One of the most frustrating conversations for many is the question is how the Church views the ecclesial status of Christians in non-Orthodox confessions. This frustration, by the way, is not limited to Roman Catholics or Protestants, but shared by many Orthodox Christians. It would seem that BPA is arguing that Christians in non-Orthodox communities both are, and are not, part of the Church. How does this statement arise from the Church’s tradition?
For Orthodox theology, it is “only through relationship with a particular community that each member of the Church realises his communion with the whole Church.” Likewise, a particular community of persons is only a “local Church” through its communion with the whole Church. And yet, even though separated from the whole Church, neither the individual Christian nor the particular separated Christian community is “not cut him off from her altogether” from the Body of Christ. Yes, any estrangement “damages [the] grace-filled unity” of the person or community “with the whole Church body, . . . [and necessarily] distances a person [or community] from the Church to a greater or lesser degree.” (see 1.10) But as the “various rites of reception . . . shows . . . the Orthodox Church relates to the different non-Orthodox confessions in different ways” according to “the degree to which the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession.” (see 1.17)
Having acknowledge degrees of communion or fellowship, the council fathers are just as adamant in their position that these “various rites of reception” are not meant to “assess the extent to which grace-filled life has been either preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession.” Instead because such a determination is “a mystery of God’s providence and judgement” the Church remains silent on the question (see 1.17). What the Church does say is that, on the one hand, that the “ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition” and on the other even in “a divided Christendom, there are still certain characteristics which make it one: the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion.” (1.16)
The key to understanding what is being said here is their observation that “Any sin distances a person from the Church to a greater or lesser degree, but it does not cut him off from her altogether.” (1.10) Our communion with Christ and His Body the Church is not secured simply by our profession of faith, or sacramental life. Much less do canonical norms secure this communion for us. We are all of us only more or less a member of the Body of Christ. This a reference, I would suggest, not simply to Christians in non-Orthodox confessions, but first and foremost to Orthodox Christians and then, only secondarily, to Christians in non-Orthodox confessions.
While at first blush this might seem scandalous (I find myself taken aback by my own words), on further reflection, the history and practice of the Church—East and West—has long acknowledged a relative communion. For example those enrolled among the catechumens (those preparing for baptism) and the penitents (those who had fallen into serious sin and were doing public penance in anticipation of being reconciled with the Church, typically at Pascha) were allowed to remain in the Divine Liturgy through the sermon, but were dismissed immediately afterwards. Why? Because, unlike unbelievers (who were not to be in the services at all), their communion with the Church, while real, was incomplete, and so they were unable fully participate in the sacrifice that was offered in the second part of the Liturgy. The sign of this inability was that they were not, albeit for different reasons, unable to receive Holy Communion.
In the early Church, it is worth noting, this acknowledgement of a limited communion is never taken to be a rejection of the catholic nature of the Church as such. Nor did it turn the grace of God into something “free floating” and divorced from the Body of Christ. The emphasis, I would suggest, in a partial or incomplete communion is not on a rarified view of the Church, but an attempt to take seriously human freedom in response to divine grace. Though they have implications for ecclesiology, statements about an incomplete communion, or so it seems to me, are fundamentally statements about anthropology. I would suggest that, in speaking about incomplete fellowships, the bishops are making statements about the human person, and even concrete human communities, in whom they can recognize at least a partial communion with Christ and His Body the Church. They pass over in silence the ecclesiological status of these communities because their concern is anthropological and not about ecclesiology as such. The tension they are trying to maintain is between God free bestowal of His grace and human freedom to respond to that grace. Though in varying degrees, both of these are essential to communion with Christ and His Body the Church.
To be continued. . .