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The Church and the Holy Spirit in 20th Century Russia.

1. As this century draws to a close, this seems an appropriate moment for us to think about the signs and the fruits of the Holy Spirit in time and space, specifically in the Russian Orthodox Church. The 20th century began as a time of great vigour, with an unprecedented upsurge of theological and spiritual energy, culminating in the canonization of St Seraphim of Sarov and the great council of the Russian Church in 1917-18. The advent of atheistic totalitarianism broke the wings of this theological creativity for seventy years. Those who did not die before the firing squads or in the camps continued their way of the cross in silence and in the secret of their hearts, contributing to the purification of the church through their suffering. ("Give your blood and receive the Spirit.")

According to the ways of divine providence, theological thinking continued to find expression in the centres of Russian emigration abroad, especially between the two wars, so that it is not possible to assess contemporary Russian theology without taking into account the exceptional contribution and the quality of the theological work produced by the Russian diaspora.

Today, new generations are at work in Russia itself and promise a rich harvest before long. But the impact of Russian theological thinking in the West has been so extensive, both in non-Russian Orthodox churches and in Catholic and Protestant circles, that we may legitimately question the very notion of Russian theology and its frontiers.

It seems to me somewhat arbitrary and dangerous to limit a study of Russian theology to the 20th century, for the boundary between the 19th and 20th centuries is artificial. Certainly, as the present Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev notes in his doctoral thesis on Russian ecclesiology -- recalling the speech given by Alexander Blok twenty years after the death of Vladimir Soloviev, when the poet expressed this intuition, which was subsequently corroborated by events -- January 1901 was set under a radically different sign from December 1900, and the start of the century was full of new signs and premonitions.(1) Nonetheless, ecclesial consciousness at the start of 20th century flourished as the fruit of an enormous body of work already undertaken in the previous century. I would situate this in three principal areas:

a. The role of the spiritual centres and monasteries around the specifically Orthodox charismatic phenomenon of the startsy (elders) -- of Optino, Valaam, Sarov, the holy Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, with the renewal of interest in the Philocalia, inspired by the saints Nicodemus the Hagiorite and Paissy of Moldavia, then St Ignatius Brianchaninov and St Theophan the Recluse, the rediscovery of the spiritual texts, the growing practice of prayer of the heart inspired by "The Way of a Pilgrim", and lastly the charismatic influence of St John of Kronstadt. In short, all this great spiritual and ascetic tradition impregnated theological thinking and greatly contributed to overcoming the divide between theological rationalism and piety.

b. The publication of the complete works of the church Fathers of East and West, each translation accompanied by an outstanding monograph on those authors, which placed Russian historical and patristic studies on a level with Western scholarship. A theological and spiritual tradition, a vision of liturgical life and a deep sense of the church in its catholicity were thus established.

c. Thirdly, I must mention the role and importance of the Slavophile school of lay theologians of the 19th century, from Ivan Kireevsky, Alexis Khomiakov and Aksakov to the Trubetzkoi brothers, not forgetting the man who has been called the Russian Origen of the 19th century, Vladimir Soloviev, and culminating in the long preparation of the council of Moscow. It should be said that this Slavophile school was -- sometimes violently -- opposed to the scholastic theology which Father Georges Florovsky did not hesitate to describe as a "Babylonian captivity". This shows us that scholastic theology is not a peculiarly Western and Roman phenomenon, and that theological rationalism is always an inherent danger and temptation in any theology -- I say this to guard against any hint of Orthodox triumphalism.

2. With regard to the subject of this paper, one would be tempted to develop an ecclesiology and a pneumatology somewhat dissociated from one another. Let me say first of all that the reality of the life of the Spirit and life in the Spirit is deeper and more intimate than theological language about the Spirit, for theology derives from experience but never expresses it in an entirely adequate way. Similarly, the life of the church and life in the church is infinitely more than all we are able to say in our theological or canonical reflection. The danger of theological speculation lies in compartmentalizing chapters of theology, juxtaposing one after the other aspects of the unique mystery of the economy of salvation which actually belong indissociably together, thus betraying the true purpose of theology, which is to translate in divine-human language the indescribable experience of the divine life in human history.

3. The pneumatological dimension was predominantly present in the consciousness of the primitive church, even if, with the notable exception of St Irenaeus of Lyons, pre-Nicene theology was centred more on the incarnate and redeeming Logos. The former, with St Basil of Caesarea, vigorously stressed the central role of the Spirit in the life of the church, the one in opposition to the Gnostics, the other to the Pneumatomachi. This is important, not least because of the relevance of these Christian authors for our ecclesiological reflection today.

The Western creeds dating from the 3rd century and still in use today link the Holy Spirit and the church: "I believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Catholic Church." Here the church is the object of faith, the place of faith and the subject of faith. In the 4th century the Arian and Pneumatomachian controversy prompted renewed reflection on the Spirit-church relationship. The confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the development of an "immanent" trinitarian theology led imperceptibly to talk of the Holy Spirit and the church rather than the Holy Spirit in the church. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed dissociated the two terms still further, emphasizing the divinity of the Spirit, co-eternal and equal in glory and honour to the Father and the Son. Writing in 1968 the future Roman Catholic cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, put it like this:
 The church ceased to be understood in its pneumatological and charismatic
 reality, it came to be considered exclusively under the aspect of the
 incarnation, in much too earthly a fashion, and ended by being explained
 entirely in the categories of power applying in secular thought. But this
 meant there was no longer room for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; except
 where this continued to subsist humbly in pure devotion, it was absorbed
 into abstract trinitarian speculation and so practically, ceased to have
 any function in Christian conscience.(2)

It seems to me that Cardinal Ratzinger's remark could largely apply to our scholastic theologies in the East as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. They are marked by a divorce between theological thinking concerning the Trinity and the church. Trinitarian theology moved in the categories of the immanent Trinity, reflecting on the eternal processions ad intra. Ecclesiology was more preoccupied with the structures of the church, its marks or characteristics, its hierarchical and conciliar organization and the distribution of the sacraments.

