08 December 2018

Hints toward a post-imperial ecclesiology?

Chapel interior, Imperial Winter Palace at Saint Petersburg

Our Orthodox Church, at the moment, is dealing with some rather bad cases of imperial hangover, which lie behind the current schismatic tensions between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Œcumenical. That’s ‘cases’, with a plural. It seems it takes a people with a long history of subjugation – under the Byzantines, under the Turks, under the French – to see clearly that Constantinople is no more free of imperial vainglory than Moscow is. The Arab Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch understand perhaps better than anyone else the dangers of the ideology of Rōmiosunē to the fabric of a local church, and thus seem to have the best degree of perspective on it. And it is an unfortunate reality, as no less sharp a commentator than John Milbank seems to realise, that modern Greek nationalism – remember that the bulk of the Philikē Hetaireia were drawn from the Phanariots as well as Balkan Greeks and the diaspora! – is largely a façade constructed of deliberately-abstracted Romantic fantasies, and a deliberately-selective historiography of ‘interval’. What stands in now for an ideology of empire is in fact little more than a pathetically ‘thin’, narrow and exclusionary self-assertion of an imagined ‘Greekness’. I will say this for the Russkiy mir, at least it acknowledges something of the differences between nation and state.

In all seriousness, we Orthodox should be listening with special and rapt attention to the Arab Christians on this question. The Orthodox who live in the Arab world and in Africa are uniquely fitted to comment on the current entangled crisis of ‘imperial hangover’ and nationalism embroiling the faith, because of their experiences on the political side of the question, not just the ecclesiastical. They are, in a real rather than in an imagined or appropriated sense, heirs to the Non-Aligned Movement. They had to live through a long era of world superpowers fighting proxy battles on their front porches, often to the great detriment of their flocks and their communities.

With all of this in mind: a recent interview with Fr Jivko (Panev) by the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, posted on the excellent website Orthodox Synaxis, shows us just how deeply this question of nationalism and our wholly-inadequate response to it as a Church is really biting us in the bottom now. He highlights in particular, the close links between autocephalism (the idea that every ‘nation’ ought to have its own church) and phyletism (the ideology of race-nationalism as applied to ecclesiology). He points out in no uncertain terms that the entire project of Poroshenko’s ‘local church’ in the Ukraine is an autocephalist and phyletist project. And he points out how deeply (and how obviously) the whole of the Ukrainian problem is tied up with the no-less-painful experiences of the nineteenth-century Balkans: not just Greece, but also Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.

It is therefore highly interesting to me, that Fr Jivko closes his interview on a note drawn from Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović) of Montenegro, who believes that the Constantinian period of the Church is at an end, and instead calls respectfully for a return to our ‘pre-imperial structure’. Long story short, I can’t help but agree with him – but what a burden that is! As Metropolitan Amfilohije himself makes clear, we cannot, and should not, proceed from here without some clear view of what we will carry forward with us, and how we will carry it.

We are, whether we like it or not, a Church of imperial legacies. We don’t get to choose that, and never really have gotten to choose it. But despite the potency of our Orthodox imperial hangovers nowadays, we are ironically a long way from the rich and honourable imperial legacy of multivalent and mediated loyalties that was such a hallmark of Byzantine statecraft. We carry forward from that imperial legacy of mediated loyalties certain intellectual and practical habits of symphonía and sobornost’. But without a practical framework for living them out even in our ecclesiastical life (to say nothing of the gæopolitical one!), those terms are just so much hot air.

Given my familial loyalties and ties to both of these places, I hope my gentle readers will forgive me this brief note of favouritism. But it seems to me that the places which seem to have best preserved (or recovered) the uniquely-Byzantine memory of this multi-dimensional fabric of loyalties – the places which never really collapsed national feeling into the ready-imported mould of the Westphalian nation-state or into absolutism – are Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Even in a materialist sense, the Yugoslav legacy of œconomic democracy seems to be an indicator of the longevity of these habits.

Long story short: we Orthodox need to get our act together, and soon. I don’t think this is a question anymore. That particular bad news has been dropping on our doorstep in overabundance for years now. The good news is, that we are not without intellectual or practical resources for addressing it. Those resources don’t do us much good, though, if we cannot find the grace to accept them where they are found – even and especially if they are found in poor and humble places. Our Church’s imperial legacies don’t have to be a ‘weight of chains’ (to badly mix the metaphors deployed by two very different Yugoslavs, Saint Justin Popovich and Boris Malagurski), if we see fit to harness them with a certain degree of generosity, creativity and eirenicism. May God grant it that we find them.


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  2. The Constantinian period of the Church was not ideal even back then. It should have never become an empiral Church under Roman emperors' rule. That policy resulted in the split of the Church between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental. Orientals preferred the split rather than being subjects to the Byzantine emperors since the real Christian faith never obliged them(or anyone) to become ones. Mixing up politics and religion is a decease which roots in the Constantinian period of the Church. The Church should have never become a tool of emperors neither Roman, nor Russian, nor any others.
    As for the Russky mir thing, at least many Russians do realise that this ideology is more political than religious. I am more surprised when the Greek bishops keep saying that Orthodoxy preserves Hellenism. Although it may be true, it's definitely not the reason why Jesus Christ created the Church. Nowadays, amongst some Russians and Ukrainians, especially young and educated ones, there is another trend popular which is called 'uranopolit'. The word obviously is of Greek origin, and it is usually interpreted as being a patriot of the Heaven in the first place instead of any mundane political or national idealogy. I assume this attitude may cure all Orthodox from their idealogies which mix up religion with nation or politics, if all of them embrace it. It looks fair for everyone.