7. The Local Church In a Perspective of Communion
I. The Historical and Ecclesiological Background
The basic ecclesiological principle applying to the notion of the local Church in the Orthodox tradition is that of the identification of the Church with the eucharistic community. Orthodox ecclesiology is based on the idea that wherever there is the eucharist there is the Church in its fulness as the Body of Christ. The concept of the local Church derives basically from the fact that the eucharist is celebrated at a given place and comprises by virtue of its catholicity all the members of the Church dwelling in that place. The local Church, therefore, derives its meaning from a combination of two basic ecclesiological principles:
(a) The catholic nature of the eucharist. This means that each eucharistic assembly should include all the members of the Church of a particular place, with no distinction whatsoever with regard to ages, professions, sexes, races, languages, etc.
(b) The geographical nature of the eucharist, which means that the eucharistic assembly – and through it the Church – is always a community of some place (e.g. the Church of Thessalonika, of Corinth, etc. in the Pauline letters).552
The combination of the above two ecclesiological principles results in the canonical provision that there should be only one eucharistic assembly in each place. But the geographical principle gives rise inevitably to the question of what we mean by a “place”: how are we to define the limits of a particular place which should be the basis of only one eucharistic assembly and thus of one Church? This question receives particular significance when the complexities of the early historical developments are taken into account. Since the Orthodox tradition was formed, both ecclesiologically and canonically, on the basis of these early historical developments, we must examine them briefly.
Already in New Testament times there seems to be a tendency to identify ἐκκλησία or even the ἐκκλησία τοῡ Θεοῡ with the assembly of the Christians of a particular city. From a study especially of the Pauline letters we are led to the conclusion that almost without exception the word ἐκκλησία is used in the singular when applied to a city, whereas its use in the plural is always connected with geographic areas larger than the city. If this is not to be regarded as a mere accident, it becomes significant to ask: why does Paul never use the term Church in plural when referring to a city? Given the concreteness with which the word ἐκκλησία is used in Paul’s writings, where it normally means the actual assembly of the faithful (see e.g. I Cor. 10 – 4), the conclusion is almost inevitable that there was only one such assembly which was named ἐκκλησία. In other words, we must conclude that the earliest form of local Church we know of is that of the Church of a city, and that the concrete form of this city Church is the assembly that comprises all the Christians of that geographical area. Christianity seems to have appeared first as a city Church and if we read rightly the existing sources, it must have remained such until at least the middle of the second century.553
The first complication with regard to the principle: one Church – one eucharist – one city, arises historically with the concept of the κατ’ οἶκον ἐκκλησία (household Church). If this term meant in fact the formation of an ἐκκλησία on the basis of the unit of the family, then we are confronted with a definition of the local Church in a non-geographic sense; we are in fact faced with a sociological conception of “locality.” I have tried elsewhere554 to examine this problem and I can only repeat here my conclusion that the term κατ’ οἶκον ἐκκλησία in the New Testament does not point to a family-centered gathering but rather to the assembly of all the faithful of a city who meet as guests of a particular house (see Rom. 16:23, cf. the archeological evidence of churches named after house-owners in Rome, etc.). One could even claim that there seems to have been no more than one such “household Church” in each city at that time.555 If these conclusions are right, we can explain why there is no evidence of any major difficulty in connection with the organization of the early Church stemming from the “household churches.” Not only the fact but even the name of the household Church disappears very soon, leaving behind no trace of a situation which would suggest an alternative to the identification of the early local Church with the Church of a city.
Far more serious in its implications and consequences for the concept of the local Church has been another development in early Church organization, namely the emergence of the parish, both in its rural and in its urban form. The details of the historical developments with regard to this problem do not concern us here.556 What is of crucial importance, however, for the understanding of the local Church in the Orthodox tradition is the question whether the parish could be called in fact a “local Church.” The complication arises out of two basic considerations:
(i) The ecclesiological principle of the identification of the Church with the eucharist, or rather with the eucharistic community. Since the parish is precisely a eucharistic community, it becomes almost imperative to call the parish an ἐκκλησία.
