Learning to Live “Synodically”
A few weeks ago, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of days in Istanbul for a gathering of Orthodox scholars from around the world. The purpose of the meeting was twofold: a) an opportunity for the Ecumenical Patriarch to learn about a “younger generation” of Orthodox scholars, our areas of concern and interest, and how these areas intersect with the work of the Patriarchate; b) a meeting with His Eminence Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon to discuss the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. The news about the gathering, including the statement from His All-Holiness to the group, photos, and the list of the participants can be found on the patriarchate’s website.
The discussions about the Council were wide ranging. Over four hours, we learned how challenging it has been to develop the statements that the Council will review for final ratification and even to plan for this historic event. Others have discussed many of those challenges. A statement made by Metropolitan John to us bears repeating and reflecting upon. He said, “We are learning to live ‘synodically.’”
The word “synod” in Greek is synodos and combines syn- for together, odos for road. In the Synaxarion, we read of a saint and his or her synodia, the companions, the fellow-travelers, as it were. A synod is an experience of walking together, to be on the same road. Is this what Metropolitan John meant?
When I was in elementary school, our teachers required a class to line up straight to move from one place to another (do they still do that?). It taught us discipline and kept order in the hallways. On the way home from school, my friends and I would walk as a group (do children walk to or from school any more?), with someone leading, some lagging, some off to the side. The loudest voices often dominated any conversations, but not always. On that walk, there could be many different conversations. Sometimes everyone talked about the same thing; sometimes the conversation would be just with the person walking closest to you; and we didn’t always agree on everything. But, we walked the same path. We walked together daily.
There are instances of “walking the same road” in the Gospels. As an itinerant teacher, we see Jesus teaching in many places, including as he moved from one place to another. As a result, his followers would walk with him as he taught, including “on the road.” For example in Mark 8:27, they traveled to Caesarea Phillipi. The pericope records only one conversation—the famous, “Who do you say that I am?” discussion—but it is easy to imagine that there could have been many conversations occurring between Jesus and his disciples, or between the disciples on their journey. They probably did not walk in a line, but in a group, with some closer to Jesus than others, some in the back, lagging behind, perhaps others off to one side. Yet they still walked the same road as one group.
Rarely are groups univocal, speaking with one voice. And we can be alarmed when a group does achieve that level (have you seen the political rallies on television lately?). But we pray in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and inseparable.” The love we share as Christians unifies us and we are able to speak as one body and confess our Faith. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church to speak as one (See Acts 15:27, “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord”. Recall how statements from the Councils are collective statements of the Church’s Faith, usually beginning “We…”). Conciliar documents direct the leaders on the path to follow in matters of doctrine and praxis. Our goal in the Church is to care and maintain for our unity through dialogue and conversation, to ask for the Holy Spirit to enable us to walk together, so that we may speak as one community and so that God speaks through the Church.
If I understood Metropolitan John correctly, the fourteen autocephalous churches—the four ancient patriarchates and the more modern nationally organized patriarchates and churches—are learning what it means to walk together as one group, as one Church. For decades and centuries, they have shared one Faith, but lived largely independently, making decisions for themselves. Now they are trying to walk together and make decisions for all. Like any group walking together, there are many voices, many conversations, many interests, making it challenging to speak as one. This Council’s great challenge will be to overcome local interest in favor of global commonality.
Two American aphorisms might be helpful to understand the challenges inherent in this forthcoming Council. As the US Congressman Tip O’Neill so famously put it, “all politics is local.” In this situation for the Council, local interests and conversations could prevail over the global. The second is “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to how any action may be received by a mainstream audience or consumer. In the case of the Council, statements and actions of any participant may be for consumption back home, rather than necessarily for the good of all. In response, perhaps the words of Augustine of Hippo are useful, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, compassion"—should that be, "love," since the Latin term is caritas?
The upcoming Council, will be a first step in learning to live synodically. Which or whose conversations will matter the most? Will it be only Constantinople and Moscow’s? Will it be possible for other voices to get a word in? Will it be possible to speak as one? Will the global needs of Orthodoxy prevail over any local or narrow parochial interests? Will the synod reach accord and agree to walk together on the same road?
Anton C. Vrame, Ph.D. is Director of the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Adjunct Associate Professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA.