[ditty_news_ticker id="27897"] Ecclesiology of Community and the Need for Tangible Unity in North America - Orthodox Christian Laity

Ecclesiology of Community and the Need for Tangible Unity in North America


Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic)

Keynote Address by Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic) of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America at OCL’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, Washington DC – October 27, 2012

I take this paper as an opportunity to clarify the question of ecclesiology of community, which can provide more tangible unity in the Orthodox Church in North America. But before I begin, I must take a moment to express my gratitude to the OCL for inviting me and for its energetic input into the progress of Orthodoxy in this land. It is my belief that only an organic unity between all the “charismata” or “tagmata,” in the Pauline sense of the word—not only the clergy and laity—can bring spirit and quality to this blessed country. The unbroken unity of the people of God and the voice that resonates the Eucharistic dialogue should be the mission of OCL, which it will achieve in a most superb way not as another objectified social structure—since the Church is not a democracy—but as a charismatic event of communion within the Church. As an Orthodox bishop, I cannot but rejoice at the emergence of such voices principally when they stem from the inner being of the local Eucharistic gathering. If we want to do justice to the Church, we have to appreciate the laity, as those in fact who finally implement all progress and growth in the Church’s life. The right service of the Episcopal Assembly is not only a fundamental means of confirming the conciliar nature of the Church; it is also the main ground on which any progress, achieved through its committees, can reach the laity.

Having said that, let me share some ideas with you regarding the purpose of Orthodoxy in America.


What contributions can Orthodox Americans make to the world today?

For some people the mission of Orthodoxy in America consists mainly in converting as many Western Christians as possible into Orthodoxy. This, however, is actually a very limited and inadequate goal. If Ἐκ-κλησία in its initial meaning is a call addressing the People of God and inviting it to participate in a life that knows not death—and thus to acquire a mode of existence that liberates from any kind of necessity, any “religion”—then we have to seek its mission in realms other than social, religious and moral.

In view of a true Orthodox ontological realism, the genuine mission and task of the Orthodox Church in America is twofold in character and is of the utmost significance and substance. First, the Church must bear witness to the particular ethos of its Orthodox Tradition, and confront the ethos of Western Christendom and its culture, which is based on individualism. Second, the Church in America must also interpret the so-called “Western” way of thinking for the Orthodox believer. An Orthodox American, who possesses native cultural credibility in his own land and who can therefore act as a bridge between historical Orthodoxy and Western culture, is best able to fulfill this task.

The significance of such a mission cannot be over-emphasized. Currently, the US dominates the world. Its political and economic superiority has turned it into a model for the rest of the world. An Orthodox Christian in this country should not be a follower, waiting for others to innovate and then quickly move to copy their ideas. Neither should Orthodoxy accept the image of a mysterious religion that offers a refuge to those who seek mystical or other extraordinary experiences, as is the case with religions and cults of the East. Today, we must fight against such a perception of the Orthodox mission, because this kind of view is completely contrary to what our Holy Fathers have handed down to us. As Metropolitan John of Pergamon holds, “our Holy Fathers, hermits included, accepted the cultural challenges of their day. Far from preaching exotic religions, they aspired to transform the Greco-Roman culture of their time and were very successful in their venture.” Their battle was, as modern environmentalists like to say, to preserve the current world, not to move on to the next one. This is precisely what Orthodoxy in America, more so than the other members of World Orthodoxy, is called to do—to use our rich Tradition to identify the problems of modern Western man. And the sooner the better, since these problems will, before long, be the problems of all mankind.

Orthodoxy must be seen as salvation and deliverance not only from social and moral evil but also from corruption and death. And it can achieve this as an Assembly of Bishops, which includes the entire assembly of the People of God in a liturgical way. Аnd a leitourgia is an act of the People, who live the immediacy of resurrectional experience.

Ecclesiology of Community

What is the axis of ecclesial future in America? Any approach to this question of Church unity must appreciate, firstly, the concept of koinonia (κοινωνία) as a key notion in ecclesiology. The reason for this lies in the fact that the Church from its beginning was seen as a manifestation of the summoned people of God in a concretely founded and charismatic order in the harmony of the Body of Christ. Without the Church as Body of Christ and the Communion of the Holy Spirit—that is where the Spirit constitutes and inspires the Church—there is no real progress in the cause of unity. The “catholic Church” (cf. St Ignatius) is constituted precisely because the total Christ is found in it in the form of the Eucharist.

