Monday, August 22, 2016

Fr Touma Bitar Evaluates the Crete Meeting: Conciliarity and Consultation (I)

Arabic original here. For Fr Touma's thoughts on the council before it took place, see here.

Conciliarity and Consultation

For us, conciliarity and consultation are not closed off and limited to those who meet, decide what they decide and say what they say, and then their decision is almost automatically the Church's decision and their words the Church's words. The principle of representation is worldly and alien to the Church. Representation is a political concept, in the broad sense of the word. Consensus, majority, minority, binding the few to the decision of the many as on a superficially democratic basis, this is all part of the institutions of this world. The Church's pastors are not her delegates who speak in her name. Those who regard themselves as the Church's exclusive official spokesmen treat her and present her almost like an investment corporation, not like the Body of Christ, and so they either ignore the Spirit who is supposed to be active and bringing together within her or they claim to speak in His name automatically on account of the fact that they sit on the seat of pastorship, which is supposed to be founded by Him. The seat of pastorship is not equal to the seat of headship and no one speaks in God's name as a head, merely because he occupies this seat. The Church has no head but Christ-- not even metaphorically! Pastorship is a service and a testimony. To talk of headship as a service is a distortion and falsification of the reality of pastorship in the Church. So long as the idea of headship exists in some people's minds, then the framework for dealing with people is authoritarian, not pastoral. You have a leader and you have those who are led. The psychology of a leader is not the same as the psychology of a pastor. This is not of God's Spirit, no matter how much they try to disguise it with talk of service and pastorship. Talk of ecclesiastical headship and authority is out of place; let us only speak of service and pastorship. We say that we are all brothers and slaves of Jesus Christ in and for each other. The work of the pastor is of the same stuff as the work of the Chosen Apostle, who presented himself to his spiritual son Timothy in this way: "I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10). The emphasis is on our obtaining salvation "with eternal glory." This is the service of the pastor and he has no other.

The pastor is of the flock and belongs to it and so therefore stands in front of it. He and it are, in Christ, kneaded with the water of the Holy Spirit and salted with the salt of the Hypostatic Truth, Jesus Christ, to Him be glory. Everything apart from this is alien, even if the reality of the situation is that turning a blind eye to excess is a fault. So the act of pastoring is pastoring with the Spirit of God for the Word of Truth. I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. What is of humans in the Church is not separate from that which belongs to God. God is the one who takes the initiative and who receives in us. Therefore Christ, in the Spirit, is the one who speaks in those who speak and the one who listens in those who listen, the one who acts in those who act and the one who is acted upon in those who are acted upon. He is the one who acts in us, so that we might want to work for His good pleasure. Therefore he who is not united to the Spirit of God, he who does not have the Spirit of God in him, should not speak. He who is not possessed by deep longing to hear the Word of Truth should close his ears because every word that is not from God is void. All hearing that is not in God is emptiness! He alone is the one who is with us and among us as chief of our salvation. Hence the starting-point of pastoring is the resolve to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. He who does not prepare himself to be an extension of his Master can only shepherd himself and his own passions! That which is not received in the Spirit of God is not given as from the Spirit of God! That which is not given as from the Spirit of God is not spiritual, even if it is words about God! A single lit candle can light ten thousand extinguished candles, even if you do not say a single word about it. Light is more eloquent. Ten thousand words about light cannot light a single extinguished candle! Darkness deafens speech. The Spirit is the one who gives life. The body is of no use. All speech that is not in the Spirit is gibberish.

For this reason, the Church is not an institution, even if she has an institutional aspect. The institutional aspect in her is inseparable from the serving spirit that has been washed in the Spirit of God and bears witness to Him. Even notionally, it is inappropriate to regard the institution separately from the servant who bears witness in it, lest it transform into something human, psychological and propagandistic and thus a lurking-place for the Antichrist. Who is the Antichrist? He is the one who has the appearance of Christ without His Spirit! Every institution in the Chuch that is not an effective servant of the Word of Truth, bearing witness to His Spirit, is deep down at war with God, a cancer cell, no matter how resplendent it is on the outside. He who is not with Me is against Me. And he who does not gather with Me divides.

