A perfect harmony between primacy and conciliarity may be an ideal that is unattainable in this world. But it remains true that each of these true attributes is essential for the Church. Even in our present condition, we must continue to strive to keep both of these attributes, primacy and conciliarity in balance. The schism between East and West allows us to see clearly – perhaps too clearly – what can happen when either of these attributes goes to extremes at the expense of the other.
To begin at home, so to speak, the Christian East has attempted two solutions to the problem posed by the absence of (or estrangement from) the Roman Primacy: sometimes we attempt to substitute someone else for the Pope of Rome, creating a surrogate or substitute universal primate. And sometimes we try to theorize that there is no need for a universal primate in the Church. Neither of these two solutions has worked satisfactorily. On another occasion I have examined the attempt to create or foster a surrogate primacy. Today I shall only mention that the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Eastern Roman Emperor, the Sultan and the Comissar all failed, although for quite different sets of reasons, and there would be little point in yet another attempt to set up such a straw man only to knock him down again.
The theory that there is no need for a universal primate flies in the face of both tradition and experience. If there were no need for a universal primate, there would be no need for a local primate either, and Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles would be so much empty verbiage. The experience of the past century and a half, roughly speaking, should be enough to convince anyone in the Orthodox world that trying to keep simple order without an accepted primacy causes our administration to dissolve into chaos that cannot be resolved by Khomiakov’s fine words about sobornost’. Right here in America, where there is little government interference in religious matters and the hierarchs are in principle free to arrange Church administration, Orthodoxy is divided into an uncountable plethora of competing “jurisdictions.” Not one Orthodox theologian defends this intolerable state of affairs, but neither has anyone succeeded in finding an effective way out of it. There has been a never-ending parade of litigation in the American civil courts between competing Orthodox hierarchs, to the great scandal not only of our own faithful but of everyone else who becomes aware of it; everyone deplores this and no one is able to stop it.
This is conciliarity run riot. On the parish level, there is a further consequence: the severe reduction of the pastoral authority of the priest. To put it crudely, the congregationalists take advantage of the over-development of “conciliarity” to seize power in the parish, often to the detriment of the Church herself.
The collapse of Communism has set the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe free. So, there are three competing jurisdictions in Ukraine, repeated ecclesiastical strife in Bulgaria, attempts to erect parallel Orthodox jurisdictions in Russia, a most ominous breach between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate (over a dispute in Estonia) again, all of this is to the great scandal of the faithful and brings opportunities to the enemies of the Church. But no one seems able to stop it or to arbitrate.
In the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem there is a running wound, constantly growing worse, between the hierarchy, who are exclusively Hellenes, and the parish clergy and faithful, who are Palestinian Arabs. This is among the reasons for the relative strength of the Greek-Catholic Church in Palestine and Jordan, where they have Palestinian Arab hierarchs. The situation among the Orthodox in Palestine and Jordan continues to become ever more embittered, but no one seems able to do anything about it.
This is only an abbreviated list; I could go on. But it is necessary to look at the other side of the coin. What happens when primacy is too strong and conciliarity is suppressed?
To be continued …