The essay that follows will be very personal. Rather than making a repetitious chronological survey, I should like to discuss the writings of those who were in a real sense our Fathers, my Fathers, in the faith and in theological and spiritual awakening. After all, their chronological order is of little importance for today's reader, for they all drank from the same eternal Source of wisdom and grace to which we are invited today.

The signs of the Spirit in the life of the church

First I should like to speak about some of the signs or gifts of the Spirit without which the church would not be the church and which are sometime lacking in our treatises and volumes on ecclesiology.


"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace ..., gentleness," St Paul writes to the Galatians (5:22-23). The theme of joy, which is rare in our classical theological textbooks, appears implicitly as one of the most authentic signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God," ... and no-one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22). This joy is the sign of the breath of the Spirit resting on the poor of the Beatitudes and on those who, following them in the church, are baptized into his death and resurrection (1 Pet. 4:13). Father Alexander Schmemann said on this:
 What is required is a return on our part to that source of energy, in the
 deepest sense of the word, that the church had when it was conquering the
 world. What the church brought into the world was not certain ideas
 applicable simply to human needs, but first of all the truth, the
 righteousness, the joy of the kingdom of God. The joy of the kingdom: it
 always worries me that, in the multi-volume systems of dogmatic theology
 that we have inherited, almost every term is explained and discussed except
 the one word with which the Christian gospel opens and closes.(3)

"When the Holy Spirit fills a man's whole being with the sweetness of his love," writes starets (elder) Silouane, "then in unutterable joy the soul contemplates God."(4) "The Holy Spirit is sweeter than anything that is on earth. It is celestial food, the joy of the soul."(5) The theme of joy is one which recurs most often in the writings of the holy starets as a sure and certain sign of the presence of the Spirit. "My joy, Christ is risen" -- these were the words with which St Seraphim of Sarov welcomed his visitors.


Father Sergius Bulgakov contrasted "rationality" as characteristic of the grace of the Logos with the revelation of the Holy Spirit as beauty:
 Thus, the revelations of the Spirit cannot be perceived by pure reason, but
 by other faculties of the human spirit, where they resound as ineffable
 words which human beings are not permitted to express. The hypostasis of
 the Spirit is the hypostasis of Beauty and we understand that his action in
 nature fills it with beauty, which is already a foreshadowing of the
 kingdom of God through the Holy Spirit.(6)

Sergius Averintsev recently recalled Fr Paul Florensky's comment: "Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God, the most convincing is one which is not even mentioned in scholarly volumes and which can be expressed more or less as follows: `Rublev's Trinity exists, therefore God exists'." And Averintsev concludes on this "logical idea of dazzling simplicity: beauty is not only beautiful, beauty is a criterion of truth and, what is more, of the most profound and fundamental truth".(7)

I am glad to find that, in the thesis on Russian ecclesiology by Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev mentioned above, there is an important chapter on "the beauty of the celestial world as reflected in the architecture of our ancient churches, in the character of the icon, its symbolism, the rhythms of its colours and forms, in the beauty of liturgical worship". He sees this as testifying to the power and depth of theological thinking, drawing on the very sources of the wisdom of the Fathers and fructifying the church's whole life.(8)

To conclude in the words of Fr Sergius Bulgakov: "The beauty of the world is the effect of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Beauty, and Beauty is Joy, the joy of being."(9)

The gift of prophecy

Among the many gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament Fr Sergius Bulgakov gives priority to that of prophecy. He distinguishes between the specific gift of prophecy bestowed on the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the general gift of prophecy accessible to all as a result of Pentecost. The gift of prophecy is thus an intrinsic dimension of the new life in Christ, where human beings deny themselves, take up their cross and realize their divine-humanity in Christ. Not only do they receive the Spirit but they create in and through the Spirit. On this subject Fr Sergius wrote:
 Pentecost is the universal consecration to prophecy for which each one
 receives a special gift (in the sacrament of chrismation: "the seal of the
 gift of the Holy Spirit") ... In this sense, there are no persons in the
 church who do not have their gift. They may be different, but the prophetic
 spirit remains immutably in them, for prophecy is not a special gift nor a
 confession, but the designation of all possible gifts.(10)

Alongside the priestly church (the institutional church with sacraments and hierarchy), Father Sergius thus sets a royal and prophetic church, so taking up the classical division of the three ministries of Christ. The first is organized and defined, the latter cannot be so because it is the result of the breath of the Spirit seeking to restore one church to humanity, over and beyond our institutions and ecclesiological exclusiveness. In Father Sergius's thinking, both the doctrinal charism of the hierarchy and the instinct for Orthodoxy of the whole people of God, as the Guardian of the faith, derive from this pentecostal and ecclesial gift of prophecy.

We find this ecclesiological dualism throughout all Father Sergius's work, in particular in the fairly clear-cut distinction he makes between the earthly, institutional church and the heavenly church. He is in the direct line of the sophiological heritage inspired by Vladimir Soloviev and Fr Paul Florensky. This sophiological theme did not long survive the death of Father Sergius. We cannot ignore some of its deepest insights, particularly concerning the sense of the unity and harmony of the whole cosmos held in the hand of God and reflecting God's glory. Furthermore, as the revelation of the mystery of the divine-human nature of Christ and the joint action of the incarnate Word and the Spirit of God, the church is also, for Fr Sergius, Sophia, on the one hand created in its historical, earthly reality, and on the other divine in its foundation.

Life in Christ

This gift is more than a particular gift amongst others; it specifies the church's very being, for this is the life of God himself communicated in its fullness. Thus for the Slavophiles the church is above all a life, it is not an institution, a doctrine, a system. Ivan Kireevsky had already discovered this certainty in the faith of his wife, who was a spiritual daughter of the staretsi of Optino. Everything in the church depends on love. The church's soul is the Holy Spirit, the grace of God living in a multitude of reasonable creatures who are subject to it.

