Sunday, June 19, 2016

Great and Holy Crusty on the Great and Holy Council

Several years ago Crusty served on the International Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue (before he was removed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2010, not because of anything Crusty did, mind you).  Hey, here's a photo of the group, see if you can pick out Crusty! (The reason we are all squinting is not because, like St Gregory of Palamas, we are gazing at the uncreated light, but because they had us seated facing the blinding Mediterranean sun on a cloudless day.)  While at the meeting, we also held a caucus of just the Anglican members of the dialogue, to make sure
Hint: Crusty is not wearing a cool hat, unfortunately.
we were all on the same page.  Someone wondered what we should do if the Orthodox members started pressing us on issues of human sexuality.  "Easy," Crusty said, "if they start pressuring us, just get them to start arguing with each other, the Orthodox love to bicker with one another much more than they like fighting with other Christians.  It doesn't take much."

You may not have picked it up over the years of suffering through this blog, but Orthodox Christianity has been an important influence on Crusty.  He was a Russian language major as an undergraduate, and would sneak away to the local Orthodox church down the street from his dormitory during his semester abroad in Moscow.  Crusty earned a degree from an Orthodox seminary (Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, MA -- where my Hellenic College peeps @?).  COD has just returned from a weeklong research project in Ukraine, looking at how
COD at the Baptists' HQ in Ukraine two weeks ago.
churches in that country have reacted and responded to the upheavals of recent years.  Crusty kind of stuck out like a sore thumb in many of these Orthodox sojourns.  There are, by and large, two main groups of not-by-birth-Orthodox Christian North Americans, at least as Crusty experienced it over the years.  One large group are evangelicals who somehow discover that church history didn't skip from Jesus to John Wesley.  It's a natural extension for some evangelical Christians:  if you see the Bible as supremely authoritative and definitive, wouldn't you also think that the earliest Christian church that interpreted that Bible would be uniquely authoritative as well?  There's been the remarkable phenomenon in the past 30 years of evangelical Christians converting to Orthodoxy.  Seriously, just google "evangelical converts to eastern orthodox" and you'll see what Crusty is talking about.  The second group consisted of Anglicans, Methodists, and others from mainline churches with strong liturgical convictions who were upset or otherwise disagreed with the theological perspective of their churches.  COD kind of stuck out like a sore thumb because Crusty didn't fit into either category, he just loves the liturgy and the theology and chalks up some of his most important spiritual moments and connections to Orthodoxy.

Crusty is thus reflecting his Orthodox sojourns and further narrowing the already limited church geekery audience of this blog with his thoughts on the imminent and upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, to be held on the Greek island of Crete June 19-26, 2016.  What, you say?  You're aren't sick already of the torrent of social media and endless talking heads, or the saturation coverage on cable news?  Don't have enough commemorative swag, because what better way to commemorative important theological events in the life of the church than cheap swag? I thought not.  While the mainstream media covers every hiccup and random thought Pope Francis seems to have, sadly,
Get ready for Ecumenical Patriarch holograms!
unless you are plugged into Orthodox news networks (and, admittedly, unless you speak or read Greek or Russian; Crusty, luckily, reads Greek and speaks Russian) you may not even know that this event is taking place.  Crusty has been continually perplexed at the systemic ignorance and marginalization of Orthodox Christianity in much of global, if not North American, consciousness.  It is, after all, the second largest group of Christians in the world but gets about 1/10th of the coverage that, say, the next stupid thing that Franklin Graham will say.  This is, in part, due to its "otherness."  In the United States, Orthodox were late to the game in immigration, not arriving in large numbers until the 20th century.  Orthodoxy in North America tended to be strongly connected to its immigrant communities, with liturgies often not only in native languages, but in ancient versions of those native languages (the liturgy in many Russian churches was in Slavonic, almost but not exactly parallel to Chaucerian English, an ancient, archaicized language).  Globally, Orthodoxy has been "other" because of its historic strength in areas which were not part of the world stage: strong in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia when the story of the 19th and 20th centuries was Western Europe and North America.

