The Local Church in the Understanding of the Orthodox

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
The Local Church in the
Understanding of the Orthodox
Prepared for the SCOBA-Roman Catholic Bishops’ Dialogue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October, 2001

I would like to begin this consideration of the understanding of the term “Local Church” by stating that, fundamentally, I do not know of anything in our self-understanding which is not connected with the Incarnation of the Logos, and, by extension, connected with our understanding of the creation of Man (as the race). In short, although much is made, in a mistaken way, of the term “spiritual” when referring to the Orthodox, this spirituality is completely bound up with a sort of spiritual materialism. Regardless of other impressions given or taken, the Orthodox are pragmatic, materialist, grounded within creation. God, when He created all, remained intimately involved in, and connected with, everything that He created. He sustains it all, and, through it, reveals Himself. This is well-expressed in the Tropar to the Holy Spirit, which begins most Orthodox services : "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present, and filling all things, Treasury of good things, and Provider of Life, come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One".

The prayer says that He [one might use the feminine pronoun, since in some languages “spirit” is a feminine word ; but this is risky, because the Holy Trinity is beyond gender] is the Provider of life ; He is present everywhere, and He fulfils all things. In addition, it is our heritage from the Scriptures to understand our human race as created in the image of God. We bear both body and spirit, and there is a necessary union of body and spirit for us to be truly human beings. This is how we were created to be. Further supported by the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 15, we are reminded that, even in the Resurrection, human beings are not the same as angels, bodiless minds, but have an incorruptible spiritual body, after the pattern of our Saviour’s resurrected body. As a result of all this, too, we have always understood that the Church, the Body of Christ, is visible, not invisible. We usually say that we can say where the Church is, but not where she is not. Our determinations about the status of believers, and application of canonical prescriptions (which we prefer to regard as medicinal) are directed towards those who are part of the visible Church. We have generally little to say about what is beyond the Church, because this all is in the hands of the Lord.

I will begin with presenting a passage from Father John Meyendorff :

It is well known that in Eastern patristic thought man is conceived not as an autonomous being, but as being fully himself only when he is in communion with God. His "nature" is determined by his being an image of God. [He goes on to say that there has never been a debate in the East about the Pauline use of "pneuma" and its application to both the human ‘spirit’ and the divine ‘Spirit’, coming from God.]

Needless to say, this understanding of man also implies that God is “participable”, that by creating man He has established between Himself and creation a living and personal link, to which He Himself is personally committed, that it is always possible, by looking at man as His image, to see God Himself, that "through man", God is always somehow visible.... In Christ, the fulness of divinity abides “bodily” and can be seen, accepted and participated in again. "Therefore", it is also in Jesus that one discovers what man authentically is - for Jesus is fully God and fully man, and the one is ("hypostatically") inherent in the other.[1]

Father Meyendorff goes on to say that, as a result of this anthropology, the true nature of Man is found in his unity (koinonia) with God and with mankind in general. Creation itself may not be left out of the whole, either. He further underlines that if there is any lack in this communion, it is only because of our receptivity ; and, he says, that since the fulness of communion with God can only be in Christ, it is found fully in the Eucharist, in the gathering of the Church in its local manifestation.

It is on this Eucharistic celebration (properly on the Lord’s Day by the whole community) that everything is focussed. It is in, and from this Eucharistic celebration, founded on the ideal of the gathering of all the local faithful around their bishop, and all other ministers, that the communion with God is maintained, that the Church is manifested, that healing for all comes, through our acceptance, that the unity of the whole Church in herself is expressed. Let it be known, however, that in making these comments about the Eucharist, there is no neglect nor forgetting that it is through Holy Baptism that one gains entrance to this life-giving community, and assembly.

It is on the basis of this dominical eucharistic gathering that the Orthodox sense of the Local Church has been perceived and understood. As cited by JND Kelly, Saint Ignatius says, in his "Letter to the Smyrnæans", 8 : “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which occurs under the bishop, or the one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] be ; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic [that is, universal, of the whole, and therefore Orthodox] Church”.[2]

Professor Kelly furthers says that : “the bishop corresponds in the local sphere to Christ in the world at large ; and thus, just as Christ is the invisible Head of the universal Church in its totality, so the bishop is the visible chief and rallying point of the local congregation”. And so, in considering the understanding of the Local Church, it cannot be avoided that we consider the catholic (universal) Church at the same time.

