Being as Communion

My last post was the final installment of my reading of Metropolitan Zizioulas’ Being as Communion. My reading of this book, and the need to find a way to process it, was really the impetus that gave birth to this blog but it has been a somewhat interrupted reading and has taken much longer than originally envisaged. I am also conscious that my posts have been largely limited to summarising the book and have not engaged it that significantly, but that will have to do for the time being. In some ways I would have liked to have considered Zizioulas’ critics more. And, perhaps more importantly, I would have liked to have discussed the implications of what emerged. Some of this seems obvious, some of it will hopefully emerge in other posts, and some of it is perhaps best left unsaid for the time being.

In any case, here are links to the posts, which I will also put on my “Completed Series” page:


Chapter 1: Personhood and Being

Chapter 2: Truth and Communion

Chapter 3: Christ, the Spirit and the Church

Chapter 4: Eucharist and Catholicity

Chapter 5: Apostolic Continuity and Succession

Chapter 6: Ministry and Communion

Chapter 7: The local Church in a perspective of communion


P.S. I had been planning to read Zizioulas’ Communion and Otherness after this book. I would still like to read it in the foreseeable future, but it will have to wait a while!

Zizioulas continues this last chapter of Being as Communion by briefly considering three areas that raise questions about our understanding of the local Church today.

The first of these is the relationship between locality and ecclesiality. The Church is local “when the saving event of Christ takes root in a particular local situation” and absorbs and uses “all the characteristics of a given local situation” without imposing an alien culture. (254) However, this is not enough to make it a Church, for the saving work of Christ is not only affirming of human culture but also critical of it. This raises the question of priorities for discerning that which is essential to the Christian faith. A eucharistic ecclesiology offers an eschatological perspective here:

In the eucharist the Church becomes a reflection of the eschatological community of Christ, the Messiah, an image of the Trinitarian life of God. In terms of human existence this means one thing: the transcendence of all division, both natural and social, which keep the existence of the world in a state of disintegration, fragmentation, decomposition and hence of death. All culture in one way or other share in this fallen and disintegrated world, and therefore all of them include elements which need to be transcended. (254-255)

While various cultural elements may be present in one locality, and while they may legitimately form groups for deepening their understanding of the Gospel, they should not regard themselves as Churches but should rather learn to seek the Church only in gatherings where all differences are transcended, which is the only proper context for the celebration of the Eucharist. Geography thus receives a privileged role and becomes an indispensable element in identifying the local Church and the ministry of the bishop emerges from his identity as head of the eucharistic community in this local place.

The second element is that of the relationship between locality and universality. The Eucharist transcends not only divisions of culture, but also divisions of locality. Thus a local Church must necessarily be in full communion with the rest of the local Churches throughout the world. This implies that the concerns of all the Churches should be the objects of prayer and care by a particular Church, that the Churches share a common understanding of the Gospel and of their identity as Church, and that structures be provided to facilitate this communion. However, such structures must be expressed in and through the local Churches. Zizioulas writes:

If the locality of the Church is not to be absorbed and in fact negated by the element of universality, the utmost care must be taken so that the structures of ministries which are aimed at facilitating communion among the local Churches do not become a superstructure over the local Church. It is extremely significant that in the entire course of church history there has never been an attempt at establishing a super-local eucharist or a super-local bishop. All eucharists and all bishops are local in character – at least in their primary sense. In a eucharistic view of the Church this means that the local Church, as defined earlier here, is the only form of ecclesial existence which can be properly called Church. All structures aiming at facilitating the universality of the Church create a network of communion of Churches, not a new form of Church. (258)

The third element is that of the complication of the context of division within which the local Church finds itself. The historically late phenomenon of the Church as a confessional entity means that one finds not only cultural pluralism but also confessional pluralism at the local level. While the practice of intercommunion implies a eucharistic transcendence of not just cultural differences, but also of confessional differences, and while Orthodox objections to this are well known, Zizioulas makes two points. Firstly, that a confessional body cannot be regarded as Church for a Church must incarnate people and not ideas or beliefs.

