Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Georges Nahas on the Crete Meeting: The Church of Christ and the Fall of Empire

Arabic original here. Georges Nahas is Vice President of the University of Balamand in charge of Planning and Educational Relations and Dean of the Faculty of Library and Information Studies.

The Church of Christ and the Fall of Empire:
The Crete Meeting from the Perspective of an Antiochian Believer

The Problematique
Antioch has never deserved its name of "Great Theopolis" as much as it has recently. This name is not given to to her now because she is the capital of a great earthly kingdom, but because she has defended the Lord's truth and has renewed the pride given to her by the Bible when it mentions that Christians were first called as such there. She is called great because of the "mysterious" leadership for the work of the Spirit in her children and through them in the Holy Synod. She has effectively said what no one has dared to say before: the logic of empire has fallen, never to return. There is no first, second or third Rome. There is no place for the imperial inheritance in a Church whose only inheritance is Christ. There is no right within the community of the Lamb slaughtered from eternity in the Father's bosom apart from the Lord's right in the world.

This is not a sentimental conclusion stemming from an excess of love for Antioch because I belong to her. Rather, these are realistic and scientifically documented words. It is necessary, for history's sake, to shed light on them, so that future generations can build upon them in order to grow the body of Christ and establish its witness in the world. In what follows, we shall attempt to make an objective analysis of everything pertaining directly or indirectly to the Crete meeting since the acceleration of the process calling for it in 2014 until the time of its meeting in 2016. It is only possible to understand Antioch's position and to assess its importance by having the whole picture, in order to reach a sound reading, not influenced by a discourse or captive to an erroneous position: from venerable tradition, first of all, and secondly sanctifying historical inertia. Returning to the topic at hand, what makes us sure that the Antiochian position is a historic and inspired position?

Before going into details, we must state the importance of the consultative manner that the Antiochian synod adopted in preparing, following, and studying the papers. This showed something, a clear desire to regard the faithful, each according to his knowledge and capability, as concerned in what pertains to their church.

On the Name
To clear up any ambiguity, the Crete meeting was nothing more than a meeting of ten autocephalous Orthodox churches. Some vainly attempt to exaggerate the importance of the Church of Constantinople and qualify the meeting as being a council, whether great or not. The quality of conciliarity is always, in right-believing tradition, an expression of unity. This spirit is what gives the ecclesiastical quality called "conciliarity" to any meeting. It is possible for any meeting to remain worldly in scope and content if it is not openly and explicitly connected to this spirit of unity. This is what was clearly decided by all the preparatory efforts that began in 1961, when it was desired that there be a great and holy council in its time. The Ecumenical Councils only came to be such on account of their recognition by the churches. This is not a formality, but rather an expression of unity in the common chalice which brings us together, even if not in a single building of stone. Our unity is the body of Christ. Our unity is not the agglomeration of bodies. It is for this reason that use of the expression "Crete meeting" is an extremely precise usage, based on the following:

1- There was no unity in agreeing on the convocation and the date. Antioch refused to agree to the date for holding it in light of the disagreements that exist between a number of Orthodox churches, which might have a negative impact on the proceedings of these meetings, especially the preparatory ones. Despite this, Antioch's position was not taken into account, contrary to what was stipulated by the decisions taken as fundamental by all the churches.

2- There was no unity of agreement on the agenda for the coming council. Since 2014, Antioch rejected the removal from the agenda the issue of the autocephaly of emerging churches and its replacement with a circumstantial, local issue, that of "the episcopal assemblies in the countries of the diaspora." Antioch's position in the issue is based on ecclesiological principles and nothing else. We will return to this issue.

3- There was no unity of agreement on the internal statute for the coming council. Antioch refused to sign it because it affirmed the dominance of the See of Constantinople over the other Orthodox Churches. This logic had been gradually prepared over a period time and this novel logic requires considering the Patriarch of Constantinople to be "first without equals" (*). In another sense, Antioch rejected a new papism that wants to impose itself on Orthodoxy and to be a Second Rome equal to First Rome.