We may with some justification criticize the gaps in Khomiakov's ecclesiology, with its somewhat excessive pneumatological emphasis. Nevertheless, his pneumatological reaction to the ponderous quality of the ecclesiastical institution, and of scholastic theology, was healthy and bore fruit.

Father Sergius Bulgakov, in the first chapter of his book The Orthodox Church, spoke of the church in these unforgettable words:
 The church of Christ is not an institution, it is new life with and in
 Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit ... The light of the resurrection lights
 the church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills
 it ... The church, in her quality of body of Christ, which lives with the
 life of Christ, is by that fact the domain where the Holy Spirit lives and
 works. More: the church is life by the Holy Spirit because it is the body
 of Christ. This is why the church may be considered life in the Spirit, or
 the life of the Holy Spirit in humanity.(11)


The third and great gift of the Spirit in the church is the gift of love. Human beings participate in the divine life, being bound by the Holy Spirit into the love which unites the three persons of the divinity among themselves. Father Sergius does not hesitate to speak of spiritual eros as the quest of human beings for their Creator. Thus, just as the divine persons are united in love, so in the church on earth human beings are united with one another in love, through the gift of the Holy Spirit in the church through grace. This is koinonia or sobornost, the Pentecostal grace of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the church for ever.

Lastly, Father Sergius conceives of the trinitarian agape, in which human beings participate in the church, as the transfiguration of the terrestrial eros into spiritual eros through the action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the love between the Bride of the Lamb, that is, the church on earth, and its heavenly counterpart, the divine life of the Trinity symbolized by the Bridegroom, the Logos.

Church and Trinity

The church is communion in the image of the Holy Trinity

For Khomiakov, the church is an ideal society, in the image of the divine Society itself, the Holy Trinity; all Khomiakov's ecclesiological research is summed up in the notion of sobornost (conciliarity, fellowship), in which he sees the fulfilment of the trinitarian foundation of the church. Sobornost, for him, is a confession of faith.

At the close of the 20th century we may say that this trinitarian dimension of the church and its ecclesiology is predominant:
 The sole source of unity is God himself. And the sole model of perfect
 unity is the Most Holy Trinity, where the Three Persons form, or rather,
 are one Being.(12)

Lastly, let me quote Father Alexander Schmemann writing on this subject:
 Triadological theology may be applied, by analogy, to the church. Just as
 the three hypostases of the Holy Trinity do not divide the divine nature,
 each of them possessing it fully and in living, so the nature of the
 church-body of Christ is not divided by the multiplicity of the churches.
 But, just as the divine Persons are "numbered" -- in the words of St Basil
 the Great -- so the churches are "numbered" and there is a hierarchy among

The dyad of the Son and the Holy Spirit

In the trinitarian communion which is the church's very life, it is important to emphasize the echoing in Russian theology of the great vision of St Irenaeus of Lyons of the "two hands of God", the Word and Holy Spirit, both of whom are at work in the whole trinitarian economy of salvation and, hence, in the church. One thinks spontaneously of Vladimir Lossky's classical concept of the two economies of the Son and the Spirit, which so marks his ecclesiology. It is only fair to note that this notion of the dyad of the Son and the Spirit is very much present in Fr Sergius Bulgakov's theological synthesis, but it is tinged by his sophiological concepts, which limits the scope and impact of his theology in the Orthodox mind. While preaching a trinitarian theology inspired by the great patristic tradition, Vladimir Lossky always maintained deep respect for and gratitude to the man he considered to the end as his spiritual father. As a result, some of the key concepts in Lossky's synthesis are to be found literally in the writings of Father Sergius -- the notion of dyad, as we have seen, the theme of sobornost in ecclesiology, the dual definition of the church as body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit.

Vladimir Lossky's ecclesiology flows from his exposition of the trinitarian mystery and the trinitarian economy of salvation, in keeping with his conception of the dual economy of the Son and the Spirit. The work of Christ effects the renewal of human nature in the paschal redemption and in the unity of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit communicates the fullness of the divine life to human beings through the gifts of Pentecost, expressed in the life of the church.

Fr Georges Florovsky strongly criticized this vision of the two economies as being too schematic, stressing that it does not give enough space for the believer's personal relationship with Christ, and also that the Holy Spirit is, no less than Christ, the maker of unity. Fr Florovsky, for his part, has a more clearly Christocentric vision of the church, frequently quoting the Augustinian theme Christus totus, caput et corpus to recall, with St Paul, that Christians are one body with Christ. In a sense, he says, "the church is Christ himself".(14) This Christocentric view of the church was largely taken up and developed by a disciple of Fr Florovsky, the present Metropolitan of Pergamon, John Zizioulas.
 The Spirit [writes Michel Stavrou, following Fr Florovsky], is both the One
 who gathers all the faithful and the One who enlightens each one of the
 faithful by bestowing particular gifts, just as Christ bears all of us in
 himself in his body but knows each one of his flock by name, making us the
 adopted children of the Father.(15)

It seems that, towards the end of his life, Vladimir Lossky spoke more of a single "logo-pneumatic" economy of the Son and the Spirit in the work of salvation and the life of the church. He writes:
 Both dispensations -- of the Son and of the Spirit -- are inseparable; they
 mutually condition one another since one without the other is unthinkable.
 One cannot receive the Holy Spirit without being a member of the body of
 Christ; one cannot call Christ "Lord", that is, have a consciousness of his
 divinity, other than by the Spirit.(16)

