Thursday, June 23, 2016

Crete: the Power of Pastors

The event in Crete, originally billed as “the Great and Holy Council”, has generated much interest, and more than a few photo-ops.  The secular media might be forgiven for thinking that here we have Byzantium on parade.  In particular the secular world might be forgiven for concluding that Orthodox leadership is all about power, pomp, and long titles, along with perhaps jewellery and brocade.   Take for example the opening toast of the Ecumenical Patriarch offered at a luncheon given in his honour and that of the other primates:  We express our joy for the presence of our Modesty and all the brother Beatitudes the Primates of the Most Holy Orthodox Autocephalous Churches at this luncheon that Your Excellency has graciously offered…”  He went on to refer to his office as “the Most Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne, in the person of our Modesty”, and to the Archbishop of Greece as “His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece”.   
Granted that this was a solemn state occasion where one is accustomed to such formalities, the continued and ubiquitous use of such long formal titles when one refers to oneself (and not just at the event in Crete) leaves the world with a lasting impression that the Orthodox leaders are all about long titles and their own dignity.  That this is (let us assume) not the case makes the ubiquitous and customary use of such formality all the more unfortunate.  This ecclesiastical habit is not confined to the upper echelons of our leadership.  Even someone further down the ecclesiastical ladder is referred to (on a book of theological essays he has edited) as “the Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne”.  Nor is the phenomenon restricted to representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as a number of invited participants who stayed away stated as one of their complaints the provided seating arrangements.  The apparent concern for dignity can be observed in many Orthodox hierarchs, not just those centered in Istanbul.
Please let me be clear:  I am not saying that any of these men are proud or fond of self-aggrandizement.  I do not know any of them personally, and cheerfully believe they are humble, dedicated, and good men.  My point is one of optics:  Orthodoxy projects a view of its leadership that portrays them as very concerned with privilege, self-importance and long titles.  When one refers to oneself in the plural with titles such as “our Modesty”, no one in the secular world really believes the person is being modest, especially when one refers to one’s office as “the Most Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne”.   One might never guess from such a description that the local flock proper to that throne in fact consists of no more than a dwindling few thousand in Istanbul, which is less than the number of students that attend many urban high schools. 
Part of the problem, I submit, is that the quite proper concern for canonical authority has become too much divorced from moral authority—that is, from trust and love.  Every pastor, whether of a little Orthodox mission, a larger urban parish, the bishop of a diocese, or the patriarch of an ancient see, combines canonical authority with moral authority.  That is, he occupies his seat because someone has given him the right to do so (those who elected or ordained him), and he also begins to build up a store of credibility and trust with those to whom he ministers.  This latter is not automatic, and is not speedily accomplished, but it is this which allows him to effectively function, and constitutes the true power of pastors.  I could refer to myself at our Parish Annual General Meeting as, “Our Humility, the unworthy occupant of the holy, Orthodox, Presbyteral Throne of Langley and Those Suburbs Around It”, but it would not redound to my glory or add to my authority.  My people do not dispute my canonical authority or deny that I should be their Rector.  They take this for granted and then more or less ignore it.  They follow me not so much because of my canonical authority, but because they love and trust me.  This love is not automatic, and can be eroded or even forfeited if I act unwisely or stupidly or otherwise give them reason not to trust my judgment.
By focusing so visibly and emphatically upon canonical authority, the Church risks giving the world the erroneous impression that it thinks the world should respect it because of its grandiosity, historical lineage, and institutional power.  This would be a serious strategic mistake.  People respect integrity and self-sacrifice, not historical privilege, and are more impressed by the garments of humility than by rich brocade.  The present Pope knows this, which is why he consistently “dresses down” and (if memory serves) took a pass on wearing ermine vestments at one of his first papal liturgies.  I am not necessarily suggesting that our leadership dress down and put their miters into mothballs.  But I do suggest that in the absence of serving the world in terms the world can both understand and value, those miters will not redound to their glory as much as might be imagined. 
