Concerns about the Great and Holy Council

The First Council of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea

Soon the Orthodox Church will convoke a Great and Holy Council, the first such council in over a millennium. Though by no means ecumenical in any official sense (at least not yet), it is a historic meeting, for which I have felt a deep and abiding ambivalence.

I am a convert to the Orthodox Church. Unlike many converts, I did not see the deep and rich traditions of the Orthodox Church as providing me with resources to be more fundamentalistic than I was before (such as I hear creationists citing Basil as proof of a young earth). I was never a fundamentalist. What attracted me to Orthodoxy was the ambiguity of it all, which is another way of saying Mystery. Jaroslav Pelikan, another convert, described Orthodoxy as the church of the seven councils that we deem ecumenical. We have a lot of other canons, synods, traditions, and opinions, but they are not finally and firmly authoritative in the same way that those minimum of dogmas are.

 Actually, I am nervous about this council. Sergei Bulgakov pointed out that when one thing is a reaction to another thing, the first is always a parasite on the last. Orthodoxy of late has increasingly defined itself by what it is not, namely modern and secular. We are, as one popular Orthodox media outlet describes it, the “ancient faith,” as if by returning to Orthodoxy one could somehow step outside of one’s time and culture, as if the media of podcasts and mass publishing did not also inevitably alter the message. I guess I am saying that Orthodoxy is more and more succumbing to a spirit of fear, and people who are afraid almost never make good decisions.
The Orthodox Church is just as modern as any other organization. Our liturgy does not take us out of time or out of the world. This is because Orthodoxy has never thought of the world in such Manichaean categories. We are the sanctification of time. The sanctification of the world. Orthodoxy always reinterprets itself in light of the present. Our conversation with our moment in history has always been part of our tradition. This is what symphonia means, a term that often gets misapplied as being about a harmony of actions between church and state, two institutions that did not properly exist at the time the word was coined, but the seeking for a harmony between the present moment and the kingdom of God. The sanctification of time means the incorporation of whatever is good and true and beautiful with our understanding of God, who is the Good, True, and Beautiful itself. Revelation is thus always ongoing.
Orthodoxy in diaspora, after persecution from the Turks, the Russians, and most recently American foreign policy, has taken up an increasingly antagonistic posture towards its time and place in history. This has me worried that rather than seeking to speak a prophetic word to the world, to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, we will instead choose to behave like the Pharisees, or a rutting turkey, brandishing our own ostensible righteousness in an attempt to seduce people out of the world and into our own heaving bosom, thus forgetting that the church exists not to draw people out of the world, but to be life for the world.
I think world Orthodoxy is likely to come out of this Great and Holy Council speaking word of judgment and condemnation instead of hope and love. I hope that I am wrong. I know I have been growing increasingly cynical over the past few years, but then again that’s because I have been increasingly disappointed. Whatever the outcome may be, we can take comfort in what Paul Valliere recently wrote, “Anticonciliar councils are a documented phenomenon in the history of the church.”
Where there is Christ, there is hope, which means that there is a reason to be optimistic whenever two or three of us are gathered by the Spirit in his name. The institutions of the church are not the body of Christ. We, who are many, are his one body. The church is the prolepsis of the Kingdom of God—the experience of the future ahead of time. Thus while institutional Orthodoxy may be inadvertently captive to modernity, as long as the faithful keep gathering in Christ’s name, the kingdom of God—the life of the world to come—is among us.


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