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Towards the Great Council

I mentioned earlier that I was researching the preparations that were going on in the 1970s for the Council that was supposed to happen at that time. Interlibrary loan hasn’t exactly been a ton of help; the acts of the preparatory meetings aren’t in any library that they can find, and then other publications are listed, but when a request is entered, it comes back as “unfillable”.

The one thing ILL has been able to come up with is the English edition of the collection of introductory reports of the Preparatory Commision, Towards the Great Council, prepared in 1971 and published in 1972. It’s a quick read, all of 52 pages. Here’s what the back cover says:

Preparations are under way for a Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, the first since the seventh Ecumenical Council of 787. No date has been fixed as yet, but it could take place as soon as the long stage of preparation is terminated. In 1974 the First Preconciliar Panorthodox Conference should convene at Chambésy near Geneva. Its task will be to examine the six reports prepared by the Interorthodox Preparatory Commission in 1971 and presented in this edition, as well as to revise the catalogue of themes for the Great Council which was prepared by the First Panorthodox Conference at Rhodes in 1961.

The Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is planned to be held in all probability some time during 1974 and, in preparation for its discussions, the Interorthodox Preparatory Commission, representing the various Orthodox Churches, was commissioned to draw up a series of statements on six topics proposed, in 1968, by the Fourth Panorthodox Conference.

Well. I guess when you don’t have an emperor to see that things come together or else, four decade delays can happen, right?

There is much in here that is interesting and worthwhile; I’ve already discussed the report titled “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church”, which is two pages (well, just over one when you figure in the space for the title on the first page) and amounts to “This is not an issue of great concern; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The first report, “Divine Revelation and the way it expresses itself for the salvation of man”, has some very interesting things to say about Biblical scholarship.

…our Holy Orthodox Church declares that Scripture, being divinely inspired, preserves unimpaired within itself the presence of the Holy Spirit, in those revealed truths which it narrates, teaches and expounds for man’s salvation. In its words it preserves intact the collaboration between the divine and human factor in such a way that, even should the human presentation and clothing of God’s word be imperfect, yet the substance of the divine content of the revelation is not impaired. The essence and distinctive character of both remain intact; the human element is to be investigated according to human methods, while the divine aspect is not to be formulated in a one-sided, individualistic, and subjective fashion, but all the details are to be judged in accordance with the entirety of Holy Scripture and Revelation, and this entirety in its turn is to be judged in accordance with the Tradition of the Church from the beginning, there being but one source for both the unwritten and the written divine word. […]…it must be acknowledged that the attempt to ascertain which is the genuine and original Greek text according to tradition in the Orthodox Church, and the publication of an edition of the New Testament embodying such a text, is fraught with difficulties. This is especially so inasmuch as there exist several families and categories of different classes of manuscripts, on which most of the editions have been based, without any one of them being adjudged entirely accurate, complete, and perfect.

There also exist in our Eastern Church, on a somewhat more official level, editions issued by the local Orthodox Churches, such as (among others) the edition brought out in 1903 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This did not have the same aim as the so-called critical editions, that is, the discovery and restoration of the original text of the sacred books; but its aim was simply to restore the most ancient text…as found in the ecclesiastical tradition, and most notably in that of the Church of Constantinople. …[O]ur Holy Orthodox Church should entrust to expert Orthodox theologians the task of editing the best possible scholarly edition of the original Greek text of the New Testament, so that the text so prepared may thereafter be recognized and accepted by the whole of our Holy Orthodox Church. (pp. 6-7)

Now, there’s an interesting thought — that the Orthodox should take a bolder, more central role in Biblical scholarship, and that we should maybe be looking to the Greeks to produce the definitive critical edition of the Greek text.

It is the remaining four reports, “Adaptation of the ecclesiastical ordinances regarding fasting to meet present-day needs”, “Impediments to marriage”, “Concerning the calendar and the date of Easter”, and “Economy in the Orthodox Church”, where we get into material that no doubt sparks arguments.

The report on fasting is actually an illuminating — and sourced — walk through the history of fasting practices in Orthodox Christianity. It ultimately recommends what I would hesitate to call a relaxation of fasting norms (although they use that word), but rather more of a pastoral acknowledgment that one size doesn’t quite fit all. This, of course, already happens frequently at the parish level; here the recommendation is that this be formally and universally understood as what is going to happen. One of the big specific changes the Commission recommends is something that the Antiochians already do anyway — eliminate fasting altogether between Pascha and Ascension.

