Conciliarity and Communion : The Witness of Paulos Mar Gregorios by Fr. Dr. K. M. George

Late lamented Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorious of the East and Fr Dr K M George of India

Late lamented Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorious of the East and Fr Dr K M George of India

August – 2014

Orthodox ecclesiological self-understanding reached a particularly articulate phase in the context of the 20th century ecumenical movement. Conversations with the churches of Reformation tradition especially within the framework of the World Council of Churches on the one hand, and with the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II on the other hand, have brought together Orthodox resources for a renewed reflection on ecclesiology. Interestingly enough, the ecumenical movement as represented by the WCC facilitated a theological reconciliation within the larger Orthodox tradition itself between the family of pre-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches and that of the Chalcedonian Churches of the Byzantine liturgical heritage.

Two Families of Churches

In the WCC the Orthodox Churches are grouped into two families – the Eastern and Oriental. It was in the 20th century ecumenical context that the expressions ‘Eastern’ and ‘Oriental’ were routinely used to distinguish these two families.1 “Eastern” refers to the family of Churches in the Byzantine liturgical tradition in communion with the see of Constantinople (Ecumenical Patriarchate) like Churches of Greece, Russia, Rumania, Bulgaria and so on. These are the Orthodox Churches which accept the seven Ecumenical Councils as of fundamental doctrinal and canonical importance. They share the same liturgical texts and practices. Sometimes these Churches are referred to by the other family of Oriental Orthodox Churches as the Chalcedonian Orthodox since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the fourth ecumenical council for the Eastern Orthodox, was the point of separation for the Oriental Orthodox.

The other family, namely the Oriented Orthodox, consists of the Armenian, the Coptic, the Ethiopian, the Indian (Malankara) and the Syrian Churches. Very recently, in the aftermath of the political division between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a separate Church called the Eritrean Orthodox Church, formerly part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was created.

The main conflict was in the area of Christology – how the divine and the human natures are united in the person of Jesus Christ. However, strong political, cultural and social factors also played a part. The differences resulted in the breach of communion between these two Eastern families which, in spite of separation, maintain to this day a remarkable unity in theological approach, liturgical-spiritual ethos and general church discipline.

The Christological differences between these two families were resolved in a series of unofficial and official dialogues between the two families since 1967. Both families now acknowledge each other as holding the same apostolic faith in spite of the Christological misunderstandings in the distant past. What is interesting to us is that these two families though separated for about 1500 years since Chalcedon maintained the same ecclesiology. In spite of the Christological disputes around the Chalcedonian definition the Oriental Orthodox have accepted the disciplinary canons of Chalcedon that pertained to ecclesiological issues.

As the result of the unofficial dialogue, a consensus emerged. Both sides could affirm together “the common Tradition of the one church in all important matters – liturgy and spirituality, doctrine and canonical practice, in our understanding of the Holy Trinity, of the incarnation, of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, on the nature of the Church as the communion of saints with its ministry and sacraments, and on the life of the world to come when our Lord and Saviour shall come in all his glory” (Geneva, 1970).

The official dialogue confirmed this: “We have inherited from our fathers in Christ the one apostolic faith and tradition, though as churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other, we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the apostolic faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed” (1989, Egypt).

In all matters related to issues with ecclesiological implications in the WCC and the modern ecumenical movement in general, both families maintain the same position. The issue of ecclesiology was behind the creation in 1998 of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC and the changes that resulted from the Commission’s work with regard to the self-understating, style and perspective of the WCC.

This became possible largely because of the solidarity of the two families of Orthodox Churches and their common ground and shared perspective in ecclesiology as the key issue in ecumenism.

Conciliarity and Communion

Conciliarity and communion belong to the core of Orthodox ecclesiology. Both concepts have been placed at the center of the ecumenical movement as it seeks the unity of divided Christians (For the sake of brevity and clarity we will present some aspects of the views of two prominent and well-respected contemporary Orthodox theologians, one from the Oriental Orthodox family, namely Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios of New Delhi (Indian Orthodox Church) and Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Greek Orthodox Church) who both fully agree on the crucial importance of these two themes.) Paulos Mar Gregorios was one of the chief architects of the dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. One of the Presidents of the WCC, he was Associate General secretary of the WCC, and member of the Joint Working Group between the Roman catholic church and the WCC. He was also deeply involved in the work of the Faith and Order Commission. He brought to Orthodox and ecumenical theological reflection a particularly Indian/ Asian sensitivity of a rich inter religious and spiritual heritage.

Mar Gregorios traces the origin of the idea of council, from which comes the word Conciliarity, to the Hebrew biblical sod, the secret, select assembly with administrative authority or intention to plan an action (Ps. 55:14, 83:8). Its Aramaic equivalent is raz a Persian loan word (council, mystery) which was translated in the New Testament as mysterion (mystery) and not sunodos (synod). In this connection he also considers the N.T. word Koinonia or communion. The N.T. speaks about the union between God and humanity in a bold way. This is understood to be the mystery of the union between God and the human beings in the Spirit. It is in the mystery of the Eucharist that this union is expressed. According to Mar Gregorios, we share in the mystery-council character of the Body of Christ. What we call council (synod) in the Church is only one expression of this sharing. It does not exhaust the mystery.

Since the Church is conciliar by its very nature, conciliarity is not confined to the formal councils of the Church. It pervades all aspects of the life of the Church. The Russian word sobornost used in this connection would mean something like ‘council-ness’ of the Church. Gregorios points out some aspects of conciliarity as understood in the Orthodox ecclesiology:

• Communion in mutual love.

