Source: Ancient Faith Radio
February 1, 2016 Length: 47:29
Archdeacon John Chryssavgis delivers the 33rd Annual Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. He is introduced by Fr. Alexander Rentel.
CLICK HERE to listen to the interview.
Your Beatitude, Very Rev. Dean, venerable hierarchs and reverend clergy, very distinguished friends, faculty, beloved seminaries, and dear guests: Permit me to say that I could not imagine a more touching affirmation for my regard for the legacy of your school than this honor. My admiration for Frs. John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann shaped my ministry both here and in Australia, and I would be hard-pressed to identify any other clergymen with the breadth and boldness of the man whose name graces this memorial lecture who decried the shameless grandstanding of a Church woefully disregarding its role in the world, yet not of the world.
We are paying the price (he writes in his journals) of the crisis of Orthodoxy, because we created so many idols. We are concerned with the fate of patriarchates and engulfed in jurisdictions, all of them brandishing canons, yet we try to conquer the West with what is weak and ambiguous in our heritage. This arrogance, self-satisfaction, and pompous triumphalism are frightening.
Some five decades later, in a similar assessment that I consider definitive for the Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the fifth synaxis of primates in Constantinople in October of 2008.
We have received the true faith (he said). We commune of the same sacraments, we basically keep the same Typikon, and we’re governed by the same canons. Despite this, we must admit that we present an image of incomplete unity, as if we were not one Church, but a federation of churches.
And as I listened, I recalled Fr. Meyendorff writing in 1978.
Unquestionably (he said), our conception of the Church recognizes the need for leadership in the world episcopate, spokesmanship by the first patriarch, and a ministry of coordination without which conciliarity is impossible. In our chaotic years, we could indeed use wise, objective, authoritative leadership from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Fr. John died just months after the election of His All-Holiness. I sometimes wonder how he might welcome the patriarch’s visionary leadership today, especially in light of the Holy and Great Council, to which I now turn your attention.
Of course, it might be better to avoid any meeting of bishops. [Laughter] I know of no good to have come from even a single synod. I know of no solutions that resulted, only additional problems that arose. Their outcomes are arguments, ambitions, and rivalries. Bishops prefer to reprove others rather than resolve eternal issues. That’s a description that very well echoes my experience with regard to the futility and frustration of ecclesiastical meetings, but the words actually belong to St. Gregory the Theologian—and who am I to disagree with such a prominent saint? [Laughter]
Today, even enlightened Orthodox hierarchs and theologians, along with, of course, uninformed and malevolent critics, diminish the importance of the forthcoming Great Council. So, given St. Gregory’s skepticism, why bother convening a council? Would it be recognized as ecumenical? What issues will the council address? Will it prove a source of unity, or disunity? These are some questions I hope to address at least partially this evening, since everything is unpredictable, or at least everything depends on providence.
At the same synaxis of 2008, the final communiqué reaffirmed the primates’ obligation to safeguard Church unity, to heal canonical anomalies in the Diaspora and to resume preparations for the Great Council. When the primates assembled again for their sixth synaxis at the Phanar in March of 2014, arguably their foremost decision was to convene the Holy and Great Council at the church of Hagia Eirene, the site of the Second Ecumenical Council, on Pentecost 2016, “unless something unforeseen occurs.” Since then, some churches rejoiced in this decision; other churches reiterate the phrase, “unless something unforeseen occurs.” So the “unless something unforeseen occurs” Holy and Great Council has been on the table, in fact, since the early 1960s in Rhodes, although plans and proposals began as early as the 1920s in Constantinople and the 1930s on Mt. Athos. The Church of Russia did not send representatives to those initial meetings, because, we’re told, of complicated relations at the time with the state.
