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Solomon’s Porch: A Blog of In Communion
Emmaus Icon for Solomon's porch blogActs 5:12 “And they were all together in Solomon’s Portch.” Solomon’s Porch was a place where the early disciples gathered, witnessed many good works among the people, and were in one accord. And, of course, they talked about it all. Today we gather to talk in many places, most visibly in the public square via the internet. The good works are done anywhere Christians roll up their sleeves and get to it. Our blog is a place to engage in healthy analysis of the needs around us, centered on Christ the Truth, to help us go and do good works.

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Also see our newest “Prayers” page which you can access through the “Content by Category” menu, or click here. We are building a library of prayers that you may find useful as you pray for peace.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfiguration

A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I love, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground. Christ then said to them “Do not be afraid.” This event on Mt. Tabor was a great mystery to the world, the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is not just a sign that Christ shows us the Divine, but a sign that we too will one day shine in the radiance of Divine life. The Church teaches that every human is the bearer of the image of God and is the real Body of Christ. The Earth too bears that image, for it bears us, it is the chalice which holds the most sacred thing in creation- life. Orthodox Christians believe that all creation will be transfigured, and that if we just “listen to him,” we will love all humans, love all creation, love all life, and honor the sacred beauty therein.

71 years ago today, on the feast of the Transfiguration, a light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. In an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb, the A-Bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say “Be afraid.”

The primary goals of the bombing were as much military as psychological. The Americans were hoping to strike fear into the Japanese, forcing them to surrender, and to strike fear into the world, establishing the dominance of the United States. Hiroshima was ideally suited to these ends, due to its compact nature. Nuclear weapons expend most of their energy at the epicenter of the blast, and so a special city would be required to showcase how disfiguring the weapon could be. As a bonus, there were weapons stored in the city which could legitimate the civilian casualties of the attack.

Hiroshima was chosen to be the site of revelation to the world. The bomb had been revealed to a select group in New Mexico earlier that summer. The scientists and officials watched with great reverence and devotion. One blind woman miles away said she saw the light as well. A semi-official report of that first blast read “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The operation was named Trinity.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Transfiguration is a second Theophany. At Theophany, the Trinity was revealed to the world. At Transfiguration, it was revealed to a select group.

Visit Hiroshima today, and you may still see the disfiguration. As Robin Wright recounts,

Everything about Hiroshima is haunting, particularly the stories and remnants of extinguished young lives collected in the museum. There’s a battered lunchbox belonging to Shigeru Orimen, who was in his first year of junior high. His mother was able to identify the boy’s burned body because he was still clutching it. There’s a shredded school cap and uniform on a skeletal mannequin. They were assembled from meagre rags of clothing left on three boys, aged twelve to fifteen, who happened to be a thousand yards from the bomb’s hypocenter above Hiroshima. There’s a re-created panorama of a woman and child fleeing the blast. Covered with soot and dust, their skin is scorched and bloody, their hair, fried, stands on end, and ripped pieces of clothing hang off their bodies as they attempt to escape the fires consuming the city. The eeriest display is a ghostlike shadow imprinted on a stone step as the blast vaporized the human being who had been sitting there.

Also present in the museum is a small, charred tricycle. It belonged to a three year old boy who had been outside riding it when the 16 kiloton bomb, called “Little Boy” by the Americans, was dropped on the city. His father would find him later in the rubble, on death’s doorstep, still clinging to the handlebars of the tricycle. What did the world gain with the death of this child and the many other children of the city?

Overhead, another American plane accompanied the B-29 bomber. This plane was there to silently observe the effects of the bomb. It was named “Necessary Evil” by the Americans.

Three days later, another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The crew were all Christians and just before leaving, they sat with two Christian Chaplains who blessed them and their mission. Nagasaki was home to the largest Christian community in Japan. Over half of the Christians in Japan were killed by the bomb, succeeding where 200 years of intense persecution by the Japanese government had failed. The steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mary was used by the bombers for targeting. The bomb exploded directly over the Cathedral, which was the largest Christian Church in the orient at the time, with over 15,000 members. Exactly one week before Hiroshima was bombed was the feast of St. John the Soldier of Constantinople. St. John was canonized for his refusal to kill Christians and other innocents and for disobeying orders to do so. Some of the crew expressed doubt about the bomb they were dropping, but “orders were orders.” Orthodox Christians were among those killed in the blast.

Orthodoxy was brought to Japan by St. Nicholas, a Russian. He was a voice of peace, having once nonviolently disarmed a Samurai through his preaching. He was protected by the people during the anti-Russian sentiment that reined during the Russian-Japanese war, for he was beloved. The bomb was not as merciful to the Christian population.


In the ensuing years, wars were waged over the bomb. An arms race broke out in the world, to be won by those who could disfigure the world the most, even destroy it. Proxy battles were fought in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. We still live in the shadow of the bomb today. But there is not just shadow, but also the light of Tabor.

Today we celebrate. The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid.

Today we remember. Once again the human race had looked upon itself and the world it inhabited with fear, hatred, and violence, and resorted to the most heinous mass execution of civilians that had ever occurred in an instant- the fruits of our dehumanizing fear. Against this, we find the words of the Transfigured whispering to us, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray that we do not need another great cloud and light before we “listen to him.”

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

That the World May Believe: Why we should embrace the Holy and Great Council of Crete

That the World May Believe: Why we should embrace the Holy and Great Council of Crete

A personal reflection
by Pieter Dykhorst

“…that they may all be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me.” —Jesus (Jn 17:20, 21)

While we confess in the Creed that the Orthodox Church is one, where must an observer look to see our theological, mystical, or true oneness? We have hidden it from ourselves and the world by our behavior. Because of our pervasive fear, self-interest, and insularity, the visible unity of the Church exists only as a broken promise. We boast that the Church, the kingdom of God on earth, is a place of light set high and reached by straight roads where healing and wholeness are practiced, but it exists merely as a broken affiliation scattered among a deeply fractured human family.

The world is like a concentration camp of darkness where its billions suffer every degradation and practice mutual genocide. Our lack of unity effectively marginalizes the witness that Jesus is the light and liberty we all need. How will they believe us when we say Jesus was sent by the Father or recognize us as the children of God when we fail to be peacemakers even within our own house?

This should break all our hearts. When Jesus looked over Jerusalem and felt deeply Israel’s brokenness, “he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’” Should we not weep both for our own dysfunctional city and the world? We know the way of peace and do not walk in it.

This is why I embrace the calling, gathering, and labor of the Holy and Great Council that convened in Crete in June 2016. One need not uncritically accept all it has done or produced. To do so would provide an unhelpful gloss. But neither should anyone seek to sabotage or undermine it. That would be business as usual. I am encouraged by the mere convening of the Council, however incomplete, and the reconciliatory mission it has undertaken. The Council is a necessary and hopeful start to the process of facilitating our healing. The work needed to resolve the problems that have hindered our mission and witness to both the Church and the world must continue. I dare to hope that all Orthodox who believe in the conciliar and reconciliatory nature and calling of the Church will embrace the Council, both as an event and as a process, and pray for its success. For the Orthodox Church manifests its true nature in open display when it gathers in council.

The Council’s call to bring all the Churches together every few years suggests a clear and simple rallying point. We reject the model of one pope who rules all. But our present model of many battling popes is a disaster. If the council as an institution were to adopt a model similar to the ruling council in Plato’s perfect republic, then our “philosopher kings” could regularly convene as a council of wise elders truly coming together as benevolent equals. Such a council could lead to increasing our capacity within the Church to bridge internal divides. We could again build trust to resolve outstanding disagreements and problems among us and create mechanisms that prevent new problems from becoming the next generation’s protracted conflicts that defy resolve. By immediately fortifying the very conciliar forum where courageous and imaginative leadership can continue to work together, we will in time come to recognize this as normal.

Critical evaluation of the Council’s documents and proceedings done in good faith and in the spirit of love and with the desire for the success of the Church in its conciliar identity is something all concerned Orthodox should engage in. As we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in this work, we may begin to implement those things on which we find we already agree, for even critical evaluation should not obscure the fact that the documents contain much that is good. This conciliar labor must engage the Church universal, not only primates, bishops, and synods. Through such a broad and engaged habit of conciliar involvement, we will pass the true test of catholicity and begin to rescue from abstraction our claim of diachronic interaction with history. An organic, growing tradition lives to make history, not preserve it.

