Ecclesiology and Nationalism in the Postmodern Era
Archpriest Chad Hatfield · January 16, 2014
Bobby Maddex interviews Dr. Paul Meyendorff, the Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology and the editor of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly journal, about a 2012 conference on Orthodox ecclesiology and nationalism that took place at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, the papers from which have just been published in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly.
Mr. Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Voices from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I’m Bobby Maddex, Operations Manager of Ancient Faith Radio, and today I will be your host. Joining me is Dr. Paul Meyendorff, the Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology and the editor of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly journal. The most recent edition of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly features papers presented at a conference called “Ecclesiology and Nationalism in the Postmodern Era,” and this took place in May of 2012 at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece.
Dr. Meyendorff was a presenter at this conference and is here to talk about both it and this special issue of the journal that he edits. Welcome to the program, Dr. Meyendorff.
Dr. Paul Meyendorff: Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you.
Mr. Maddex: So tell me about St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: what is it, what is its purpose, and what sort of content does it typically feature?
Dr. Meyendorff: St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly is an academic journal published by the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. It just completed its 57th year, so it has been in continuous publication since the late 1950s, and it is probably the preeminent Orthodox theological journal in the English-speaking world.
Mr. Maddex: All right. And then, as I mentioned, the papers from this conference are being presented in the journal this time, but give us an idea of what kinds of things would appear in the journal on a regular basis.
Dr. Meyendorff: Well, we receive submissions from scholars, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, from across the world on any number of topics. Most commonly we publish papers on patristics, on liturgical theology, on ecclesiology, but then every so often, we get the opportunity, as in this case, to publish the entire set of papers from an academic conference. This is the most recent. There was a conference in 2010 at St. Vladimir’s on Hellenism and Orthodoxy that also resulted in a double issue containing all the papers from that conference. So when we get either a conference or sufficient papers on a particular topic, then we like to publish thematic issues, because this is an excellent way to encourage kind of academic and theological dialogue in the Orthodox world.
Mr. Maddex: Now if our listeners wanted to get a look at these papers or just get a look at the journal in general, what is the best way for them to do that?
Dr. Meyendorff: Well, they can subscribe, obviously, to the journal, and they can do that through the website of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Bookstore. For readers, especially academics, who have access to ATLAS serials, American Theological Library Association Serials, the full run of The Quarterly is available online by subscription, and usually theological libraries will have a subscription so that patrons can get access.
Mr. Maddex: Excellent. So let’s talk a little bit about the conference now. What was this conference all about? What was its purpose?
Dr. Meyendorff: The conference in Volos, as its title indicates, addressed a critical issue in contemporary Orthodoxy which is obviously the link between Church and state, Church and nationality, Church and ethnic group, and especially for us in America, this is a critical topic, given the current disunity in Orthodoxy in America and the search through agencies such as the Assembly of Bishops to kind of reach a solution to this problem which has now been ongoing for some 90 years.
Mr. Maddex: And then how did you come to receive an invitation to the conference?
Dr. Meyendorff: I had met Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, the director of the Volos Academy, at several ecumenical and intra-Orthodox meetings over the years, and in particular I had given a paper at a conference in Paris three years ago on Fr. John Meyendorff’s role in the autocephaly of the OCA, so I was very glad to be invited, because this gave the opportunity for a voice from the Orthodox Church in America to be heard at an international conference, where our voice is often not heard because of the canonical situation of the Orthodox Church in America, not being recognized by Constantinople and especially the Greek-speaking Orthodox churches.
So it was because of that paper that I had given and because of their desire, obviously, to have a broad spectrum of voices, including someone from North America. I was the only speaker there from North America.
Mr. Maddex: In addition to having written this paper on autocephaly, what in your background, academic or otherwise, prepared you for this conference and the subject matter that it tackled?
