The Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church often claims to be “the Church of the Councils“.  In that claim, Orthodoxy says the Seven Ecumenical Councils are foundational to the very life of the Church.   In the Liturgical life of the Church, these Ecumenical Councils are commemorated on various dates throughout the Church calendar year.  Notably, the 7th Ecumenical Council is commemorated on the 1st Sunday of Great Lent, and the 1st Ecumenical Council is commemorated each year on the 7th Sunday after Pascha a kind of inclusion bookending everything from the beginning of Great Lent to the conclusion of the Paschal season.

There is another factor that occurs as a result of this: the Church in many ways so identifies itself with the Byzantine Empire as to make the Empire and the Church coterminous.   Whatever the Byzantine Emperor and State ruled became law in the Church and vice versa.  The Ecumenical Councils, called as they were by the Emperors, are as much state affairs as they are church affairs.  The Byzantines saw this as a symphony between Church and State.  Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc notes:

A climax came in 545 during the prolonged conflict over the validity of the Council of Chalcedon (451). In that year Justinian declared that the dogmata of the first four councils carried an authority equal to that of the holy Scriptures. 

Novella 131 issued by emperor Justinian in the year 545 C.E. reads:

‘Therefore We order that the sacred, ecclesiastical rules which were adopted and confirmed by the four Holy Councils, that is to say, that of the three hundred and eighteen bishops held at Nicea, that of the one hundred and fifty bishops held at Constantinople, the first one of Ephesus, where Nestorius was condemned, and the one at Chalcedon, where Eutyches and Nestorius were anathematized, shall be considered as laws. We accept the dogmas of these four Councils as sacred writings, and observe their rules as legally effective.'” (The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, pp. 151-152)

There is a plus and minus in this symphony.  On the one hand, there was cooperation unifying Byzantine society civilly and spiritually.  Justinian is recognized in the Church as both Emperor and saint.  On the other hand, it appears that there is also a belief that the Holy Spirit acted equally in the state as in the Church as there is little difference seen between the two.  The Canons which reflect the work of the Holy Spirit in the ongoing life of the Church in the world, became civil law.  The ability of the Church to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit became enmeshed with the life of the Empire.  This is an enmeshment from which the Church has never fully disentangled itself – and doesn’t seem to have the desire to do so.  The Byzantine Empire came to an end as God ordained, and the Church survived, and yet the laws, assumptions and worldview of the Empire remain embedded in and/or imposed on the Church.  History moved on, leaving the Byzantium behind.  The Church needs to continue to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and recognize the temporal nature of canon law – “law” which emerged because of particular historical needs but which became fixed, eternal and even ossified, even when history kept changing the conditions in which the Church finds itself.  Canon Law was not intended to freeze the Church in a historical period or to identify the universal Church with a particular worldly empire.  Canon Law emerged as the Church’s living response to contemporary issues and circumstances.  It is considered to be part of how the Church adapts to and responds to the times.  In a sense it is the “open” canon of the Church, subject to the Church’s own discerning and formulating the proper response to new and unfolding changes in history and the world.  Without that ability to formulate a current response to a contemporary issue, the Church becomes petrified, ossified and moribund – frozen in time despite the ongoing and changing nature of history and the world.

Commemorating the Ecumenical Councils is an essential good in the life of the Church – it makes us recognize that the Church throughout its history faced the challenges of its time and place.  Today, we commemorate the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council who not only showed us the right response to the crises of their day but also how a living Church responds to issues internal and external to the Church in each and every age.   The Church in the past met those challenges by forming new “law” and methods to deal with the changing reality of history.  We need that same Spirit today.

The Holy Eucharist: In Remembrance of Christ

The Holy Eucharist is given by the Lord “in remembrance of me(1 Cor. 11:25). First of all, in sensu realissimo, the Eucharist is the power of the Incarnation, the realized and abiding Divine-humanity, including all the faithful: “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The Divine Eucharist is the abiding of Christ in the world, His connection with the world, despite the ascension: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20) by the Holy Spirit, sent by Him into the world from the Father: “and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18).  