The Church is a unity of charismas (a variety of orders and ministries) all of them existing simultaneously and in intimate interdependence. This unity of orders and the clergy-laity distinction marks the early Church in a decisive way. In this context, the head of this community (bishop) did not have authority merely intrinsic in his office alone, but in everything he said and did was in constant need of the presence and so to say the approbation of the other orders in the Church. The same applies to the case of the laity. It is in the Eucharist that we surrender ourselves to one another and so the dynamic of relationship begins, which is best described as love. In the Spirit of community, there is a paradoxical combination of witnessing to the Truth by every member of the Church with a devotion to the Body and its structure. For its appropriate performance, the Eucharistic synaxis must incorporate a diversity of orders (and other charismata) and not solely what we call the “laity” or the “clergy.”

Therefore, ecclesiology of community—and the validity of the Eucharist—depends on the following conditions: a) the presidency (direct or indirect) of the bishop; b) communion with the other Churches in the world (both in terms of space and time, i.e., apostolic succession and conciliarity); and c) the presence of the community with all its members and orders, including the laity as such, i.e., as the called People of God.

Historically, one can detect the danger of identifying the Church not with the Eucharist but with an institutional structure promoting or guaranteeing individual salvation, as “means of grace,” something “assisting the faithful in their spiritual life,” which is no longer viewed as demonstrating the whole body of the Church. The Western tradition faced some problems with this mostly because of the sharp tension between institution and event, between clericalism and the role of the laity. Behind this, a certain danger of “religionization” of the Church lurks (by means of subordination to rationalism, individualism, ideologizaton,  secularization  and pietism of faith). Indeed, how does the teaching of the Church on this subject affect our view of religion? The Church of the Christian evangelion, as the apparatus of ecclesial realization and its manifestation, offers its followers not simply a path to better behavior but a fundamental change in the mode of being (apropos the transcendence of religion). If the Church truly aims at achieving a new mode of existence, its goal might then include the overcoming of religion as well.

The question of authority and the role of the laity

In the light of the above remarks, we should recognize in the celebration of the Eucharist the primary source of all structure in the Church: authority, institutions such as episcopacy, the composition of the Eucharistic community, the distinction between laity, priests and bishops, and even conciliarity—everything stems from the Church as communal event and Mystery of the Kingdom. Every ministry reflects and serves as types or images of the eucharistic Banquet of the Kingdom.

In this picture, as Metropolitan John Zizioulas states, at first place, we see the convocation of the people of God, what we call the “laity,” as an indispensable element in Orthodox ecclesiology. Undeniably, in the absence of the Laos, the People of God, we cannot have a Eucharist service. Besides, the whole structure of the Eucharist is such that it involves dialogue. It also involves consent and the confirmation of what the priest does by the people, who must say “Amen.” This means that if the laity’s part is missing, then the Eucharistic structure of the Church itself is incomplete. It is so clear that our image of the Church is taken from the Eucharistic assembly. “By virtue of his Chrismation, each baptized person becomes a member of the royal λαός of God, a λαϊκός. It is only natural that he enters immediately the assembly of the Eucharist in order to occupy his proper τάξις or τάγμα (=order) of the layman in this called and summoned people of God, the ἐκκλησία.” (J. Zizioulas, The One and the Many, p. 99)

On the other hand, however, Zizioulas continues, “the unity of the Church is basically episcopocentric, and this is because the bishop represents the presence of Christ in the midst of the people: when the people gather together, they gather around Christ, not around any other center.” Unlike Protestantism, this indicates another imperative feature of the Orthodox understanding of the Church: you cannot experience the presence of Christ without putting it in the form of a ministry, of a minister. For a Protestant, Zizioulas holds, “it is easy to say that we gather together and invoke the name of Christ and that Christ is then present. But this would be insufficient for the Orthodox. You need a minister who will be the icon, the image of Christ and his presence. (cf. J. Zizioulas, The One and the Many, p. 312.)

This indisputable Eucharistic character of Church structure, as it developed in the first three centuries, and subsequently confirmed in Church councils, meant anything but the subjection of the lay person to the higher authority in the manner of an earthly institution. On the contrary, it meant that there was a ministry called Episcopacy “through which the Church remained in the final analysis a concrete community.” (J. Zizioulas, The One and the Many, p. 230)

Every ordination takes place within the same Eucharistic context. The act of Eucharistic gathering essentially brought about and sustained these orders, notably the two basic ones, that of clergy and that of laity. Here, every manifestation of life is not psychologized but lived as eucharistic-ontological relationship with God and men. A lay person in his membership in the Body of Christ, which is by definition charismatic, has a responsibility of maintaining the paschal-pentecostal surprise of existence. In that perspective, the significant and indispensible role of the laity goes beyond the mere exclamation of the “Amen” and “Axios”.

