|"Bart, I want to go first."|
The Great and Holy Synod of the
fourteen ten Eastern Orthodox churches commenced over the weekend in Crete with Julian Pentecost. While the impending doom of Orthodox structures is overstated, the unfolding of events exposes a decayed fruit under the shiny rind of Byzantine Christianity. William Tighe recounted an intriguing passage Vladimir Solevyev's Russia and the Universal Church on Fr. Hunwicke's blog:
"It is obvious that there are questions on which the Russian Church could and ought to negotiate with the Mother See, and if these questions are carefully avoided it is because it is a foregone conclusion that a clear formulation of them would only end in a formal schism. The jealous hatred of the Greeks for the Russians, to which the latter reply with a hostility mingled with contempt — that is the fact which governs the real relations of these two national Churches, in spite of their being officially in communion with one another. But even this official unity hangs upon a single hair, and all the diplomacy of the clergy of St. Petersburg and Constantinople is needed to prevent the snapping of this slender thread. The will to maintain this counterfeit unity is decidedly not inspired by Christian charity, but by the dread of a fatal disclosure; for on the day on which the Russian and Greek Churches formally break with one another the whole world will see that the Ecumenical Eastern Church is a mere fiction and that there exists in the East nothing but isolated national Churches. That is the real motive which impels our hierarchy to adopt an attitude of caution and moderation towards the Greeks, in other words, to avoid any kind of dealings with them. As for the Church of Constantinople, which in its arrogant provincialism assumes the title of “the Great Church” and 'the Œcumenical Church,' it would probably be glad to be rid of these Northern barbarians who are only a hindrance to its Pan-Hellenic aims. In recent times, the patriarchate of Constantinople has been twice on the point of anathematizing the Russian Church; only purely material considerations have prevented a split."The Eastern Churches, much like the Western Church after the Reformation, have been unable to deal with the changing phenomenon of nationalism. In Western Christianity the Church and states co-existed, although the Church's universality and cultural cohesion kept it safe from any one troublemaker until Luther came along and incited the age of nationalism which would make Catholicism no longer the religion of Europe, just the religion of a majority of the peoples of Europe.
The Eastern Churches suffer from the opposite problem: they are the national religions of essentially secular nations that have not formally renounced their Christian heritage. If the Great and Holy Synod eventually solicits a general council of the various autocephalous Byzantine churches, the fathers of that council would be hard pressed to compare their endeavor with the triumphs of Nicaea in 325 or the return of the holy images to the Hagia Sophia in 787. In post-Luther, post-Bismarck, post-Hitler, Merkelized Germany 16-20% attend weekly Mass; 15% in France. In Russia, where 400 of the 700 Orthodox bishops either reside or to which they attribute their devotion, an even worse 7% attend monthly or better. If the fathers of the First and Second Vatican Councils had no right to celebrate—and they did not—would their modern Orthodox counterparts?
Attending the Melkite and Ukrainian Catholic Churches for the last four or five years has given this author some perspective that the Orthodox churches may uncomfortably have to learn. Both the Melkite and Ukrainian Churches are churches which neither renounced their historical links to Constantinople nor their historical Communion with Rome, although they both eventual forfeited their de iure Communion with the Greeks to formalize their unions with the Latins. Both have had to play balancing acts between patrimony and politics. Both have had their share of martyrs in the last century, which means theirs is a lived faith, not a faith ornamented with national history and federal favor; they have enjoyed very little. There is certainly ethnocentrism in both Churches in the United States, which is to be expected of any national church, but the faithful are not necessarily trying to sublimate their desire to wear the babushka. The yoke is imminent death clarifies things better than the best corrective lenses.
The Orthodox are left with a remarkable debacle: do they meet and acknowledge significant differences in both Sacramental theology and ecclesiology or do they put it off in favor of more mini-synods and mask the problem for another century (or two, or twelve) of fragmented nationalism? The coming weeks may not be very instructive. After the initial dropout of the Antiochian and Slavic Orthodox Churches, the remaining Greek factions may want to stray from topics of weighty discussion.