A confessional Church is the most disincarnate entity there is; this is precisely why its content is usually borrowed from one or other of the existing cultures and is not a locality which critically embraces all cultures. (260)

This leads, secondly, to the difficult question of whether we can speak of a local Church in the state of confessional divisions. Zizioulas argues that we must be prepared to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches as such and begin to work on the basis of the nature of the local Church, which although a long-term project may be more fruitful for the ecumenical movement.

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)

In the fifth and last subsection of this sixth chapter of Being as Communion, Zizioulas turns his attention to whether we can speak of the validity of ministry and the implications that this has for the relations between Christian communities, and especially for the relations between those who have an episcopate and those who do not. He points out that “validity” is a juridical term that suggests that ministry can be isolated from the rest of ecclesiology and that it appeals to “objective criteria” such as “faith” or “historical apostolic succession” that originally formed part of an organic community, and that

Their meaning, therefore, depends constantly on their natural context, which is the community. We have seen, for example, how this is the case with apostolic succession. The same must be remembered with regard to “faith”:  the “symbols” or “confessions” of faith were not in the early Church autonomous statements, as they are today in dogmatic manuals, but integral parts of the life and especially the worship of the community; they started as baptismal creeds and were adopted and used again as confessions for baptismal and eucharistic use. The great methodological error in the classical theories of “validity” therefore is that they tend to go to the unity of the community via these criteria, as if the latter could be conceived before and regardless of the community itself. (243)

Instead of seeing a ministry as validated by isolated and objectified “norms” we should rather see the community as validating this ministry. While this will eventually lead to “criteria,” these should be seen as arising out of the community. This means that the question becomes one of the recognition of communities and “the way in which a community relates itself to God, to the world and to other communities.” (244) While the forms of ministry may vary, the structure of the community implies something permament.

Just as the baptismal structure of the community is not basically changed by this conditioning, so in the same way the eucharistic structure must be understood as implying something permanent, its permanence being dictated precisely by its existential and eschatological nature. Similarly, it is not possible to avoid structures that express in a relational existential and eschatological way the identity of each community with those of the past, especially with the original apostolic communities, and with those of the present, implying a constant openness to the future. To take an example, the real issue between the episcopally and the non-episcopally structured communities of today would become in this approach whether or not episcopacy is essential to the Church’s proper relation with God and the world, i.e. whether or not a community with episcopacy can feel and existential identity with a community which has no episcopacy. It is in this sense that recognizing a ministry is a matter of recognizing a community. (245)

Seen in this context, the recognition of orders cannot be seen as a matter of “economy” as is often done by Orthodox theologians, for “‘validity’ is not something to be graciously, as it were, granted by one who ‘has’ to one who ‘has not.'” (245) The Church cannot recognise a sacramental reality that does not exists, for the validity of ministry involves an existential rather than a juridical matter and is concerned with the fundamental relational nature of the Church rather than simply an arrangement.

Just as unus christianus nulla christianus, to remember the old Latin saying, in the same way a eucharistic community which deliberately lives in isolation from the rest of the communities is not an ecclesial community. This is what renders the Church “catholic” not only on the level of “here and now” but also on that of “everywhere and always.” The ministry of the Church must reflect this catholicity by being a unifying ministry both in time and space. The eucharistic nature of the ecclesial community points inevitably in this direction by opening up a particular community so that it relates to all other communities in spite of divisions caused by space and time. Thus the eucharist is offered not just on earth but before the very throne of God and with the company of all the saints, living and departed, as well as in the name of “the catholic Church in the world.”

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 236-237.

In this fourth subsection of chapter six, the Metropolitan of Pergamon turns his attention to the ministry of unity in the Church and especially the importance of the bishop in this regard. While the local Church must necessarily be open to the universal, the unity of the universal Church cannot come from the unity of its individual members, for these members are not individuals but members of a local eucharistic community. The local Church must therefore have priority over the universal, and this leads to the importance of the role of the bishop as the visible centre of unity. His role has been expressed through both the understandings of apostolic succession and of conciliarity. Here Zizioulas returns to themes that he dealt with in the previous chapter, highlighting the importance of a proper understanding of these concepts.