To conclude, there are those who lead the Eucharistic community by offering the Eucharist and those who confirm or seal this action with their “Amen.” There is no reason to depart from this model today.

The work of the Assembly of Orthodox Canonical Bishops

Now, I would like to turn to the work of the Assembly of Orthodox Canonical Bishops, by whose existence and its work realized so far through its committees, I believe, the need for tangible unity is met and reflected in a very comprehensive, although not yet complete way. We are in our humble beginnings. By including the laity in its thirteen committees, the Assembly gives priority not to an institutional and historical hierarchy, but to the episcopocentric community (communion), which is the specificity of the Holy Spirit. As you cannot have a Eucharist service without the presence of the laity, likewise the work of the Assembly is unimaginable without a dialogue with the entire pleroma of the Church. I ask you to look at these committees as charismatic ministries of the Church. Let us make comments on some of them.

On the canonical level, the Assembly emphasizes the need for a genuine witness and through the Committee for Canonical Affairs addresses issues pertaining to the distortion of ecclesiastical structure. So, by maintaining a) the registry of canonical bishops; b) the registry of canonical clergy and their status; and c) the registry of all canonical communities in the United States, the truth of the first “mark” of the Church, Unity, is safeguarded and promoted. The Church is not a club of morally immaculate individuals serving as models for the masses in ridiculous formalities and details, but the Lord’s Body with assigned gifts, stemming from the event of communion.

This is a basic presupposition for a crucial and critical step, which amounts to a Copernican turn in the history of the Orthodox Church on this continent: a proposal for a plan to organize all the Orthodox faithful of every jurisdiction in the North and Central American geographical region on a canonical basis. This work is prepared by the Committee for Canonical Regional Planning, which will formulate a proposal for a plan to organize all the Orthodox faithful of every jurisdiction, in accordance with the Rules of Operation, Article 5.e of the 4th Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambesy. This Committee will grapple with the problem of overcoming the ethnic and cultural differences in cases when they serve not unity but division. The early Church had established in practice as fundamental to its expression of charismatic catholicity the geographic rather than the ethnophiletistic, principle: there is no ecclesial significance to what you are but to where you are, to whom you belong as the Church. Orthodoxy has a perfect ecclesiology and it is sufficient when we apply it in practice.

Now we come to a very sensitive issue, that of the relationship between the Church and society. The Committee for Church and Society, at first sight, has to deal with urgent contemporary bioethical, environmental and socio-economic issues. However, this cannot be done without theological criteria. The Committee is invited to develop a process to determine both the suitability and the urgency of advocacy by the Assembly of issues concerning Church, government and society that are relevant to the lives of the faithful in the ecclesiastical Region which it oversees and for which it is responsible (e.g., same-sex marriage, abortion, war, etc.). But again, this can be done only through the relational experience of the Church. Speaking about ethical dilemmas in the fields of medicine, biology, or technology we have to ask: do dilemmas of conscience have any relation to the metaphysical meaning of personal human existence? Here, the role of Orthodox Christian laity is crucial since it is the Orthodox families and the faithful as a whole that are subject to the first waves and blows of liberal and postmodern phenomena. The present problem is critical because the moralistic relativism and individualism that undergird the social education prevalent in our time have imposed upon us social and psychological conditions that tend to dissolve the integrity of our personal being into ontically separate individualities and personalities alienated from communion and relation, so that our irreplaceable and unique personhood which only flowers in true communion and the call to relation, gets lost. However, the purpose of  such a theologically-rooted advocacy by the Church is not only to protect the faithful. It has to do, also, with the ecclesial expression of genuine Christian compassion, the going out and pouring wine and oil on human wounds, beyond any moralistic self-sufficiency.

The Church will not preserve its identity by withdrawing from the world into a ghetto in a self-sufficient fashion. The Committee for Ecumenical Relations facilitates this opening ad extra and coordinates and supervises Orthodox participation in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues and organizations, with particular reference to the existing Bi-Lateral Theological Consultations (Orthodox-Catholic and Orthodox-Lutheran) and Joint Commissions (i.e., of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bishops & of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches).

Our Orthodox Tradition has a very rich theological, cultural and aesthetic heritage. The theological solutions hammered out in the past, however, do not automatically transfer to the present situation facing the Church and, therefore, theological criteria capable of creatively addressing contemporary issues are first and foremost required. This continent needs well-educated theologians and theological institutions. The Committee for Theological Education is charged not only with identifying and cataloging all institutions and programs for theological learning found in the various jurisdictions but also with offering a wider, “catholic” vision of the universe, of the uniqueness of human person, etc. The Committee has to encourage scientists and scholars alike to occupy themselves with offering solutions to the most serious contemporary existential uncertainties, anxieties, and doubts with regard to ecclesial truth.