• Communion in the Spirit with God and with each other
expressed in the Holy Eucharist.

• A sharing of each other’s sufferings, needs and resources.

• A conciliar pattern of leadership such as is envisaged in the college of presbyters presided over by a bishop and assisted by deacons and people.

• Regular conciliar gatherings at various levels. Gregorios thinks that we cannot, bring about unity by developing now conciliar structures. What we need to develop is the quality of love and wisdom, humility, faith and true hope within each Church and between Churches. Conciliarity is love in the truth with faith and hope. The real unity is eschatological, and conciliarity belongs to the eschatological fullness of the Church. In the historical realm, this is only partially fulfilled.

Gregorios warns that the notions of the ‘local church’ and the ‘universal church’ and their inter­relationship as they are generally understood can sometimes be theologically defective. According to him the idea that the local church should have communio among themselves appears to be based on a particular conception of the relation between the “local church” and the “universal church.”

The tradition in the West that conceives of the universal church as composed of local churches is based on a part-whole relationship. In this model, the local church is not complete in itself and is dependent on the universal church for its life and ministry. The bishop’s authority is never complete, even in his relation to his diocese (local church). He needs authorization from and is dependent on the central authority of the universal church.

It is recognized that this pattern is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. In the Eastern patriarchal system this tendency was visible. However, there it was less rooted in theology than in an imitation of the Roman / Byzantine imperial structures. Ecclesiastical authority in the East was often seen as parallel to civil authority in the Constantinian era.

Mar Gregorios points out that the one exception to the above pattern seems to have been Egypt. The bishop of Alexandria had jurisdiction over the whole of Egypt from very early times. The Council of Nicaea in 325 recognized an ancient custom in its canon 6. The Council used the Egyptian pattern as a model for all Patriarchates. The Roman patriarchate’s authority and jurisdiction were conceived as similar to that of Alexandria over Egypt. The single bishop of Alexandria had jurisdiction over the Church in the whole of Egypt. However, in the Diocese of Orient associated with Antioch, it is the bishops collectively who are given the responsibility for administration. Only presbeia or rank of honour is given to the bishop of Antioch.

In the Patriarchal pattern no single bishop was given universal authority, his jurisdiction being limited to one geographical region, usually a Diocese of the Eastern Roman empire. A good example is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who was not given authority over the whole oikoumene despite the title. He had presbeia or rank of honour after the bishop of Rome as stipulated in the 3rd Canon of the Council of Constantinople (381).

It is pointed out by Mar Gregorios that in the Patriarchal pattern, the concept of locality was extended beyond the civil province in such a way that a bishop (eg. of Alexandria) or one group of bishops (Synod) had jurisdiction over five or six provinces but never any universal jurisdiction over the whole Church as in the papal pattern. Although the papal pattern first developed in Egypt, it never made universal claims.

Mar Gregorios says that in spite of the fact that an Ecumenical Council was conceived as having universal authority, the early conciliar period did not generate the idea of a ‘universal church’ with a universal central authority in the minds of the fathers. He thinks that the Eastern tradition was reluctant to speak about a universal authority for the universal church, as seen in the Latin tradition in the West, because the East had a different understanding of the status of the local church in relation to the Church Catholic.

He clarifies these notions – local church, universal church, and Church Catholic as follows:

“By the local Church we mean the community of Christians in communion with and shepherded by the diocesan bishop; by universal Church people usually mean the world-wide Christian community as constituted in a single unit in communion with and shepherded by the Bishop of Rome as Universal Pastor; and by the Church Catholic we mean the Body of Christ spreading throughout space and time. The distinction between Church Universal and Church Catholic is of crucial and decisive importance.”

Now the question of the relationship of the local church to the Church Catholic on the one hand and to the Universal Church on the other hand is raised. Is the local church a constitutive part of both?

The patristic consensus in both the East and the West is that the Church is one. But the eastern fathers when they spoke of the mia ecclesia (one church) they were not speaking of the universal church, but of the Church Catholic of all places and all ages.

As to the question of communio between the local Churches, it is clear that “no local Church exists except in communion with the one Body of Christ with which other local Churches are also in communion.”

Gregorios, however, admits that no pattern existing at present can adequately express the communion between local Churches because of division in the Church. He points out some of the essential signs of communion as follows:

• The eucharist is the primary expression of communio between the local Churches. We not only remember each other in the eucharist, but in our communion in the Body of Christ, we have communion with all other local Churches.

• The communion of the bishops is an expression of the communio between the local Churches. This can happen in the synods of bishops within and between the local Churches. This sign is less essential and indispensable than the eucharist.

• Although the universal councils or ecumenical synods can be useful and beneficial, historically they have never achieved the communio of all local Churches. They were more imperial than universal. The Churches of Georgia, Armenia, Parthia, India, Nubia, and Ethiopia, ancient Christian communities that flourished outside the Roman Empire do not appear to have participated in the universal councils. It does not appear that universal councils are necessary or essential signs of communion.

• Agreement on Tradition is an essential sign and the basis for communio between the local Churches. The concord of bishop also depends on this agreement on Tradition.

• The Oriental Orthodox Tradition resolutely holds to the view that no one bishop can be the visible principle of unity for the Church Catholic though it appears that a supreme pontiff with a universal jurisdiction would be a pragmatically desirable and useful sign of communio between the local Churches.

• Love and trust are above all the essential requirements of communio between the local Churches.

(Extracts from a larger paper on the eeclesiology of Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios and John Zizioulas presented at the Consultation on Ecclesiology held at St. Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, Wales, UK in January 2007 sponsored by Liverpool Hope University and Chichester University, England.)



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