One may take the Salvation Army as an example.  They do not spend much public time rehearsing their noble record, fancying up their uniforms, and making sure their General gets in the news.  Rather they just keep on running soup kitchens, thrift stores, and sanctuaries for the unfortunate, and that is why they have accumulated credibility in the eyes of the secular world.  People drop money into their Christmas kettles because what they do resonates with society at large.  Their salvation message of “Blood and Fire”, if it gains traction, does so because of the moral authority their work has garnered for them.   We pastors of the Orthodox Church who strive to gain the ear of the world forget this at our peril.
Since the clergy have has their stated aim to be servants to the rest of the Church and the slaves of all (Mark 10:43-44), it would be helpful if they trumpeted their earthly and historical dignity a little less loudly.  No one observing the Byzantine pomp, the Byzantine titles, and the portentous deportment of the assembled hierarchs would guess that here was with gathering of servants and slaves.  Slaves do not worry about where they sit, or refer to themselves in the plural.  Their eyes look to the hand of their master (Psalm 123:2), and their attention is focused upon what the master will ask them to do next.  If the Orthodox Church is really intent upon making a good impression on the world, it must do a better job of sitting more lightly on its historical authority and rights, and get down more visibly to the job of washing the feet of the poor.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What Does an Ecumenical Council Look Like?

           The event scheduled to be held (at time of writing) in Crete this coming Pentecost and usually termed “the Great and Holy Council” is sometimes referred to in terms that suggest that it will be the Eighth Ecumenical Council.  Pundits often say such things as “the last such council to be held in the Orthodox Church was over a thousand years ago”, referring to the Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 787.  Such words hint that although the upcoming gathering is not precisely such an Ecumenical Council, it could be—especially if everyone in World Orthodoxy got on board.  According to such thinking, all that is needed for “the Great and Holy Council” to become “the Eighth Ecumenical Council” would be universal acceptance by the Orthodox world after the council occurs.  In view of this, it is worth looking backwards over our historical shoulder and remembering what the Seven Ecumenical Councils looked like.  When one does, one can see some interesting differences between then and now.
            First of all, the Ecumenical Councils were each called to deal with some matter of pressing urgency—namely, heretical movements which were threatening the purity of the Church’s Faith.  Thus Council of Nicea met in 325 to deal with the Christological doctrines spread by Arius; the Council of Constantinople met in 381 to deal with the teaching which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, etc. etc.  Of course while the bishops were gathered in Council they discussed other things as well, which were also matters of somewhat lesser urgency.  Thus, for example, the bishops of Nicea passed a number of canons, such as canon 5 which forbade bishops to accept into communion persons excommunicated by another bishop.  But the fact that other topics were discussed and decided does not mean that the Council was called primarily for such discussion.  Rather, the Council was called primarily to discuss urgent doctrinal matters, which in those days were primarily Christological.  These Councils were not called simply because the bishops felt the Church’s faith needed updating or aggiornamento.  The task of keeping current and interacting with modern society (i.e. evangelism) is important and crucial.  It is also the normal work of bishops and priests, not Ecumenical Councils. 
            Secondly, the Councils consisted of as many bishops as could be gathered in one place, not just the heads of autocephalous churches (which in its present form did not exist then anyway) and those with them.  Those Councils could conceivably have decided on a more limited invitation list, inviting (for example) only the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, perhaps along with the periti or experts from the catechetical schools at Alexandria and Antioch.  But they didn’t.  Rather, they invited all the bishops they could get.  That is because they believed that it was the witness and consensus of the rank and file, of those representing the Faith as lived in the trenches, that best served as the matrix in which to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Asking only very smart people or very important people for their opinion has its own particular advantages.  But the Councils wanted to hear from as wide as group as possible, even if the group contained bishops were who not as bright, or maybe even who were “zealots”. 
            Thirdly, the Councils produced theological statements backed up with anathemas.   Thus, for example, Canon 2 of the Council of Ephesus:  “If any provincial bishops were not present at the holy Synod and have joined the apostasy [of Nestorius], or if after subscribing to the deposition of Nestorius they went back into the assembly of apostates, these men are to be deposed from the priesthood.”  Or take, for example, the Definition of Faith produced by the Council of Chalcedon, which concludes with the words, “No one shall be allowed to bring forward a different faith [from the one just described], nor to write, nor to teach it to others.  But such as dare to put together another faith, if they be bishops or clergy, let them be deposed; if they be monks or laity, let them be anathematized”.  It was the same with pretty much all of the Councils—even the provincial Council of Gangra produced rules with teeth.  Thus their Canon 1:  “If anyone shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom, let him be anathema.” 