We must also acknowledge the criticisms and concerns held by those Churches that participated fully up till the gathering in Crete and hope that their concerns will be considered in full council. These concerns cannot be addressed, and the work already begun cannot be improved or completed, if all the local Churches do not themselves participate fully. Only then can the Pan-Orthodox aspirations of the council be realized. The Churches can’t wait for the Holy Spirit’s anointing to participate, they must participate so they can invite the Holy Spirit’s anointing. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head.…For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133).

Finally, the conciliar and reconciliatory nature and work of the Church cannot be separated. The reconciliation of all things is rooted in—and indeed only made possible by—the ministry of reconciliation being practiced within the Church among and between her members (Eph 2 & Col 1). The councils of the Church are a visible expression of that ministry. When our shepherds become better and more credible examples of reconciliatory ministry through conciliar engagement, the Church may once more believably offer Jesus Christ as bread to a suffering world. Without conciliarity, there is no reconciliation.

That we may be healed and that the world may believe.

Jesus, Superheroes, and the Presidency

Recently I’ve been reading an alternate universe Avengers comic in which Captain America is elected president of the US. It’s a very powerful fantasy that I find captivating. President Cap is the American to the bone, bleeding red white and blue. He’s the apple pie and baseball, blond hair and blue eyed super-soldier. He is America’s very own ubermensch, the ‘blond beast’ of Nietzche’s dreams and of Nazi propaganda. And it’s pretty cool. He flies around in his jet, jumps into crises with battle armor, and punches terrorists in the face.

He is fed up with the bs that is politics, and locks politicians in a room until they come to a compromise. And violence is his go-to solution for problems. He can’t stand doing the job of the president though, sitting behind a desk and talking to people. It’s time to get to work. And his advisors tell him “They didn’t elect you to be the president, but to be a symbol . They don’t want a president, they want a king.”

And as much as I enjoy it, a man wrapped in red, white, and blue, doing everything we fantasize about doing as president when we were teenagers (no wonder they don’t et kids vote), at some point I have to put down the comic and come back to the real world. Presidents aren’t superheroes and they aren’t saviors.

When Jesus came as the Messiah, lots of people had ideas about what he would do. They expected the Messiah to be a warrior King, someone who would swoop in, and punch those Romans in the face. He was supposed to be the ubermensch. If you read texts from the early Christian period, you’ll discover that Jesus is described as short, unattractive, and of a crooked face. He wasn’t the super-soldier the zealots hoped for.  He was supposed to take over the world and lead Israel into greatness. And instead Jesus exalted humility, meekness, peacemaking. He said he would be found among the poor. before starting his ministry, he went into the desert and was tempted to rule all the kingdoms of the world, but he refused this temptation. He chose to die rather than to call down the legion of angels he had in the wings. He told Peter to put away the sword, and he let that terrorist and Christian-persecutor Paul become the leader of his movement. He told Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world, for if it was of this world his disciples would fight, but they do not fight.

One of my bad habits is that I still like to read these comics. They are powerful fantasies. Even though I know that fantasy and nationalism are both condemned by Orthodox Christianity, it’s a fun thing to imagine: president Cap. It’s tempting to want a president who can give us everything we want, who through their sheer force of personality can move mountains and make our nation into heaven on earth. Essentially, it is a messianic hope, that our president would be a king who inaugurates the rule of the Kingdom of God within the boundaries of our nation, who is a Messiah in every way that Jesus refused to be. But at some point I have to choose, who am I going to live like? Whom do I follow? President Cap or Jesus? “Put not your trust in princes,” the psalm reads, “in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.”

An Orthodox Christian mentor of mine once told me “The Pharisees were the conservatives, and the Sadducees were the liberals, and Jesus didn’t have time for either of them.” I’m trying to keep that in mind this year as my country chooses the next person who will ‘lord power over others, the way the gentiles do.’


How many thousands of innocent men, women, and children have you killed today?

July 20, 2016

The collective gasp at new British PM Theresa May articulating clearly her willingness to do the will of the people by murdering multiple thousands in a nuclear strike “if necessary” is a bit of a surprise. The reminder that deterrent threats are a real part of US, British, and NATO defense strategy and useful only if articulated and believed is always bracing. But let’s not be moral fascists or hypocrites.

Is there anyone today who does not know what nuclear deterrence is for, what it threatens? The £40 billion Britain is spending on new Trident subs is not for mere window dressing. Is there anyone who does not understand what the principle common to democratic society, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” implies? As a matter of policy, deterrence in the West is periodically reinforced openly and is always voiced early in the administration of new leaders, but it should not shock anybody when it is or that it is about the shared willingness to obliterate hundreds of thousands of human beings in one go.

Clearly specified in all the highest level national and military defense documents guiding US, British, and NATO policy (Russia’s too), nuclear deterrence rests squarely on the credible threat to hold an enemy’s most valuable assets at risk without ever specifying exactly what could trigger a strike or what is being targeted. The goal is to instill debilitating, irrational, convincing fear so that an enemy does not do what we do not want them to do. The philosophical foundation of deterrence is that a threat without willingness to execute it is not a threat and might invite an attack or other costly action against us. Included in 21st century deterrence theory is the concept of “denial,” the notion that we will—quite euphemistically—not strike first but strike preemptively to destroy capability we believe would otherwise be used against us.

There is no relief in the secret hope that the threats our leaders make in our names are not sincere. What virtue is there in making unvirtuous threats, especially if they are made only to cripple with fear? “If you take one step closer, I’ll kill you” only works if the person threatened believes he’s dead unless he goes away. Where is the Christian virtue in knowing there are millions of people in the world who live under our collective threat to incinerate them? What would be a reasonable response from a British or US citizen who prayed regularly “Lord remove from the daily lives of Russians the fear that they may die in a nuclear holocaust unleashed by their enemies?” I’m pretty sure many of us pray that for ourselves. Our thoughts toward the citizens of Moscow are more likely, “If they don’t want to die that way, they should do something about their own ungodly government.” I’m pretty sure few of us think that way toward ourselves.

If Theresa May—or Barack Obama—pushes the button to launch a nuclear missile, it will be you and me who have willed it and done it. The blood of hundreds of thousands of lives will be on our hands. In a constitutional democracy, an authorized act by the government is an act of the people. According to law, a conspiracy to commit murder is as culpable as an actual murder. According to the Gospel, a threat made in the heart has the weight of an act already committed. Murder intended stains and darkens the heart like a murder done. Passivist support that lacks the courage, honesty, and integrity to oppose nuclear deterrence, voting for those who would “push the button” (ask any candidate to clearly say they would not), and merely living in a constitutional democracy all spread the responsibility evenly and widely.

Those who always, inevitably, attempt to shut down any conscientious attempt to expose this simple truth are not behaving out of either patriotic or Christian virtue. Blinded by fear and crippled by the lack of a peacemaking imagination, they employ the languages of patriotism and theology to describe nuclear mass murder as a good, hide their pretended innocence under the cloak of obedience to authority or duty to country, obfuscate with a feigned “what else can we do?”, or simply blame the enemy for doing it to himself. But it will still be murder. Don’t think so?—then how will you describe the deaths of countless children in a US city if they launch a missile against us?

Through nuclear deterrence, we arrogantly seek to emulate the worst caricature of God by threatening hell in order to bend our enemies to our will so that they submit to serve our self-interests—through fear or love, we don’t care. We may act like we don’t understand, but James 4:1 (ESV) describes normal life not submitted to God: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” The Greek for quarrel here is translated “war” or “battle” every other occurrence in the New Testament. A literal translation would read: “Where does war come from, and where do conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your pleasures at war within you?”

How many Russian, Muslim, or Chinese (all currently in US targeting protocols) children is your fear—of losing pleasure, comfort, safety, or your own life—willing to annihilate today? Go ahead—say the number. Do not be fooled, no nuclear missile distinguishes between innocent and guilty—their fiery embrace is more far reaching and inclusive than we like to think about. A nuclear blast wave does not stop politely at the periphery of a military target.

