The EP’s Social Ethos: An Important Moment of Self-Critique?

Although it appears to have largely gone unnoticed, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has recently published a lengthy document entitled For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. The text is manifestly the product of a committee of English-speaking academics lacking real-world pastoral experience, but nevertheless, behind the wordy abstractions there are a number of points of interest– not least of which is the apparent repudiation of the Council of Crete’s prohibition of clerical second marriage.

Initial criticism of this document can be found elsewhere. Here, however, it is more useful to focus on two issues that it addresses with admirable clarity and candor: what it terms “Byzantinism” and racism. This is all the more remarkable and praiseworthy, given that these two maladies chronically damage the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s reputation and relations with other Orthodox Churches. Are we witnessing a moment of reflection and self-criticism that has been a very long time coming?

The document wisely begins its discussion of ecumenism on the basis of a firm assertion that the Orthodox Church is identical to the Una Sancta of the Creed: “The Orthodox Church understands herself to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, of which the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol of faith speaks.” Following this, it makes the crucial admission that:

the particular cultural forms of tradition must not be confused with either the true apostolic authority or the sacramental grace with which [the Church] has been entrusted. The Church seeks sustained dialogue with Christians of other communions in order to offer them a full understanding of the beauty of Orthodoxy, not in order to convert them to some cultural “Byzantinism.”

Elsewhere, the statement denounces nostalgia that confuses the Church for a long-dead empire:

It is something of a dangerous temptation among Orthodox Christians to surrender to a debilitating and in many respects fantastical nostalgia for some long-vanished golden era, and to imagine that it constituted something like the sole ideal Orthodox polity. This can become an especially pernicious kind of false piety, one that mistakes the transient political forms of the Orthodox past, such as the Byzantine Empire, for the essence of the Church of the Apostles.

This is in keeping with the observation by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar) that “the Church in her entirety suffered and continues to suffer from an ongoing psychological complex with regard to the Byzantine Empire” manifested in “a profound conviction or submission […] to the delusional hypothetical case that the empire, with all its weight and glory, continues to exist ecclesiastically without any clear boundaries between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar.” The fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s Social Ethos addresses this illness of Byzantinism is a very positive step forward… but only if it is first and foremost understood to be self-criticism. After all, what could be a more overt expression of this psychological complex than Archbishop Elpidophoros (Lambrianides)’s recent homily for the Feast of Saints Constantine and Helen where he states:

the City of Constantine remains to this moment the source and the wellspring from which our Orthodox Faith flows […] the legacy of this Christian Empire – incarnate in the sacred person of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the continuing diakonia of the Great Church – continues to this day.

There is an obvious double anachronism here: the Orthodox faith, once and for all given to the saints by our Lord Jesus Christ, both predates and outlives Byzantium (and indeed, even in the empire’s heyday, much of Orthodoxy existed outside of its boundaries and in opposition to the heresies often promoted by its emperors and patriarchs). So it is absurd on its face for this city to be the source of a faith that saw it come and go, leaving behind nothing but confused sentiments in the hearts of nostalgists for empire.

But there is an even more disturbing series of conflations in Archbishop Elpidophoros’ thinking. The “Christian Empire” is conflated with the very person of the Patriarch of Constantinople who, if we recall His Eminence’s ideology of primus sine paribus, is in his person “the source of his [own] primacy.” It’s as though Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, came to bring about a worldly empire to which His Church is ontologically secondary. Indeed, it is perhaps these conflations of empire, patriarch and Church that lead to the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s claim, most famously articulated in the recent Ukrainian “Tomos of Autocephaly,” that the Church has as her head “the most holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne.” That is, if we follow the Archbishop’s logic, this figure in whom Byzantium– that is to say, Caesar– is “incarnate” usurps Christ’s place in the Church! This language of Constantinople’s incarnation does not appear to be accidental, as we remember Patriarch Bartholomew’s own blasphemous parody of the prologue of the Gospel of John, when he stated that “The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; ‘in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches.'”

