Πέμπτη, 24 Μαΐου 2018


8th International Conference of Orthodox Theology

Thessalonika, Greece
May 21-25, 2018

The Council Documents on Marriage and Fasting:
A Critical Response
Paul Meyendorff

Venerable Hierarchs, Esteemed Colleagues, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Christos Anesti!

I am honored to have received this invitation to address this 8th International Conference of Orthodox Theology, which occurs at such a critical time in a tumultuous world that needs our united Orthodox witness more than ever. With all of you, I celebrate the fact that the Great and Holy Council did, despite so many obstacles, finally take place, despite the absence of several local churches.  At the same time, as one coming from the so-called “diaspora,” I lament the fact that the council was unable to resolve the persistent canonical problem that afflicts us. For nearly a century now, we have been living with the scandal of multiple jurisdictions in one place, and the winds of etno-phyletism do not seem to be abating. I pray, therefore, that the now-revived pan-Orthodox conciliar process will continue and will be able to resolve these difficult issues.

My task today, however, is to speak to the contemporary liturgical and pastoral questions that the council did address, namely, the texts on marriage and fasting.

The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments
The first section of the statement attempts a positive formulation of marriage as a sacrament, grounded in the creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, then sanctified by Christ at his first miracle in Cana. The text then continues by citing numerous New Testament texts supporting the sanctity of marriage, before shifting to a defensive mode and reacting to current societal trends that challenge traditional conceptions of marriage.

Biblical scholars might argue with the statement that marriage is “the oldest institution of divine law,” as the Law comes only after the Fall, and the Orthodox generally avoid using this kind of juridical language. Certainly marriage is a fundamental human reality (that is the implication of the Genesis creation account), but it is fully revealed and realized only in the context of the Church. However, since marriage is grounded in creation, can it not also be experienced, even if only partially, by all humankind? After all, it did exist prior to the Incarnation, and Christ fulfilled and perfected something that was already a reality. The same can also be said of baptism and the eucharist, in which ordinary human activities are transfigured and become means of salvation and communion. Thus, married persons entering the Church through baptism or chrismation have always been received in their married state, with their marriage accepted as sacramental through their incorporation into the Church. It matters not whether they were formerly non-Christian or Christian.[1] Is it possible to say that they were not married before? Better to say that their marriage is fulfilled and transfigured when they become Christian.

The text acknowledges that religious and civil law coincide to a certain extent. The Church’s canonical tradition did absorb elements of Roman (and Byzantine) civil law, and the marriage rite similarly incorporated numerous elements from civil society – but Church and society were never identical. For example, under Roman civil law, rules for divorce were far more lenient than in the Church; but the Church did not object to imperial legislation and simply applied her own rules to her own members. Clearly, the interests of Church and State do not coincide in every respect.  As an example, the Church only tolerates second and third and forbids fourth marriages, while the State imposes no such discipline out of its interest for the social and financial stability of its citizens.

This bifurcation between Church and State is particularly relevant today with respect to the current debates in Western society about same-sex marriage. In recent years, many Western countries have legalized such unions, basing their decisions on many factors with which the Church is not always comfortable: individual human rights, new and different understandings of gender identity, as well as other, more pragmatic factors including financial stability, civil benefits, etc.

These contemporary developments certainly pose challenges to the Church, and simplistic appeals to ancient canons are no longer sufficient. In recent years, questions of gender and sexuality have caused divisions both within and between Christian communions, and the Orthodox are not immune, though they are barely beginning to address these issues. Clearly, many challenges remain, particularly in the area of human anthropology. We Orthodox certainly need to become aware of developments in physical and human sciences. Without such an awareness, we will not be able to address the questions that modern society is posing. Unfortunately, the council documents show little openness to this. Far better, in this regard, is the recent statement addressed to young people on “Love – Sexuality – Marriage” by the bishops of the Orthodox Church in Germany.

From the perspective of Orthodox who live as minorities in the West, however, it is the final section, entitled “Impediments to Marriage,” that raises the most difficulties. This section restates many of the ancient canons dealing with marriage discipline, and it is the paragraph on mixed marriage, quoting Canon 72 of the Quinisext, that is most problematic. This canon, which dates to the late 7th century, was issued at a time when Orthodox Christians were an overwhelming majority in the Empire, and it was thus relatively easy to enforce.

The situation today is vastly different. In many parts of the world, the Orthodox are but a tiny minority, with the result that over 80% of the Orthodox marry non-Orthodox. In reading the council document, one would conclude that this reflects a forbidden practice, and that mixed marriages are only tolerated out of oikonomia. Yet these mixed marriages have resulted in a large influx of new members into the Orthodox Church, particularly in those churches that are more acclimated to the local cultures. In the United States, for example, converts constitute close to 50% of the faithful in the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America. In those jurisdictions that identify themselves more strongly with particular ethnic groups, the number of converts is smaller, but not insignificant. Yet the percentage of mixed marriages in these more ethnic churches is no less, and the result is that the Orthodox marriage partners more often than not abandon the church of their ancestors, either to join another Christian body, or to leave the Church altogether.

