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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cyril Hovorun on the Church's Scaffolds

At the end of May I noted some initial thoughts on Fr Cyril Hovorun's new book, Scaffolds of the Church, which I was then half-way through reading. I have since not only finished the book, but publicly recommended it in two very different contexts, including to a class of Catholic teachers from the local Latin diocese who were taking a summer course with me in ecclesiology. As I said to them, if you buy and read no other book in ecclesiology this year, let it be this one. It is very much worth your while.

I will finish that review later this week, but in the meantime, I wanted to let you hear from the author himself, and so I e-mailed some questions to Fr. Cyril. Here are this thoughts.

AD: Tell us about the background to Scaffolds of the Church.

CH: My motivation to write this book was to give answers to the questions, which I asked myself at different administrative positions at the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the frame of various ecumenical dialogues, where I participated on behalf of my church. During my numerous journeys through the Eastern Christian oecumene, I observed many fascinating and sometimes strange phenomena in theology and church life. I did not find a satisfactory explanation for these phenomena in the existing literature. So I decided to explain them myself and to give them a theological sense, when there is a theological sense, of course. Even when I did not see any theological sense in what I observed in the Christian East, I tried to give a theological explanation why this sense is missing in the real life of the church.

AD: When we last spoke on here, it was about your book Meta-Ecclesiology. What links these two books?

CH: There is an intrinsic link between the two books. Actually, in the beginning they were supposed to constitute a single book. However, the manuscript I produced was too long for any publisher. Publishers suggested I cut it into two works. So I redrafted the manuscript to make two different books. They are indeed different, even though they deal with the same phenomenon of the church.

The approach of the first book, Meta-ecclesiology, is epistemological. I consider the church as a stream of consciousness, or as self-awareness of the church as church. I explore the church through various metaphors and ecclesiological theories, and in the end I apply to the church the epistemological methods of phenomenology and analytic philosophy.

By contrast, Scaffolds has a different approach to the church: through structuralism and poststructuralism. This approach is more analytic and relies on the traditional theological patterns of Aristotelian-Porphyrian logic. Unlike God and Incarnation, the church in the classical theological period was not described in the terms of nature, hypostasis, accidents, etc. I try to fill in this lacuna and to present the church through the juxtaposition, and sometimes counterposition, of its nature and structures.

AD: One of the main arguments you make is that sometimes ecclesial structures can act against the nature of the Church. Tell us a bit more about that, and give us an example.

In my earlier book, Meta-ecclesiology, I identified a chasm between the church as we believe in it, and the church we observe in our everyday life. The differentiation between the nature and structures of the church helps explain why this chasm exists. Indeed, what we believe about the church, that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, belongs to its nature. What we criticize in the church--in most cases--goes to its structures. The structures have been developed in the course of the history of the church to serve its mission. However, when the structures demand that the church serves them instead of serving the church, they deviate from their original rationale. Let us take, for instance, community, which I consider as church’s hypostasis, and hierarchy. Hierarchy was introduced to the church for the sake of the well-being of communities. When hierarchy makes communities an instrument of its own well-being, it goes against the nature of the church and betrays its own purpose.

AD: Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book, noted here, talks about how deeply hidden structures in neoliberal capitalist societies are so that we often don't even think to question them. In that light, I'm wondering if, like a lot of political structures, ecclesial structures do their work invisibly, and thus, when they act against the nature of the Church, we don't see them clearly enough to question them?

CH: I agree with this insight. In my book, I try to disclose some structures of the church, which mimic its nature. A number of Orthodox and other theologians identify the structures of the church with the church proper. We can call their approach ontotheology - the word coined by Kant and then used by Heidegger and Derrida. When I talk about ontotheology, I mean something different. I mean sacralisation of those services in the church, whose origin is profane, not divine. Their provenance is from the Greco-Roman world, not from the gospel. Hierarchy and primacy are some of these services.

AD: You argue in several places that hierarchy is useful in the Church but not necessary. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: Hierarchy is useful, but not necessary as any instrument that the church has adopted in the course of its history. As with any such instrument, hierarchy is vulnerable to abuses, and indeed it often abuses the church and contradicts the church's nature.