            The point here is that the Councils were not content merely to produce documents for people to read for their edification.   They insisted that these truths be followed, and backed them up with anathemas, excommunicating those who dissented from them.  Thus, to give an example from a modern controversy, those Councils would not have been satisfied to simply affirm monogamous heterosexual marriage as the only godly norm; they would have also followed it up with an anathema excommunicating those who taught or practised otherwise.  In the absence of such pastoral and practical follow up, whatever statements are produced remain only words, devoid of any real significance.  At the end of the day, no one cares what a person thinks; they care what you do.
            Finally, the Ecumenical Councils were rough and tumble affairs, sometimes even with a bit of shouting.  (Even if St. Nicholas didn’t actually punch Arius at Nicea, there is no doubt that things then could get a bit rowdy.)   That is because the idea was not to pre-determine the outcome by pushing through a pre-set agenda or decisions made in advance, but to discern the truth during the Council itself.  People being people, of course many attempted to ram things through (the famous “Robber Council” comes to mind) and no one would deny a lot of back-room discussion and lobbying.  History is messy since even bishops are fallen, and things never quite measure up to the ideal.  But the theory at least involved the full, free, and frank contributions of everyone involved, with nothing rammed through and with all voices heard.  If this happened today, it would not make for a very edifying scene, and no doubt it would be denounced on Facebook and Twitter, and people would shake their heads sadly and say what a terrible example the Orthodox were setting.  Can’t they even get along?  But that is because today secular society prefers peace to truth, and thus cannot get very worked up about concepts like heresy.  It was different with the Council Fathers of old.  They got worked up plenty, because they preferred truth to peace.  Or, perhaps more accurately, they saw that peace and unity could only be based on truth, and so they had little time for those promoting error. 
            What the upcoming event will produce is anyone’s guess.  Getting together for fellowship and frank open discussion is always a good thing, whether those getting together represent a select group or a larger one.  For those of us not going to Crete, our duty consists primarily of prayer, as we hold up before God for those gathering together for the event.  But let our prayer be made in peace as well as with fervency.  At the end of the day, regardless of what the upcoming gathering does and decides, Christ will preserve His Church.  Tumults there may be, including perhaps such things as has made the history of the Church so interesting in centuries past.  But against the Church of the living God, the gates of hell will not prevail.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Fathers of Nicea: Why Should I Care?

          Those for whom ancient history is irrelevant and who equate “old” with “out-dated” (or better yet, “medieval” with “barbarically primitive”) will have trouble appreciating the Fathers of the First Council of Nicea, since they met and produced their work well over a thousand years ago, in 325 A.D.  How could a creed so old be remotely relevant today?  Accordingly, some churches have produced their own creeds (such as the United Church of Canada, which produced its own creed for alternative use in 1968.  It is a cautionary tale, for it began “Man is not alone; he lives in God’s world” and they soon enough found that political correctness demanded its alteration to “We are not alone; we live in God’s world”).  Among other things, the Fathers of Nicea declared the full divinity of Jesus of Nazareth by saying that He was homoousios with the Father—of the same essence as Him.  Later attempts to create consensus would suggest that maybe it could be said that Jesus was homoiousios with the Father—“of like essence”.  After all, it has been pointed out, it only involves the difference of one letter, and a tiny one at that.  Why fight over a single iota, a single “i”?  Who would care?  Why should any sensible person get worked up over whether the pre-incarnate Word was homoousios with the Father or homoiousios?  The ruckus of Nicea and afterward only went to prove how miserable and contentious those Christians were.
