Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Raymond Rizk: Are we before the Spectacle of a Church Disintegrating?

This article is translated from Majallat al-Nur 57.8 (December, 2019), 401-408. Alongside this article, it is also worth reading Rizk's reflections on the "Council" of Crete, as he had been designated one of Antioch's delegates to the council.

Are we before the Spectacle of a Church Disintegrating?

It is a cry expressing heartbreak leading to the loss of hope, if the Grace of God were not sufficient and  strength made perfect in weakness (1 Corinthians 12:9). This heartbreak comes from the current schisms in our Orthodox Church and the great distance of her behavior from the image her theology wishes to project, of being the Early Church.

After examining the characteristics of the early Christian community and the deviations to which it has been subjected, past and present, we can examine the problems that are tearing our Church apart today and what awaits her in the future.

The Early Community

Christians were called in particular “saints” and “brothers” and their community was called the “brotherhood.” How not, when Christians are equal brothers in the body of Christ, sharing together in the building up of this body, each according to the gifts given to him by the Spirit. The Apostle Paul distinguishes between the brothers he calls episkopos (that is, overseer) and presbyteros (that is, elder) and he relies on them in addition to the diakonos (that is, servant) for taking care of the communities that the apostles founded. Most modern translations of the New Testament use the terms “bishop” and “priest” to indicate the episkopos and presbyteros under the influence of the Church’s modern situations. In reality, the term “priest” is not found in the New Testament except with reference to the priests of the Jews. It is also applied to the Lord Jesus “the chief priest forever” (Hebrews 6:19) and to the collective priesthood of believers in the expressions “the royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) and “kings and priests” (Revelation 1:6 and 5:10). The apostolic communities gathered around the episkopos or presbyteros who led the service of the Eucharist which the community of the faithful performed along with him, according to its royal priesthood.

The Apostle Paul believes that the responsibility of the “overseer” lies in pastoring “the Church of God” (Acts 20:28) and keeping watch over the unity of the people of God, taking notice of the gifts of the children of God and reminding them “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) that in baptism they have obtained "an annointing from the Holy One" (1 John 2:20). As for the faithful, Paul urges them "to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 5:12) and to bear each other's burdens, forgive each other and, before all else, "
put on love, which is the bond of perfection" (Colossians 3:14).

A Christian does not Exist Alone, but rather Exists with his Brothers

A Christian loses the characteristic of being a Christian if he departs from the communion of the community of brothers. He realizes himself in his connection with the other-- any other—within and outside the community. His love for others leads him to encounter God because “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). For this reason, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) said, “In the Church, we tell each other, ‘I need you in order to be’… Therefore, members of the Church do not use ‘I’, but ‘we’.”[1] We do not say in our prayers ‘Lord have mercy on me’, but rather ‘on us.’ During the prayer of consecration, which is the apex of the Divine Liturgy, the priest says: ‘We offer You this rational worship… and we ask, we pray and we entreat You…’ Then, the people present who are participating in offering the ‘Sacrifice of Praise’ confirm this prayer with their resounding amen.[2]

The Mystery of the Eucharist

When the faithful receive from the hand of the bishop or from the priest delegated by him the precious Body and Blood of the Lord, this mystery represents the mystery of the Church’s unity par excellence. There is no real unity among Christians apart from that which ensures Christ’s presence in each one of them, transforming them into true brothers because the Lord “was honored to be their brother”[3] and makes from them His Church. Within this understanding, the bishop is the elder brother, “first among equals” in the family of the Lord’s brothers. Unfortunately, however, this Eucharistic understanding is not generally experienced in our ecclesiastical communities. Most of the time, we find in them understandings that divide them into two groups, clergy and laity, and we hear in them talk of the “authority” of the clergy and the “rights” of the laity. There is also a lot of talk of obedience, primacies and prerogatives.

The Bishop: Beginnings and Deviations

When the Apostle Paul described the characteristics and responsibility of the bishop, he was aware that this responsibility would be subjected to deviations, since he says to the bishops, “ Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock… For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:28-30). This prophecy came true time and again in the Church’s history, not only because of the heresy of some bishops, but also on account of those who put themselves above the people of God and treated them with the authoritarianism of this world, determining their fate without referring to them.

All authority in the Church is in order to grow love in the community and to serve its unity. Otherwise, it turns into authoritarianism. All obedience is obedience to Christ and thus to the faithful brothers, including the bishop. Obedience is always reciprocal: I obey you because I love you and I know that you are ready to obey me in the Lord. There is no authority and no obedience in the Church apart from an atmosphere of love, dialogue, mutual listening and loving attentiveness. Our fathers teach us that the purpose of authority and obedience in the Church is nothing other than holiness, the holiness of those who wield authority and the holiness of those who obey. Whenever holiness weakens, authority inclines toward authoritarianism and obedience to enslavement, and “the salt is corrupted.”

