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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Church of God
      • The unity and infallibility of the Church
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The unity and infallibility of the Church

‘The Church is one. Its unity follows of necessity from the unity of God’ (The Church is One,

section 1). So wrote Khomiakov in the opening words of his famous essay. If we take seriously the

bond between God and His Church, then we must inevitably think of the Church as one, even as

God is one: there is only one Christ, and so there can be only one Body of Christ. Nor is this

unity merely ideal and invisible; Orthodox theology refuses to separate the ‘invisible’ and the

visible Church,’ and therefore it refuses to say that the Church is invisibly one but visibly divided.

No: the Church is one, in the sense that here on earth there is a single, visible community

which alone can claim to be the one true Church. The ‘undivided Church’ is not merely something

that existed in the past, and which we hope will exist again in the future: it is something

that exists here and now. Unity is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, and since the

Church on earth, despite the sinfulness of its members, retains its essential characteristics, it remains

and always will remain visibly one. There can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms

within the Church. And while it is undeniably true that, on a purely human level, the Church’s

life is grievously impoverished as a result of schisms, yet such schisms cannot affect the essential

nature of the Church.

In its teaching upon the visible unity of the Church, Orthodoxy stands far closer to Roman

Catholicism than to the Protestant world. But if we ask how this visible unity is maintained,

Rome and the east give somewhat different answers. For Rome the unifying principle in the

Church is the Pope whose jurisdiction extends over the whole body, whereas Orthodox do not

believe any bishop to be endowed with universal jurisdiction. What then holds the Church together?

Orthodox answer, the act of communion in the sacraments. The Orthodox theology of the

Church is above all else a theology of communion. Each local Church is constituted, as Ignatius

saw, by the congregation of the faithful, gathered round their bishop and celebrating the Eucharist;

the Church universal is constituted by the communion of the heads of the local Churches,

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the bishops, with one another. Unity is not maintained from without by the authority of a Supreme

Pontiff, but created from within by the celebration of the Eucharist. The Church is not

monarchical in structure, centered round a single hierarch; it is collegial, formed by the communion

of many hierarchs with one another, and of each hierarch with the members of his flock. The

act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the Church. An individual

ceases to be a member of the Church if he severs communion with his bishop; a bishop ceases to

be a member of the Church if he severs communion with his fellow bishops.

Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one,

naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church. This is a bold claim, and to many it

will seem an arrogant one; but this is to misunderstand the spirit in which it is made. Orthodox

believe that they are the true Church, not on account of any personal merit, but by the grace of

God. They say with Saint Paul: “We are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure;

the sovereign power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). But while claiming no

credit for themselves, Orthodox are in all humility convinced that they have received a precious

and unique gift from God; and if they pretended to men that they did not possess this gift, they

would be guilty of an act of betrayal in the sight of heaven.

Orthodox writers sometimes speak as if they accepted the ‘Branch Theory,’ once popular

among High Church Anglicans. (According to this theory, the Catholic Church is divided in several

branches;’ usually three such branches are posited, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and

the Orthodox). But such a view cannot be reconciled with traditional Orthodox theology. If we

are going to speak in terms of ‘branches,’ then from the Orthodox point of view the only

branches which the Catholic Church can have are the local Autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox

communion.

Claiming as it does to be the one true Church, the Orthodox Church also believes that, if it

so desired, it could by itself convene and hold another Ecumenical Council, equal in authority to

the first seven. Since the separation of east and west the Orthodox (unlike the west) have never in

fact chosen to summon such a Council; but this does not mean that they believe themselves to

lack the power to do so.

So much for the Orthodox idea of the unity of the Church. Orthodoxy also teaches that outside

the Church there is no salvation. This belief has the same basis as the Orthodox belief in the

unbreakable unity of the Church: it follows from the close relation between God and His Church.

‘A man cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother’ (On the Unity

of the Catholic Church, 6). So wrote Saint Cyprian; and to him this seemed an evident truth, because

he could not think of God and the Church apart from one another. God is salvation, and God’s

saving power is mediated to man in His Body, the Church. ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the

categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is

no salvation, because salvation is the Church’ (G. Florovsky, ‘Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,’ in

The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church

is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within

the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: ‘How many sheep there are

without, how many wolves within!’ (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a

visible’ and an ‘invisible Church,’ yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly

such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense

be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say (On this question, see pp. 315-317).

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The Church is infallible. This again follows from the indissoluble unity between God and His

Church. Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot err, and since the Church is Christ’s body, since it is a

continued Pentecost, it is therefore infallible. It is “the pillar and the ground of truth(1 Tim.

3:15). “When he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth(John 16:13). So

Christ promised at the Last Supper; and Orthodoxy believes that Christ’s promise cannot fail. In

the words of Dositheus: ‘We believe the Catholic Church to be taught by the Holy Spirit ... and

therefore we both believe and profess as true and undoubtedly certain, that it is impossible for

the Catholic Church to err, or to be at all deceived, or ever to choose falsehood instead of truth

(Confession, Decree 12).

The Church’s infallibility is expressed chiefly through Ecumenical Councils. But before we

can understand what makes a Council Ecumenical, we must consider the place of bishops and of

the laity in the Orthodox communion.




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