The revelation of the Spirit as a Person

The hypostatic manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a Person always represents the high point of the successive stages of the economy of salvation Just as the proclamation of the consubstantiality of the Son in opposition to Arianism at the council of Nicea logically required the pneumatological corollary of the second council at Constantinople, so it is with the spiritual road of the believer, Fr Paul Florensky tells us, and also with the course of world history:
 Only at the end of the path of thorns can we see the rosy clouds of
 purified creation ... But in general, on the average, under ordinary
 circumstances, both the personal life of a Christian (apart from its
 highest ascents) and the everyday life of the church (except for the elect
 of heaven) know but little, dimly, and confusedly the Holy Spirit as a
 Person ... It could not be otherwise ... Then history would end; the
 fullness of time would be achieved; ... But as long as history continues,
 only moments and instants of illumination by the Spirit are possible ...
 Yes, the Holy Spirit operates in the church. But knowledge of the Spirit
 has always been only a pledge or a reward -- at special moments or in
 exceptional people ... Of course, in the holy church everything is a
 miracle ... Except for certain separate moments when the believers were
 jointly (and this is the key!) in the Holy Spirit or began to be in him,
 this being in the Holy Spirit did not become an ordinary current of

One of the greatest experts on Fr Florensky, Serge Foudel, notes the inadequacy of Florensky's doctrine on the Holy Spirit. He thinks this fifth letter on "The Comforter" was written as part of his own spiritual quest. Fr Paul recalled the variant in the Lord's prayer quoted by St Gregory of Nyssa, instead of "Thy kingdom come", "Thy Holy Spirit come down upon us and purify us". Following St Gregory of Nyssa, Fr Paul thus identified the Holy Spirit with the kingdom of which the church is merely the foretaste and which will come in its fullness in a future age. This gives his pneumatology a very marked eschatological character which makes him not unrelated to the upholders of the "third testament" and its vision of a new, deeper stage of spiritual life.
 In order that this third age may come, we must first leave the second age.
 To enter into the religion of the Spirit, the world must finally leave the
 religion of the Son.(18)

Such passages cannot fail to disconcert the reader, for Orthodox consciousness refuses to dissociate Christ and the Holy Spirit and to present Christ as a less than perfect revelation. Yet, almost despite myself, I am captivated by the subtlety and depth of his thinking, and by the sweet sense of joy and certainty that radiates from his vision of the Spirit, even when he seems to be lending an ear to the proponents of the "third kingdom".
 On paper I sketch thoughts that I feel more than I can express. It is as if
 some sort of fabric, some sort of body composed of the finest stellar rays
 is being woven in the world's foundations; something is awaited. Something
 is lacking. My soul -- wishing to be liberated and to be with Christ --
 longs for something. And something will come: "It doth not yet appear what
 we shall be" (1 John 3:2). And the more acutely one feels what is being
 prepared, the closer and more intimate will the connection with the mother
 church become, and the easier and simpler it will be to endure out of love
 for her the dirt that is cast upon her. What will be will be in her and
 through her, not otherwise. With quiet joy I await what will be, and Nunc
 dimittis is being chanted and resounds in my tranquil heart for days at a
 time. When that which is awaited comes, when the Great Easter of the world
 is revealed, all human disputes will end. I do not know whether this will
 happen soon, or whether it will be necessary to wait for millions of years,
 but my heart is at peace, because hope already brings to it that which is

In this third theme of the eschatological coming of the Spirit it is important to discern what relates to the consciousness of the Third Age and what belongs to the very essence of the revelation, in the pentecostal and ecclesial fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel, "and in those days I shall pour out my Spirit on all flesh". This eschatological dimension of the Spirit resting on the church runs through all modern Russian theology, from Fr Sergius Bulgakov to Fr Georges Florovsky and, above all, Fr Alexander Schmemann. Fr Florovsky wrote these suggestive words:
 The kingdom has come, for the Holy Spirit himself is the kingdom ... The
 King already reigns. And his glory is already reflected on the children of
 the kingdom called to inherit this kingdom ... The King has come, the Lord
 Jesus and his kingdom are to come.(20)

The very title of the book which may justifiably be considered as the spiritual testament of Fr Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, Sacrament of the Kingdom, clearly expresses his preoccupation throughout his life with discerning in the sacrament of sacraments, the eucharist, the essential mystery of the church in the coming of the kingdom within it, here and now:
 In other words, where the Holy Spirit is, there is the kingdom of God.
 Through his coming on the "last and great day of Pentecost" the Holy Spirit
 transforms this last day into the first day of the new creation and
 manifests the church as the gift and presence of this first and "eighth"

 Finally, the church is entirely oriented towards the Holy Spirit, "the
 treasury of blessings and giver of life". The entire life of the church
 is a thirst for acquisition of the Holy Spirit and for participation in
 him, and in the fullness of grace. Just as the life and spiritual
 struggle of each believer consists, in the words of St Seraphim of
 Sarov, in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, so also the life of the
 church is that same acquisition, the same eternally satisfied but never
 completely quenched thirst for the Holy Spirit. "Come to us, O Holy
 Spirit, and make us partakers of your holiness, and of the light that
 knows no evening, and of the divine life, and of the most fragrant
 dispensation ..." (compline canon of the feast of the Holy Spirit).(22)

Kenosis or self-emptying of the Spirit

Fr Sergius Bulgakov and Vladimir Lossky spoke respectively of the kenosis of the Spirit and the self-emptying of the Spirit.

Fr Sergius sees already in God's creative activity a true kenosis of the Holy Spirit who, in his revelation of himself, stoops down to a life in temporality. In creatures the power of the Spirit acts in a limited way, depending on their respective state, though never lacking. This is why, he says, there can never be a revelation of the Spirit as a Person in the church, even though in other respects his gifts are inseparable from his hypostasis. The Holy Spirit having no name of his own, St Sergius sees him as appearing in all humility, in keeping with which he is totally merged into the trinitarian love, while himself being the hypostasis of Love. In the age of the church, the kenosis of the Spirit, for Fr Sergius, means that his action can only be felt depending on the openness and receptivity of the creature, according to the patience of the Spirit.(23) In contradiction with that, however, Fr Sergius saw in Pentecost the fulfilment of the promise of the Saviour in the gift of the Comforter in person.(24)

While the theme of kenosis in trinitarian theology is special to Fr Bulgakov's thinking and, incidentally, inseparably linked with his sophiological ideas, the difficulty he finds himself in when it comes to situating the boundary between the gifts of the Spirit and the Person of the Spirit is common to all biblical and patristic theology.

