The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch
in the Context of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
Inaugural Presentation at St. Andrew’s College, September 19, 2004
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
One of the best known contemporary Orthodox theologians and ethicists, Fr. Stanley Harakas, former professor at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, embraced the reality of Church in the following way:
“It has been the genius of eastern Orthodox Christianity to affirm that the Church in its fullest manifestation is not found in some distant and exalted state of existence, but rather in the local Church. It is the local Church, which gathers all the elements and works of the Church, building the organic unity of the whole Church from the experience of the people of God… It is general Orthodox affirmation that the Church is formed sacramentally… The Eucharist is the sacramental act that constitutes the Church. Thus, those who do not share in the Eucharist are not part of the Church. It is held that when the Church comes together for the Eucharist, regardless of the number of persons present: the Eucharist reveals and manifests the body of Christ in all its fullness”.
Fr. Stanley Harakas, whose articulation of the Orthodox faith became a source of inspiration for many contemporary theologians, in those couple of sentences of his exemplary article, captured the entire mystery of the Church. In this article he elaborated the concept of the Eucharistic ecclesiology, which is the teaching about the Church and her nature based on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, as it was reintroduced by Nicolas Afanassieff in the fifties and sixties of the last century. At the present time this ecclesiology is being presented by a Greek Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas. In the writings of these modern-day theologians, Orthodox theology is being liberated from, as Georges Florovsky would point out, the captivity of the Western theological mind.
In order to comprehend the transformation or the rebirth of modern Orthodox thinking about the nature of the Church – ecclesiology – we have to go to the very first sources of this transformation, which is found in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Allow me just briefly, in a very condensed form, to introduce to you a few elements of his ecclesiology, which are fundamental to contemporary Orthodox thought. As the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters are quite extensive, I’m unable to cover all the essential elements of his ecclesiology. I invite you to read his writings as they are written with humility and the ability beyond that which is earthly.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop of Antioch and, according to the tradition, he witnessed the testimony of St. John. As the third bishop of Antioch after St. Peter, he presented the authentic ecclesiology of the early Church that is defined in contemporary patristic theology as the “purity of Christianity”. It is this Father of the beginning of the second century of Christianity who in his seven letters to the different Christian communities elaborated, or rather introduced in a comprehensive way, the teaching of the nature of the Church as it was understood in the post-apostolic age. It is exactly the ecclesiology of St. Ignatius, as it is presented in those seven letters that became the source for Orthodox ecclesiology of all ages. The principle feature of his ecclesiology is based not on the historical development of the nature of the Church, but rather on the principle of involvement in the life of God. It is the liturgical celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist that became the source and foundation for the existence of the Church. Based on this statement, we may say that St. Ignatius of Antioch was the first in the post-apostolic time to introduce in written form the nature of the Church within the perspective of Eucharistic ecclesiology. Once again, Eucharistic ecclesiology is the teaching about the nature of the Church based on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist celebrated by a local bishop.
The fundamental characteristic of the ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch is the theology of the Holy Trinity – so-called Trinitarian theology that begins the concept of the nature of the Church. In his approach to the nature of the Church, St. Ignatius uses the typological language or language of reference and interpretation in order to define the nature of the Church. In conclusion, the Church is the mystery as the Holy Trinity is the first and fundamental mystery. According to St. Ignatius, the Church as a mystery is to be lived liturgically in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It has immediate consequence on the way we understand the nature of the Orthodox Church. How common is it to make the mistake as members of the Orthodox Church of defining Church in the form of political parties or national identities. How often do we hear at the level of the Consistory Board or parish, statements on the subject of the Church- which in fact- have nothing to do with the ecclesial definition of the nature of Church? For some of us, the by-laws of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church become the principle of the very existence of the Church and there is nothing else beyond it. In effect, the Church becomes a sort of governmental institution with all the rights and privileges appertaining.
The nature of the Church is introduced by St. Ignatius as a mystery of Triune God, as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is in effect the life in God, the Holy Trinity, which has immediate implications on the daily life of the local Church. Because of the use of the Trinitarian typology in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, St. Ignatius defines the ecclesial structure as a typological reference to the Trinitarian life. Based on the foundation of God as the Holy Trinity, St. Ignatius could develop the prime relation in the structure of the ecclesial life of a local Church. The bishop of the local Church, according to St. Ignatius, is a “prototype of God” who stands in the place of God. This might be a reason why there is in the ecclesiology of St. Ignatius so much reference of God the Father to the local Church and her bishop.
