"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Saturday, April 2, 2011

What is the Church?

T&T Clark/Continuum has been in the forefront of publishing some of the most interesting theological works today, especially in ecclesiology and theological anthropology--including those by John Zizioulas: Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church and Lectures in Christian Dogmatics. It is worth noting that they will be bringing out another of the great metropolitan's books in late August: Eucharistic Communion and the World. We will, of course, be paying significant attention to that forthcoming volume this fall, both here and in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

They recently sent me a new volume, part of their fascinating and highly welcome new "Ecclesiological Investigations" series. As an ecclesiologist I have been following this series with great interest. Its other recent volumes include:

Minna Hietamaki, Agreeable Agreement: An Examination of the Quest for Consensus in Ecumenical Dialogue

Gerard Mannion et al., Christian Community Now: Ecclesiological Investigations

Neil Ormerod and Shane Clifton, Globalization and the Mission of the Church

Gerard Mannion, Comparative Ecclesiology: Critical Investigations; Idem., Church and Religious 'Other'

Paul Collins and Michael Fahey, Receiving 'The Nature and Mission of the Church': Ecclesial Reality and Ecumenical Horizons for the Twenty-First Century

Steve Summers, Friendship: Exploring its Implications for the Church in Postmodernity

Judith A. Merkle, Being Faithful: Christian Commitment in Modern Society 

The most recent volume to appear in this series came out in 2009 in hardback, and March of this year in paperback. I recently received and read with great interest:

Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2011), xii+247pp.

This is a collection of articles whose authors are a diverse lot, coming from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox backgrounds. Like all such collections the quality varies enormously. Some are, as we will presently see, important and substantial contributions for several reasons, and we can be grateful to the editor for including them and the publisher for putting them into print. Some, however, treat topics so recondite as to be of very limited relevance and interest, while several others are shoddily written exercises in adolescent whingeing and sophomoric sloganeering about (what else?) homosexuality--in the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. But let us attend to pleasure before business.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, "Perspectives on Ecumenical Ecclesiology," comprises reflections on contemporary ecumenical ecclesiology. This is a "methodological" section in many ways.

The editor's own chapter, "Seeking Unity: Reflecting on Methods in Contemporary Ecumenical Dialogue" notes the progress that has been made in all major ecumenical dialogues in the last half-century. but laments the fact that "despite such advancement, the slow progress of the reception of these statements" (of the dialogues) into the life of parishes and individual Christians has been extremely slow. She then asks a difficult question others have asked: what is the nature of ecumenical "reception"? What does it mean for a doctrine, document, or ecumenical council to be "received" by the people of God? Some, she notes, do not want to receive anything: "there are those who are only too keen to dwell on and dissect ever more differences which, in fact, do not create any significant obstacles to agreement on essentials" (37). Five minutes on the Web, visiting any number of Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic sites, especially among those of a self-identified "traditionalist" bent or from "converts," will quickly demonstrate, with a depressing abundance of evidence and a tedious regularity, the truth of Thiessen's thesis.

Thiessen presses home later in her article a crucial problem I have been aware of for twenty years now since attending the seventh assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra in 1991: the highly "elitist" nature of ecumenical work. This is a major problem bedeviling the search for Christian unity since, of course, the failure of the Council of Ferrara-Florence, about which Joseph Gill's landmark book has recently been brought back into print by Cambridge University Press:

Too many theologians and ecumenists operate at too far a remove from what Thiessen calls the "actual life of faith" of people in the pews whose "factual apostolicity is neither examined nor taken seriously....In short, it would be significant to find out how the people of God understand their faith and the role that the church plays in and for their faith life" (45).This remains an enormously important if difficult desideratum.

Miriam Haar's "The Struggle for an Organic, Conciliar and Diverse Church: Models of Church Unity in earlier Stages of the Ecumenical Dialogue" is a cogent historical essay reviewing the ecclesiological issues at work in the various statements and conferences of the World Council of Churches (especially its Faith and Order commission) from the early part of the twentieth century. Anyone looking to review these relevant documents in chronological order would find this crisply written chapter very helpful.

Edwin C. van Driel's "Church and Covenant: Theological Resources for Divided Denominations" will offer Eastern Christians in particular some very interesting food for thought on that vexed question of "canonical territory" (discussed previously here).What is so striking is that van Driel is concerned with this problem in a Western and Protestant context: in the Netherlands Reformed Church. He offers several practical ways to overcome this problem, not all of them entirely convincing it seems to me, but one in particular, "Thesis Five: Church Shopping Is 'Verboten'," is especially interesting. This is his attempt to get people out of that especially North American habit (made so commonplace, of course, by the advent of the automobile) of moving around to find a church they like. The Netherlands Reformed Church has, since 1951, attempted to apply the "geographical principle" strictly: if you live in area X, you are automatically registered and expected to attend the parish in X. What if you don't like Parish X? To that van Driel very strikingly replies by asking rhetorically
how would it be if church bodies would respond to requests to transfer out...by saying "We are sorry, but we cannot do this. Obviously there is something that bothers you about our church. We are committed to working with you on this, however difficult and painful this might be for all of us. But we all are called to be together the members of the body of Christ" (71-72).
To his credit, van Driel notes that this is an easier principle to try to implement in a tiny, and more ethnically homogeneous society like Holland than it would be in the United States. (Van Driel was born in the Netherlands, but is currently teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.) Nonetheless, it is a very simple idea with a very ancient apostolic-conciliar patrimony behind it and it very much bears thinking about anew.

