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?