But the forthcoming council is unprecedented in that it will mark the first-ever gathering of delegates from 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches, including the ancient patriarchates except Rome. In the first millennium, there were only five sees, located exclusively around the Mediterranean and monitored rigidly by a secular authority, because someone has to supervise the bishops, too. I’m not sure that it is correct naïvely to dismiss disagreements between Orthodox churches as “ecclesiastical rivalry”; while such an impression is not entirely mistaken and while the process is painfully frustrating, it remains a far more nuanced and representative process than perceived. Orthodox authority is essentially and indelibly circular, at least symbolical, of conciliarity and communion.
Yet, despite assessments by critics and pundits, both cynical and constructive, we should not expect from the Holy and Great Council such radical consequences as the Second Vatican Council had for the Roman Catholic Church, because, while the Ecumenical Patriarch has responsibility, has authority as the first among equals, he would never imagine or impose primacy without collegiality; and second, the autocephalous Orthodox churches are involved in decision-making, which invariably incorporates local reception and not just universal imposition; and third, while change in the Orthodox Church really does move at glacial speed, it is always, nonetheless, organic, neither reform from above nor revolution from below; it is the continuity of a living tradition and a succession of an apostolic authority.
The Second Vatican Council marked the 21st council of the Roman Catholic Church, seven of which are shared with our Church. By contrast, the Orthodox have not summoned or sanctioned an ecumenical council since the Seventh General Council of 787. Some maintain that the Council of Constantinople in 879/880, which referred to itself actually as a holy and ecumenical council, that that was the eighth such council, because it incorporated all of the churches at the time, including Rome. Others claim that the councils of 1341 and 1351 in Constantinople, the ones that ratified the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, should also be recognized as ecumenical. The same is sometimes said of the Council of Constantinople in 1484, the one that repudiated the Union of Florence. But most theologians continue to speak of seven ecumenical councils.
In some ways, every council is a confirmation and a prolongation of previous councils, so can the Great Council be considered ecumenical? Canon law does not define any principles of ecumenicity. There’s really only one test, ultimately, and that’s retrospective acceptance and adoption by the people of God. Of course, while the Church is not democratic, neither is it hierocratic. We must constantly disabuse ourselves of the temptation to objectify truth, identifying it with the letter of Scripture or the office of the bishop or even the institution of the council. In 1848, the eastern patriarchs affirmed:
Among us, neither patriarchs nor council could ever introduce new teaching, for the defender of religion is the very body of the Church, that is to say, the people itself, which desires that its doctrine remain unchanged from age to age, identical to that of its fathers.
Now, at the Council of Jerusalem, we read that the elders and apostles met to deliberate. The multitude kept silent, but it was not passive. Much like in the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is invoked upon us and upon the Gifts before us, so, too, it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with all the Church, the power rightly to divide the truth is not granted to hierarchy in isolation but to believers in communion.
What, then, will be discussed at the Holy and Great Council? Certain detractors are very quick to dismiss the Council as inconsequential, claiming that “no weighty doctrine will be defined there,” but I’m not so sure that bishops attending earlier councils did so with some predetermination that they were destined by inspiration to settle some major theological debate or ecclesiastical dispute. That would be arrogance of the highest degree, even for clergy. Most councils, in fact, focused primarily on internal governance. That’s natural! Councils are how the Church is supposed to function. In the felicitous remark of Patriarch Daniel of Romania at the recent synaxis of primates:
The forthcoming Great Council should not be seen as an eschatological phenomenon in the sense of being our last chance to meet before the Last Times, but as a significant historical event reinforcing conciliarity.
You see, councils are what bishops are expected to schedule on their calendars. How did we ever lose sight of that? And then once assembled, the bishops would deal with the issues at hand. So the agenda of the “unless something unforeseen occurs” Great Council is an opportunity, in fact, to reveal the heart and mystery of Orthodoxy to a world that yearns for an account of the hope that is within us. Yet an air of paranoia appears to cloud the agenda. This is not excessively inflated a description for much of the reaction to the Council.
