From June 19–26, 2016 The Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church (a.k.a. Pan-Orthodox Council) met on the island of Crete. It had been announced years ago as the first ecumenical/pan-Orthodox gathering since 787 CE. Given this billing, it is remarkable how little it was noted in the secular media. However, a diligent surfing of the various Orthodox media on the Internet, augmented by Religion News Service, makes it possible to get a good idea of what happened.The Council was convoked by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the more or less titular head of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. It is not for me to say whether the Council was great or holy. It wasn’t very ecumenical. Fourteen “autocephalous”/self-governing Orthodox churches were invited. Four decided not to attend, most important among them Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. The heads of the Russian Orthodox Church in the czarist era had long aspired to be the Third Rome, rival to both Rome and Constantinople. Kirill has been very close to Putin’s Kremlin, with great mutual benefits. Putin, the former KGB agent, is often shown on television devotedly crossing himself during the liturgy. He has bestowed on the ROC a status very close to that of a state church. Kirill has reciprocated by endorsing Putin’s recent imperial adventures—the invasion and annexation of the Crimea, the open support of the secessionist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, threatening gestures against the Baltic countries, and bombing on behalf of the Syrian government. This is not the first time that big-power politics has intervened in even arcane theological disputes. (See Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars, 2010, for an erudite but user-friendly account of the early ecumenical councils.Bartholomew is no wild-eyed reformer. He is theologically conservative, but also much more aware of the wider world than Kirill. In addition to traditional Orthodox training, he studied in Rome, Geneva and Marburg. The 14 churches he invited to his picnic on a Greek island were all autocephalous in canonical Orthodox terms. So were the four who jumped ship—Moscow, Bulgaria, Georgia, and the Patriarchate of Antioch. I assume that the first three were politically motivated by Moscow (though of course they claimed to have some theological qualms). Antioch is a different story, of which more in a moment. But the limits of Bartholomew’s ecumenicity are apparent from the list of churches who were not invited: The Roman Catholic Church, the more or less Protestant churches (Anglican to Pentecostal) with whom the Orthodox have for many years (somewhat reluctantly) associated in the World Council of Churches, and then the so-called Oriental Orthodox churches (notably the Armenian and Nestorian ones) who way back did not accept some of the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Chaldecon, 451 CE.To the understand the complexity of Orthodox ecclesiology is as difficult as understanding the kinship system of Australian Aboriginals (one may need a doctorate in anthropology to know which cousins one is allowed to marry). The ecclesiological labyrinth is particularly confusing in the diaspora—that is, in countries far from the eastern Mediterranean where the classical patriarchates were founded. The United States is a case in point. In 1794 eight Russian monks arrived in Alaska, when it was still Russian territory. They had some success in converting indigenous Inuits (a.k.a. Eskimos). Some descendants of these converts are still around, but in the meantime Orthodox from Europe have joined them. In 1924 the American Orthodox were granted a metropolia (not the same as autocephaly) under the Russian Orthodox Church. This body became the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which was recognized as autocephalous by the ROC in 1970. However, this situation became more complicated, because some communities of Russian émigrés did not want to be under the Moscow patriarchate, deemed quite correctly to be captive to the militantly atheistic Soviet regime. These anti-Soviet émigrés organized themselves into Russian churches in the diaspora, where a vibrant center of Orthodox thought existed at the St. Serge Theological School in Paris. Several prominent faculty members of St. Serge emigrated to America—notably Nicholas Berdyaev, George Florovsky, and Alexander Schmemann—who greatly influenced the development of the OCA. Its autocephaly was challenged by some Orthodox churches, including none less than the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who in Canon 25 of the Council of Chalcedon was recognized as having authority over “all barbarian lands.” The United States did not exist in the 5th Century CE, but would certainly have been called a “barbarian land” in the perception of that time. As far as I know, the OCA is alone in defining itself in non-ethnic terms—as simply an American Orthodox church. But in the meantime most of Orthodoxy in the United States continues to be defined in ethnic terms—Greek, Romanian, Serbian, and so on—in tension with another canon that stipulates that there should only be one Orthodox bishop in any place.Moscow sticks its fingers wherever it can, but of the four churches that stayed away from Bartholomew’s gathering, there is one whose absence was not engineered from that direction—the Roman Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. (“Roman” here refers to Rum, the Arabic name given to the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople as its capital. It is also known as “Melkite,” from Arabic malik, meaning “king,” referring to the Byzantine monarch.) Antioch is today a