Another dimension elaborated by St. Ignatius is the Christological manifestation of the bishop of the local Church, which is based on the theology of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity: Jesus Christ. Based on the Christological character of the Church we can say that the bishop actualizes the Church whenever the Church becomes the body of Christ. In other words, the Christological aspect of the Church becomes real whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist. The Eucharist becomes the theological foundation for the existence of the Church. According to St. Ignatius, the very celebration of the Eucharist in a particular local Church by a bishop makes the Church catholic and complete. St. Ignatius states that wherever there is Jesus Christ, there is the Catholic Church or in Church-Slavonic “Soborney”: not to be understood as the Roman Catholic Church. As a conclusion, the ecclesiology of the local Church is the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church of all ages. In effect, the very nature of the Church is local and Eucharistic, which has immediate implications on the structure of the local Church.
As the Eucharist becomes the foundation for the existence of the Church, St. Ignatius emphasizes the hierarchical structure of the Church based on the celebration of Eucharist. In the concept of Eucharistic ecclesiology, there exists a total dependency of every bishop on the Eucharist and the existence of a local Church. From the other perspective in the sacramental action of a bishop, the Church not only actualizes herself, but the local Church in reverse becomes the basis for the existence of a bishop. According to St. Ignatius, if the theological foundation for the existence of a bishop is founded in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the very nature of the existence of a bishop is also limited to the boundaries of Eucharistic assembly of a local Church. The ultimate function of a bishop is therefore local and Eucharistic.
It is also very important to emphasize the fact that it is St. Ignatius of Antioch who initially used the phrase “katholike ekklesia” in the context of a local Church. Every local Church is catholic as each of them contains the fullness of catholicity in the presence of a bishop in the Eucharistic assembly. This means that the catholicity of the Church in its locality totally depends on the presence of Jesus Christ which is accomplished by the sacramental action of a bishop. On the practical level, this ecclesiological claim suggests that the completeness or catholicity of a particular local Church depends on the presence of a bishop in the Eucharistic assembly regardless of the geographical location or the number of members of the local Church. This is exactly the message of Father Stanley Harakas that I read to you at the beginning of my presentation. The catholicity of the local Church also has a very important implication for the analysis of the position of any local Church in the Body of Christ. If the local Church, according to St. Ignatius, is catholic, then this implies that each local bishop has the completeness and fullness of his position based not on the importance of the locality of his residence, but on the reality of the Eucharistic celebration. As a consequence, the fullness of the manifestation of the local Church makes the local bishop completely independent and equal to all other bishops. This is the main difference between the Eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church and the universal ecclesiology of the Catholic Church presented by St. Cyprian in the third century. This leads us to the next issue related to the concept of primacy in the Orthodox Church.
Based on the nature of a bishop, which is local and Eucharistic, a special emphasis must be placed by modern theologians on the aspect of authority and primacy in the Church. According to St. Ignatius, the concept of authority in the Church is totally local and balanced with the prime relation to the Eucharist. It is exactly this aspect of the Eucharist that limits the authority and primacy of a bishop in the aspect of service and love. It is especially emphasized by St. Ignatius in his letters to the local Church in Rome, where he uses the famous phrase “to preside in love”. Based on the above, it would be misleading to place the ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the sphere of universal ecclesiology, fundamental to the understanding of the Primacy of Rome. The analysis of the ecclesiology of St. Ignatius has an immense importance in today`s discussion among Orthodox theologians in relation to so-called “primacy in the world of Orthodoxy”. If the local Church limits the authority of a bishop to the borders of a Eucharistic assembly of the local Church, regardless of the administrative position within Orthodoxy, how can we understand the imposition of the power or subordination of some of the local Churches over the other local Churches? If the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is the ecclesiology of the local Church, how do we approach the subject of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine in a historical and ecclesiological context? How often do we make the mistake by attaching ourselves to so-called canonical Churches, forgetting that the phenomenon of the local Church based on the territorial-country factor is only a recent development.