Fr. Schmemann might label it “Pentecost of the Devil,” the polar opposite of what a council is or is supposed to be, the expression of Pentecost. How else do I justify the concern among—I am talking here official Orthodox churches—about the Phanar’s “hidden agenda”? How can you explain religious websites that suspect, and I’m quoting, “Top U.S. officials setting the agenda specifically for homosexuality”? Or university professors who would lured devotees, their devotees, to “Phanariote schemes plotting unity with papacy and Protestantism”? How do we respond to respected Orthodox hierarchs who express fears about “secret inter-Orthodox meetings”? Other detractors contend that ecumenical councils convene only to eradicate treacherous heresy.
However, the notion that contemporary challenges somehow don’t measure up to the glamour of early heresies is, I think, just another ruse for subverting the Great Council. I’d love to sympathize with those who dust pews in search of contemporary Arians or look in religious haystacks for current Nestorians, but they will more likely find their modern heretics among Orthodox believers who are intolerant of other faiths or among Orthodox clergy who find ways of reconciling the Gospel creed with secular greed. They may even discover heterodoxy cajoling a synaxis of primates or an assembly of bishops to justify ethnophyletism as “differences in missionary or pastoral approach.” Are these not matters of truth and salvation? Are these not issues of life and death? Is it just thefilioque and the papacy that scandalize us?
In 1961 at Rhodes, the agenda actually included over 100 items, subdivided even into eight distinct categories. Well, the final ten on the agenda today relate to, first of all, internal relations among the churches; secondly, issues of pastoral and practical nature; and thirdly, external relations with other churches and the world. Over the past 18 months, two special committees, a pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar consultation and a synaxis of primates, labored to revise and finalize documents for each of the agenda items. Here’s a brief run-down of the events. There was meaningful progress on item one, the Orthodox Diaspora, with the creation of the Assemblies of Bishops. I’ll return to this specifically.
A document was adopted on the second item, autonomy, but no conclusion was reached on the third and conversation was conducted on the fourth, both dealing with the landmine of how autocephaly is determined and the hypersensitive ranking of churches on the diptychs. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew lamented at the synaxis just this past week: “No church wants to forfeit its place in the order.” It didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict—I did this two months ago as I was thinking of this lecture—that these items would be somehow circumvented.
On item five, about a common calendar, no revision was made to the original language dating back to 1986. The text on the calendar initially considered the date of Easter on the basis of scientific calculations in order just to ponder—again, no hidden secret meetings here—a common celebration of Easter. But any favorable impact on Orthodox communities in the West notwithstanding, the mere prospect of alarming people by even uttering the word “calendar” buried the entire discussion, and at the synaxis this past week, the item was dropped from the Council’s agenda.
As for item six, on marriage impediments, a hasty revision under pressure to stand up to the “evil forces in the world” resulted in an incompetent, even impotent, statement. But should I be that surprised that celibates struggled to produce a reasonable or charitable text on marriage? The text on marriage impediments might actually have brought some consolation, some dignity to numerous widowed clergymen, or even monastics seeking to surrender their celibacy, but the Church often handles issues of sexuality by denunciation or denial.
As for item seven, on rules of fasting, while a revised text was approved, there was a fundamental shift in emphasis from the original intent of addressing fasting regulations in missionary fields and in Western societies to reinforcing familiar precepts of fasting. Again, instead of striving to understand canons, it is often simpler to underline rigidity for fear of undermining rules. Items eight and nine, on inter-Christian dialogues and the ecumenical movement, were combined into one text, and item ten, on the role of Orthodoxy today, was adopted but not signed by all until the synaxis this past week.
Look, the texts are clearly imperfect, even incomplete. Most hierarchs are dissatisfied, and the general public will certainly be disappointed. I will analyze briefly the Diaspora and ecumenism in a moment, but was it realistic to expect more of the agenda? In response to one hierarch’s plea that his “church sees no reason for the Great Council to convene unless we improve the documents to the level of those produced by Vatican II,” the Archbishop of Cyprus pointed out at the same synaxis of primates that what was achieved was actually the best we could do. And it was spiritually refreshing to hear a man that I admire so much, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, contend, “Let’s admit our humility, our inefficiency, and our poverty.” And he added, “Our documents are the deficient, even defective prosphoron that we offer to God who alone can transform them into Body and Blood of Christ.”