Christian ecclesial philosophy, art, and liturgical expression all bear in common a strong metaphysical pursuit, a quest for meaning within existence, both as its primordial cause and its goal. I humbly offer for your consideration today some suggestions—a fruit of a discussion with our guest prof. Christos Yannaras—for possible approaches to several contemporary difficulties we face as human beings and as Orthodox Christians. First, is the metaphysical perspective foreclosed within so-called human loneliness (aloneness)? In other words, does metaphysical meaning (at the existential level) lose relevance in the face of the ontic distantiality of the atomized and alienated individualism of contemporary man and the civilization that fosters it? Second, regarding prayer (as an inter-denominational, inter-religious phenomenon): when is it psychological self-satisfaction and when is it the real experience of a personal relation with God? Can we establish a criterion for the distinction between religious (psycho-somatic) and metaphysical (ontologically authentic spiritual) experience? Third, our history has known the two modes of organizing life, two cultural-civilizational paradigms: communion-centric (=Hellenic polis and Christian community, mostly in the East) and individual-centric (barbarian, and modern, mostly, western consumerist way of life). Since history cannot go backward and is unable to merely imitate the past, is it possible that we (=modern man) find a third paradigm for our human history and society? I mean: a mode of organizing life, going beyond utilitarianism, individualism and reaching the Evangelion as tropos that saves our mortal beings and leads us to the mode of Uncreated? Or tertium non datur? Fourth, why does the natural institution of marriage, whose traces can be found in the depths of pre-history, seem to be approaching extinction in the modern era? What precisely are the “facts” or forces that make difficult or almost impossible the conjugal co-existence of male and female (that is, male with female) in our current cultural paradigm? Fifth, there is, possibly, a deep contradiction in the so-called ecological movement. How can we save the planet when our approach to nature remains consumerist? Could the discovery of a personal, creative otherness in nature be the foundation for an effective and compelling kerygma of an ecclesial ecology?

These are some of the main ambiguities or social “aporia” that need our response as the uniquely catholic and holy ecclesial Body, a response grounded in Eucharistic ontology and not as ideology.

Conclusions for the Orthodox Christian Laity Witness

America is a country longing for the Living Truth embodied in the Orthodox Church, mostly because of the negligence of the ontological question in the cacophony of its fragmented, individualized, technologized life, drowning as it does the Divine summons to communion and relation. Orthodoxy as Church, speaking with one mouth and one heart, is able to offer that which is most needed: the fragrance of ecclesial con-celebration, a harmonized witness, a certainty of blessing of faith—in one word: a cross-resurrectional testimony to the True Life. That is the primary mission of the newly formed Assembly of the Orthodox Canonical Bishops in North and Central America.

The Assembly of the Bishops expresses the Truth and exercises ecclesial “reliability” by bestowing the fruits of its deliberations not on an objectified social structure but to the communities as charismatic events of communion. We can say that the success of the tremendous work of the Assembly must appear in the Spirit to be a dynamic, circular movement. It does not repose statically on any structure or ministry, but it expresses itself through a certain ministry by a dynamic perichoresis (περιχώρησις) in and through the whole body. The laity in the Church is not a self-sufficient entity precisely because it acquires its meaning from the episcopocentric community.

By participating in the work of the Assembly we are eyewitnesses of a grace-filled evolutionary process: mapping the DNA of the future pan-Orthodox organized Church which will greatly help her functioning in accordance with the Truth of her theanthropic Being. We have to take a risk in our decisive coming forward toward the other. This should be done in an institutional way, too.

Let us hope that in this perichoretic interpenetration the Faithful will feel the fresh waves of vitality through the episcopal expression of the common voice of the Orthodox Church on the American continent. This episcopal community of vision and voice by no means hinders the member bishops from remaining responsible to their respective Churches to expess the concerns of their Churches ad extra. Our attentiveness toward the existential realities of American life is the condition sine qua non of our authenticity. Only by an empathetic approach to the anxieties, sufferings, and problems of others, i.e., the neighbor of the Gospel, can we effectively bring the theory (theoria) of the new reality of inter-Orthodox relations on this continent to the light of the day.

May our Triune God of Three Persons in perfect communion bestow salvation to all, leading us to wholeness and to experience of His communal truth in its fullness.

Thank you!


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