quite unimportant town in Turkey, but it was a powerful metropolis in antiquity. The Christian church there was reputedly founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 1921 the patriarchal seat was moved to Arabic-speaking Damascus. The situation is extraordinary complicated: There are three churches claiming the name of Antioch—one that continues to be recognized by Constantinople (the one invited to Crete by Bartholomew), a Greek Catholic or Uniate church with allegiance to the Pope, and a so-called Oriental one that at some time became associated with the Nestorian heresy (I won’t go into that topic), condemned by both Constantinople and Rome. I frankly don’t know the relative sizes of those three groups of Melkites. But the Nestorians were once by far the most expansive in “all the East.” Their missionaries established churches from one end of the Silk Road to the other—in Central Asia, India, and even China. Hardly any of this vast number of Christian communities survives today. The liturgical language of most of these has been Syriac (derived from the Aramaic spoken by Jesus), but today the common vernacular is Arabic. And therein (I’m not making this up!) lies the bone of contention affecting the recent Pan-Orthodox Council. The Orthodox Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem (both on the list of invitees) have been engaged in a bitter jurisdictional dispute. If my information is correct, the one in Jerusalem is today the more numerous, having the allegiance of some 100,000 Arabic-speaking Palestinians. Both Patriarchs claim jurisdiction over Qatar, the affluent country on the Gulf, which of course is also mostly Arabic-speaking. But its tiny Christian minority consists of European and American expatriates, and guest workers from the Philippines, Pakistan, and India (including Christians from the Indian state of Kerala, members of the Mar Thoma Church, allegedly founded by the Apostle Thomas, a.k.a. Thomas who Doubted). (I hesitate to add to this surreal account. But so that possible Orthodox readers don’t accuse me of terrible simplification, I feel I must add that some Orthodox Christians in the Middle East call themselves Assyrian or Chaldean.) In any case, evidently the Antioch-Jerusalem dispute could not be settled before or at the Pan-Orthodox Council.The final statement of the Council avoided the most neuralgic issues, such as the procedures to obtain autocephaly. It urgently expressed concern about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. It avoided suggesting that this gathering had the status of the seven original ecumenical councils (Nicea, Chalcedon, and so on), but rather referred to it as a synaxis, a gathering of bishops that should become a regular event (say, every seven years). Nevertheless, it said that decisions made in Crete should be binding on all Orthodox churches (Moscow lost no time in rejecting this notion). Probably the most contentious issue was that of relations with non-Orthodox Christians. The statement took a compromising stance (hard to avoid, since Orthodoxy has participated in the World Council of Churches): “Our church attaches great importance to dialogue, primarily with non-Orthodox Christians.” But: “Dialogues conducted by the Orthodox church never imply a compromise in matters of faith.” Specifically, on participation in the WCC: It “does not ensue that each church is obliged to regard the other churches as churches in the true and full sense.” I note that the statement does use the word “churches” for the non-Orthodox entities in the WCC, even if they (Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and so on) are not “true and full” churches. But then the statement also avoids the term “ecclesial communities” for these not-really-churches, as Orthodox conservatives prefer. (Incidentally, the same linguistic binary—“churches”/us and “ecclesial communities”/all those others—can be observed in Roman Catholic discourse.)A large number of people descended on Crete (not only the patriarchs and bishops, but their considerable entourages). But two strong personalities hovered over the meeting—one physically present (Bartholomew of Constantinople), one very much present in spirit (Kirill of Moscow). Yet it would be a mistake to see their contretemps as simply one between liberal and conservative parties within Orthodoxy. Both men are theologically conservative, and both have to contend with ultra-conservatives/fundamentalists in their own ranks. Kirill of course is more politically anchored, while Bartholomew is politically untied and thus more flexible in his actions. Also, both men have been involved in interactions with non-Orthodox churches. Kirill, born in 1946, was installed as patriarch in 2009. His grandfather, an Orthodox priest, was imprisoned for religious activity by the Communist regime. Kirill represented the Russian church at the World Council of Churches and became a member of its executive committee in 1975. In February 2016, Kirill’s most dramatic outreach to non-Orthodox Christians was his meeting with Pope Francis at the Havana airport, despite strong protests within the Russian Orthodox Church, where a strong anti-Catholic animus continues. But soon after Kirill’s installation, his deepening affinity with the Putin government became evident. In 2012 he called Putin “a miracle of God.” Also in 2012, after three militant feminists staged an anti-Putin protest during the liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Kirill said that the women were “doing the work of Satan.” In a 2016 sermon he said that “Orthodoxy must defend itself and fight against the heresy of human rights which contradicts the Bible.”I think there is a certain tragic paradox in the