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Archipriest John Meyendorff

Paragraph about the Church

An article signed by S. T. Bogdanov[1] and having the title “Priesthood of the orthodox and baptists” has been published in “Messenger of the Russian Christian Movement”, issue 140.

Its content and subjects concern the modern burning problem of the Church, arisen from the growth of baptism in today’s Russia, which rejects any traditional forms of the orthodox church, but, as S. T. Bogdanov correctly (and often wittily) empasizes, adopts the church organization, structure and discipline, only in new, secular forms.

This is a plane, in which the dialog between Orthodoxy and Baptism is really possible, although it is difficult to keep the dialog calm – without fear and controversy – in modern conditions. Serious theological literature doesn’t exist; and the authorities, allowing the Baptism to spread widely in the twenties as a means to eliminate Orthodoxy, unlikely sympathize with the unification of christian forces and see an obvious advantage for themselves in their competition.

The author of the article fairly gives a negative appraisal to the “first stage” of the contacts between Baptism and Orthodoxy, i.e. the official polemics against protestantism, imported from the West into pre-revolutionary Russia. Indeed, in those years the russian Orthodoxy “was brushing it off, as if it was a tiresome fly, and, trying to keep status quo, was repeating the same answers on the same questions” (p. 32). And baptists “were primitively defending the apparent return to the simplicity of the New Testament”.

Then S. T. Bogdanov, again quite fairly, shows the difficulty of the Church issue and impossibility to solve the problems, connected with the hierarchy and the meaning of sacraments by the virtue of the simplified fight based on citations from the New Testament. The author also notices interesting contradictions in baptist’s writings on this question and points to the frequent actual return to the positions, which were denied before, as false and non-biblical ones… Having the almost absolute, forced silence of Orthodoxy, baptists come to the traditional concepts about hierarchy. However, all of this takes place on the quite primitive level, which is, nonetheless, not too far from the more refined ecumenical explorations on the West, where, just more deliberately, “consensuses” about sacraments and hierarchy have also been elaborating; nevertheless, this doesn’t lead to the unity immediately, because the latter depends not on the formal “consensuses”, but on the concordant, free and consious discovering the United Church…

One should hope that the article of S. T. Bogdanov will open, at least on the pages of “Messanger”, the free discussion of the essence of russian Baptism and also the reasons for its attraction to hundreds thousands of common people, seeking for Christ.

But in order for such a discussion it seems to me that it’s necessary to express not only surprise, but also a disagreement with the main conclusion of the work. I will not fix my attention on some unclear expressions, which can be possibly explained by the theological inexperience of the author, but will rather confine myself to the main point.

S. T. Bogdanov positively speaks of a so called “eucharistic ecclesiology”, which, in his opinion, revealed “the logic of historical development of many church institutions, ideas and statutes” (pp. 48-49), and, therefore, gave the orthodox the possibilty to explain baptists the main church principles in a better way. Describing the “eucharistic ecclesiology” the author correctly refers to the works of the late father N. Afanasiev, although attributing the same views to other russian theologians abroad, rev. S. Bulkagov and Cyprian (Kern), who, as a matter of mact, adhered to absolutely different principal concepts[i].

What is the “eucharistic ecclesiology” and in which sense can it help us to understand the order of the church?

In its essence, “eucharistic” approach to the Church can be reduced to the main intuition that the Eucharist is a phenomenon of the Church, determining its internal order;

-         that each eucharistic gathering is a manifestation of the entire Body of Christ, not only of its part, because the Body is undivided (“The Catholic Church is there, where Christ is” – st. Ignatius the Godbearer);

-         that each eucharistic gathering can be headed by only one person, not several ones, like judaic suppers were (one of which has become the Mystical Supper, headed by Lord Himself);

-         that in the history of the Church there was a time when apostles Paul, Peter and others had not written their epistles yet, and when the texts of the Gospels had not been put in writing, but there has not been any time when the Eucharist was not being celebrated;

-         that, that is why the original apostolic community in Jerusalem, described in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and headed by Peter (and then by James), became the main, and in essence, the only image of the Church forever, manifested in every local church (“New Jerusalem”);

-         that, therefore, in every local church there exists a leader[2], manifesting the image of Christ, the place for the first time occupied by Peter in Jerusalem;

-         that every eucharist is not only a “rememberance” of the Mystical Supper, but also an anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ, which is being looked for and called by the faithful ones;

-         that there is no other acceptable (from the historical-critical point of view) explanation of so called “monarchic bishopry”, which already existed in the Jerusalem community in person of Peter and then James, and the existence of which was testified by st. Igantius the Godbearer (~late first cenrury A.D.) not as “innovation”, but rather as a self-obvious form of the church order[ii].