Vladimir Lossky deals with this theme in a masterly way:
 The Holy Spirit "mysteriously identifies himself with human persons whilst
 remaining incommunicable. He substitutes himself, so to speak, for
 ourselves; ... We should say, rather, that the Holy Spirit effaces himself,
 as Person, before the created persons to whom He appropriates grace. In him
 the will of God is no longer external to ourselves: it confers grace
 inwardly, manifesting itself within our very person in so far as our human
 will remains in accord with the divine will and cooperates with it in
 acquiring grace, in making it ours ... It is then that this divine Person,
 now unknown, not having his image in another hypostasis, will manifest
 himself in deified persons: for the multitude of the saints will be his

Church and eucharist

In this last section I should like to group together a number of themes around the mystery of the eucharist, as the communion of saints in heaven and on earth in the kingdom which has already begun.

Eucharistic ecclesiology

Modern Orthodox theology is agreed in considering the church's celebration of the eucharist and the liturgy in general as being the place par excellence where the church is made manifest, its epiphany, its identity, the most intense and privileged moment of its existence.

We must obviously pay homage to the important ecclesiological work done by the professors of the St Sergius Institute and St Vladimir's Theological Seminary since the end of the second world war in developing and redefining the principles of Orthodox ecclesiology around the central mystery of the eucharist. Father Bulgakov had situated the beginning of the historical and institutional church in the apostolic community and the breaking of the bread. Father Sergius's reference to the teaching of the apostles and the breaking of the bread assures both the dimension of Orthodoxy and the place of the eucharist at the heart of the church's life.(26) "One may say that in the present age, the church as the body of Christ is strictly this eucharistic body in which the eucharistic gifts are transformed through the action of the Holy Spirit."(27)

It is above all the work of Fr Nicolas Afanassiev which marks the rise of eucharistic ecclesiology, and that indeed beyond the confines of Orthodoxy. He sees the fullness of the church as being realized around the bishop in the eucharist, in the very catholicity of the local church. He contrasts this sense of the fullness of the local catholic church with the Western and legal conception of a universal ecclesiology centred around the monarchical power of the Roman primate.(28)

Father Afanassiev's thinking was continued and corrected by his students, who further elaborated the principal ideas of his "eucharistic ecclesiology". Fr Jean Meyendorff writes:
 This fact throws new light on the writings of the pre-Nicene period. This
 trilogy of church, eucharist, bishop constitutes the modes of the
 incarnation and real presence of the mystery of salvation in space and

The Mother of God in the communion of saints

The importance of the communion of saints, living and dead, united in the mystery of the eucharist is undoubtedly to be understood in the perspective of the church as the Bride of the Lamb. I should like to dwell for a moment on the role of Mary in Orthodox consciousness, for as a general rule this question is passed over in silence in ecclesiological treatises and in ecumenical dialogue.

In fact the Virgin Mary occupies a privileged, even a unique place in Orthodox worship and in its ecclesiological consciousness. The best illustration of this seems to me to be the moving and courageous confession of faith by Fr Bulgakov in his intervention at the ecumenical conference in Lausanne in 1927. He caused considerable emotion and even indignation among the Protestants by introducing the question of the Mother of God in the context of ecumenical dialogue:
 Holiness is the goal and essence of the church's life: the holiness of the
 manhood of Christ, actualized in the communion of saints. But we cannot
 separate the humanity of our Lord from that of his mother, the unspotted
 Theotokos. She is the head of mankind in the church; Mother and Bride of
 the Lamb, she is joined with all saints and angels in the worship and life
 of the church.(30)

Vladimir Lossky, for his part, follows Fr Sergius in likewise reminding us of the centrality of the mystery of Mary for ecclesiology:
 Based on Christology, the dogma of the Mother of God has a strong
 pneumatological accent; and through the double economy of the Son and the
 Holy Spirit, it is inextricably bound up with ecclesiological reality.(31)

He joins Fr Sergius in strongly affirming:
 If the teaching about the Mother of God belongs to tradition, it is only
 through our experience of life in the church that we can adhere to the
 unlimited devotion which the church offers to the Mother of God; and the
 degree of our adherence to this devotion will be the measure of the extent
 to which we belong to the body of Christ.(32)

Sobornost and the Catholicity of the church

The Slavonic translation of the third mark of the church (catholikos) has been the subject of much debate, both in Orthodox theological circles and in ecumenical dialogue. Here I shall confine myself to quoting the criticism made by Vladimir Lossky who accuses the supporters of sobornost of moving away from the original meaning of "catholicity" in favour of conciliarity:
 Catholicity then shows itself to us as an inalienable mark of the church in
 virtue of her possession of the Truth. Indeed one may say that catholicity
 is a quality of Christian Truth ... the mode of knowledge of this Truth
 proper to the church.

That being said, he notes:
 The Slavonic text of the creed translates the adjective "catholic" of the
 original Greek very happily with the word soborny. From this Khomiakov
 produced the Russian neologism sobornost, which corresponds exactly to the
 idea of catholicity which he developed in his writings on the church;
 further, since the Slav root sobor means assembly and more particularly a
 council or synod, the derived words soborny and sobornost thereby take on a
 fresh shade of meaning for the Russian ear, without losing their direct
 meaning of "catholic" and "catholicity".(33)

If for Fr Georges Florovsky "Christianity is a community, a corporation, a fellowship, a `society'" he recalls that "the fraternal unity of human beings itself has an ontological depth, modelled on the perfect unity of the Most Holy Trinity".(34) Like Lossky he sees in catholicity the primitive sense of the integrity of faith and spiritual life, in other words, "the catholicity of that which is within".