The remainder of the noteworthy articles in Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World come in Part II, "Communion Ecclesiology and Otherness." In this section, I start with the last article because it dovetails nicely with van Driels: "Evangelical Ecclesiology as an Answer to Ethnic Impaired Christian Community? An Inquiry into the Theology of Miroslav Volf" by another Dutchman, Eddy Van der Borght. He takes as his "point of departure the claim of Zizioulas that the ethnic factor is a non-legitimate form of otherness within the Christian community" (161). He quotes Zizioulas at greater length in which the metropolitan denounces the division in North American Orthodoxy along ethnic-jurisdictional lines. This important self-criticism comes in
Communion and Otherness, a text as fundamental to Zizioulas's work, and to understanding him, as Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church was when it first appeared a quarter-century ago.

What is so fascinating about Van der Borght's chapter is that ethnophyletism is not, the author demonstrates, an exclusively Eastern Christian problem: it exists in such ethnic Western parishes as found, inter alia, among some Dutch Protestants, and among certain Roman Catholics in Serbia and Bosnia. Thus he is able to say that this "is a global issue that is a challenge for all Christian denominations" (163-64).

His next move in the chapter is to inquire as to how much, and where, this problem of ethnocentrism has been treated by theologians and ecumenists, especially in the context of the World Council of Churches. The answer to that is: not much, not often, and not clearly.

He then spends the rest of the chapter asking if the work of Miroslav Volf, especially in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World and even more in Volf's landmark book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation will help Christians move beyond this problem. Volf concludes, according to this author, that "religion must be de-ethnicized so that ethnicity can be de-sacralized" before "each culture can retain its own cultural specificity. Christians are distinct, and yet they belong" (167).

Let us return now to earleir in this section, and to three articles that I regard as the heart of this collection:
        • Paul Collins, "The Church and the 'Other': Questions of Ecclesial and Divine Communion"
        • Travis Ables, "Being Church: a Critique of Zizioulas' Communion Ecclesiology"
        • Radu Bordeianu, "Retrieving Eucharistic Ecclesiology"
(There is, I should note in passing, a fourth article here, Brian Flanagan's "Communion Ecclesiology and Ecumenical Experience: Resources for Inner-Denominational Otherness" that does a nice job summing up, and making accessible, the thought of the Groupe des Dombes so ably studied by Catherine Clifford, and especially the work of the late Dominican theologian and ecumenist Jean-Marie Roger Tillard, object of Flanagan's doctoral dissertation, to be published later this year in this "Ecclesiological Investigations" series as Communion, Diversity and Salvation: The Contribution of Jean-Marie Tillard to Systematic Ecclesiology. We will review that book upon its publication.)

Paul Collins' article, "The Church and the 'Other'," continues the same interesting scholarship into other traditions that we have seen in his earlier work in, e.g., Christian Inculturation in India (Liturgy, Worship & Society), and his most recent book,  Partaking in Divine Nature: Deification and Communion, of which we have a review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies this coming autumn.

In this article, Collins advances a very careful and balanced analysis of "the relationship between ecclesial and divine communion" (101) as seen in several recent figures, including Leonardo Boff's Holy Trinity, Perfect Community and John Behr's article "The Trinitarian Being of the Church." Behr's criticism of Zizioulas, which Collins seems to endorse, is that he has not resolved the problem of "otherness" and he pays insufficient attention to the "'economic' reality upon which trinitarian theology is based," leaving unconnected the life of the Church and the life of the Triune God: they exist side-by-side alone. 

Travis Ables advances some important criticisms of Zizioulas's ontology and Christology in "Being Church: A Critique of Zizioulas' Communion Ecclesiology." But Ables weakens his own case by turning what starts out as a careful critical analysis into a relentless attack not untouched by a certain defensiveness about his own Western tradition. Ables especially undermines his case in the last paragraph, which is nothing more or other than a giant dodge. Having laid out all these problems he sees in Zizioulas's thought, Ables ends by dismissing the very efforts Zizioulas has so painstakingly undertaken, and Ables himself has spent an entire essay criticizing: "we need to take a step back from the assumption that ecumenical and theological concerns are resolvable by recourse to a particular register of discourse--in this case, ontology" (124). Instead, he says, we simply need to focus on practice, and so avoid the problem whereby "ontology confuses the being of the church with simply being church." While there is much wisdom in this, and I am not unsympathetic at all to this argument, it so undercuts Ables' own work as to force the question: why bother writing at all? 