The only consonant response for a Christian citizen of a nuclear power to the “news” yesterday that the leader of a nation possessing such weapons would actually use them is repentance. Then come the fruits of repentance: humility, prayer, faith, hope, love, works of mercy, love of enemies, forgiveness of others, self-sacrificial love for all, peacemaking, etc. These are not passive; they are vigorously borne only by the courageous and strong in the face of what we fear.

Pieter Dykhorst

editor, In Communion

The Council After the Council

By now, everyone has left Crete. Everything has been wrapped up. My skin, for its part in this, is a shade darker and a shade redder. The Council has ended. But the conciliar process has not.

One of the phrases that is used in the Council documents is “liturgy after the liturgy.” This phrase is meant to capture the manifold ways in which prayer, love, and sacramentality are to shape the whole of life and the cosmos, and not just the experiences we have during liturgical services. After the liturgy each day at the Council, bells would ring. But they weren’t the bells attached to the monastery. These bells hung around the necks of the goats which fed off the mountainside. It was a refreshingly simple sight, peaceful, joyful. A fitting reminder each day of the world for which this Council is held. A reminder of the ‘liturgy after the liturgy.’

The Council may be over, but conciliarity is just beginning. We now enter the long stretch that belongs to the ‘council after the council.’ It is the role of the primates to speak to the world on behalf of the Church. Now they have done so. But the words they have spoken are not the point. The specific phrases of “The Mission of the Church in Today’s World” are important insofar as they call upon the whole Church for a renewed prophetic witness. But more important than that call is the missionary witness itself. It is now up to the body of the Church to fulfill that mission.

This is what I mean by the ‘council after the council.’ Whether this Council is a global turning point in the history of salvation, signalling a new Pentecost which heals the problems of modernism, or if it is just a failed Council depends entirely on the conciliar authority of the whole Church now. By this I mean more than whether the loudest voices begin to preach or denounce this Council. Rather, the real test is the fruit of this Council.

When the Council of Nicaea happened, it was a turning point in the Church. Prior to that, Christianity was divided. Not only had Arianism taken over, but the Church had not gathered in Council before. In the changing landscapes of post-Constantine Christianity, the Church rose to meet the new challenges of the world through Council. A creed was proclaimed, but this creed wasn’t just a formula, it was a confession. The Church came together as one and confessed the faith.

The challenge today is the same. Arianism is not the challenge we face, there are other isms now with which we must grapple- modernism,  ethno-phyletism, nationalism, jurisdictionalism, militarism, consumer capitalism, globalism. All these are addressed in one way in another. In the face of these, it is the duty of the Church again to gather and to confess.

It is now our turn to sit and the conciliar table and to add our voices.

Something shifted in the spirit of the Church during the Council. Each day after liturgy, there was a real camaraderie that developed among those in attendance. The Council began with a formal liturgy where everyone knew their place. The opening session involved prepared speeches. But as the Council wore on, dialogue happened, and friendships broke out. Bridges were erected within the Church, something that has long been needed.

There of course has been intrigue and controversy. There is a lot more about the proceedings of the Council that I could have written about this past week. There are more stories to tell and controversies to be gossiped about.  But that doesn’t interest me so much. It is not the immediate ups and downs of the conciliar process which matters. Rather, it is the Gospel that matters.  The most significant guide for me during my time at the Council was the Gospel. It was instructive to read Christ’s words to love our enemies while I sat waiting to see if the Council would work out its statements on other Christians. It was grounding to read Christ’s call to take the lowest position while awaiting decisions about the diaspora.

Every day there was a press conference, and a liturgy, and at the end there were more speeches. And now we have documents. The whole way there has been speculation and controversy, but the consistent word from the Bishops has been that we should not focus on such things. And I personally found it quite exhausting to keep up to date with each new bit of gossip about the Council. It is better, I think, to recognize this Council as a first step. There may be flaws and controversy, but Moscow has called for another Council, and this Council has called for more. This is the first step in the conciliar process. And it was a good step. As one representative said during the press conference, the bishops were honest and open. They discussed everything from metaphysics to poverty, and the atmosphere was sincere, emotional, and empathetic. It was as if the Holy Spirit really was acting.

In this respect, the discussions are more than the statements. The live voice of the Church, speaking in love and brotherhood, manifests in these real person to person encounters. These encounters constitute the conciliar identity of the Church, for it is only in such an encounter that love can manifest. Now it is the duty of the whole Church to open itself to real, personal interaction. The ‘council after the council’ much like the ‘liturgy after the liturgy’ is simply this space for encounter, for dialogue, for compassion, for co-suffering love.

As I walked down the long, dusty, sun-soaked road that led away from the Orthodox Academy for the last time, I turned and saw about a half dozen goats mulling about the sparsely vegetated hillside. Bells clanged around the necks of each. I paused for a moment and smiled at their presence here, reminding me of the ‘pastoral’ vocation of the Church. They fulfilled their God-given purpose so well. I wonder if we will live up to ours.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion


War and Peace in Today’s Council

Today my response to “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was published on Public Orthodoxy, the blog of Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies center. You can find it here. I’m also posting the text below, and you can find an expanded version posted on our own website.

The Mission document is monumental for its statements on war and peace. Warfare and nuclear weapons are unequivocally condemned, without qualification, as an expression and fruit of sin. What strikes me about all of this is that I haven’t been able to find any discussions of these aspects of the document anywhere. From what has been released regarding the minutes of the Council, the discussion of this text centered entirely on the proposals of the Church of Greece about the use of the word ‘prosopon’ (person) and against religious syncretism. The war and peace sections were not discussed. That means they passed exactly as they were formulated at the pre-conciliar consultations, where this document was signed by all 14 patriarchates, and not just the 10 who have shown up. None of the 4 absent patriarchates cited the sections on war and peace as problematic. So as far as I can tell they are not controversial.

Even those outside the Council aren’t talking about these sections, as far as I can tell. I haven’t been able to find any other articles or commentaries on these sections. They are literally unremarkable, in that no one is making any remarks.

I find this silence remarkable, given how groundbreaking this document is for the Church. The highest level of Church authority has unequivocally condemned nuclear weapons and warfare, and has issued a call for Orthodox peacemaking, and for Orthodox cooperation with and involvement in organizations that promote peace.

There are some very radical consequences to these statement. Will the Orthodox Church lead the push for nuclear disarmament? Will Russia give up its nuclear weapons? Will peaceful opposition to warfare become the new norm for Orthodox Christians around the world?

War and peace issues, apart from the document, are being discussed quite regularly at the Council. Nationalism has been condemned many times by the bishops present, a statement was made about the attack on the Syriac patriarchate, and terrorism has come up several times at the press briefings. Territorial disputes are also on everyone’s mind. The last two days, the issue of the ‘New Lands’ between the EP and Greece has been all ablaze. Similarly, today at the press briefing, the Serbian and Romanian spokesmen were asked about the dispute between those patriarchates. This Council has been a voice for peace on most of these accounts. As special meeting was set up between the Serbian and Romanian patriarchate this evening, to discuss the issue in a spirit of humility and conciliarity. Thankfully, the atmosphere among the bishops and delegates is very open, direct, humble, and brotherly.

At the press conference today, it was suggested that this Mission document may be signed today, if so then it has already been signed. But it was also said that there are nearly 300 bishops signing these documents, and they sign them in all the official languages of the Council. During the press conference, the signing of the documents on autonomy and the diaspora was taking place, and it was taking a long time. So the Mission document might be signed tomorrow if it hasn’t already been signed.  I’m especially glad for the timing of this, being posted on Fordham’s blog today as the document is being signed. Today is also the first day of the Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism conference put on by the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham.

The Mission document isn’t perfect, and I make some criticisms of it in my response. But these criticisms are constructive in nature. This document is a wonderful starting point to the conversation within global Orthodoxy on this vital topic. This Council is calling for future Councils to take place to continue to discuss these and other topics, a proposal which is consonant with Moscow’s and others’ calls for a fuller Council at a later date. The primates of this Council want the global Church to have regular Councils and synods, just as the ‘local’ Churches have regular synods of their bishops. So I hope my suggestions for ways to expand upon this work can be considered and codified at a later Council. Having talked to those behind the scenes, I know they are sympathetic to these points, and my text on this document did end up in the hands of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So we can only pray that the Orthodox Church would truly become a voice for peace and healing in the world, declaring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”


“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers timely statement on war, peace, and justice. The nature of conflict has evolved and the Church needs to counsel the faithful on the peacemaking vocation. This document offers an authoritative peace stance, and makes recommendations, but these are mostly too vague and incomplete. In particular, more should be developed regarding faithful responses to violence.

The basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological lens. The Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the Church is also called to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document definitively states, “The Church of Christ condemns war,” and condemns nuclear weapons and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also calls it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). Specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

This list is good, but is incomplete and vague. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament or limiting the production and trade of arms, and the use of nuclear weapons is not unequivocally condemned. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water. In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of modernist nationalism generally (4.3). Orthodox nationalism should be condemned, since it divides.

Similarly, while the proven strategies of peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, they should also be explicitly called for. In particular, the viability of nonviolent campaigns and institutions has risen dramatically over the past century. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals, and each decade the ratio increases. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many including Patriarch Kirill, while Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept” with Orthodox roots. Given the role of nonviolence in the contemporary world, nonviolence should be mentioned. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation; the Middle East and former Soviet countries exemplify this. Nonviolence is most effective in such contexts, and the Church should recommend Christian investment and participation in nonviolent action, while condemning violent action.

War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding participation in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil,’ it would be better to say that the Church cares for all involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions fighting is allowed. The only conditions listed are for life and freedom, but ‘freedom,’ a common excuse for unnecessary fighting, is undefined. Martyrdom should also be mentioned as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs faced death and imprisonment, and are lauded over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for such causes, but instead are employed in ‘humanitarian’ interventions or fighting insurgents. These realities should be addressed, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. In this document, the Church promises care to those who fight, but a similar pledge is not made to those who for Christian reasons refuse. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend conscientious objection or disobedience in at least some circumstances. Nothing is said of this, or of the practice of universal conscription in countries like Russia and Greece.

There is a final weakness in the account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be counterproductive if a document condemning war allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. Such inconsistencies threaten the integrity of the document, and as such the Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

Facing the Church

This morning I stepped off my bus into Kolymbari right in front of the Avra Imperial Hotel. “Imperial” is an appropriate title. While it’s not the most elaborate building I’ve seen, it seems imperial in contrast to the relatively simple fishing village that surrounds it. This hotel is where a number of the bishops and delegates are staying. I suppose it wouldn’t be an Orthodox Council without an imperial presence.

After stepping out from the bus, a police van came from behind me, slowed, and then hovered along the curb. It’s four-way flashers turned on, and a large man with a shaved head stepped out. He opened the back of the van and asked me to get inside.

While this situation might sound frightening to my western friends, I was delighted. The man wore a warm smile. He saw that I was about to embark upon the long hike up the hill towards the Academy and wanted to save me the trouble. He very kindly, reverently and deferentially offered to escort me there directly, in the most official of vehicles. I wasn’t asked for my passport, my bags weren’t searched. He took me straight to the Academy with joy and affection. It was remarkable given the suspicion that plagues the Church. This friendly face of the Orthodox Church, of the police, and of this Council is not one that gets talked about very often. Ugly and mean faces make for better gossip.

There are several competing faces to the Church at this Council. Fundamentally this Council is about the Church facing modernity and responding. The question is what face will the Church present to the world?

This question is ever more apparent for me, for from now on the only events I have access to are the daily press briefings. Everything else will be behind closed doors. Which means my material to write about is drying up — all I have to go on is the face I see on stage. At press briefings, a certain face is worn, a very intentional face.

This face is useful perhaps, for there are other faces which seek to thrust themselves upon the Church. Some celebrate the absence of the four primates, for it makes it look like Bartholomew has egg on his face. Others mourn the withdrawal of the patriarchs, because it shows a divided face to the wold.

What is the face of the Church? When the world thinks of Orthodoxy, do they ‘know that we are Christians by our love?’ Or do they know we are Orthodox because we have Greek festivals, or Slavic food festivals, or because we wear black robes and wield condemning tongues on our dour faces? Are love, hope, joy, and peace the first words that come to mind when people think of Orthodoxy? Or ancient, eastern, fundamentalist, byzantine?

Today the press conference presented a positive face, and isn’t that the goal of talking to the press, to make things seem like they are going well? Others must have made the same observations as I did yesterday, for the whole atmosphere had changed. Questions were collected beforehand, so that preparations could be made. A new translator was called in, one who was the epitome of professionalism. He wore a suit, he was seated at a table with a notepad. Instead of just Bishop Job, a panel of representatives was seated on stage. The war reporter was not called on, though she was always the first to raise her hand.

And the press, to their credit, asked good questions. It was almost with joy and a sigh of relief that the panel heard one journalist ask, “Could you please tell us why the document approved last night is important?” To the more combative questions, the press officer was very direct in asking “Could you please tell us to whom this question is directed?” But when the importance of the document was questioned, she jumped up and said “All representatives will take turns answering.”

And they answered well. The night before “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was finalized. It is the document that responds to the question, “What is the face of the Church?” The importance of the document is that it is the attempt of the Church to face the modern world and take a stand. It condemns war, nuclear weapons, neo-liberalism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, the globalization of finance, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and promotes peace, justice, and the preservation of human dignity.

In answering this question, one representative asked, what is the basis of our ecclesiology? Is it eschatological, based on our vision of heaven? Or is it based on nationalism? He said the Church needs to be right in the midst of discussions about the world, and it needs to lead these discussions, rather than just repeating the same thing.

The Church of Alexandria is very happy with this document, the representative said. It may lack some courage and not be dynamic, but it is important. It is important to recognize the role that the international economy plays. It is important to recognize the role of neo-liberalism. He said we need to point towards these things and identify evil where it is. It is important to recognize how AIDS and poverty are related. He said that African nations are still under colonial tutelage, only it is corporations who run things now.

The Romanian representative said that this document represents the Church’s response to modernity, but more importantly, this document represents the beginning of normalcy. The Church must continue to respond, to face the world. The problems of modernity cannot be solved in one week.

Cyprus agreed. Their representative said that it is up to us, the clergy and the laity, to work together to carry this mission forward. We need to be the Church in a lived way and love one another, for if we do not love one another, we cannot say we love God. We need courage to carry out this mission, to look one another in the eye and preach the message of love.

I suppose this face to face mission is the face of the Church.

All of these words presented a fine and inspiring face to the world, and of course to the press corps. Which raises the question: Is that the real face? To some, this document and these words are wonderful. To others, they are a betrayal. So what is really going on? Is this really a power play, and are the fine words at the press conference just a show? What is the true face of the Church?

I contemplated these things as I sat in the press tent. It is a big, white canvas structure, air conditioned, with food readily available. Comfortable, but simple. Because it was cooler today, sections of the canvas were unzipped, revealing the lush green foliage of the surrounding landscapes through the flaps of the tent. What’s the face behind the curtain?

I walked outside the tent and looked at the beautiful blue coastline. Sometimes what’s behind the wall isn’t all that bad.

Only certain people are allowed to talk to the press, so I am forbidden to interview anyone behind the scenes and I can’t report what they would say. But I have gotten to know a few of those backstage during my time here. We didn’t talk about the Council — there is plenty of noise around that anyway — but we talked about my work and their work. We made friends. And I’ve consistently been pleased. These are good and kind people, the bishops, the delegates, the consultants, the press, and the staffers. There is a friendly atmosphere here, among everyone I’ve had the chance to meet at least. Almost a conciliar atmosphere. Whatever the motives or agendas of those involved with this Council, they are likable people, friendly, energetic. They are enthused about the Church and want it to succeed.

I thought about this secret face of the Council while standing outside, watching the bishops return to their hotels. I was struck by the contrast of it. Bishops, men of the Church, of prayer, flanked by police officers with weapons to kill, official helmets, and flashing lights. Was this again the suspicion of the Church? Then I remembered my experience with the police this morning, a friendly face. It’s a strange sight, the Church behind a wall of police, a wall of media filters, a wall of political intrigue. But behind those walls, I saw a face that I liked, that almost looked like Christ.

Prosopon‘ is the Greek word for face. It used theologically in the Church to refer to the personhood of Christ and of God. Last night the Council discussed whether prosopon could be applied to man as well as God. In the end they decided it could. Theosis can be understood in terms of this. Christ is a divine person, and as we participate in the life of Christ, we too share in that personhood. Our faces begin to resemble to face of God.

