Called to Unity

I’ve been on a journey for several days now, which has brought me to where I am now, sitting in the Orthodox Academy of Crete, where just a few meters away 10 primates of the Church are in deliberations in preparation for the ‘Holy and Great Council.’  Getting here was a task in and of itself. It involved three flights, long bus rides, and several long hikes. But if I ask myself again, ‘how did I get here?’ the answer must involve more than just travel itinerary. I’ve been on a journey towards unity with Christ and His Church for as long as I’ve been alive, a journey that started before I was born.

The journey towards the Holy and Great Council is similarly wrought. There have been starts and stops with many borders to be  crossed. Yet, once again, this Council and its preparations are about more than its agenda and issues. Fundamentally, this council is about unity. “He called all to unity” is repeated again and again on all official documents here.

There is a sort of chicken and egg problem with unity in the Church. Christian unity is not mere agreement, that is too shallow. Agreement is only possible once the type of peace is achieved which allows differences to be mediated. Yet at the moment, there is little agreement among Eastern Christians. Four of the fourteen primates of the Council disagree with the Council’s current state so much that they are not even in attendance. Without unity, there is no true Council. But, the Council is not to blame for this lack of unity, rather it merely forces to the surface the already present, underlying disunity among the Churches. Without this Council then, it seems there would be no unity.

It is difficult to speak about the Council at all, because of the disunity of the Church. The Council is referred to as the first of its kind in 1,200 years in all the official documents I have received from the Council.  At the same time, I have read many critics of the Council say that this is not the first since the 7th Ecumenical Council, pointing to the numerous Councils during the second millennium. Similarly, while some say, as I have in this essay, that the Council is meant to foster unity among the Orthodox Churches, others say that there is no disunity, for the Orthodox Church is the fullness of unity in Christ. As happens often in the midst of conflict, there is disagreement about just what is being disagreed about. Any attempt to characterize the conflict is open to criticism.

There is division among the Slavic Churches, with all the East and South Slavic Churches asking for postponement. There is division between the Middle Eastern Churches of Antioch and of Jerusalem, which are currently not in communion with one another. There is disagreement between more ‘conservative’ voices rightly wishing to preserve tradition, and more ‘progressive’ voices rightly wishing to more effectively minister to the modern world. The problems are many and it is easy to get lost in them. No one is satisfied with the statements as they are, which once again is a symptom of a deeper struggle.

Reading the statements from the various Churches on this Council is an instructive exercise. Each Church’s position, whether they have dropped out, championed the Council, or offered pious caution, seems very reasonable. Each perspective is held sincerely by intelligent men, and forms a compelling narrative in and of itself. But this is just the challenge of unity. Each perspective makes sense, yet when they make contact with one another the result is a litany of concerns. It is precisely this situation, made visible by the Council, which is the chief work the Council must address. The particular documents and issues up for consideration are just the presenting issues, not the fundamental ones.

On my flight into Greece this week, I observed something which struck me in light of the Council. I was on an overnight flight over the Atlantic. At one point while walking up from the back of the plane during the flight, I witnessed rows and rows of individuals, all watching a different in-flight movie on the back of the seat in front of them. Each small screen played out a compelling narrative. There were love stories, comedies, tragedies. Whole worlds were contained in these small rectangles. It struck me then how common this situation is. We are all always walking around with different movies playing in our heads. Events are framed differently, different things matter more to different people. We are all the main character of our story, and everyone else is supporting cast. This ego-centric obstacle to communion might be truly seen as a mere result of being embodied the way that we are, yet the Church stands against such separation and calls the cosmos to unity. Our narratives are compelling enough when taken in isolation. But Christ challenges us to live in isolation no longer. He called all to unity.

Contacting the other in true love is difficult. It challenges the core of what we take to be ourselves, not realizing that there is no self apart from communion. It takes true suffering to contact the other. When God reached out to mankind to make peace, it involved mankind killing God. Self-sacrificial love is the only way forward in a conflict like this. It is the example of Christ. Encountering others is the hardest thing we do. “Why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” asked novelist Walker Percy. There is a certain asceticism to loving others. It is harder to love another than it is to fast or to give alms. Charity and discipline can both be done in a self-enclosing way. Not so for agape.

The task for the Council is as great as it is holy. That task is to love, the only task that Christians are charged with. Many in the Church regard the Council, and the world, with fear. Nationalism, apocalypticism, ideology, these all breed fear. Some fear the Council will not succeed, others that it will. Some fear losing their power and status. Some fear the modern world and the changes it brings (and has already brought) to life within the Church and without. It is the task of the Church to stand against these fears and to proclaim love, “for perfect love casts out fear.”

Perfect love is no easy feat, and may in fact be impossible this side of eternity. Nonetheless, it is precisely this goal which we should keep in mind and pray for. It is easy to get caught up in the minutia  of Conciliar proceedings, and in these proceedings find fear. Against this we should remember that love is the goal, not this or that statement. If there is no love, if there is not unity, the most perfect statements or agreements will mean nothing. The real fault line that threatens the Council is not political, or jurisdictional, or ethnic, or ideological, though those all contribute. Rather it is the fault line between the statements made at this Council and the underlying unity which supports them.

It is assured that some pious statement will issue forth from this Council. The real question is what comes next. This Council was convened in order to strengthen the witness of the Church in the third millennium and to overcome obstacles to that witness. Unified statements are themselves a powerful witness, but they are not the ultimate, nor the most important, witness. The real work of this Council then begins after the Council ends, when whatever proclamations made are put into practice. If some form of the documents of this Council are adopted at its conclusion, then it will call for increased efforts for peace and justice, for ecumenical labor with other Christians, for union in the ecclesial diaspora, for a rejuvenation of fasting, and for increased sanctity of marital unions. Our task is to take up these calls and put them into action. If done with discernment and love for Christ, then whatever is proclaimed in a week, our efforts will be a holy and great expression of the conciliar effort of the Church.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

correction: an earlier version said all slavic churches have asked for postponement, when it is only the east and south slavic churches which have done so.