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Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, this text has had a revolutionary impact on Catholic-Jewish relations as well as on Catholic relations with other religions.

Particularly noteworthy in Nostra Aetate is its break with the adversus Judaeos tradition that had been a part of Christian thought and practice since the second century (some would put it earlier). Thus after Vatican II the Catholic Church disavowed its former blaming of the Jews for the Crucifixion, and the theological anti-Judaism that followed from the fixing of that blame upon the Jews.

There is no comparable declaration in Orthodoxy, and I think it not unfair to say that, after some promising beginnings the Orthodox Christian-Jewish dialogue is at best in hibernation at the moment. Might the upcoming Great and Holy Synod take up this subject?


For anyone interested in ecclesiology, one of the most striking (and under-reported) events of the recent Synod on the Family was Pope Francis’s address on Saturday, 17 October commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. Many of the English-language news reports covering the speech called the address a call to a “more decentralized” church. Although this is true enough, summarizing the pope’s speech in this way doesn’t do justice to the truly revolutionary vision of the church it sets forth. The quotes from the text here are taken from the English translation of the original Italian, found at the Vatican website linked to above.

Read the entire address; it’s not lengthy. Francis’s insistence that “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium” should be music to Orthodox Christian ears. Francis notes that “the Synod process begins by listening to the people of God, which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office”, according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet”” [what affects all must be discussed by all]. Thus he invokes a central point in Orthodox arguments in the 20th century about what must be the basis upon which Orthodox and Catholics enter into full communion: the practice of the undivided church of the first millennium. Note, however, that he quotes a truncated version of the saying, which reads: quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet: “What affects all must be discussed and approved by all,” an interesting omission in light of what he says a few lines later about the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

At the same time, Francis interprets authority in the church in terms of kenotic service (my term):

Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that “Church and Synod are synonymous”,(19) inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the “journeying together” of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.

He goes on slightly later in the address to reaffirm St. John Paul II’s call for a rethinking of the exercise of papal primacy in an ecumenical context:

I am persuaded that in a synodal Church, greater light can be shed on the exercise of the Petrine primacy. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as a Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time — as Successor of Peter — to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.(29)

While reaffirming the urgent need to think about “a conversion of the papacy”,(30) I willingly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: “As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware […] that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God’s faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”.(31)

These are extraordinary things to hear from a Bishop of Rome. How will we Orthodox respond?

If you care about Orthodox theology, you should be following the news coming out of the Synod on the Family called by Pope Francis. Yesterday the second round of language group reports was released. See here for an English translation of the report from the German-language group. It was flagged yesterday as being an especially important report for its reflections on justice, mercy, pastoral care, and the development of doctrine in the church. I was a little surprised that there was no reference to Orthodox views on the practice of oikonomia, or Orthodox practices regarding second (or sometimes even third) marriages; Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, moderator of the group, is an expert on Orthodox Christianity in general, and on Orthodox theology in particular. Perhaps the group felt it more important to buttress its arguments from the Latin tradition (ranging from St. Thomas Aquinas to St. John Paul II). Perhaps our own lack of consensus on the practice of oikonomia was a factor in the group’s silence about it. Who knows? In any event, take a look. This is a report that provides a very different perspective from some that have made the news in the past few days.

In case you haven’t read it, Metropolitan John’s comments at the launching this past June of the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.

A snip from the back cover of a booklet in my library:

in all probability

Here’s a link to a scan of the entire front and back covers:

Towards the Great and Holy Council

Canadian archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher has told the Synod on the Family, currently being held in Rome, that the church ought to consider letting women become deacons. I am unoptimistic about the possibility of this good suggestion receiving much serious discussion at the synod. If you read the discussion about the archbishop’s intervention in the Washington Post article here, it becomes clear that the use of historical precedent has become a no-win proposition. Women cannot be deacons today because either a. the historical sources are unclear about the exact functions of women deacons in the past, therefore we cannot say what they should be today; or b. because today, the diaconate is seen as a step on the road to priesthood, historical witnesses to the existence of women deacons in the past are irrelevant.

