Ecumenism


I have recently begun reading Saint Basil’s ascetical works (Saint Basil. Ascetical Works) and was struck by what he says about conflict in the Church which is, well, not exactly irrelevant to many situations today. And then I realised that today[i] is what the Dutch call his summer feast, which is the anniversary of his episcopal consecration, and thought that it may be worth writing something on this in his honour.

I observed that the most harmonious relations existed among those trained in the pursuit of each of the arts and sciences; while in the Church of God alone, for which Christ died and upon which He poured out in abundance the Holy Spirit, I noticed that many disagree violently with one another and also in their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Most alarming of all is the fact that I found the very leaders of the Church themselves at such variance with one another in thought and opinion, showing so much opposition to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so mercilessly rending asunder the Church of God…  (37)

Saint Basil goes on to describe his own perplexity at this state of affairs and his realisation that “the discord and quarrelling” that he saw in the Church was  

a consequence of their turning away from the one, great, and true God, only King of the universe. Each man, indeed, abandons the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and arrogates to himself authority in dealing with certain questions, making his own private rules, and preferring to exercise leadership in opposition to the Lord to being led by the Lord. (38)

Such discord is, then, simply a manifestation “of the evil lurking hidden in the soul” (39) and of “the darkening of the eye of their soul.” (40)

Now Saint Basil is, I would argue, one of the more credible teachers on the unity of the Church. He was certainly no fanatic and went out of his way to seek ways of reaching agreement, even with those who did not agree with him in every detail, such as his contacts with Homoiousians make clear. But he was prepared to draw the line when it became absolutely necessary, even when it meant a painful break with his former mentor Eustathius of Sebaste over the latter’s denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

What I find significant in Basil’s work, however, is the way he links the dogmatic life the Church with the asceticism necessary of the theologian, which both informs, and is informed by, his work on the Holy Spirit. If Christian division comes as a result of the darkening of the eye of the soul, then unity must come through the purifying work of the Holy Spirit:

Only then after a man is purified from the shame whose stain he took through his wickedness, and has come back again to his natural beauty, and as it were cleaning the Royal Image and restoring its ancient form, only thus is it possible for him to draw near to the Paraclete. And He, like the sun, will by the aid of thy purified eye show thee in Himself the image of the invisible, and in the blessed spectacle of the image thou shalt behold the unspeakable beauty of the archetype. Through His aid hearts are lifted up, the weak are held by the hand, and they who are advancing are brought to perfection. On the Holy Spirit, 9, 23.


[i] On the new calendar. What calendar I end up on depends on what parish I end up in which depends on what town (and country) I end up in. But for the time being I have a new calendar booklet and am somewhat amused by the calendar hopping involved in visiting different parishes or monasteries! There are some things that one just has to smile at and not get worked up about.

How can this structure which emerges from the eschata be translated into concrete historical terms? And how can this translation take place without turning the Kingdom into sheer history? It is at this point that institutions appear to be threatening the nature of the Church.

The way the Church faced this problem from the beginning is, and I think will always be, the only way to face it. Our Lord, before He left His disciples, offered them a sort of “diagram” of the Kingdom when He gathered them together in the Upper Room. It was not one “sacrament” out of “two” or “seven” that He offered them, nor simply a memorial of Himself, but a real image of the Kingdom. At least this is how the Church saw it from the beginning. In the eucharist, therefore, the Church found the structure of the Kingdom, and it was this structure that she transferred to her own structure. In the eucharist the “many” become “one” (I Cor. 10:17), the people of God become the Church by being called from their dispersion (ek-klesia) to one place (e)pi\ to\ au)to). Through her communion in the eternal life of the Trinity, the Church becomes “the body of Christ,” that body in which death has been conquered and by virtue of which the eschatological unity of all is offered as a promise to the entire world. The historical Jesus and the eschatological Christ in this way become one reality, and thus a real synthesis of history with eschatology takes place.

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 206.

Zizioulas ends this chapter on Apostolic continuity and succession by looking at the implications of what he has been discussing from the ecumenical debate. He argues that the “classical concept” has been formed in a one-sided way which has ignored the eschatological image of the apostles as a college surrounding Christ in His Kingdom, focussing instead on apostolic succession as an historical process. While the eschatological approach is largely absent from Orthodox theology manuals it nevertheless “survives vividly in iconological and liturgical approaches to the mystery of the Church.” (205)

While this eschatological imagery, as visit and presence, might seem to have little to do with continuity, so that these images do exist in a certain tension, for the early Church they were nevertheless related in a synthesis which was no mere theoretical construction. Rather, the Kingdom of God was always present with a structure that allows us to move beyond the dilemma of “institution” or “event”. The Kingdom necessarily implies communion in the Holy Spirit and thus implies demarcation and a structure. Moreover, the Kingdom is centred around Christ and the apostles and thus implies a specificity of relations. It is the Eucharist that provides both the structure and the context for the perpetuation of this structure in history.