It is further "other" because of a profound and inescapable fact, something which is crucial for those in the West to understand:  Many Orthodox churches have been under some kind of non-Christian domination for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years, while at the same time in the West Christianity had a close relationship with culture, society, and the state.  The cradle of Christianity in Asia Minor, what is now the Middle East, and Egypt was predominantly Christian for hundreds of years but has been under Muslim domination for nearly 1400 years in some places.  Orthodox Christian countries in what is now the Balkans were under Muslim domination for almost 700 years in some cases.  For those which escaped the Muslim yoke, things weren't much better.  The country with the greatest numerical dominance of Orthodox Christians -- the Russian Empire -- underwent 70 years of the one of the most sustained and systemic efforts to eradicate Christianity the world has ever known, as did other areas behind the Iron Curtain with significant Orthodox populations (to differing degrees).  North American Christians complaining from their places of privilege about religious
Icon of the Coptic Christians martyred by ISIS in 2015.
liberty would be comical if it weren't insulting to the price paid by Orthodox Christians over the years, and continues to be paid daily.  When we speak of persecution of Christians in our present day, we are speaking largely of the persecution of Orthodox Christians (though certainly not exclusively) in places like Syria and Egypt.

So:  let's give Orthodox Christianity it's closeup on the world religious stage! 

Here follows Great and Holy Crusty's answers to all of your questions about the Great and Holy Council!

1)  So how did we get here?

The Council has been in various stages of preparation since 1961.  Now stop laughing!  You may think 55 years is a long time to plan something, but a) for Orthodox Christians, this isn't that long of a time at all.  Orthodox Christians have spent longer than 55 years arguing over the authenticity of various texts.  Plus b)  keep in mind the tremendous upheavals in the Orthodox world in the past 50 years, from Pan-Arab Nationalism to decolonization to the collapse of the Iron Curtain that have impacted countries with large Orthodox populations.  Yes the Orthodox think in centuries and 55 years is a blip.  But there's also been a lot going on.

When you're a hesychast it's the swinginest thing.
2)  Why is it in Crete?

Because, much like the gym in West Side Story, Crete is considered neutral turf.  The Pope can hold huge church councils in Vatican City because he's head of state and it's his 'hood.  The Ecumenical
Patriarch of Constantinople has some disadvantages.  Turkey is technically a secular state:  you can't dress as Christian clergy in public, for instance, while there are concurrently rising Islamist pressures on the government and society.  Plus, with current tensions between Turkey and Russia, there were political concerns as well (the Turks shot down a Russian jet and there have been diplomatic recriminations).  Crete seemed like a good, safe, neutral choice: not on the territory of Turkey, but still under jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

3)  What is it all about?

Keep in mind that Orthodox Christians have not only had a different political history, they have had a different social and cultural history.  The vast majority of Christians in North America share a kind of Western European historic and cultural hegemony.  Orthodox Christians never went through the
An ecumenical council without Twitter?
Reformation or the Enlightenment.  While there have been decisions made by individual member churches, there has not been a collective Orthodox Church effort to respond to the massive changes brought about not just by the 20th century but by the last, say, 1,000 years or thereabouts.  When you haven't had a universally acknowledged Pan-Orthodox Council in 1,229 years (since Nicaea II: Electric Boogaloo in 787) there are some issues you need to catch up on.

4)  OK, what is it REALLY about?

An epic smackdown is brewing between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.  Since the fifth century, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been considered the "first among equals" among Orthodox Patriarchs.  The Orthodox churches are divided into 14 "autocephalous" or autonomous jurisdictions.  The Ecumenical Patriarch has a primacy of honor, but no direct authority or jurisdiction in other member churches.   After the collapse of communism, the struggle for supremacy in the Orthodox world between Moscow and Constantinople was renewed.  The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest by far of the Orthodox churches, claiming perhaps 200 million of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.  The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, has over 1500 years of history and tradition on his side.

This is, in part, what was behind the Russian Patriarch's bilateral visit to Cuba to meet with the Pope in February of last year:  an effort to claim the mantle of pre-eminent Orthodox leader.  It was odd for Crusty to read press releases about the "historic" meeting which had the chance to "heal" the 1000 year old schism between the Orthodox and the Catholics.  Since Moscow didn't even exist 1000 years ago when the schism took place, and since the Ecumenical Patriarch is the first among equals and Patriarchs have met numerous times with Popes over the last 50 years, it's odd to think this meeting would have the ability to bring about a healing to that schism on its own.  This media narrative was, in fact, advanced energetically by Russian news outlets like Russia Today, and picked up and unthinkingly repeated by American news media.