The shortcomings in Khomiakov's doctrine of sobornost have been mentioned, notably, an excessive emphasis on its moral aspect, to the detriment of the doctrinal charism of the bishops. To the pneumatological conception in Khomiakov's thinking, Fr Florovsky therefore prefers a more resolutely Christological conception of the church which, in his thought, is fundamental to the hierarchical ministries.

The people of God consecrated in the royal priesthood

Until recently, especially in its ecclesiological volumes, Orthodox theology seems to have followed the typically Western model of marked opposition between clergy and laity, between a "teaching church" and a "taught church", with all the risks and examples of clericalism on the defensive and a laity prompt to contest the exclusive power of the hierarchy.

With the Slavophiles, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow was probably one of the inspirations behind that great text of "confession of faith", the encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848. It proclaims that the whole people of God is the guardian and depositary of faith of the apostolic Tradition. It urges a return to an ecclesiology of conciliarity. The Holy Metropolitan Philaret writes:
 All together and all in succession are constituted by God into one church
 which is the true repository of sacred tradition. The "People" designates
 the whole formed by the hierarchy and faithful together as inseparable and
 complementary elements of the body.(35)

This theme of the whole people of God was taken up in all the ecclesiological thinking of the 20th century, from Fr Sergius Bulgakov to Vladimir Lossky and, above all, Fr Nicolas Afanassiev who made it the core of his principal work, entitled The Church of the Holy Spirit.

I do not need to emphasize the role played by this Russian ecclesiological renewal in the preparation and holding of the council of Moscow in 1917-18. The ecclesial statutes elaborated by the Fathers and the lay members of the council and, still more so, the atmosphere of this council held amidst the turmoil of the revolution, show how much ecclesial consciousness had matured and was seeking to restore the administration of the church according to the canons and the spirit of the Orthodox ecclesiological tradition.

Today, with the canonization of the Holy Patriarch Tikhon and the publication of the decisions and statutes of the council, there is reason to hope that the Russian church will be able gradually to restore the conciliar spirit in its theological consciousness and its canonical practice. It is worth noting that the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese in Western Europe have lived according to the spirit and letter of the statutes of the council of Moscow right up to the present time.

Thanks to the ecclesiological renewal started by Khomiakov around the key idea of sobnornost, the collegiality of the Church, the council of Moscow undertook and legislated on a huge effort of reflection aimed at the reorganization of the Russian Church. It restored the institution of the patriarchate and passed a decree on the participation of the laity in the administration and government of the church. This is a difficult subject and, even today, points of view differ. Orthodox theology has become sensitive to the participation of the laity in the institutions and life of the church, in its teaching and guardianship of the faith. The quest for the place of the people of God has been going on in Orthodox life for more than a century.

Priesthood and laity

Fr Sergius Bulgakov has inherited certain shortcomings from Khomiakov regarding the place of the hierarchy in the life of the church. It would seem that for him it holds its authority from the whole body of the faithful. Fr Sergius distinguishes the institutional church and the divine and heavenly church in a rather too defined and rigid manner. The institutional church appeared as a result of divine action at Pentecost. The heavenly church is eternal and has been already present from the beginning, in paradise (we also find this same idea of the church originating in paradise in the thinking of Metropolitan Philaret). For Fr Sergius, the hierarchical ministries, though belonging to the core of the church, appeared only in the course of its historical development and cannot be considered as an eternal principle.(36)

The very notion of a royal, universal and, one might say, collegial priesthood of the whole church is not an easy question and it is one which caused considerable turmoil in the Orthodox world in the 1960s, especially in Greek academic theological circles. Father Afanassiev expressed this idea in a paradoxical phrase: "Primitive Christianity was a lay movement."(37)

On the subject of this provocative remark, we may say that he sees the rule of the new covenant as abolishing the opposition between the sacred and the profane and he affirms the complete sacralization of the world and the whole of human life which had been profaned. Our life is consecrated, the human being is consecrated as a member of the holy people, the royal priesthood, the living sacrifice interceding for the world. This brings us back to the overarching vision of Paul and from there we move to the eucharistic service and the liturgy. We may then say that the eucharist is an actualization of the unique sacrifice and worship of Christ. It is an ecclesial, priestly celebration for the world, offered by the whole church, in which the whole people concelebrates, communicates, is sanctified and sanctifies. The chrismation of baptism creates this priestly ontology within which there can and must be a diversity of ministries. It is a celebration by the whole people of God which is both "laicos" and priestly; the whole life of all human beings and the whole human person is included, encompassed in this priestly offering. As St Paul says, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God."(38) He uses the same language for the word of God as for the eucharist, for preaching, the inner liturgy or the charitable offering. All this is eucharistic in character.

This means, therefore, that the priestly ministry is a personal charismatic service for the holy people, within the pentecostal and charismatic consecration of the whole church. This being so, according to Fr Afanassiev, the classical theology of ministries and sacraments needs to be rethought. Firstly, it is Christ who is the minister of the sacraments. We find this in the writings of the Fathers and in moderntheology. "You who offer and are offered, you who receive and are distributed." In the ancient Syrian tradition, incidentally, it is the Holy Spirit who is the minister of the sacraments. The two visions are not opposed. The church is where they have their place and their vital environment. The whole people of God concelebrates and bears witness. In this context the function of the hierarchical ministries must be strongly affirmed in the celebration of the sacraments. In that it is Christ who is the celebrant in the Holy Spirit, the hierarchical ministers represent Christ in a special way, but always within the context of the mystery of the priestly nature of the whole people of God.

The participation of the people of God in the eucharist and liturgical worship

Fr Afanassiev deserves due acknowledgment for having set the problem in a new perspective in his book The Service of the Laity in the Church(39) (which became a chapter in his doctoral thesis). This thesis is in many respects brilliant, though it requires certain completions or corrections. Its theme, essentially, is the biblical and New Testament basis of the royal priesthood of all members of the church, in fulfilment of the prophecy of the Exodus.(40) This universal priesthood is confirmed for him by a detailed study of the sacramental rituals of initiation and of the eucharist: laying-on of hands and anointing at baptism, the white robe reflected in the alb of the celebrant, the tonsure of baptism, introduction into the church, the kiss of peace, full participation in the eucharist, the "amen" of the epiclesis and the benediction, the eucharistic prayers spoken aloud. Fr Afanassiev concludes that it is important to stress the value of full participation -- what he calls "the concelebration of the whole people" -- in the church's liturgical, eucharistic actions, presided over by the bishop, surrounded by the presbyters. One could say he is the herald of the ecclesiology of St Ignatius of Antioch.

Fr Afanassiev's second thesis is more debatable, for he rejects the participation of the faithful in the area of administration and instruction, though nevertheless admitting the laity's universal gift of discernment in relation to administration and instruction. This is to say that, in contrast to the council of Moscow which introduced representatives of the laity elected by the parishes into diocesan councils and assemblies, Fr Afanassiev is more reserved, perhaps because of contemporary problems.

As we have seen, all the ministries -- priestly, royal and prophetic -- derive from Christ in whom alone they are fulfilled and accomplished. On the one hand, the whole ecclesial body participates in this royal and prophetic priesthood. On the other, the apostolate of the Twelve establishes the principle of a ministerial and hierarchical transmission of this fullness of gifts and services. After the Twelve, the privileged channels of transmission are their heirs and successors, the bishops. So much so, that we may speak of the episcopal and presbyteral priesthood as the sign and icon of the real presence of Christ. The gifts are concentrated in the bishop, which does not contradict the many apostolic testimonies concerning the diversity of ministries and gifts, of which the pastorate and the government of the eucharistic community are only one aspect. All the gifts relate to the apostolate and the episcopate, but conversely the episcopate must be a centre of diversity of gifts, in the collegiality of the church, experienced through liturgical concelebration of the eucharist.

The people of God as guardian of the faith

None of these gifts figures as power over the church, not even the episcopal ministry. They are placed in the church and not "over" or "outside" the church. For, before Christ the King, the one Pastor, Teacher and Prophet, all the members of the church are members of the people of God, God's flock. All are ontologically "laicos", that is anointed and so consecrated to the royal and prophetic priesthood of Christ and his church. All the laos of God concelebrates in the eucharist of the bishop by replying amen to the epiclesis. This amen has a whole "extra-liturgical" ecclesiological significance. It expresses the proper function of the people, which is to say "yes" in the Holy Spirit, to receive, with the gift of discernment and judgment, the teaching doctrine and preaching of the faith, and to accept the exercise of pastoral power and authority and teaching, in the creative liberty of the children of God. "Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock."(41)

It is important to emphasize the collegial responsibility of the people of God in the reception of the faith and in defending faith and piety. We know the importance of the role played by monks at the time of the ecumenical councils, the councils of Ephesus and Nicea II, and the role of the monastery of Stoudios and St Theodore of Stoudios. This principle of the collegial responsibility of the people of God was established as a rule in the encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848, a document which was received in the Orthodox world as a symbolic text with a certain canonical authority.

The Orthodox are aware of this, even if in reality the functioning of collegiality is somewhat inhibited and often curtailed in our present situation. Fr Alexander Schmemann spoke of a crisis of collegiality in contemporary Orthodoxy. Even for us, the decisions contained in this encyclical and the decisions and statutes of the council of Moscow stand as a given and an ideal which call for a great effort of purification and truth, in the Russian church and in the other churches of the diaspora. For this collegiality is extremely difficult to put in place, at all levels, be it that of the parish, the diocese or the whole church. We should not delude ourselves: we teach a very beautiful theology of collegiality, but unfortunately it is often contradicted by reality.

None of this contradicts either the charism bestowed on the bishop, or his delegates, but it does recall that such delegation cannot be formally limited to ordained presbyters. The Holy Spirit is free to inspire any member of his church for the witness to the faith, for teaching, for the reordering of the pastorate, for free and creative theological research. Here the gifts of reception and discernment of the doctrinal ministries are applied by the people and by the bishops, jointly but separately, according to their respective powers and responsibilities. The episcopate keeps its prerogatives, its function as the mouthpiece of apostolic doctrine, but in unity with the people of God.

Thus, speaking about doctrinal teaching in the church always means speaking about the prophetic role inspired directly by the Holy Spirit, beyond human expectations. It seems necessary to distinguish the extraordinary vocations from ordinary, institutional teaching, which is the preaching of the priest or the bishop. Let us acknowledge that sometimes there is opposition between them. And let us acknowledge too that, in the last analysis, it is the Holy Spirit who dwells in the church and who, beyond the bishop or the people, is the ultimate criterion. It is the Spirit who exercises his discernment and judgment in the eucharistic people.

The participation of the people in the government of the church

The discernment of the people concerning the royal, pastoral function of the hierarchy and its governance is essential. This means constant conciliarity in the local church, at all levels. Without this conciliarity, the bishop is cut off from his church, he does not know his flock, he cannot intercede for them, nor feed them, nor represent them in council. Of course, in the early councils, the bishop carried the people of God so much within himself that the council of bishops was a council in which the whole church was concerned. Today, this relation between the bishop and the people of God seems to take place by way of greater participation by the people in the life and governance of the church than was perhaps the case in the past.

