Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Eastern Church Five Years On, Part III: Ecclesia

Aside from God Himself, little is as worthy of reverence and care in writing than the subject of the Church, which is nothing more than the extended presence of Christ and His revelation on earth after His ascension into heaven. While the Church has its hierarchical nature descended from the Apostles, antitypes of the twelve sons of Jacob, it is also something intrinsically local by virtue of its Sacramental nature. Wherever there is Christ, there is the Church.

In the years between the election and abdication of Cardinal Ratzinger to and from the papacy there arose and fell a façade of normality, as if a restoration to an organizational order innate to Latin Christianity found a glimmer of light and began to insinuate ever more brightly through the crevice in the wall of Modernism. Coffee hour after Mass regularly turned to the state of Rome, its transformation under Paul VI, the trouble of episcopal conferences and their members’ thwarting of the 1962 liturgy. Clergy offered their own opinions, usually polite rewordings of what everyone else already thought on the topic. Generally any discussion of the Church, as an idea, began with the Church broadly understood with the papacy as its pivot and everything else levering down from the Petrine chair.

By contrast the subject of the Church at large rarely presents itself during the coffee hour after the Divine Liturgy and even more rarely do the clergy have anything to say on the subject, much less on the Vatican. They do not so much ignore it as much as it disinterests them, much as accounting principles would rarely fascinate a biologist. In five years the subject of the current pope has come up twice, once when a Melkite deacon spoke disparagingly of the Roman bishop’s naiveté regarding Islam and the other occasion when a Ukrainian deacon advised the congregation to ignore him unless he speaks “of the faith.”

In contrast to the Mystici Corporis paradigm prevalent in the Latin Church, in which all things descend from the current pope, good or bad, the oriental approach offered a satisfying, wholesome, and tangible understanding of the Church as an inherently local continuation of the Tradition given by an Apostle in some place some time ago. The Apostles gave to faithful what Christ gave them and those early Christians transmitted it through their own communities to mine today. In a qualified capacity the prevailing macro, Roman view is not wrong, merely incomplete.

A church is a structured, visible community just as those naughty Corinthian communities who gave Saint Paul so much grief were supposed to be structured, visible communities obeying a received taxis and pursuing sanctity. In the three Eastern parishes to which I have belonged for the last five years I have joined the structure which attempting to remember my place. There is a blessed humility that comes from the unique combination of smallness and order that so characterizes Byzantine temples particularly. The priest is not surrounded by a parish council, an army of lay geriatric women with “ministries”, or a thousand parishioners demanding his attention; he is a very real, communicative person with normative life experiences in practicing Christian virtue who, a few times each week, assumes his higher office and calling before God and leads our prayers facing the same direction as the rest of us, but from the partitioned side of the iconostasis, where his holy calling is directed by heaven. If anything, the priest’s wife ensures he is accessible to the congregation because she is a deterrent to any potential “church ladies.” The deacon is someone similarly who is respected in virtue of his liturgical role, but who is in no way a distant member of the community. The number of lay people involved in the administration of the parish is noticeable, but never excessive. No one pretends to have a “ministry”, merely a desire to serve in some capacity. One or two people watch the parish finances; a few people will be formally asked to teach catechism classes every year. The parish is a meal with fewer invitees, but with enough courses that no one grabs other people’s plates.

This model does not different very much from the Latin setting before the 20th century, certainly as it existed in more rural settings or smaller suburban parishes. Aside from the Anglophonic anomaly of calling priests “Father” from the 19th century onward, priests were generally addressed under some version of “Mister.” One might kiss his hand during Mass, but never his shoe in the street. The minor orders rarely existed and the priest’s wife never did, but the church ladies also lacked the “ministries” necessary to control the priest. The same order which prevailed in town of mayor, counsellors, guilds and societies also held true within the church, where “[Christ] seeks after and draws to Himself whatever has come to birth for His sake; but for a better purpose He draws the soul to Himself, Who is the fountain of all blessedness" (St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection). The tasks of catechesis would fall to a curate in recent times and an educated layman armed with a primer before then. While the particulars differed, the concept of the church as an innately local continuation of the Apostolic tradition reflects what one still experiences in an Eastern temple today, where the tradition has continued unabated.

The local churches, ruled by the bishops and their appointed pastors, are bricks within the larger and universal Church, which the Latin and Greek views understand as somewhat different houses. At this point it is worth distinguishing what is “Eastern” from what is Byzantine, as though the two are necessarily the same thing. Geographically the Byzantine tradition occupied the space between the Latin Church and several far eastern churches in Assyria, Egypt, India, Ethiopia, and into China at one point. It should be no surprise then that the “Eastern” ecclesiology in Greek rite churches is little more than a surviving elaboration of the understanding of both the Church and world which pervaded the Byzantine Empire from the time of Justinian until the fall of Constantinople to the Turk in 1453. Steven Runciman defended the attempt of the Archbishop of Constantinople to entitle himself “universal” or “ecumenical” patriarch on the grounds that in the context of Byzantine Greek vocabulary, to be “ecumenical” or within the “universe” meant to exist within Byzantine political and cultural structures. One wonders if the seven councils exclusively recognized as “ecumenical” by the Orthodox Churches and by some Greek Catholics should be qualified in such a way?

Within the Byzantine paradigm of Church government, historically, the Church was ruled broadly by the patriarchs of their respective traditions: the pope over the West, the archbishop of Constantinople over the Byzantine imperial churches, the Alexandrian pope over his church as so on. This “Pentarchy” of five traditional patriarchs derives from the First Council of Nicaea’s specific enumeration of the honorary primacy of five bishops over all others. If ecumenical councils are divine events of the Church’s active governance worthy of commemoration at the Divine Liturgy then the traditions established by those councils must carry a similar merit in the governance of the Church[es] today. Since the disappearance of the Byzantine emperors, the senior partner of the archbishop in the administration of Greek Christendom, the prevailing opinion has come to be that Churches exist independently of each other, each legitimate in its Apostolic origin and equal in validity with other Churches that hold to the same beliefs, places of honor notwithstanding.

