How to Build the Local Church
Bishop Kallistos Ware
Posted on March 08, 2010 in Other News Hierarchs
The following talk was given in French by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia during the first diocesan conference of the Archbishopric of the Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (Ecumenical Patriarchate) at the St. Sergius Institute, Paris, 1 October, 2005. It is translated into English and published here by kind permission of Bishop Kallistos.
Among the richly symbolic visions to be found in The Shepherd of Hermas, a work of the second century, there are two which express in a clear and striking way the very being of the Church. First, Hermas sees the Church as a venerable woman of great age. “And why is she so old?” Hermas asks, and he is told, “Because she was created before everything [the rest of the universe]. That is why she is old: it is for her that the world was fashioned”(Vision 2, 4, 1). After that, Hermas is shown a great tower, still unfinished, to which new stones are continually being added. (vision 3, 2, 4-9)
The Shepherd of Hermas expresses here, in striking images, the two essential aspects, fundamental and necessarily complementary of the mystery of the Church. The Church is old and yet young, unchanging and yet ever-new. She is pre-existent, eternal, but at the same time dynamically caught up in a world that is ever-changing and historically evolving, so that she is always involved unreservedly in a process of renewal, adaptation and unexpected growth. Emphasising theses two aspects – the old woman and the unfinished tower – Father Georges Florovsky says very truly that the Church is the living image of eternity within time.
The Church as “Mystery”
Yes, the Church is truly the Body of Christ spiritual, without spot or wrinkle, transcending all earthly manifestations and indivisible by schism. But the Church on earth is also a communion of sinners, marred by human imperfections, often outwardly poor and weak, torn and fragmented. We must always insist, in antimonic fashion, upon both the visible and the invisible aspects of the Church. As Vladimir Lossky pointed out, we must apply to the Church the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ, the Theanthropos, the God-man. We must avoid at all costs a Monophysite tendency in our ecclesiology, insisting unilaterally on the divine reality of the Church, arguing that church life is wholly sacred and immutable, and neglecting the Church’s incarnation in history. But it is equally necessary to avoid a Nestorian tendency, treating the Church only as a human institution, an earthly organisation, dominated by power politics and juridical rules. For the Church is not an organisation, company or corporation, but rather an organism, a body, a divine-human, theanthropic body, the Body of the living Christ.
I have purposely spoken about the mystery of the Church and I would now like to highlight the word “mystery”. A mystery, mysterion, in the proper theological meaning of the word – the meaning that we find in the New Testament – is not an enigma or puzzle, but rather a reality revealed to our understanding, but not totally revealed, because it is rooted in the inexhaustible, infinite depths of God. That is precisely why it is almost impossible to formulate a definition of the Church in abstract, theoretical terms. Father Paul Florensky has well said about this, “The idea of the Church does not exist, but the Church itself exists, and for every living member of the Church, ecclesial life is the most definite and palpable thing he can know.” Father Sergei Bulgakov also insists on the same point: “‘Come and see.’ The Church can only be grasped through experience, by grace and by participation in its life.”
In any case, one thing is incontrovertible: if we want to build a local Church, we must not underestimate the fundamental character of the Church as mystery: living, omnipresent mystery, the mystery of divine grace.
The Church’s task on earth is celebrating the Eucharist
Before considering how to build up the local Church, we must first ask another basic question: “What is the Church for? What is its distinctive and unique function? What does the Church do that no-one else can?” The very clear reply to this question that Orthodox theology has given in the twentieth century is this: the task of the Church on earth is precisely to celebrate the Eucharist. As St. Ignatius of Antioch proclaimed, the Church is a eucharistic organism, which is realised and fulfilled in time and space by the offering of the Holy Liturgy. The Eucharist makes the Church, and vice versa, the Church makes the Eucharist. Church unity is not imposed from outside by jurisdictional power, but is created from within by communion in the Body and Blood of the glorified Saviour. In the words of St. Paul, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10 16-17). Between the communion in the eucharistic bread – one single loaf – and our ecclesial communion in the one Body of Christ, there is not only, for the Apostle, an analogy but a causal connection: since we participate in a single loaf, then, as a result, we become incorporated into the one Body of Christ.