The main point of this all is that, from the earliest times, it has been understood by us that the Local Church is what is now the diocese — the bishop, together with all that depends upon him, and his blessing for viability. It is this diocese, with its bishop (or his delegate), presiding at the Eucharist, that manifests the whole Church, the catholic Church, and it is through the bishop, and his being in communion with all the other bishops of the whole Church, that unity is maintained in the whole Church.

It is true that in early times things were not entirely as they are now, and our self-understanding now is not entirely as it was then. John Erickson makes this point clearly enough in his article on the three orders of ministry in the Orthodox Church.[3] However, regardless of any shifts or influences, the essential self-understanding remains. If there are deviations which have become problematic for us, then such subtle changes in understanding of the Church’s life (which allow some persons to think that the parish is the local Church), produce a sense of malaise which moves us to make the correction, much as committing a sin can move one to repentance.

At that time (in the early centuries of the Church), it seems that the main eucharistic communities were in larger urban places, at the head of each of which was a bishop (high-priest). Around him gathered presbyters and deacons. Deaconesses were part of the whole, also. It was the bishop who celebrated the Eucharistic Offering every Sunday, assisted, and surrounded by all the others. The presbyters might also preside at a eucharistic service, but this would only take place in the absence of the bishop. This point is very strongly made by Father Nicolas Afanasieff.[4] Actually, some, such as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamos would say that he makes the point far too strongly, and therefore, has lost balance.

Regardless, the too-strongly expressed points of Father Afanasieff reveal something of how we fundamentally perceive ourselves. In encountering his words, one must remember the fundamental principle of the Incarnation, and the visibility of the Church, and, as well, the Pauline theology of the Body of Christ. One must further remember that, in our self-awareness as the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, we are constantly referring to early and foundational principles such as the Canons of the Apostles, the Apostolic Tradition, The Didache, and other early documents, by which to measure ourselves.

Father Afanasieff emphasises repeatedly that :

the fundamental principle of church life is that the members of the Church are ‘always all’ and ‘always together’. This principle flows from the very nature of the Church . The Church of God in Christ is the people who are gathered by God into the Body of Christ. The Church acts at all times and in all things. Otherwise, the Church neither lives nor acts. Christ is one, His Body is one, the people of God are one, and the Church is one. The Church exists always and everywhere, both yesterday and today. She reveals herself in all her fulness and all her oneness, and in all the oneness of her fulness, unto the ages of ages. Thus, if one member of the Church acts, then all act ; and when all act, each member acts. There are no, and there simply can be, no separate acts within the Church, as if they were not connected with all the others. [...] Christianity is the antithesis of individual religion. Indeed, it is not even a religion in the usual sense of the word. [...] There can be no Messiah apart from his people. However, Christ has indeed purchased his people and they are gathered in His Body. Christ is inseparable from the Church, and Christianity is inseparable from Christ. All of this is included in our understanding of the Church. A Christian who is isolated from the others does not belong to Christ.

What will certainly irritate some is the very strong assertion that, in reaction to individualism, “there was nothing in common between the mind of Hellenism and that of the Church”. He makes this point so strongly because he perceives that individualism from Hellenism, which did, in fact, enter the Church, ended in Protestantism. Father Nicolas Afanasieff died before the phenomenon of various super-orthodox sects became rampant. It comes from the same mentality.

In contrast to this individualism, Father Afanasieff goes on to say that in the Eucharist, "the foundational principle of ‘always all’ and ‘always together’ manifests itself most fully in the Eucharistic gathering, which is the gathering of all for one and the same thing. Everyone ministers to God at the Eucharist". He writes that there are no separate groups at the Eucharist ; that all concelebrate at the celebration of the one president ; that all are in the one, and the one is in the all. There is no such thing as an individual Holy Communion. Receiving Holy Communion, that is, receiving the Holy Mysteries, is an action of the Church. However, this presumes that the environment is one in which all are receiving the Holy Mysteries together, and that there are none abstaining. Furthermore, regardless of the frequency of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the celebration on the Lord’s Day (which celebrates the Resurrection and the Kingdom) is the ideal gathering, the image, the standard from which all others flow, and in which all others participate. This Dominical Liturgy participates in that Liturgy in eternity before the Throne in Heaven. Everything of, and about the life of the Church flows from the celebration of the Eucharist. All the Sacred Mysteries (sacraments) have their origin there, and all the ministries (works of service), be they institutional or charismatic, have their origin, and raison d’être there.

