Self-regulation of the Orthodox ecciesiology
As the majority of the Orthodox churches live in the eastern part of Europe and Russia, in the geographical area of the ex-communist countries, it is necessary that in any description of Orthodoxy the experiences of these churches should be taken into account. The meaning of their experience, in the midst of heavy restrictions and persecutions, remains to be explored and articulated. The end of the cold war, the reunification of the old continent, and the confrontation with a new liberal capitalist society raised new issues. The churches today look for new orientations and programmes in order to meet the challenge of a hybrid post-communist society. Nobody is in a position to propose a synthesis of the post-communist heritage. The fact is that historians did not pay serious attention to it. Even the church authorities do not know how to situate the temptations and weaknesses they suffered and resisted during recent decades. Several conservative positions taken recently by church authorities (on moral and sexu al issues, place and ministry of women, ecumenism) are formulated as if nothing has happened in the evolution of the life and mission of the churches. They try to say that the institutional image of the church as such remained untouched, thus giving a false description of human and historical realities in the post-communist counties.
However, the hermeneutical value of this experience is not lost. Many are the voices, inside and outside the church, who say that the Orthodox cannot continue to operate with an old ecclesiological model, if the realities of the world in which they now live are accepted and evaluated, and especially if they want to prepare the people for a new era of evangelization (in their countries and in Europe) and for the new millennium. The point in this critique is to avoid any generalizations or abstractions about present history and the image of Orthodoxy. A lot of new orientations, projects and reforms are taking place, but without being conceived in a coherent way, and as an integral part of a new fundamental understanding of the church. The traditional profile of the church at the end of a long period of tribulations cannot remain beyond question and criticism.
As a matter of illustration, I will indicate several areas where some methodological change should take place.
Many Orthodox still accept an ecclesiology which makes a sharp distinction between the sinfulness of the individual members of the church, i.e. the faithful who are in need of forgiveness of sins and renewal, and the Church itself, with a capital 'C', which is the body of Christ, holy by her nature, infallible in her doctrinal and moral teachings (ecclesia non potest errare), and the historical manifestation of the coming reign of God (the doctrine on holy/sinful church is at the centre of Reformation-Catholicism confrontation).
There are quasi-magical understandings of apostolic succession and of Tradition, with a capital 'T', conceived as sacred entities overflowing from generation to generation. The vocation of the church is to preserve and defend the binding doctrines, and official interpretations and communications of the tradition. The recent experience of the people is rarely theologically and hermeneutically evaluated.
Many Orthodox have also an understanding of the efficaciousness of the sacraments that reflects scholastic thinking, i.e. the effect depends on the sacraments being celebrated (ex opere operato), and not on the worthiness of the celebrant and/or recipient.
The purpose of this presentation is not to open a debate about a traditional ecclesiology with its component elements, but to name a problem, i.e. to take seriously the credibility of a church institution without by-passing or ignoring the actual history of the people. The recent experience of the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe confirms some of the grounds of our ecclesiology, but it also challenges several of its claims: "We, Orthodox must be ready to be questioned and challenged concerning our claims. …