Such is the theology of Father Georges Florovsky, Father Nicolas Afanassiev and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamum. Of course, we must not develop such a eucharistic ecclesiology unilaterally, without taking into account other aspects of the mystery of the Church. In particular, the fullness of the local Church is not to be found in each eucharistic celebration considered in isolation: it is to be found rather in the local diocese – all the priests and eucharistic gatherings in communion with the local bishop, who in his turn is in communion with all the other bishops of the universal Church. Moreover, we must not neglect either the other different expressions of ecclesial life: monasticism, for example, personal prayer, hesychasm, the tradition of the Philokalia – even though it is the Eucharist that constitutes the source and foundation of all the other visible aspects of the Church’s reality.
Deriving from this Eucharistic ecclesiology, there are three very important consequences.
The Catholicity and Universality of the Church are much more valuable than our individual or ethnic Identity
1. If the basis of the Church’s existence and life is the Eucharist, it means that the Church is organised according to a territorial, not an ethnic principle. For the Holy Liturgy gathers together all the faithful in each place regardless of nationality or ethnic origin. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Patriotism, faithfulness to one’s own national identity is a precious quality, which can be offered to the Lord, baptised and sanctified, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, amongst others, has noted. But the catholicity and universality of the Church as Body of Christ and eucharistic organism, are much more precious than our individual or ethnic identity. The true order of priorities is wisely set out by John Karmiris, the Greek theologian, who writes, “We should not speak of a ‘national’ Greek Church” – or, we may add, of a French or British ‘national’ Orthodox Church – “we should rather speak of the one Catholic Orthodox Church in Greece, Russia or Romania” – or in France or Britain, and so on. “Certainly, Orthodoxy does not reject the nation: nations exist, but they are called to act, to be sanctified and transfigured within the framework of the catholicity of the Church and to be defined by it”.
Without the Parish, there is no Church
2. If the basis for the existence and life of the Church is the Eucharist, that means that the parish has a primordial importance. Even if the fullness of the local Church is to be found in the diocese, not in each parish taken in isolation, it is also true that celebration of the Holy Liturgy is only realised in a particular place, at a specific table, within a community that is concrete and visible (and also invisible, for the saints and angels are always present and active at each Eucharist). There is no “universal” celebration of the Liturgy, even if all celebrations of the Liturgy in different places throughout the world constitute one and the same liturgy; there are only celebrations in one place – in each parish, in each local assembly. Without the parish, without the local assembly, there is no Church!
The value of the parish, in the perspective of a eucharistic ecclesiology, is expressed very eloquently by the Greek thinker, Christos Yannaras. The quotation is rather long, but his words are truly relevant:
For the first time in history, each of the Orthodox Churches is not identified with a particular people. The ethnic barriers have largely broken down, however much we may insist in defending them with a kind of sentimental naivety. Even within the so-called ‘Orthodox’ lands, we do not have the capacity to create an all-ethnic cultural milieu. We belong to or find ourselves cast into broader cultural currents. Today, more than at any other period of history, our personal existence must be anchored in the local parish. The truth of the Church, the reality of salvation, the abolition of sin and death, the victory over the irrational in life and history, all these, for us Orthodox, derive from the local parish, the actualisation of the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The liturgical unity of the faithful has to be the starting-point of all the things for which we hope: transformation of the impersonal life of the masses into a communion of persons; the authentic and genuine (rather than merely the theoretical and legal) observance of social justice; the deliverance from the bondage of mere need and its transformation into an engagement of personal involvement and fellowship. Only the life of the parish can give a priestly dimension to politics, a prophetic spirit to science, a philanthropic concern to economics, a sacramental character to love. Apart from the local parish, all of these are but an abstraction, nadve idealism, sentimental utopianism. But within the parish there is historical actualization, realistic hope, and dynamic realization.