This morning, my favorite Gospel text was read, the beatitudes. The beatitudes are a certain face of the Church. They are the heart of the Gospel, the face of the Church which we love and aspire to. Each beatitude builds on the one before it, building up the purity of heart that allows us to see the face of God. And what happens when we see the face of God? Our face, like Moses’s, is transfigured. Our faces begin to resemble the face of God in the person of Christ, in his prosopon. It is just as a child’s face resembles that of their parents. And so in the seventh beatitude it says “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The culmination of all of this is becoming a peacemaker, just like Christ the Prince of Peace. And then we will bear the face of God. What happens next? We are persecuted, rejected. But it is not worry, for we are peacemakers, and to a peacemaker, conflict is not an obstacle, but an opportunity.

This is the true face of the Church, the face of the peacemaking Church. And that is by and large what is presented in yesterday’s document. The face of a peaceful assembly.

But of course those who are following the Council know that  a ‘peaceful assembly’ is not the only face that is being presented. Many within the Church and without love capitalize on division and divisive issues. So the question remains as to what face will win out? Will we summon ourselves to the difficult task of facing one another and facing the world, with the face of Christ? Or will the disorganization and suspicion of the Church mar these efforts?

I reflected on these things while trying to leave today. Yesterday the shuttle that was supposed to take me to my hotel was not where they told me it was. And today again it was similarly absent. The good old disorganization of the Church, the lack of coordination. Here too the good people of the Council fall prey.

After entreating several staff, I finally found out where the shuttle was, but when I arrived it was not there. Supposing that I had missed it, I walked down to the bus station across from the Avra Imperial, where I had started my day. Again I marveled at the grandeur of it, the impressive face of the building.

About ten minutes later, the shuttle that was supposed to take me back passed — I had missed it because of its lateness. And it did not stop when I hailed it. So there I stood, gazing at the Imperial residence, hunkering down for the hour long wait before the next bus would come.

About fifty minutes in, several police from the Council approached me. They were very large men with protruding muscles, sunglasses, and earpieces. Apparently the suspicion had gotten the best of them. They detained me, searched me, searched my bag, demanded my identification. I gave them my ID and showed them my badge. But still that wasn’t enough. They searched through every card in my wallet. They demanded my passport, which I knew was somewhere in my bag, but in the fluster of it all I couldn’t locate it. So they held me there while the chief officer went inside with my ID to investigate me. What a change from this morning!

During this process, the officers grew publicity-conscious. It didn’t look good for them to be searching an officially dressed and badged Council attendee at a bus stop. So they pulled me behind a car. We don’t want the wrong face showing, after all. I felt humiliated.

When the chief officer returned, he handed me my card and, without breaking the illusion of authority, did his best to thank me for cooperating. And then I realized how difficult it is to make any generalization about this whole event. There are those who are sincere and helpful and those who are overprotective and suspicious, and there is not sufficient coordination between them.

I was so flustered by all this that I nearly missed my bus.

And again I asked myself: What will be the face of the Church?


The Little Ones

This morning I awoke at the crack of dawn in order to make my way down to the daily liturgy at the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery next to the Orthodox Academy of Crete. Back home it was just after 10pm, and here in Crete the night had cooled the air to a chilly 83 Fahrenheit. Comparatively, long sleeves felt appropriate! I arrived at the monastery just as things were beginning and sat pensively in the courtyard. It was filled with quiet men, all observing one another, but without any tension. Chanting from inside the chapel wafted over the scene, projected from a loudspeaker on top of the building. Monks and Bishops were scattered around, sitting contemplatively, or whispering to one another. Several security guards stood watch,  a little further from the Church, standing tall in black suits, with sunglasses and an ear piece. The third layer of people were the journalists, photographers decked out in equipment, held behind a careful line.

There was a decorative trench near the walls of the courtyard, filled with small pebbles. Sitting in that trench I saw the last thing you’d expect at a gathering of the world’s most powerful celibate greybeards: a little girl. She sat playing with the pebbles, pushing them around, making a fine mess. And when she finished, a Council staff member came over and dutifully swept it all up. I took her photograph, which is now the banner image for this article. I was struck by the simplicity of the scene. A little girl played while some men stood around and looked at each other. Somehow, our faith in Christ, the mysterious journey that we and the whole universe are on, brought us here. It was totally and utterly unremarkable, but at the same time fantastic- that a little girl would sit here and play with stones while these great men gathered for great work.  It reminds me of Christ; when confronted with a woman caught in adultery and asked to judge, Christ’s first response is to sit down and draw in the sand. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says “mysticism is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Immediately, the words of Christ came to mind, “let the little ones come to me.” It is these to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belong. I sat there by this ‘little one,’ while just a few meters away the Bishops were all gathering to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I went into the Church to pray the Liturgy, and was again struck by the simplicity of it. The monastery Church was beautiful, but small. There was a small entrance, and then the chapel was split into three sections for standing, before opening up to the altar. Overhead were several large chandeliers, all candlelit, and spun in circles with great joy by one of the monks. I’ve never imagined that I would stand in a small chapel with 10 primates of the Church, besides another several dozen bishops. And were I to imagine it, I would imagine it much grander than it was. The Bishops stood along the walls, just like simple parishioners.

It was touching how they cared for one another. There were many genuine smiles. When a Bishop would walk into the Church, another Bishop would jump out from his seat, kiss the new arrival, and give him the seat. It was like they were playing musical chairs. It was a very familial atmosphere. We all stood there, sweating, in several dozen in a room designed for twenty. The room was so packed that every bow risked knocking over someone behind you.

The Patriarchs entered the Church gradually and without fanfare. No bells were rung, no trumpets played. The Patriarchs simply ambled in, escorted by a small entourage of course. There was something pleasant about watching Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew walk into the service behind me, in the simple black robes of a monk. He walked in quickly through the opening in the Bishops, went to the side of the Church, and stood there, not demanding any attention or distracting anyone from the prayers. Again, it was completely unremarkable, a man walking through a Church, and what was so remarkable about it was its unremarkability.

Even more striking was the entrance of Metropolitan John Zizioulas. At some point during the service, he entered, looking around as if he were both lost and exactly where he was supposed to be. He had the face of a child, a little one, both content and filled with wonder. He walked around the back a bit, and turned towards me. I looked into his face and thought “I recognize this Bishop! Who is he?” He then continued forward, greeting his brother Bishops, when it occurred to me that it was the titular Metropolitan of Pergamon! His absolutely simple manner disguised his face, for I’ve only ever seen him vested elaborately or on  a stage, and here he was, wandering around! The situation turned comic as he went to the front, and three Bishops jumped up from their seats along the wall to seat him. He seemed caught off guard as he refused their seats- surprised and joyful, but unwilling to take the seat of another. As a compromise, they brought out a plain wooden chair for him and plopped it down right where he stood.

What delighted me about this situation was that it wasn’t limited to the Bishops. At one point an old man slowly walked in, bent over on his cane. Immediately, they opened up a space for him along the wall, where the Bishops were sitting, even though not every Bishop had a seat. Then when the little girl from the courtyard came in with her family, a kindly old Bishop came up to them, blessed them, and spoke very joyfully and freely with them. It was the image of Christ welcoming the children.

Taking all of this in filled me with a deep spiritual joy. God was present at this Liturgy, not just in the sacraments, but in the gathering of the assembly, of two or more in Christ’s name. Christ was present in the little ones. How struck I was, then, when it came time for the readings, and I discovered that the Gospel for today began, “Do not despise the little ones” and ended with “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

The Gospel chapter from which this reading is taken is a beautiful one. It begins by asking who is the greatest among the disciples (a question still on the minds of Christians today). Christ answers that it is those who are childlike. The passage then goes on to call for brothers to reconcile. What could be a more appropriate passage for this gathering!

After Liturgy, the first session of the Council began. But before the primates said anything, the Gospel was read. In particular, Mark’s counterpart to this morning’s Gospel was read. Two disciples were quarreling about which was the greatest. In response, Jesus reprimanded them, saying that we Christians do not wield power like those in the world do, lording it over them.

This peculiar Christian notion of power has long captivated me. He who is greatest is the servant. At a banquet (or during a Church service), Christians should be tripping over themselves to give up their seats and to find the lowest position. Power in Christianity is inverted. It is an ‘upside down Kingdom’ as the phrase goes. A kingdom which belongs not to the powerful men, but to the ‘little ones.’

