Towards an ecclesiology for the west


Germain, Bishop of Saint Denis

Translated from the French by Sithuraj Ponraj, JCD

Editor’s Note

Every Christian has the need for a space that is spiritual, sacramental and linked strongly to apostolic Tradition that will allow him to worship the Divine Trinity in a manner that is ‘worthy and right’, according to his own sensibilities and at the geographical location where Providence has placed him.

The role of a bishop is to proclaim true doctrine (Titus 1,9) with the aim of bringing together his flock in conformity to the precepts of the Gospel.

Bishop Germain has been placed by God and by the will of men (insofar as he was elected by the laity who form the royal priesthood, and consecrated by Orthodox hierarchs) as Pastor of a dynamic local Orthodox church. This Church has been, and is still, the source of spiritual vigour for a great number of French and other western Orthodox Christians, Bishop Germain is in an unique situation as a Western Orthodox hierarch.

Such a situation undoubtedly invites misunderstanding.

To avoid ill will in the hearts of some and also, to clarify the situation for those who may be ignorant of Orthodox Tradition regarding the nature of the Church, it is necessary to recall some first principles that establish charity and to propose some traditional and prophetic responses to questions that face us today.

These questions, for the major part include :

1. Does the Orthodox understanding of ecclesiology allow one to be Orthodox and Western at the same time ?

2. Is there a unique divine dispensation for the West ?

3. Does the Church of France have an authentic origin, a true apostolicity and a secure place among the other Orthodox Churches ?

We are pleased that with the publication of this text, a fruitful dialogue has been initiated, founded on mutual respect and an increasing eagerness to discern the Divine Will.

The Editor


The ecclesiastical identity of Christians who confess the Orthodox faith in the West is a matter of grave concern.

Before proposing some possible means for resolving this issue, I would like to clarify the Christian paradigm that stands at the centre of this discussion.

Firstly, for us, the Church of Christ is catholic, that is to say, it is responsible for bringing salvation to all men, in all places and at all times after the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost without consideration of political realities. Salvation consists of progressively penetrating the intimate life of the Holy Trinity. It is thisprocess of progressive sharing in the life of the Trinity that Orthodox Tradition refers to as deification.

In order to achieve this goal, the first disciples of Christ were given the same instrument as that that was used to bring about Creation in the beginning, and which is still used in the ongoing creation of the world. The Psalmist describes it like this: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens formed, and by the breath of his mouth all their splendour’ (Ps 33,6).

The Incarnate Word of God and the Holy Spirit, therefore, animate the Church and give it the power to give rebirth to its members as the children of God. The Church is therefore, hierarchical, as well as prophetic. It is hierarchical insofar as its ministry represents the hierarchy in the Divine-human nature of Christ. It is prophetic in its gifts that have their origin in the Holy Spirit and which render it capable of bringing men into a ‘free and personal’ communion before the face of God.

The Church of Christ therefore demands of its members sacrifice in their ministry, a sacrifice that approaches the abnegation of Christ, a sacrifice that approaches the union of the Divine with the human. It also demands, at the same time, the stripping off, under the action of the Holy Spirit, all preconceived ideas regarding the organisation of the Church. One is called to imitate the Apostle Peter at Joppa when he hears the heavenly voice telling him ‘Kill and eat…that which God has made pure, you must not regard as impure’ to which he responds ‘Truly I realise that God makes no exception among people’. (Acts 10, 13-15 and 34)

The two actions of the Word and the Spirit are reflected historically in the Episcopate (episcopal power) and in sobornost, an admirable Russian expression that signifies the communion of free people or in other words, the catholicity of the Church.

The Church therefore does not recognise the concept of an ‘ecclesiastical career’ that supports clerical power in fixed historical forms. Neither does it support the egotistic anarchy of cultures, civilizations and nations which try to permanently establish their superiority over their neighbours. The Church, which consists of true worshippers of the Father in ‘Spirit and in truth’ is at the same time, logical and life giving, reasonable and living. It recognises neither (1) Uniatism, the fruit of a solitary and arrogant exercise of ecclesiastical power nor (2) ethnic egotism, the fruit of a temptation to universalise and over-generalise a gift given to a particular culture and place. The catholic Church frees the consciences of men and women, accepting each one as he or she is, teaching and baptising each one within the culture in which it finds them.

With this understanding of the Church’s constitution in mind, let us explore the issue at hand, purifying ourselves at the same time through tears of penitence, for it is our sins that have caused these divisions.