But still, how do you imagine that observers might view the issues where our hierarchs have either reached agreement or chosen to differ? Will people interpret ostensible consensus or ostentatious controversy as misplacement in the hierarchy of values? Will they sense a glaring omission of other topics like the pain of divorce or the second-class role of women? Why so little headway on the pastoral issues of marriage and fasting? Why the contentious stand-off on autocephaly and the diptychs? Would it not be scandalous if bishops at the Great Council argued over the desire to rule, which St. John Chrysostom called “the mother of heresies,” at the expense of addressing practical concerns of our faithful? Would it not reflect a dismal lack of moral compass and prophetic criticism if a document related to Orthodoxy in the world—instead of in its own world—did not condemn social and financial injustice as well as racial and sexual discrimination, on which many of our churches are often guilty of silence, if not collusion?
But let me further explore the first item on the agenda, an indication, I think, of its paramount importance for the founding fathers of the Council. The item related to normalizing the canonical status of our churches in places with overlapping jurisdictions. Will our bishops work toward a unified Church? is the basic question; or will they persist in clinging to ethnic blinders? I would contend that the most consequential and enduring pronouncement of the Great Council will be its determination on the Diaspora. The question is whether churches in the United States, in western Europe, in Australasia, comprising immigrants and converts, long-established in their new homelands, miles away and cultures apart from their mother churches, have the single-mindedness and commitment to work in harmony.
Regrettably, many Orthodox churches seem to be retreating into a sheltered, albeit stifling provincialism, which they explain, even excuse, as pastorally more urgent than concerns of collegiality and communion. It is depressing—it’s even deplorable to see contemporary leaders, exposed to and educated in the global challenges of the modern world, less interested in transcending parochialism and prejudice than their predecessors, who were restricted by an oppressive xenophobia behind the Iron Curtain. Isn’t this sin of nationalism alone sufficient reason to convene the Great Council? How can we so brazenly justify this heresy, sometimes even theologically and canonically?
In 1872, the Council of Constantinople “decried, denounced, and condemned ethnophyletism,” emphatically declaring its proponents schismatics. In 2009, the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference in Geneva unanimously established the Assemblies of Bishops in countries with overlapping jurisdictions, a decision unanimously referred for approval to the Great Council in June. The explicit mandate of these Assemblies, their “unswerving obligation,” is to safeguard the unity of the Church and, to quote the 2008 primate synaxis, “to advance the swift healing of canonical anomalies.”
Despite justifications or vindications, we must candidly admit that our churches have flagrantly diverged from the canonical and ecclesiological principles of two millennia. For a Church that prides itself on tradition, surely it’s embarrassing to defend our contention and competition on the basis of preference for ethnic fascination or preeminence of historical foundation or a predilection for numerical force. We must frankly admit that we are relentlessly enticed by the ideologies of panhellenism, panslavism, and panarabism. I appreciate that we should embrace the broader social and cultural, even the political, even the financial dimensions of global immigration, but our ultimate vision should always remain ecclesiological, and the Assemblies of Bishops constitute a positive and constructive way forward. Accordingly, the primates recently issued a formal decision in Geneva.
The Assemblies of Bishops, on the one hand, tangibly reveal the unity of the Orthodox Church (or the lack of unity), and on the other hand ascertain the impossibility of immediately transitioning to the strict canonical order of the Church. So this synaxis resolves to propose to the Holy and Great Council that this institution may be maintained until such time as circumstances mature to apply canonical precision.
