"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

The Challenges of 140 Characters

Twitter has really grown on me lately.  You never know who you will meet or topics you will discuss.  But it is a venue that facilitates rampant miscommunication as the messages very easily get crossed and truncated.  Several months back I wrote a post about my discomfort with theological tweeting.  This post explores more of the same as there are some subjects that are difficult to discuss briefly.

In particular, Twitter brings together a widely varied audience coming from all sorts of backgrounds.  I also feel bad for anyone foolish enough to follow @FatherChristian, @NoWealthButLife, @3liSays AND me because tweets fly out at lightning speeds, even touching on some rather sensitive theological topics.

And here we have the challenges of 140 characters.  See, these friends of mine are all devout Roman Catholics.  We generally see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.  But as an Orthodox Christian, I consider there to be some rather significant theological differences between the two communions.  Unfortunately these differing views can lead to confusion as the official words from the Roman Catholic side differ from the official words from the Orthodox side.

One official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church muddies the waters even in practice.  Many Roman Catholic priests understand that the Roman Catholic Church permits Orthodox Christians to partake of Roman Catholic communion because Orthodox Christians confess the real Presence in the Eucharist.  Some Roman Catholic priests I have talked to act legitmately surprised when I tell them that as an Orthodox Christian I cannot partake of Roman Catholic communion.  On the Roman Catholic side, all is well; however, the Orthodox Church has a different view about what it means to be “in communion,” and Orthodox Christians can only commune within Orthodox communities.

Much of Orthodox ecclesiology depends on this central concept of “communion.”  I resist calling communion an “idea” because it’s a lot more than a single idea.  Communion involves the sharing of the mind, the will, and the heart.  The Orthodox Church exists as a communion precisely because Her people at all levels commit to the process of loving and forgiving each other, even at the level of Her bishops.  Fr Stephen Freeman, in my mind, has described this reality rightly as the “weakest ecclesiology of all.”

Moreover, the heart, mind and will of the Orthodox Church can never be expressed fully and exclusively in one person, one parish, or even one principality.  The Greek Orthodox Church does not have a monopoly on being the Church, nor does the Russian Orthodox Church have a monopoly on being the Church, nor does the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople have a monopoly on being the Church.  Yet, this statement cannot be understood as an absolute because we do have models of being the Church.  In particular, the monastic communities (especially in highly regarded places such as Mt Athos) provide a universal model of what it means to be the Church.  If I had to try to summarize my current thinking, to be the Church reflects life wholly immersed in Christ, where every fiber of the community’s being has been transformed through the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in such a way that exudes the Love and Truth of Christ.

This way of thinking is hard to grasp because it marries the modalities of mystery within certainty and certainty within mystery.  And generally it works well when people are well-connected in time, space and presence.  However, in cases where those connections are broken, it can be harder to form a unified framework.

The key place of unity for Orthodox Christians is the Eucharist itself.  We celebrate the Eucharist as a family meal, striving to all become one mind as we partake of Christ.  Additionally, many of the rubrics of the Church act to minimize the differences between the individual persons gathered at the Eucharistic table.  Starting in the obvious place of the chalice itself, our bishops, priests and deacons can offer the prayers and gifts of the Eucharist to communicants.  We commune all baptized Orthodox Christians (including infants) by placing communion in the mouth (most frequently by spoon).  A common practice in many parishes is to commune our children first.  Moreover, anyone who has been given a blessing can hold the napkin under the person’s chin (an incredibly important job especially if the priest is nervous or otherwise shaking the spoon).

Now, being of “one mind” does not necessarily mean sharing all thoughts in common.  By way of analogy, consider the case of a child who has erred significantly in the eyes of the parents.  The mother may opt for a harsh punishment while the father may opt for a more lenient punishment.  Both parents are of the same mind that the child has erred.  And both parents are of the same mind that a punishment is appropriate.  Yet there is diversity in the thinking about what degree of punishment is most appropriate.

So it is with the Rule of the Church in the Orthodox Communion.  A Rule is something that allows us to measure our progress as to how we are becoming of one mind.  Some people look for a very strict Rule of obvious external identifiers: we use the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, we all observe the same saints on the exact day, we keep exactly the same fast holding to the letter of a standard such as the Triodion, we have been baptized by a priest under a right-believing and properly-ordained bishop, we always serve the services in a particular Church language, etc.  However, the historic witness of the Orthodox Church looks to provide differing evidence as to the proper Rule of the Church.

One historic place of departure happens when we look at how something like the Liturgy develops.  Broadly speaking, the Eastern Mediterranean countries consolidated their liturgical customs and became the “Eastern Rite,” or to others the “Byzantine Rite.”  Typically the prevalence of these rites within Orthodox Churches have lead many people to attach the label of “Eastern” to “Orthodox” creating “Eastern Orthodox.”  Yet, the Western European countries also consolidated their liturgical customs and became the “Latin Rite,” or if you want to be equally fair, the “Western Rite.”  Indeed, there is such a thing as Western Rite Orthodoxy, where those parishes are in full communion with churches of the Eastern Rite.  Personally, I have never been a fan of liturgical imperialism and believe that Orthodoxy flourishes when permitted in Her full expression.  Therefore, there is some truth in the statement that “the Church has Eastern and Western lungs,” particularly when viewed from the vantage point of liturgical rites.

