who are not members of the Orthodox Church! Happily, I cannot read minds and hearts, and do not speak for God! The incomprehensible generosity of God in the Incarnation requires that I am also generous, rather than judgmental.
There are beliefs and practices which are incompatible with Orthodoxy, and there are beliefs and practices which are necessary in Orthodoxy. There are even more beliefs and practices which might be described as âoptionalâ and which neither define nor preclude a person as being Orthodox.
Following St Vincent, we should be cautious in accepting that which is not characterised by universality, antiquity and consent â even when it appears to be widespread, to have had a long history (which is not quite what is meant by antiquity), and to be all but universal in the Church. Some heterodox doctrines (notably ethnocentrism or phyletism) have been all but universal in Orthodoxy for many centuries (antiquity) and has been supported by every apostolic see at some time (universality and consent). But such doctrines are and remain heresy for all that.