First, Second, Third Rome… and the Cities of the World

by Nicolas Abou Mrad

I started writing this article before the synod of the Russian Church took the decision on October 15, 2018 to break Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople in the context of the ongoing conflict over the autocephaly of the church in Ukraine, which is split into three parts on account of the vicissitudes of history and politics in decades past. My purpose here is not to treat this issue through the lens of “canon law” and the development of relations between the two aforementioned churches and their interaction in past centuries. The present debate is filled with presentations of canonical and historical points of view that draw from legislation formulated in the councils of the Church from the fourth century and various other documents. Indeed, they bring back historical situations belonging to this or that city or polity and their situation in contexts that for the most part have gone extinct and disappeared in bygone eras or have completely changed. What I want to point out in this article is the sad and painful aspect of this problematique, which is resorting to various arguments and sources to support this or that position, while ignoring the wisdom that the Apostle Paul glimpsed when he asked the Corinthians, “to shame them”, as he said, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (1 Corinthians 6:5).

The Apostle mentioned this wisdom in an earlier passage, when he said to his addressees, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!” (1 Corinthians 4:10), in the sense that this wisdom does not come to a person unless he is abiding “in Christ” and not in anything else, no matter what it may be. No one abides “in Christ” except through the Gospel which, if we accept it, then the the Apostle’s word has begotten us by it “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:15), after we have necessarily died to our belonging to any other entity that we may have fashioned over the course of history and in our own time. From the context of the epistle, we learn that the expression “in Christ” is not theoretical, like a platonic idea. Rather, the Apostle means it as a reality, that requires those “born by the Gospel” to behave according to its content, “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).

I mention this here because the literature of the present debate betrays a striking absence of scriptural teaching about the true meaning of belonging to Christ in favor of a language that unfortunately started to become dominant in ecclesiastical milieus when Christianity became a larger space in the life of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Fourth Century, when, whether we like it or not, ecclesiastical concerns and political considerations in their imperial extensions began to overlap, to the point that the Church inherited the administrative regulations and bombastic titles of an empire that disappeared, as others disappeared before and after it, and shall disappear until history comes to an end. From one who claims that there is a first Rome, then a second that succeeded it, then a third that took the place of the second to one who says claims that there is only one “new” Rome, which replaced the “old” one, you feel a struggle over power, authority and dominance, even if the latter has taken on what might be called a geographical reaching for one church or another’s jurisdiction over a piece of land. No one can deny that in modern times Orthodoxy has been characterized by struggles over jurisdiction here or there in the world, especially in the countries to which Orthodox have immigrated from their original homelands. Struggles of this sort, colored by nationalism in their internecine conflict and exclusion, led to the hobbling of the general Orthodox council that was held on Crete in 2016 in the absence of a number of churches, including our Antiochian Church, as a result of what is called the “Qatar crisis” and the break it caused between Antioch and Jerusalem. This general council, which was expected to bear witness to the faith that the Orthodox Churches bear in their inheritance, before the challenges and vicissitudes of the present time, and to speak to man in our world today that is characterized by disintegration on every level, produced, as a result of these conflicts, documents destined to be quickly discarded into the darkness of oblivion, thus proving their desolation. The matter churches was exposed before themselves and before the world: their unfortunate immersion in a vortex of conflict over primacy, nationalisms, the meanings of expressions that have expired, bear no relation to the deposit of faith and are completely removed from the heart of the Gospel but have nevertheless become fixed in use, like the expressions “primus inter pares”, “primus sine paribus” and others, about which much ink has been spilled in explanation, but which, in our present day, are of no benefit to the ordinary believer for living out his faith and his Christianity in daily life.

In this context, I was struck, among what I read about the present conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, by a report from the official website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate about Patriarch Bartholomew’s receiving the Patriarch of Moscow at the Phanar on August 31, 2018, right before the acceleration of the crisis between the two churches. The language of the report was dripping with royal expressions like “Chamber of the Throne”, “Ecumenical Throne”, “Patriarchal Office”, in addition to its calling Constantinople– which is now Istanbul, a city in Turkey– “the Queen of Cities” and the Church of Constantinople, the “Mother Church”. It does not refer to Patriarch Bartholomew by his name, by by his title “His All-Holiness”, which is most likely in order to emphasize his position. It is my conviction that the reason for writing the report in this manner– knowing full well that you can find the exact same news phrased in a different manner on the official website of the Church of Moscow– in order to suggest that the Russian patriarch was in the presence of someone who had precedence over him “in honor and primacy”.

