In the seventh and last chapter of Being as Communion, Zizioulas turns his attention to the identity of the local Church. In the Orthodox tradition the Church is identified with the eucharistic community so that wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, there the Church is in its fullness as the Body of Christ. The concept of the local Church is based both on the catholic nature of the Eucharist, which means that “each eucharistic assembly should include all the members of a Church of a particular place” (247), and on the geographical nature of the Eucharist, which links the Eucharist to a community of a particular place. This means that there should only be one eucharistic assembly in each place, a principle that Zizioulas traces to the Pauline letters identification of e0kklhesi/a with the assembled believers of a particular city.
This principle becomes somewhat complicated by the phenomenon of household Churches. However, Zizioulas argues that such Churches were not based on the unit of the family but were rather the assembled Christians of a particular city who met as guests of a particular house. They were geographically rather than sociologically based and thus did not seriously challenge the principle of catholicity.
A more serious complication was the emergence of the parish, for this raised the question of whether the parish can be seen as a local Church. One the one hand, the principle of the identification of the Church with the Eucharist would seem to imply that the parish is a local Church. On the other hand, however, it is the bishop who is the president of the eucharistic assembly, making it impossible to consider a parish a local Church. Zizioulas writes:
What the emergence of the parish did was to destroy this structure, a destruction which affected not only the episcopal office but also that of the presbyter. For it meant that from then on the eucharist did not require the presence of the presbyters as a college– an essential aspect of the original significance of the presbyterium – in order to exist as a local Church. An individualpresbyter was thus enough to create and lead a eucharistic gathering – a parish. Could that gathering be called “Church”?
The answer to this question has been historically a negative one with regard to the Orthodox Church. I personally regard this as a fortunate thing for the following reason: the creation of the parish as a presbytero-centric unity, not in the original and ecclesiologically correct form which we might describe as “presbyterium-centered,” but in the sense of an individualpresbyter acting as head of a eucharistic community, damaged ecclesiology seriously in two respects. On the one hand, it destroyed the image of the Church as a community in which all orders are necessary as constitutiveelements. The parish as it finally prevailed in history made redundant both the deacon and the bishop. (Later, with the private mass, it made redundant even the laity.) On the other hand, and as a result of that, it led to an understanding of the bishop as an administrator rather than a eucharistic president, and the presbyter as a “mass-specialist,” a “priest” – thus leading to the medieval ecclesiological decadence in the West, and to the well-known reactions of the Reformation, as well as to a grave confusion in the ecclesiological and canonical life of the Eastern Churches themselves. (250-251)
The problem of the ecclesiological status of the parish is thus, according to Zizioulas, one of the most fundamental problems for ecclesiology in both East and West. Orthodoxy, by identifying the local Church with the presence of the bishop has unconsciously brought about a rupture in its own eucharistic ecclesiology for it is no longer possible to equate every celebration of the Eucharist with the local Church. However,
by so opting it has allowed for the hope to exist for the restoration of the communal nature of the local Church, according to which the local Church can be called e0kklhesi/a only when it is truly catholic, i.e. when it includes (a) the laymen of all cultural, linguistic, social and other identities living in that place, and (b) all the other orders of the Church as parts of the same community. Thus one can hope that one day the bishop will find his proper place which is the eucharist, and the rupture in eucharistic ecclesiology caused by the problem “parish-diocese” will be healed in the right way. (251)