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) confirms this perception in his article[5] on eucharistic community. He says that our perception of the results of the eucharistic community is founded in the words of the Apostle, not only with regard to the Body of Christ, but also with regard to the Lord’s Supper. He reminds us that participation in the one bread is communion of the Body of Christ, and in so doing, we, the many, are one body because of this participation. He says that this idea of the many-in-the-one predates the apostles in the figures of the “Servant of God”, and the “Son of Man”. However, this conception is with us from the beginning. Metropolitan John goes on to cite various scriptural texts, and early liturgical texts to confirm this. The great focus of this unity in Christ, he says, is found in the climactic words of the Saviour in the Gospel according to Saint John, “that they may be one” (John 17:11, 22). And so, a passage from Metropolitan John on the subject :

The consequences of this can be clearly seen in the sources of the first three centuries. The first of these consequences is that the local eucharistic community receives the name "ekklesia", or even "ekklesia tou theou" already in the letters of St Paul. A careful study of 1 Cor. 11 reveals that the term "ekklesia" is used in a dynamic sense. [...] This implies clearly what in the following verses becomes explicit, namely that the eucharistic terms “coming together”, “coming together 'epi to auto'”, “Lord’s Supper”, etc., are identical with the terms “ekklesia” or “ekklesia tou theou”. The other consequence which, I think, is of great importance for later developments of the idea of catholicity is that this local community is called "hole he ekklesia", i.e. "the whole Church", already by Paul again. [...] The local Church, starting yet again with Paul, was called the "ekklesia tou theou" or the “whole Church” or even the "katholike ekklesia" and this not unrelated to the concrete eucharistic community. [...] We would be more faithful to the sources, if we saw it ["catholic church"] in the light of the entire Ignatian ecclesiology, according to which the eucharistic community is “exactly the same as” (this is the meaning I would give to "hosper" which connects the two in the Ignatian text) the whole Church united in Christ. Catholicity, therefore, in this context, does not mean anything else but the "wholeness" and "fulness" and "totality" of the body of Christ “exactly as” ("hosper") it is portrayed in the eucharistic community.[6]

Metropolitan John continues, later, to say that a fundamental function of the one bishop in the one community was to “express in himself the ‘multitude’ of the faithful in that place”. In offering the Eucharist, he brought up the whole people to God, that the united many would “become ‘of God’”. The whole community passed through the bishop’s hands in being offered up. And this was not an outside development, but arose from within the heart of the eucharistic community. He further says, in consideration of catholicity, that this catholicity comes from the essence : that the Church is where Christ is.[7]

As Professor Veselin Kesich, along with others elsewhere, writes,[8] the word ekklesia is “predominantly used for a local church in the New Testament. The churches of Corinth, Rome, Thessalonika were all local churches”. However, at the same time, "the term expresses not a local but the universal catholic church. The same term is used for both. [...] The local church as the eucharistic community manifests the fulness of Christ. Each of them represents the whole Christ, and hence incarnates the catholic church". So, the Local Church is not a part of the catholic Church, it is the catholic Church present in a particular locality. These two, the Local Church and the catholic Church, are neither identical nor different. They cannot be separated, but they can be described as distinct from one another. Professor Kesich avers that the “Church of God” is revealed, and fully realised in any, and every Local Church, but transcends any particular locality. The Church of Christ is revealed fully locally, but not limited to that local realisation. In this twofold usage, he says, we see "the essential unity of the ‘one’ church and the ‘many’ local churches. The local churches are united with one another. They do not belong to themselves, but belong to Christ, whose fulness is present in each local church". The unity, in Christ alone, of these Churches, says Professor Kesich, can be well understood in the symbols of the single candelabra with seven lamps in the Apocalypse of Saint John.

This unity is further expressed in the eucharistic unity, within a certain order of precedence, of all the bishops who are the heads of all the Local Churches. The bishop was (and technically is) elected by the people of the Church he would serve.[9] This election, from knowledge of the person, was witnessed and approved, if there were no impediment, by other, neighbouring bishops. It was they who would ordain the candidate. Indeed, to express the unity of the one, and the many, it was the principle that not only three, but as many as possible of bishops from the area should arrive and participate in the ordination of the duly elected candidate. The order of precedence is inherent from the beginning of the life of the Church, with a view to the importance of the great cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. From our perspective, Rome’s preëminence in fine came primarily from the fact that it was the capital of the empire. The other cities were the great cities of their areas. That they were cities of apostolic foundation was not a primary consideration. They were the main municipal political centres. Every Local Church was considered to be founded by the Holy Apostles as a whole, whether one or another particular apostle evangelised the people or not.[10] Many of these refinements became clarified by the First Œcumenical Council in 325.

As Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann clearly points out, all the Local Churches were dependent upon each other, but none was subordinate to another.[11] He reiterates that the Local Church is “a community gathered around its bishop and ‘clericus’” as a full Church. He further says : "the fulness of the local Church, its very nature as the Church of Christ, in a particular place, depends primarily on her unity in faith, tradition and life, with the Church everywhere, on her being ultimately the same Church. This unity is assured essentially by the bishop whose office or “leitourgia” is to maintain and to preserve, in constant union with other bishops, the continuity, and the identity in space and time of the universal and catholic faith, and life of the one Church of Christ. [...] It is the unity of faith and life, the unbroken continuity of Tradition, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that is expressed, fulfilled, and preserved in the consecration of one bishop by other bishops, in their regular Synods, and, in brief, in the organic unity of the Episcopate which all bishops hold in solidum (Saint Cyprian).

Father Schmemann reminds us that, according to Apostolic Canon 34, the bishops must know the first among them. But this order of precedence is, by the same Canon, directly connected to the order (but not subordination) which is in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. That there is an order of precedence among the autocephalous Churches, beginning with the “first among equals”, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, is undeniable. That within each autocephalous district, there is also an order of precedence amongst dioceses, related to political and historical factors, is undeniable. Sometimes there are debates, or arguments, even, about the exact order of that precedence. However, in no case does this mean that Orthodox ecclesiology or history or theology will admit that there could be a subordination of any one diocese to another, of any one bishop to another (although this last statement is moderated in more recent days with the phenomenon of auxiliary and titular bishops who are, indeed, subordinate to the ruling, diocesan bishop). The model of the Most Holy Trinity, regardless of our sinful slips and aberrations, remains the image of our existence in, and as the Church, in all our relationships, and in all our service.

It is true that, in modern practice, there has been some departure from this fundamental principle. This principle nevertheless undergirds everything about who we are as the Orthodox Church. This principle, resting in the background at all times, continually pricks the conscience, and produces periodic renewals and reforms, because we sometimes forget ourselves. To some extent, it may serve to explain the seemingly erratic behaviour of the Orthodox from time to time, and place to place, sometimes appearing paradoxical, sometimes schizophrenic. Regardless, in its structure at the present time, the Church that seems to remain closest to the early perspective is the Church in Greece.

One of the divergences from this early self-understanding of our Church is the occasional lapse into a secular sense of precedence. This stems, in part, from our tripping up in our understanding of the meaning and use of authority, and our treating authority as power instead. Thus, periodically, one may hear or read that a patriarchate, or autocephalous metropolitanate or archepiscopē is considered by someone as a Local Church. To make this shift is to cause a distortion and an innovation with regard to the understanding of a territorial diocese. This, in fact, does subordinate the dioceses, and bishops of a district to its metropolitan, archbishop or patriarch, whichever be the title of the head.

Another of these slips of thought is the more logical (but still inaccurate) idea that a parish is a Local Church. This is, of course based upon the fact that the parish is that community in which the faithful assemble around the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day with a presbyter at the head. To some extent, this parish phenomenon has its connections and parallels with the early Christian communities which we have considered. Nevertheless, the presbyter is still dependent upon, and acting with the blessing of, and on behalf of, the diocesan bishop. How the bishop (high-priest) and the presbyter are understood affects this perception.[12] This can be particularly the case when the bishop (and even the presbyter) loses his pastoral character and functions, and becomes a mere administrator, and thus has less direct contact with the people, and sometimes no contact. Yet, the very nature of the practical customs of the liturgical life tend to balance the possibility of mis-perceiving. Sometimes this can make the faithful feel that there is some sort of conflict. For instance, on the one hand, they understand well that the bishop is an administrator, and it is very difficult to get an appointment to see him in his office. On the other hand, at the Divine Liturgy, the bishop is often vested in the midst of the assembly ; he is administering Holy Communion ; he is either giving the Cross for veneration, or giving the faithful blessed bread at the dismissal ; he is, when asked to give a blessing in the hand, able to be kissed upon the cheek, perhaps even thrice.