(ii) The episcopal ministry. The office of the bishop in the early Church is essentially that of the president of the eucharistic assembly. All the liturgical and canonical elements in the ordination of the bishop presuppose the primitive situation whereby there was in each eucharistic assembly – and by extension in each city Church – one bishop (all bishops’ names in the early Church, beginning with the times of Ignatius of Antioch, bear connection with a particular city), who was surrounded by the college of the presbyters (he was in fact one of the presbyters himself) and was called “presbyter” for a long time (cf. Irenaeus). What the emergence of the parish did was to destroy this structure, a destruction which affected not only the episcopal office but also that of the presbyter. For it meant that from then on the eucharist did not require the presence of the presbyters as a college – an essential aspect of the original significance of the presbyterium – in order to exist as local Church. An individual presbyter was thus enough to create and lead a eucharistic gathering – a parish. Could that gathering be called “Church”?
The answer to this question has been historically a negative one with regard to the Orthodox Church. I personally regard this as a fortunate thing for the following reason: the creation of the parish as a presbytero-centric unity, not in the original and ecclesiologically correct form which we might describe as “presbyterium-centered,” but in the sense of an individual presbyter acting as head of a eucharistic community, damaged ecclesiology seriously in two respects. On the one hand, it destroyed the image of the Church as a community in which all orders are necessary as constitutive elements. The parish as it finally prevailed in history made redundant both the deacon and the bishop. (Later, with the private mass, it made redundant even the laity.) On the other hand, and as a result of that, it led to an understanding of the bishop as an administrator rather than a eucharistic president, and the presbyter as a “mass-specialist,” a “priest” – thus leading to the medieval ecclesiological decadence in the West, and to the well-known reactions of the Reformation, as well as to a grave confusion in the ecclesiological and canonical life of the Eastern Churches themselves.
It is for these reasons that we should regard the proper ecclesiological status of the parish as one of the most fundamental problems in ecclesiology – both in the West and in the East. The Orthodox Church, in my understanding at least, has opted for the view that the concept of the local Church is guaranteed by the bishop and not by the presbyter: the local Church as an entity with full ecclesiological status is the episcopal diocese and not the parish. By so doing the Orthodox Church has unconsciously brought about a rupture in its own eucharistic ecclesiology. For it is no longer possible to equate every eucharistic celebration with the local Church. But at the same time by so opting it has allowed for the hope to exist for the restoration of the communal nature of the local Church, according to which the local Church can be called ἐκκλησία only when it is truly catholic, i.e. when it includes (a) the laymen of all cultural, linguistic, social and other identities living in that place, and (b) all the other orders of the Church as parts of the same community. Thus one can hope that one day the bishop will find his proper place which is the eucharist, and the rupture in eucharistic ecclesiology caused by the problem “parish-diocese” will be healed in the right way.557
With the development of the metropolitan system and gradually of that of the patriarchates in the ancient Church the center of “local” unity was shifted from the episcopal diocese to larger geographical units comprising the dioceses of a province under the headship of the bishop of the metropolis of that province. This development, which survives only nominally today in Orthodoxy (cetrain bishops are called “metropolitans” but in fact the metropolis as an entity does not exist any longer, having disappeared together with the ancient Roman or Byzantine province), has not essentially altered the view of the local Church as identical with the episcopal diocese. The metropolitan system having developed in close connection with the synodal practice in the ancient Church represented an “occasional” or “casual” sort of Church “localization,” coinciding with the meetings of the synods. As the principle of the essential equality of all bishops became a basic feature in Orthodox canon law, neither the metropolitans nor the patriarchs ever reached the position of heads of particular ecclesial units representing structures above or besides the episcopal diocese. Permanent synods do exist in the Orthodox Churches, but they are never understood as separate ecclesial “bodies” which could be called “local Churches.” With the development of the famous theory of the pentarchy in Byzantium, a system emerged in Orthodoxy whereby the entire οἰκουμένη comprised five divisions (patriarchates). But in spite of efforts made by some modern Orthodox to give to the patriarchates the name of “local Church,” the principle of the equality of all bishops from the point of view of ecclesiological status has made it again impossible to create a special ecclesial entity out of the patriarchate.558