It is clear that the Commission views this recommendation as being made for pastoral reasons, not for purposes of modernizing:

[We recognize] that most of the faithful in the society of today do not keep all the rules of fasting, on account of the difficult circumstances in which they live. Contemporary conditions demand a form of fasting that is less severe and shorter in length. Such a change is necessary in order to avoid creating problems of conscience such as result from breaking the strict ecclesiastical ordinances — problems which poision the spiritual life of the faithful. A change in the rules of fasting currently in force does not conflict with the basic principles of fasting. (p. 28)

What’s fascinating, though — and what rather dates this text — is the bit about “the difficult circumstances in which” the faithful live necessitating changes. I would argue that nearly forty years later, at least in America and perhaps elsewhere, people don’t keep the fasts for exactly the opposite reasons — because their circumstances are great. Archimandrite Joseph (Morris), current abbot of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio, tells a story about how after a homily given during Lent, one of the “cradles” in his parish came up to him and said, “Honey — ” (“They always call you ‘honey,'” he muses at this point in the story) “– Honey, I heard you talking about fasting. That’s the old country. We don’t do that here.” What seems to be implied is that many of the faithful with ethnic ties to the faith associate fasting with the poverty they or their forebears were trying to escape.

The calendar discussion, of course, is already controversial; the Commission recommends solving the problem by adopting the new calendar and the current manner of reckoning the vernal equinox, arguing that it is

quite evident that the First Ecumenical Council considered the astronomical factor as of prime importance for determining the common date of Easter. It thus follows that all the Orthodox Churches following the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council, are abound to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, according to the most precise calculations that scientific astronomy can provide. In each case, this means employing the calendar considered by expert astronomers to be the most exact. (p. 37)

To its credit, the Commission “acknowledges certain local pastoral difficulties” with enacting and enforcing this idea, and “therefore proposes that the time and way of applying the resolution should be left to the discretion of the local Churches” (p. 38).

“Economy in the Orthodox Church” is doubtless the part that gets people in certain circles growling the “e” and “h” words. This is the issue the Commission seeks to address:

The problems concerning exactness and economy have attained vast proportions in contemporary Church life; for never before in the Church’s history have the issues of inter-Church and inter-confessional relations, of the rapprochement and union of Christians, and of ecumenical unity, been raised so persistently and in so many different guises. (p.41)

To that end, the Commission proposes, we may say the following about non-Orthodox:

The Church being one, all who are alienated from her may be considered as standing on different rungs of one and the same ladder leading up to her when they desire to return to the Church. More precisely, we could say that the Holy Spirit acts upon other Christians in very many ways, depending on their degree of faith and hope. It is consequently clear that Christians outside the Church, even when they do not maintain their faith intact and immaculate, none the less keep their link with Christ, through their unwavering hope in Him. These Christians rejoice ‘with the joy of hope’ (Rom. 12.12). They confess that, through hope, they possess Christ, the common Lord, along with all Christians, because the confession of Christ unites us all, He being our common Lord and the hope of our final salvation. (p. 45)

However,

all [of Orthodoxy’s] relationships with [the other Christian Churches and Confessions] are founded on the quickest and most objective clarification possible of the ecclesiological question and of their doctrinal teaching as a whole. [The Orthodox Church] also recognizes that rapprochement with them will be brought about on terms having as their centre the divine-human structure of the Church. Yet she by no means intends to forget the existence also of the multiple pastoral responsibilities belonging to the Church of Christ, comprising her duty to preach the Gospel ‘unabridged’, and to remove from the conscience of the faithful everywhere all manner of censure; for it is truly a scandal to them that Christians are divided, since ‘Christ is not divided’ (1 Cor. 1.13).

Our Holy Orthodox Church will in no way fail to apply akribeia [translated earlier as “exactness”] to those articles of faith and sources of grace which must be upheld, yet she will not neglect to employ oikonomia wherever permissible in local contacts with those outside her — provided always that they believe in God adored in Trinity and the basic tenets of the Orthodox faith which follow from this, remaining always within the framework of the teaching of the ancient Church, one and indivisible.

A further goal is, on the one hand, to provide a living witness to Christ and the true faith within a secular society and a world which for the most part does not follow Christ and, on the other hand, to lead all to the one Lord, the one faith, the one baptism, the one breaking of bread, the one God and Father of all (Eph. 4.5-6). (p. 50)

Thus, among the goals the Commission recommends, we find the following:

Within the bounds of economy — identified with the extreme loving-kindness of the Godhead — to find ways and means of applying this economy to the contemporary situation of good relations between the Christian Churches; with a view to furthering all aspects of common life in Christ: ecclesiastical practice, worship, common prayer, theological collaboration and consultation, etc., until the efforts of all the Churches toward union have been crowned with success.