Another big concept to explore of how the Orthodox Church functions is to consider the very messy idea of oikonomia, a Greek word that indicates the economy of a household.  As this idea gets employed more and more and more in ecumenical discussions, there is considerable concern amongst Orthodox Christians that the term is being abused (and that is putting it quite mildly).  But, to offer a crude analogy, oikonomia is a measure of “smelling out” the Orthodox components of something.  Some Orthodox Christians maintain very close relations with high Anglo-Catholic Anglican parishes because of their fraternal similarity.  These Christians will often observe that until as late as 1972, Greek Orthodox Christians were encouraged to participate in the congregational assemblies of Episcopalians when unable to attend a Greek Orthodox parish.  When the Anglicans started to ordain women as priests, the Orthodox bishops largely decided that the Anglican communion differed substantially from the Orthodox communion.  In other words, this decision “changed the scent.”  Yet, there remain to this day continuing Anglican bodies that do not ordain women.  Some of these parishes have been brought into full communion with the Orthodox Church with the mystery of chrismation while simultaneously retaining their priests as priests without repeating ordination.  Such decisions reflect careful considerations by the Orthodox bishops about how to exercise oikonomia.

While Orthodox ecclesiology is quite messy in practice, I find within it great reason to rejoice.  I rejoice because the Orthodox Church encourages everyone to participate in the life of the Church.  Everyone should be trained to “sniff out the scent” of the Church through learning to track the Gospel of Christ.  It’s particularly important if a bishop tries to lead his flock astray.  But such a view also tries to gift the individual persons in the Church with humility because it acknowledges that anyone could be in error.  Our ability to stay together as a family depends on our ability to love and to forgive each other.

And at the end of the day, all we have left is “Lord have mercy.”


11 responses

  1. You’re not writing into the void. I enjoyed this, and just wish I had more time to reflect on it. But I was off blogging about Father Stephen’s latest posting.

    11 September 2010 at 7:21 am

    • Thanks for the feedback, however brief. I’ll have to see what Fr Stephen is up to now 🙂

      11 September 2010 at 12:05 pm

  2. I also feel bad for anyone foolish enough to follow @FatherChristian, @NoWealthButLife, @3liSays AND me because tweets fly out at lightning speeds

    Yes, you should feel sorry for me trying to keep up with you three. 🙂

    On the Roman Catholic side, all is well; however, the Orthodox Church has a different view about what it means to be “in communion,” and Orthodox Christians can only commune within Orthodox communities.

    This is an interesting observation. I would tend to think of the current RCC practice as more in line with the Eastern concept of oikonomia than the “traditional, authoritarian, Latin” approach of absolutely forbidding EOs from receiving eucharist in an RC church. But it is very likely that I misunderstand Eastern oikonomia.

    And I wouldn’t really say that “all is well” from a Catholic perspective. Rather, according to the Catechism…

    838 “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”322 Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”323 With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”324

    Of course, this “lacks little” is relative to the degrees of communion which exist with various other Churches and ecclesial communities.

    Regarding the overall point of your post, I love the concept of “Church as communion.” This is actually a point which Pope Benedict has made much of in his time as a theologian and bishop. Tracey Rowland (I think) has pointed out the way that his thought dovetails in important ways with Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s.

    That’s not to say there aren’t important differences, but merely to point out some commonalities.

    11 September 2010 at 10:55 pm

    • Thank you for bringing a fuller sense of the official Roman Catholic position. I try hard to avoid gross oversimplifications as much as possible, but they tend to be unavoidable when approaching such a broad and vast topic. We do have significant commonalities between the communions. However, I would greatly like to see the dialogues move towards a mutual understanding of the papacy such that our bishops can extend love and forgiveness to each other.

      11 September 2010 at 11:12 pm

  3. “However, I would greatly like to see the dialogues move towards a mutual understanding of the papacy such that our bishops can extend love and forgiveness to each other.”


    11 September 2010 at 11:25 pm

  4. Pingback: Blessed is the Kingdom » Being In Communion

  5. I felt that I needed to write a longer reply than can be left in the comment section of a blog, so I created a blogpost that you can check out: http://ping.fm/74VGo

    I’m sure my post is still incomplete, but at least a start. Thanks for the continued conversation.

    12 September 2010 at 1:33 pm

  6. Pingback: To become a community of the Cross « A Practicing Human

  7. Timothy Flanders


    You asked for my thoughts. I do not have any that differ from this post. Have you heard of the Ravenna Document? It is incredibly encouraging for the current dialogue. It is a joint statement of the official Pontifical commision for Orthodox-Catholic unity. Please read it. It’s astonishing and breathtaking.

    I especially am moved by your urgency for our heirarchs to forgive. If we don’t forgive, God will not forgive us. That is plain and simple.

    Do you know that the official dialogue is meeting again in Cyprus next week? I’m working on organizing a group of Catholics and Orthodox to pray the “Akathist to all Saints who shown forth from the West.”

    14 September 2010 at 7:18 pm

  8. Pingback: Friday Forum: The Dangers of Ecumenical Tweeting « A Practicing Human

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