Would the Council bear out this dynamic? The opening session was very calm and hopeful, all things considered. The Bishops all spoke of the conciliar identity of the Church, and expressed joy at being gathered together. The format was simple, first EP Bartholomew spoke for quite some time, then each patriarch in turn made a speech, to which His All Holiness responded. There wasn’t an overt power struggle at play, though there are always interpretable hints.

While mos of the speeches were fairly standard articulations of each Patriarch’s position, a ‘buzz’ was created when Archbishop Anastasios of Albania brought up the issue of consensus. Decisions at this Council are supposed to be made by consensus. Russia, among others, pushed prior to the Council for consensus to mean unanimity. This is controversial, however. For example, during the second session today, the use of the word ‘prosopon’ to describe man was discussed. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos led Greece in voting against the use of the term, while Met. Kallistos Ware and Met. John Zizioulas led Constantinople in voting for it. Since there was no unanimity, no change was made to the document, meaning the word stays in. This voting system creates an abusable power dynamic. Any change to the documents can be blocked by simple dissent. Though if that tack is taken to often, then a primate could veto the document altogether. The tools used in these negotiations are powerful, and it is tempting to ‘wield power over’ others, like those in the world do.

Now that Russia has backed out, will consensus be reinterpreted as majority vote, as it has been in past Councils? These questions immediately arose in everyone’s mind as the Archbishop spoke.

But what stood out to me in the Archbishop’s remarks were something else. Anastasios said that “War is not the opposite of peace, ego-centrism is.” He then said that ego-centrism can manifest at all levels, individually, locally, ecclessially, nationally, and internationally. In order to achieve peace, what we need to do is get over ourselves.

This resonated deeply with me. I thought again of the girl this morning. Why did Christ say his followers should be childlike? Aren’t children ignorant and greedy? Maybe they are. But there is also something innocent about children, something selfless. Children may at times be rather self-centered, but it is not in a sedimented way. Children are open to others. And most importantly, children are incapable of pretension. Children are never full of themselves, self-important, or pretentious. The Optina Fathers identified pride, the chief vice, with pretense. So when Christ says we should be the least, we should be like the little ones, he is saying we should not be pretentious. This draws a line from childlikeness in the Gospel reading, to brotherly love and reconciliation. One who has no pretenses will be much better equipped for reconciliation. On the other hand, if one’s position is only a pretense, then nothing can be done towards reconciliation.

There are elements in this Council which tend towards the more pretentious, away from unity. There are inner and outer forces pushing on this Council, trying to make it more that way. And there are the speculations. It only takes a few minutes in the press room at the Council to feel the pretense.

Today was the first press conference ever, and it was a stark contrast to this morning. While this morning I saw Bishops loving one another, at the press conference, I saw speculation, pretense, and confrontation. There is endless speculation right now about what’s going on and what’s going wrong. Is it true that Bulgaria only withdrew under pressure from Moscow, and that the faithful in Bulgaria are unhappy with the withdrawal? Was Moscow only pretending to be in favor of the Council, but really intended to drop out after all? Is that why they insisted that the Council happen ‘unless unforseen circumstances arise?’ Is it true that Constantinople has refused to respond to Antioch’s appeal for mediation? Will Bartholomew recognize the Kiev Patriarchate? What will Bartholomew do if the Council’s decisions are not accepted by those absent? Who decided that only the Primates should have voting rights, is this a new canonical function of Primates for wielding power? Why did the four Churches drop out at the last minute, after sending the full list of their delegation and booking hotel rooms? Was it a power play? Is Moscow trying to humiliate Constantinople? Is Constantinople trying to circumvent Moscow? Can this Council be called Pan-Orthodox now that some Churches are missing?

Politics, power, intrigue, competition. Its all very compelling stuff, but totally foreign to the Gospel. That’s not to say that none of this is true. There might be a power struggle in the Church. But if so, then it is still foreign to the Gospel. It felt like I was in a political press conference. Questions were inflammatory, and the answers were circumspect. There was a Russian war reporter there, who had covered military conflicts in the past. She was very combative with Bishop Job, confronting him openly, interrupting the moderator, and disregarding instructions. It would have been embarrassing if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen the routine, dozens of times before, only with politicians instead of Bishops. And what did Bishop Job say? Very little. He reiterated the talking points we already knew. He said the absence of the other primates is baffling to those in attendance. On some questions he said simply, I am not the media representative for that Patriarch and so cannot answer that for him. Were these reserved responses necessary for responding to a conflict crazy press? Or did they only provoke the press? The whole dynamic disturbed me.

I felt particularly bad for the priest who was translating everything between Greek and English. He was very good, fluent in both with no accent. Yet, he seemed like a fish out of water in that environment. He had a fumbling manner, the kind you would imagine in your sweet great-uncle. Simple and unassuming, but not particularly magnetic. He was visibly shaken by the whole experience, as in, his he was literally shaking. He translated everything kindly, and even when the reporters were speaking out of turn, he translated, as if out of some sincere desire to be of help to everyone. It was touching. He had a face of childlike innocence, of no pretension. It felt like worlds colliding. The dog-eat-dog world of politics and power, against these simple monks who love their Church and are trying to put it in order.

Of course, everyone believes that there is political maneuvering going on among the Bishops. Only, it depends on who you ask as to who is doing the maneuvering. Is it Bartholomew, trying to hellenize the Church? Is it Moscow, trying to create a sphere of greater influence for Russia? Is it Jerusalem, trying to expand its territory? Is it Antioch, pushing pan-Arab nationalism?

Dwelling on these accusations too long makes my stomach turn. And then I look again at the photo of the young girl, playing in the rocks in the middle of a Council.

Unity is not something that comes with dramatic events. Peace is not made overnight. It is a process that takes a long, ordinary road. Peace is made through a continuous overcoming of ego-centricism at every level, as Anastasios said. It is something that takes time and is as simple in its day to day expression as a girl playing with rocks. This Council will not settle anything this week. Nothing can be settled in so short of a time. This Council is just the beginning. And we should not despair over that. Moscow has said this is just a preparatory Council to a later Pan-Orthodox Council. Bartholomew has said that this is the first Council in an initiative to have regular, global synods of primates. Do these two visions really represent a power struggle? If there is no pretension in these statements, if we are as the little ones, then it need not be so. Moscow wants another Council after this, and so does Constantinople. Where’s the conflict? There will be another Council, and this meeting is just the beginning of the slow, and extraordinarily ordinary process of peacemaking.

The conflict only comes with pretension, with the attempt to wield power over others. But Christ had the opportunity to do that. He could rule all the nations. That’s what the Messiah was supposed to do after all. But he refused. Instead he became a servant. In the face of political power, he remained simple, and was killed for it. Yet somehow, that unwound the power of those who killed him. In the face of these political tensions, perhaps our Bishops, and we ourselves, should become as children. It is tempting to want to respond to power with power. But maybe, when faced with the power play of  religious leaders, we should imitate Christ in being as peaceful as a dove, and as cunning as a serpent. We should stoop down and draw in the sand, just like he did.

Or maybe just play in the pebbles.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion.

The Fishermen as Most Wise

This island smells like fish. The air, the towns, all is infused with centuries of fish catching, eating, and selling. It’s been difficult to find something to eat that isn’t seafood. On my way into town, I approached the lunch counter at the bus station. It was stocked with some of the most delicious Greek dishes, breads, and cheeses. Wanting to keep the fast that day, I looked up at the Greek inscriptions over the counter, trying to decipher ingredients from words that I could read,  but not pronounce. Giving up, I asked for something with no meat. In response, I was given a heaping plate of pasta with the most delectable and soft calamari I’ve ever had. While my vision of a meatless dish might be a bit more ascetic than this, you take what you can get.