Both arguments, it seems to me, miss the point. Tradition is not about reference to a normative past. It has to do with (in the words of the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky) “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” For churches that accept this understanding of Tradition (i.e., Orthodox and Catholic), the task today is to listen to what the Spirit is saying. Rather than using history as an excuse, we ought to see the renewed interest in and discussion of historical witnesses to women deacons (in their various forms and ministries), and the renewed call for the ministry of women deacons in the church today, as signs that the church must listen and act, faithfully and creatively. Whatever women deacons were in the past, what might they be today?

Afterword: will the subject of women deacons come up in a meaningful way during the Upcoming Great and Holy Synod?

Afterword 2: that it didn’t occur to me to ask about the UGaHS as I wrote this post obviously reveals much about my low expectations for that august body.

Since I broke off writing here, a lot has happened in my life that has to do with the subject matter of this blog. The most significant thing as far as practical theology goes is my being hired this past spring by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary to teach in their D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry) program. I taught one course this late spring and through the summer, including a week-long intensive on campus in Crestwood. The title of the course was “Liturgical Life and Pastoral Ministry,” which basically had to do with a rereading of the work of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and his critics, with an eye to the significance of his thought for the liturgical life of local parishes. The course members came from a wide range of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, and all were a joy to work with. I’ve been told that I will be doing more teaching in the future, including courses in the St. Vladimir’s M.A. and M.Div. programs, beginning in fall 2016. In the meantime, you can find me on the SVS faculty page, listed as a Sessional Assistant Professor of Liturgical Theology.

All this has happened against the backdrop of my accepting the fact that I will never be allowed to teach theology here in Finland. Sure, I know . . . “never say never,” and all that. Still, my experience the past several years (most recently this past spring, which was the proverbial last nail in the coffin) has shown me that these days, whether in university or church, someone who teaches in English, and who was educated outside the Finnish university system, has no genuine chance of being hired for a permanent position — or indeed, of being asked to do anything beyond the very occasional talk (thank you for such opportunities, Filantropia and Fr. Heikki!).

Not directly related to my own situation, but still what seems to me a disturbing development here, at the kirkkopäivät this August I heard that some in the church now look down on St. Vladimir’s as an inferior institution of theological education. If this is true, it only redounds to the shame of the church here. It only reveals how blinkered the church here has become. Or perhaps it reflects the extent to which the xenophobia and populism on the rise here have poisoned the local Orthodox church as well.

So where does this leave me? To be honest, these past few years have been something of a master class in confronting the demons of bitterness, anger, and despair. Can I say that, like St. Anthony emerging from his tomb, I have returned to the world radiant with spiritual health and wholeness? No. But at least I see now that death does not have the last word. The temptation to give in to bitterness, anger, and despair is powerful. Still, I can say from experience that life and hope break through the death that oppresses us. This is an experience out of which it is possible to live, to turn the page, to move forward.

Readers of this blog will know how much I love to teach. I couldn’t give that up even if I tried (and I have tried). That love is a constitutive part of who I am. It would appear that the kind of teaching to which I am called will be exercised outside of the “normal” contexts in which it takes place in this world. What those contexts are is still an open question. Writing is one form of teaching (I’m working on a book proposal right now with another SVS faculty member), there doubtless are others as well (such as this blog). I have the courses at St. Vladimir’s, as well as the occasional course here outside the area of theology strictly defined (for example, the course on Art and Spirituality I’m currently teaching at the Taideyliopisto in Helsinki).

So I ask you, dear readers: in this situation in which the unconventional seems to be the context for my teaching now, what other kinds of settings might there be for my teaching?

Dear reader(s),

Here is the first installment of what over time will be a more extensive discussion of the topics I raised in my talk last month at New Valamo. Comments welcome.

“I know what you’re going through” can be one of the hollowest expressions in the English language. It claims a kinship of experience that, ultimately, we may well not have. It is often spoken (or blurted) out of genuine compassion. But it doesn’t speak to the depth of the one who suffers, either as a human being or in the dimensions of their own unique experience. Better, surely, to be silently present with the one who suffers. Words minimize and reduce, rather than acknowledge, the experience of suffering.

Thus I am hesitant to write this. I know that speaking to the mystery of suffering can be an intrusion. But words must, somehow, find their place as well in the experience of suffering. Giving voice to our experience is at the heart of our humanity. By this I don’t mean that everyone who suffers must speak. If words come at all, they must come freely. Theologians sometimes make a distinction between theologia prima and theologia secunda: the content of the faith and its experience versus the second-order reflection on faith done in preaching, theological writing, art, architecture, dance, literature. Inevitably, anything we say about suffering has the character of that kind of subsequent meditation on the reality itself. However, I don’t want to press this distinction too far. In the desire to preserve the otherness of God, and the otherness of our experience of God, theology has created a dualism of experience and expression. That distance can be salutary; but it can also go too far. It can divorce us from our experience. Sometimes we bleed words as we suffer. Perhaps that flow is theologia prima as well.

What follows is an extended meditation on the Eucharist and its relationships to suffering. I recognize the immensity of the topic, and claim no grandiose project to provide “answers” to questions whose resolution is beyond words. I offer no more than a series of reflections on an inexhaustible subject. I’ll be using ritual theory, history of Christian and Jewish liturgy, exegesis of scripture, and a little bit of literary criticism in my discussion. Behind these reflections is a lecture on the Eucharist and suffering I gave at an international course on diakonia at the Valamo Institute, Heinävesi, Finland, on 21 March 2015. As has all too often been the case, there I presented my ideas in very condensed form which needed much more time to unpack. My thanks to the Valamo Institute, and to the organizers of the course, for giving me the opportunity to give the initial lecture and the chance to ponder these questions.

The reader of the English translation of Freedom and the Spirit is hit between the eyes from the very first words of the Introduction:

As Léon Bloy has well said in Le Pélerin de l’Absolu, “Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais” (“Suffering disappears, but the fact of having suffered always remains with us.”). This is a remarkable aphorism demanding the broadest possible interpretation. Victory may indeed be achieved over what has been experienced, and yet that experience is still in our possession as a permanent enhancement and extension of the reality of our spiritual life. What has once been lived through cannot possibly be effaced. That which has been continues to exist in a transfigured form. Man is by no means a completely finished product. Rather he moulds and creates himself in and through his experience of life, through spiritual conflict, and through those various trials which his destiny imposes upon him. Man is only what God is planning, a projected design. (Nicolas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 3rd ed., trans. Oliver Fielding Clarke, 1944, p. vii)

There is much more to this remarkable passage but I don’t want to throw too much text here right now. More in another post.

I’m delighted to be able to let you know about two teaching opportunities I have received in the past three weeks. Just before Easter I was asked to teach a course in the Doctor of Ministry program at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. I am putting together a course entitled “Liturgical Life and Pastoral Ministry,” which will be an extended exercise in liturgical theology. Here’s the course description:

Contemporary Orthodox thought often emphasizes the importance of the Church’s liturgical life for theology, Christian formation, and mission. What does the Church’s liturgical life have to do as well with how we understand and practice pastoral ministry? In this course we will explore the possible meanings of the phrase lex orandi-lex agendi: what and how the Church prays has something to do with what the Church does, particularly in pastoral ministry. Exploring pastoral ministry through the lens of the Church’s liturgical life (in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other sacraments, as well as in other liturgical celebrations) will allow us to reflect critically and constructively on both pastoral practice and liturgical life in the Church today. Course participants will have the opportunity to engage a range of sources (liturgical, patristic, theological, contemporary) as they articulate and reflect critically and constructively on their own pastoral ministry.

The majority of the course will be conducted online, with a one-week intensive on the campus of St. Vladimir’s in July. I’m greatly looking forward to the opportunity to work with Orthodox practitioners of ministry (ordained and lay) on matters of liturgy, theology, and the practice of ministry.

Second, this fall I will be offering a 10-week course on Art and Spirituality at the University of the Arts Helsinki. The lectures I gave there last week (really more seminars than pure lectures, as there was a lot of excellent discussion each day) prompted the request to give a more extensive course on the subject. It’s a very exciting opportunity to teach about spirituality and art in the context of the gifted, diverse community of artists there. I do not know yet the precise day of the week, or the time; the schedule should be worked out by the end of this week.

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