One In Christ: An historical look

ONE IN CHRIST: An Historical Look
By Fr. John Behr +++

That we are to become one, as Christ is one with His Father, is our Lord’s own prayer (John 17:11). This movement towards unity applies to many areas of our lives as Christians: husband and wife are to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5), we are each to become one spirit with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17), and, in the petition of the Great Litany, we pray for the welfare and unity of all the churches of God.

This unity, in a very real sense, is a gift and is already given: in the sacrament of marriage, the bride and the groom become one; in baptism we put on the identity of Christ, becoming His body; and in the Creed we confess our belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Yet in the case of marriage and putting on Christ, we also have to work on ourselves—or more specifically die to ourselves—to receive the gift fully. Is this also the case with regard to the unity of the Church?

It is clear that in our contemporary situation in North America, with our separate yet overlapping jurisdictions, we do not manifest, at least administratively, the unity for which we pray. Do we, then, in our jurisdictional plurality, embody an ecclesiological heresy—that is, fail to live out in practice what we proclaim with our lips about the unity of the Church? Or perhaps the claim should be made the other way round: Given that we do indeed belong to the Church and embody the Church, in all the messiness of our concrete existence, is our profession of faith in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” no more than a daydream, wishful thinking, or even a lie? Clearly, once the situation has been cast in such terms, neither alternative is satisfactory.

So perhaps we should think about the issue differently, recognizing that the reality of the unity of the one Body does not lie with ourselves and our all-too-human attempts to embody what is given, but with Christ Himself. This is the unity we, as particular churches, pray to attain, and it requires our struggle (and death to our own identity). Perhaps we should not think, as we are wont to do, of the unity of the one Church that we desire as something we once had but have since lost. Perhaps we should see it rather as a unity towards which we are always moving as we sojourn in the changing circumstances of this world, seeking a citizenship that ultimately lies in the heavens (Philippians 3:20)—just as Christ is always “the Coming One,” even when present and being asked a question in the Gospels (see Matthew 11:3).


The particular concern, so evident and troubling today, regarding the unity of the Church, in particular her jurisdictional unity, is undoubtedly due in great part to our new situation in the New World—the experience of the “diaspora.” Although Orthodox Christianity had arrived on this continent many years before, it was the sheer numbers of Orthodox Christians who arrived during the past century that made it possible to think in terms of creating a local autocephalous church rather than missionary outposts.

The Christianity these immigrants brought with them was that which they had inherited in their Orthodox homelands—not only its piety, ethos, liturgy, and theology, but equally important, and perhaps even more so for us now, its ecclesial structures and organization. In whatever ways these had changed and developed in the preceding centuries, the structure and organization of the Church the immigrants brought with them was an expression of her existence in a country that identified itself as Orthodox.

Finding themselves in this new situation, many great Orthodox theologians and historians drew upon the experience of the Church as it had been in their homelands to articulate the theological principles for the proper canonical existence of the Church. And they treated it with the utmost seriousness; it is not by accident that Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s diagnosis of the “Problems of Orthodoxy in America” began with an article entitled “The Canonical Problem” (Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 1964). Before addressing liturgical issues or the spiritual crisis, it was necessary to tackle the canonical situation, or rather the “canonical problem”—meaning the existence of multiple jurisdictions in any given geographical area.

It was affirmed absolutely that jurisdictional unity is an abiding, universal canonical principle; that the fullness of the Church—the people gathered around one bishop in the celebration of one Eucharist at one altar—exists only in specific local churches, such that the presence of other churches, or other jurisdictions, in the same geographical area rends the Body of Christ apart; and that continuity in faith, doctrine, and life lies in the apostolic succession of the single episcopate in each area, by virtue of which each local church manifests and maintains her unity with and identity as the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

The lack of correspondence between theology and reality forty or fifty years ago provoked much discussion about “the canonical problem” and much debate about the meaningfulness of the term “diaspora.” This work has continued to inspire and guide reflection since. Yet if there was a lack of correspondence then, that has only increased in the intervening decades: the number of canonical Orthodox bishops in many places has increased, and numerous Orthodox Christians now find themselves driving past churches of other jurisdictions to attend the Divine Liturgy in a church of their own jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, this increasing discrepancy has produced an increasing sense of frustration.

The Church in History

In light of this, it is worth asking whether the canonical principles articulated so clearly during the twentieth century (especially the identity of a local church as the whole given geographical area gathered around a single bishop) are in fact eternal principles always expressive of the being of the Church. Could they rather be reflective of the being of the Church as she existed in a country that identified itself as Orthodox? Or is there perhaps even a way of envisioning Orthodox Church life based on other models altogether?