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine “It is finished” (John 19:30), as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is the Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you“ (14:26). “In remembrance of me [anamnesin]” and “to bring…to your remembrance [hypomnesei]” are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the “breaking of the bread” appears in the life of the Church only after the Pentecost, as the accomplishment of Divine humanity.

Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic. That is, its character was one of sobornost, but this character was replaced as early as the second century by hierarchism, which, of course, did not completely eliminate it, but was capable of obscuring it. How this happened has to be explained by church history.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 286-287).

Orthodox Conciliarity: Commitment to the Past or Present Reality?

Holy Great Council“The Orthodox Church, in her unity and catholicity, is the Church of Councils, from the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15.5-29) to the present day. The Church in herself is a Council, established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, in accord with the apostolic words: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28). Through the Ecumenical and Local councils, the Church has proclaimed and continues to proclaim the mystery of the Holy Trinity, revealed through the incarnation of the Son and Word of God.” (ENCYCLICAL OF THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, Crete, 2016)

This past June, a Holy and Great Council of Orthodox bishops was held in Crete.  The pre- and post- Council documents emphasized the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church. This emphasis on the importance of council to the governance of the Church seems to be a way of contrasting Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism’s pyramidal papacy.

The concept of “conciliar” can be interpreted in different ways.  In the United States, influenced as we are by egalitarian ideals, some tend to hope conciliar implies the interaction and input of every member of the Body of Christ, the Church, whether they be lay (female and male), clergy or episcopal.  In other parts of the Orthodox world, “conciliar” is heard more as “synodal”, meaning the bishops assemble to discuss Church issues and to issue decrees for the rest of the church members to follow.  In this thinking, conciliar is more about the hierarchical nature of the Church and is mostly about bishops assembling together.  Bishops then may meet in some fashion, like at diocesan assemblies, with their constituents, keeping a more “top down” nature to the Church.  In the different Orthodox self-governing churches, the notion of “assembly” connotes different things with assemblies having different amounts of “power” or input into the rest of the Church life.  The degree to which the synods of the various self-governing churches influence or have power over the primates of the churches and over the episcopal members of the synod varies from local church to local church.  Though they can do co-exist, there is a tension between hierarchial and conciliar/synodal in church governance.

What is true about Orthodoxy today, or so it seems to me, especially about the existing self-governing churches, is not so much that Orthodoxy is committed to a conciliar form of church governance and life, but rather Orthodoxy is committed to the memory of past great Councils.  Past councils, ancient ones significantly, are treated as the gold standard for Orthodoxy, even if the self governing churches are not relying on conciliar governance today.   A “conciliar attitutude” is more today a commitment to an ideal about past councils, but not necessarily entrusting the Church today to conciliar governance.  The hierarchs see themselves as the defenders and protectors of the Faith, but not necessarily councils/synods as having that task or being “over” themselves as hierarchs.

The fact that great councils are few and far between even in the “local” self-governing churches is one indication that Orthodox values past councils more than it values conciliarity in current governance.   The Russian Church for example has not done much with the decisions and thinking of its own great council of 1917.  That council’s conciliar attitude and commitment have not been revived in the Russian Orthodox Church today.  Nor does its memory seem to be very influential in the Russian Church.  Yet that 1917 Council was very committed to a conciliar mode of governance.  The current Russian Church is not motivated to revive that.

Some of the most famous ancient councils were rife with conflict and debate, and the church did not shy away from these issues or try to put on a face that everyone was in agreement.  These councils may have hoped for unity of mind but they openly acknowledged there was disagreement.   They did not try to show unity by avoiding the debates going on in the church.  If the past councils are going to be immortalized, we today are going to have to recognize they were held because there was real disagreement in the Church.  The Councils were not always able to bring an end to those disagreements or to bring a unity to all Christians.

The willingness of some Orthodox churches to abstain from this year’s Holy and Great Council shows conciliarity is not completely part of the current view of governance in the Church, especially as a worldwide, i.e. Catholic, community.  The system of autocephalous churches may allow some unity within each “local” church, but it fails to bind all these self-governing churches together.  The notion of council at this greater level becomes threatening as the “local” churches fear losing their independence.  They want to believe all Orthodox agree on all issues, but can maintain that position only by disallowing any real, open discussion.  If they don’t meet, they can pretend there is unity because they avoid discussing the troubling issues which divide them.  But then, maybe avoiding discussing divisive issues, is a strategy for maintaining a desired yet absent real unity.  If they don’t discover there is real disagreement, they avoid dividing the Church.  Yet, if one looks at history, the Ecumenical Councils did not prevent or end divisions in Christianity but resulted in them – note the monophysites and Nestorians.