The pastor, then, speaks Christ in himself and in the flock and so at that point becomes, in Spirit and in truth, what he is presumed to be: a shepherd from the Shepherd, something that the Apostle Paul often expressed in his epistles, such as when he told the Romans, "Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God" (Romans 1:1). He is a bondservant, and because he is this, the Lord leads in him and through him and he speaks as one with authority! What is needed is for God's lordship to be manifest in his making himself a bondservant to Jesus Christ. In that he is found to be, in Spirit and in truth, open to his Lord, bearing witness to Him, and serving Him in His people. Only then does he become the Spirit's tongue among the people of God, spokesman for the Church as Aaron was the tongue for God's spokesman!
Living is the God before whom I stand. This, in every place, at every moment, in every earnest effort. The moment when the pastor no longer realizes, with intense certainty, that he stands in his heart before God, the time has come for him to withdraw from shepherding his people, be silent, and enter into the desert of his soul until, through vigils, prayer, fasting, compunction of heart, and tears, his spirit is renewed, lest he be found to be a false witness if he speaks and pastor of his own private thoughts and whims when he approaches the word and his flock. Is it not said, "Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you" (1 Timothy 4:16)? And also, "But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5)?

These are hard words, who can accept them? This is unrealistic, they thought. That which is impossible for people is possible with God-- and we do not want what which is not from God. We cast it out! Every seed that the heavenly Father did not sow will be plucked out!

 Therefore, conciliarity and consultation require pastors to be, with regard to living tradition, completely transparent for the Spirit of God in the people of God. In any case, in the Church, tradition is not merely sayings that have come down to us and the Creed. Deep down, the meaning of tradition is not repeating what predecessors said, walking in the paths established by the ancients, or performing rituals as they arranged them, or preserving customs that have come down to us. Of course, our consciousness-- which is an apostolic and patristic consciousness, the same as the consciousness of those who preceded us going back to the earliest Church-- includes much of what has reached us from those who were present before us. But in terms of consciousness, it goes beyond approaching the past as an act of copying and repeating it. That is fundamentalism, not tradition! Fundamentalism is a repetition that causes the inheritance of the past to be empty of life, no matter how literal the repetition. The letter kills-- the Spirit is what gives life! The shame of fundamentalism is that it preserves the form, but it does not spread new life. Within its framework, one remains in antiquity in spirit and it is limited to belonging to the Church according to bygone intellectual, canonical, and ritual structures and the customs of predecessors, as though the structure of the Church was complete with the Byzantine Empire and with its demise, there is no longer anything to be added except a bit of economy and the rest is rumination! Fundamentalism is when you make faithfulness to Orthodoxy into the equivalent of freezing history and the quest to cling exclusively and nostalgically to the past. In reality, fundamentalism is disabling Orthodoxy and slaughtering it, not preserving it and drawing from the fountains of life within it!

As for tradition, it is completely alien to fundamentalism, just as life is alien to inanimate objects. Its distinguishing feature is that it is alive, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church always. It gives life, because its orientation is every person's interaction-- at every time and place-- with the new life that belongs to the Word of God in the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit, here and now, is the seal of the true faith in the Church. This is true Orthodoxy, not rumination on the sayings and customs of predecessors. Movement in history is not backwards, but forwards. If modernism, which disregards the spiritual life and focuses on changing form and language, seeking modernization, constitutes a real threat to the Church today, then fundamentalism, which is manifestly concerned with preserving the form, perhaps out of fear of modernity, as though fundamentalism, if it merely preserves the form, could abide in Pentecost automatically today-- I say, this fundamentalism severely distorts Orthodoxy! Neither one nor the other is what is needed. Rather, we go back to the past to seek to know the consciousness of the Apostles and the experience of the holy fathers regarding the word of life in the Holy Spirit and we benefit from them. Today, in situations we are in, in the circumstances we are going through, before the challenges and concerns that are facing us, it is possible for us to plunge into the unseen war, in Christ, with the guidance of the Lord's Holy Spirit. At that point, we and our predecessors become partners, in Spirit and in truth, in the one spirit, the one consciousness, the one salvation, and the one glory that is in Jesus Christ!