The trouble with this outwardly appealing ecclesiology comes below the surface assumptions when one delves into the history behind it. For one the Pentarchy did not exist, at least not in any tangible manner related to Church governance. The Nicene statement, contextually, aimed not to codify a traditional understanding of the broader Church, but rather to promote the bishop of New Rome to a greater standing than any other bishop, save that of Old Rome. In short, Constantinople was a new capitol and its bishop required recognition for his place in it. Similarly, the Pentarchy, if it ever really existed, was short lived and any continuation of it beyond 451 contrasts with the modern understanding of Greek ecclesiology’s focus on the independence and communion of individual Churches. After the regrettable Alexandrian schism that resulted from Chalcedon the imperial authorities recognized a rival (Uniate?) Archbishop in Alexandria who continued the Pentarchy tradition. This is not to say the Greek Churches are hypocritical or without merit, merely that their understanding of the Church as a composition of individual Churches reflects the very Greek culture in which it began. This is sense, they are not unlike the confusingly denominated Oriental Orthodox Churches, who hold a similarly ecclesiology with a circumscribed set of ecumenical councils.

But what if—athwart the modern Vatican, the heart felt intuition of everything Byzantine, and the isolation of the various traditions over the years—what if my years in the Eastern Church taught me that the Roman ecclesiology is, in fact, both the older and more functional understanding of how individual bricks of Churches fit into the Universal Church?

The Latin view of the Universal Church requires a clear understanding of what the Roman Church is. It is not, contrary to the modern convention to read the history of papal power expansion through a Hellenizing lens, the Patriarchate of the West, those Christians and their descendants who spoke Latin during the sunset years of the united Roman Empire. The Church of Rome never claimed to be a patriarchate until the gratuitous expansion of papal titles in during the garish Baroque tendency of monarchs to find more things to say about themselves. The Church of Rome is the local Church of the diocese of Rome, sanctified by the blood of Ss. Peter and Paul and led by the former’s successor as bishop of the Church. It is through communion with this local Church that other local Churches enter communion with each other and the unanimity of the Church’s decisions is ratified. Pastor aeternus teaches,
“So that the Episcopate also might be one and undivided, and so that, by means of a closely united priesthood, the multitude of the faithful might be kept secure in the oneness of faith and communion, [Christ] set Blessed Peter over the rest of the Apostles. And He fixed in him the abiding principle of this two-fold unity with its visible foundation, by the strength of which the eternal Temple would be built up, and the Church, in the firmness of that faith, would rise up, bringing her sublimity to Heaven.”
Vatican I quotes St. Leo the Great here, but may as well have achieved the same in referring to St. Cyprian’s “one chair” argument. Roman ecclesiology becomes quite simple in its antiquity here. The fourth chapter of Pastor aeternus goes on to elaborate that the Roman bishopric is, along with synods and “other exigencies of the time”, an office instituted by Christ for the passing on of the faith and not for innovation of doctrine. Within this context it also becomes clear that the Universal Church does not descend from the papacy to the local Churches; the successor to the Prince of the Apostles does not exist outside the other successors to the Apostles. In Banish Heart Dr. Hull quotes Cardinal Hergenrother, a confidant of Pius IX, in clarifying the now dogmatic understanding of papal power: 
“The Pope is circumscribed by the necessity of making a righteous and beneficent use of the duties attaches to his privileges… He is also circumscribed by the respect due to General Councils and to ancient statues and customs, by the rights of bishops, by his relation with civil powers, by the traditional mild tone of government indicated by the aim of the institution of the papacy—to ‘feed’ .”
The Roman perspective here—born before the Diocletian persecution and the Constantinian liberation, and prior to the rise of sui generis national churches—is the older perspective, but in practice it has shown itself ripe for abuse to anyone with eyes to see. One wonders if any of the twentieth century liturgical changes, and especially their manner of imposition, would have withstood the words of Pius’ friend. What has grown out of the Vatican, once a palace and now a bureaucratic extension of the papacy, has stunningly little to do with Vatican I or the local Churches and everything to do with the active administration of Latin Christendom in the place of bishops. Traditional Roman ecclesiology will only come about by a reform minded pope who is willing to make reforms to his own office, including reforms to his relationships to other prelates.

I could enumerate more points of macro-level ecclesiology lessons learned during my five years in the Byzantine tradition—the Council of Chalcedon proves a challenging and depressing point for both the nationalistic, caesaropapist Greek approach and the heavy handed, ubi Petrus ibi Latin view—but it would detract from the ultimate lesson that the local Church is where the presence of Christ continues on earth and where He works His grace and great goodness among us through the successors of His Apostles and friends so that we may also be numbered with them.


  1. One good thing Pope Benedict XVi did was renouncing the title "Patriarch of the West," though Prof. Hull disapproved of that. Another excellent article; looks like both East and West need to go back a bit more to the Fathers to recover what both lost.

  2. The Melkite Church ABS sometimes goes to is a sane, beautiful, serious, and traditional consecrated space boasting such brilliant icons they seem a high resolution video about to begin.

    It is lavishly and colorfully decorated and the communicants are, similarly, sober and serious folks; the singing is fantastic and the Priest is heavy-handed (yay!!) with the incense.

    Were it not for The Bride, ABS would never put himself through the pain of going to the Lil' Licit Liturgy which is an all out assault on the senses and intellect