In terms of governance, the Church today seems more committed to and defensive of its hierarchical nature than its conciliar nature.  Each of the autocephalous churches have hierarchs/ primates who are interested in maintaining their unique power and privileges within their “local” church.  The willingness of the primates to submit their authority to a council’s oversight is not there [Thus some abstained from attending the Holy and Great Council]. The desire to protect “local” episcopal authority seems especially true for the “nationalistic” tendencies in Orthodox self-governing churches today.   These “local” churches fear an “international” Orthodox council/ synod will interfere with their local governance and they don’t want to allow their decisions to then be judged by a higher synodal authority.  They don’t want some “pope” to be over them, but neither do they want to have to answer to a council of international bishops, even if they themselves are part of that council.  The Orthodox see their local autocephalous jurisdictions as the legitimate center for power in the Church and do not want to have to acknowledge a church structure/ power greater than their self-governing (= “local”) church.

In this instance, we can see, perhaps, why it was that Emperors convened the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  The authority of each bishop within their dioceses was left undisputed.  The Emperor however could demand that all the bishops must accept the decisions of the Council.  The Emperor didn’t interfere in each diocese, but all bishops were under his authority.   This helped maintain conformity and unity in the Church without the need for a pope – a super-bishop above all other bishops whose role was to maintain unity.  In the Christian West, the withdrawal of the Roman government to Constantinople, meant the Emperor’s influence was also lessened, and it fell on the bishop of Rome to insist on unity among the bishops.  The papacy developed where the emperor was no longer influential enough to insist on unity among the bishops.  The decline of the Roman Empire led to the disappearance of ecumenical councils.  In Russia after the time of Peter the Great, the Tsar/ government completely dominated the church, enforcing conformity through government power.  Only in 1917 did the Russian Church endeavor to throw off this secular system and try to re-establish the conciliar nature of the Church.

Without an emperor as a independent power over the bishops,  the power of Orthodox hierarchs grew within their dioceses.  And, the power of the primate of the autocephalous churches increased as well, making their office and jurisdictions more independent of the influence of other self-governing churches.  Conciliarity, if it existed at all occurred within the autocephalous church, or within dioceses, but there was no longer a structure to bind all the primates together.  They had a vague sense of sharing an Orthodoxy of faith, but the primates/ autocephalous jurisdictions become increasing alienated from one another.

That Orthodoxy is a hierarchical church is demonstrated constantly in church governance today throughout the world.  Bishops make sure everyone knows the church is hierarchical.  The vestments of the bishops have all of the trappings of the Byzantine emperor and display power and authority over all others.  The role of synods and councils in church governance is not always as obvious, though in some places in Orthodoxy episcopal synods do wield some obvious power over individual hierarchs.

Still, the conciliar nature of the church manifests itself at times in the different Orthodox self-governing churches.  In America, the conciliar nature of the Church is present in most jurisdictions in one form or another and to one degree or another.  It seems to me that all Orthodox jurisdictions in America are more influenced by conciliarity than are the “mother” churches.    The Orthodox Church in America has a strong commitment to the conciliar nature of the Church.  This is shown in its active synod of bishops, the role of diocesan assemblies, the All American Council, the various diocesan and bishop councils, and in parish councils and meetings.  Men and women participate in one form or another at all levels of church councils in the OCA.

It is interesting to note that in the Nicene Creed adopted by the 1st two Ecumenical Councils, hierarchical is not in the description of the true Church; the Church is said to be one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.  In the 4th Century they didn’t include “hierarchical” as a sure description of the Church.  “Catholic” which is clearly in the Creed, is the word that also can imply a conciliar nature to the Church.  The Slavonic version of the creed has that idea in relating “catholic” to sobornost.  It implies conciliarity.  The fullness of the faith exists in every Eucharistic community, and locally the Church does live as the Body of Christ, alive not just in the hierarchy but in every member of the Church.