If you've studied church history at all, you can see that like Battlestar Galactica, church history tends to be cyclical.  "All this has happened before, and will happen again," as BSG put it.  Crusty doesn't
Talk about primacy of honor.
necessarily ask anyone to endorse or approve it, but the 5th century also saw an epic smackdown between Constantinople and Alexandria, resulting in the church councils called in 431 in Ephesus, a disputed council called in 449, and another council called in 451.  We're seeing it again.

And yea, verily, just days in advance of the council, the Russian Orthodox Church announced it would not be attending the council (as are three other churches, for different reasons.) Which leads to...

5)  What are the big issues?

The meeting of the heads of the 14 Orthodox churches met earlier in the year and finalized the following topics for discussion:

·       The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World
·       The Orthodox Diaspora
·       Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed
·       The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today
·       Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World
·       The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments

Let's break each down to what it is really about.

The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World:  See above.  Will the Orthodox Church continue to be a loosely affiliated network of autonomous churches with the Ecumenical Patriarch as first among equals, or will the Patriarch of Moscow wrestle the mantle (and the awesome hat, to be sure) to stake the claim as big kahuna of the Orthodox frat house?  Can the Orthodox churches transcend their hard-wired links to national. cultural, and ethnic identity and truly be a global expression of apostolic Christianity?

The Orthodox Disapora:  Originally national, ethnic churches centered around a particular group of people -- Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, etc. -- but this model is creaking under modernity and globalization.  Orthodox faithful have been flung all over the world through immigration.  There are over a dozen different Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, for instance.

On the one hand, to base church organization around language or ethnic identity seems to fly in the face of the Scripture that in Christ there should be no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free.  On the other hand, the connection between faith and community and culture and identity is strong and powerful, especially when forged in the crucible of persecution on the one hand and being severed from that homeland in a diaspora on the other.

Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed:  Anglicans, stop when this starts to sound familiar.  Concurrent with the diaspora, and the realization that Orthodoxy is a global communion, has been extended discussion on how, exactly, one is a member of this Orthodox communion, and by what means member churches are officially recognized.  This has been evident in places like North America, where there are currently 13 different recognized jurisdictions, with wildly different relationships to their historic churches.  Some are semi-autonomous, some are entirely independent, and some are still structurally part of their historic sending church.  There's also debate about who gets to grant the right for a church to be autonomous -- what is the extent of consultation needed? (Like I said, Anglicans, stop when this starts sounding familiar.) Then there's the question about communities whose political boundaries have changed: should their be corresponding rethinking of church structures? The big elephant in this respect is Ukraine (though there are other areas of disputed jurisdiction), which in the 1990s had a split, with a good number of churches saying that since the country was now politically distinct from Russia, it should be its own autonomous church, while others argued it should remain under the Moscow Patriarchate.  The result has been a deep and lasting schism.

The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today:  The Orthodox(technically) fast a lot more than Western Christians.  There's the Lenten fast, which makes Roman Catholics look like wusses.  Not only no meat, but no dairy or anything which comes from an animal at all.  There's also expectations to fast on
Maybe fasting isn't so bad.
every Wednesday and Friday, as well as other, shorter periods of fasting.  So fasting's important.  

Crusty thinks it's likely that this agenda item will be focused on Posers and Nagging. In some Orthodox cultures, it's become almost hip to follow the Lenten fast, with some restaurants having meat and dairy free menu options.  Fasting can almost be like Kabbalah, becoming trendy with people following the rules for it without really knowing what it is about or for.  So on the one hand they'll be singling out the posers.  On the other hand, they'll nag those who don't follow fasting rules into following them by reminding them of its importance.

Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World:  This will be a big one.  There's a strong strain of conservative, quasi-fundamentalist Orthodox believers who feel that the Orthodox Church is the only real church and all others are invalid.  When COD was at the Orthodox seminary he saw a bumper sticker which read, "Orthodox Christianity: Founded 33 AD."  There are Orthodox who believe that inter-Christian, ecumenical dialogues with other churches are either irrelevant or even heretical.  There are those who are unwilling even to designate the Roman Catholic Church as a "church", believing it has fallen into heresy and apostasy.  Heck, there are Orthodox churches that still cling to the hopelessly outdated Julian calendar because they think the Gregorian calendar is a Western, papist invention.  On the other hand, the Orthodox churches have been involved in a number of ecumenical dialogues, are members of the World Council of Churches, and many are members of regional ecumenical organizations (like the National Council of Churches here in the USA).  Ecumenical ties are particularly important for those Orthodox churches suffering persecution: under communism, ecumenical partnerships were important in helping to lobby for religious freedom for embattled Orthodox churches.  A showdown is brewing between those who want to flex their fundamentalist muscles and those that think that dialogue with other churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, is an essential part of the future of the Orthodox church.

