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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Church of God
      • God and His Church
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God and His Church

An Orthodox Christian is vividly conscious of belonging to community. ‘We know that

when any one of us falls,’ wrote Khomiakov, ‘he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is

saved in the Church, as a member of it and in union with all Kitts other members (The Church is

One, section 9).

Some of the differences between the Orthodox doctrine of the Church and those of western

Christians will have become apparent in the first part of this book. Unlike Protestantism, Orthodoxy

insists upon the hierarchical structure of the Church, upon the Apostolic Succession, the

episcopate, and the priesthood; it prays to the saints and intercedes for the departed. Thus far

Rome and Orthodoxy agree — but where Rome thinks in terms of the supremacy and the universal

jurisdiction of the Pope, Orthodoxy thinks in terms of the college of bishops and of the Ecumenical

Council; where Rome stresses Papal infallibility, Orthodox stress the infallibility of the

Church as a whole. Doubtless neither side is entirely fair to the other, but to Orthodox it often

seems that Rome envisages the Church too much in terms of earthly power and organization,

while to Roman Catholics it often seems that the more spiritual and mystical doctrine of the

Church held by Orthodoxy is vague, incoherent, and incomplete. Orthodox would answer that

they do not neglect the earthly organization of the Church, but have many strict and minute rules,

as anyone who reads the Canons can quickly discover.

Yet the Orthodox idea of the Church is certainly spiritual and mystical in this sense, that

Orthodox theology never treats the earthly aspect of the Church in isolation, but thinks always of

the Church in Christ and the Holy Spirit. All Orthodox thinking about the Church starts with the

special relationship which exists between the Church and God. Three phrases can be used to describe

this relation: the Church is 1) the Image of the Holy Trinity, 2) the Body of Christ, 3) a

continued Pentecost. The Orthodox doctrine of the Church is Trinitarian, Christological, and

pneumatological.’

1. The Image of the Holy Trinity. Just as each man is made according to the image of the Trinitarian

God, so the Church as a whole is an icon of God the Trinity, reproducing on earth the mystery

of unity in diversity. In the Trinity the three are one God, yet each is fully personal; in the

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Church a multitude of human persons are united in one, yet each preserves his personal diversity

unimpaired. The mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity is paralleled by the coinherence

of the members of the Church. In the Church there is no conflict between freedom and authority;

in the Church there is unity, but no totalitarianism. When Orthodox apply the wordCatholic’ to

the Church, they have in mind (among other things) this living miracle of the unity of many persons

in one.

This conception of the Church as an icon of the Trinity has many further applications.

Unity in diversity’ — just as each person of the Trinity is autonomous, so the Church is made

up of a number of independent Autocephalous Churches; and just as in the Trinity the three persons

are equal, so in the Church no one bishop can claim to wield an absolute power over all the

rest.

This idea of the Church as an icon of the Trinity also helps to understand the Orthodox emphasis

upon Councils. A council is an expression of the Trinitarian nature of the Church. The

mystery of unity in diversity according to the image of the Trinity can be seen in action, as the

many bishops assembled council freely reach a common mind under the guidance of Spirit.

The unity of the Church is linked more particularly with the person of Christ, its diversity

with the person of the Holy Spirit.

2. The Body of Christ: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ(Romans 12:5). Between

Christ and the Church there is the closest possible bond: in the famous phrase of Ignatius, ‘where

Christ is, there is the Catholic Church’ (To the Smyrnaeans, 8:2). The Church is the extension of the

Incarnation, the place where the Incarnation perpetuates itself. The Church, the Greek theologian

Chrestos Androutsos has written, is ‘the center and organ of Christ’s redeeming work; ... it is

nothing else than the continuation and extension of His prophetic, priestly, and kingly power ...

The Church and its Founder are inextricably bound together... The Church is Christ with us

(Dogmatic Theology, Athens, 1907, pp. 262-5 (in Greek)). Christ did not leave the Church when He ascended

into heaven: “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the world,” He promised

(Matt. 28:20), “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst

of them” (Matthew 18:20). It is only too easy to fall into the mistake of speaking of Christ as absent:

And still the Holy Church is here

Although her Lord is gone (From a hymn by J. M. Neale).

But how can we say that Christ ‘is gone,’ when He has promised us His perpetual presence?

The unity between Christ and His Church is effected above all through the sacraments. At

Baptism, the new Christian is buried and raised with Christ; at the Eucharist the members of

Christ’s Body the Church receive His Body in the sacraments. The Eucharist, by uniting the

members of the Church to Christ, at the same time unites them to one another: “We, who are

many, are one bread, one body; for we all partake of the one bread(1 Cor. 10:17). The Eucharist

creates the unity of the Church. The Church (as Ignatius saw) is a Eucharistic society, a sacramental

organism which exists — and exists in its fullness — wherever the Eucharist is celebrated.

