Sound and Fury Signifying… Quite a Lot

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 381-883The 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.

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The Theological Vision of Patriarch Daniel of Romania

My friend, Fr. Daniel Greeson, has recently begun blogging again. He’s kicked things off with an excellent commentary on Patriarch Daniel of Romania’s vision of world-Orthodox unity; a vision which is, in my opinion, important and worthwhile, a way between Moscow and Constantinople. Fr. Daniel’s blog intends to focus dogmatic theology and I look forward to more from him.

Ukrainian Autocephaly: A Vision of the Future?

An official translation of the Tomos of Autocephaly given by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) to the newly minted “Most Holy Church of Ukraine” (CoU) has been published. It has already been pointed out that a number of items in the Tomos are unusual in the history of such documents, which is interesting in itself. However, the real import of the document is not how it relates to the past but what it means for the future.

It is no secret that the self understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in terms of its canonical and ecclesial prerogatives among the autocephalous churches, is sometimes disputed. The strength of this dispute is substantially bolstered by the fact that history, along with the status quo, does not always support the claims the EP makes for itself, at least not straightforwardly. For instance, the claim made by the EP that it alone may establish or possess parishes in territories outside the established boundaries of the other autocephalous churches is substantially weakened by the simple fact that many other churches do have parishes outside of their geographical boundaries and have had for hundreds of years. To say this another way, when fact and theory do not correspond theory will have less heft than it would otherwise.

This is where the Ukrainian tomos becomes rather important. It brings the claims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate about itself to life, aligning fact and theory, and thereby weakening the argument of dissenting voices. Further, it provides a canonical model or example which will, if the CoU survives, serve as a demonstration of the EPs self understanding and ecclesial vision. The tomos accomplishes this in at least 3 rather clear ways.

  1. The CoU is forbidden to establish parishes outside its geographic borders and any such parishes it currently has are immediately transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Look for such a provision to be included in any tomos issued by the EP in the future. This will have little effect on the ecclesial landscape, at least in the near term, but the important thing is that by accepting the CoU the other autocephalous churches give tacit approval to the terms of its establishment and thereby a sort of soft embrace (or at least little objection) of the EP’s vision of the diaspora which can be appealed to later on in other situations.
  2. On matters of significant ecclesial, doctrinal, or political concern the CoU is required to seek the guidance of the EP, which is definitive.  It remains to be seen how exactly the EP will choose to interpret this stipulation but it could certainly eliminate problems for the EP as it attempts to assert itself to a greater degree in the Orthodox world, and beyond. Again, probably the most important function of this clause, as it pertains to the future, is that it allows the EP to claim, with reasonable accuracy, that he does indeed speak on behalf of many millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, a claim that, despite its constant repetition, has not seemed very convincing in the past. The “spiritual leadership” of the Ecumenical Patriarch is getting much more concrete.
  3. The possibility for the EP to establish stavropegia on the territory of other autocephalous churches is venerable. However, it has not been applied in any of the recent autocephalies. The reintroduction of that practice here is advantageous to the EP in several ways. First, because it is a unique privilege, canonically speaking, putting it into practice underscores the uniqueness of the EP. This is another provision one should probably expect to see again in any future tomos issued by the EP. Second, it diversifies the income of the EP, buffering its fortunes against local and regional difficulties. Third, it allows the EP to ordain more bishops, thereby increasing the size of its episcopal rank beyond what the needs of its laity would allow.

In all of the above we note not only a centralizing impulse, with the EP assuming a greater degree of control over the CoU than it has over other churches established in the modern period, but a marked attempt to instantiate the self understanding of the EP in such a way that the arguments it makes on its own behalf will, in the future, have ample demonstration in practice.