Finally, in this historical survey we must mention the idea of autocephaly by which the Orthodox Church is mainly known today. The principle of autocephaly is based on the modern concept of the nation, as it was developed mainly in the last century. According to this principle, the Orthodox Church in each nation is governed by its own synod without interference from any other Church and has its own head (patriarch, archbishop or metropolitan). In the present state of theological confusion in which Orthodoxy finds itself, it is customary to call these autocephalous churches “local Churches” and thus very often allow for the possibility to have the episcopal diocese so absorbed by the entity called “autocephalous Church” as to bypass it entirely through either a permanent synod or the head of the autocephalous Church, neither of which is always truly representative of all the dioceses – local Churches of that particular area.559
II. Questions Concerning the Theology of the Local Church Today
1. Ecclesiality and Locality
The term “local Church” comprises two aspects corresponding to the words of the term, neither of which should be taken without the other. The first aspect is that of locality; the other is that of ecclesiality. If these aspects are taken together, the question that must be constantly raised is the following twofold one: what makes a Church “local” and what makes a local body “Church”? For not every gathering of Christians is automatically “Church” and not every Church is necessarily “local.” If we apply the perspective of eucharistic ecclesiology to this question, we are led to the following remarks:
(a) The Church is local when the saving event of Christ takes root in a particular local situation with all its natural, social, cultural and other characteristics which make up the life and thought of the people living in that place. Just as it happens in the eucharist where the people offer to God as the Body of Christ all that is “His own” (the fruits of the earth together with the products of their everyday labor), the same must apply to the Church’s life, if it is to be truly local: it must absorb and use all the characteristics of a given local situation and not impose an alien culture on it.
(b) But this absorption and use of local culture may make a Church local but not necessarily Church. For the saving event of Christ does not purely and simply affirm human culture; it is also critical of it.560 What aspects of culture are to be excluded from absorption and use by the local church, if it is to be not just local, but also “Church”? The answer to this question depends on the theology one holds in general and on one’s priorities as to what is essential or not in the Christian faith. If the eucharistic perspective is allowed to play a decisivie role in this case, the criteria of ecclesiality can be reduced to no more than the following one.
The eucharist is the moment in the Church’s life where the anticipation of the eschata takes place. The anamnesis of Christ is realized not as a mere re-enactement of a past event but as an anamnesis of the future,561 as an eschatological event. In the eucharist the Church becomes a reflection of the eschatological community of Christ, the Messiah, an image of the Trinitarian life of God. In terms of human existence this mainly means one thing: the transcendence of all divisions, both natural and social, which keep the existence of the world in a state of disintegration, fragmentation, decomposition and hence of death. All cultures in one way or other share in this fallen and disintegrated world, and therefore all of them include elements which need to be transcended. If the Church in its localization fails to present an image of the Kingdom in this respect, it is not a Church. Equally, if the eucharistic gathering is not such an image, it is not the eucharist in a true sense.562
With such existential criteria in mind we can be more specific by asking the question: what concrete form should a local Church take in order to be both “local” and “Church”? Here the following structural elements become essential.
(a) If in a given locality there is more than one cultural element – as is the case, for example, in many of our modern pluralistic societies – the Church should make efforts to reach these elements through its missionary activity by making full use of such cultural elements in the preaching of the Gospel. In these efforts it may be necessary to form groups and assemblies of people sharing the same cultural elements for a further deepening of the understanding of the Gospel. The same can be true in cases where pastoral and not simply missionary purposes prevail. In order to meet the needs of people who work in places other than the ones they live in, simitar assemblies can be formed to relate the Gospel to particular professional and intellectual or social conditions.