Some ecclesiastical texts that were composed in the early centuries[4] describe gatherings of the early Christian community as family gatherings. One of them presides and the equal brothers participate with him. It seems that this situation started to change after the first persecutions, since a greater focus on the bishop in ecclesiastical services is noticed then. There is no doubt that this better helped to defend the faith, but it created “a certain inflation in the sacramental hierarchy and a disruption of the ecclesiastical balance.”[5] Then, unconsciously at first, certain fissures started to appear, not at the level of theological vision but in lived reality and the Church started to become more centralized around the clergy and infused with legal concepts.

These inclinations grew when the Church became the church of the empire and was forced into a number of “compromises”. The following two texts clearly indicate the change that occurred in the position of the bishop, in his consciousness of himself, and his image in the eyes of the faithful.
We read in the Didascalia, “If a poor man or woman should come… and there be no place for them to sit, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them, even if thou have to sit upon the ground.”[6] A similar passage in the Apostolic Constitutions says, “If a poor person comes… and does not have a place to sit, let the deacon do all he is able to find a place for him.”[7]

So we see, in the course of less than half a century, the bishop being removed from personal concern for the poor and his delegation of this responsibility to the deacon. The bishop is no longer the first brother among equal brothers who gives an example by serving the needy, but rather becomes one who does not “come down” from his throne to help the poor. The Apostolic Constitutions were composed after the empire’s conversion to Christianity, and the bishops had grown accustomed to rubbing shoulders with patricians and grandees. It came to be customary to call the bishop “master” despite the explicit request by Christ Himself that no one on earth be called master because “your one Master is Christ and you are all brothers…” (Matthew 23:8).

Other canonical texts[8] show how the bishops gradually reduced the role of prophets, teachers, readers and other forms of ecclesiastical service or delegated priests (who took the place of elders) or deacons to undertake some of them. We see that service in the Church is no longer the result of a divine gift that the bishop and the community notice in one of its members, but rather accepting a designation by the bishop alone.

Likewise the Apostolic Constitutions say to the bishops: “You are to the laity prophets, rulers, governors, and kings; the mediators between God and His faithful people, who receive and declare His word, well acquainted with the Scriptures. You are the voice of God, and witnesses of His will.”[9] It also tells the laity that the bishop is “next after God, your earthly god who has a right to be honored by you… let him preside over you as one honored with the authority of God.”[10] The bishop is very clearly no longer the “elder brother”, but the king and master, who exclusively holds all gifts in his hands and the hands of the clerical class who depend on him, which is likened to the Levitical priesthood[11] in the Old Testament.

In the Apostolic Constitutions there is another recommendation to the bishop which says, “Be of one mind, O you bishops, one with another, and be at peace with one another; sympathize with one another, love the brethren… that there may be no schisms among you.”[12] It seems that this recommendation has rarely been honored, given the wrangling and quarrels among bishops that have been commonplace in the Church’s history.

As for the laity, although they continue to be called in the Apostolic Constitutions “the chosen Church of God… the holy and sacred Church of God, enrolled in heaven, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, a bride adorned for the Lord God,”[13] the Constitutions empty these expressions of their meaning and in practice leave nothing to the laity apart from obedience. They ask them to not “do anything without the bishop”[14] and to provide his livelihood, “and the livelihood of those clergymen with him.”[15]

It is clear that “the corruption of the salt” began in the second part of the third century and that the church of the “empire” lost its semblance to the Early Church. The Early Church was not of this world, but the church of the empire slid deep into this world. This slide was accompanied by the reception of a large number of new converts without sufficient preparation, which led to a weakening of the community’s spiritual life. It was left to its best elements, the founders of monasticism, to preserve the original way of life. We find in the Apostolic Constitutions a certain amount of contradiction and confusion since it sometimes preserved old standards and at other times adapts them to the changing situation.

The Holy Fathers

Many holy bishops, monks and pious laypeople rose up against the laxity of Christian communities and called for a return to the principles of the Gospel and various stages of the Church’s history. We call them the Holy Fathers. The Orthodox are generally happy to parrot their sayings, but without imitating their life. Their sayings are many, but two of them will suffice us.

Saint Basil the Great wrote in a letter to a bishop, “It is right for us bishops to cease and for the churches to live in mutual concord, since we see how our silly and petty conflicts harm the people of God.”[16] The Blessed Augustine says to his lay flocks, “It scares me what I represent for you, but I am put at ease by that in which I share with you. For you, I am the bishop. But with you, I am a mere Christian. The title ‘bishop’ indicates a responsibility that one bears. But the name ‘Christian’ is the name of the grace granted to us all. We bishops are your servants and your companions at the same time… We are your leaders and those led by you at the same time. We stand at your forefront only if we contribute to your wellbeing. If the bishop does not behave in this way, then he will not remain a bishop in reality, but rather bears the name improperly.”[17]

Contemporary Fathers

The age of the fathers has not ended and some of them still rise up against deviations, like the growing state of clericalism, the unilateralism and authoritarian behavior of bishops, and the Church’s use of the ways of the world in her activities. Daniel Ciobotea (currently Patriarch of Romania) wrote, “The structure of the Church must only be a structure of participation and service, since her chief purpose is not establishing a regime in the legal sense of the term or even unity of an administrative sort, but rather creating harmony in brotherly love and consequently a participatory unity based on reciprocal self-sacrifice according to the model of the reciprocal self-sacrifice of the hypostases of the Trinity.”[18] He says of obedience, “We must be careful to remain obedient, on the condition of bringing back the ecclesiastical sense of obedience, since it seems that there are deviations in the prevailing understanding of it. The purpose of obedience in the Church is never to preserve the system by eliminating brotherly love or the personality of the ‘little ones.’ Obedience is not elevating the one who commands and abasing the one who obeys, but rather for the life of both parties to become self-sacrifice through liberating, reciprocal service and joint responsibility for the edification of the Church.”[19] In truth, Christian obedience is always reciprocal, as one of the Desert Fathers said, “Obedience in return for obedience: for He who obeys God, God obeys.”[20] Anba Pimen drew attention to the fact that “he who leads must always be a model and not a legislator.”[21] Does the sight of what many of the leaders of our churches are doing constitute a model?

The Painful Reality

Looking at our current ecclesiastical reality objectively makes us consider the words of our fathers as though they come from another world. Father Nikolai Afanasiev expressed this painful reality when he said, “History introduced massive alterations into ecclesiastical life and invented forms that differ radically from earlier forms, sowing strange concepts.” He added, “We must struggle today to be rid of the forms to which we have grown accustomed and return to the ancient forms that appear strange to us.”[22]
This discourse is not unique. Many of the people of God in our days are aware of the danger of where we have arrived and the necessity of returning to the Church’s living tradition, this tradition that has been drowned out by human traditions and historical missteps into a whole set of prohibitions cast in a language that does not speak to people. We have made human traditions, certain canons and typica—the interpretation of which has been left to people’s whim—into holy degrees that generally take the place of the decrees of the Gospel and the Apostles. Our Church practically lives in the past and fears every new thing and change, even if it requires returning to the sources. Many times it has become a museum whose treasures have been covered by a great amount of dust.

What can be said at the sight of the schisms of our churches and the disputes of their bishops over the “rights” of sees or persons? The attachment of certain of our churches to their racial affiliation surpasses their affiliation to Christ. Are we really experiencing such blatant heresies and no one seems concerned?! Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) once cried out, “This group that eats the Lord’s body eats away at itself with hatred.” How right he was! What is there to do, then, when this “salt” is corrupted?!

The Holy Spirit and the Council

We cannot do anything by ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can prevent the salt from being corrupted and bring back its original flavor. He alone gives life to the Son’s Church, if the people of God refrain from imprisoning Him in the chains of their egotism. This people must desire it, because the Holy Spirit is always ready. Our problem is that we do not rely on Him who brings all newness, but rather on our longstanding habits. Our point of reference is the system of “masters” that our sins have brought us to!

No parish, diocese or independent church remains the Church of Christ if it rejects the newness of the Spirit, closes in on itself, takes pride in its achievements, and thinks that it is able to continue to be this Church despite ignoring others. Although every bishop and every Eucharistic community is rooted in a specific place, they are in communion with all the other Eucharistic communities and bishops at the regional and global level. This communion appears in the synod which includes the bishops of a specific geographic region inasmuch as they represent their Eucharistic communities. It appears at the global level in the ecumenical council. Each synod must have a “first among equals” (primus inter pares) and not a “first without equals” (primus sine paribus), as a newly-coined heresy claims.[23]

Contemporary Heresies

This and similar heresies, especially that which pertains to racial affiliation, led to a break in Eucharistic communion between two churches in 1996—for the first time in modern Orthodox history, not for dogmatic reasons, but on account of an administrative dispute over prerogatives and geographic boundaries in Estonia. This was not resolved before another break in communion occurred in 2010, decided by the See of Antioch with regard to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This was also for an administrative reason related to geographic boundaries. It is noteworthy that this break in communion was limited to clergy, as though they represent a separate body from the rest of the faithful! Despite several efforts, until now this problem has not been resolved and it seems that the Orthodox world has forgotten it or ignores it. Finally, the Church of Russia has broken Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople, also on account of an administrative dispute about Ukraine. This break has been extended to the Church of Greece and the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which have recognized the entity established by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Ukraine. It is feared that the break will extend to other “Greek” churches if they follow Constantinople’s example.

I have no intention of delving into the reasons for these schisms and the responsibilities of all the churches in them. They are a mix of canonical propriety, disputes about “prerogatives”[24] of the heads of the churches and political reasons. If they indicate anything, they indicate how absorbed our churches are in the mindset of the world, where one imposes economic sanctions on anyone who disagrees. As for us, unfortunately, we impose a prohibition from the Heavenly Provision, as though we own it!

It is a sad situation to be Orthodox today! It is unfortunate to observe that the affairs of the Church are generally not conducted according to the mind of Christ, but rather are completely removed from the love that is supposed to be the only “weapon” available to those who believe in Him. Basil the Great wished that one of the bishops would “cast off the idea that he does not need to be in communion with another one. Because no one who lives in love or strives to keep the Law of Christ can break communion with his brothers.”[25] He wrote in another letter, sent to Athanasius the Great, “You must be attentive that no schism occur between the churches… out of fear that the Orthodox people divide into various parties and follow the leaders in their schisms. We must make every effort for peace to prevail before all else.”[26] Is anyone listening?!


We have the right to wonder whether the leaders of some of our churches take seriously the “Law of Christ,” of which Saint Basil speaks, or whether they consider their own interests and centers of power to be more important. Do they really believe that the Eucharist itself forms their church and the church of their brothers in faith before they break communion?

The Council

All matters of dispute must be examined in a council, as happened in the Byzantine period. There is, however, no longer an emperor to call such a council. On the other hand, the experience of the “council” of Crete was ineffective. The Orthodox Church today is at a real impasse. We stand before two competing visions of the concept of the Church: Constantinople emphasizes primacy “without equals” while others emphasize equality between the churches. It is a fruitless debate for those who want to be Christians who believe in unity in diversity. It seems that this quarrel will go on in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and political interests, which the leaders of the churches lack the boldness to resist. The schism will go on as long as God wills, unless the other Orthodox churches decided to intervene and “force” the rivals to agree to a council.

Orthodox Brotherhoods?

The Orthodox Church has experienced analogous tragic situations in the past, where bishops abandoned their responsibilities and left their flocks. One of these occasions occurred in the 16th century, in a region that is mostly located in modern Ukraine and Belarus. The Church was saved at that time through the activity of brotherhoods that included monks and laypeople who mobilized to defend Orthodoxy and were granted God’s help.

We ask the Holy Spirit to inspire some of our bishops, monks, theologians and laypeople to such activity. They must pray together without splitting into competing rival parties and partake together in the Holy Things (despite the restrictions) in order to create, with God’s help, awareness among the Orthodox that their Church is disintegrating and that the time has come to turn the tables on those who traffic in holy things, just as the time has come for us all to repent and prepare to affirm “the joy that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15).  

[1] In the keynote address he gave at the recent conference of Orthodox theologians in Romania.
[2] Basil the Great says that the “amen” boomed in his church like the sound of thunder.
[3] Blessed Augustine, Sermon 25
[4] Especially the Didache (early 2nd century) and the Tradition of the Apostles (ca. 215) and the Didascalia Apostolorum (early third century).
[5] Fr Sergei Bulgakov, one of the great Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, in his book L'épouse de l'agneau (L’Age d’Homme), 214.
[6] In Section 12.
[7] The Apostolic Constitutions are a collection of Christian regulations composed by a bishop in Northern Syria around the year 380. It relies in some passages on the Didache and the Didascalia Apostolorum.
[8] For example, the Clementine texts, which are pseudepigraphic texts composed in the first part of the third century incorporating texts of a Judeo-Christian character from the end of the second century.
[9] Book II, 25.7
[10] Book II, 26.4
[11] Book II, 25.7
[12] Book II, 44.2
[13] Book II, 26.1
[14] Book II, 26.1
[15] Book II, 24.3
[16] Letter 204.7
[17] Sermon 22
[18] In an article on the mystery of communion and freedom in a world marked by sin and limitedness, 1985.
[19] ibid.
[20] From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
[21] From the article by Ciobotea.
[22] L'Église du Saint-Esprit (Cerf, 1974), 247.
[23] The first to write about it was Elpidophoros, Archbishop of the Greek Church in the United States, who is close to the current Ecumenical Patriarch.
[24] No church leader has any prerogative apart from self-sacrifice, love and service.
[25] Letter 65
[26] Letter 69