It was partly to counteract a certain aversion to the exercise of collegiality that the council of Moscow developed the principles and procedures for the representation of the laity at all levels in the life of the Russian church, from the lowest echelons up to that of the diocese and the Russian church as a whole. Fr Jean Meyendorff wrote in 1955:
 The participation of the laity in local councils and even in the church's
 preaching is not the rule, but a heresy if there is any suggestion of
 contesting the charismatic gifts of priesthood, teaching and administration
 entrusted to the hierarchy of the churches. However, the participation of
 the laity is a healthy reaction of ecclesial consciousness if it
 demonstrates the royal priesthood of all Christians and their common
 responsibility for the truth and if it is caused by a temporary difficulty
 preventing the service of the "laity" in the church from being expressed in
 a different way, or if it is caused by the hierarchy's incompetence in
 governance and teaching.(42)

By way of conclusion

Our survey of Russian ecclesiology of the 20th century can be neither neutral nor theoretical. I have spoken of the danger of a divorce between the theology of the Spirit and the theology of the church. Essentially this danger is inherent in all epochs of the church's history -- the divorce between the life of the Spirit and life in the Spirit, and also the church's awareness of it, as well as the discrepancy between ecclesiological consciousness and the way in which the basic structures of ecclesiology are applied and practised.

Fr Alexander Schmemann spoke in his day of a crisis of conciliarity in the Orthodox church, in particular in the relation between the hierarchy and the whole people of God. This remains true today. There is a crisis of conciliarity at every level -- parish, diocese, inter-diocese and lastly, inter-Orthodox -- and a crisis, too, of eucharistic consciousness and its ecclesial dimension as the basis of conciliarity.

Crisis in the church essentially means God's judgment on the church, and on our age in which the Holy Spirit who breathes life into the church and who is groaning in the depths of his being, also speaks to the church, challenging it as he did the churches of the Revelation. Who will hear the voice of the Spirit, who will translate for us what the Spirit is saying today to the church in Russia -- and to the church?


(1) Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, "Ecclesiology in Russian Theology", Kiev, 1997, p.259 (in Russian).

(2) Joseph Ratzinger, "Foi chretienne hier et aujourd'hui", Pads, 1969, pp.238-39.

(3) "Liturgy and Eschatology", in Sobornost, vol. 7, no. 1, 1985, p.13. Dostoievsky has one of his heroes say: "You're no atheist, you are joyful."

(4) "Starets Silouane", Paris, 1996, p. 100.

(5) Ibid., p.393.

(6) "Le Paraclet", Paris, 1946.

(7) "De la beaute au divin", in Le Courrier de l'UNESCO, June 1988, p.10.

(8) Op. cit., pp.70-91.

(9) "Le Paraclet", p.193.

(10) Ibid., p.282.

(11) The Orthodox Church, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988, pp.1-2.

(12) "Le Corps du Christ vivant", in La Sainte Eglise universelle, Geneva, 1948, p.17.

(13) "La notion de primaute dans l'ecclesioiogie orthodoxe", in La Primaute de Pierre, Neuchatel, 1960, p.143.

(14) "Le corps du Christ vivant", p.21.

(15) "Eglise et theologie du Saint Esprit" (unpublished text).

(16) "Catholic Consciousness", in In the Image and Likeness of God, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974, p.190.

(17) The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, transl. Boris Jakim, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 1997, pp.81-83.

(18) Quoted by S. Foudel, in Sur le P Paul Florensky, Paris, 1988, p.57 (in Russian).

(19) Op. cit., p.95.

(20) Op.cit., pp.19,30,57.

(21) The Eucharist, Sacrament of the Kingdom, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988, p.36.

(22) Ibid., p.37.

(23) "Le Paraclet", p.327.

(24) On the basis of the texts in "Le Paraclet" and unpublished lectures, Leon Zander, the closest of Fr Sergius's disciples, deals with this question in detail in his book devoted to Fr Sergius's thinking, God and the World, esp. vol. II, Paris, 1948, pp.133ff. (in Russian).

(25) Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, London, 1957, pp.172-73.

(26) See L'Epouse de l'Agneau, Pards, 1984, p.221.

(27) See Leon Zander, God and the World, pp.304-305. Fr Georges Florovsky follows a similar line: "Le corps du Christ vivant", p.20.

(28) Cf. in particular L'Eglise du Saint Esprit, Paris, 1975.

(29) Initiation a la theologie byzantine, Paris, 1975, pp.274-80.

(30) N. Zernov, "The Eastern Churches and the Ecumenical Movement in the Twentieth Century", in R. Rouse and S.C. Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, London, 1967, p.656.

(31) "Panagia", in In the Image and Likeness of God, p.195.

(32) Ibid., p.210.

(33) "Concerning the Third Mark of the Church", ibid., pp.169-81.

(34) Op. cit., pp.16-17.

(35) Quoted by Paul Evdokimov, "Les principaux courants de l'ecclesiologie orthodoxe au [XIX.sup.e] siecle", in Revue des sciences religieuses", t. XXXIV, 1960, p.68.

(36) See L'Epouse de l'Agneau, p.205.

(37) P.N. Afanassiev, op.cit., p.39.

(38) Rom. 12:1.

(39) Paris, 1955 (in Russian).

(40) Exod. 19:6; cf. 1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6; 5:10.

(41) Pet. 5:3.

(42) Fr Jean Meyendorff, "La hierarchie et le peuple dans l'Eglise Orthodoxe" review of the book by Fr N. Afanessiev, Le service des laics dans l'Eglise, in Le Messager de l'ACER, no. 39, 1955-IV, p.40 (in Russian).

* Boris Bobrinskoy is dean of the Orthodox Theological Institute af St Sergius in Paris. This paper was presented at the seventh international conference on Russian spirituality, held at the Monastery of the Annunciation, Bose, Italy, 15-18 September 1999. It has been translated from the French by the WCC Language Service.
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Author:Bobrinskoy, Boris
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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