Regardless of the variability in our self-expression and self-understanding, as we remain in this world and are influenced by our environment, the fundamentals still remain, with which this consideration began. Regardless of everything else, we always return to remember who we are : the eucharistic gathering. Now I return to Father Afanasieff. Although a strong proponent of Ignatian ecclesiology (along with Metropolitan John Zizioulas and others of us), he admits, in his article in memory of Pope John XXIII,[13] that there are, and there were different opinions : "In the order of ideas of universal ecclesiology, the Church of God on earth is a universal entity, embracing all the local churches there. All the attributes of the Church : holiness, unity, catholicity, and apostolicity are characteristic of this universal reality. The local churches as parts of the universal Church do not themselves possess these attributes. They only possess through the universal Church, insofar as they are part of her. Such is the basic thesis of Cyprian as well as that of contemporary universal ecclesiology. Nevertheless, there is another thesis opposed to that of Cyprian. All of the attributes of the Church that I indicated, belong to the local church. This thesis is found in the primitive ecclesiology that I have called eucharistic. The fundamental difference between universal ecclesiology and eucharistic ecclesiology consists precisely in the opposition between these theses in their understandings of the unity of the Church, and above all the principle on which this unity is based".

As we may now be able to see, because the Orthodox have not tended to follow Cyprianic thought on this subject, we have laid before us a primary tension between East and West in ecclesiology. And so, with Father Afanasieff, we would all have in the end to aver that the bishop is the distinctive empirical sign of the Local Church, because the bishop is the main celebrant of the Holy Eucharist [let us here recall that the presbyter is the agent of the bishop]. Everything is focussed on this episcopal eucharistic assembly because it is here that it is most visible that the bishop is re-presenting Christ to us. Because of the identity between Christ and His episcopal representatives, the bishop is included in the very concept of the Holy of Eucharist in the assembly of the Divine Liturgy. Because of this highly visible, incarnational perception, the principle of the unity of the Church resides here. Everything that is outside the domain of the episcopate is outside the limits of the Church. The episcopate is not outside the eucharistic assembly, but in its midst. Therefore, since the beginning, each Local Church with its bishop has considered itself more or less self-sufficient. And yet this self-sufficiency is not an isolation at all, because each Local Church is, and must remain in communion with, in harmony with, in common teaching and Tradition with, all the other Local Churches according to the order of precedence. And, further, headship in general amongst these Local Churches is found in the principle of “first among equals”, and, even, of “servant of the servants of God”. In the context of this concept of headship, the so-called highest, the most respected position, that of the Patriarch of Constantinople, for its historic reasons, has this responsibility. As has always existed in every Local Church and every region, there is, in the episcopate, the service of “court of appeal” for the purpose of settling disputes. Therefore, the Patriarch of Constantinople, is, ideally, the court of last appeal in otherwise insoluble disputes.

To produce a complete description of the understanding by the Orthodox of the meaning of the Local Church would occupy far more time and space than has been accomplished in this offering. However, this does, at least, present an overview for the purpose of discussion. I hope it is sufficient for this purpose, at least.

† Seraphim, Bishop of Ottawa, and of Canada
October 2001

Endnotes :

[1]John Meyendorff, “Unity of the Church — Unity of Mankind”, The Ecumenical Review, vol. 24, issue 1 (January, 1972), p. 167.

[2]J N D Kelly, “'Catholic' and 'Apostolic' in the Early Centuries”, One in Christ, vol. 6, no. 3 (1970), pp. 274 ff.

[3]J H Erickson, “Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons : An Orthodox Perspective”, Kanon, no. 13 (Vienna, 1996), pp. 148 ff.

[4]N Afanasieff, The Lord's Supper, translated by M J Lewis (Crestwood, N Y : St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988).

[5]J D Zizioulas, “The Eucharistic Community and the Catholicity of the Church”, One in Christ, vol. 6, no. 3 (1970), p. 316.

[6]Ibid., pp. 318 ff.

[7]Ibid., pp. 320, 328.

[8]Veselin Kesich, "Unity and Diversity in New Testament Ecclesiology", St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2 (1975), p. 111.

[9]A Bogolepov, “The Appointment of a Bishop”, Lectures I (Crestwood, NY : St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary), ch. 3.

[10]A Bogolepov, “The Metropolitan District”, Lectures II (Crestwood, NY : St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary), ch. 11.

[11]A Schmemann, “A Meaningful Storm”, St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, vol. 15, nos. 1 & 2, p. 6.

[12]Erickson, ibid.

[13]N Afanasieff,”Una Sancta: To the Memory of John XXIII, the Pope of Love”, Irenikon 36, vol. 1, pp. 436-475.

Bibliography :

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…… “Una Sancta: To the Memory of John XXIII, the Pope of Love”, Irenikon 36, vol.1.

Bogolepov, A, “The Appointment of a Bishop”, Lectures I (Crestwood, NY : St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary).
…… “The Metropolitan District”, Lectures II (Crestwood, NY : St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary).

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…… “The Eucharistic Community and the Catholicity of the Church”, One in Christ, vol. 6, no. 3 (1970).