Dr. Meyendorff: I was born in France and came to America in 1959 as a child when my father came to teach at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, so I was on the scene in the ‘60s when the question of Orthodox unity in America was a very hot topic, and I was aware of all the conversations that were going on that resulted in the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America. So I was there on the scene, and obviously since then I have been a professor now at St. Vladimir’s for the last 27 years. I’ve been involved in representing the Orthodox Church in America ecumenically in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, so obviously I have a strong, vested interest in Orthodoxy in North America and, in fact, in the vision that was given to us by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, by my father, John Meyendorff, in promoting both Orthodox unity in America and a local, autonomous or autocephalous church.
Mr. Maddex: Was it your decision, Dr. Meyendorff, to feature the papers from the conference in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, or how did that come about?
Dr. Meyendorff: In a conversation that I had with Dr. Kalaitzidis, we were talking about the best way to promote this, and given the importance of the topic he suggested and I readily agreed to publish the papers in The Quarterly, because obviously as the primary English-language journal for Orthodox theology in the world, this was certainly the appropriate place to put that, especially since English is now the international language. Even when Orthodox of different national churches meet together, English is the only common language. So clearly, publication in English was the best way to have the results of this conference be broadcast as widely as possible.
Mr. Maddex: Did any new questions and/or concepts arise at the Volos Conference and in these papers that were particularly surprising or intriguing to you?
Dr. Meyendorff: I think probably the most striking factor was the disconnect between academic theologians and historians and their interpretation of history and what is the official line of the various churches. I think Orthodox theologians are generally agreed that identification of Church and state is a problem. They agree that Orthodox unity is desirable, especially in the so-called Diaspora; in other words, how they call North America. But one does not have that same feeling shared at the ecclesial level, on the level of synods of bishops and primates. This is obviously a huge challenge for Orthodoxy, because in fact the result is that we are not living up to our own theological vision.
Mr. Maddex: Could you give a few example of the history of Church-state relations and nationalism in the context of Orthodox Christian nations? What lessons can we glean from these as Orthodox Christians here in North America?
Dr. Meyendorff: The situation in North America is radically different from traditional Orthodox countries. In most Orthodox countries, Orthodoxy is the primary religion, the faith of the vast majority of the people, so there is a natural connection between society, the state, and the Church, which has its obviously positively characteristics as well as negative, although obviously the danger is, if the Church gets too close to the state, it can lead to problems, as we see for example in Russia today, where the Church has largely become an extension of the state in promoting its foreign policy and so on. Whether one agrees or not with that foreign policy, what happens if the state changes and the state’s policies change? It creates a problem where the Church kind of loses the respect and the trust of the people if it engages, therefore, too much in political affairs.
In North America, the situation is different, first of all, because we have a constitution that promotes the separation of church and state, but also because the Orthodox here are a tiny minority. We represent maybe one, or two at the most, percent of the population. Therefore, the situation here is radically different. Our problem is unity and the necessity to create a local Orthodox church, free of control, in fact, from other churches, many of which are controlled by states. I mean, that was exactly the case back in the ‘60s and 1970, when the OCA received its autocephaly.
If the listeners will remember, the situation was that since the Russian Revolution and the years following the revolution, the old Metropolia, which was the remnant of the old Russian mission, became de facto autonomous. Its canonical status was dubious; it was not recognized by all the other Orthodox churches, although we remained in communion with them and they never said that we were not Orthodox.
But then in the 1960s, when we tried to resolve this canonical situation, we first actually approached Constantinople to see if we could possibly go under them or find some mechanism for solving the canonical problem. They even refused to meet with us, and they said, “Your problem is with Russia. Go to Russia.” This is what then led to the beginning of conversations with the Russian Orthodox Church, and the granting of autocephaly, in other words, independence, from Russia. We certainly had no desire to go under the Russian Church, which at that time was controlled by a Communist government, and we were not able to go to resolve our problem with Constantinople, so autocephaly came out to be almost accidental.