On the other hand, it is striking in the speeches given by the two patriarchs that they affirm “dialogue” as the way to solve problems. In Patriarch Bartholomew’s word of greeting, it is “the way God has shown us.” Despite his attempt to give “dialogue” a meaning different from the one used by politicians to resolve their problems, Patriarch Kirill remained in the very same framework, stating that “dialogue” is the way to preserve “the unity of the Church”. Despite the importance of dialogue as a means of rapprochement, what the Bible teaches about relationships between people is not dialogue which, as has been proven, has been of no use in solving the crisis, but love. Love is not an empty phrase. It is baptized, washed in the blood of Christ, by whose death God revealed His love for the world (John 3:16). It is this mark of distinction that distinguishes disciples of Christ from the world (cf. John 15:12-17). It is what gives every activity in the Church its meaning (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). This is what the martyred Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, realized when he made the foundation of unity in the Church “love”, which he said is “the blood of Christ Himself” (Epistle to the Trallians 10). In love, the unity of the faith is realized (Epistle to the Magnesians 1) and in love “the believing have the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Magnesians 5). If the bishop does not abide in love, Christ’s love for the world, the faithful cannot submit to him as they submit to Christ (Epistle to the Magnesians 1).

Perhaps this love is the wisdom mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the passages I cited above, which must distinguish those born in the Gospel so that they may be “in Christ” first and last, not in first, second or third, old or new Rome or in any other city of this world. The basis of the biblical narrative in the books of the New Testament, the exodus that God accomplished for the people from Egypt (the Book of Exodus) and from Babylon (the Book of Ezekiel), from the two most powerful and important cities in the ancient Middle East, which scholars say were the beginning of humans’ urbanization after they had been migratory. In the Bible, these two cities symbolize man’s hubris and the evil and injustice that “filled the earth” (Genesis 6:6) because of this hubris. From the first city built on earth, from “Ur of the Chaldeans” God ordered Abraham to go forth to a land that He wanted to be the location for the meeting of the peoples in peace, truth and mercy (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). That land is not a city or a civilization built by man, but that open place called “wilderness” that is free of human intervention, where God shepherds those who flock around Him to hear His word. In Ezekiel it is the city that comes down from heaven– that is, not built by people– whose name is “the Lord is there” (Ezekiel 48:35), symbolizing God’s presence in His word, around which come the Twelve Tribes to hear His word and transmit it to the entire universe. We see this realized on the day of Pentecost, in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2), in the descent of the Holy Spirit who made the twelve apostles speak of the great things of God, with every nation on earth hearing and understanding them. Nationalisms are extinguished so that a group of “disciples” may be established, who will go out, in the Book of Acts, from every city, persecuted (Acts 8:1) and killed (Acts 6-7), to bear witness to the word of Christ who died on the cross, in the image of Stephen who was killed, like his Teacher, because he pointed out the injustice of the city of Jerusalem and its betrayal of the Lord. The way of the Bible is the way of constant exodus: from Ur, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Jerusalem and all the cities of the earth, so that believers may have no homeland except “in Christ.”

When will the Orthodox churches arise from their stupor and break out of their imprisonment to history, free themselves from the fetters of empires, and set forth on this path of exodus, making their way not to nationalisms, primacies and archprimacies, titles, thrones, sees, honors and honorifics, but to the cross of Christ, to become truly united in the one head of the Church: Christ? When will they have enough courage to look at themselves critically and submit themselves to the test of God’s word, to the test of love, not “dialogue”? When will they shake off formalities that have become an idol, which don’t speak to anyone and which no on cares about? The person of today, like the person of every day and era, is confronted with the challenges of rampant evil on the earth. People are starving. They are being killed. People’s dignity is violated. Their intellects are belittled. Their livelihood is denied. People are suffering from racial discrimination, from poverty, from marginalization, from exclusion. When will we bear witness to love to the point of blood? When will we be Chrysostoms and Basils? When will the Church return to God’s deserts to tremble before the evils of this world? The time has come for the Orthodox Churches to be worthy of their inheritance and the earnest given them, that perhaps a wise man may emerge to render judgment between his brothers according to the love that is in Christ.

[Translated from: Majallat al-Nour 74.7 (2018), 419-422, available here.]

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close