Reflecting on the Message of the Holy and Great Council

Holy Great CouncilThe Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church came to an end causing little notice in the world at large.  The Council’s goal seemed to be to have an assembly of bishops which changed nothing, and any event that changes nothing is not very news worthy. Since everything in Orthodoxy seems to be the same as before the Council, I guess it was a success.  Of course if the butterfly effect is true, even the smallest of causes can have effects on major events.  So perhaps in time to come we will feel the effect of the Council – just as one butterfly flapping its wings can have an effect on a hurricane.

We Orthodox are known for having an unchanging attitude – not only toward things in the Church, but even in the world at large.  One of the issues the Council mentioned – the so-called diaspora – is created by Orthodoxy’s stalwart inability to come to grips with the passing of the Byzantine world.  Orthodox Church worldwide structures are based on the existence of Byzantium which long ago passed away but the Orthodox continue to cling to territorial claims for that non-existent world.  The existence of the Americas remains unexpected by Orthodox canonical structures.  The Church which doesn’t change struggles with being in the world which does.

One thoughtful non-Orthodox evaluation of the Council can be read at Only the Next Step: Assessing the Pan-Orthodox Council.    I’ve not read much commentary on the Council from an Orthodox point of view – perhaps because the Council accomplished what it set out to do – not to change anything.  Spin doctors are needed for organizations and individuals who constantly change positions.  Nothing is changing in Orthodoxy, so the Church can take time before making comments about the Council.  At the conclusion of the Council they did adopt an official MESSAGE OF THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL, which you can read by clicking on that link.

Holy Great Council Photo

Below are parts of that official message and a few of my own thoughts, as one who has spent most of my 62 years being in the Orthodox Church, and having served as a priest for over 35 years in the New World which Orthodoxy so struggles to deal with.  I’m not connected to Old World Orthodoxy, and so don’t know much about how they perceived the results of the Council.  Some parts of the Message seemed to me to be so standard to Orthodoxy that I won’t comment on them, even if they have pressing, contemporary importance.  The Council Message says:

The foundation of our theological discussions was the certainty that the Church does not live for herself. She transmits the witness of the Gospel of grace and truth and offers to the whole world the gifts of God: love, peace, justice, reconciliation, the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection and the expectation of eternal life.

The Church does not live for herself, but exists for the world.  Our current world however, and certainly the media, was not much taken by the Council.  The world was not waiting with bated breath for what the Council might say.  But then, frankly, neither was much of the Orthodox world.  The Council really was an internal Orthodox event as revealed in the very first point of the Message:

1) The key priority of the Council was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church.  Founded on the Eucharist and the Apostolic Succession of her Bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruits.

Who were we proclaiming “the unity” to?  Not the world, which has no vested interest in a united Orthodox Church.  The Council was hoping to show our hierarchs that they are united.  Since unity is treated as a prerogative of episcopacy, they needed to witness the unity and strengthen it.  That is purely an internal Orthodox issue.  The world may have been mildly impressed if that unity was publicly obvious, but the Orthodox bishops were hoping to show themselves the unity existed.  The Council really was more for the Orthodox Church than for the world.

The Orthodox Church expresses her unity and catholicity “in Council”. Conciliarity pervades her organization, the way decisions are taken and determines her path. 

Conciliarity does not mean democracy – not every Orthodox can assemble, not everyone gets a vote.  Those who assemble in Council – for the Orthodox, the hierarchs – aren’t necessarily representative of the people.  However, in the modern world, Orthodoxy really does need to consider whether conciliarity applies in any way to the entire membership of the Church.  Today, conciliarity seems mostly to be used about the hierarchs.  If “council” really pervades the all levels of the Church, that should be made obvious even at the level of Holy and Great Councils.   The bishops have responsibility for governance, but they certainly could meet with more of membership present, and even allow other members of the Church to be the voice and face of the Church in council.   Some might say such conciliarity never existed in Orthodoxy since the time of Constantine.  It is a conciliarity and unity which might better reflect the oneness of the Church.

