Tolstoy once told a tale that posed three questions: What is the most important moment? (Now.) What is the most important task? (The one you are doing now.) Who is the most important person? (The one you are attending to now.) In not dissimilar vein we may ask:
1. Who are the Orthodox? The second largest Christian community in the world, comprising 18 local [sic] churches and 150 million baptised persons in the Byzantine branch of the family. One in faith but devolved for administration. The ecumenical patriarch is primus inter pares. The supreme expression of Orthodox unity is the Council. The last one was in 787. These are a continuation of the mystery of Pentecost. We are a conciliar church, above all. (Nb. the Orthodox were invited as participants to RC Vatican I but declined. They were official observers at Vatican II. There has been much debate about the propriety of another ecumenical Council in Orthodox circles.)
Many local churches are national, linking church and state, worship and culture, faith and people. This model has much strength, but the heresy of phyletism (declared in 1872), the subordination of the catholicity of the universal church to national interests, remains a persistent danger.
Proselytism: The activities of western missionaries in Orthodox territory are not helpful. US Christians should concentrate on converting their own increasingly secularised nation.
In Greece the church-state alliance in its Byzantine form continues in an attenuated way. 98% of the people are baptised as Orthodox Christians. Priests, Orthodox education and theological schools are still funded by the state, though the civic authorities are gradually withdrawing some of the latter provisions.
Russia in 1988 had 700 parishes. It has 19,000 today. There were 21 monasteries, there are now over 500… plus 50 theological schools instead of around 5 previously. So there is growth in faith and ecclesiastical vigour. But ecumenism is still often seen as ‘fellow travelling’ (with negative attitudes to the WCC), and rigourism in the church is paralleled by the lack of a civic democratic tradition in society. The risk of ultra-nationalism is perhaps over-emphasised, however. The new Religious Law in Russia is seen as threatening by other Christian communities, but most Orthodox view it as a protective measure.
2. What do the Orthodox do? We are a Eucharistic organ, celebrating the Divine Liturgy. From this flows everything else said and done in the name of the Gospel. The Body of Christ is both the people and the sacrament. ‘The whole church is the church of the penitent’, said St Ephraim of Syria.
3. Where are the Orthodox going? Areas for future cooperation with other Christians include our understanding of the human person as in relationship. Prosopon, the Greek word for person, means face. We are a community of face-to-face relating. There is no true person without two persons in exocentric communication. Amor ergo sum, I love and am loved therefore I am, rather than the Cartesian autonomous rational subject. ‘Insofar as I am not loved I am unintelligible to myself.’
The doctrine of the Trinity is a way of saying that God is love in mutuality, in I-Thou, inter-personalness. Cf. Colin Gunton (Anglican) and Jurgen Moltmann (Lutheran). All human community is an icon of the Trinity, though this insight has to be balanced by other approaches to Trinitarian theology.
The crisis of the environment is one of the human heart. It calls for a transfiguration (cf. Michael Ramsay), a view of ecology as an aspect of the world as sacrament, and it requires a developed theology of creation.
‘What we need is an ascetic and eucharistic spirit’, says Patriarch Bartholomew. That is, we must constantly distinguish between want and need, and we must continually offer the world back to God in thanksgiving.
Bishop Ware also noted, during a time of questions, that the Oriental and African Orthodox may number between 30 and 50 million (in Ethiopia, Armenia, some parts of Syria etc.). In Ethiopia there is some experience through persecution of an Orthodoxy unsupported by the state authorities surviving and indeed flourishing.
His own view is that the dispute over the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church is ecclesial rather than theological at heart, and that the ecumenical debate over the Procession of the Spirit is resolvable.
Continuing questions (SB):
* How can Orthodox Christians be encouraged to develop and practice a theology of pluralism and an ecclesiology of unity in reconciled diversity?
* How can non-Orthodox Christians learn from the Orthodox spiritual theology of the pneumata and of creation?
* Is the current understanding of Canonical Territory intrinsic to (Byzantine, Eastern) Orthodoxy, or are different models possible?
* How can the different members of the Orthodox family be enabled to converse more trustingly with each other and with ecumenical partners — and vice versa?