Professor Yannaras adds, sadly, that there is a tragic gulf, a flagrant contradiction between the ideal of the parish as a eucharistic, eschatological reality and what we see in practice in our Orthodox parishes. “Today,” he says, “our parishes represent, largely, a socio-religious phenomenon (sometimes an ethnic and chauvinistic) phenomenon rather than the eschatological dimension.” That is true, but at the same time, it is not altogether true. That there are ethnic parishes is quite normal, for example, in the case of recent immigrants – people want to pray in their own language, in the language with which they are familiar. But what is to be seen as abnormal, is when such parishes become enclosed in their own ethnicity, thus breaking true communion with others. . What is also abnormal of course, is when the national language (often a dead one) becomes, down the generations, an obstacle to the transmission of the Word of God. In many Western countries, however, we see now Orthodox parishes which are not only ethnic entities, but are genuinely interOrthodox: in which there is a co-operation between faithful of different nationalities, between the “born” (or, rather, “cradle”) Orthodox and the “converts” - those who have consciously entered the communion of the Orthodox Church. It is in these interOrthodox parishes that we see the future of Orthodoxy in the West.
A long-term common Objective
3. If we insist on the eucharistic character of the Church, believing too that the Church’s visible, earthly organisation must be expressed on a territorial rather than an ethnic basis, it follows ineluctably that in any given place there can only be one bishop. Our current situation in the West, with an Orthodox Church divided into different jurisdictions, with a multiplicity of bishops in each big city, is not just an inconvenience, an embarrassment for our pastoral and missionary activity; it is not just theoretically anticanonical, but at a much deeper level, it is a fundamental contradiction of the very being of the Church as a eucharistic organism; it is an ecclesiological sin, an absolute transgression and violation of the Church as Body of Christ.
I think all that is fairly clear and uncontested. What is more difficult, and what in a very disturbing manner divides us Western Orthodox, is the question of knowing how to extricate ourselves from our current anticanonical and sinful state and build a true local Church. We are in agreement about the nature and very being of the Church and therefore about our goal and long-term objective: one single bishop in each place, and all bishops in every country or region united around the same local metropolitan, according to the principles of the 34th. Apostolic Canon. But we are not yet in agreement about the way we need to follow to reach this objective.
Unity will come from both Above and from Below
On a pragmatic level, I can only speak with great hesitation. I do not have a specific plan to propose or a ready-made solution. I have no authority or experience to be able to express very definite opinions about your local situation here in France, and I have no wish to engage in controversy. If I make bold to set before you some practical reflections, I do so only as an observer – as an observer, however, who is not distant or indifferent, but who is a sincere friend of the Orthodoxy developing here in France, who has known the Orthodox Church in this country for fifty years and who has had brotherly ties for a long time with, for example, the Lossky family, Father Boris Bobrinskoy, and the Monasteries of Lesna (Provemont) and Bussy-en-Othe. But today, I would rather listen to others than speak myself. Let me at this point repeat what I said a little over a year ago at the first Orthodox Congress of Great Britain. If we ask ourselves, “Will Orthodox unity come from above or from below?” the only real answer is, in my opinion, “From both!”
From above: a definitive solution, in response to the anticanonical situation of the Orthodox Church in the West, can only come from a “Holy and Great Council” representing all the Orthodox world. But when, we wonder, will such a council be called? In the meantime, while waiting for such a ‘Holy and Great Council’, we need to act in full co-operation with our Mother Churches, in the framework of the Episcopal Assembly in this country.
But that is not enough. We should also be looking for a solution from below. Even if a Holy and Great Council actually meets one day, it will be able to accomplish little or nothing unless it is supported by the total Church community, clergy and lay-people in every particular region. Preparing for such a Council and searching for unity at the local level are both alike the responsibility of every one of us without exception. If our Church’s future is in many respects a mystery, it is a mystery that concerns all of us. As the Eastern Patriarchs affirmed in their reply to Pope Pius IX (1848), “The Defender of the Faith is the very Body of the Church, that is, the people (λαος).”
Unity is not only a Gift but a Task to be fulfilled
Let us not expect Orthodox unity in the West to come down ready-made from heaven like a deus ex machina. Unity is not only a gift but a task to be fulfilled. Canonical unity, the formation of a true local Church, will only happen when there is a burning desire for it, a powerful, irresistibly urgent feeling among all the faithful in every place. It is the responsibility of all the people of God in its fullness – of all the baptised who make up the “royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:9), who have received the “unction from the Holy One” (I John 2:20) – and who, as the Eastern Patriarchs said, are collectively and individually “the Defender of Faith”. There will only be one local Church when we all of us feel ourselves personally involved in seeking to create such a Church.
