It becomes very easy for us to become so engaged in the local and particular circumstances of life that we lose a sense of the wider picture. This is something of a universal human trait. Even in business, the employees working in one office tend to think that not much else matters in the organisation. We seem to find it hard to avoid developing a “Them and Us” mentality in most walks of life, including the Church. This isn’t necessarily manifested in any sort of hostile feelings towards others. But it does result in a narrowing of our vision and experience of unity with others.
One of the most important ministries of the episcopate, of our Orthodox bishops, is to bring about and to manifest unity both in the local Church, and in the wider, universal Church of Christ, of which every congregation and diocese is a part. Indeed the Scriptures only describe to us two different aspects of the Church. There is the Church in a place where Orthodox Christians gather, and there is the one universal and Apostolic Church of which every Orthodox Christian and every Orthodox congregation are members. We find this in the writings of St Paul, where he says…
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother. To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. 1 Corinthians 1:1-2
In this introduction to his first letter to the Corinthians we can see that St Paul speaks about two categories. There is the Church which is in Corinth, made up of all the Orthodox Christians who find themselves there. And there is the Church which is made up of all those Orthodox Christians in every place. The local and the universal. Again, in his second letter to the Corinthians, he begins…
To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia. 2 Corinthians 1:1
In this example we also see that a local Church is addressed, the Orthodox Christians in Corinth, but also all the Christians who are found in the region of Achaia. There is the same idea of the local and the universal. The Church in a particular place, and all Christians found in the wider world. In St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes…
To the churches of Galatia.
It is important to note that St Paul does not write to the Church in Galatia. Though he did speak about the saints, or the Christians, of Achaia. Instead he addresses the Churches in Galatia, which was a mountainous region in what is now central Turkey. There were a number of communities of Orthodox Christians in Galatia, and he speaks of each one as a Church. But the Church is also universal and one. Our Lord Jesus Christ says…
I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
There are not many churches of Christ, but one Church, and Christ promises that even the powers of Hades will not be able to overcome it. Nor is this surprising, since we also read in the letters of St Paul that it is … the Church of God… and that… Christ is the Head of the Church… and Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
The New Testament shows us the one, universal Church of Christ, His Body, spread throughout the world, and forming in every place, communities of Orthodox Christians, who are this one, universal Church in a particular place. Therefore we read of the church in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Cenchrea, in Thessalonica, in Smyrna, in Pergamos, and many more. These are all expressions of the one, universal Church and they are made up of all those who are Orthodox Christians in those places.
Each of these particular local Churches participated in the universality of the Church through communion with Christ in baptism and the Eucharist, and by the Apostolic leadership appointed in each place. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians…
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
We who are many become one in communion with Christ. And this communion with Christ is a union and communion with each other. This is the desire of Christ, the Word Incarnate, when he prays in Gethsemane saying…
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. John 17:20-21
As we participate in union with God through the sacraments, so we are united with one another. Therefore, the Church which is one, is also distributed throughout the world, and finds a transcendent unity in communion, both in each place, and throughout the world. The bishops were established in each place by the Apostles to preserve and perpetuate the ministry of union and communion which was an aspect of their own Apostolic calling. The Church in Antioch, for instance, was established even in the first century, and it was there that the name Christian – intended as an insult – was first used. We know that to preserve the unity of the Church in Antioch, Evodius was consecrated as bishop by St Peter, and that several years later, on his death, perhaps by martyrdom, the great St Ignatius was consecrated his successor, perhaps by St Paul.
This occurred throughout the Church, as very rapidly an episcopal succession was established. St Ignatius expresses the Orthodox teaching about the episcopate in the local context. He says, as just one example, in his letter to the Church in Smyrna…
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the priests as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Universal Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
St Ignatius was established as bishop of Antioch in 70 AD, and had known the Apostles, and many of their disciples. What is clear is that one aspect of the ministry of the bishop is to ensure the union and communion of the local Church. But this is not merely a local Church, since where Christ is there is the Universal Church also. The particular and local expression of the universal Church requires the ministry of the Bishop. Those who are gathered around him in obedience and worship are the Church. There is no possibility of their being many churches in a place, certainly not simply to suit the preferences of various Christians, but there is one Church because there is only one Bishop around whom the Church gathers – even if there are several congregations and house meetings, all operating in union and communion with the Bishop.
