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Alexander Schmemann

"Unity", "Division", "Reunion" in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology

Adress given at the Annual Conference of the Fellowship of S. Alban and St Sergius at Abingdon, England in August 1950.

From Theologia, ΚΒ, 1951, p. 243-254

Chapter II

The question of the unity of the Church has already been discussed from widely different angles at this Conference (2). I will, therefore, confine myself to one aspect of the problem which, it seems to me, is of fundamental importance. It is the difference between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic methods of interpreting the organic unity of the Church. I refer explicitly to Roman Catholicism because I believe that one of the first tasks of Orthodox ecclesiology is to find a way of freeing itself of certain Roman influences. These influences can be detected in our very notions of the organic unity of the Church and, to my mind, they are especially dangerous since their true nature is concealed for a number of Orthodox theologians by the age-long resistance of Orthodoxy to the See of Rome ; this resistance has only too often been a substitute for any fundamental discussion of our «ecclesiological differences». At first sight it would seem that the only aspect of the Roman doctrine of the Church that is unacceptable to the Orthodox is the teaching on the Papacy as laid down by the Vatican Council, a teaching regarded as a mere heretical superstructure on a doctrine in all other respects Orthodox. Yet, I believe, it is important to realize that the doctrine of Papal Primacyand, anterior to this dogma, the very existence of Papalism are but a logical consequence of a particular conception of the Church's «organic unity». In a simplified form this conception may be defined as follows : in the Roman theology this organic unity, the Church as an organism, is primarily the Universal Church, that is the totality of the visible Church on earth, which, in the unity of its organization and in its universal structure, is the manifestation and the extension of the Mystical Body of Christ. «Un Dieu, un Christ, un baptệme, une Eglise institutionnelle et sociétaire», says Father Congar (3) and for him this implies a conception of the Church in terms of «parts» and of the «whole», and Roman theology seeks for a definition of the-Church in which) according to the same Father Congar, «les différentes parties aient vraiment dans un ensemble qui soit proprement un tout, un Statut de parties qui soient proprement des parties» (4). The universal organism of the Church, as a whole, is ontologically anterior to its different parts, and it is only in and through the «whole» that the «parts» are united to the Church. It seems to me that it is precisely this conception of the unity of the Church, as one visible, universal organism, that postulates a single head—one universal bishop in whom this unity is grounded and fulfilled. Thus, the Church, as a universal organism, as a «whole», is the Church of Rome—«Ecclesia Sancta, Catholica et Romana», as we read in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis, «through which we become members of the Body of Christ».

The essential difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism on this point is, as I will attempt to show, vital and relevant to the problem of reunion. The Orthodox view, as it seems to me, may be expressed as follows: the category of organic unity can properly be applied only to a local Church. I should like to make it quite clear that by «local Church» I mean not one of those ecclesiastical groupings coterminous with nations or states, which we call autocephalous Churches (such as the Greek Church or the Russian Church), but a single community united under the headship of one bishop and possessing, in unity with him, the fullness of sacramental life. Such a local Church can alone be called an «organism» in ecclesiastical language and such a Local Church, as an «organism», a sacramental body, is not a «part» or a «member* of a wider universal organism. It is the very Church itself. I am aware that in making this statement I am laying myself open to the criticism of many Orthodox theologians who tend to conceive of the Church in the very terms of a «universal organism» which are used by the theologians of Rome. Nevertheless I believe that the view I am submitting to you to day directly and logically follows from the Orthodox conception of the Church's catholicity. was the subject of a previous Conference of the Fellow- ship, and I shall not endeavour to repeat in detail what was said on that occasion (5). I will only remind you that, in the Orthodox view, Catholicity» is not the Church's universality, but primarily its wholeness, the wholeness of its life always and everywhere. It follows from this definition that such categories as «the parts» and «the whole» are inapplicable to the Church, because the Church is catholic in so far as within it the «part» is not only in agreement with the whole, corresponds to and submits to the whole, but is identical with and embodies the whole: the part, in other words, is the whole. The Church is catholic in time and space. In time, because she is not only always linked to the Apostles «horizontally», but is in fact the same Church, the same Apostolic community, gathered, επί το αυτό (Acts, 2, 45, 47). It is catholic in space because each local Church, in the unity of the bishop and people receives the fullness of gifts, is taught the entire Truth and possesses the whole Christ; «and where Christ is, there is the Church». «Totus Christus and therefore, «tota Ecclesia». The Apostolic succession which is the basis of the Church catholicity in time is likewise the basis of her catholicity in space: it signifies that each local Church possesses not a portion of the Apostolic gifts, but their fullness. What may be termed the «horizontal» structure of the Church is the prime condition of her catholicity ; while her catholicity is the fullness of the Church, always and everywhere, the fullness given to her in Christ which, in the last instance, is but the fullness of Christ himself: «totus Christus, Caput et Corpus».