4- Parallel to the Antiochian position and in some cases in support of it, three other Orthodox churches refused to join the Crete meeting. So it lost the attribute of conciliarity in form and in spirit. The faithful of the churches that were absent (Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Antioch) constitutes more than half the number of Orthodox in the world. It is worth mentioning that a number of bishops, priests and faithful of the churches that were represented were also against holding this meeting and expressed this in writing in more than one place.

5- The number of bishops who attended the Crete meeting did not even reach half the number of Orthodox bishops in the world. This is contrary to conciliar tradition, which regards the contribution of each bishop as important in itself on account of the grace that has been poured out upon him. For this reason, representative logic cannot summarize the gifts of the Spirit. So once more, the principle of conciliarity was done away with, especially since the bishops were prevented from voting, since each church spoke in the name of its primate and each had one vote. When we remember that deacons defended the truth faith at the previous ecumenical councils, we realize just how far the Crete meeting was from conciliarity.

Therefore, here we will simply regard the Crete gathering as a meeting of some Orthodox churches, asking God to strengthen the conciliar spirit within each church, so that this spirit may pervade in all universal Orthodox meetings.

The Qatar Dilemma
Many of those who doubt Antioch's principled position say that the issue of the dispute with the See of Jerusalem led our church to take this firm position. We must clarify this matter from the beginning, so that it does not determine the reading of the analysis that follows.

The dilemma of this dispute is extremely important and Antioch cannot show any leniency in it on account of her respect for her history and for what was declared by the fathers of the previous ecumenical councils. This is also connected to Antioch's pastoral care for the entire Arab region, especially since gestures have been made by the See of Constantinople seeking to scale down the See of Antioch so that it will become a geographic region covering only Syria and Lebanon. (**)

A number of Antiochian specialists have made scholarly analyses of the issue, which is not what we are concerned with here and those who desire can make reference to them. However, the intransigence of the See of Jersualem has caused all efforts to put a lasting end to the problem to fail. Nevertheless, Antioch did no cease, in an irenic spirit, to participate in the preparatory activities, which she decided while holding on to her reservations, where necessary. But she was constantly frank about the necessity of ensuring unity in the holy chalice before ensuring anything else because the Slaughtered Lamb is the one who brings us together and preserves our unity. This fundamental (not merely formal) position was one of the important reasons that led the Antiochian Synod to make the decision not to go to the Crete meeting. The synod's communiqué about this is extremely clear and it explains that singling out Antioch's position was only to distort its firmness and to avoid facing a fundamental truth, that Antioch is a bastion of truth in the Church of Christ and she does not bargain this truth away, as we shall see.

We are not defending an identity, an ethnicity or a language. We have been Christians since the age of the Apostles and, despite our failings, we are proud to have given the world great saints who were martyred for their firmness, starting with Ignatius of Antioch, down through John Chrysostom, to Joseph of Damascus.

This is the background to Antioch's approach to the Crete meeting and against this clear and transparent background, today we will read what was issued by this meeting and reveal Antioch's preparatory accompaniment to it.

On the Approved Papers
In an article published in the third issue of Majallat al-Nour for 2016, pages 118-127, I talked about the six texts left remaining for study at the Crete meeting. Despite the positions issued here and there in the churches about these texts, those gathered on Crete only made insignificant modifications to them, so the observations I made about them remain and there is no need to repeat them. For the sake of the faith, however, we must take a look at what Antioch worked for and those documents issued by the Crete meeting that strengthen her position today.

We can classify the texts into texts that have a pastoral purpose, texts that have an organizational purpose, and texts that have a relational purpose. This classification makes it easier for us to present the observations studied by the Holy Synod of Antioch, which constitute the essence of its observations on the proceedings of the Crete meeting. It was clear to the Antiochian delegations to the final preparatory meetings (especially, the fourth and fifth preparatory conferences) that discussion of the texts would be extremely limited, since the Constantinopolitan presidency of the preparatory meetings believed that their importance as lying in the meeting itself and not in its contents and that after all these years of preparation, it was no longer possible to scrutinize the texts, even if some of them were decades old. Nevertheless, a group of experts were commissioned with studying these texts and making proposals about them with the goal of improving them. What follows is a summary of these observations. I hope in the future the faithful will be permitted to examine them.