This is one aspect of the episcopal ministry. To gather the faithful Orthodox Christians together in one place and to form the universal Church there, in a particular place. Of course this ministry expresses itself in teaching, and pastoral care, as well as in godly discipline and authority. But the aim is always, from the beginning, that the Bishop might guarantee the unity of the local Church, and preserve it through his ministry in peace and safety, union and communion.
But there is another aspect of the episcopal ministry which also manifested itself from the beginning. It is not enough for the Bishop to establish and preserve the unity of the particular and local community in his care in the fullness of the Orthodox Faith and Life. He must also express the unity of all Christians throughout the world through the expression of union and communion with other Bishops and local Churches. Even in the New Testament period the example of the Council of Jerusalem expresses that understanding that the leaders of the Church should resolve significant problems through meeting with each other in prayer and seeking the will of God.
From the very beginning of the life of the Church there is conciliarity. It is in the gathering together of those with the ministry of leadership and the pastorhood of the Church in the presence of the Holy Spirit that the Church finds itself fitly joined together and able to express the unity in Christ which belongs to us as those who have been united to him in baptism and the gift of the one Spirit. Without the conciliar nature of the Church expressed through the gathering together and unity of the episcopate our Orthodox Church would essentially be congregational. Each local gathering of Christians would do and believe as it thought best, perhaps communicating with those who thought like them. But in such a case the dogmatic Tradition of the Church would entirely lose its integrity and coherence.
After the account of the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem we find the first documented councils of bishops, as leaders of various local congregations, in the mid-2nd century, and so roughly at the time when the last of the Apostolic men were falling asleep in the Lord. St Polycarp, for instance, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John, was martyred in about 155 AD and represented one of the last of those who had been a disciple of the Apostles and those who had known the Apostles. Yet even before these earliest councils there was certainly communication between bishops for the common good of the Church.
Just as St Paul had written to the churches which he had established and continued an oversight of them by visits and letters, as well as writing to churches such as that of the Romans even before he had visited them. So it seems that the bishops of the major cities and communities corresponded with each other and offered direction to those congregations which seemed to be facing difficulties. The letter of St Clement of Rome to the Corinthians is just one such example of a bishop of one city having a sense of shared responsibility for the community in another place. He writes on behalf of the Church in Rome to that which is in Corinth, and makes no apology for doing so, rather wishing that he had been able to respond more quickly to the correspondence which had been sent to Rome by some of the Corinthian congregation.
Likewise, in the years before his death we know that St Polycarp travelled to Rome to discuss various matters with Pope Anicetus, and especially the variant traditions of celebrating Pascha which were held in Rome and in Asia Minor. About fifty years earlier he had himself received a letter from St Ignatius of Antioch as he was being taken a captive to Rome and his own martyrdom in which he says…
Since I have not been able to write to all the churches, by reason of my sailing suddenly from Troas to Neapolis, as the Divine will enjoins, you shall write to the churches in front, as one possessing the mind of God, to the intent that they also may do this same thing — let those who are able send messengers, and the rest letters by the persons who are sent by thee, that ye may be glorified by an ever memorable deed — for this is worthy of thee.
It is well known that St Ignatius sent letters to many of the churches in Asia Minor, and to Rome, offering advice and exhortations to unity, and when he found himself unable to complete his correspondence he asks St Polycarp to complete it, not as if such correspondence between churches was a novelty or something unusual.
Indeed, the familiar churches of Asia Minor, whose names we know well from the letters of St Paul, were not so far distant from each other that there could not be such communication. Hierapolis is only about 8 miles from the New Testament city of Laodicea, and Smyrna is only an hour’s drive by car from Ephesus. It is not surprising then that it is in this region of many relatively densely spaced congregations that the first councils of bishops appear to have taken place.
One model for such gatherings must have been the local congregational council of presbyters gathered around their bishop as described by St Ignatius. But the demands of Christian unity must surely have made it clear that in the absence of the Apostles and their close associates, it was the bishops themselves who were responsible not only for the pastoral care of local communities but for expressing and preserving the wider unity of the Christian Church spread throughout regions and countries and indeed the whole world.
