Friday, October 17, 2008

Unity, Witness and Ecumenicism: the Unity of the Church-Part I

There has been the American Orthodox Institute blog a series of essays that debate whether or not the Church ought to lend its voice to the different cultural and political debates current in the American context. Those posts, together with a series recent comments here on Archimandrite Ignatios Sotiriadis presentation at the world Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church illustrate what I think are some of the most tensions in the contemporary pastoral situation of the Orthodox Church. A summary of at least some of these points of tension figure prominently in the address offered by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Friday, October 10, 2008 at the official opening of the Synaxis of the Heads of the Orthodox Churches and Pauline Symposium held at the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint George in Istanbul, Turkey. What I would like to do, beginning with this post and continuing over the next several posts, is look with you at the address by His All Holiness with an eye to foster a discussion that touches on the pastoral situation of the Church especially (though not exclusively) here in America.

In his address the Ecumenical Patriarch touches on the following points (these are my formulations based in the online English translation of the text):

  1. The Context of the Church's Ministry (¶'s 1-4)
    1. The Contemporary Context of the Church's Ministry (¶'s 1-2)
    2. The Pauline Context (¶'s 3-4)
  2. St Paul and the Unity of the Church (¶ 5)
  3. Directions for Future Ministry (¶ 6)
  4. Recapitulation and an Ecclesiology of Unity (¶'s 7-8)
    1. Unity and Witness (¶ 7)
    2. Overcoming Ethnophyletism and Nationalism (¶ 8)
    3. Concrete Questions for Future Discussion (¶ 8)

I hope to examine the text of His All Holiness speech more fully next week (I'm off the New York this afternoon to serve a wedding for a spiritual daughter and her fiancé, so I won't be blogging again until next week some time). What I want to look at now, however, is the Patriarch's brief (but theologically rich) discussion of unity. As I've reflected on the comments in response to Fr Ignatios's words it seem to me that there much misunderstanding about the nature, and importance, of unity in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.

Bartholomew situates the question of unity with the broader context of the life of the Most Holy Trinity and what he calls the Church's "mission within the contemporary world." (¶ 1) Within this twin context, it belongs above all the episcopate—singularly and as a body—who "have been assigned [by Christ to be the] guardians, keepers and guarantors by divine grace. . . . the bonds of love and unity" that are the both foundation of the Church and the content of the Gospel. (¶ 2)

In this light, His All Holiness looks the Apostle Paul as the model of episcopal ministry. The "entire Apostolic ministry of this 'chosen vessel of Christ'" provides us with the third context within which the Church is called by Christ to fulfill her own vocation to preach and teach. And what does the Church preach and teach except "'the exceptional character of the revelations' (2 Cor 12.7), of which St Paul was counted worth by the grace of the Lord"? It is this Pauline ministry which "the foundation of the doctrines of our faith" and which serves as the "inviolate rule of faith and life for all Orthodox Christians."(¶ 3) We "cannot properly honor St. Paul," His All Holiness says, unless we "simultaneously labor for the unity of the Church."

What is immediately apparent is that the unity of the Church is not (as a commentators on this blog have pointed out) an end in itself. Rather taking our cue from Paul (and the rest of the New Testament) the unity of the Church is itself in the service of the Church's philanthropic, evangelical, and catechetical ministry. Is support of this, Bartholomew looks back to his own predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne, St John Chrysostom. Speaking of St Paul, Chrysostom says that "He bore responsibility not only for a home but for cities, provinces, nations and the whole oikoumene; indeed, he was anxious about so many and so diverse important matters, for which he suffered alone and cared even more than a father for his children." (¶ 5)

Leaving aside for another time, the Patriarch's comments on schism, in my next post I will look at what I find to be one of the most welcome, if provocative, on unity in his speech. Specifically, that Church unity is not simply an matter of ecclesiology, but also anthropology and soteriology. In His All Holiness understanding of the matter: "for St. Paul, Church unity is not merely an internal matter of the Church. If he insists so strongly on maintaining unity, it is because Church unity is inextricably linked with the unity of all humanity. The Church does not exist for itself but for all humankind and, still more broadly, for the whole of creation." (¶ 7)

He continues by tracing out the Christological foundations of the Church's anthropological and soteriological vocation:

St. Paul describes Christ as the "second" or "final" Adam, namely as humanity in its entirety (cf. 1 Cor. 15.14 and Rom. 5.14). And "just as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." (1 Cor. 15.22; cf. Rom. 5.19) Just as the human race is united in Adam, so also "all things are gathered up in [Christ], both things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1.10) As St. John Chrysostom remarks, this "gathering up" (or recapitulation, anakephalaiosis) signifies that "one head had been established for all, namely the incarnate Christ, for both humans and angels, the human and divine Word. And he gathered them under one head so that there may be complete union and contiguity." (PG 62.16)

Nevertheless, this "recapitulation" of the entire world in Christ is not conceived by St. Paul outside the Church. As he explains in his letter to the Colossians (1.16-18), in Christ "all things in heaven and on earth were created and ... in him all things hold together" precisely because "he is the head of the body, the Church." "[God] has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." (Eph. 1.22-3) For St. Paul, then, Christ is the head of all -- of all people and all creation -- because He is at the same time head of the Church. The Church as the body of Christ is not fulfilled unless it assumes in itself the whole world. (¶ 7)

With the Christological, anthropological and soteriological foundation of Church unity secure, the Ecumenical Patriarch returns to his earlier observation that unity is foundational to the Church's evangelical mission. Surprisingly, to me at least, His All Holiness reminds his listeners that the Church's evangelistic work encompasses not only "those who do not believe in Christ," but also "God's people," that is, those already baptized and so members of the Church.

Thinking of the exchange of essays on the American Orthodox Institute blog, it is noteworthy that in the view of his All Holiness this evangelical mission is "the supreme obligation of the Church" must be fulfilled "with love, humility and respect for the cultural particularity of each person. Further, "the message and overall word of Orthodoxy cannot be aggressive, as it often unfortunately is; for this is of no benefit at all. Rather, it must be dialectical, dialogical and reconciliatory. We must first understand other people and discern their deeper concerns; for, even behind disbelief, there lies concealed the search for the true God." (¶ 7)

Called as we are to be "the role peacemaker within a world torn by conflicts," the Church (again guided by the bishops as the guardians and sustainers of the bonds of charity in the Church)

cannot –indeed, it must not—in any way nurture religious fanaticism, whether consciously or subconsciously. When zeal becomes fanaticism, it deviates from the nature of the Church, particularly the Orthodox Church. By contrast, we must develop initiatives of reconciliation wherever conflicts among people either loom or erupt. Inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue is the very least of our obligations; and it is one that we must surely fulfill. (¶ 7)

In my next post, I want to look with you at the broader implications of the unity of the Church.

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory