All posts by Nicholas Sooy

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

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.