In my book, I have scrutinized two sources from which hierarchy was borrowed to the church. These sources are not divine, but quite profane: Roman political culture and Neoplatonism. Even the word “hierarchy” is Neoplatonic and was introduced to the Christian theological lexicon in the 5th century. That hierarchy is not divine, however, does not mean it should be rejected altogether, as an alien element. It should be used in the church, and when necessary, repaired and restored to its original function.

The final chapter of the book is “From structuralism to poststructuralism and beyond.” The “beyond” is very important here. It means that my task is not just to deconstruct the ecclesial structures, something that structuralism and especially poststructuralism would do, but to suggest a way of re-construction of these structures - in accordance with their original meaning and with the nature of the church, which they are supposed to serve.

AD: Notions of autocephaly and canonical territory, so often invoked especially in Russian and Ukrainian contexts, are, you say, not really ecclesiological but nationalist in nature. Tell us a bit more about that.

CH: These notions were adopted by the church from the political culture very early, even before nationalism was invented in early modern Europe. "Canonical territory" brought about a transition from the original meaning of the church as particular to the local church. The earliest structures of the church were measured by communities. After the Roman empire embraced Christianity, they became measured by territories. The territorial principle of administration was appropriated by the church as a principle of canonical territory.

AD: You speak (p.127) about reinventing notions of autocephaly. Can you give us some indication of what you mean by that?

CH: The evolution of autocephaly was more complicated than the evolution of other ecclesial structures. It was invented in the Late Antiquity as an instrument that helped the church to resist its assimilation in the Roman state. It was countercultural, as it were. In the Middle Ages, from a counter-political phenomenon it turned to a means of further politicisation of the church. Autocephaly became an instrument of transitio imperii for the medieval Balkan and Moscovite states. In the nineteenth century, it was adjusted to the national awakening of the Orthodox peoples and facilitated their emancipation from the empires of that time. In our days, it is an instrument of decolonization for the states that emerged from the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. This, I believe, is the latest version of autocephaly.

AD: In calling for its reinvention here, as in other places, you very commendably note the importance not of just dismantling structures or dismissing them, but of seeing their worth and revising them where necessary and possible, noting that there is no once and forever solution. From this, and from your book as a whole, I gather a clear sense that the Church and her structures really needs to be a lot more "portable" or "flexible" in many ways, a "field hospital" (to use Pope Francis's well-known image) that has some stability and structure but is not necessarily a permanent and fixed feature of the landscape. Is that a fair read?

CH: I think you have grasped the main idea of the book very well. I argue that to prevent the ecclesial structures from turning to simulacra, they need to be kept open. To remain useful, and not harmful, for the church, they have to be permanently readjusted, always with their original meaning as blueprint. I think the famous “ecclesia semper reformanda” should apply not so much to the church per se as to its structures.

AD: You and I seem to meet about once a year at ecumenical conferences--June 2016 in Vienna, June 2017 in San Felice del Benaco. From those conferences, your other travels, and your new position at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, do you have an overall or global sense of where the search for Orthodox-Catholic unity is today?

CH: I have participated in many official and unofficial dialogues, and had many chances to see their power and limitations. I concluded that the most important issue on the plate of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is primacy. In my ecclesiological books, I always try to tackle this issue, and thus to contribute to the dialogues. I believe that equally, if not more, important for the Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement are all sorts of relations and networking between the two churches on all levels. I argue in my books that the nature of the church is relational. Therefore, the more there will be different relations between us, the closer we will get to sharing in the same nature of the church. I consider my new role at the Huffington Ecumenical Institute in fostering these relations.

AD: Having finished Scaffolds of the Church, what are you working on now?

CH: I am finishing a new manuscript for the Fortress Press. Its tentative title is “Unorthodox Orthodoxies.” This book will continue my previous ecclesiological studies. This time, I will consider some particular cases, when the idea of the church, and Christianity in general, get distorted in the Orthodox world. I will study the issue of nationalism, collaboration of the churches with the totalitarian regimes, their participation in modern culture wars and obsession with ideologies. I will pay a special attention to the issue of antisemitism among the Orthodox, and will argue that it is close to the classical Christological heresies.

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