The Orthodox Autocephalous Churches do not constitute a federation of Churches, but the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Each local Church as she offers the holy Eucharist is the local presence and manifestation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I thought this image of unity – that the Church is not a “federation” of autocephalous churches, but has an ontological unity is really important.  Every local Eucharistic community is the “local presence and manifestation” of the One Church.   I think this is an idea that needs to be fleshed out much more in Orthodoxy today so that conciliarity can attain the fullness of its meaning.

Met Tikhon AAC

During the deliberations of the Holy and Great Council the importance of the Synaxes of the Primates which had taken place was emphasized and the proposal was made for the Holy and Great Council to become a regular Institution to be convened every seven or ten years.

This statement may be one of the few practical outcomes of the Council – they hope to now meet regularly every 7-10 years.   That may also give us some sense of how long they thought it would take to work out the implication of this Council!

3) In response to her obligation to witness to the truth and her apostolic faith, our Church attaches great importance to dialogue, primarily with non Orthodox Christians. In this way the remainder of the Christian world comes to know more precisely the authenticity of the Orthodox Tradition, the value of patristic teaching and the liturgical life and faith of the Orthodox. The dialogues conducted by the Orthodox Church never imply a compromise in matters of faith.

For those who have even a faint hope of the unity of all Christians, the above statement is so important.  Those hierarchs assembled committed themselves to continuing dialogue with the non-Orthodox.

4) The explosions of fundamentalism observed within various religions represent an expression of morbid religiosity. Sober inter-religious dialogue helps significantly to promote mutual trust, peace and reconciliation. The oil of religious experience must be used to heal wounds and not to rekindle the fire of military conflicts.

I remember our dogmatics professor at seminary, Serge Verhovskoy, saying that rigidity in thinking and liturgical practice always appears when the Church is in a period of decline.  He claimed in periods when the Orthodox Church was vibrant, it was also creative, and freely changed its liturgical practices to meet the changing needs of the time.  When the Church drifted into periods of decay, on the other hand, it became petrified and ossified.  Fundamentalism occurs in Orthodoxy too.  It is just as morbid and moribund in us as it is in other religions.

The Church has always emphasized the value of self-restraint. Christian asceticism, however, differs radically from every dualistic asceticism which severs man from life and from his fellow man. 

What is tricky in Orthodoxy is that a neo-Platonic dualism is sometimes intertwined in some Orthodox spiritual writings.  The Church at times has tried correctives against this tendency, but one sees evidence of it in the writings of Church fathers and monastics.  Christian asceticism is not based in dualism, but as Yannaras points out the dualism is at times obvious in church monastic writings which downplay the sacraments and focus almost exclusively on asceticism.   Where asceticism has a practical and contemporary application is certainly in offering a spiritual approach to ecology, as noted in 8) below.

7) In regard to the matter of the relations between Christian faith and the natural sciences, the Orthodox Church avoids placing scientific investigation under tutelage and does not adopt a position on every scientific question. She thanks God who gives to scientists the gift of uncovering unknown dimensions of divine creation. . . .  Along with her respect for the freedom of scientific investigation, the Orthodox Church at the same time points out the dangers concealed in certain scientific achievements and emphasises man’s dignity and his divine destiny.

The Council in taking the above position does not think religion and science must of necessity be in opposition to each other.   Science cannot determine morality.  They can tell us what things are possible for us to do, but not whether or not we should do them (for example: nuclear weapons or genetic engineering).  In this the Council seems to embrace that there really are realms of thinking which the Church does not directly enter.  The Church does not have to have a position on every scientific theory or investigation, but it can speak in the realm of ethics about the real dangers that certain science might represent for humanity.  The Church can also weigh in favor of the morality of some science (immunization for example, or other efforts to eliminate disease or improve efforts to feed the world).

8) It is clear that the present-day ecological crisis is due to spiritual and moral causes. Its roots are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants, and to climate change. The Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption, and at the same time a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a “steward ” and not a possessor of creation. The Church never ceases to emphasise that future generations also have a right to the the natural resources that the Creator has given us. For this reason, the Orthodox Church takes an active part in the various international ecological initiatives and has ordained the 1st September as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.