In a way, the issue of the Orthodox Diaspora has already been resolved, by the synaxis, at least, by the Council. There may be no adopted text, but there is an agreed procedure, so the creation of the Assemblies of Bishops is really itself a test of our willingness and readiness, ultimately our integrity to be and to work together, to acknowledge and to affirm our unity. Are we deliberately shrugging the responsibility for Church unity, placed in our humble hands, by the Church, by our own mother churches, by pan-Orthodox decision? And, if so, are we squandering another invaluable, once-in-generations opportunity to advance the Church in this country?
Just as the newly-ordained deacon holds the precious Body of Christ in his fragile hands, the promise to shape the Church has been placed before us. We bear this treasure in our earthen vessels. Have we become so dysfunctional by division and ambition that we are bereft of the will and the humility to remember and realize the vision of unity?
The other item I’d like to examine briefly concerns external relations with non-Orthodox churches. I don’t think that we can continue disregarding Orthodox isolationism and its attending fundamentalism that consider dialogue with the other as contamination or heresy. The tyranny of fragmented truth blinds people to the fullness of truth, whereas the spirit of truth leads us into all the truth. It does not obsess about partial or partisan truth. Think of how saintly theologians like Photius the Great and Mark of Ephesus, those genuine confessors and giant pillars, are frequently parodied as mirroring the conscience of the most orthodox of Orthodox, although they were far more receptive to dialogue than their small-minded contemporary cheerleaders. Is not such a perverse and divisive distortion a sufficiently ecclesiological heresy for a council to convene? Such abuses do not reflect the catholic experience of the Church; they’re even incompatible with statements by St. Mark of Ephesus himself. Listen to one passage from St. Mark.
We need investigation and conversation in matters of theological disputation so that compelling and conspicuous arguments may be considered. Profound benefit is gained from such conversation, if the objective is not altercation but truth, and if the motive is not solely to triumph over others. Inspired by grace and bound by love, our goal is to discover the truth, and we should never lose sight of this, even when the pursuit is prolonged. Let us listen amicably so that our loving exchange might contribute to consensus (”omonoia” is his word).
A united and unequivocal response to extremist circles often influenced by rigid clergy is important here: a reminder to our people that Orthodoxy must be in constant dialogue with the world. If Orthodoxy is enclosed, not in dialogue with those outside, it will both fail in its mission and no longer be the catholic Church. It will, as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew wrote on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2010, “It will be reduced to a ghetto on the margins of history,” which does not imply resignation to denominationalism or minimalism. The Church always seeks the whole truth about the whole of humanity within the whole cosmos.
But one of the paralyzing factors in the conciliar process has been the introduction of consensus as a way of appealing to or even appeasing churches. Under the rules of operation adopted in 2009 and also in 2014 at the synaxis, decisions are taken by consensus, which is of course intended to build trust in a mutually respectful process. The Patriarchate of Moscow flaunts the principle of consensus as “a trophy.”
But how did voting take place in the early Church? Since unanimity echoes uniformity, no church, not even Rome, could veto or control the ultimate decision. From the mid-third century, based on Roman law, decision by majority was the general practice. Majority vote was proof of tradition, though it was inspiration, not numbers and not power, inspiration brought about a majority of votes. So to invoke, or at least imagine the presence of the Holy Spirit, a copy of the Bible became a prominent and permanent fixture in the councils, as it is in the synaxis and as it will be in the Great Council.
Professor MacMullen, formerly of Yale, writes:
Democracy teaches the equation: “Many is good,” but a truer understanding suggests another equation: “Many is god.” In voting, a power beyond the human might assert itself. Argumentation going off track invited divine rebuke.
Now, the method of voting is of course a matter of conjecture. Evidence is very scant and very obscure. Out of over 15,000 councils that might have convened between the fourth and sixth centuries, we can only identify about 250. These councils were well-attended and, for the most part, representative. Historian Philostorgius claims that during the First Council of Nicaea, a paper was circulated for the bishops to sign. At other councils, bishops or churches changed places to join another group—a little bit like what will happen in Iowa tomorrow. Sometimes voting reflected the system in the Roman senate, resembling decision-making at the British House of Commons: the yeas standing on the right, the nays on the left. So while the majority vote was irrefutably the way that decisions were taken, there was no clearly established manner of determining such majority, so long as seniority and fair representation were assured.