(b) These groups or assemblies formed on the basis of a particular culture, class, profession or age should learn to regard themselves not as Churches, and be taught to seek the experience of the Church only in gatherings where all ages, sexes, professions, cultures etc. meet, for this is what the Gospel promises us to be the Kingdom of God: a place where all the natural and cultural divisions are transcended. Insofar as the eucharist is regarded to be such – and only such – an eschatologically inspired gathering, its celebration must be reserved for this kind of experience alone. And insofar as the Church reflects in her nature this eschatological destiny portrayed in the eucharist, only such gatherings should be named “"Church.” Other gatherings are not unrelated to the Church or eucharist; they are extensions of the reality of the Church. But they lack the element of catholicity which is suggested by the eschatological nature of both Church and eucharist and could not be called Churches.
(c) This kind of approach to the ecclesiality of the local Church puts the geographical aspect of locality in an advantageous position compared with other aspects of “locality,” such as culture or profession. For the geographic “place” can serve as the common ground for the meeting of the various cultural and other elements ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ, “in the same place” – an expression so significantly used for both Church and eucharist in the New Testament as an expression of geographical locality. In this kind of approach the geographical aspect of locality appears to be an indispensable element in the concept of the local Church.
(d) A ministry of such a local unity is necessary if this transcendence of natural and cultural divisions is to take place. Whether one calls this ministry episcopacy or otherwise is irrelevant for the theology of the local Church. What appears to be necessary in view of what we have just said is that the ministry should be tied up with (i) the eucharistic assembly as its head, and (ii) a particular geographic area. It is only if these two conditions are kept that the office of the bishop can make sense to ecclesiology.563 Other ministries of local unity such as the presbyterium and the deacons become essential elements, depending on the “typology” of the eschatological community one regards as fundamental to one’s theology.564 But certainly the gathering of the laos in its entirety – i.e. in all its “local” aspects – is an indispensable form of local Church structure. For it is this that proves the Church to be “catholic.” Without some form of “congregationality” there is no local catholicity.
2. Locality and Universality
From what has just been said it follows that the “catholicity” of the Church is not to be juxtaposed to locality: it is rather an indispensable aspect of the local Church, the ultimate criterion of ecclesiality for any local body. Universality, however, is a different notion and can certainly be contrasted with locality. How does the concept of universality affect our understanding of the local Church?
It is in the nature of the eucharist to transcend not only divisions occurring within a local situation but also the very division which is inherent in the concept of geography: the division of the world into local places. Just as a eucharist which is not a transcendance of divisions within a certain locality is a false eucharist, equally a eucharist which takes place in conscious and intentional isolation and separation from other local communities in the world is not a true eucharist.565 From that it follows inevitably that a local Church, in order to be not just local but also Church, must be in full communion with the rest of the local Churches in the world.
For a local Church to be in full communion with the rest of local Churches the following elements are involved:
(a) That the problems and concerns of all local Churches should be the objects of prayer and active care by a particular local Church. If a local Church falls into indifference as to what is going on in the rest of the world, it is certainly not a Church.
(b) That a certain common basis of the vision and understanding of the Gospel and the eschatological nature of the Church exist between a local Church and the rest of the local Churches. This requires a constant vigilance concerning the true faith in all local Churches by every single local Church.
(c) That certain structures be provided which will facilitate this communion. On this point some further explanations become necessary.