With regard to apostolic succession, he states:

Apostolic succession has again become a problem in theology because of an approach to the ministry in terms of causality and objectified ontology. The bishop having acquired the status of an office, regardless of his position in the community, became in the theology of apostolic succession an individual who is linked with the apostles through a chain of individual ordinations, and who is thus transmitting to the other ministers below him grace and authority out of what he has received and possesses. This view was found by the Reformation tradition to involve a formalization of the ministry which was incompatible with the freedom of the Spirit. Thus either the “baby was thrown away with the bath-water” and the issue became one of “having” or “not having” apostolic succession, or else it was given meaning by making apostolic succession a matter of faithfulness to the truth. (238)

In contrast to such a view, Zizioulas sees apostolic succession as a succession of communities of which the bishops are the head. As evidence he cites the importance of naming this community in the very prayer of ordination so that this assignment is inherent in the ordination itself. This explains, also, the East’s refusal to distinguish between jurisdiction and ordination itself. Moreover, the fact that apostolic succession involved episcopal lists, whereas it was originally the presbyters who were considered as teachers, suggests that it was the bishop’s role as head of the community that was important.

In the same way, the development of the notion of conciliarity was rooted in the local community and in the relations between the different local communities which was orientated towards communion.

Most of the early councils, if not all or them, were concerned with eucharistic communion, mainly in the form of the problem of admitting persons excommunicated by one Church to communion in another, or with the restoration of broken eucharistic fellowship. All this shows that no local Church could be a Church unless it was open to communion with the rest of the Churches. Schism between two or more Churches was as intolerable as divisions within one community, and conciliarity was concerned with that more than anything else. (240-241)

Moreover, as he points out in a footnote,

All doctrinal decisions of the ancient Church ended with anathemas, i.e. excommunication from the eucharist. Eucharistic communion was the ultimate aim of doctrine, and not doctrine itself. (241, fn 102)

This involvement of the local community in the understanding of conciliarity is illustrated by the fact that only diocesan bishops, precisely because they are heads of communities, are allowed to vote synods, a practice that has been retained in the Orthodox Churches. It is also seen in the notion of reception by which a council only comes to be seen as authoritative when it is received by the communities. This is

not a juridical thing but a matter of charismatic recognition. It is for this reason that a true council becomes such only a posteriori; it is not an institution but an event in which the entire community participates and which shows whether or not its bishop has acted according to the charisma veritatis. (242)

Zizioulas continues his discussion of the sacramental character of ministry by considering the soteriological concept of representation. This has unfortunately come to be seen as representing someone absent, whereas its correct meaning should be seen in the idea of representation by participation as found in the Biblical imagery of corporate personality.

Thus the ordained person becomes a “mediator” between man and God not by presupposing or establishing a distance between these two but by relating himself to both in the context of the community of which he himself is part. (230)

This has particular bearing on our understanding of priesthood.

It is in this way that the gradual application of the term priest was extended from the person of Christ, for whom alone it is used in the New Testament, to the bishop, for whom again alone it was used until about the fourth century. In being the head of the eucharistic community and offering in his hands the eucharist – a task of the episcopate par excellence in the first four centuries – the bishop, and later on the presbyter precisely and significantly enough when he started offering the eucharist himself, acquired the title of priest. But, as the history of the extension of the term “priest” to the presbyter shows, it is the particular place in the eucharistic community and no other reason that accounted for the use of the term “priest” in both cases. The fundamental implication of this is that there is no priesthood as a general and vague term, as it was to become later on in theology under the name of sacerdotium – a term which acquired almost the meaning of a generic principle pre-existing and transmitted in ordination from the ordainer to the ordained or from “all believers” to a particular one. The true and historical original meaning of the term is this: as Christ (the only priest) becomes in the Holy Spirit a community (His body, the Church), His priesthood is realized and portrayed in historical existence here and now as a eucharistic community in which His “image” is the head of this community offering with and on behalf of the community the eucharistic gifts. (230-231)

Thus priesthood is fundamentally relational, for

what happens in the community of the Church, especially in its eucharistic structure, has no meaning in itself apart from its being a reflection – not in a Platonic but a real sense – of the community of the Kingdom of God. This mentality is so fundamental that there is no room for the slightest distinction between the worshipping eucharistic community on earth and the actual worship in front of God’s throne. (232-233)

The question remains as to what this means for the ordained person himself. In the first place, Zizioulas insists that the ordained person realises his ordination in the community and not in himself, and cut off from the community he ceases to be an ordained person. Secondly, and more positively, ordination is not of a temporal nature but of eschatological decisiveness, and the use of the term “perfection” by the Greek Fathers refers to a typological understanding that points to “term” or “end” (pe/rav).

