Monday, July 2, 2001

Bishop Kallistos on Primacy and Prayer

On Wednesday 20 June, I visited St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church, near Fairfax, VA, to hear Bishop Kallistos Ware speak. I will briefly describe the service of Vespers that preceded the bishop's talk and the iconography of the church, and then summarize both his formal address and his brief pastoral talk.

Coptic Vespers. I arrived about a third of the way through Vespers, just as they were beginning a series of doxologies to the Virgin Mary, the angels, the apostles, St. Mark the Evangelist (founder of the Church in Egypt, according to local tradition), St. Athanasius, and St. Anthony. Each doxology consisted of a series of short verses recounting the histories of the saints and requesting their prayers. The cantor would sing a verse in Coptic, and then the choir and congregation would sing the next in English. The bulletin included each verse in both languages, making it easy to follow. (Coptic is surprisingly easy to follow, since it uses an expanded version of the Greek alphabet and borrows a lot of Greek vocabulary for liturgical use.) A proper psalm and gospel reading followed the doxologies, and the service concluded with a series of prayers (during which we recited the Lord's Prayer at least three times). They used the traditional monophysite interpolations in the Trisagion, including the line, "Holy mighty one, who was crucified for us," which once caused so much controversy (some feared that it implied Patripassianism). The only other thing that struck me as strange was the repeated application of the term Pantocrator to the Father, rather than the Son.

The church is quite new – until recently, St. Mark's worshiped at a small, old church west of Tyson's Corner. There is a large central dome over the square nave and a smaller dome over the apse. The window treatment above the side aisles gives it a Middle Eastern feel. Where the royal doors and the deacon's doors would be in a Byzantine iconostasis, St. Mark's has heavy maroon curtains.

The iconography is of mixed types. The central image of the Last Supper above the middle curtain was very Western and representational. The icons along the side aisles are somewhat more stylized, but less so than Byzantine icons. And all of the other icons at the front of the church, corresponding to a Byzantine iconostasis, were in a style I later heard described as "neo-Coptic." It appeared to have heavy Ethiopian influence, with round faces and large eyes. Icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos flanked the central curtain to the right and left. On the far right was the Baptism of Christ and on the far left St. Michael. Above the side curtains were panels with the twelve apostles. You can find links to neo-Coptic images on this page (you have to click twice to make the buttons work).

Power, Authority, and Service. Bishop Kallistos was in town for the Orientale Lumen Conference, which he attends every year around this time at Catholic University. The theme for this year's conference was "Primacy and Conciliarity: Finding a Common Vision." A brief description of the conference, including a photo of Vespers at St. Mark's, can be found here.

The bishop's address on Wednesday evening stuck to the theme of the conference, exploring the issues of power, authority, and service in the Church. (I did not take notes, so this will all be from memory. I hope I will represent Bp. Kallistos's thoughts accurately.) His first text came from the Synoptic Gospels: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever is great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28). He also read the somewhat different version of this saying from Luke 22:25-27. In the Church, authority comes from diakonia and primacy from kenosis.

Leadership in the Church is so different from the worldly political realm that it can only be misleading to compare them. Authority in the Church is, first, the authority of Christ. He shares his authority with his Bride, the Church. He does not delegate, but shares his authority. Bp. Kallistos singled out the title "Vicar of Christ" for special criticism. This title, usually applied to the Pope, has, in recent times, been applied to all bishops. But it is terribly inappropriate. A vicar is one who exercises authority on behalf of another who is absent. But Christ is not absent from the Church, as this title would imply. Bp. Kallistos pointed more favorably to another papal title that is a favorite of John Paul II: the Servant of the Servants of God.

His second text came from John: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (15:14-15). We are still to obey Christ's commands, but we now do so not blindly as servants, but in knowledge, as friends. And it is not only the bishops who are Christ's friends, but all Christians! That Christ's knowledge and authority are shared by all the faithful is embodied in the traditional formulation, sensus fidelium. It is not only the bishops who are responsible for defining and guarding the faith, but the entire Church. The pronouncements of councils of bishops must be received by the whole Church before they can be taken as final and definitive. There have been times when most of the bishops bowed to heresy, but the laity preserved the true faith.

This, of course, is not to say that bishops have no special role to play in the Church, or that the Pope has no special role to play among the bishops. But the Pope's traditional primacy among the bishops is often misunderstood. This is demonstrated clearly by the recent ARCIC statement, "The Gift of Authority," which focuses on the primacy of the Pope and the authority of diocesan bishops. The document ignores the many intermediate levels of primacy – patriarchs, primates, metropolitans – in an effort to emphasize the special role of the Pope. But the Pope and other patriarchs have no special ontological status separate from the rest of the episcopacy. They do not receive a fourth ordination. Any special authority they have can only be understood as relative authority within the college of bishops. It is only within this context that Papal primacy can be properly understood.

Pray Without Ceasing. The formal address of Bp. Kallistos was followed by a lively musical interlude by the parish choir, featuring chant and percussion. I took this opportunity to get a better look at the icons in the side aisles, all of which depicted Egyptian saints – some familiar (Anthony) and some not (Mina). The bishop then gave a brief pastoral talk to a much smaller audience, consisting mostly of members of the parish. His text was St. Paul's instruction, "Pray without ceasing." He offered practical advice on how to approach this goal more closely in our own lives. His suggestions included: 1) Upon awaking, begin the day by making the sign of the cross. And at the end of the day, make the sign of the cross again before going to bed. 2) During moments of free time say an "arrow prayer" – a prayer like the Jesus Prayer that is short and goes straight to the target. 3) Give thanks before eating. 4) Be conscious of God's presence in our daily activities – for example, to see our encounters with other people as opportunities to meet God. 5) When reading Scripture, read it as if it is God's word to you.