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.”