A- The Two Pastoral Texts
These are the texts related to fasting and marriage. The important thing for the Antiochian proposals was putting these texts in the context of the actual situation of society, the changes it has undergone, and the impact this has had on the life of the faithful. Introductions were given to these texts allowing them to be read against a realistic pastoral background rooted in venerable tradition. For example, the proposed introduction to the text on marriage and the family stressed their centrality to pastoral approaches. The introduction to the text on fasting stressed its social aspects as an integral part of the process of progressing in Christ. It was likewise the intention of our church to put forward renewed positions, so that the principle of economy would not be predominate, since this leads on the one hand to expansion and on the other hand to practices diverging from each other. Our church also hopes that some of these matters will remain open to more profound study in the future, since it does not seem to the reader that the Orthodox Church is obstinate in holding positions that do not allow for connecting with today's youth and their families.

B- The Organizational Texts
These are the texts related to the episcopal assemblies in the diaspora and the management of autonomy and the conditions for granting it. Our church rejects the first one because it would lead to an effective domination of the See of Constantinople over the diaspora and therefore it intended to ask that this arrangement be declared limited in terms of time because it is provisional. This requires reexamining its internal statute. However, the See of Constantinople did not want to examine the issue, which led to the See of Antioch's refusal for it to be included on the agenda. Nevertheless, the Antiochian delegation to Crete was equipped with clear proposals in this regard. As for the text pertaining to autonomy, it is an examination of the form of this arrangement only and it does not mention any of the conditions for granting it, avoiding opening the door to discussion of the difference between autonomy and autocephaly. This was the fundamental question for Antioch: what was the reason for these conditions being absent from the text?

C- The Texts Directed to the Outside
The first text examines the relationship with other Christians and the second text examines general orientations around the problems of peace and man's position in the contemporary world. The Crete meeting did not make any significant modifications to these texts, while the Antiochian synod adopted proposals means to free these texts from wooden discourse. Specifically, they propose in the second text practical, tangible positions that translate the Church's social thought into the domain of everyday life. The Antiochian position is based on our church's pastoral experience and her tragic present. It hoped that the Orthodox Church would take positions that keep pace with the needs of contemporary man and the challenges facing them, but the Crete meeting did not succeed in ensuring the unity that could constitute a starting-point for renewing Orthodox discourse and activity. This was also the state of the second text, which was overshadowed by its procedural character. Antioch was unable to make her voice heard as being the church that has by far the most experience with the issue of coexistence with other Christians and other religions.

By causing Antioch and her experience to be absent, Orthodoxy missed its chance to hear a different voice, a voice that has represented in the history of right belief the incarnational dimension in every sense of the word.

On the Crete Meeting's Final Statement
In the end, I must comment in a personal capacity on the council's closing statement. The Antiochian synod did  not issue any comments about this statement, but took notice of it. In my opinion, however, this statement, which remained at the level of generalities, did not bring anything new. After fifty-five years of preparation, it is not enough to enumerate the problems posed today at every level. It seems this text came to confirm that we have nothing new.

It is painful in this regard that the Orthodox world is full of thinkers capable of bearing Orthodox thought into the world. But does this mean that church leadership is ready to reexamine its vision of the substance of theology, its role in man's life and his relationship with everyday things, and its role in societies? Fr Schmemann once told me that theology must someday come down from its ivory tower. I hope that the time has come for all the Orthodox to realize the necessity of living the Holy Spirit's resting upon them, of speaking publicly and acting openly to employ their gifts, taking from their faith in the Lord and their life in the community as a point of reference so that they may bring the witness of a church of which they are members to a world that is missing it, to a world that is searching for a jewel that we are hiding under our passions and our weaknesses.

* Reference can be made to some speeches and talks by bishops of the See of Constantinople. Likewise reference can be made to the debate that occurred in this regard between Istanbul and Moscow. Professors of history and canon law have assisted the Holy Synod of Antioch with decisive studies in this field.

** These literal words appeared in a presentation by the spokesman of the See of Constantinople to the Orthodox churches.

1 comment:

The Anti-Gnostic said...

She has effectively said what no one has dared to say before: the logic of empire has fallen, never to return.

Well, actually I've said it before.

In all seriousness, good, sober commentary from the author.