relation of Kirill’s religious and political roles. He was born too late to have personally experienced the bloody persecution of Orthodox Christians by the Communists, though his family background must have made him informed about it. He was old enough to have fully experienced the religious revival that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (which Putin characterized as “a catastrophe”). Much of this revival took place outside the walls of the Russian church—in pilgrimages, street fairs, private venerations of icons—far removed from the interaction of Kremlin and patriarchate. It is all the more saddening that this pent-up religious energy soon weakened and fed into the new sinfonia between church and state (the Russian term means that the two actors are, metaphorically and literally, singing from the same hymnal).My long-lasting experience with Orthodoxy explains my own sadness about this development. The first time I attended an Orthodox liturgy was during my student days in New York. I went to the Easter service at the old Russian cathedral on East Second Street. The church was packed, and there was an atmosphere of joyous expectation. I was deeply impressed by the powerful change from Lenten gloom (darkness, black hangings, baleful music) to the celebration of Easter morning (blazing lights, bright liturgical colors, jaunty hymns). If one wants to empathize with the spirit of Orthodoxy, Easter is surely the best time to do this. I can think of no more powerful celebration of the victory of light over darkness, joy over suffering and evil—in the words of the Orthodox Easter hymn “Christ trampling death by death.” Since then I have visited Orthodox churches periodically, but the first encounter is of course the most memorable. As is customary, when the church was still in darkness, we filed out onto Second Street and walked around the block, stared at curiously by a motley assemblage of New Yorkers. We exchanged friendly gestures with them. It was very cold. When we came back to the church the warmth blended with everything else to produce a feeling of great relief. If I remember correctly, the cathedral on Second Street had not affiliated with the canonically questionable separate (and implicitly anti-Soviet) exile church. It was still under the authority of the metropolia, subject to the Moscow patriarchate. This had to do with ancient notions of Orthodox ecclesiology and supposedly nothing with 20th-century politics. A rather doubtful proposition. It gained some plausibility from something that happened after we returned from the street. A side door opened, and out came an old man, holding himself very erect—in the gala uniform of an officer in the czarist army.This event in my youth was the beginning of my lasting appreciation of Orthodoxy. It seems that I am incurably Lutheran, and I have not been tempted (in the inside language of converts to Orthodoxy) “to swim in the Bosphorus.” However, I resonate with the (probably apocryphal) story about the conversion of Russia to Christianity. On or about the year 867 CE Vladimir the Great, the ruler of the Slavic state of Rus (whose capital was Kiev), wanted to explore the possibility of becoming a Christian. His motive was apparently to seek protection of one or the other Christian great powers against various threatening enemies. He sent emissaries to Constantinople and to Rome, to see which version of Christianity would appeal to him. The emissaries from the former returned and reported: “We attended the service in the Church of Hagia Sophia. What we experienced was heaven on earth.” Vladimir thereupon had all pagan idols destroyed, and was baptized with all his people by Greek missionaries sent from Constantinople (there is no record of any refuseniks).I had two personal experiences with the new sinfonia. In the early 2000s the research center I then directed at Boston University conducted a three-year research project on the Russian Orthodox Church and democracy. We organized three meetings of the international research team, respectively in Moscow, Vienna and Washington. In all three places important representatives of the Moscow patriarchate were present and participated in the discussion. This came soon after the passage in 1997 of a new law on religion in the Russian Federation. It did not go as far as establishing the ROC as the official state religion, but it came close. After the end of the project (from which some publications ensued), we had the distinct impression that the commitment of the ROC to either democracy or religious freedom was uncertain. (The Crete meeting adopted a statement in defense of religious freedom—as long as no truth claims are compromised. One can probably drive a truck through this conditional.) About two years ago I attended a Catholic/Orthodox dialogue in Europe—I was invited as a neutral observer (who, as they say in Texas, has “no dog in this fight”). The Catholic delegation, which was headed by a cardinal, was unfailingly polite and unassuming, and clearly listened with an open mind. The delegation from the Moscow patriarchate, while formally polite, behaved with arrogance and the assumption that their absolute truths were not open to discussion. I had to think of the formula with which official communications ended in imperial China—“Tremble and obey!”Eastern Christian Orthodoxy is the bearer of a rich store of spirituality and wisdom, well worth sharing not only with other Christians but with the whole world. It deserves much better than being used as an ideology for Putin’s authoritarian regime.
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Published on: July 27, 2016
Eastern Christian Orthodoxy deserves better than to be used a prop by Putin’s regime.