The Church Divided

The Roman Empire, the universal empire where Christianity was born, has left to the Church and to its history a configuration that is similar to its own. While the two imperial capitals, Rome and Constantinople ruled a greater portion of the known world, there were in fact two distinct empires – the western, and the eastern. Destroyed in stages between the 5th and the 15th centuries, the Roman Empire survived in its political form until the beginning of the 20th century within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In its religious form it survives until today in the Roman jurisdiction known as the Catholic Church and in the Constantinopolitan tradition commonly known as the Orthodox Church.

One can therefore say that there exist today a Western Church, in which Rome, its organisation and its acts take on a pre-eminent stature and an Eastern Church, in which Constantinople and the communities that it has created, presided over and influenced are preponderant. These Churches are linked in a profound manner to the ancient western and eastern territories of the Empire.

This distinction between an Eastern Church and a Western Church does not, however, exhaust the full expression of Christian Churches that exist today: one cannot forget the existence of Churches such as the Egyptian (Coptic), Ethiopian, Armenian, Syro-Malabar (Indian) and other such Churches. The distinction, however, makes prominent the very real division that exists between a Latin, Roman heritage of the Western Church and the Greek, Byzantine heritage of the Eastern Church. One is Western and the other eminently, Eastern.

From our contemporary perspective, it seems that whatever is linked to the ancient, western territories of the Roman Empire must necessarily be ‘western’ and whatever lies within the ambit of the eastern territories of the same empire must be necessarily ‘eastern’. Could this perhaps mean that above all, the Roman Catholic Church is ‘western’ and the Orthodox Church, ‘eastern’ ?

To accept this would mean that one would have to assign both Churches to a territory (something that both Churches, above all the first, do not want) and to posit a position of equality between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. From this point, universality would become the possession of the Roman Christians and orthodoxy of faith, that of the Byzantines ! One would then have succeeded in dividing up the one heritage of the primitive Christian Church between the western and eastern Christians – to some would go Catholicism, and to the others, Orthodoxy !

Not to accept this division, however, would place doubts on the catholicity of the Eastern Church and orthodoxy of the Western Church. Perhaps this could lead to the following solution – Catholicism becomes orthodox and Orthodoxy becomes Catholic, without any attention being paid to the particular characteristics of each Church.

Leaving aside the terms ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ for the moment, let us try to situate as precisely as possible the significance of the words ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ within the context of the Church of Christ. Is it possible that these words are in the process of disappearing from the ecclesiastical vocabulary before the force and significance borne by the words, ‘orthodox’ and ‘catholic’? The question that we are finally left with is the following one : does ecclesiology allow us to call ourselves ‘Orthodox and eastern’ and ‘Orthodox and western’ in the contemporary Orthodox Church ?

Unity in Diversity

The representatives of all the Orthodox Churches meet with regularity to discuss the ecclesiastical future of what is commonly called the Diaspora. This diaspora includes Western Europe and North and South America (above all, North America as it contains the most number of Orthodox faithful and where the distribution of Orthodox Christians based on national origin is to, say the least, chaotic).

We address ourselves here primarily to these representatives. We are well aware of their love for their Churches and their feeling for their country. Our aim is to help them hear the voice of the Christian West and that of the Westerners who belong to the Orthodox faith by presenting certain principles and ideas that Orthodox Christians of eastern nationalities living in the West are either unaware of, or have chosen to ignore. These ideas and principles, we believe, will help to further clarify the ongoing debates and introduce in these discussions charity towards the Christian West.

The principles are as follows :

i. The Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ in its very essence. It is the Church of the entire world, of all peoples whether of North or South, of East or West.

ii. The Orthodox Church is not solely Eastern. Each people and nation have their individual right within the context of the Orthodox ecclesiology. Their own right to autocephaly within Canon Law, the canonical right to their own individual customs, rites and liturgical language. United in dogmas and in canonical principles, the Churches otherwise truly represent, and are of, the people of the locality in which they find themselves[1].

iii. The local Churches were born of divine will as much as the universal Church, which in turn, is the Jerusalem to come (Rev 21:24). The communion of the local Churches forms the universal Church. The local Churches are all founded on the words of the Lord – ‘Go, teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. (Mt 29: 19-20)

The appearance in history of these Churches were therefore neither due to chance nor a system nor a result of the conquest of the globe, but by the will of the Divine Will, which by the Holy Spirit, determines nations, their numbers and destiny.