Last week Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew released an encyclical castigating what he called Orthodox “fanatics” who object to Orthodox ecumenical involvement. The encyclical was well received in Christian circles outside of the Orthodox Church, but raised eyebrows among those in the fold, not least for the strength of the language.
Here’s the background. The Orthodox Church is emerging out of a period of active persecution that lasted centuries for the Greeks and a generation for the Russians and other Eastern Europeans. Orthodoxy still flourishes in the Middle East although under considerable Muslim pressure. It is growing in Africa, Indonesia (where an indigenous Orthodox Church was started by several Moslem converts), America, Western Europe, and elsewhere in the world.
Two patriarchies dominate Orthodox affairs worldwide: Constantinople (Istanbul) and Moscow. Of the two patriarchies, Moscow is emerging as the leader. Constantinople on the other hand, still labors under the Islamic yoke. Muslim extremists have attacked the Patriarchate and the Turkish government has confiscated property and other resources.
With that history in mind, what is the reason for last Sunday’s encyclical?
All traditional Christian Churches understand that the Gospel is universal. “Go forth and preach the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Christ commanded His disciples. The Gospel transcends national, ethnic, and tribal boundaries. It is meant for all mankind.
The term “universal” comes from the Greek word katholikos (Catholic) which means “according to the whole.” It is used in the Nicene Creed as “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
Roman Catholics understand “according to the whole” to mean the geographical dispersion of the Church united under the Pope of Rome. Orthodox understand the term to mean the unity of faith expressed through shared worship, doctrine, and manner of living that is the same in all places. Protestants understand it as the assembly of believers that transcends denominational boundaries.
In recent years, Constantinople has adopted the Roman definition but with a twist. It rightfully claims a primacy over all Orthodox patriarchies but now argues that the primacy includes a jurisdictional authority over areas of the world not directly under an established Patriarchate (America, for example).
The shifting definition creates a problem for Constantinople. Since Orthodox doctrine limits the Ecumenical Patriarch’s jurisdictional authority to the geographical confines of the city of Constantinople, how can his claim of greater geographical authority be realized? It resolves the dilemma by elevating ethnic self-identity through an appeal to history.
It works like this: The Greeks gave the world both Hellenism and Christianity (from classical antiquity, to the hearing of St. Paul’s gospel in pre-Christian Greece, to Byzantium). Secondly, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the only living institution that embodies that rich historical legacy in the person of the Patriarch. Constantinople’s primacy, in other words, also includes an ethnic component.
In Constantinople’s view, the Greek in Greek Orthodoxy is as important as the Orthodoxy. And since Greek Orthodox believers are geographically dispersed worldwide, Constantinople’s authority extends worldwide as well, especially over lands with a poorly organized Orthodox presence. Moscow and most of the Orthodox dispute the claim.
Elevating ethnic self-identity first arose after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when Christian world of Byzantium became subject to the Moslems and the Ecumenical Patriarch became the unifying symbol of beleaguered Greeks. It may have been a necessary accommodation that saved them from Islamic assimilation.
All religious communions have believers who do not believe that the grace of God can exist outside the confines of their communion. Orthodoxy is no different. They make up some of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s harshest critics and are probably the “fanatics” he had in mind in his encyclical. Others are more temperate but nevertheless alarmed by the recent hobnobbing with secular and marginally Christian organizations.
Either way, Constantinople invites the criticism. If the universality of the Church is defined first by ethnic identity and only secondarily by the Gospel command to preach to all nations, then participation in the Church is first a matter of pedigree and only second a matter of obedience to the Gospel.
Moreover, ethnic primacy also changes the manner by which Constantinople engages the culture. For example, in America we often see Constantinople lauding Greek Orthodox politicians who are fiercely pro-abortion with no corrective word about their violation of the moral tradition. St. Paul defines this as the salt losing its saltiness.
Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have plenty of experience with getting too entangled in the affairs of this world. It mutes the Gospel and harms the Church. Rome tries to avoid these entanglements as does Moscow.
The Ecumenical Patriarch knows that his rebuke won’t silence his critics. But then the encyclical was not really intended for an Orthodox audience. Rather, the tone and message was meant to assure readers outside of Orthodoxy that Constantinople’s claim to speak universally is valid and that its critics could be ignored. Inside the Orthodox Church however, many remain unpersuaded.