Signs an "Orthodox" Church is Non-Canonical
Unfortunately, so many churches laying claim to the title "Orthodox" have no connection to the Orthodox Church. Worse, not all are forthcoming about their ecclesiastical status. Aside from the obvious -- glaring flaws in their faith, order, or morals -- here are a few signs that an "Orthodox" church may be falsely so-called:
1. It traces its lines of apostolic succession. Those currently in communion with an Orthodox bishop do not wrangle over "endless genealogies." Orthodoxy does not hold to a strictly "tactile" view of apostolic succession, anyway, so presenting such a list does not of itself prove Orthodoxy.
2. It recounts its (usually fractious) jurisdictional history. Independent churches often justify their existence by claiming they broke ranks from an "ecumenist" jurisdiction (or several in succession), or that they were "granted autonomy" at some vague date.
3. Its name juggles the words "Orthodox" and "Catholic" with exotic modifiers. Although the Orthodox Church regards Herself as the Catholic Church, all legitimate jurisdictions in North America go by the shorthand "Orthodox." Those churches calling themselves the "Orthodox Catholic Church" should set off alarm bells. Thus, one finds "Episcopal Orthodox," "Roman Orthodox," the "Anglican-Catholic Byzantine Church of America" (!), and even the "Charismatic Orthodox," none of whom are members of the Orthodox Church.
4. It proclaims it is "canonical." Canonical churches don't feel a need to say they are; they just are.
5. It defines canonicity as "following the canons." Which canons? Do they eat in restaurants with Jews? Allow their parishoners to marry actresses? Administer Holy Communion with a spoon? Then they're breaking the canons made at ecumenical councils. The discipline of the Church is administered by bishops -- proper bishops who are part of the Church. Certainly wishing to follow the norms of Orthodoxy is praiseworthy, but it does not make one a member church of the Orthodox communion.
6. It says Orthodoxy means only "fidelity to the Orthodox faith." Similar to the above, these groups will claim to hold the pure Orthodox doctrine. Unlike Protestantism, Orthodoxy is not an ecclesiastically invisible communion of right-thinkers without any outer stricture. Becoming part of the Church means sharing Her faith, communion, and hierarchy. Many Lutheran, Anglican, and "Uniate" priests genuinely believe to "the Orthodox faith" (and God bless them for it!); however, this does not make their parishes part of the Orthodox communion.
7. It considers any discussion of canonicity an "attack." Ironically, this is usually followed by an attack on some action of supposedly "ecumenist, modernist" jurisdictions.
8. It accuses its critics of having a "papal" view of the Church. One often hears the strawman argument: "We don't need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople; he's not the head of Orthodoxy!" Indeed. However, the Church has the right to draw its own boundaries. To be part of the Orthodox Church, one must not only hold the faith but be in communion with one of the autocephalous or autonomous Orthodox Churches in the world. It need not be Constantinople, nor even a patriarchate.* But it must be one of the churches listed at the link above.
9. It responds with false historical analogies. It will claim ROCOR is not in communion with any patriarchate (although it is in communion with both Serbia and Jerusalem). Or that St. Maximos the Confessor had to flee Eastern bishops (to the Pope of Rome). Or....
10. It claims all canonical status is based on "political considerations." Church politics haunts Orthodoxy as much as any other human ecclesiastical institution, but the Gnomes of Zurich do not run the Church. The EOC had to knock quite a bit...but it made the effort.
11. It claims it is "pursuing relations with Orthodoxy." Some claim to be involved in "ecumenical discussions" with Orthodox that are somehow constantly frustrated. At least such an admission would acknowledge the jurisdiction is outside the Church. If a catechuman wants to be Orthodox, he should simply join the Orthodox Church.
12. It boasts of "frequent concelebrations" with real Orthodox. Unlike whether a given jurisdiction is in communion with any other, this claim is not readily verifiable. This is particularly true when the Orthodox "concelebrant" is unnamed or deceased. But of itself, this proves nothing; Copts innocently concelebrated with the Gnostic Orthodox, who were still blasphemers. The vagante definition of "concelebration" also seems to differ from the norm; merely being present in the church sometimes qualifies.
13. It claims it is "in communion with" legitimate jurisdictions. Again, real Orthodox don't state they are "in communion with" one another (unless a local schism has recently healed). If asked, some vagantes will say they are "in communion with the patriarchates" or "have never broken communion" with a given Church. By this, they mean their priests will commune Orthodox, but the inverse is not true. Ths is a form of deception.
14. It declares any discussion of canonicity "distracts from the task of proclaiming the Gospel." The "Can't we all just get along" dodge. Any individual may "proclaim the Gospel," but only the Church can genuinely care for the newborn Christian soul -- washing it in baptism, sealing it in the Holy Spirit, nourishing it with the Body and Blood of Christ. If this "Orthodox" organization truly cared for its souls, it would refer them to the Holy Orthodox Church (and follow them into Her loving embrace).
These are just a few tips. In general, if you feel something is uncertain or a correspondent in a church seems less than forthcoming, contact a legitimate Orthodox Church and find out about the group's status. Or better yet, stick with the legitimate Orthodox jurisdictions in the first place. To make the matter easy for those investigating the WR, officially, there are only two jurisdictions in the world with a Western Rite: Antioch and ROCOR. Save yourself confusion and potential heartache; join one of these.
To those outside the Church: if you truly believe the Orthodox faith, regardless of whether you wish to worship according to the Western Rite, you are to be commended. God has planted this desire in you so you will follow it all the way to full communion with His Bride, the Holy Orthodox Church. We in the Western Rite do not wish to battle you; we wish to worship with all men (and women) of goodwill. Join with us. Help us secure the position of the Western Rite within the unquestionable boundaries of our Holy Mother, the Church. There is much work to do, and we can use the assistance. More important to us, we long for the fellowship of devout souls. Above all, we pray you will find that for which you truly long: the Church established by Christ and His Apostles, the Body of Christ and sure Ark of Salvation.
And to my fellow Orthodox tempted toward complacency, remember: were there not so many Orthodox jurisdictions in the West, all seemingly dedicated to Old World loyalties and ethnic fetishism, this kind of confusion would be impossible, and the true Church would be judged by Her faith and Her Founder.
* - ...Although offhand I cannot name any legitimate Orthodox jurisdiction that is not in communion with at least one patriarchate.