It is striking, for instance, that Byzantine cities were not divided up into territorial parishes, each with its own church to which all were expected to go (as they were, for example, in England). It is estimated that up to half the churches in Constantinople were private churches, on private estates, monasteries, and so on.

Nevertheless, it might be pointed out, there was only one bishop of Constantinople. However, even this idea of “one city—one bishop” is not the only way the Church has existed over the centuries. Despite the rosy and romantic picture given by early Christian historians such as Eusebius, of the apostles appointing single bishops in each geographical area (thereby enshrining a vision of Church history articulated in terms of the succession of bishops), historical reality is more complicated.

Already the Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Christians, indicates the existence of over half-a-dozen different Christian groups or house-churches, each with its own leader (see Romans 16), and this before any apostle had visited Rome. Several decades later, St. Ignatius of Antioch also knew of no single “bishop” of Rome, although he was the earliest and most forceful advocate of monoepiscopacy (the claim that the Christian community in each place must gather around a single bishop). Likewise St. Justin in the mid-second century. And when St. Irenaeus described the succession of the presbyters or bishops (he uses the term interchangeably) of the Christian community in Rome, it was the succession of but one of the communities, albeit the one that gradually assumed leadership over the others.

All this is to say, there was no single bishop of Rome until the end of the second century, or perhaps even as late as the third decade of the third century. Instead, there were a number of churches, each led by its own bishop/presbyter. Some of these churches seem to have gathered along ethnic lines (especially the Christians from Asia Minor who resided in Rome), others along perceived intellectual or spiritual affinity. In other words, it looked a lot like the way New York, or any other large metropolitan area, looks today!

What second-century Rome had that is lacking in modern metropolitan areas, however, was a forum or council where the leaders of all the churches met to express their unity and fellowship, and to work together. The reality of their unity as the one Body of Christ in Rome was further expressed by the fermentum, the distribution of the eucharistic gifts. This originally seems to have been a mutual exchange amongst these churches; it subsequently became, with the establishment of a single bishop in Rome, the distribution from the Papal Eucharist to the presbyters in the parish churches.

Clearly, even in this early phase, the unity of diverse Christian assemblies, manifest in this fraternal manner (and not yet under the headship of a single bishop), was regarded as the necessary corollary to the ecclesial nature of each assembly. This unity was understood primarily in terms of their sharing the same faith. Eusebius preserves for us a statement of St. Irenaeus regarding the diverse Paschal practices in Rome in his time: “our diversity in practice, confirms our unity in faith” (Ecclesiastical History 5.24.13).

The Church (in the singular) of Rome was embodied in the ecclesial assemblies—each gathered around their presbyter/bishop at one altar celebrating one Eucharist—in communion with all the other assemblies, each gathered in the unity of the same faith. The Christians in the second century had a very vivid sense of belonging to one body—the Virgin Mother, the Church—a body which, in a sense, was greater than any of their particular communities, even though the Church is only embodied in these communities and does not exist separately from them (in some chair or abstract office, for instance, or in an unembodied faith). The particular assemblies were not churches apart from this communion, any more than an individual believer is a Christian (“a single Christian is not a Christian,” as the old saying puts it).

There can only be one Church in each place. But, and this is the important point (which, it has to be acknowledged, is at odds with much modern ecclesiology), this did not mean that there had to be only one bishop in each place. Or perhaps more precisely, the role of the bishop had not yet become what it subsequently would—at least, in Rome and Alexandria (the two cities which approximate to our modern urban experience). In small towns with only one Christian congregation the question does not even arise.

It should also be acknowledged that, even into the fourth century and beyond, the boundaries of the Church are not understood to be co-extensive with those united to the bishop of any given place. In the third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage had identified, explicitly and exclusively, the Church with the bishop (“you must understand that the Church is in the bishop and the bishop in the Church,” Epistle 66.8 [69.8]); only those gathered with and under the proper bishop were in the Church. Those who belonged to schismatic groups, that is, groups which had broken communion with the bishop (usually over disciplinary matters rather than doctrinal belief), were not to be considered members of the Church, according to St. Cyprian, and so had to be rebaptized before entering the communion of the Church. The Council of Nicaea (AD 325, canon ‘8’), on the other hand, was prepared to readmit schismatics without rebaptism. According to St. Basil the Great, this was because such people were “still of the Church” (Epistle 188.1).

As Fr. Georges Florovsky commented (in his article “The Boundaries of the Church”), St. Cyprian was right to affirm that salvation resides only within the Church, but “he defined this in too hastily and too narrowly.” The designation of such people as “schismatics” clearly indicates that this situation is not considered normal, and that their reunion with the bishop is desired; but that St. Basil can affirm that they are “of the Church” is an important reminder that the Church is broader than those united with the bishop, and includes all those baptized in the right faith (even if schismatic).