And:

To act together on particular occasions, under the presuppositions accepted by the Orthodox Church…, in a spirit of mutual respect, striving, and cooperating in common for the edification of all in Christ. (p. 51)

Finally, the Commission maintains that, economy being the particular prerogative of the Orthodox Church and which “constitutes the only means whereby the church makes allowance for human weakness” (p. 51), these goals would constitute an application of economy “so that the work of man’s salvation on earth may come to fulfilment and all things may be reconciled in Christ at the last day” (p. 52).

If somebody would like to lend a hand in helping me unpack all of that, I’d be much obliged. It seems like there’s a lot there to which the people who feel strongly, one way or the other, about ecumenical activities might react, and I invite comments from all sides.

What is the most telling report of all in this little book, at least to me, is the section “Impediments to marriage”. Of particular interest is the two pages dealing with mixed marriages; we may sum up these two pages by saying, “We all handle this question a little differently, so we’re not sure what to do here.” It observes that each national church has a varying practice when it comes to mixed marriages, and that uniformity of practice would be good, but they are uncertain how to achieve that. Thus, “the Commission proposes that ways and means of applying economy in this matter be studied, and that in the meantime it should be left to the local Orthodox Churches to determine whether to apply economy under circumstances of necessity” (p. 35).

I had a professor of medieval history in my undergrad who said that a problem a unified Christendom ran into was that differing practices don’t have to be a problem, but that only works as long as they don’t have to be right next to each other, or as long as two groups in communion with each other but with different practices aren’t trying to evangelize the same people. Along related lines, in reading Clogg’s A Concise History of Greece recently, it became clear to me that part of the reason the various ethnic jurisdictions kept to themselves in this country for so long is because, well, they don’t like each other too terribly much (and not for bad historical reasons).

I am reminded of an edict from Rome I heard discussed a few years ago that Byzantine Catholic married priests are to stay away from the Vatican, because they will only serve to confuse the issue of priestly celibacy. Basically, the reality of different practices seems to be, “Sure, we can coexist and be in communion, but I’m afraid your difference in how you do things will only confuse my people if we interact too closely,” with a concomitant fear that efforts to standardize practice can only result in laxity (or rigidity, perhaps).

I have no idea how much this particular set of reports will inform the planned Council in its current form, but it is interesting to see what problems the Church hoped to solve at that time. The announced issues to be discussed this time around are as follows, per this article:

  1. The Orthodox diaspora, where the jurisdiction over the Orthodox flock beyond national borders will be defined. According to the canons now in effect, before the growth in the phenomenon of emigration the faithful outside of their home country belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.
  2. The manner of recognizing the status of autocephalous Church.
  3. The manner of recognizing the status of Church autonomy.
  4. Dypticha, meaning the rules of mutual canonical recognition among the Orthodox Churches.
  5. Establishing a common calendar for feasts. For example, some Churches celebrate the Nativity on December 25, others 10 (sic) days later.
  6. Impediments and canonicity of the sacrament of matrimony.
  7. The question of fasting in the contemporary world.
  8. Relationships with the other Christian confessions.
  9. The ecumenical movement.
  10. The contribution of the Orthodox in affirming the Christian ideals of peace, fraternity, and freedom.

Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 seem to be directly related to what’s discussed in Towards the Great Council; we’ll see how much has changed in the intervening years when it comes down to actually talking about them.

Meanwhile, I’d still love to get my hands on the other preparatory materials from the 1970s in a way that doesn’t involve me having to travel to Geneva. If anybody has any thoughts, I’m all ears.

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5 Responses to “<i>Towards the Great Council</i>”


  1. 1 David 8 May 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I’m struck by the reasonable tone, but then those who are primarily concerned (not simply cautious but would actually stand against a council deliberately because they anticipate a result they fear) are not interested in tone. And maybe they shouldn’t be, I can’t answer that.

    The calendar seems an easy issue for me and I see no necessary link between it and broader “all who claim to follow Christ are one” sorts of ecumenism. I don’t worry much about that as nearly all the converts in the west are bluntly walking away from such movements within their previous traditions.

    Met Jonah left the ECUSA, he isn’t going to turn around and say, “yup, they are us”.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 9 May 2009 at 12:58 am

    Point of clarification: if somebody wants to pay for me to travel to Geneva to see these documents, then any objection I may have to going to Geneva would be eliminated. How’s that sound?

  3. 3 rwp 9 May 2009 at 3:10 pm

    “One of the big specific changes the Commission recommends is something that the Antiochians already do anyway — eliminate fasting altogether between Pascha and Ascension.”

    Blink! We went right back to Wednesday and Friday fasts after Bright Week!

    • 4 Richard Barrett 9 May 2009 at 3:17 pm

      Yeah, well — not in AOCA. “We do not fast while the Bridegroom is with us” or something to that effect.


  1. 1 Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church — When and Why « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 3 June 2009 at 3:18 pm

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