The Social Ethos offers a concise rebuke to this sort of pathological thinking: The Church of the Apostles is not the Byzantine Empire. Orthodoxy cannot bear witness to Christ, it cannot offer anyone its full beauty, if it remains enthralled to the memory of Byzantium.

Similarly, the document makes a clear and unambiguous condemnation of racism and phyletism, which it defines as “the subordination of the Orthodox faith to ethnic identities and national interests.” This is accompanied once more by the admission that such a subordination “has often inhibited the Church in its vocation to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples.” The theological basis for condemning racism and phyletism goes to the very heart of our Christian faith:

There is only one human race, to which all persons belong, and all are called as one to become a single people in God the creator. There is no humanity apart from the one universal humanity that the Son of God assumed in becoming human, and it embraces all persons without distinction or discrimination.

Ὑπάρχει μόνον ἕνα ἀνθρώπινο γένος, στό ὁποῖο ἀνήκουν ὅλοι οἱ ἄνθρωποι καί ὅλοι καλοῦνται νά γίνουν ἕνας λαός ἐνώπιον τοῦ Δημιουργοῦ Θεοῦ. Δέν ὑπάρχει ἀνθρωπότητα πέρα ἀπό τήν οἰκουμενική ἀνθρωπότητα, τήν ὁποία ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ προσέλαβε μέ τήν ἐνανθρώπησή Του, καί ἡ ὁποία ἐμπερικλείει ὅλους τούς ἀνθρώπους, δίχως διαχωρισμό ἤ διάκριση.

This simple statement, that there is only one human race, ένα ανθρώπινο γένος, marks a departure from the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s habitual language that is as abrupt and unexpected as it is welcome. Just this past November, Patriarch Bartholomew was welcomed to the Metropolis of Belgium with much fanfare as the “Patriarch of the Race” (ο Πατριάρχης του Γένους). A year earlier, he was speaking publicly about “the precedence that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and our Race has in Orthodoxy” (το προβάδισμα που έχει το Οικουμενικό Πατριαρχείο και το Γένος μας, μέσα στην Ορθοδοξία). In fact, His All-Holiness’s entire patriarchal career has been characterized by constant appeals to Greek nationalism and racial solidarity, perhaps most hurtfully and cynically exhibited in his letter from this January to Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, a Greek prelate over a mistreated and disenfranchised Arab flock, where he makes a shameless appeal to racial solidarity, speaking of Theophilos as being “of the same blood and sharing with us in the same historic and martyric Race (Γένος), which of course Divine Providence from of ages entrusted with protecting the sacred Pilgrimage-Sites of the Holy Land through the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher.”

As the Social Ethos rightly explains, such language and attitudes are wholly incompatible with the Christian faith and are a serious impediment to bearing witness to our Savior, who took on “our one universal humanity.”

We can only assume that Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Elpidophoros endorsed the document in good faith, so we have reason for hope that they have had the time and the wisdom to consider the implications of its message. Nevertheless, even if the Social Ethos is intended to speak to the entire Orthodox world and to a wider public, very few people will be interested in hearing its message until the leaders of the Patriarchate of Constantinople unequivocally repudiate their previous racist and phyletist statements and admit to a fact that has apparently eluded them and their predecessors in the past: that Hellenism, Romiosyne and Greek nationalism are ideologies of racism and phyletism just as worthy of condemnation as any other.

We should all take heed of how the Social Ethos urges us to respond to proponents of racism and nationalism within the Church:

The Orthodox Church condemns their views without qualification, and calls them to a complete repentance and penitential reconciliation with the body of Christ. And it must be incumbent on every Orthodox community, when it discovers such persons in its midst and cannot move them to renounce the evils they promote, to expose, denounce, and expel them. Any ecclesial community that fails in this has betrayed Christ.

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