The impetus for these first councils was the development of the Montanist movement. In some places, such as North Africa, it seems only to have represented a rigorist movement of Christians encouraging greater holiness and devotion, but in Asia Minor, where these councils took place, it certainly seems to have become a heterodox competitor to Orthodox Christianity. The presence of such a divisive teaching called for the gathering of bishops representing many towns and cities to develop a response that would preserve the unity of the Church and the doctrinal and spiritual Tradition of which they were guarantors.
In a fragment of a work by Apollinaris Claudius, bishop of Hierapolis, where Papias had been bishop a little earlier, and right in the heart of Asia Minor, preserved in Eusebius’ Church History, we find it recorded that…
The faithful of Asia, at many times and in many places, came together to consult on the subject of Montanus and his followers; and these new doctrines were examined, and declared strange and impious.
Elsewhere we discover that at least one of these meetings, held at Hierapolis, consisted of 26 bishops as well as Bishop Apollinaris, and these must have represented a significant proportion of the bishops of Christian communities in Asia Minor. The bishops gathered together had examined and considered that which was causing a disturbance to the Church and then gave a judgement together, by this means creating nothing new, but preserving the dogmatic Tradition as they understood it and had received it.
These very first recorded councils of bishops were clearly occasioned by a present threat to the unity of the Church, and to the integrity of the Apostolic Tradition which the bishops were charged with preserving. There was a practical basis for their taking place, but as in the record of St Polycarp travelling to Rome and meeting with St Anicetus, we should not imagine that bishops were entirely isolated in their pastoral ministry. On the contrary, we can reasonably imagine that local bishops met with each other and corresponded with each other so that these larger formal councils which first appear in the middle of the second century were a natural outgrowth of such relationships.
Later in the second century there were further councils which were called to try to resolve the issue of the variant calculations of the date of Pascha. A new development seems to have taken place. These first councils were rather spontaneous affairs, and took place on the initiative of local groups of bishops, perhaps under the presidency of the one among them who had the greatest prestige. But in about 196 AD Jerome records that in light of the Quartodeciman controversy about the date of Pascha, Pope Victor of Rome wrote to the leading bishops of various regions asking them to call together councils of local bishops to discuss the matter.
Thus Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, and one who must have known St Polycarp, found himself receiving a letter from Pope Victor requesting him to hold a council. He did indeed gather together those bishops within his influence, and it appears that these were a considerable number. They discussed the issue of the date of Pascha but determined to follow the custom which had been passed down to them, believing it to derive from St John who had lived in Ephesus. Eusebius describes this issue and records some of the councils which took place across the Christian world at this time saying…
Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s Day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only. There is still extant a writing of those who were then assembled in Palestine, over whom Theophilus, bishop of Cæsarea, and Narcissus, bishop of Jerusalem, presided. And there is also another writing extant of those who were assembled at Rome to consider the same question, which bears the name of Bishop Victor; also of the bishops in Pontus over whom Palmas, as the oldest, presided; and of the parishes in Gaul of which Irenæus was bishop, and of those in Osrhoëne and the cities there; and a personal letter of Bacchylus, bishop of the church at Corinth, and of a great many others, who uttered the same opinion and judgment, and cast the same vote.
And that which has been given above was their unanimous decision.
This has happened organically, as it were. There are no canons imposing such a form of conciliarity, and it would have been possible for bishops to ignore the initiative of Pope Victor who proposes these local councils as a means of coming to a universal judgement on the matter. Nevertheless, it appears that it was received everywhere as the proper means of dealing with controversy. And even in Asia Minor where the issue was most pressing, there was no objection to calling together as many of the local bishops as possible under the presidency of Polycrates of Ephesus. It was already, in some sense, an expression of the nature of the Church rather than some externally imposed organisational programme that was not essential at all. Even when there were disagreements it was appropriate for local councils to mediate between those in dispute, and that the senior bishop of a region, such as Irenaeus could write on behalf of the other bishops of Gaul.
By the time that any firm instructions or canons were established to organise the Church so that it could best express this conciliar aspect which was present from the beginning, it had already been long established by practice that such union and communion of the bishops was proper and necessary to the life of the Church. What was formalised was not something new at all, certainly not a diminishing of some form of independent congregationalism for the sake of a more centralised organisation. It was rather the safeguarding of the Scriptural understanding of the Church being only local and universal.