If the locality of the Church is not to be absorbed and in fact negated by the element of universality, the utmost care must be taken so that the structures of ministries which are aimed at facilitating communion among the local Churches do not become a superstructure over the local Church. It is extremely significant that in the entire course of church history there has never been an attempt at establishing a super-local eucharist or a super-local bishop. All eucharists and all bishops are local in character – at least in their primary sense. In a eucharistic view of the Church this means that the local Church, as defined earlier here, is the only form of ecclesial existence which can be properly called Church. All structures aiming at facilitating the universality of the Church create a network of communion of Churches, not a new form of Church.566 This is not only supported by history, but rests also upon sound theological and existential ground. Any structural universalization of the Church to the point of creating an ecclesial entity called “universal Church” as something parallel to or above that of the local Church would inevitably introduce into the concept of the Church cultural and other dimensions which are foreign to a particular local context. Culture cannot be a monolithically universal phenomenon without some kind of demonic imposition of one culture over the rest of cultures. Nor is it possible to dream of a universal “Christian culture” without denying the dialectic between history and eschatology which is so central, among other things, to the eucharist itself. Thus, if there is a transcendence of cultural divisions on a universal level – which indeed must be constantly aimed at by the Church – it can only take place via the local situations expressed in and through the particular local Churches and not through universalistic structures which imply a universal Church. For a universal Church as an entity besides the local Church would be either a culturally disincarnated Church – since there is no such a thing as universal culture – or alternatively it would be culturally incarnated in a demonic way, if it either blesses or directly or indirectly imposes on the world a particular culture.
In conclusion, all church structures aiming at facilitating communion between local Churches (e.g. synods, councils of all forms etc.) do possess ecclesiological significance and must be always viewed in the light of ecclesiology. But they cannot be regarded as forms of Church without the serious dangers I have just referred to.
3. The Local Church in a Context of Division
Our actual situation in the Church is more seriously complicated by the fact that the local Church has to be conceived in a context of confessional division. The concept of the Church as a confessional entity (Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran etc.) is historically a late phenomenon and has come to complicate the ecclesiological situation to an alarming degree. For in addition to a culturral pluralism we are now faced with a confessional pluralism on the local level. Can we draw a parallel and apply what we said about cultural transcendence also to confessional pluralism? Can we say that as the eucharist brings together Jew and Greek, male and female, black and white, it should also bring together Anglican and Lutheran and Orthodox etc. in a certain local area? In fact this is what the practice of intercommunion implies. The objections to this practice by the Orthodox are well-known and I do not wish to repeat the same arguments here. I should simply like to raise two questions bearing on the nature of the local Church.
(a) Has a confessional body per se the right to be regarded as Church? If the condition of ecclesiality is to be inseparably linked with that of locality, the answer is definitely negative. A Church must incarnate people, not ideas or beliefs. A confessional Church is the most disincarnate entity there is; this is precisely why its content is usually borrowed from one or other of the existing cultures and is not a locality which critically embraces all cultures.
(b) Can a local Church be regarded as truly local and truly Church if it is in a state of confessional division? This is an extremely difficult question. If the notion of the local Church with all the implications we have mentioned here is to be taken into account – if in other words the Church is a true Church only if it is a local event incarnating Christ and manifesting the Kingdom in a particular place – we must be prepared to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches as such, and begin to work on the basis of the nature of the local Church. This cannot be done overnight, for confessionalism is rooted deeply in our history. But we must be ready to admit that as long as confessionalism prevails no real progress towards ecclesial unity can be made. Taking the reality of the local Church and its theology more seriously than we have done so far may prove to be of extreme importance to the ecumenical movement.
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The preposition “in” is also used in the Pauline letters in connection with the local Church. The significance of this way of speaking lies in the idea that the Church “dwells” in a geographical place as a “visitor” (πάροικος). This is closely connected with the eschatological nature of the eucharist to which we shall refer again.
If Justin’s evidence in his I Apology (ch. 65) means that the Christians of the villages outside Rome would go to the city for the Sunday eucharistic assembly, it would appear that in spite of practical difficulties even in a Church as large as that of Rome in the second century the principle which is emphasized by Ignatius of Antioch, that there should be only one eucharist under one bishop in each place, seems to be observed. This seems to be the case until the village Christians acquire their own bishops (the chorepiscopoi) which are witnessed for the first time in the second century.
In my book The Unity of the Church in the Eucharist and the Bishop in the First Three Centuries (1965 – in Greek).
The existing evidence is rather obscure but it is noteworthy that there is not a single case where the term “household Church” would appear more than once with reference to the same city in the same text.
For a detailed discussion of this complex historical problem, cf. my above mentioned book.
In practical terms the only proper solution would be the creation of small episcopal dioceses. This would be an excellent thing from many points of view. For example: (a) it would enable bishops really to know their flocks and be known by them, which woil automatically improve the pastoral quality of episcopacy; (b) it would reduce the load of administration which the bishops have at present, thus enabling them to function primarily as presidents of the eucharist which is their ministry par excellence; (c) it would make it possible for the collegial character of the presbyterium to reappear in the extremely significant ecclesiological sense it had in the ancient times (cf. the synthronon of the ancient cathedrals), which would strengthen the much weakend importance of the presbyter, especially in the Orthodox Church; (d) it would make it unnecessary to maintain the scandalously uncanonical institution of the assistant bishop, which is a modern western invasion into the Orthodox tradition. The existence of small episcopal dioceses is clearly evidenced by ancient tradition (when Gregory the Wonderworker became bishop of Neocaesarea he had only seventeen faithful in his diocese!).
I maintain the view that the ecclesial status of any unit in the Orthodox Church other than the episcopal diocese does not derive from the unit itself but from the episcopal diocese or dioceses involved. This applies not only – as we have seen – to units smaller than the diocese (e.g. the parish), but also to larger ones. Thus, a metropolis, an archdiocese or a patriarchate cannot be called a Church in itself, but only by extension, i.e. by virtue of the fact that it is based on one or more episcopal dioceses – local Churches which are the only ones on account of the episcopal eucharist properly called Churches. This also means that a metropolitan, patriarch etc. owes his ecclesiological status to the fact that he is the head of a particular local Church.
In order to avoid turning the autocephalous Church into a unity deriving its ecclesiality from itself and not from the episcopal dioceses it involves (cf. previous note), it is necessary for the head of each autocephalous Church to be surrounded by a synod of bishops belonging to that area. However, this synod should be representative of all the episcopal dioceses of the area. Wherever circumstances permit it, all bishops either simultaneously or by way of rotation should be members of such a synod.
This is indicated by the fact that the eucharist is preceded by baptism. The world cannot become Church without some kind of purification.
Cf. the thesis of J. Jeremias in his The Eucharistic Words of Jesus with regard to the New Testament. The ancient liturgies (e.g. those of John Chrysostom, Basil etc.) preserve exactly the same interpretation of “anamnesis” when they speak of “remembering” in the eucharist not only the past events of salvation, history but also the second coming. This remembering of the future is an essential aspect of the eucharist.
A eucharist which discriminates between races, sexes, ages, professions, social classes etc. violates not certain ethical principles but its eschatological nature. For that reason such a eucharist is not a “bad” – i.e. morally deficient – eucharist but no eucharist at all. It cannot be said to be the body of the One who sums up all into Himself.
These two conditions were faithfully kept in the ancient Church. They have been seriously obscured if not at times disregarded in later developments and practice in the Orthodox Churches themselves.
It was, for example, an indispensable part of the ecclesiological consciousness of the early Church to have a ministry portraying the apostles surrounding Christ and “judging the twelve tribes” of the New Israel. This gave rise to the ministry of the presbyters (cf. Ignatius of Antioch etc.). To the extent that this consciousness survives in the Church, the institution of the presbyters acquires its indispensability in the structure of the local Church.
For a detailed discussion see ch. 4 above.
This is not to deny that there is only one Church in the world. But the oneness of the Church in the world does not constitute a structure besides or above the local churches. Any ecclesial communion on the universal level should draw its forms from the local Church reality. It is not an accident that the synods according to Orthodox canon law are composed only of diocesan bishops. All forms of ministry of universal ecclesial communion should have some local Church as its basis.