Another question, which relates to our immediate situation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, is the ecclesiological implications of the points of agreement of our Church with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Have we ever, as a Church, approached the question of the impact of the points of agreement on the ecclesial life of UOCC in a systematic and constructive way? Is it enough for us to leave the question on the side unanswered? If the question is not answered, what does it mean for the future generations of our Church? There is another question that has to be addressed in relation to our own Church by-laws. If the ecclesiology of the local Church expresses itself in its fullness in the Eucharist celebrated by a local bishop, how do we understand the question of acting and auxiliary bishops presented and defined in our official Church by-laws? If the local bishop defines his fullness of authority by the Eucharistic assembly of a local Church, how is it possible that the same authority of a local bishop is limited by the by-law of our Church to the authority of an acting bishop? How do we define then a position of an auxiliary bishop of our Church by our by-law in the context of the Eucharistic ecclesiology? These questions and many more have to be addressed in the future if we want to clarify our own present ecclesiological situation.
Some of the questions are addressed to all of us, as we are the members of this specific local entity. It is time for us to discuss them with an open mind, acknowledging that the ecclesiological situation of the Orthodox Church in North America and our Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada is, from one side, an ecclesiological anomaly, but from the other, a reality that cannot be ignored by anyone. If the Eucharistic ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch is the only proper ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, there is a wide open-window of opportunity to present our own ecclesiological identity in a proper forum and context. It might be a wise method to approach the question of the Orthodox diaspora not from the side of jurisdiction, but from the Eucharistic locality presented by St. Ignatius of Antioch. It would be a return to our own ecclesiological roots that embrace and safeguard our own ethnic and cultural identity.
The Eucharistic ecclesiology of the local Church, as it is presented by St. Ignatius of Antioch, has another very important dimension in regard to the contemporary discussion of the globalized world. Properly understood and explained, the ecclesiology of the local Church might be the only solution for the Orthodox Church in the globalized society, where the concept of territorial definition of the locality might no longer be applicable. Exactly here we approach today’s inauguration of a new academic year for the students of our Seminary.
St. Andrew’s College is the institution raising future generations of leaders for our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. It is a place that has direct impact on the directions of our Church in the future. Therefore, it is a place where the future is being shaped not only in the minds of future clergy and leaders of our Church, but also in the definition of our ecclesiological identity. In a way, it is a unique and highly responsible place, where the future of our UOCC is created and modelled. Because of the need to clarify the ecclesiological position of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada within the frame of the Points of Agreement and by-law and because of the situation of the Orthodox diaspora in North America, there is a tremendous opportunity for the College to take a lead, at least in the context of Canadian Orthodoxy, for this discussion. As one of only two Orthodox seminaries in Canada, the College has an opportunity and a responsibility to stand firmly on ecclesiological grounds of St. Ignatius in order to lead the process to the completion.
In conclusion, we have to emphasize the fact that members of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada need an educational leadership that will teach them and explain the principles of the ecclesial life of our Church. If this need is not fulfilled and there is a lack of educational leadership within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, there will be a tendency among the faithful of our Church to fill up the vacuum with the assumptions and even elements of ecclesiological democracy so dangerous for the stability of our Church. The educational leadership of the College embraces not only the staff and professors of the Seminary, but also you, the seminarians, as future leaders of our Church. You all become an integral part of this process and you will learn based on the personal examples of faith of your professors and on the truth expressed in the frame of your classes. In order to achieve such a goal, there is a need to re-direct the philosophy of our thinking as a Church and as members of the Orthodox Church in the world. Because of the fullness of catholicity of the local Church lead by a bishop in the Eucharistic assembly, as this was discussed in the subject of ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we are called to take the leading role in discussion regardless of our position in Orthodoxy in the world. It is time for us to leave behind the perception of religious, cultural, or ethnic less-worthiness. We are called by St. Ignatius to the realization that because of the fullness of the local Church in the Eucharistic ecclesiology we are entrusted to capture the reality of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the highest form of ecclesiological honour and dignity.
In order to achieve these highly responsible goals, let me offer you an example from Church history that can serve as an example to overcome the perception of less-worthiness. The best example may be found in patristic literature, specifically in the life of Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neocaesarea. Although he had only seventeen faithful members in his diocese when he became the bishop of this local Church, his conviction in Christ led him to overcome the perception of his less-worthiness. Because of the fullness of the local Church presided over by Gregory the Wonderworker, there was the strength and conviction to achieve the highest. It is not the number of members of the local Church that counts at the very end, but the ability to see the eschatological reality of the Kingdom that is beyond our logic and our worldly fixations.