Something similar happened Friday while taking a break from working in Kolymbari. I walked down the long road from the Orthodox Academy, past the armed guards, into the town in order to find something to eat. I stopped at the first place I saw. A Greek woman approached me, smiling. They were very excited for the Council, and I was their first customer who had stumbled upon them from up the road. I searched the menu for anything fast-friendly, and once again the best I could find was shellfish and pasta. I ordered this, and was surprised to first received two appetizers (which were both fast-friendly of course) before I received my large and scrumptious meal. I felt connected to the island, as I sat on a balcony overlooking the bay, eating mollusks that tasted as if they had just been plucked from the sea. Getting anxious about how much time this was costing me, I finished the meal and was ready to go when the proprietor approached me again and asked if I wanted desert. I declined, being both quite full and a little embarrassed about eating so much. She insisted, saying that it would be a free gift from the restaurant to me. What followed was a delicious chocolate jello of some sort with a full spread of fruit and a bottle of ouzo. The latter item reminded me of the hospitality I encountered on Mt. Athos; a glass of ouzo and a turkish delight at every monastery.

Hospitality is something that I’ve found again and again since my stay here. Its as ubiquitous as fish. For whatever reason, an island of fisherman also happens to be an island of great welcoming.

This morning I watched 10 primates of autocephalous Orthodox Churches gather at the Cathedral of St. Menas in Heraklion to celebrate Pentecost. It was a several hour liturgical marathon, beginning with Orthros, followed by a hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, concluding with the kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. The whole enterprise was as elaborate as the temperature was hot. The reflection of the gold in the room made it seem like even the icons were sweating. 

The celebration had its beautiful moments. There was a warm embrace among some of the patriarchs during clerical communion. I was moved by the smiles on their faces. The singing at times was also quite touching. EP Bartholomew, who today was wearing comparatively simple and and unassuming vestments given his rank, has a presence similar to his office. He is a small man with a resounding voice. His chanting was rivaled only by that of Patriarch Theodoros II, whose prayers certainly sound heavenly. But by far, my favorite part of the service was the hymn of Pentecost, “Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise, having sent upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them Thou hast fished the universe. O Lover of Man, glory to Thee!”

Christ revealed the fishermen as most wise. Christ came into this world as the King of Jews and High Priest and Messiah of the Jewish religion, but instead of exalting the religious leaders or civil authorities, it was the poor and simple fishermen who came out as wise. It wasn’t the scribes or pharisees, both of whom were keepers of canon law and among the most educated and brightest of Jewish society. It wasn’t the Romans either, or even the native Jewish rulers. It was the fishermen, who often didn’t understand his teachings, and even abandoned him.

This wisdom obviously has nothing to do with learning. At Pentecost, the fishermen did not become any more intelligent or any more knowledgeable. Instead, they became more open. It was at Pentecost that the Gospel was preached to the nations, the reviled gentiles who were not canonically permitted to receive the fruits of Jewish sacrifice, these received news of the great sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. The unclean nations were brought into the Christian fold with the sacrament of baptism, an act with roots in the Jewish purification ritual necessary for participation in temple life. The wisdom of the fishermen was hospitality, or philoxenia as it is called in the Greek New Testament. Philoxenia translates as love of stranger, and is the opposite of xenophobia. Pentecost was the overthrowing of centuries of canon law saying who is in and who is out which dates back to Moses, and which was strengthened by the exclusive reforms of Ezra-Nehemiah.

“And through them Thou hast fished the universe,” it is this universal vision of Pentecost which Bartholomew has set his sights on, as he made explicit in his sermon today. The love of stranger, of those unlike us, is the essence of the Church, and it is this vision which he hopes the Council will embrace.

Reflecting on the hospitality of the fishermen of Crete I’ve encountered these past few days has put this vision in a new light for me. On my first full day in town, I had to find my way to Eleftherias Square in order to pick up my badge for the Council. I wandered for several hours, trying to decipher the streets of Chania. Every once in a while, a local fisherman would call out to me and ask where I was going in an attempt to help me. One even walked with  me several blocks to get me to my next turn. Eventually, I ended up where Google told me I should be, but alas it was the wrong place. Giving up I approached a cafe and entreated the locals again for help. They sat me down, poured me a cold drink for free, and did everything they could to find my destination. They called the office, googled the address again, and eventually figured out where I was supposed to be. Then one young guy told me to hop on the back of his motorbike so he could take me there directly. Before long I was wondering how I ended up on the back of a motorbike in Crete, speeding through traffic, wearing my finest clothes with no helmet, clutching the large belly of a man whose name I never caught. Even with his help, and the help of several others upon arrival, it still took us another 20 minutes to find the place, but he stayed with me the whole time, and without complaint or reward.

That night I returned to the room I had rented. It is a small room with four beds in it. But when I told the proprietor that I was in town for the Council, he promised me that he would try his best to not book anyone else for my room, so that I could have it to myself. He was a happy man, middle aged and friendly. His cross was visible resting against his Greek fisherman’s full chest of hair, peeking out from his open shirt. He smiled while he talked, and when I didn’t have an adapter to charge my devices, he gave me one for free. On the drive over to my room, he expressed his great concern that this council might condemn non-Orthodox Christians. He said he realizes that its wrong, even heretical to be outside the Church, but that one cannot be so unkind as to unequivocally condemn. Other Christians need to be shown kindness and we must engage them, otherwise they will never be willing to listen to Orthodoxy or benefit from it.

Again and again I’ve met fishermen, wise and hospitable, with a universal love. Philanthropos is the term the Pentecost hymn uses to describe Christ. I saw that in the face of one attendant at the airport, who when I told him I was going to Chania for the Council, he looked at me with great joy and eagerness, bordering on tears. He told me that he wanted to help me and that he would do anything for me.

Just a week ago I was at another remarkable place. I was in Toronto, Canada last Sunday at the St. John the Compassionate Mission. St. John’s is one of a kind as far as Orthodox communities go. The Mission is open every day of the week, and feeds many poor and homeless. But they are not fed as if they were a soup kitchen, but instead as a Church. There are round tables set up in the narthex where the community comes to eat. The poor eat and work alongside the Christian community, preparing and serving the meals. They live according to the words of St. John Chrysostom, who said in Church there are two tables, one for the poor and one for the altar. The mission is dedicated to St. John the Compassionate, who said “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers, for they and they only are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are our masters is the philosophy of St. John’s Mission, and what motivates everything. Or as St. Maximus said, “The poor man is God.”

While at St. John’s, I sat next to a man named Bill, whose picture is the banner for this article. He is one of the ‘Masters’ of St. John’s. During my visit, he and I sat next to each other at lunch one day, and he told me endless stories of his days as a fisherman. We had only just met, but he was quite enthused to talk with me. He must have learned somewhere the wisdom of philoxenia- something the fishermen of Crete and lake Ontario have in common.

Bless, Master! These were the first words I heard this morning as Orthros began. In light of my recent experiences in Toronto, I found these words jarring. In a recent blog post by Fr. Ted Bobosh, he points out how Bishops weren’t referred to as ‘Master’ until the 14th century. The now common refrain ‘Eis polla, eti despota’ was originally reserved for the Emperor, but came to be applied to the Bishop as the office was changed through the years. Bishops did not wear the omophorion until the 9th century, for it was a sign of ostentation, and the Bishops crown, the miter, wasn’t universally worn until the 17th century. The ‘despotism’ of the episcopate is something that slowly accumulated as the position of the Bishop become less local and more hierarchical, emulating forms of dress and address that were traditionally associated with secular leadership.

Fr. Ted quotes Fr. Thomas Hopko, who says that ‘episkopos’ was a term that originally referred to the slave who oversaw other slaves. Fr. Thomas says, “The episkopos, the chief servant, is not the master, the despotis, nor is he king or vasilevs, nor is he lord or kyrios. He is a servant, a slave, a doulos, but he is in charge of everything that belongs to the master and the lord. He is in charge of all the master’s servants, goods, and property. He has all the master’s power and authority. He has everything that belongs to the master. He functions in persona, ‘in the place of’ the master. When you see him, you see the master. When you hear him, you hear the master. When he commands, you hear the command of the master. When he orders you to do something, you obey him as you would the master. But he is not really the master; the real master is the master.”

How strange it was this morning, observing the tremendous Byzantine trappings of a liturgy exalting simply fishermen. Beautiful as it was, there were moments that I found simply perplexing. The ten ‘masters,’ arrayed in their omophors and great crowns, all seemed to leave the center of attention when President Prokopis Pavlopoulos entered the Church, several hours into the service. The chanting was nearly drowned out by the sound of the military guard stationed outside the Cathedral, which broke into a great march with brass instruments. EP Bartholomew turned around and blessed the President as he walked down the center aisle, just as communion was about to be prepared. A second ‘great entrance.’

