|Hint: Crusty is not wearing a cool hat, unfortunately.|
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.|
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!|
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.|
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.|
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?|
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.|
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:
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.|
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 https://cruxnow.com/, 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.