The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments:  Like a lot of minority religious groups that link identity to religion, marriage can be seen as a threat, as an erosion of identity and an agent of assimilation, if there are mixed marriages where people marry non-Orthodox and drift away from the faith.  Crusty has a rabbi colleague who for years declined to do marriages between Jews and non-Jews because of the way mixed marriages, in his opinion, led to assimilation and were a threat to the survival of Judaism in North America.  There will be an emphasis on those couples married in the Orthodox Church do so not only because of the majesty and beauty of the ceremony (it truly is). but to commit themselves to living faithful lives as engaged Orthodox Christians.  There will also be unequivocal affirmation that marriage is between a man and a woman, and a complete rejection of any understanding of same sex blessings.

Well, that's an overall rundown.  Enjoy the hats, smell the incense, light a candle in front of our favorite saint's icon, and see what happens.   For decent coverage of the Council in English there's, run by John Allen (formerly of the National Catholic Reporter).

As always, with Crusty's predictions, all are guaranteed 100% correct or your money back.


  1. There's been a certain amount of coverage by the BBC here in the UK. As Orthodoxy is fairly weak here (as are most Christian denominations, actually) it's been mainly covered as a curiosity attended by men in black robes and funny hats who want to make trouble among themselves. A lot of the coverage concentrates on the efforts by the Russian Patriarch to keep Kiev within the fold and establish himself as the Big Kahuna. We shall see what the diminished meeting brings.

    1. Been a burst of coverage in the run-up, especially when the Russians pulled out -- some of the Catholic media sites and NY Times both ran articles.

  2. With the Russians gone, won't the impact be much diminished? Thanks for the overview.

    1. Well, that's part of the game of chicken they're playing. The Ecumenical Patriarch says the decisions of the Council are binding because everyone agreed on the agenda and agreed to meet, regardless who comes (otherwise you could undermine any council by not showing up); the Russians, naturally, are saying otherwise.

  3. It seems every church (denomination, confession, etc) has at one time claimed they are the truest church, THE way Jesus and the earliest Christians were - (Roman) Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Primitive, Restorationist, Apostolic (as in Pentecostal), Emergent, and the Protestant Reformers. Such claims are problematic for ecumenical relationships and must be overcome or explained with great humility, especially in light of historicity. This blog is the first time I've heard some fundamentalist Orthodox leadership consider (Roman) Catholics as an untrue church, bit of the shoe on the other foot, seeing The (Roman) Catholic Church as an "ecclesiastical community".
    I don't have answers, but I believe unity must never be forced-- unity is not forced conformity, but life in community, unity in the church is possible through God alone. Equally true in the Orthodox and Anglican worlds, as with ecumenism more broadly.

  4. Your article is well-timed for some of us studying on the holy mount known as Sewanee as we're currently walking through Schmemann's 'The Eucharist' in the Advanced Degrees Program, and this very topic just came up in class, on the hoped-for council.

    1. Thank you for clarifying which Holy Mount, since Crusty would have assumed you were writing from Mt Athos otherwise. Fabulous book Orthodoxy needs people like Schmemann now as it tries to navigate modernity.

  5. This entire meeting is a bust. Not all the canonical Orthodox Churches were invited and the Greeks really controlled the agenda. Russia, Antioch/Damascus, Georgia & Bulgarians have all taken a pass on this meeting. Anyone can see there are real issues here. In fact, the Council costs 2.8 million dollars and that 60% of the money from private Greek donors in the USA. Simply, the Greeks wanted to push their own agenda come hell or high water. Russia should hold the next major council/meeting. Under Christ the Savior church in Moscow, there is a huge auditorium that could host this. The Greeks have to understand, there is no emperor nor Byzantine Empire and maybe, 1,000 Orthodox left in Istanbul. As the late esteemed Yaroslav Pelikan commented upon returning from the Phanar, "The lights are on, but no one is home!"

  6. Thanks for the comments, Nick. Looking over media reports this week it does seem like a bust (BTW I did note three other churches did not attend...was trying not to get too into the weeds). While noting the "smackdown" between Russia and the Ecumenical Patriarch, I wasn't trying to pick sides nor necessarily break down the issues relating to both patriarchates (not my place as a third-party observer).

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