All throughout this Council, I’ve been struck by the presence of armed guards around every Church. Security at the Council is as high as the tensions among the Orthodox. The day I flew into Chania, my flight was delayed an hour, and had to circle the airport several times before we were cleared to land, all because the hierarchs were also arriving that day. When we did arrive, we were ushered unceremoniously behind a rusty barricade, while on the other side I could see and hear many soldiers, in uniform, playing fanfare for the arrival of the Bishops.

There is a very official atmosphere here. Press are restricted in what they can do and who they can interview. All the working sessions of the Council are closed. Press releases are very carefully worded and put together. Of course, this Council would be more of a PR disaster than it already is if protections were not in place, so I’m not necessarily complaining. Merely, the atmosphere is different than I imagined a Church Council would be. It was especially funny to see the military procession of the President into the Church of St. Menas this morning, given that St. Menas is himself a military saint who became a conscientious objector, and was eventually martyred for the stance he took against the Roman military and government.

Stranger still was the contrast between St. John the Compassionate, the bishop who called the poor ‘Master,’ and the poor fishermen of the Church, who now call the bishops ‘Master.’ There are traditionalist elements in the Church who fear this Council for its ecclesiology. This Council is unprecedented for giving executive power to only the primates of the Churches, and not to the whole body of Bishops. Moreover, each primate has absolute veto power over any of the documents. The fear is that this Council is turning patriarchs into popes, and that EP Bartholomew will benefit the most from this. While I am not as worried about that as those raising these concerns- I have faith in the conciliary identity of the Church and in the sincerity of the episcopate- these concerns do have an element of truth in them. Maybe a global Church does need global leaders like the patriarchs, but this does not mean that we should forget our masters, the poor.

I’m not trying to criticize any individual Bishops here. I haven’t actually met any of the primates during my time here; they have more important things to do than to meet me. I assume that behind the Byzantine wall of ceremony, these are good men. Archbishop Anastasios for example, is an advisory board member of In Communion and a friend to the editors. So I have no quarrel with them. Rather, I say all this with  hope in mind. If God can make the lowly fishermen ‘most wise,’ then maybe He can do something with our Bishops too.

It is tempting to criticize this gathering and these men. And perhaps this Council is incomplete. Where are the poor, whom St. Lawrence called ‘the treasures of the Church?’ Where is Moscow, Bulgaria, Antioch and Georgia? Why are only two women present as official delegates, when there are several hundred delegates and consultants? Why are no autonomous Churches represented, while autonomy remains on the agenda? Why are no married Christians given a vote on the document on marriage? This Council seems anemic in some areas. We might even be tempted to say that this Council is woefully unprepared to ‘fish the universe.’ Can a message be carried to the whole world by these men, as Bartholomew hopes? In the face of these questions, we should take heart. These men are no more unprepared than the fishermen who first followed Christ two thousand years back. Today, God has revealed the fishermen as most wise. It is the poor, the unequipped, the losers of the world who Christ chooses to use to save the world. So what if under the layer of gold and ceremony, Bishops are sometimes poor in spirit, in faith, in union, in charity, in wisdom? When we look upon the great poverty of our hierarchy, we should take comfort that these poor are our masters.

And who knows, maybe the charity of these Greek fishermen will have some effect while we are all here.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

The Gospel in Crete

This morning, the hierarchs gathered here met in the Church of the Annunciation in Kissamos in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy of All Souls Day. The departed who labored for this Council were particularly commemorated. The Gospel read today recounts the words of the risen Christ to the apostate Peter, “Do you love me?Feed me sheep.” This Gospel tells the story of a reconciliation, a word that shares the same root as council. It may be helpful to think of these gatherings of Bishops in terms of reconciliation. Each time the Bishops gather, they are being re-conciliated. If they spend too much time away from their brethren, differences appear that threaten the effectiveness of the Church. Successful councils have always gathered the Bishops together in order to course-correct. As such, the canons of the councils are collectively called the ‘rudder.’

Councils reconcile Bishops to one another because they love Christ. They do this so that they can feed Christ’s sheep more effectively. Today we are in dire need of a Council. There are significant pastoral challenges that have arisen from the inconsistency of the Church’s global response to changing times. In the past, the Church has adapted in order to more effectively minister to its flock. The issues of multiple calendars and of the diaspora both signal that reconciliation is needed in order to more effectively minister to the world.

It is a great misfortune that the pre-conciliar proposals for addressing present concerns are inadequate. The issue of the calendar is one of several that have not been on the agenda for some time, while those items which are on the agenda do not do that much to address problems in the Church. With this in mind, should we expect anything to come of this council? Substantive issues are diplomatically skirted. And even with the comparatively bland documents under consideration, four primates are missing. Antioch, one of the highest ranked patriarchates, is missing, as is most of the Slavic world, accounting for more than two-thirds of Orthodox Christians.

“Of course, it may be better to avoid any kind of meeting of bishops; I know of no good to have come from even a single synod; I know of no solutions that resulted, but only additional problems that arose. Their only outcomes are arguments, ambitions and rivalries; bishops prefer to reprove others rather than resolve internal church issues.” These are the words of St. Gregory the Theologian. I’ve read several reports saying that the Church is on the cusp of something tremendous. Either a renaissance will occur in which the Church rises up to shape the world, or some great schism will happen and Orthodox communities will be further relegated to the ghettos of history. If we truly are at such a critical moment, then what should we make of the lackluster progress of the Council so far? Should we lose hope? Or should we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that divisions in the Church are as old as the Church itself (see the book of Acts!).

Yesterday’s Epistle reading tells the story of St. Paul getting shipwrecked with his captors. Its a story that I’ve read many times before, but when I read it yesterday, something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before. St. Paul reprimands his jailers after they have encountered trouble, saying “Men, you should have listened to me, and not set sail from Crete.” He had told them to stay at Crete while the storm passed, but instead they left Crete and could not bear the storm. Details like these are easy to gloss over until you find yourself sitting on the island of Crete, amidst a ecclesiastical tempest, wondering why four bishops have decided to harbor away from the island.

Councils, as reconciliation, are anchors for the Church. They do not determine the consciousness of the Church, for they may be accepted or rejected. Councils do not change the Church so much as they anchor it. Conciliar statements add stability. They are a common reference which all may look to. Reconciling the Bishops hopefully gets everyone on the same page, so that they might go forth to feed the lost and the found sheep of the world. With several Bishops now absent, this ministry of reconciliation is now in jeopardy. The anchor is lifted, and the Church risks floating away, being swept up in some tide of nationalism, selfishness, or conflict.

Here it would be easy to dwell on the motives of these Bishops and to speculate. Were they right to leave? Is the Church not ready for the Council? Were these Bishops capitulating to ideology, or to pressure at home? Why did they leave just days before the Council, even though they had the documents for many months? Is there a power struggle at play? These questions are unanswerable with how much information is out there. Whatever the motives of the various parties, reconciliation is necessary. We may be tempted to do nothing but point fingers at others, rather than seek reconciliation. Now some reprimand may be necessary, just as St. Paul reprimands his jailers. In fact, if we do love the Church, we may be led to criticize her leaders. For as Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, it is those who love a town the most that criticize it. If you did not love a town, you would not be bothered if it burnt. But St. Paul does not end with a reprimand. Rather, he continues by saying “Do not be afraid.” He tells them that Christ has assured them safe travel. Do not be afraid, because Paul is destined to reach Rome with his jailers. Do not be afraid, because the Gospel will triumph.

Faithful observers of this Council may fear that the Gospel is being held captive by selfish Bishops who have departed from their mission on Crete. But I find St. Paul’s words instructive here. Even if the Gospel is held captive and marooned, we have assurance that it will not remain so. Christ has destined the Church to be salt and light. We should not be afraid, for as Archbishop Anastasios said yesterday, Christ will take this imperfect Council just as he takes imperfect bread, and he will make it into his body. If the Church fails to drop its anchor here in Crete this week,  we may find ourselves floating in the sea, suffering in the tempest. But that also means we will be sailing no longer by our own strength, which will have failed, but instead only by God’s mercy. What is there to fear in that?

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion