Friday, November 23, 2007

Our 'Post-ecclesiological' Age

At the web site of the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (Ecumenical Patriarchate), there is a very interesting article "Our 'Post-ecclesiological' Age" by Archimandrite Grigorios (Papathomas). Archimandrite Grigorios is Professor of Canon Law and Dean of the St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. According to the summary provided on the web site, Papathomas "argues that we live in a post-ecclesiological age due to our loss of sense of the local church belonging in a particular place. He also analyses the ways in which overlapping 'co-territorial' Churches define themselves by use of particular rites (Catholic), by confession (Protestant), or, in the case of the Orthodox, by ethnic origin." The article is on the longish side (22 pages) but well worth the effort to read. To give you a sense of his argument, let me offer you his conclusion. He writes that

In our multicultural societies today cultural demands are more comprehensible than the feeble ontological answers provided by the Churches. The Churches will have to choose whether to preserve the Pauline ecclesiology of the New Testament that guided them for fifteen centuries, or to give in to the confessional, ritualist, cultural or nationalist demands of this post-ecclesiological age. These demands have unquestionably determined the established ecclesiology of this present age – and by the look of things - of the future as well. In the latter case, the Church of Christ will be the fifth wheel of the wagon, tragically trailing behind the worldly progress of the nations rather than leading them along the path to the eschaton already traced out by the Resurrection (Rev 22:20). The fault will lie with the Churches themselves.

I would encourage you to download and read the entire article. One of the great challenges facing the Orthodox Church, especially in the United States and Western Europe, is the multiplication of ethnic jurisdictions.

Papathomas's analysis is spot I think. The reality we face is that Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians have all embraced a radically unbiblical ecclesiology. Fr Grigorios's theme is also addressed in a less historical, more systematic fashion by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) in his work Being as Communion, and earlier (from a more liturgical viewpoint) throughout the work of the late Fr Alexander Schmemann. All three argue that the Church of Jesus Christ is always the Church of a particular place and that the celebration of the Eucharist—whatever the liturgical rite used—is a gathering of the Body in that locale.

The historical, canonical, liturgical and dogmatic implications of this view of ecclesiology are beyond me I'm afraid. My own interests are more pastoral and applicative. As we discuss in these pages the life of the parish in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, I cannot help wondering: How well do we express even the "limited" fullness of even those who are gathered for a parochial celebration of the Eucharist? Do we make room for the diverse gifts, spiritual as well as cultural, that are present in a given parish?

Often it seems to me, we try to limit the gifts to those that fit our preconception of the parish. Usually this means keeping the parish's Greek, or Russian, or Serbian flavor. But, and just as often, it can mean keeping the American flavor by excluding, or at least limiting, all things Greek, or Russian, or Serbian. My concern here is not ethnic or linguistic per se. Rather I offer these examples because they highlight what I would call (for lack of a better term) a pastoral myopia. We can see what is close to us, what we recognize essential like "us." But what is different, what requires from me that I stretch myself that I transcend my own understanding of the Church—that I can't see so well.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus talks about the word of God being scattered like seed. Different areas bring different harvests—but the seed that fell "good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred" (Mark 4.8). In His explanation of the parable Jesus tells us explicitly that the seed "sown on good ground, [represent] those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred" (v. 20).

When we exclude the spiritual or culture gifts of others, we not only dishonor them, we rebel against Christ and condemn ourselves since it is Christ Who gave those gifts through the Holy Spirit. One of the first steps I think to bring our ecclesiological practice in line with the biblical witness and the canonical tradition is learning, on the parish level, to make room for each other and the different gifts we bring. This means more than simply passive acceptance or non-interference; there are no roommates in the House of God. We need to actively seek out and cultivate our personal gifts and the gifts given to the other members of our parish. And given that multicultural reality of modern society is increasingly fragmented, this means finding a way in our parishes to be together from our different cultural backgrounds without falling not tribalism or covert hostility is a necessary part of our evangelistic mission.

As always, your questions, thoughts and comments are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory