As a person interested in current events in the Orthodox world I have often read, over the years, speeches and statements put out by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As the First Throne of Orthodoxy it is worth paying attention to what they say. Anyone familiar with the content of those letters and speeches is likely to know that they often contain a lot of flowery language and, occasionally, statements that are difficult to decipher. This can be a problem of translation. But not always. I know this because when I come across such a statement I usually ask everyone I know who belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate what it might mean and how it should be “heard.” Most of the time I get little or no clarification. On a couple of occasions I have written to the Patriarchate itself asking for clarification, but without success. I mention this because I think it is relevant to the current political/ecclesiological dispute taking place among the Orthodox churches as a result of the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine. Allow to me explain by means of what may appear to be an excursus.
In 2010 David Wagschal submitted his PhD thesis at Durham University in England, entitled: The Nature of Law and Legality in the Byzantine Canonical Collections 381-883. The thesis is an excellent study for those interested in the finer details of Byzantine canon law. The really interesting part, for the purpose of this article, is its fascinating exploration of the “rhetorical” or “literary” dimension of Byzantine legislation. The author argues persuasively that the seemingly rhetorical and literary flourishes that surround what we tend to think of as the “important” bits of canon law are not extraneous in any sense, but absolutely fundamental, and to be taken quite seriously. For example, the introduction to the Trullan canonical legislation contains almost nothing that we would tend to think of as having to do with “law” per se, and yet, it was every bit as important to the authors as the canons themselves. This is because the purpose of such “ornamental” material is to set the “law” in a broad, polyvalent narrative; an evocative set of images and ideals. Precision and clarity of language belong to the texts of particular laws but the overarching context in which the laws rest is not concerned with these values. In one representative passage the author points out that:
…the late Roman imperial chancery tended to produce two types of texts for laws – properly coherent and regular rule texts for internal use, and rhetorically ornate versions embellished by the quaestors for publication – it is clear that the real, i.e. published law is the rhetorical version. This version of the law is the version marked as culturally important, high-status and valued. Anything else is for quiet technical in- house consumption. Although we might still wish to idealize and study this (murky) bureaucratic underworld of technical legal coherence and pure rule expression as law’s “real” life, it is quite clear that late Romans and Byzantines would tend to do the opposite. Law in its most ideal form, its most proper form, does not simply confine itself to pure rule content. It is supposed to be filled with broader cultural padding (pg.177).
The importance of this rhetorical dimension is amply represented in, but not confined to, canonical texts. Rather, the author says, it represents an overarching tendency of Byzantine culture to, “transform almost all realms of knowledge into a subset operation of general literary learning (pg. 118).” “Literary learning,” then as now, is an intimate familiarity with a diverse association of images, texts, history, and deeply embedded cultural assumptions and aspirations. It is these things, operating invisibly in the background, that the rhetorically effusive elements of Byzantine rhetoric seek to connect to.
In light of this, and given the cultural continuity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we ought to consider carefully whether it is wise to regard as mere baroque fashion or pious puffery flowery statements made today by either the Ecumenical Patriarchate or the Patriarch himself. Is it possible that when the Tomos of Autocephaly given to the newly created “Holy Orthodox Church of Ukraine” begins by stating that, “You have come to Mount Zion . . . and to the Church of the first-born” (Heb. 12:22-23) that this statement is meant in the fullest possible sense? That it is intended to be a serious theological claim and not just grandiose verbiage? If so, in what sense? Historical? Theological/scriptural? Canonical? If Dr. Wagschal’s thesis is any guide, an answer to this is likely to be found, not by looking more closely at the immediate context, but at the overarching literary/rhetorical context of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a whole. In any case, it seems clear that we would be wise to start taking such statements as these with the seriousness with which they are, apparently, intended.