As mentioned above, the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on asceticism can play a role here.  Ecology does not have to be viewed only as politically conservative or liberal, or whether it helps or hurts economics.   There is a spiritual dimension which is both personal and affects us all.

10) The Orthodox Church does not involve herself in politics. Her voice remains distinct, but also prophetic, as a beneficial intervention for the sake of man. Human rights today are at the center of politics as a response to the social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state. Our Church also adds to this the obligations and responsibilities of the citizens and the need for constant self-criticism on the part of both politicians and citizens for the improvement of society. And above all she emphasises that the Orthodox ideal in respect of man transcends the horizon of established human rights and that ” greatest of all is love”, as Christ revealed and as all the faithful who follow him have experienced.

It is the case that our Lord Jesus did not Himself speak much about politics or government in general.  Christians have wrestled with the relationship between themselves and the state through the centuries.  Christians have lived in places where they are a minority and where they are persecuted as well as in places where they held imperial power.  The ultimate power of Christianity is God’s love for us, for His world.  We are to love others as Christ loves us.  This is a power far different from what any political system or party has to offer.  And we Christians have realized how hard it is  to live by that power.

Bishops: Ordained for the Ministry of Governance

Holy Great Council Photo

Last week the Orthodox churches throughout the world gathered at the Holy and Great Council in Crete, or were at least aware of the gathering and had participated in the preparation for the Council.  The Council had been discussed among Orthodox hierarchs for at least half a century. Being a hierarchical church, bishops in Orthodoxy have a responsibility for making such councils happen and succeed.  Bishop alone however do not constitute the Church, even though sometimes one gets the impression that even conciliarity in the Church is the prerogative of bishops and doesn’t necessarily extend to other clergy let alone the laity which constitutes the vast majority of Church membership.   Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev writes about the essential interdependency of laity and bishops in the church – without which the Body of Christ is dead.  The Holy Spirit differently gifts laity and hierarchy in the Church.

“Not having the gift of administration, the ‘people of the Lord’ have a gift of discernment and examination which is a special kind of ministry not entrusted to particular members of the Church but rather to all the people of God, i.e., to all the members of the Church in their common action. ‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern what is said’ (1 Cor. 14:29).  ‘Test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess. 5:21). The people have discernment and examination concerning everything being done in the Church. The bishop together with presbyters does not govern the people of God in his own name. Neither does he govern them on the basis of law as the one who received his power from the people or through the people. Rather he governs the people in God’s name, as the one ordained by God for the ministry of governance.

2016 Holy Synod

Having the charism of discernment and examination the people witness that everything done in the Church under the guidance of the pastors is done in accordance with the will of God revealed by the Holy Spirit. In the early church all ecclesial acts, such as the celebration of the mysteries, the reception of the catechumens and penitents into the Church, excommunication, and so forth, involved the people’s participation. In the early church the people’s testimony concerning the the revelation of God’s will had the character of ‘consensus’ with what was about to happen in the Church and their reception of what was accomplished as corresponding to God’s will. It would be a mistake to suppose that the people gave their consent as a result of a vote, just as it is custom in the popular assemblies of the Greek cities or in the representative institutions nowadays. The consent and reception by the people did not mean that the people expressed their own private opinion or wish concerning one or another ecclesial act. The ecclesial authority in the person of the bishops were not bound by the will of the laics, just as the people were not bound by the will of their presiders. Neither the will of laics nor the will of bishops is per se sufficient for the action in the Church. The Church lives and acts not by the will of man, but by the will of God. Consent and reception were the witness of the Church through the witness of the people that the presiders act and govern in agreement with the will of God.” (Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, pp 60-61)


Holy And Great Council Woes

Holy Great CouncilVarious reports are indicating the that the Holy & Great Council of the heads of the various Orthodox Churches which is supposed to start its meeting this week, may be post-poned.  Dissension has arisen and some of the heads of the churches have decided not to participate while others are calling for a postponement of the event.  Though this Council was 50 years in the making, the Orthodox leadership is not prepared to meet as planned.   There was a hope that even if it was avoiding most contemporary and controversial issues, it would at least be a display of the unity of the Orthodox hierarchs.  There were efforts made to insure unity by allowing discussion only on topics they believed they agreed upon, and by making sure all issues were in fact agreed upon in advance.  Despite those efforts, the Council has faced recently the fact that there are contentious issues which the various Orthodox hierarchs do not agree on.

