Notes on the Conference at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
June 4 through 7, 2008
Meeting of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius
Rome, Constantinople and Canterbury, Mother Churches?
By The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius is eighty years old. It was founded in England to encourage person to person ecumenical dialogue and fellowship between Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox. The fellowship publishes the highly respected journal Sobornost. The mission of the Fellowship has been expanded over the years to include Christians of other traditions who are committed to East-West dialogue. The Fellowship website is http://www.sobornost.org/. MP3s of all the talks are available at http://ancientfaith.com/specials/svs_jan2008/.
The conference was held at St. Vladimir’s in Crestwood, New York which is in a leafy suburb just outside New York City. The facilities were lovely. The conference began and ended each day with Orthodox liturgies in the beautiful but intimate chapel and on Saturday there was an Anglican Eucharist celebrated in the Anglo-Catholic style by Bishop Keith Ackerman in the Church of St. James the Less in Scarsdale, N.Y. The rector there, Fr. Tom Newcomb is an old friend from S.E.A.D. days. The conference was international with many attendees from England who were supporting the re-launch of the Fellowship in North America. There was quite a wonderful atmosphere of genuine Christian hospitality and charity generated by the Orthodox and one could not doubt the genuine desire on the part of our hosts to have real koinonia with Christians of other traditions. Of course this fellowship could not extend to sharing the Eucharist. There was a good showing of Anglican participants both as presenters in attendance. I saw many friends from S.E.A.D. days and from Mere Anglicanism. There were faculty from Trinity, Nashotah House and Berkeley at Yale.
The topic of the conference was the meaning of primacy both in terms of the primacy of a mother church and the meaning of episcopal, regional and universal primacy. The topic is pertinent to the ecclesiological crisis in the Anglican world. The Orthodox world is split into competing jurisdictions which means that a given city may have as a dozen or so different Orthodox bishops. The Orthodox are painfully aware of the negative impact of this reality on mission. There is also a hot discussion in the Orthodox world about whether the Ecumenical Patriarch, the first among equals of all the Orthodox primates, should be the bishop of an old imperial capital with a dwindling flock and who is compromised by the interference of a government hostile to Christianity.
The first speaker was Metropolitan Phillip (Saliba) of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. This is the Orthodox jurisdiction that has ordained a number of former Evangelicals including Peter Gilchrist, the former Intervarsity worker. They have also developed a Western rite liturgy that is oriented toward former Anglicans. His topic was “Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451, Relevant or Irrelevant Today?” Canon 28 of the Council proclaimed that Constantinople as the new Imperial capital or the New Rome should have the same dignity and authority as the old Rome in ecclesiastical matters and that the Metropolitan of Constantinople should be Patriarch and Primate of the churches in the old Eastern Roman provinces and that all the metropolitans of these provinces should be ordained by him. Metropolitan Phillip identified three kinds of canons; dogmatic canons, contextual canons and dead canons. He identified as dead canons several canons that were essentially anti-Semitic including a canon that forbade the Orthodox to consult Jewish doctors or bathe with Jews. He said that he had Jewish doctors and also bathed in the ocean where certainly Jews had bathed and so had run afoul of these “dead canons.” Dogmatic canons are things such as canons defining the Incarnation. Contextual canons are canons developed to respond to particular historical situations and ++Phillip put Canon 28 in this category. He pronounced the idea of Rome, second Rome (Constantinople) and third Rome (as Moscow is called) “absurd.” These sees have had pre-eminence in the past because of their political significance. These canons defining their primacy have been historical and administrative and they are no longer relevant. Jerusalem alone has a claim to primacy which is not contingent on changing historical and political circumstances.
The application of Canon 28 in North America has created chaos and led to a proliferation of competing jurisdictions. Metropolitan Phillip gave a very scathing indictment of the ethnocentrism of Orthodoxy in North American and their lack of missionary and evangelical zeal. He spoke very forcefully against the notion of the Orthodox in North America as a diaspora. This concept encourages overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions. He spoke of the need for a united Orthodox jurisdiction in North America and of the failures of SCOBA (Standing Committee of Orthodox Bishops in America). He ended by saying that the church in North America was mature enough to govern itself and should not be organized ethnically and encouraged the beginning of unity with the clergy and laity on the local level. He called for the creation of an inter-Orthodox commission in Geneva to vigorously address these problems.
As an aside in his lecture Metropolitan Phillip told the story of Peter Gilchrist coming to him. It was very moving story told with great humility by a man with a warm missionary heart who felt that the Lord was presenting him with a clear challenge to respond to the Great Commision.
After each talk there was a time of questions and answers. There were a number of thoughtful comments but I noted the response of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware who is one of the most widely published Orthodox authors in English. He has been a long time Oxford Don and supervised the thesis of Rowan Williams among others. His comment was that the purpose of the church is to celebrate the Eucharist which unites all people of all races. He said that the Orthodox needed to get away from autocephalous ecclesiology (each national church as independent and self-governing) and should not practice canonical fundamentalism, taking canons out of context.