The ninth chapter, "Retrieving Eucharistic Ecclesiology" will be of greatest interest to Eastern Christians. It is an outstanding contribution written by Radu Bordeianu, who is a Romanian Orthodox priest-theologian currently teaching at Duquesne in Pittsburgh. (T&T Clark will, later this year, be bringing out Bordeianu's new book, the latest volume in the "Ecclesiological Investigations" series: Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology.) This chapter really is the highlight of the volume, and I say that not only because he's the only Orthodox contributor, nor because I happen to agree with him.

Bordeianu's burden here is to offer Dumitru Staniloae as a middle path between the problems in the ecclesiology of Nicholas Afanasiev on the one hand and John Zizioulas on the other. Staniloae is certainly an important figure who is still being discovered by many as his works continue to appear in English. Recent important studies of Staniloae include Lucian Turcescu, ed., Dumitru Staniloae: Tradition and Modernity in Theology, Charles Miller, Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Staniloae, and Natalia Tserklevych, The Knowledge of God and Participation in the Trinitarian Community: The Balanced Approach of Dumitru Staniloae. Works of Staniloae in English include:
Bordeianu begins by situating Afanasiev in the universal-eucharistic debate among ecclesiologists, arguing that Cyprian of Carthage (for Afanasiev) supplants the eucharistic ecclesiology of the earliest Church with his own universalist notions. Part of what Afanasiev tries to accomplish, of course, is precisely a recovery of this eucharistic ecclesiology, and in that he has succeeded hugely. His ideas have been enormously influential on Catholics (cf. no. 26 of Lumen Gentium as well as numerous references in the drafts and acta), Protestants, and Orthodox for decades now.

Bordeianu traces out Afanasiev's ideas in many articles and books, but it is surprising to me that Bordeianu nowhere cites or acknowledges the English translation of Afanasiev, available since 2007: The Church of the Holy Spirit under Michael Plekon's smooth editorship and with Vitaly Permiakov's capable translation.

What is so fascinating about Afanasiev is, as Bordeianu says, the fact that he "contended that both Catholic and Orthodox Churches both celebrate the same Eucharist, which unites all those who receive it, whether they be Catholic or Orthodox, in spite of their canonical and dogmatic divergences" (130). Because of this, Afanasiev advocated that both Churches "should work towards manifesting their already-existing unity by renewing their communion and postponing the solution of dogmatic differences for the time when they would be able to address them in the spirit of love" (133). This bears more than passing resemblance to more recent arguments by David Bentley Hart and Antoine Arjakovsky. One point that opponents of this line of argument point to, of course, is that we need dogmatic agreement first before sharing the Eucharist. But Afanasiev rightly and indisputably argued that such "absolute dogmatic harmony...has never been the case in history," and that is demonstrably true. Why demand a tougher standard now between Catholics and Orthodox (the story with Western denominations is entirely different, and I would not advocate this with them) when it was unheard of in the first millennium, and for much of the second? Why insist on a doctrinal convergence and coherence that has never completely obtained before, and would be impossible to obtain even today within the same Church? (How would one measure such convergence?) Why--as Arjakovsky demonstrated--use doctrinal agreement as the pre-cursor to full communion when many Orthodox (both Oriental and Byzantine), who ostensibly agree on doctrine and are therefore supposedly "in communion" with one another refuse to celebrate the Eucharist together amongst themselves? That puts the lie to the notion that doctrinal accord is what brings eucharistic hospitality.

Afanasiev, who so anticipated many later developments in such detail, was arguing in the 1960s that the only serious dogmatic issue for Orthodox and Catholics to resolve was that of "papal primacy and infallibility" (137). Afanasiev proposed that the Catholic Church come to understand "primacy to refer only to the West" and to view "infallibility from the perspective of conciliarity and reception" (137). There are, of course, many parallels here with my own proposals in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity

Afanasiev's proposals were not widely accepted. Bordeianu says that only Paul Evdokimov whole-heartedly endorsed them. Kallistos Ware and John Zizioulas both rejected them. Staniloae was neither so critical nor so accepting. Instead, he argued, as Bordeianu says in his conclusion, for four things, one of which was eucharistic communion. In addition, Catholic-Orthodox unity required:
        • "doctrinal unity (while maintaining diversity)";
        • "episcopal communion (where the pope would be primus inter pares within a unified synod of bishops)";
        • "love."
It is, in fact, as I conclude in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, drawing on Afanasiev's The Church of the Holy Spirit, the issue of love that will determine unity more than anything. One can put forward all the proposals in the world, but without a loving desire to do the Lord's will by seeking unity--a unity, as I have shown elsewhere, based on the Lord's kenosis--those proposals will come to naught. For all the hurdles Christian unity faces, of which I am painfully aware, they could all be overcome if we loved each other, the Church, and the Lord as much He deserves. We are in Radu Bordeianu's debt for reminding us of this once more in his superb essay, which deserves a place on bibliographies of all courses taught in ecclesiology, ecumenism, and Romanian theology today; and we are in debt, too, to Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen for editing Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World (Ecclesiological Investigations), and to T&T Clark for their ongoing "Ecclesiological Investigations" series whose future volumes are greatly to be welcomed.

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