It is no coincidence that the termBody of Christ’ should mean both the Church and the

sacrament; and that the phrase communio sanctorum in the ApostlesCreed should mean both

‘the communion of the holy people’ (communion of saints) and ‘the communion of the holy

things’ (communion in the sacraments).

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The Church must be thought of primarily in sacramental terms. Its outward organization,

however important, is secondary to its sacramental life.

3. A continued Pentecost. It is easy to lay such emphasis on the Church as the Body of Christ

that the role of the Holy Spirit is forgotten. But, as we have said, in their work among men Son

and Spirit are complementary to one another, and this is as true in the doctrine of the Church as it

is elsewhere. While Ignatius said ‘where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church,’ Irenaeus wrote

with equal truth ‘where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the

Church (Against the Heresies 3, 26, 1). The Church, precisely because it is the Body of Christ, is also

the temple and dwelling place of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of freedom. While Christ unites us, the Holy Spirit ensures our

infinite diversity in the Church: at Pentecost the tongues of fire were ‘cloven’ or divided, descending

separately upon each one of those present. The gift of the Spirit is a gift to the Church,

but it is at the same time a personal gift, appropriated by each in his own way. “There are diversities

of gifts, but the same Spirit(1 Cor. 12:4). Life in the Church does not mean the ironing

out of human variety, nor the imposition of a rigid and uniform pattern upon all alike, but the exact

opposite. The saints, so far from displaying a drab monotony, have developed the most vivid

and distinctive personalities. It is not holiness but evil which is dull.

Such in brief is the relation between the Church and God. This Church — the icon of the

Trinity, the Body of Christ, the fullness of the Spirit — is both visible and invisible, both divine

and human. It is visible, for it is composed of concrete congregations, worshipping here on earth;

it is invisible, for it also includes the saints and the angels. It is human, for its earthly members

are sinners; it is divine, for it is the Body of Christ. There is no separation between the visible

and the invisible, between (to use western terminology) the Church militant and the Church triumphant,

for the two make up a single and continuous reality. ‘The Church visible, or upon

earth, lives in, complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church, of which

Christ is the Head (Khomiakov, The Church is One, section 9.). It stands at a point of intersection between

the Present Age and the Age to Come, and it lives in both Ages at once.

Orthodoxy, therefore, while using the phrase ‘the Church visible and invisible,’ insists always

that there are not two Churches, but one. As Khomiakov said: ‘It is only in relation to man

that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; its unity is, in

reality, true and absolute. Those who are alive on earth, those who have finished their earthly

course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations

who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the

same grace of God ... The Church, the Body of Christ, manifests forth and fulfils itself in time,

without changing its essential unity or inward life of grace. And therefore, when we speak of ‘the

Church visible and invisible,’ we so speak only in relation to man (ibid., section 1).

The Church, according to Khomiakov, is accomplished on earth without losing its essential

characteristics; it is, in Georges Florovsky’s words, ‘the living image of eternity within time

(‘Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,’ in The Church of God, edited by E. L. Mascall, p. 63). This is a cardinal

point in Orthodox teaching. Orthodoxy does not believe merely in an ideal Church, invisible

and heavenly. This ‘ideal Churchexists visibly on earth as a concrete reality.

Yet Orthodoxy does not forget that there is a human element in the Church as well as a divine.

The dogma of Chalcedon must be applied to the Church as well as to Christ. Just as Christ

the God-Man has two natures, divine and human, so in the Church there is a synergy or cooperation

between the divine and the human. Yet between Christ’s humanity and that of the Church

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there is this obvious difference, that the one is perfect and sinless, while the other is not yet fully

so. Only a part of the humanity of the Church — the saints in heaven — has attained perfection,

while here on earth the Church’s members often misuse their human freedom. The Church on

earth exists in a state of tension: it is already the Body of Christ, and thus perfect and sinless, and

yet, since its members are imperfect and sinful, it must continually become what it is (‘This idea of

“becoming what you are” is the key to the whole eschatological teaching of the New Testament’ (Gregory Dix, The

Shape of the Liturgy, p. 247)).

But the sin of man cannot affect the essential nature of the Church. We must not say that

because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for

the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven, and cannot sin (See the Declaration on Faith and Order

made by the Orthodox Delegates at Evanston in 1954, where this point is put very clearly). Saint Ephraim of

Syria rightly spoke of ‘the Church of the penitents, the Church of those who perish,’ but this

Church is at the same time the icon of the Trinity. How is it that the members of the Church are

sinners, and yet they belong to the communion of saints? ‘The mystery of the Church consists in

the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals;

this “something different” is the Body of Christ’ (J. Meyendorff, ‘What Holds the Church Together?’ in

the Ecumenical Review, vol. 12 (1960), p. 298).

Such is the way in which Orthodoxy approaches the mystery of the Church. The Church is

integrally linked with God. It is a new life according to the image of the Holy Trinity, a life in

Christ and in the Holy Spirit, a life realized by participation in the sacraments. The Church is a

single reality, earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible, human and divine.




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