Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Ecclesiological notes

1. One of the greatest "ecumenical" difficulties the Orthodox Church has is that her thought forms and "terms of reference" are different from those of the West. And, since the ecumenical movement was shaped primarily by Western theological presuppositions and antecedents, its Orthodox participants were, from the very beginning, forced to express their positions and points of view within a theological framework alien to, or at least different from, the Orthodox tradition. This is especially true of ecclesiology. The Orthodox East has not been challenged either by the politico-ecclesiological controversies typical of the Western Middle Ages or by the Reformation. It remained free, therefore, from the "polemical" and "definitional" ecclesiology which underlies the Western De Ecclesia, whether in its Roman Catholic or Protestant form, and which conditions to a great degree the ecumenical debate on the Church. In our own "sources"– the Fathers, the Councils, the Liturgy – we do not find any formal definition of the Church. This is not because of any lack of ecclesiological interest and consciousness, but because the Church (in the Orthodox approach to her) does not exist, and therefore cannot be defined, apart from the very content of her life. The Church, in other terms, is not an "essence" or "being" distinct, as such, from God, man, and the world, but is the very reality of Christ in us and us in Christ, a new mode of God's presence and action in His creation, of creation's life in God. She is God's gift and man's response and appropriation of this gift. She is union and unity, knowledge, communion and transfiguration. And, since apart from the "content" the "form" has no meaning (cf. the reluctance of Orthodox theologians to discuss problems of "validity"), Orthodox ecclesiology rather than precise definitions or forms, conditions and modalities, is an attempt to present an icon of the Church as life in Christ – an icon which to be adequate and true must draw on all aspects and not only on the institutional ones of the Church. For the Church is an institution, but she is also a mystery, and it is mystery that gives meaning and life to institution and is, therefore, the object of ecclesiology.

2. Such an attempt must probably begin with the Church as new creation. Orthodox ecclesiology traditionally sees the beginning of the Church in paradise and her life as the manifestation of the Kingdom of God. "The history of the Church begins with the history of the world. The very creation of the world can be seen as preparation for the creation of the Church because the end for which the kingdom of nature was established is in the Kingdom of Grace" (Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow). Thus the basic dimensions of Orthodox ecclesiology are cosmic and eschatological.

On the one hand, in Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, the new Adam, creation finds not only redemption and reconciliation with God, but also its fulfillment. Christ is the Logos, the Life of all life, and this life, which was lost because of sin, is restored and communicated in Christ, in His incarnation, death, resurrection, and glorification, to man and through him to the whole creation. Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, is not a mere establishment of an institution endowed with specific powers and authorities. It is the inauguration of the new age, the beginning of life eternal, the revelation of the kingdom which is "joy and peace in the Holy Spirit." The Church is the continuing presence of Pentecost as power of sanctification and transfiguration of all life, as grace which is knowledge of God, communion with Him and, in Him, with all that exists. The Church is creation as renewed by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

But, on the other hand, the kingdom which Christ inaugurates and the Holy Spirit fulfills is not of this world. "This world," by rejecting and condemning Christ, has condemned itself; no one, therefore, can enter the Kingdom without in a real sense dying to the world, i.e. rejecting it in its self-sufficiency, without putting all faith, hope, and love in the "age to come," in the "day without evening" which will dawn at the end of time. "You are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God." (Col. 3:3) This means that although the Church abides in the world, her real life is a constant expectation and anticipation of the world to come, a preparation for it, a passage into reality which in this world can be experienced only as future, as promise and token of things yet to come. The fruits of the Spirit (joy, peace, holiness, vision, knowledge) are real, but their reality is that of the joy which a traveler has when at the end of a long journey he finally sees the beautiful city where he is going – into which, however, he must yet enter. The Church reveals and truly bestows now the Kingdom which is to come, and creation becomes new when it dies to itself as "this world" and becomes thirst and hunger for the consummation for all things in God.

3. It is the mystery of the Church as new creation in its two dimensions – the cosmic and eschatological – that reveals to us the meaning and structure of the Church as institution. The nature of the institution can be termed sacramental, and this means not only a given or static inter-dependence between the visible and the invisible, nature and grace, the material and the spiritual, but also, and primarily, the dynamic essence of the Church as passage from the old into the new, from this world into the world to come, from the kingdom of nature into the Kingdom of Grace. The Church, as visible society and organization, belongs to this world; it is truly a part of it. And she must belong to it because she is "instituted" to represent and to stand for the world, to assume the whole creation. It belongs thus to the very "institution" of the Church to be a people, a community, a family, an organization, a nation, a hierarchy; to assume, in other words, all the natural forms of human existence in the world, in time and space. She is an organic continuity with the whole of human life, with the totality of human history. She is the pars pro toto of the whole creation. Yet she is all this in order to reveal and manifest the true meaning of creation as fulfillment in Christ, to announce to the world its end and the inauguration of the Kingdom. The "institution" is thus the sacrament of the Kingdom, the means by which the Church always becomes what she is, always fulfills herself as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, as the new life of the new creation. The basic act of this fulfillment, and therefore the true "form" of the Church, is the Eucharist: the sacrament in which the Church performs the passage, the passover, from this world into the Kingdom, offers in Christ the whole creation to God, seeing it as "heaven and earth full of His glory," and partakes of Christ's immortal life at His table in His Kingdom.

4. This sacramental nature of the Church reveals the real meaning of the universally-accepted notae by which we confess the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Each of them applies to both the institution and its fulfillment, the form and the content, the promise and its realization. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and she must constantly fulfill herself as oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Her visible oneness is to be realized as the very content of the new life ("that they may be one as we are one") and as the unity of all in God and with God. The objective holiness of her life (the gifts of grace and sanctification which pour from all her acts) is to be fulfilled and realized in the personal holiness of her members. The catholicity (the absolute fullness of the gospel she announces and the life she communicates) is to grow into the "wholeness" of the faith and life of each community, of each Christian, and of the whole Church. Her apostolicity (her identity in time and space with the pleroma of the Church manifested at Pentecost) is to be preserved whole and undistorted by every generation, always and everywhere.

5. In this world the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church manifests itself as a plurality of churches, each one of which is both a part and a whole. It is a part because only in unity with all churches and in obedience to the universal truth can it be the Church; yet it is also a whole because in each church, by virtue of her unity with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the whole Christ is present, the fullness of grace is given, the catholicity of new life is revealed. The visible unity of all churches as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is expressed and preserved in the unity of faith, the unity of sacramental structure, and the unity of life. The unity of faith has its norm and content in the universal tradition. The unity of sacramental structure is preserved through the apostolic succession, which is the visible and objective continuity of the Church's life and order in time and space. The unity of life manifests itself in the active concern of all churches for each other and of all them together for the Church's mission in the world.

6. The organ of unity in the Church is the episcopate. "The Church is in the Bishop." This means that in each church the personal ministry of the bishop is to preserve the fullness of the Church, i.e., her identity and continuity with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; to be the teacher of the universal traditions; the offerer of the Eucharist which is the sacrament of unity; and the pastor of the people of God on its pilgrimage to the Kingdom. By virtue of his consecration by other bishops and of his belonging to the universal episcopate, he represents, he makes present and unites his church to all churches and represents all other churches, and therefore the whole Church, to his own church. In him each church is thus truly a part of the whole Church and the whole Church is truly present in each church. In the Orthodox tradition, the unity of the episcopate, and especially the organ of this unity, a synod or council of bishops, is the supreme expression of the Church's teaching and pastoral function – the inspired mouth of the whole Church. But, "The Bishop is in the Church," and this means that neither one bishop nor the episcopate as a whole are above the Church, or (to quote here a famous formula) act and teach ex sese et non ex consensu Ecclesiae. It is rather the bishop's complete identification with and his total obedience to the consensus Ecclesiae, to her teaching, life, and holiness, as well as his organic unity with the people of God, that makes the bishop the teacher and the guardian of the truth. For in the Church no one is without the Holy Spirit, and according to the Encyclical of Eastern Patriarchs, the preservation of the truth is entrusted to the whole people of the Church. Thus the Church is both hierarchical and conciliary, and the two principles are not only not opposed to each other but are in their interdependence essential for the full expression of the mystery of the Church.

7. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church must necessarily exist in the world as an orderly and visibly-united Church Universal, and it is the function and charism of the primacies to serve as centers of communion, unity, and coordination. There exist local and regional primacies (metropolitans, patriarchs) and a universal primacy. Orthodox ecclesiology has never denied that traditionally the latter belonged to the Church of Rome. It is, however, the interpretation of this primacy in terms of a personal infallibility of the Roman pontiff and of his universal jurisdiction power that led to its rejection by the Orthodox East.

8. The Orthodox Church claims to have preserved unaltered and full the faith and the traditions "once delivered unto the saints." In face of the tragic divisions among Christians, she affirms that the only way to reunion is the restoration of that unity of faith which alone enables each church to see all other churches as the same and One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

9. The Church is both in statu patriae and in statu viae. As "Christ in us," as the manifestation of the Kingdom and the sacrament of the age to come, her life is already filled with the "joy and peace of the Holy Spirit," and it is this paschal joy that she expresses and receives in worship, in the holiness of her members, and in the communion of the saints. As "we in Christ," she is in pilgrimage and expectation, in repentance and struggle. And above everything else, she is mission, for her belonging to the world to come, the joy that in Christ has entered the world, and the vision of the transfigured world are given to her so that she may in this world witness to Christ and may save and redeem in Him the whole creation.

*Paper read at the Institute for Contemporary Theology, Montreal, July 1965.


St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1967, pp. 35-39