In the understanding of St Maximus, the Ignatian liturgical typology becomes, as is usual with this Church Father, dynamic: ordination (baptism being included) realizes the movement of creation towards its eschatological end; the eucharistic altar expresses here and now the eschatological nature, the ,pe/rav of the community and through and in it, of creation. (234)

It is this eschatological decisiveness that allows for the use of the term “seal” in connection with ordination. While the Greek Fathers’ use of this concept is rather complex, it did not develop in the same ontological direction as it did in the West and

is not to be taken in the sense of a logical abstraction, but means a particular existential state of being (a “mode of existence”) in which being both is itself and at the same time cannot be spoken of in itself, but only as it “relates to.” (235-236)

In the third subsection of the sixth chapter of Being as Communion, Zizioulas turns his attention to how we understand the sacramental nature of ordination. Discussions on this have tended to focus on whether ordination involves something “ontological” or simply something “functional”, thus focussing on what ordination does to the ordained individual. However, in the light of the relational character of the ministry outlined earlier, Zizioulas sees such a dilemma as being based on false premises.

Just as the Church becomes through the ministry a relational entity both in itself and in its relation to the world, so also the ordained man becomes, through his ordination, a relational entity. In this context, looking at the ordained person as an individual defeats the very end of ordination. For ordination, to use a most valuable distinction offered by modern philosophy, aims precisely at making man not an individual but a person, i.e. an ek-static being, that can be looked upon not from the angle of his “limits” but of his overcoming his “selfhood” and becoming a related being. This shows that the very question of whether ordination is to be understood in “ontological” or in “functional” terms is not only misleading but absolutely impossible to raise in the light of our theological perspective in this study. In the light of the koinonia of the Holy Spirit, ordination relates the ordained man so profoundly and so existentially to the community that in his new state after ordination he cannot be any longer, as a minister, conceived in himself. In this state, existence is determined by communion which qualifies and defines both “ontology” and “function.” Thus it becomes impossible in this state to say that one simply “functions” without implying that his being is deeply and decisively affected by what he does. In the same way, it becomes impossible to imply in this state that one “possesses” anything as an individual. (226-227)

In seeking to overcome this “ontological” versus “functional” dilemma, Zizioulas highlights the following relational categories used by the Greek Fathers:

(a) The Antiochene understanding of ministry in terms of “ambassadorship.” This points beyond any objectification of the charisma of ordination, for the grace received by the minister is “for those who need it” and the minister receives it precisely as a member of the community. Such a category,

is so loaded with soteriological and existential connotations that leaves no room either for the objectification of the charisma or for its reduction to the level of mere “function.” (228)

(b) The Cappadocian and Alexandrian of transfiguration and transmutation. Such language could be misunderstood in an “ontologistic” way were it not for the fact that it is always used in the sense of participation:

the priest receives grace “as part of” the eucharistic community and the change that takes place is described in terms of honor, glory, dignity etc., i.e. in terms of an anthropology of theosis, typical to the Alexandrian tradition, which implies no “natural” change although it affects man in his being. As St Maximus the Confessor, in his remarkable perception of the dynamism of being, puts it, ordination to the ministry is to be seen as part of the broader christological movement between the Creator and creation – a movement which affects being, yet not statically but precisely as a movement and in the framework of a “cosmic liturgy.” (229)

(c) The typological language used in early patristic literature in which the various orders, as in Saint Ignatius of Antioch, refer to the type or place of something else. Such language occurs in the context eucharistic community and ordination becomes thus

an assignment to a particular “place” in the community which in its eucharistic nature portrays the very Kingdom of God here and now. (229)

To be continued…

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