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The Church of the East: There can be only one

It has been a big news week. And I already digressed into the area of moral theology and civility to comment on one of the rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court this week, i am not speaking of the rest (though, as a Catholic Christian, i believe universal access health care is a good, and capital punishment is not, so it was a pretty mixed bag all around).

Ecumenically, there have been a few interesting developments.

Metropolitan Hilarion

Metropolitan Hilarion

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ (USA) unanimously approved a full communion agreement with the United Church of Canada yesterday. The UCC and the UCC are both ‘united and uniting’ churches, themselves the products of previous ecumenical reunion efforts. The UCC (USA) already has similar agreements with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Union of Evangelical (read:Lutheran) Churches in Germany, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Two days ago, the Corriere della Sera published an interview with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate. He is quoted as saying that a meeting between Patriarch Kiril and Pope Francis “is getting closer every day”. Though this is his boilerplate response when asked about a meeting between the head of the largest Orthodox church with the bishop of Rome, he alluded that it was actually on the agenda – though no date is set, and it would certainly be in a ‘neutral’ location like the Austro-Hungarian Empire Austria or Hungary. This meeting has been in discussion for 20 years, since the intended meeting between Alexy II and John Paul II was cancelled at the last minute.

And of course there was the annual delegation from the Phanar to the Vatican on the patronal feast of Rome, Sts. Paul and Peter. Leading the delegation this year was Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, who was also part of the panel presentation of the environmental encyclical Laudato Si. He and Metropolitan Hilarion were both in Rome this week as part of the drafting committee of a statement, “Towards the Understanding of Synodality and Primacy in the Church of the First Millennium” by the International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Pope Francis and Metropolitan John

Pope Francis and Metropolitan John

Probably the most interesting, and potentially most dramatic, however, was the proposal of Patriarch Raphael I (Louis Sako) of Bablyon, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, who proposed a plan for a united Church of the East that would entail his own resignation.

The schism between the Church of the East and the rest of the orthodox Christian world is the oldest surviving division in the Church, its origins dating back to the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. It was the Christian Church in the Persian Empire, and has often (wrongly) been called Nestorian. Acknowledging that there is now brief way to do justice to the history of communion and schism between the Church of the East and the Catholic/Orthodox Church(es) in the last 1600 years, suffice it to say that what remains is a very small community based in Baghdad but effectively existing as a diaspora community, with its leaders often in Exile.

There are three current churches succeeding from that original Church of the East, which was founded, according to tradition, by the apostle Thomas and by Mar Addai (Jude/Thaddeus, maybe, or a disciple of Thomas) and Mari, a disciple of Addai.

The Assyrian Church of the East, whose Catholicos (Patriarch) Mar Dinkha IV died in March, consists of about 250,000 faithful, mostly in the U.S., Europe, and Oceania. The election of his successor has been postponed until September. The patriarchate went into exile to the United States in the 1930s. (The Assyrian Church is, to the best of my knowledge, the only ancient apostolic church where priests and deacons have been allowed to marry even after ordination; in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, married men could be ordained, but ordained men could not be married).

Patriarch Raphael I and Mar Dinkha IV

Patriarch Raphael I and Mar Dinkha IV

The Ancient Church of the East, whose Catholicos is Mar Addai II (since 1970!) numbers about 100,000 faithful and the patriarchate remains in Baghdad. From at least 1450 until 1976, the patriarchate of the Assyrian Church of the East had become a hereditary office, passing from uncle to nephew. In 1964, some members of the Assyrian Church used the official adoption of the Gregorian calendar as an opportunity to split from the rest, the underlying reason being objection to this hereditary practice and perhaps wanting to keep the hierarchy based in its ancient homeland.

The Chaldean Catholic Church was initially established in 1553 when a similar break-away faction of the Assyrian hierarchy (also objecting to a hereditary patriarchate) sought full communion with Rome, and over the next three centuries there was a great deal of fluidity back and forth, only stabilized about 1830. The Chaldeans number somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000, also mostly in diaspora. Patriarch Raphael I has been the primate of this church since 2013.

For the last three decades, there have been very successful ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, resulting in a Joint Christological Declaration in 1996, resolving the theological issue that had divided the churches of Rome and Persia back in the 5th century. Ten years later an agreement on sacraments was reached but not promulgated due to some internal issues. The only remaining issue holding back full communion was that of common ecclesiastical governance, and this is what Patriarch Raphael of the Chaldean Catholic Church has proposed to resolve now, if he and Patriarch Addy II both resign, and the bishops of all three churches come together to elect a single Catholicos-Patriarch.

Let us pray that this comes to fruition this year!


Patriarch Raphael’s Proposal:

I would like to share some personal thoughts with those of others, since they may contribute to achieving the project of “the unity of the Church of the East”.

Unity is the commandment of the Lord Jesus, “so that they may be one” (John 17/11), and the demand of Christians who face significant challenges that threaten their existence in diaspora with assimilation, and in the motherland with extinction

I propose that we adopt a single denomination for the church: The Church of the East as it was for many centuries, and that we not maintain the factional denominations. The single denomination will give it strength and momentum, and it can become a model for other churches.