I recently read some sermons from St. Basil the Great and in one he addressed the issue of an impending Council in his day which was in serious trouble before the Council began.  St. Basil says:

“After all, it is impossible either to construct a building when what holds it together is missing, or to build up the church to the heights when it is not held together with the bonds of peace and love.”  (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 270)

St. Basil realized if it wasn’t love which bound the Christians together, then they wouldn’t be able to meet in Council to achieve anything.   The hierarchs probably need to go back to that point and consider what the basis of their relationships one to another really is.  Additionally, they have to have some sense of what the purpose of meeting is.

St. Basil lamented the situation of the Church in his day and saw it as the very reason that the frequency of Councils had declined.  For Basil “estrangements” do happen between people, and the purpose of the Council is to help the disputants in face to face relationships to love one another.  He didn’t see conflict as a reason not to have a Council, but a prime reason to have the Council.

“The present spectacle is but a remnant of the ancient love of the fathers.  For its sake they inaugurated the practice of holding these festal assemblies, so that the estrangement that develops over time could be dissipated through person interaction at set intervals, and those who live far away, by gathering in this one place, could use the event to initiate relationships of friendship and love.  This is a spiritual assembly that renews old relationships and provides a starting point for those to come.   For we have not come to make an exchange of salable goods, but to give each other a mutual exchange of love, to give love fully and to receive love fully.  Even though this is the tradition we have received, the present spectacle shows why it has come to an end.  Most of those here are spies more interested in scrutinizing my statements than in being disciples of the doctrines I teach.  Indeed, they attend my discourse not to be edified by being present but to ambush me with insults and abuse.”  (St. Basil the Great, ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 270-271)

We come together in Council, St. Basil says, “to give each other a mutual exchange of love, to give love fully and to receive love fully.”    Love actually is the only commodity the Church has to offer to the world, to negotiate with each other, to influence one another, to serve one another.

But as Basil notes, Christian leaders no longer come together to exchange love and to benefit from their relationships with others and to serve in brotherly love the needs of others.  He saw people attending who were there for no other purpose than to spy on him and use what he says for their own nefarious purposes.   Even without the Internet or mass communications, people were still people.  Technology makes our communications faster, it doesn’t change the nature of how people use communications.  Christians 1600 years after the time of St. Basil are still willing to socially assassinate one another, to disseminate misinformation, to twist words and discussions to their own ends.

Of course today we honor the words and decisions of those church fathers who met in Council in the 4th Century.  Let us pray that our current Church Fathers will realize that whatever decisions they make individually or collectively, it will shape the church for good or ill for the next 1600  years.  May they use peace and love, repentance and forgiveness to maintain the vision of unity and to graciously face their difference.

The Fathers of the Church

On the 7th Sunday after Pascha, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.   Fr. Georges Florovsky offers a thought about the authority of these ancient fathers in the life of the Church today.  Florovsky commented:

“ Just yesterday the question was put to me in my Patristic seminar, by one of the participants: we enjoy immensely, he said, the reading of the Fathers, but what is their ‘authority’? Are we supposed to accept from them even that in which they obviously were ‘situation-conditioned’ and probably inaccurate, inadequate, and even wrong? My answer was obviously, No…The ‘authority’ of the Fathers is not a dictatus papae. They are guides and witnesses, no more. Their vision is ‘of authority’, not necessarily their words. By studying the Fathers we are compelled to face the problems, and then we can follow them but creatively, not in the mood of repetition…So many in our time are still looking for authoritative answers, even before they have encountered any problem. I am fortunate to have in my seminars students who are studying Fathers because they are interested in creative theology, and not just in history or archaeology.” (Fr. Georges Florovsky  in The Wheel: Issue 2, Summer 2015, pp 40-41)

1st Episcopal Assembly
1st Episcopal Assembly

The Church Fathers are not there to keep us looking back into history, rather their voice is alive in the Church today to keep us moving toward the coming Kingdom of God.  We are not simply to repeat what the Fathers said, but to understand how they engaged their world and their era, so that we can engage our own.  The Church is not a museum of some golden age that we retreat into in order to hide from the modern world.  A truly patristic mind keeps looking foward to the world to come, with faith, hope and love.