The Council of Nicaea produced a variety of canons formalising what was already the structure of the Church. In Canon IV, it says…
It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the consent of the absent bishops also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.
What do we find here? It is the beginning of the regional structure we see today in the Orthodox Churches of Alexandria, of Antioch, and of other places. A bishop should be appointed by the other bishops of the province or area, and at least three should actually conduct the ordination but with the consent in writing of the other regional bishops, and all that is done should be ratified, or given authority, by the Metropolitan. The Metropolitan is the bishop of the most important city in the province, and this is only a development of the earlier practice of the senior bishop in an area taking the initiative, as we have seen from the early history of conciliar activity.
Canon V of the same Council instructs the Church that…
It is decreed that in every province synods shall be held twice a year, in order that when all the bishops of the province are assembled together, such questions may by them be thoroughly examined, that so those who have confessedly offended against their bishop, may be seen by all to be for just cause excommunicated, until it shall seem fit to a general meeting of the bishops to pronounce a milder sentence upon them.
This is talking about the need for the Church to hold regular councils, twice a year, in each province, so that any issues of controversy could be resolved. But the canon also refers to the possibility of general or universal councils, gathering as many bishops as possible from all over the world, to address issues that were of wider significance. Again, there is the idea of the local Church, represented by the bishops, and the universal Church represented by the provincial council or synod, and even the universal or ecumenical council.
And then in Canon VI, in a reference of interest to our own Coptic Orthodox community, we read…
Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop.
Of course it is interesting that even in 325 AD, when this council took place, the organisation of the Church in Egypt was already considered ancient. This ancient structure meant that the bishop of Alexandria was not only the leading bishop of Egypt, but also the region of Libya and the region of Pentapolis. These other regions already had a local council or synod with a Metropolitan bishop, but they were themselves, according to ancient practice, also to be under the authority of the bishop of Alexandria.
Then, in Canon VIII, we read…
The bishop shall provide for him a place as Chorepiscopus, or presbyter, in order that he may be evidently seen to be of the clergy, and that there may not be two bishops in the city.
This is part of a longer passage which deals with how those who had separated themselves from the Church should be restored. It considers what to do if a bishop from the separating group, the Novatians, should seek to be restored to the Church. The response of the Church, gathered together in a universal council, is that such a person should be made a chorepiscopus (essentially an arch-priest), or a priest, but that what was not permitted was that there should be two bishops in a place. This makes perfect sense. If the Church in a place is all the Orthodox Christians there, gathered around their bishop as the sign and manifestation of their unity, then there could not be two such centres of unity – this would be disunity. There is only one Church, and therefore there can be only one bishop calling the Church into being in each city and place.
What does our Orthodox Church teach? It is that the one, universal and Apostolic Church is structured with the faithful Orthodox members gathered around their bishops, as the successors of the Apostles. Each bishop has the ministry of being the focus of unity for the faithful in their city and diocese, so that the local Church in their care can be an expression of the fullness of the Orthodox faith and life. But each bishop also has the ministry of participating in and creating the unity of all local Orthodox Churches through union with all other Orthodox bishops in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Bishops are also gathered together as a necessary aspect of the nature of the Church, into Synods based on regions and provinces. At the head of each of these regional and provincial Synods there is, and has been from the earliest times, a Metropolitan or presiding Bishop, with a variety of titles but expressing the same purpose and ministry. This structure exists to preserve two realities – that the Church is all of the Orthodox Christians in a place gathered around one bishop – and that the Church is one, Orthodox and universal. It is all Orthodox Christians in a place and is it one in all places.
Why consider these things? It is because for almost 1900 years this structure remained essentially intact. All of the Orthodox Christians in a place belonged to the same local Orthodox Church under the care of one Orthodox bishop, and wherever Orthodox Churches were found, in Egypt, in Syria, even as far as in India, it was one Orthodox Church which was represented, though it might be the Church of Alexandria in Egypt, or the Church of Antioch in Syria.