            A moment’s thought however will reveal the nonsense of saying that Jesus was homoiousios with the Father.  He was of “like essence”?  What could that possibly mean?  That He was divine-ish?  God in an honourary kind of way?  Sort of God?  Almost God?  Anyone not obviously drunk and who thinks for a second will realize that the distance between God and His creation is infinite, so that one is either absolutely God or not God at all.  The eternal Creator, without beginning or limit, stands on one side of an ontological abyss, and all creation stands on the other side.  One can’t be a little bit God any more than one can be a little bit pregnant.  Like pregnancy, divinity is an all or nothing kind of thing—either one is completely divine or not divine at all.  Either Jesus was God and homoousios with the Father or He was created and of a completely different essence than the Father.  Even Arius, the villain of the Nicene piece, got that much right.  But still one may ask:  why should we care?  Sure, we confess His divinity, but what does it really matter?  
This is why it matters:  salvation consists in giving one’s life, heart, and soul to God, living and dying for Him down to one’s last breath and one’s last drop of blood.  The issue is:  may we give such loyalty, allegiance, love, and commitment to Jesus of Nazareth, or not?  If He is not truly God, then giving Him such allegiance would be idolatry.  No one sensibly would live and die so totally for a mere celebrity.  And if the Nicene Fathers were wrong and Jesus is simply just an ancient celebrity, we ought not to give Him our lives.  Our admiration, perhaps, but not lives and our worship.  But in fact the Fathers of Nicene were right, and Jesus of Nazareth is God in the flesh—Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, homoousios with the Father.  It is through Him that all things were made, and to Him that all things shall return with bowed knee.  It is our salvation that we bow the knee in love to Him even now before that final end, and confess that the road to His city runs through our heart. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Rite of Proskomedia: Who Is Included?

Every time the Divine Liturgy is served, priest and deacon stand before the Table of Oblation/ Prothesis and prepare the bread and the wine for the coming Eucharist.  In the case of the bread, this involves taking five loaves (in the Russian tradition; one large loaf in the Greek tradition), preparing one large cube of bread to be “the Lamb” (the consecrated bread which becomes the Eucharistic Body of Christ), and making other commemorations as well from the other four loaves.  The priest places the Lamb in the midst of the diskos (the raised plate or paten on which the bread is placed and carried), and then takes a series of little particles of bread and arranges them around the central Lamb.  From one loaf a particle is cut and placed beside the Lamb to represent the Mother of God.  From another loaf, nine ranks and classes of saints are represented by name in the form of nine other particles.  From another loaf particles are removed as the names of various living people are commemorated and represented by their particles.  From the fifth loaf particles are removed as various departed people are commemorated and represented by their particles.  All of these various particles are arranged around the central Lamb so that the diskos represents Christ surrounded those whom He loves.  The theology manuals (those dusty and sometimes dubious tomes) tell us that it is an image of the Church, with Christ at the center.  Thus we read in These Truths We Hold, “All of the particles are arranged on the Paten around the Lamb, depicting the Church Militant and Triumphant, united in the Liturgy as in common divine service.”  Never mind the rather western distinction here between the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven; the image is still ecclesial—it is the Church which is represented on the Paten.
            It is doubtless because of this that the official rule is that only Orthodox Christians may be commemorated on the Paten in the particles removed for the living and the departed.  No further details are given, however, or answers to the question, “How Orthodox do they have to be?”  Does a person who was baptized Orthodox but who never sets foot in Church count?  How about if they only come for Pascha, or for the Paschal procession?  Or how if they only come four times a year, but never receive Holy Communion?  Or if they come and commune only once a year?  How about if they are fornicators?  Or Masons?  We can quickly see that there are problems involved in declaring that only Orthodox may be commemorated if no further details are provided, for this sets up the liturgist to be a judge over the souls of men, and to decide who exactly is “in” the Church and fit to be included.  There are standards in the Church of course, which is why the Church excommunicates some and reconciles others.  But these cases of excommunication are difficult and individual ones, to be dealt with pastoral discretion, prayer, and wisdom.  It is not for the often-times over-worked priest who can know little of such private things.  Deciding who is ultimately saved and who is not is God’s job, not the priest’s.