For the eucharist is perhaps the only reality in the Church which is at once an institution and an event; it is the uniquely privileged moment of the Church’s existence in which the Kingdom comes epicletically, i.e. without emerging as an expression of the historical process, although it is manifested through historical forms. In this context the Church relates to the apostles simultaneously by looking backwards and forward, to the past and to the future – always, however, by letting the eschaton determine history and its structures. (206-207)

Zizioulas ends this chapter by suggesting that such a synthesis raises fundamental questions for ecumenical discussion, for it moves the question of apostolicity beyond questions of a derived ministry and highlights the importance of the Church as community and of the structure of this community which emerges from an eschatological vision. Both history and the historical needs of the present, which seem to preoccupy the current ecumenical movement, will have to be judged by the vision of the eschata.

Zizioulas concludes chapter three of Being as Communion by making the following points:

1. Orthodox theology needs to work on the synthesis between Christology and Pneumatology, without which it is impossible to understand the Orthodox tradition itself or to be of help in ecumenical discussions.

2. Pneumatology needs to be constitutive of Christology and of ecclesiology. For this to happen the two ingredients of eschatology and communion are needed.

3. If the Church is constituted by these two aspects, then pyramidal notions disappear and the “one” and the “many” co-exist as two aspects of the same thing. This applies to both the universal and the local levels.

4. A “pneumatological conditioning of the being of the Church” can open ecclesial institutions to their eschatological perspective and prevent the danger of the “historization of its ecclesial institutions”. (139-140)

5. A pneumatological perspective sees the Church as constituted by the Spirit rather than simply instituted by Christ, something with profound implications:

The “institution” is something presented to us as a fact, more or less a fait-accomplit. As such, it is a provocation to our freedom. The “con-stitution” is something that involves us in its very being, something we accept freely, because we take part in its very emergence. Authority in the first case is something imposed on us, whereas in the latter it is something that springs from amongst us. If Pneumatology is assigned a constitutive role in ecclesiology, the entire issue of Amt und Geist, or of “institutionalism,” is affected. The notion of communion must be made to apply to the very ontology of the ecclesial institutions, not to their dynamism and efficacy alone. (140)

The question naturally arises as to what extent this is actually a reality in Orthodoxy. Zizioulas suggests that the fact that Orthodoxy has not experienced problems such as the clericalism, anti-institutionalism and Pentecostalism found in the West means that Pneumatology has for the most part saved the life of Orthodoxy. However, the actual situation does not do justice to the tradition: the synodical institutions no longer reflect the true balance between the “one” and the “many” and the number of titular bishops is increasing. The only level on which the proper balance is maintained is the liturgical, and it is perhaps this that has saved Orthodoxy. The question, however, is how long this will continue as Orthodoxy increasingly faces the problems common in the West.

He then turns to Vatican II and suggests that the Council’s rediscovery of the importance of the people of God and of the local Church was a hopeful sign for introducing the notion of communion into ecclesiology but that it did not go far enough.

What an Orthodox sharing the views of this exposé would like to be done – perhaps by a “Vatican III” – is to push the notion of communion to its ontological conclusions. We need an ontology of communion. We need to make communion condition the very being of the Church, not the well-being but the being of it. On the theological level this would mean assigning a constitutive role to Pneumatology, not one dependent on Christology. This Vatican II has not done, but its notion of communion can do. Perhaps it will transform the ecclesial institutions automatically. It will remove any pyramidal structure that may remain in the Church. And it may even place the stumbling block of ecclesial unity, the ministry of the Pope, in a more positive light. (141-142)

Dipping into Greek East and Latin West. The Church AD 681-1071 as bedtime reading is probably not such a good idea, but does lead to interesting discoveries. I knew of course that one of the differences between East and West is their use in the Eucharist of leavened and unleavened bread respectively. I may even have heard that there have been controversies over it. But I did not know that it was the most explicitly invoked issue in the controversies of 1054. And, quite frankly, I don’t think that I would ever have been inclined to take it seriously as a cause of division. But the background that Father Louth provides is interesting.

It turns out that the Greeks interpreted the Latin use of unleavened bread against the background of their contacts with the Armenians, who also used unleavened bread. And given that the Armenians were so-called monophysites, their use of unleavened bread was interpreted against the background of their defective Christology

… in contrast to “the substance of our [human] dough,” which is “ensouled” and is what “the Word of God assumed and of which he became its hypostasis.” With this play on words, the argument is moving from being about the nature of the eucharistic bread to the nature of the Incarnation; the one mirrors the other, the leavened bread of the Eucharist mirroring the “ensouled nature” that, according to orthodox Christology, the Word assumed. Advocates of unleavened bread are both caught in the Old Testament, prior to the Incarnation, and betray a Christology in which the human nature that Christ assumes is defective… (312-313)

The Latins, by contrast, based their use of unleavened bread (which they probably introduced for practical reasons) on the supposed practice of Jesus in celebrating the Passover meal. They interpreted this against the background of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, which in Latin read “Do you not know that a little leaven corrupts the whole dough?”

Father Louth comments:

Two systems of symbolism, focused on the same liturgical act, developed, but they took their inspiration from the stark contradiction of leavened or unleavened bread. The refusal, on either side, to enter the symbolic world of the other could be presented as a fundamental apostasy. The Latins, with their unleavened bread, were Judaizing, or shrinking from acknowledging the full humanity of Christ (an objection that worked better against the Armenians); the Greeks, with their leavened bread, were virtual Marcionites, discarding the Old Covenant in celebrating the Passover with his disciples. (314)

This serves to underline the fundamental role that symbolic worlds play the challenge of entering into the symbolic world of the other.

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