It is, of course, incumbent on some Orthodox churches not to obfuscate consensus with unanimity, manipulating it for procrastination. The shield of consensus reflects the lamentable lack of conciliarity ultimately in the Orthodox Church. How otherwise explain Moscow’s insistence on consensus, when this was virtually ensured that the council, in its preparatory meetings and even in the council sessions itself, would not reach agreement on any vital matter? Is it so surprising that Moscow’s Department for External Church Relations complained, “Preparations for the pan-Orthodox Council have progressed not quickly enough”? And, by the way, it’s the same church that insists in 2014 on including the phrase “unless something unforeseen occurs.”
Consensus was never a model of conciliar expression. While consensus is neither orthodox nor traditional, voting as churches, that people criticize today, churches rather than as bishops, is both orthodox and traditional. Personal voting probably reflects more modern individualism. It’s a way for rambunctious critics to have their day in court. Consensus would be inconceivable and intolerable in the internal synodal procedure of any church today, even Moscow, even Constantinople. No patriarch waits for consensus.
But let me conclude: Conciliarity implies retrieving a process that involves renouncing preconceptions of authority and communion, and relearning fresh ways of being and working together. To retrieve conciliarity, our bishops must first of all assemble. The Greek word for “council,” “synodos,” simply means being on the same road: “syn-odos.” And journeying towards conciliarity means acquiring a sense of re-conciliation. It’s called forgiveness. It’s called—the Greek word “synchōresis”—being in the same space with one another, because we must honestly admit that we have become estranged from the culture of conciliarity and communion.
Are we surprised that so many of our churches are saturated by un-Western or anti-Western bias? To quote Fr. Schmemann’s favorite, Julien Green, “Culture cannot be improvised.” You see, culture matters, and culture matures with time. It will take a long, arduous exercise of discipline and schooling, a lifetime of cultivating and convening councils, to rediscover this culture as an intrinsic and grace-filled etiquette of Church life, which is not a luxury but compulsory for the Church. There is no Church without council.
St. John Chrysostom defines Church as “institution and the synod.” In the absence of a council, a church may function institutionally, but it’s not Church. When bishops gather together, as we’re told, the Spirit descends. Suddenly, breathtakingly, then even bland statements miraculously produced by consensus at a synaxis prove less important than the promise of the Spirit that appeared as tongues of fire, albeit only after the apostles held their own tongues. Then bishops in council can boldly pronounce, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
Of course, only time will demonstrate whether the Orthodox autocephalous churches can lay aside the temptations of power and trends toward nationalism, because I was surprised that one primate at the last synaxis vehemently protested that he had “never heard a more outrageous and offensive a statement” in pan-Orthodox meetings than another primate reprimanding the plenary for ethnocentrism. But if they can, if the churches can overcome this ethnocentrism, then the Holy and Great Council—unless something unforeseen occurs—promises to be a watershed event, even if the conscience of the faithful will reveal where it stands.
Even if imperceptibly, something changed last week, something changed profoundly and permanently for Orthodox Christianity. I predict that things won’t be the same, moving forward, because the spotlight is on us now. People can tell who’s playing political Hunger Games or Trivial Pursuit. Our Church can play a major role in the world, but for this to happen, all of the Church’s indispensable structures, especially its bishops, especially its councils, must be humbly placed at the service of God, the Gospel, and the Body of Christ. Then centers of primacy will no longer be centralized powers, but sanctuaries of communion. What a refreshing example that would prove for a Church that is called and claims to be in the world, yet not of the world!
Thank you very much. I’m sorry to drag on. [Applause]