The unity of the Church cannot be divorced from her catholicity, cannot obey any other law except the law of catholicity, in terms of which the essence of the Church is «l’ extension et la plenitude de la Sainte Incarnation, ou plutôt de la Vie Incarnée du Fils avec tout ce que pour notre salut il connut: la Croix et le Tombeau, la Resurrection le troisième jour, 1' Ascension dans les Cieux, la Session à la droite du Pére»(6). In other words, the nature of the Church's unity is primarily sacramental, for it is in the Sacraments that the fullness of Christ is ever actualized and we become participants in it, ever sealing, through this communio in sacris, our organic unity with one another in Christ's Body and constituting together one Christ. But the very sacramental nature of the Church's unity presupposes the use of «organic» categories with reference to the local Church. The Local Church is that sacramental organism which in its bishop possesses the fullness of Christ, the fullness of unity, of holiness, of catholicity and apostolicity, in fact those very notae Ecclesiae which are but the signs of the Church's organic unity with Christ : Caput et Corpus. A bishop cannot be a bishop of a part of the Church, for his very unity with his own Church is not only the image of the unity of Christ with the Church, the unity of the people of God, but is also the real gift of fullness, actualized eternally in sacraments.

The fatal defect of Roman catholic ecclesiology, from this point of view, is that this organic character of the Local Church as the basis of unity has been transferred to the Church Universal, which has become in fact one enormous Local Church, requiring, consequently and naturally, a single bishop as a focus and a source of the fullness of the Church. If the Church is a Universal Organism it must possess its own universal bishop, just as a Local Church possesses an organic unity in its own bishop. Dom Clément Lialine, in his commentary on the Encyclical Mystici Corporis, drops a very significant remark, driving the doctrine of the organic unity of the Universal Church to its extreme conclusions. Commenting on the passage of the Encyclical which deals with the place of the Eucharist in the unity of the Church, Father Lialine remarks: “on pourrait ajouter que l'image du Corps Mystique se réalise parfaitement quand c'est le grand Prêtre du Christ sur terre qui célèbre lui-méme le Saint-Sacrifice” (7). No clearer evidence could be found of the fact that the whole theology of the local Church and of its link with the bishop, as expressed for instance in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, has here been transposed to the function of the bishop of the Church Universal. But, in the Orthodox view, this transfer signifies that universalism has been substituted for the catholicity of the Church, for its eschatological fullness, which enables us always and everywhere “in this world” “to actualize” the whole Christ and to bring the whole Church, in all its fullness and saving power, to the people; and so this transfer would prevent two or three gathered together» from being the witnesses of the full reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is my firm conviction that, if it were to adopt these categories of a universal organism, Orthodox theology would inevitably lead to Rome. It is indeed impossible to go on maintaining, as the Orthodox frequently do, that, although the Church is a Universal organism, it has no visible Head, for its invisible Head is Christ Himself. This assertion is due to a failure to understand the very relationship between the «visible» and the «invisible» within the Church. If the Church is catholic, then its invisible essence is verily present and incarnate in its visible nature and its visible structure; these are not mere symbols, for the visible Church is verily the body of Christ.

But what then do we mean by the unity of the Churches and what is the nature of the visible unity of the whole Church in the whole world? It is clear that if the Roman concepts of the «parts» and the «whole» cannot be applied to this unity, the unity must be ontologically expressed in terms of an identity; It follows that the unity of the Churches is just as real as the organic unity of a local Church, which is indeed the Unity of the Church and not merely unity among the Churches. The point is not that all these local churches together constitute a single organism, but that each church, as a church, as a sacramental unity, is the same Church, manifested in a given place. This identity is based on the identity in the sacramental structure of every Church : on the Apostolic succession, on the episcopate, and on the sacraments. And so we return to the same organic unity of the Church, but in which the churches are not complementary to one another, are not “parts” or “members”: each of them and all of them together are nothing but the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.


1. Adress given at the Annual Conference of the Fellowship of S. Alban and St Sergius at Abingdon, England in August 1950.

2. The paper read at the Conference by Fr. Lionel Thornton. C. R. «The Unity of the Church—A Biblical Approach» has been printed in «Sobornost» series 3, N 8, Winter 1950. pp. 324—334.

3. M.—J. Congar, Chretiens Désunis. Principes d" un «cecuménisme> catholique. Paris, 1937, p. 109.

4. Ibid. p. 241.

5. Cf. E. Every, «The Catholicity of the Church» in «Sobornost» Series 3, N. 6, Winter 1949, pp. 233 — 238 (an analysis of what had been said at the Conference by the Orthodox and the Anglicans theologians) and G. Florovsky, (an Anglo-Russian Symposium) London, 1934, pp. 51—74.

6. Florovsky: L’Église : sa nature et sa tâche. In «L'Église universelle dans le Dessein de Dieu» vol. I, 1949, p. 70.

7. Dom Clement Lialine. Une Etape en Ecclesiologie. Irénikon 1950, tiragè a part.

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