Monday, January 07, 2008

Orthodox church structure

After Justin's comment on my last post, I thought it would be useful to say something more directly about Orthodox church structure. I should stress for those who don't know (not necessarily you, Justin), that the problems I was addressing are largely unique to the history of Orthodoxy in America (and modern Western Europe, though the situation is a bit different). To some degree these problems do reflect a cultural entrenchment that grew out of centuries of one basic political situation. For most Orthodox peoples, there was no accessible frame of reference within which to adapt life in a non-Orthodox nation. Orthodox Tradition contained a frame of reference, though it required some dusting off. Namely, until the time of Constantine, Christianity existed in a non-Christian, often hostile environment.

But even though pre-Constantinian Orthodoxy grew up without the cooperation of the state, the fundamental structure of the Church was there from the beginning--in each city you had one local church (the New Testament knows nothing of a multiplicity, though they undoubtedly had to meet in many locations to maintain secrecy), with many presbyters but one bishop. (The early terminology didn't consistently label the two offices, but it was a natural development as the missionary apostles died out and church unity was rooted in one head of each local church.) The principle of catholicity is nothing more than the assertion that the Church is not tailored to niche groups. It is what it is, for everyone, wherever it appears. So we see in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that upon arriving in a given city there was only one entity to be sought out--the catholic church. The only alternatives were heretical assemblies that taught some distortion of Christianity.

As for inter-congregational structure, even this was relatively well established before Christianity became legal. There were already recognized groupings in which bishops would represent their congregations as regional synods (usually according to Roman provinces), and certain cities (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome) had already achieved a widely acknowledged status as centers for even larger groupings. With the conversion of Constantine, it became possible to assemble all the bishops from throughout the Empire, and the bishops of the capital cities (Rome and Constantinople) took on special status. Later, as the Empire contracted and other lands were Christianized, the same structures applied--first as subordinate to some existing patriarchate, then eventually as independent, national churches.

Even after the death of the Byzantine Empire, it was replaced by the Ottoman, which established the millet system, where Christians had their own internal political structure, headed as it happened by the Patriarch of Constantinople. (The Turks don't seem to have had much inclination to separate civil and religious government--as far as they were concerned, only one leader was necessary for cultural and religious Christianity.) So even though they lived under a hostile government, the structure remained much the same as it had been.

When Orthodoxy began its return to the West, Russia was pretty much the only game in town. Most Orthodox lands were dominated by Russia, the West, or the Ottomans. With the backing of the Russian tsars, Orthodox missionary outreach naturally structured itself as an appendage of the Russian Church. The nearly simultaneous collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires produced radical change. At the same time that Russia was no longer the default guardian of world Orthodoxy, all these nations that were formerly subject to the Ottomans were now free to establish their own national identity, and to emigrate to the West. Their natural response to the disarray caused by the Bolshevik Revolution was to establish churches under their own, national jurisdictions.

But as Fr. Josiah points out in the interview, the situation we have now is sinful. It violates not just the cultural norms of formerly Orthodox kingdoms but the fundamental principles of Christian unity from the very beginning of the New Testament Church. Part of the reason that the solution is unclear is that there's no binding requirement for the superstructure of American Orthodoxy. If we did nothing more than re-draw the jurisdiction of each bishop currently exercising authority in America, so that there were no overlaps, and if they all remained in communion with each other, we'd have a basically canonical situation. It would be chaotic for a while, but it would probably work itself out in the same way that the early Church did--eventually, natural groupings would develop in which bishops could form synods, and higher level structures on up to some as yet undefined top. Of course, it's never going to be that simple. The existing allegiances exist for better or worse, and it's difficult to see anything happening without whole jurisdictions signing onto a solution.

In the meantime, it is still possible to distinguish Orthodox jurisdictions from Protestant denominations. Aside from some schismatic groups, they are in communion with each other (theoretically, if not practically), and their core theology is consistent. They also share a common notion of what the Church should look like, and although their ethnic divisions belie the standard, they accept catholicity as normative. There are pastoral differences that have arisen over time, but the source of the divisions is mostly political.

And I should add that there is hope. One of the deepest wounds caused by the Russian Revolution was the split between the Russian church abroad and the Russian church under Communism. Last year was marked by the healing of that rift, nothing short of miraculous. If that can happen, anything's possible!

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