St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

One of the most persuasive voices for change in the Orthodox church today comes from the current Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV

Published in The Chicago Tribune , July 23, 1999
posted on Voithia (www.voitiha.org)

by Steve Kloehn

From ancient tradition comes a persuasive voice for change. Antioch was the city where the early Christian church learned that most modern of skills, accommodating change.

It was in Antioch, according to the New Testament Book of Acts, that controversy broke out over whether newcomers to the church, Gentiles, had to be circumcised to gain salvation.

It was to Antioch that the apostles delivered a letter declaring that Gentiles need not be circumcised to become followers of Jesus, but were required to follow certain scriptural laws that would allow Gentiles and Jews to live and worship Jesus together.

That particular adaptation of sacred tradition to new conditions was not universally acclaimed at that time; it wasn't how they did things in the more conservative church of Jerusalem.

But the compromise has been cited by scholars as the turning point, a moment of genius that allowed the movement to burst out of the Jewish world and spread throughout Europe and Asia Minor.

So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that one of the most persuasive voices for change in the Orthodox church today comes from the current Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius IV.

"We think, really, that we should be preparing for the future," Patriarch Ignatius said in an interview this week during his visit to Chicago. "The future cannot always be a copy of the past."

At 79, with a gray beard and collar-length white hair, dressed from head to toe in white, the Patriarch of Antioch looks every bit the occupant of one of the four ancient seats of Orthodoxy, overseeing an Arab Christian minority in the ancient Middle East.

But he also presides over the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, one of a tangle of overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions that followed immigrants to the new world. The patriarch thinks that having separate Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox and a host of other Orthodox Churches in America is wrong, and he says so freely. He favors one jurisdiction for all of North America.

"I myself said that we expect new patriarchates," he explained. "Why not? A patriarchate in North America, a patriarchate in South America, elsewhere. We don't see why not."

That is the explosive talk in Orthodox circles. Ignatius' visit coincides with a particularly tense moment in the Greek Orthodox Church, in which the hierarchy that has resisted moves toward pan-Orthodox unity in America is under fire from under its own people.

But it is not just Greek Orthodox who are struggling over authority and tradition here in America. The escalating Methodist battle over homosexuality is also a battle over authority - where it comes from, who has it, how it is used? Catholic controversies seem to return, inevitably, to questions of authority. And those are just the most prominent controversies; most every denomination has one if you look closely enough.

Patriarch Ignatius is hardly arguing that all traditions be ignored. Even as he calls for a unified Orthodox Church in America he wars against Western tendencies to rationalize, democratize and ultimately bulldoze ancient mysteries.

"We cannot come with a parliamentary spirit to the church," he said. "It's not a matter of the majority determining the truth. The truth comes from the Lord."

"There should be a very serious interest and concern about how to keep the spiritual orientation with the mother church? It is to the benefit of Christianity that the churches of the East not disappear, not become symbols. We are not a symbolic religion. We are an incarnational religion."

But despite the apparent reliance of many of the ancient patriarchates on the money and influence of their American offshoots, the Patriarch of Antioch seems unruffled by the idea of giving up direct control over the Antiochian church in America, if it is for the good of the faith.

Maybe that has something to do with the history of the church in Antioch as well. Torn by schism in the 5th Century, the patriarchate has existed side by side with the rival Syrian Orthodox Church for 1,500 years. In the 7th and 8th Centuries, the patriarchate survived persecution by the Arab invaders; from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, a Byzantine patriarchate continued in exile, as a Latin patriarchate set up by Crusaders took over in Antioch.

The patriarchate moved to Damascus in the 14th Century and was transferred from ethnic Greek to Arab Christian leadership at the end of the 19th Century.

In short, the Patriarchate of Antioch knows something about both the pain of division among Christians and about the resiliency of the faith even as its institutions take a beating.

And now, he says, the reality of instant global communication, of cultures that spread and blend, leaves the church no option than to look beyond old boundaries.

"We have to be in contact with everyone, not a tribe or a sect or a race. Through faith we talk to everyone," he said. "There is no human being on Earth we should not talk to. The Lord is the Lord of everyone."