The communion of faith and unity with the Roman See is a fundamental base of unity. It is an increase of power, not a decrease, especially since there is no difference in doctrine, but only in its formal expression. Therefore, to think of disassembling the link of “the Church of the East” with the See of Rome would be a great loss and cause of weakness. Unity does not mean uniformity, nor the melting of our own church identity into one style, but it maintains unity in diversity and we remain one apostolic universal church, the Oriental Church, that maintains its independence of administration, laws and liturgies, traditions and support through respect for the authority of the Patriarch and the Synod of Bishops.

After deliberation and dialogue between the three branches and the acceptance of this communion with Rome:

1. The current Patriarchs: Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, and Mar Addai II, Patriarch of the ancient Church of the East, would submit their resignations without any conditions, but their desire for unity.

2. The Bishops of the three churches would meet to choose a new Patriarch.

3. The elected Patriarch should have assistants from each branch to enhance the “weft” (the permanent Synod).

4. The Patriarch and the Synod would leave national interests to the laity, because the church should be open to everyone and concerned with the best interests of all.

5. The Patriarch and the Synod would prepare for a General Synod to develop a new road-map for The One Church of the East.

[For the best guide to navigating the byzantine waters of Eastern Christianity, see Ron Roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches, now in its 7th Edition]

Mar Bawai Soro

One of my intensive courses this semester is “The History of Aramaic Christianity”, taught by Mar Bawai Soro, a bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church whose name is probably familiar to anyone who has been involved in ecumenism the last few years. He was also our guest for dinner at the Lay Centre this evening. (And though he did not share this, he was the person who, during the Jubilee Year 2000, recieved from Pope John Paul II the cross carried at the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum. The pope carried it to the first two stations, handed off to Bishop Bawai for the second two, who then handed it off again.)

History of Aramaic Christianity, Angelicum, 2010

In most church history classes I have taken or taught, the focus is usually on the history of the Church within the Roman empire, and subsequently the nations were in direct succession from that Empire. Sometimes it gets even more eclipsed if the focus is purely on the Latin Church, the churches directly associated with the ritual and patriarchal patrimony of the church of Rome itself (ie, the Roman Catholic Church). It is sometimes news enough for people to realize there were four other apostolic sees within the Roman empire besides Rome! But we have often forgotten entirely the church in Asia, beyond the borders of the ancient Roman Empire.

The focus of our studies for this course have been on that Church of the East – not the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Churches, but further east, in Mesopotamia and what was part of the Persian Empire at the time of Constantine. This church never enjoyed the status of being an official religion of the empire, as did the church in the empire of Rome and Constantinople. In fact, persecution only increased after Christianity became associated with the enemy to the west. To this day, being Christian in this area makes you suspect of collaboration with the “West” – whether that is Emperor Constantine or President Bush, and whether the dominant religion is Persian Zoroastrianism or Shi’a Islam.

This was the church of refuge for the Nestorians and the theological School of Antioch, driven across the border in the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431, and a place where the theological battle between Monophysites and Nestorians was waged for centuries. The first stopping point for the missionary activity of the Apostle Thomas, the Mesopotamian church was the mother church of the earliest Christians in India, still known as Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians. Missionaries of this church had reached Mongolia and China by the sixth century, and some scholars have suggested communities as far as Japan.

The current heirs to this tradition include:

  • The Assyrian Church of the East, with about 250,000 members, traditionally centered in Iraq
  • The Chaldean Catholic Church, with about 750,000 members, centered in Iraq
  • The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, with about 4 million members centered in the state of Kerala, India

Mar Bawai Soro

Much of the Church of the East’s history has been marked by political and ecclesial isolation – first by being the Christians outside the Roman empire, then ecclesially, and throughout by being more or less constantly a persecuted minority in Zoroastrian Persia, or Muslim Arab and Mongol rule. Several times in the last six centuries dioceses and other groups of the faithful would resume full communion with Rome. The first, in 1445 was the archbishop of Cyprus and his diocese, who after a couple generations were unfortunately Latinized and assimilated into the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church. A couple others only lasted for a century or so, eventually leaving communion again. Finally, the Patriarch (one of two rivals, anyway) and his cohort came in to full communion in 1830, giving us the current Chaldean Catholic Church. The rival patriarchal line and those in communion with it remain today as the Assyrian Church of the East, though they were the line which had been in Catholic communion for a century or so during the 16th and 17th centuries.

For 20 years, Bishop Bawai served this church as a bishop and as their top theologian and ecumenical officer (a sort of Ratzinger-Kasper combo, if you will), and participated in the Assyrian-Catholic dialogue from its inception, through the Common Christological Declaration of 1994 and the preparation of the Common Sacramental Declaration that was to follow.

For those who wonder about the products of ecumenism, it only took 8 years of dialogue to resolve the Christological issue that split the church 1500 years ago, and confess together that : 

Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting “one and another”, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration.

This is why there is always hope!

Of course, that hope is always needed. The reality of the impending full communion with the Catholic Church provoked some nervousness. Understandably, I suppose: Comparatively, we are beyond huge (4400 Catholics for every one Assyrian Christian), and the prospect of the Patriarch becoming a mere cardinal, as some bloggers have put it, was uninviting. Their decision was to suspend the dialogue, and to suspend the bishop.

After finding no appeal, Mar Bawai and about 5000 faithful, including 30 deacons and a half dozen priests, came into full communion with the Chaldean Catholic Church in 2008.

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