            Accordingly, some suggest that we include anyone we like in the commemorations, regardless of whether or not they are Orthodox, or even Christian.  After all, it is argued, the Church in her Liturgy prays for everyone in the world, regardless of their faith or lack of it—in the Great Litany we pray for the sick and the suffering, and for those who travel by land, by sea, and by air, and there is no suggestion that this refers only the sick, suffering, and travelling who are good Orthodox.  The Church, like her Master, has concern and compassion for all the world, and intercedes for everyone, and in fact has done so since the days of St. Paul.  Paul commanded us to pray for our civil leaders and for all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), which in his day included the Emperor, and the Emperor for whom Paul commanded prayer was not Christian, or even remotely moral.  The Emperor in Paul’s day was Nero.  Since therefore the Church prays in her Liturgy for everyone regardless of their faith, surely we should include everyone on the Paten as well?
            This is the argument, and those standing by the “official” practice have an answer:  in her intercessions the Church prays for all, but the Paten is an image of the Church, not the world, and so only those in the Church should be included there.  Just as the Church gives Holy Communion only to her members, so in the Proskomedia she only commemorates her members, since the Paten represents the Eucharistic Church.  The Table of Oblation therefore mirrors and anticipates the Altar Table, and partakes of its exclusionary boundaries.  Thus the two groups have tended to square off against each other, sometimes accusing each other in turn of worldly laxity and narrow-hearted sectarianism.  One side appeals to love; the other to the rules which express theology.
            I suggest another way of looking at the Paten, one which attempts to contextualize the rite of Proskomedia.  (Here I must express my appreciation for Stelyios Muksuris, in his article, “Why the Last Should be First” in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.)  When the full liturgical rite of Proskomedia was gradually forming, Byzantium was in full swing.  That is, the boundaries of the Church more or less coincided with the boundaries of the world.  There were heretics and Jews, of course, and eventually Muslims too, but the world was considered to be essentially Christian, with these other realities viewed as intruders, dissonant notes in a universal chorus.  The Roman way of looking at things persisted in Byzantium (whose citizens of course called themselves not “Byzantines”, but “Romans”).  In this vision, the oikoumene (or world) was the Roman world, now ruled by Christ and His Emperor.  They knew, of course, that there were people outside the bounds of the Empire (in Parthia, for example), but in principle the Romans saw whole world as Roman, and what was once “the Great Sea” had now become mare nostrum—“our sea”, a mere Roman lake.  Advancing Realpolitik did not ultimately shake this persistent vision.  Everyone in that society was Christian—or at least everyone who fit in.
            In this contextualized way of viewing the cosmos, the distinction between the Church and the World, if not utterly collapsing, certainly found no emphasis.  There was in that vision, no sharp dichotomy between the Church and the World such as exists in today’s West.  I suggest therefore that the Paten may be properly also viewed as an image of the redeemed world, with Christ ruling at its center, surrounded by saints and faithful, both living and dead.  Is the bread on the Paten the Church or the World?  That question, sensible and urgent in today’s pluralistic and secular society, would have made rather less sense when asked in Byzantium.  The bread was both Church and World—or (perhaps better) the Church as microcosm of the World, and the redeemed World of which the Church is the first-fruits (James 1:18). 
            This being the case, we may legitimately commemorate on the Paten everyone in the world for whom we pray in the Liturgy, since everyone in the world which has been redeemed by Christ.  The arranging of particles of bread on the Paten seems intended not to express the Church’s place in the world (which would include a reference to her boundaries, and thus exclude the heterodox), but rather the redeeming power of Christ in the world in all its cosmic fullness.  The rite of proskomedia feels, when being performed, not like celebration of the Church’s purity and safety or an act of exclusion, but a celebration of the cosmic scope of salvation, a proclamation of inclusion.  Feelings, admittedly, are a poor lens for viewing theology, but here feelings seem to confirm an objective Byzantine view of the world.  That view saw the cosmos as redeemed by Christ and hurtling toward the eschatological feast of the Kingdom, as heading inexorably to a banquet table at which Christ would sit down to feast with the world.  That is the view expressed at the Anaphora proclaimed aloud at the Altar Table.  It is also, we may be allowed to think, the view expressed at the rite of Proskomedia spoken quietly beforehand at the Table of Oblation.