Orthodoxy's Rear View Mirror

Anyone who's planned a family reunion must sympathize with the Orthodox churches. It took more than 12 centuries to pull it off and had it's share of disappointments and rough patches. For one thing, a quarter of the relatives either didn't show up or left in a huff over something that rubbed them wrong. The joiners, nearly 250 bishops from branches of the church in Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, comprised a sea of black robes, flowing beards and pill-box hats at the Holy and Great Council to begin sorting out the nettles and knots that had emerged among them since the church at Constantinople parted ways with Rome.

Despite some inevitable sharp edges, they seemed glad to be with each other for the most part. By the time they wrapped it up a week later, they'd broached two sensitive issues: how to get along better with each other and how to get along better with non-Orthodox.

By comparison to the western church, the Orthodox have been distant relatives, identified not so much as a single church but as a confederation of national churches -- Greek, Russian, Syrian and so on. The titular leader is the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, the "first among equals" whose power consists of persuasion rather than force. Given the relatively insular nature of the regions served by the Orthodox, their experience mixing it up in the wider world is somewhat limited. But their history of deep mysticism and spiritual breadth has recently appealed to a growing number of western Christians as a refreshing alternative to their own traditions of more exacting rules of behavior and doctrinal conformity. Over recent decades, it has become a home for many who have been disillusioned by western churches, though the attachment can be more romantic than wrought from fuller attention to the wider picture.

Surveying the Orthodox network's pattern of inter-church tensions, cultural freedoms, bold assertions, contradictions and plural authority systems, it is a reminder of what might have been in store for Roman Catholicism if the pope hadn't been granted supreme custody and national churches had gained more of a foothold.

The two big branches will always mirror each other in many respects, of course, and the Council's final document could be seen largely as an exaltation of principles that the Roman church more or less backed away from at Vatican II. It also spoke of the divide between Orthodoxy as an other-worldly presence and the conflicts and worldly compromises it has exhibited in its panoply of expressions.

Whereas Vatican II grounded the church in the "people of God," giving lip service at least to a view of the church more ground-level than hierarchical, the Council's final document ruled that tendency out, declaring that there's been "no democracy in the church" (though its roots are largely in Greece) and "there won't be now, since democracy means the rule of people, and power in the church belongs to God" (with bishops as conduits). Rome still operates that way but Vatican II opened that up for questioning, as many have done, imputing a role for a more democratic church.

On ecumenism, Vatican II accorded a measure of "truth" to non-Orthodox churches, only to have that apparent leniency rebuffed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Council spoke of an older triumphalism, proclaiming flatly that non-Orthodox churches "diverged from the true faith of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith." Unlike Rome, the Eastern churches have rubbed elbows with non-Orthodox Christians as members of the World Council of Churches which presumably has promoted a measure of open-mindedness. It doesn't come across that way. The purpose, according to the document, is to show "more precisely the authenticity of Orthodox tradition ... patristic thinking and faith." The aim was to win the others over rather than explore wider vistas of "truth." Perhaps centuries of fragmentation foster common theological "one true church" absolutism, though Rome did that in its own way prior to mid-20th century and areas of Catholicism still cling to it despite the moderating effects of the Council. There was no such thing as "an equality of confessions (church traditions)," the bishops asserted. Schmoozing with other Christians should "never imply a compromise in matters of faith." Not much room for dialogue there.

Some of the other pronouncements could use some historical fact checking. "The church does not involve herself in politics." I recall attending World Council of Church assemblies where the guessing game was how many Russian delegates were KGB agents. Almost every country decidedly Orthodox has a long record of involvement with an assortment of ruling regimes. 

It was the claim to total certainty that invited the most irony, however. The bishops assailed "explosions of [religious] fundamentalism" as "expressions of morbid religiosity" That presumably was primarily directed at militant Islam, though it wasn't named, but could have been applied to any number of religions with fixed beliefs, literalistic interpretations of certain texts and zeal for conformity among members and drive to convert others to the real thing. Fundamentalism has long struck me as a state of mind that exists among all groups, religious and non-religious, in every field from medicine to unfettered free enterprise.

The Orhodox churches deserve much credit for taking this step, however, despite the dissension and discomforts. They have talked together and been forthright in their firmest convictions. It may spur more cooperation among them and creative exposure to other Christians. It bring much to the table; in my view, the story will be told in the value they place on what others have brought.

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