Sunday, July 27, 2014

Al-Karma on the Local Church in Orthodox Ecclesiology

The following was published anonymously this week in al-Karma, the bulletin of the Archdiocese of Tripoli. Arabic original here.

A Local Church

"One, holy, catholic and apostolic" are the attributes given to the church in our creed. They are attributes that apply first of all to every group that comes together around its bishop in the liturgy, studies the word and evangelizes. They are first of all attributes of the local church. That is, the group of believers within a specific geographic space that witnesses to its faith and sets out from its locality to transmit the Good News to the world. The attributes applied to the church in the creed do not take on their existential dimension except in her evangelistic vocation. The ancient local churches, among them Antioch, did not consider evangelism to be a profit-making vocation, a tool to expand their authority and influence, but rather obedience to the words of the Lord: "Go, make disciples of all nations," so that the Lord might be incarnate in every language, every culture, every thought and every locality. Any evangelistic work governed by a concern for authority and expansionism leads to the destruction of the church and schism.

In the history of the church, the authentic local church has never attempted to use evangelism in order to transform into a "universal" church. Rather, it has always desired to be catholic and to be the mother of other local churches. A mother gives birth in order to rear, make grow, and bring to maturity children who are independent and distinct from her. This distinctness does not negate the fact that they are her children. Is this not what the Church of Constantinople undertook through Saints Cyril and Methodius in their evangelism of the Bulgars, Serbs and other Slavs?

In Orthodox ecclesiology, it is not correct to speak of a "universal" church, but rather of a local, catholic church. The local church is not a distinct aspect of the catholic church, but rather it is the catholic church par excellence. In ancient texts, the term "catholic church" was not used in a quantitative sense or in order to indicate the geographic expanse of the church, but rather to indicate correctness and purity of faith and teaching. It indicated faithfulness to the earliest tradition in contrast to nascent teachings that were distinct and aberrant from what was handed down to us from the apostles, which divided an assembly of believers from the catholicity of having one dogma. Christ's church was in no sense less catholic than it is today when it was limited to a handful of people on the day of Pentecost or subsequently, when it was only a cluster of small islands amidst a vast sea of pagan nations.

In Orthodox ecclesiology, one speaks of a local church that is one, holy, catholic and Apostolic being along with its sister churches one, holy catholic and apostolic in a unity of faith that preserves the individuality and particular characteristics of each member. One aspect of the particular characteristics of the local church is liturgy. Today this particular characteristic has been lost ever since the the Constantinopolitan form of liturgy's domination over them. Liturgical diversity does not reflect a difference in faith or a weakening of  the bonds of unity and catholicity between the local churches. In the early centuries, were the Orthodox churches with their diversity of liturgical forms less unified than the Orthodox churches today with their single liturgical form?

The Church of Antioch is a local church like the other churches and it is the mother of other local churches and of what is called today the Orthodox diaspora. The same is true of all the churches. The pressing need today is for Antioch to be rooted in her locale and not be distracted by an imaginary universality. Her pressing need is to realize in practice her identity and uniqueness, both of which are not found only in the past and not given to us from the treasury of the past, but rather are something that we must discover within the context of constant development and growth in a single geographical space and time.

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