In short, mixed marriages can be, and often are, missionary opportunities. The Church, rather than simply condemning them, should seize the opportunity to welcome potential new members, but she ought to do so gently, without any coercion, by providing a space where both marriage partners can grow spiritually. Any form of coercion, such as requiring the non-Orthodox partner to convert, should be rejected as causing spiritual harm to both spouses.

And this is a challenge not just in places where Orthodox are in the minority. Even in many traditionally Orthodox countries, in fact only a small percentage practice the faith, even if they formally identify themselves as Orthodox, having been baptized as infants. Is not the marriage of a practicing Orthodox with a lapsed or non-practicing one not the functional equivalent of a mixed marriage? But, here again, such marriages create catechetical and missionary opportunities that should not be missed.

An even more difficult situation arises in the case of marriages between Orthodox and non-Christians, which our document accurately states are categorically forbidden in the canonical tradition, and which therefore can receive no church blessing at all. Yet such marriages are increasingly common and result in the Orthodox spouse’s simply being excommunicated and leaving the church. Surely, more reflection on this is needed. If we Orthodox argue that the roots of marriage are found in God’s intention from the very beginning of creation, then all humanity, made in God’s image, can share in its grace, even if not fully. Could not some blessing, certainly not a full service of crowning, but perhaps based on the Genesis narrative, not be developed to cover such instances? Obviously, the hope would be that the spouses will ultimately come to share one faith, but without any form of pressure or coercion. The spiritual benefits of such a pastoral approach would extend to both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox spouses. “For,” as St Paul says in a slightly different context, “the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband” (1 Cor 7:14).

The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today
Like the text on marriage, this document begins with an extensive and positive statement on fasting based on scriptural and patristic sources. Notably, the statement situates fasting in a broader, ecclesial context and presents it as integrally connected with prayer and merciful deeds. And it rightly acknowledges the need for flexibility in adjusting fasting rules to local circumstances and pastoral necessity. In these ways, the document simply restates current practice and offers little that is new, certainly not the more fundamental changes in fasting regulations that some were expecting.

Where I would offer some critique of this document is its somewhat legalistic tone. For the most part, it presumes that the Church’s fasting rules are fixed and set in stone, though it does acknowledge that fasting seasons and rules have evolved. In fact, however, few councils, particularly ecumenical councils, have addressed fasting specifically, and most fasting regulations are to be found in the Typikon, which does not have the status of ecumenical canons and was never promulgated by an ecumenical council.  Historically, it was only the Church of Russia which, from the 16th century onward, began to canonically legislate liturgical, and also fasting, practices.

A further critique I would offer concerns the use of the term oikonomia in both documents. The word is used repeatedly in both texts in a legalistic way, as the right of the Church, primarily through its bishops, to waive a canon or a rule. It is used to mean leniency, as apposed to strictness (akribeia). But this use of the word is modern and differs from its classical use as meaning “household management,” as for example in 1 Cor 4:1. Rather than being legalistic, the term implies pastoral discernment, the proper exercise of apostolic and episcopal leadership. Thus, in a given situation, the exercise of oikonomia can be either lenient or strict – both reflect oikonomia!

The concept of oikonomia in contemporary Orthodoxy certainly needs greater reflection, both in the context of the issues raised in these two documents and with respect to other contentious issues, such as the mode of receiving converts, where the issue arises in most dramatic form. Ever since the 4th century, baptized converts entering the Church have generally not been re-baptized but been received either by chrismation or confession – and this has been understood and explained as an exercise of oikonomia. In contemporary Orthodoxy, however, this term is interpreted in different ways. There are some who would say, based on a Cyprianic ecclesiology such as that espoused by St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, that baptism outside the canonical limits of the Orthodox Church is null and void; but the bishop can, by oikonomia, waive the canonical rule that converts be baptized. This reflects the legalistic understanding of the term, and this is how the term is employed in the council documents. The second and more traditional approach is to understand oikonomia as discernment of what is true and authentic, even outside the canonical limits of Orthodoxy. According to this approach, converts are not (re-)baptized because their previous baptism is seen to be real and authentic, and thus of the Church – this is the fundamental approach taken by St Basil the Great and much of the patristic tradition. This latter approach reflects a more open view of other Christian bodies, and it reflects the general practice of the Slavic churches to this day.[2]

Cannot such a perspective also characterize the Church’s approach to other complex pastoral issues, such as those related to marriage and fasting? Orthodoxy too often tends to react with fear to developments in the world, whether in global Christianity or civil society. When it does so, it tends to turn inward, to reject the other, to hide behind appeals to ancient canons – rather than, in the words of Fr Georges Florovsky, “putting on the mind of the Fathers” by squarely engaging in a fruitful dialogue with the contemporary world. The Great and Holy Council in Crete was a beginning, but many challenges remain.


[1] The practice in some local Orthodox churches to remarry converts is highly problematic.

[2] See my article, “The Liturgical Reforms of Peter Moghila, A New Look,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 29 (1985) 101-114.