Let us remember that neither an Ecumenical Council, nor the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, nor any other Mother Church, can create a new local Church. The most they can do is to recognize such a Church, but the act of creating it must happen on the spot, locally. The higher authorities can guide, test, confirm and proclaim, but the creative work can only be completed at the local level, by the living eucharistic cells which are called to make up gradually the body of a new local Church. We should work, then, not only from above, but equally from below.
What are we to think of the letter that the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis II, wrote on 1st. April, 2003? In principle, as a call to local unity, this letter is something positive. But, like many other observers, I am disturbed and even rather astonished that nowhere in the Russian Patriarch’s letter is there any reference to the Ecumenical Patriarch, as primus inter pares in world Orthodoxy. Nowhere in the West – either here in France, or in Great Britain or in America, for that matter – will it be possible to build a local Church without the participation of the Ecumenical Throne.
Deepening a long experience of co-operation between Parishes and Dioceses
As Father Boris Bobrinskoy (among others) has pointed out, Patriarch Alexis’ letter has shown up the existence of two opposing, discordant visions. According to the first vision, work must first be done to unify the Russian jurisdictions in Western Europe, under a presiding Metropolitan owing allegiance to Moscow, after which there would be the subsequent possibility of progressively establishing a local multinational Church, guaranteed by Moscow. The other vision, which to me personally seems far preferable, depends on the fact that, already in the Archbishopric of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, there is the promise of a local, multinational Church.
The evolution of your Archdiocese, in which a good number of your parishes are no longer of Russian origin – and even those which are, now have members belonging to other nationalities or who are entirely French – seems to me very significant and full of hope for the future. I am in agreement with the opinion of Father Boris Bobrinskoy, when he says that the future of the local Church is “already sketched out in embryo” in your Archbishopric, and that there is no need to change your canonical allegiance from Constantinople to Moscow: especially when, as far as I can tell, all the other dioceses, be they Greek, of the Moscow Patriarchate, Romanian or Serbian, are experiencing more or less the same evolution as you, even though that is happening at different speeds or rates of growth. All the different dioceses – and that is quite natural, in my view- now have alongside their original parishes, French-speaking parishes or monasteries, or parishes which include faithful of several nationalities.
Furthermore, and this seems to me very important, you have in France a long experience of co-operation between different parishes and different dioceses belonging to other Patriarchates. This co-operation began with the first meeting of an “InterOrthodox Committee” in the Greek Church in Paris in 1939. It continued with the “Permanent Committee” created in 1943 on the initiative of the Romanian Archimandrite Theophilos Ionesco. Finally, since 1967, you have an Interepiscopal Committee, now known as the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France. That is already a long experience of co-operation!
The Church is a continual Miracle
I must confess to being worried by the emphasis in Patriarch Alexis’ letter on the specifically Russian element of your ecclesial life in France. It seems to me to be in disagreement with the eucharistic ecclesiology that I have already discussed. In our efforts to build a local Church, we must insist not on the ethnic principle, but rather on the territorial principle. The celebration of the Holy Liturgy must gather all Orthodox Christians in each place; that is already the case in many parishes of your Archdiocese (and in other dioceses too), parishes which are not mono- but multi-ethnic. And if I had to give you an opinion, my personal opinion, I would warmly advise you to continue your pastoral work under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who has never tried to “Hellenise” you and who gives you every freedom to continue to follow your vocation, the vocation of preparing the way for the establishment of a local Church, in communion of prayer and action with all the Orthodox of this country.
In conclusion, I would like to recall some words of Olivier Clément: “Let us try to work together, each one enriching the others from his own inheritance, within the limits of an Orthodoxy that is humble, open, evangelical, conscious of its universality and convinced also that Tradition, in order to be living, must be creative”. I would further like to remind you also of what St. John of Kronstadt said: “The Eucharist is a continual miracle.” We may add the same about the Church as a eucharistic organism: “The Church is a continual miracle!” With wonder and gratitude at what God gives us, let us open the eyes of our heart to the miracle that is the Church, old and venerable, yet always youthful, ever the same and ever new.