My English colleague, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, remarks (perhaps with a degree of frustration) that each time he attempts to explain what an Orthodox understanding of the universal primacy should be, the Catholics in the conversation invariably respond by expressing their complete agreement and affirming that what Bishop Kallistos has said is exactly what they teach! Bishop Kallistos might be pardoned if he were to suspect that this ready agreement from the Catholics might represent at least a small degree of wishful thinking.
However, there is also the matter of conciliarity. For rather more than a century, the Orthodox have been extolling the merits of sobornost‘ to such an extent as to give the impression that this is some sort of cure-all. One reason, perhaps, for this is the belief among some Orthodox, that ever since the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has been nervous about “conciliarism.” We shall come to that problem as well.
For the moment, I wish only to note that there is a considerable distance between the lofty theory of the universal primacy as Bishop Kallistos describes it, and the day-to-day functioning of the Roman Catholic Church. So too, there is a considerable distance between the love-feast of sobornost‘ and the sometimes disreputable reality of Orthodox administrative chaos with seemingly irreconcilable quarrels. It sometimes comes to the point that merely attempting to determine who is an Orthodox bishop in good standing and who is not can lead to lengthy and expensive litigation in the secular courts for want of any other arbiter.
What are we to think? We do not want a primacy that may produce a too-powerful monarch, nor do we want episcopal equality run rampant with bishops who are unable to agree on anything while constantly repeating that of course they agree on everything!
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Yes and no. Let me consider both of those answers.
If we expect to find the solution to the seeming dichotomy between primacy and conciliarity in the history of the first millennium, in canons, in constitutional arrangements, or in some brilliantly-devised system of “checks and balances”, to use a phrase which we Americans like, we shall be wasting our effort. Humanly speaking, there is no such perfect or magical solution. We can note and realize that the problem has been with the Church from the beginning of her pilgrimage towards salvation. This is why I am convinced that this problem is an insufficient reason to justify the schism. On this issue there was never an Arcadian ecclesiological utopia to which we can look back for a perfect model of successful primacy and conciliarity, in unmarred harmony with one another.
Yet there is a way forward, combining realism with faith. Realistically, we all know that so long as we live in this sinful world, and so long as our hierarchs are by necessity chosen from among us sinful men, we may expect manifestations of sinful behavior, including pride, envy, stubbornness, lust for power, jealousy, personal animosities, vanity and the attempt to aggrandize one’s own greed at the expense of others. Here is the root cause of the seeming contradiction between primacy and conciliarity. By faith, we may look again at Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles and notice that the Canon concludes with this promise: “thus there will be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The unity of the Church, which requires both primacy and conciliarity, is a unity that should reflect the unity of the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Between the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and ourselves there is a most drastic difference: we are sinners, They are not. Thus in the Most Holy Trinity the Monarchy of the Father and the complete Equality of the Three Divine Persons do not involve any contradiction.
If the Church is truly to reflect the Kingdom of Heaven, and if we, the hierarchs, are to preach the Gospel in a convincing way, it behooves us to make every effort to act as though we ourselves believe the Gospel, and as if the Christian life is not an utterly unattainable ideal. That would at least bring us an appreciable distance in the effort to reconcile primacy and conciliarity from the present impasse.
The mention of the Most Holy Trinity has a second significance in our attempt to understand the interplay of primacy and conciliarity: dynamism. Legal, canonical, or constitutional arrangements, especially on paper, are by nature something static and motionless. The life of the Most Holy Trinity (and the life of the Kingdom of Heaven) are just the opposite: the service-books of the Byzantine Liturgy often compare the life of the Most Holy Trinity and the life of the Kingdom of Heaven to a dance.
I was never much of a dancer. But I know enough about the subject to be aware that one cannot dance while standing still and remaining motionless, and that unless one is dancing absolutely alone (without even any music) one’s motions must be perfectly coordinated with the simultaneous movements of one’s dancing partner or partners.
“Liturgical dancing” is not a feature of the Byzantine tradition. But in our solemn divine services there is quite a lot of complicated choreography, which requires the participants to know what they are doing and how they must do it, and to defer to one another rather than constantly asserting themselves. There are many occasions when the clergy must sing this or that prayer together. If they try to outshout each other, of if each participant seeks to hog the limelight, the result would be a chaotic cacophany which would edify no one. When these parts of the service are done well, the result is an edifying harmony of unparalleled beauty.
To be continued …