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Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church — When and Why

For various reasons, I tend to not pay much attention to certain groups that have positioned themselves as voices within the Orthodox landscape of North America. Orthodox Christian Laity, as a general rule, tends to be one of those groups to whom I don’t pay much attention. I’d rather not go into a clinical level of detail about the reasons for this, except to offer the mild suggestion that their very name appears to set up a shibboleth about a particular view of ecclesial authority and its relationship to what a local, visibly unified both sacramentally and administratively, Orthodox Church in this country might eventually look like, and to note that certain parties associated with OCL appear to explicitly take the attitude of, “If you don’t agree with this,  then you are against having an American Orthodox Church.” (I will also mention that the word συνδιακονία appears to not actually exist; at the very least, it is not attested in the Great Scott, BDAG, or Sophocles. Perhaps it is in the Patristic Lexicon; I don’t know, because I don’t yet have that. Now, according to the Great Scott, συνδιακονός is attested to in the Classical literature as meaning “fellow-servant,” and according to Sophocles it means “fellow-deacon” in Byzantine works, but “co-ministry” seems to be, shall we say, a populist innovation along the lines of λειτουργεία meaning “work of the people” rather than “public service”. If I’m wrong, great — just let me know in which literature the word appears and has the meaning of “co-ministry”, and I’ll be more than happy to accept the correction.)

Nonetheless, Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad: A Great Council of the Church — When and Why, a collection of proceedings from a symposium held in 2007 to celebrate OCL’s twentieth anniversary, is a worthwhile read. It is somewhat less than satisfying as a scholarly document, since references are not plentiful (although there are a handful), but it is useful as a collection of differing points of view on just what the forthcoming Council (a more speculative matter at the time than it is now) might be able to accomplish, or, well, not. Abp. Nathaniel of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate (OCA) summarizes the question:

…[H]ow [is] autocephaly — or the right of self-rule, including election of its head — […] earned or recognized or taken[?] Who could answer this question? What body would decide? The idea was that perhaps the way to create this “united autocephalous” entity in North America is primarily through such a council. Among the possible answers to the question was: “Is this not the role of a Great Council of the Church?” (p. iv)

And depending on which paper you’re reading, the answer is, “Yes”. Or “No”. Or “Yes, but a Council shouldn’t happen right now anyway.” Or “Maybe, which is part of why a Council hasn’t happened yet.” Or “Yes, perhaps, but we’d rather it didn’t happen and we reserve the right to not play along anyway even if there is a Council and they do make a decision regarding North America.”

Metropolitan Christopher of the Serbian Orthodox Archdiocese of Midwestern America’s paper kicks off the book, and my two big takeaways were a) as long as he feels that the term “diaspora” is being used as a club by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to reserve as much control over the North American situation as possible, or being used at all for that matter, a Council cannot function properly, and he invokes the rhetoric of Fr. Justin Popovic that the Council as currently planned would cause further division; b) the Serbs keep their own counsel on the question of jurisdictional unity in this country.

Fr. Alexander Abramov, the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate to the United States, essentially says the same thing but with broader language; the basic points remain that Moscow doesn’t trust the EP’s intentions or procedures in trying to convene this Council, and that both the Patriarchal churches in this country as well as ROCOR may or may not choose to participate in a hypothetical united Orthodox Church in North America, depending on whether or not they perceive that it is in their interests to do so.

Fr. John Erickson of St. Vladimir’s Seminary gives a very useful historical overview of the series of events leading up to the present efforts to convene a Council, starting in 1930 (and including the material I examine here). He also offers a respectful analysis of the issues surrounding Chalcedon 28; while he refutes the understanding of it as giving control of the entire “diaspora” to Constantinople, he also says that “this assessment is not meant to diminish the leadership role that Constantinople could legitimately assume within the communion of the Orthodox churches… In this quest for tangible unity, the Patriarchate of Constantinople can play a leading role” (pp. 38-9).

Armenian Orthodox Dr. Vigen Guroian of the University of Virginia relates his perspective on how Orthodox youth seem to transcend the issues of ethnicity, and how he hopes this will plant the seeds of real Orthodox unity. I am tempted to designate this the “money quote” for the whole book:

The ethnic identities may serve the limited good of initially helping to bind the religious community together. That which is binding, however, may also keep apart those who share the same faith and ultimately reduce our mentality to a denominational one. (p. 57)

Finally, the paper of Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou of Boston University is unique in two ways. One, it provides what is probably the most scholarly analysis of the present situation. Secondly, she unequivocally defends the immediate need for the Council and the Ecumenical Patriarch’s prerogative in calling one at what she believes is a moment in history where we must be decisive.

[W]e, as the Church, are living in fundamentally different times and unprecedented conditions than those in which the Church has ever existed… human beings now possess the capacity to destroy all of God’s created order… [and] stand at the threshold of the capacity to create human life in a manner wholly separated from the act of erotic love. In this respect, the Church finds itself confronting the conditions whereby man believes that he can both threaten and — potentially — substitute for God’s role as Creator. The present moment, therefore, represents a combination of power and hubris unseen in human history or in the history of the Church… [N]either the canons of the Church in their current form, nor the full body of Holy Tradition understood as fixed, can begin to offer adequate responses to the unprecedented creative and destructive reality of the present historical moment. A Great and Holy Council, as an expression of the living Tradition of the Church, is a sine qua non for the Church in any meaningful effort to come to terms with, and transform, our current historical reality… [As well,] the need for a Great and Holy Council stems from the historically unprecedented condition of global religious pluralism, and — for Orthodox Christians in America — from the reality of incomparable religious diversity. (pp. 63-4)

As regards the Ecumenical Patriarchate,

it is important to voice support for the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene a Great and Holy Council. Laity, clergy, and hierarchy from the Orthodox world writ large must give voice to this message, which effectively acknowledges the ecclesiastical authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A crucial component of this message, however, must be the need for the absolute inclusiveness in the participation at the Council; everyone must be invited to this spiritual banquet, from all jurisdictions and from all strata (ordained and lay) in the church as the body of Christ. By empowering the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene the Council, and just as important, by charging that Patriarch to be all-inclusive, the red herring of authority, which, in reality, reflects the worst kinds of struggles over power, will be eliminated. (p. 70)

In the end, however, the Council needs to be seen as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself:

Orthodox Christians must recognize that the Great and Holy Council is not the answer, the terminus, the resolution of the challenges and opportunities confronting Orthodox people today. Instead, there is a need to reframe such an event in its proper context; specifically, the event of the Council is simply a part — albeit a crucial one — of the overall process of Orthodoxy’s continuing adjustment to, engagement with, and transformation of the world in which we live. (ibid.)

Overall, as I’ve said before, I feel sometimes like we’re a family of people who don’t like each other too much. There are, of course, historical reasons for this, but I will say that in reading this collection of papers, I find myself wanting to hope more in what the academics have to say than the clergy.

To sum up — it’s a quick read (80 pages or so), and provides a couple of exceptional essays as well as a good overview of what the various positions are. It’s worth your time.

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