All these thesises of the “eucharistic ecclesiology” are quite widely accepted nowadays as theologically consistent and historically indisputable ones. They question, of course, both the papacy and protestant anti-sacramental simplification. It is fair to admit, of course, that the “empiry” of the modern Orthodoxy with its patriarches, acting in a papal manner, and bishops, having lost contact with the flock, is also under question in the “eucharistic” understanding of the Church. Indeed, if pastorate, teaching and highest priesthood belong to a leader of the eucharist then they are de facto parts of the ministry of modern parish economos, not bishops… Thus, no wonder that S. T. Bogdanov, describing the “eucharistic ecclesiology”, let himself speak ironically about its theocraticalness: it is not consistent with his “personal experience of living in the Church” (p. 49)

It is true that the modern orthodox reality is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. That is why to defend Ortodoxy against Baptism is not always easy. But I will not agree with S. T. Bogdanov that eucharistic ecclesiology is not available for the orthodox experience. If there is something acknoledged by a common orthodox as a true “manifestation of the Kingdom” then this is just the Liturgy. The full meaning of this “manifestation” is not always understood, but the experience itself is correct, and one can build up on it… Thanks to God, Orthodoxy, although living in insolvency and adhering to “practical heresies”, never dogmatized these heresies, leaving the possibility to fight them, restore, create… This is the reason why in Russia both development of the ecclesiological thought and projects of the church reforms in 1905-1917 were possible.

But that is also the reason why I so categorically disagree with the conclusions of S.T. Bogdanov’s article: principal admission of two parallel forms of the church order: “synagogual-synaxar” and “ecclesical” (what these monstrous neologisms are for?) This division is unacceptaple in principle, because the Church is one, and making a “synagogual-synaxar” arrangment for a special group of “already perfected and sanctified ones” would be a peculiar gnostical elitism. The forms of such elitism have been known since long time ago and always have been rejected by the “catholic” christianity…

It is also unacceptable methodologically. In order to defend it the author refers to the New Testament in a quite surprising way: it turns out that apostles Peter and Paul stood for “ecclesity” whereas James and John – for “synaxarity”. If one really speaks about different “layers” in the New Testament writings then the very scriptures, associated with the name of apostle John (and James), give the reason for the “eucharistic ecclesiology” and “monarchic bishopry”… For what reasons can the author categorically argue that “as it is known from the Scriptures, apostle Paul began to ordain presbyters for the churches, founded by him during his first missionary trip” and that it “was done because of the fact that christianity had exceeded the boundaries of judaism” (p. 38)?..

May he forgive me for accusing him in methodological unseriousness. In practical respect, I think, his desire to justify the existence of small groups of loyal and “perfected” christians in the Church is quite legitimate, especially in the conditions of the modern church life in Russia. I also quite agree that baptist communities can be considered just as “synaxar” ones (preparatory) and groups of graceful churchiness, but they are indeed not “perfected” and “sanctified” communities yet… But to say that “ecclesical arrangment with its dogmats, canons, ranked statutes, apostolic succession of the hierarchy etc” is not more than “the Old Testament reality” (p. 58) is wrong and dangerous and even, from the orthodox point of view, monstrous. Only the eucharistic ecclesiology, corresponding to the New Testament and old-christian understanding of the Church must set the “form” for the right attitude to this church empiry and teach the ways to transfigure it from inside.

[1] George Kochetkov

[2] proistamenoj,proestwj, ïðåäñòîÿòåëü.

[i] For instance, I think that the “eucharistic ecclesiology” of father N. Afanasiev is not compatible with the “sophiology” of father S. Bulgakov.

[ii] It is interesting that S. T. Bogdanov associates the concept of “monarchical bishopry” not with eucharist and leadership in the local church, but, paradoxially, with papacy, i.e. with the idea of the “universal” dominion of one bishop over another. Doing this he refers to father S. Bulgakov, illustrating the incompatibility of the idea of sophiological “all-unity” with the eucharistic ecclesiology.

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