In light of the above, conciliarity is a theanthropic effort, not a merely human effort, that envisages observing the flashes of the Holy Spirit in the affairs at hand in the Church. Clerics and servants are unable to bear witness in this context, if the spirit that is active in them is not the very Spirit to whom they seek to bear witness! This does not come about mechanically as a result of the place where they are. The spirit of concord that is sought in every teaching or interpretation authorized in the Church is not between the members of the council, whether local or ecumenical, among themselves, but with the Holy Spirit: "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." Otherwise, it is human and hollow, man's worship of himself. And if, in such a case, there is talk of fellowship with the Holy Spirit, it is nominal. Any consideration of the final word as belonging to the members of the council and those whom they consult, is stepping away from God and misappropriating Him, and so it is a rejection of Him and an act of man's regarding himself as god. No one in the Church speaks of God as though He is absent or in His name, but rather with Him. Or you could say, God speaks in him because God is always present, living, active and Lord in the Church. It is only if we realize the truth of this. Otherwise, we find ourselves consciously or unconsciously abolishing God, wielding an infallible individual or collective papism. The collective version is inevitably poured into the vessel of the one that is stronger than others in terms of influence and who makes the rest think that he, God, the council and the Church are one, that sovereignty belongs to consultation, and that he is nothing but the voice of God in it. In that case, you have inverted papism and you have it as a type of institutional, bureaucratic headship that is no different from any worldly, bureaucratic institutionalism except in its slogans. No matter how much various sorts of divine claims are attached to it, you find yourself confronted with a witness that fabricates God's presence and work in the Church. In an article published by Saint Justin Popovich in 1976 about the infallibility of European man following the Second Vatican Council, he discusses the essential content of papism, saying,"In the history of the human race there have been three principal falls: that of Adam, that of Judas, and that of the pope. The principal characteristic of falling into sin is always the same:  wanting to be good for one’s own sake; wanting to be perfect for one’s own sake; wanting to be God for one’s own sake. In this manner, however, man unconsciously equates himself to the devil."

Any reduction of conciliarity and consultation to one person or a group of people is an extension of paganism that claims to approach the incarnate God in God's Spirit. But this is only in form, while they are actually only approaching God in their own delusion! This is the essence of humanity's fall! In the words of Saint Justin, "The fall of the pope is a consequence of the desire to substitute man for the God-man."

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
July 17, 2016


Georgios Scholarios said...

One problem I see with this common claim among us Orthodox that there is no head of the Church but Christ is that St. Mark of Ephesus said something different at the Council of Florence: "Regarding the principle of the pope ... he is the pontifex maximus and administrator and superintendent and vicar of Christ, shepherd and teacher of all Christians, to direct and govern the Church of God, provided that privileges and rights of the Eastern patriarchs are guarded" (source, p. 137). I think St. Symeon of Thessalonica says something similar. Now, I know that other medieval Orthodox writers disagreed with this and said things like the Pope of Rome is first among equals, and that there is no head but Christ, etc.

What do you think?

Samn! said...

I think such expressions, even on the lips of saints, are examples of the sort of hyperbole that Fr Touma decries here:

To mean "Vicar of Christ" or "His All-Holiness" literally would be blasphemy.

Georgios Scholarios said...

Thanks for responding.
Just to qualify my above comment, I believe St. Mark did in fact complain about the term "Vicar of Christ" in the Encyclical Letter. Either that means (i) he made a compromise at the council (ii) his experience at the council changed his mind completely (iii) the records from the council misrepresented St. Mark.