Ecumenical Councils in the Church

“The first truly ‘ecumenical’ action was the Council in Nicea, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council. Councils were already in the tradition of the Church. But Nicea was the first Council of the whole Church, and it became the pattern on which all subsequent Ecumenical Councils were held. For the first time the voice of the whole Church was heard. We do not find in our primary sources any regulations concerning the organization of the Ecumenical Councils. It does not seem that there were any fixed rules or patterns. In the canonical sources there is no single mention of the Ecumenical council, as a permanent institution, which should be periodically convened, according to some authoritative scheme. The Ecumenical Councils were not an integral part of the Church’s constitution, nor of her basic administrative structure. In this respect they differed substantially from those provincial and local Councils which were supposed to meet yearly, to transact current matter and to exercise the function of unifying supervision. The authority of the Ecumenical Councils was high, ultimate, and binding.”    (Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture: Volume 2, pg. 94)

The Church as Christian Community

The New Testament writers use a number of images for the Church – it is the Body of  Christ and a living temple.  We are to build up the Church, to edify our fellow members in order to build up the living edifice.  Our spiritual lives and efforts are thus not directed selfishly to our own salvation, but rather toward loving neighbor and fellow church member.  St. John Chrysostom said:

“St. Paul said: Let no one seek his own interests, but those of his neighbor. And again: Edify one another. Therefore, do not look only to your own health and freedom from disease, but take considerable thought and care that your fellow member is set free from the hurt which comes from this evil and that he flees this disease. For we are members of the other. And if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it, or if one member glories, all the members rejoice with it.”   (Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pg. 86)

Zacchaeus – A Change of Heart

Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:20-23)

One of the therapeutic goals of the incarnation is the healing of the human heart.  As Christ noted the heart is where all evil comes from.  Christ came to heal the heart and restore it to God – to give peace to all humans on earth.

The peace which Christ brings to us is reconciliation with God, but it is not withdrawal into oneself.  We are to share God’s peace with our fellow humans.  Olivier Clement writes:

“Nevertheless, this peace is not a withdrawal into oneself.  Man is called to share in the very life of the Trinity.”  (quoted in FOR THE PEACE FROM ABOVE, p 348)

The Gospel lesson of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is a lesson about repentance that brings about reconciliation with God.  Thus Zacchaeus’ repentance brings him peace with God, but also reconciliation with his fellow humans/believers – he promises to restore fourfold what he has falsely taken from others and to give half his wealth to the poor.  (But note the reaction of the crowd to Zacchaeus, they show no signs of willingness to be reconciled to him, even though Christ has declared that salvation came to Zacchaeus).  Zacchaeus has found peace with God through Christ.   As a result Zacchaeus also desires peace with his neighbors and fellow believers in God – he desires to be reconciled t them whereas before he was not concerned about his relationship to them or of them to him.  Again Clement says:

“The key text here is the Beatitude about the peacemakers, those who work to make peace – who ‘shall be called sons of God,’ adopted in the Son, therefore literally ‘deified.’   Thus, the disciples of Jesus are ‘to be at peace with one another’ and with all men.”  (FOR THE PEACE FROM ABOVE, p 348)

Jesus says to all:  Today salvation has come to his house.  Zacchaeus is no longer at enmity with God, but has come to be at peace with God accepting God’s lordship and rule.

“The peace of Christ comes to birth in man’s heart, it flows forth, becomes responsible and creative love, acquires a social dimension.”  (FOR THE PEACE FROM ABOVE, p 350)

The Gospel lesson of the repentant Zacchaeus tells us that the time of Great Lent, our time of repentance, is but a few weeks away.   Great Lent is a time for us to imitate Zacchaeus, to bring about this change of heart, to come to peace with God, and to bring the peace of God to our hearts so that we become peacemakers with others.  Salvation – peace with God – is given to us so that we might learn how to live with all people.

See also Zacchaeus: A Contagious Change of Heart?