The Church Today

We are not in second-century Rome, and there can be no attempt to relive the past. Yet the situations are analogous: what were particular ecclesial assemblies, each with their own culture or flavor, are now particular jurisdictions coexisting within a given geographical area. It might be argued that the ecclesial structures of the Church and the role of the episcopate in the early centuries were in a transitory phase, on their way to the more perfect expression achieved in the fourth century and beyond. But it might also be said that the ecclesial structures of Byzantium and elsewhere were themselves also transitory phases in the continual sojourn of the Church in this world, whose history, whether we like it or not, has moved on.

However we interpret it, it remains a stubborn fact that the organization of the Church was at one time structured differently, and that St. Irenaeus could write all that he had to say about tradition, the apostolic succession of the episcopate, and the catholicity of the Church in this different situation. What he wrote did not depend on the principle of “one city—one bishop.”

In light of this, is it necessary for us now to maintain the principle of “one city—one bishop,” with all the frustration that the disjunction between our words and our actual existence must necessarily bring? Or is the territory overseen by a bishop, and his corresponding role, now defined differently, having changed through the ineluctable movement of history? Could it be no longer a particular Christian assembly amongst others, as it was in the second century, nor a territory coextensive with a geographical region, as it was in later centuries, but rather a “territory” comprised of those particular Christian assemblies under his pastoral oversight?

This new situation also reflects an undeniable change in our contemporary experience of space—with the advent of mass private transport and greater communications, our sense of space, the world in which we now live, is not so much geographically defined as it is defined by culture, friendships, family. But if this is the case, what has become of the Church in any given region, as described above? Who, what, or where is the Church of New York, or any other metropolitan area?

Here one can only lament the continuing tendency which Schmemann decried as “canonical subordinationism”—the tendency to describe Christians in North America as being “diaspora” churches, who gain their canonical status by their maintenance of (and subordination to) the canonically established patriarchates abroad—which, it is held, alone express the unity of the Church.

If, as is suggested above, the Church in any given place is constituted by the communion of the Christian assemblies in that place—not just a tacit acknowledgement of the presence of others, but a concrete, visible, and tangible (even edible) fellowship—then, SCOBA notwithstanding, the lack of this today is truly scandalous. However, its resolution need not necessarily mean imposing the patterns of ecclesial organization which developed during the years of imperial Christianity and which might no longer fit.

Is it possible today to envision territorial unity without territorial primacy? To accept that there may be—as there indeed are!—many bishops in a given geographical area, yet without there being one bishop of that geographical area? This could only be done by a mutual recognition of all the Orthodox Christians of a given area. Each must acknowledge both that they are only the Church of that area together—in their particular ecclesial assemblies, led by their own pastors and overseen by their own bishops, each in communion with all others—and that their canonical status resides in this, in manifesting together the Body of Christ in their own place, rather than in ties to churches overseas.

For such ecclesial existence to become a reality, the administrative unity of the bishops and priests of a given region, though ultimately desirable, is not necessarily the most important element. Although determining priority is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first, such administrative unity should reflect (as well as aid) the common and shared ecclesial life of the Orthodox laity in each location. This means not simply participating in an annual Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers, but engaging in charitable, missionary, educative, and social work—together.

That would provide a more effective witness of Orthodox Christianity in North America than simply realigning episcopal territories in a top-down approach. Only if we desire a life in Christ (that is, a life of dying to ourselves in service of others) together will an administrative unity be meaningful.

Is it possible then that our increasing frustration with the “canonical problem” might be misplaced? Should the reality of our situation in the New World, and the fact that we do embody and manifest the Church here, direct us to consider again in what lies the unity of the Church?

Christ promised that when two or three are gathered in His name, there He would be, in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). The experience, theology, and ecclesiology of the early Christians should remind us that it is by gathering together in the unity of the same faith in the service of the one Lord that we, in our various ecclesial assemblies, are together the one Church, the Body of Christ, with Christ Himself present as our Head. If we make our cause anything else, or gather in the name of anything else, however praiseworthy we deem it, will Christ be there? These are large and important questions, which can only be answered by much prayerful theological reflection.

Fr. John Behr is Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, NY. His father was a Russian priest in Great Britain under Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), and he completed his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University, working under Bishop Kallistos (Ware). He is the author of several books, most notably The Way to Nicaea and The Nicene Faith, and most recently The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (SVS Press). He is married with three children.

This article originally appears in AGAIN Vol. 28 No. 2, Summer 2006.


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