Now, in the West, over the last 50 or more years, we have seen a tremendous influx of Orthodox believers into Western countries that have not been Orthodox for a millennia, or perhaps have never been Orthodox. More than that, we have seen faithful Orthodox Christians from many different local Orthodox Churches settle together in the same places, and through an entirely understandable process have created structures which support the pastoral needs of hundreds of thousands and even millions of Orthodox believers. It is possible to both sympathetically understand how things have come to be as they are, and also to reflect on what the Orthodox Tradition call us to be be and become in every place. It is possible to have no agenda or programme to insist upon, while also expressing the Orthodox view that things are not yet as they perhaps might be if we wished to become more authentically Orthodox in every place where we find ourselves.
The two issues we face are related to the two facts about the Orthodox Church which have already been established. Firstly, there should be only one Orthodox bishop in a place, but we have many Orthodox bishops in many places with many overlapping jurisdictions. Secondly, there is only one Orthodox Church, but we do not often experience this and we tend to act as though there were in fact several different Orthodox Churches.
How this came about is understandable. How it might be entirely resolved is beyond my sight, and I have no great plan and no desire or authority to impose my opinion. But it is Orthodoxy and not my opinion to insist that there should be only one Orthodox bishop in a place, and that we should experience all Orthodox faithful, clergy and bishops as being one Church – even if we express ourselves in different languages and customs and rites. Our witness and experience of the Orthodox faith and life is diminished by this unusual situation in which we find ourselves, even though it is hardly to be blamed on any. It is just what happened.
But I do believe that there are things we could and should be doing to alleviate the effects of this non-Orthodox organisational structure and to free us from blame ourselves, even as the solution remains in God’s will.
In the first place, and as we see beginning in many countries, there should at the least be meetings of all the Orthodox bishops present in that place – the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Indian and Syrian – so that there can be a routine expression of conciliarity. This would not be a Synod of the local Church, of all the Orthodox in that place, that is beyond us at the moment I believe. But it would be a manifestation of the unity between all the bishops, and their recognition of each other as bishops of the one universal Apostolic Church. And it would facilitate the closer working together of the different Orthodox communities in that place. We are seeing these councils of all the Orthodox bishops in a country or major region being formed and beginning to produce productive results.
In the second place, there should be regular liturgies, at least once a year, which draw together all of the Orthodox bishops, and many of their clergy and people, so that in a shared Eucharist there is a public manifestation of this unity. There should also be regular combined events and activities, organised by the council of bishops, so that the members of the various communities have the opportunity to meet and serve together as an expression of their unity in the one and universal Orthodox Church. Neither of these take away the particular nature of the various communities which exist, in some sense, nothing changes at all. But the expression of unity and communion, on the part of bishops and faithful, is a necessary expression of our Orthodoxy and not an optional one. If we do not experience being members of the one and universal Orthodox Church, then which Church do we belong to? The Orthodox Tradition knows only the Church made up of all Christians in a place, and the one and universal Church to which all Orthodox Christians belong.
In the third place, and with the encouragement of our bishops, I believe that Orthodox Christians in every place should be seeking to fellowship with and share in the life of other Orthodox Christians around them. It is not enough to have a vague sense that we are members of the same Orthodox Church, the same Body of Christ. How will we express and experience this? It must surely be in the increasingly regular participation in the Orthodox life of other communities in the cities and places where we live and worship. It should not be impossible for all of the Orthodox in a city to often organise events together and to celebrate a Eucharist together, under whatever instructions the bishops decide together.
These things are happening. I am convinced that our Orthodox understanding of the Church demands that we do all of these and share in our life together as much as is possible. There are other, more challenging issues relating to the organisation of the Church in the West. God himself knows how these might be worked out. But it seems to me that what is already asked of us is that we step outside our community boundaries and seek to express the unity of all Orthodox Christians in the places we find ourselves, and that we encourage and support our bishops in leading us in such an experience of communion. In some places this is happening to some extent, in others it has not yet begun. But our future in the West surely requires us to become more Orthodox and not less, and the Orthodox teaching about the Church always requires of us that we recognise and work out the unity we have with all other Orthodox Christians.
This is a responsibility we all bear, bishops, priests, deacons and people. If we are unwilling to experience and participate in union and communion with all the other Orthodox among whom we live and worship, then it is our own communities which will wither on the vine and fail to bear the fruit that God wills of us. It is only in union with our brothers and sisters from other Orthodox communities and cultures that the Body of Christ will be properly formed in the West. And it is only as we become the Body of Christ together that the mission of Christ in the world and his grace in us will be fulfilled.