But then obviously the vision behind that and the hope behind that was that this would eventually lead to the reunification of all the Orthodox in this country in one autonomous or autocephalous church, the creation of a territorial church in North America, which is still our dream, but unfortunately now the situation in the Episcopal Assembly is that one sees that that is not a dream that is shared by everyone. The ironic thing is that the only churches that really effectively do share that vision of a united territorial church [are] the Orthodox Church in America and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which also has a vision of a Church that is not nationalistic and that is based on a territorial principle of Church organization. Where we disagree with the Church of Constantinople is the mechanism, the way by which autocephaly is granted, by the way in which such a local church is actually created. Obviously, this is what is on the table in the Episcopal Assembly in the United States right now.
Mr. Maddex: Maybe you could give voice to the other side for a second. How does someone justify not wanting unification to take place in North America? What is the other side’s argument?
Dr. Meyendorff: The other side’s argument is precisely, unfortunately, based on a nationalistic view of the Church. If one sees the Church as the body which allows an ethnic group, whether Russian or Serbian or Bulgarian and so on, to maintain its identity and its links with a mother church and with therefore the society back home, then that is the rationale, then, that is given.
The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, considers itself as the church for Russians within Russian territory, but then also all those of Russian background who willingly submit themselves to her jurisdiction and therefore this provides a kind of rationale of maintaining a kind of colonial structure, which obviously makes unity impossible, especially here in America where even the old Metropolia, the OCA, is now either fifth- or sixth-generation Russian or ever-increasing numbers of converts and a sizeable new emigration from Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, it represents a radically different vision of the Church and ecclesiology, in other words, Church structure and organization, than in fact what is the traditional Orthodox view.
Mr. Maddex: As more and more people do convert, as the motherland and the so-called Diaspora here continues to grow apart, is there a chance that things will change?
Dr. Meyendorff: Well, we can always hope and pray. I think the vision is never totally gone, although, frankly, I think we can honestly say that the dynamism that existed in the 1960s when everybody was talking about Orthodox unity and the need to create a local church, that seems to have declined. One does not hear those voices so much any more, ever since Ligonier, when Archbishop Iakovos presided a meeting that could have led to a united Orthodox Church. As we all know, he was quickly retired, and ever since then things have been, in fact, going in a negative direction.
There was some hope that the Episcopal Assembly would kind of help to foster that vision and bring it about, but I think developments in the last year have indicated that many of the mother churches are not willing to let go and are not willing to support this kind of vision. I think the important thing at this point is to keep the conversation going and to get out of the maze that we find ourselves in, where there’s all these false starts and false endings.
The hope is that we can kind of regain that vision and the urgency of the situation. If our bishops really believed in this vision, this could happen. It almost happened after Ligonier, and in fact we have enough bishops here to create a local council, so in fact all it would take is all these bishops saying, “Let’s get together. Let’s form a local synod,” and present the mother churches with a fait accompli.
If one looks at the historical evidence, in fact, that’s how most autocephalies took place. Typically, they were a fact on the ground and then were recognized, sometimes 20, 30 years later. Actually, in the case of the Church of Russia, it was 150 years after the de facto autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church that this was formally recognized by a council presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch. In other words, things in Orthodoxy move at their own pace, not necessarily at our own pace, and we simply have to hope and pray, and sometimes be brave and courageous.
Mr. Maddex: Very interesting stuff, Dr. Meyendorff. Is there anything else that you’d like to add before I let you go today?
Dr. Meyendorff: Just to express my gratitude. I’m very happy to have this opportunity through The Quarterly and through our conversation to get these issues out on the table and to get our people, at all levels of the Church—bishops, clergy, and faithful in the parishes—to kind of focus once more on these issues.
Mr. Maddex: Well, once again, to acquire a copy of this most recent issue of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, you can go to the St. Vladimir’s Bookstore website, and you can subscribe there. I thank you so much for talking to me about this today, Dr. Meyendorff.
Dr. Meyendorff: You are very welcome. And they can also order individual copies, of this issue or back issues.
Mr. Maddex: Oh, that’s good to know. Very good.
Dr. Meyendorff: We printed extra copies, because we thought there might be some demand.
Mr. Maddex: Very good. Once again, I have been speaking with Dr. Paul Meyendorff. He is the Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology and the editor of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.