On the Truth of the Old Calendar

Dear Friends in Christ,

I’d like to wish you all a Happy New Year and especially a Merry Christmas! For some of you reading this bulletin, you will have already celebrated the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25 with the civil, Gregorian, or “New” Calendar, while others are among those Orthodox who celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7 with the Julian or “Old” Calendar. Some people have expressed an interest in understanding the difference between the Old and New Calendar Greek Churches, so I thought I’d take an opportunity to do so now since Christmas is the time of year when this difference is most noticeable.

It must be stated at the onset that this issue cannot be explained succinctly in a few pages, so at the end of this message I will provide some links. I am also available to answer anyone’s questions via email or telephone.

The commonly understood argument as to why the Gregorian Calendar was implemented was to fix the astronomical inaccuracy which was causing the Julian Calendar to shift by roughly one day every century. By the 16th century, the Pope’s astronomers had noticed that the equinox had shifted approximately ten days. Therefore, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII issued the bull Inter gravissimas which cut off ten days to realign the calendar with the equinox. The Pope invited the Orthodox to accept this revision, but the Orthodox rejected the change, seeing it as part of a wider program of Latin influences on the Orthodox Church. This formal statement is known as the Sigillion of 1583 and was signed by three patriarchs in the presence of various other bishops gathered in council.

The Orthodox steadfastly refused to change the Calendar since it was the Calendar that had been instituted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and had been sanctified by use in the Church for all succeeding generations. Arguments about astronomical accuracy were not considered serious objections because the Julian Calendar was the Calendar that perfectly suited the Orthodox cycle of fasts and feasts and was an icon of time, uniting all Orthodox of all generations together in a common cycle.

Things were fine until the modern era in Greece began. An encyclical letter was issued in 1920 by the patriarchate of Constantinople entitled “To the Churches of Christ Wherever They May Be” which proposed a series of proposals for Church unity of Orthodox with non-Orthodox, the first of which was to establish a uniform Calendar. This encyclical was problematic because until this time, the Orthodox Church had consistently rejected the claims of other Churches to being part of “the” one Church of Christ, which the Orthodox Church considers itself to be. Basically, the encyclical was the first attempt to mix Orthodoxy with other Churches without first working out their differences, which was stated explicitly in the beginning of the letter. Almost no one is opposed to trying to fix the divisions among Christians, but the consistent position of the Orthodox has always been that there is only one Church of Christ, and that the other Churches have changed beliefs or practices as they broke away from the one visible Church; reunion thus must be based on a rejection of innovations and changes and not on compromises or cleverly-worded agreements that are more political than religious in nature.

This encyclical was followed by the introduction of the New Calendar in Greece in 1924, which separated the Church of Greece’s festal observances from the other Churches. Within Greece, a large minority of people refused to accept the change in calendar, although this was complicated by the fact that the Church in Greece is a State Church, and anyone who stayed on the Old Calendar would be denied state pay and in some cases there were even persecutions and arrests. At one point, priests were arrested and taken to the basement of the Archdiocese in Athens where they were clean shaven and put into laymen’s clothes and put on the street. One woman, St Catherine Routis, was even killed when she tried to defend her priest from the police, who hit her in the head with a rifle butt.

It is important to note that the Greek state took an active role in this modernization program; this was the time of conflict between the Royalists and the Venizelists, and Venizelos had an active relationship with the ambitious Meletios Metaxakis (who was at various times Archbishop of Athens, Archbishop of Cyprus, Patriarch of Constantinople, and Patriarch of Alexandria and active in America). Greece was seeking to become a modern, Western state, and Church “reform” was seen as a key part of the equation. In order to have good relations with the British, the Orthodox should become more modern, like the Anglicans, in these men’s plans, which can be clearly seen by reading their published letters to one another.

Initially, no bishops stayed on the Old Calendar, because of fear or because of confusion, or because they believed they could persuade the others to return to the traditional calendar. During this time, the priests from Mt. Athos often came to celebrate for the people who did not have priests on the Old Calendar. It is important to note that on Mt. Athos, which is universally known to be a center of Orthodoxy, almost the entire monastic population refused to accept the New Calendar or to pray with the bishops who had accepted it. They were called “non-commemorators” because they did not accept the bishops who had innovated.

By 1935, however, several bishops realized that they could no longer in good conscience serve on the New Calendar, so they returned to the Old on May 13, 1935 in front of a crowd of thousands. They ordained new bishops and formed a Synod which called itself Genuine Orthodox Christians because they followed the ancient and unchanged practices of the Church. The State immediately moved against these bishops, and some were exiled. Some were enticed to return to the New Calendar with threats and bribes. By 1955, the last Old Calendarist bishop from this original group, Metropolitan Chrysosotmos of Florina, reposed, and the Old Calendar Church was without bishops. They appealed abroad, and by the 1960’s, bishops of the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR) consented to ordain new bishops. In 1969, this was officially sealed with a document of intercommunion between the Russian bishops and the Greek Old Calendar Church.

The response of the New Calendar Church to the Old Calendar Church is usually to label it uncanonical, fanatical, old-fashioned, “basically pious but misguided,” or a joke, although there are some prominent exceptions. The problem with the label uncanonical, however, is that the Old Calendarists are the ones who have maintained the canons of the Church, by not altering the practices of the Church. As stated above, the change of the Calendar was only part of a larger program of compromise which includes less fasting, western styles of music in the Church and dress by the clergy, the drastic curtailing of confession, questioning of traditional Orthodox practices and beliefs, and praying with non-Orthodox clergy who deny central Orthodox beliefs (such as many Protestants who deny the Lord’s true presence in the Eucharist).

What we see then is basically a program by the Greek state to modernize and Westernize its population included a plan to modernize and Westernize the Orthodox Church, since it was such an integral part of the Greek kingdom. Those who stayed true to the ancient Orthodox practices were labeled as schismatics or uncanonical, while those who disobeyed previous councils and changed the teachings of the Church claimed to be the legitimate Orthodox. The majority sided with the modernizers, but this should not be taken as any sort of proof of legitimacy; the majority of people will simply go with the flow. The Old Calendarists are the smaller of the group, but they are the ones who, despite persecution at times and disdain and dismissal at other times, have preserved Orthodox practices. Given the general problems in the world today, where traditional values and Christian society are being dismissed, the traditional Orthodox practices are an important corrective, and attempts to modernize in order to “reach the modern person” have taken away this opportunity, making the Church seem no different than any other association. The Old Calendar Church maintains its stand in the hope that others will be encouraged to return to traditional Orthodox practices. We invite you to come and see for yourself what we are all about, and we are available to answer any questions you may have. If you are unsure about worshipping with us, you may also come around 11:30 on any day when a liturgy is served to meet me after liturgy.

Yours In Christ,
Fr. Anastasios

1) Sigillion of 1583: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Sigillion_of_1583
2) Encyclical of 1920: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/Ecupat.htm
3) A Scientific Examination of the Orthodox Church Calendar (available for purchase: http://www.ctosonline.org/oldcal/SEO.html)
4) Excerpt from the book Against False Union on the Calendar question: http://www.zephyr.gr/STJOHN/against1.htm#THE%20OLD%20CALENDAR%20QUESTION