Today we commemorate the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea. The 318 fathers of the church came together at the request of Constantine the Great to combat the heresy of Arianism and other issues pertinent to the church. It was at this Council that the Church in its entirety collectively composed the Symbol of Faith, the prayer in its simplest, most focused form outlined the foundations of what we believe to be true as Orthodox Christians. The “Pater Imon o en tis ouranis . . . ” that begins the prayer brings all to standing and attention. After the Lord’s Prayer, it is the single most universal testament of our faith, repeated in every liturgy after every major service around the world in Orthodox churches of every banner, culture, and tongue. It is the anthem of our faith, the clarion call of all Orthodox adherents that unites us under the epitrachelion of the Arch-hieirarch, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the First Ecumenical Council convened just around the time that great and holy Pentecost occurred. It was of course during Pentecost that the church proper was baptized with the Holy Spirit and came into its own as an earthly institution. Historically the time around Pentecost is when the church comes together to take stock of itself and decide collectively on dogmatic and logistical issues.
Two thousand years later, we are on the verge of another ecumenical council of sorts. This week in Crete the Pan-Orthodox Council is set to convene. But given the spirit of this dissentious age, it has been threatened with conflict and disharmony even before it has set to begin.
There is news of various factions in the Orthodox confederacy: the Bulgarian church has pulled out altogether; the church of Antioch rescinded it’s seat due to a disagreement with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem over jurisdiction of a bishopric in Qatar (apparently the Patriarch nominated a cleric from its camp as opposed to a native one from Qatar); the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has stopped commemorating the Patriarch of Moscow based in part to the aggressive military action on its part to the Ukraine, as a result the Russian Patriarchy of Moscow might not be in attendance; the ultra traditional wings of the Church of Greece including a major portion of the Athonite monastic community refuse even to acknowledge other non-Orthodox churches including the Roman Catholic and Protestant, as even churches, considering them as heretical “groups instead. Besides the threats of non-attendance and in-fighting, there is a general consensus among most Orthodox constituents that the list of issues on the agenda to discuss on this occasion are outdated. The previous Pan Orthodox Council took place over 50 years ago in Rhodes.
On the eve of Pentecost and on the anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council, I am grieved and disillusioned at this state of affairs. Is all this strife really the ripe nesting place of the Holy Spirit or is it a babbling Tower of Babel? In contrast to previous centuries, the church, even when threatened by dissension from within, managed to come together at the same table in a spirit of consideration, if not cooperation. But when today you have members of one family turning their back, in essence slamming the door to their room, and giving the others the silent treatment, how can this even be considered a “pan” or universal council?
This has become an age of dissension, when political, national, even personal agendas trump the collective unity and civility of the Church. In an age, ironically, when the world has gotten smaller and more familiar due to the ease of contact with other Orthodox constituents through technology and travel, it has gotten more fragmented. And as a faithful Orthodox Christian who is also a thinking one the various schism in my beloved Church, the one bastion of my life, whose truths have been my foundation, the very essence of meaning for life, have vexed my conscience.
I have grappled with the complexity of holding unity and by extension tolerance over the steadfastness of tradition. I know that it is a virtue to stand for the truth of what you believe in, even at the expense of fitting in or gaining political clout. St Mark the Polite or “Evgenikos” in Greek is an example. Instead of politely agreeing with universal opinion at the Council of Florence, he politely excused himself. He was an outspoken dissenter in matters that pertained to faith. In fact staying steadfast to belief and tradition is what Orthodoxy is all about. Which other denomination has been so faithful in keeping the universal truths of the apostolic faith in Christ? The virtue of Orthodoxy is a virtue in itself. To believe so deeply and truthfully in something that you become adamantly uncompromising even to the point of ostracism, that is called integrity. There must be some universal unchanging truths that must be defended in the wax and wane of fashions, empires, opinions, and tastes.
But when does that unwaveringness become stubborness, self centeredness, or plain outright dogmatism even provincialism? To what extent do you disassociate with other members of your clan, those who share at least some of the same belefs, without necessarily causing rifts that threaten the harmony of the whole?
I understand that some things are non-negotiables in the faith and any compromise is equal to adulteration even bordering on heresy. But I take issue with the direct insulting tone some conservative factions use to refer to the more progressive ones. Just this morning in the homily I heard the priest make derogatory remarks about the Church of Greece even straight out condemning its followers to hell for attempting to find common ground with non-Western elements. It disheartens me to witness how Christians can be so un-Christ like with their own brethren.
I believe at the crux of the discord lies the bigger issue: How does the Orthodox Church synonymous with tradition with a capital T and unchanging adherence to millennia old practices negotiate the myriad of changes in the rapidly accelerating world without appearing unreasonable, megalithic or retarded? And lets face it, it has to deal with more change more quickly to stay viable in a world that is faced with change that is threatening to spin out of control. Issues central to the church–the definition of marriage, changing gender roles, stakes of nationalism vs. ecclesiastical authority, threats of secularism and materialism–these are pressing concerns that need to be addressed immediately. It does not help that some players cannot even agree to sit down at the table even just to talk about them.
These are some of the questions I have:
How does the church relate to “other” without condemning him or her as an anathema yet still remain true to itself?
Is it possible to condemn other denominations, not to mention other faiths entirely, without appearing spiritually fascist?
Is it correct to remain isolated and aloof even as the rest of the world aims at reconciliation?
When is it warranted to take a dissentive stance in part even while it threatens to disrupt harmony in the whole?
How close should you get next to the “other” without risking changing your ideals?
Can an Orthodox Christian embrace her fellow man in a spirit of understanding without being labeled a heretic?
Does Scripture not state that God blesses every man who comes into the world, not just an Orthodox, even though we know as Orthodox that our faith is closest to the truth, better than that it is the truth?
Does ecumenism automatically lead to heresy?
If such a Pan-Orthodox Council does convene this coming week, will its decisions be binding when all members of the Orthodox Church are not there? According to Father Chryssavgis, spokesman of the Ecumenical Patriarch, apparently they will.
The very inability to coordinate a communal council that should cooperate on discourse on these issues signals a crisis in the church.
Every night in the closing evening prayers we recite, “Heal the schism of the Churches.” This is what is needed. The Holy Spirit is the vehicle of union, cooperation and harmony; it is the opposing spirit that sows strife, discord, and disunity. We need the descent of the Holy Spirit more than ever in this age of disillusion, discord, and dissent. Let us pray for the Holy Orthodox church, that the Holy Spirit may enlighten all our spiritual leaders under its light and truth.