The Theotokos and the Church

In the second decade of the twentieth century, western civilization had its fill of warfare. There was formed a League of Nations to seek ways to overcome separations and to live in harmony. Protestant leaders in Europe felt it time to imitate that vision among all Christians, a rather quixotic quest. Nevertheless, invitations were sent to Christians of all communions, including various Orthodox Church patriarchs and autocephalous hierarchy. A few responded, appointing their delegates to several meetings in order to make that vision come about. They were to agree on matters of faith; presumably, order would follow.

One Orthodox representative was the dean of St. Sergius Academy in Paris, Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov. Fr. Sergius was hardly a conventional Russian Orthodox theologian. Raised in a family of priestly lineage, he rebelled against his upbringing and faith, calling himself a revolutionary nihilist along the lines of Karl Marx. He completed his secular education in Moscow, Berlin, Paris and London. When after a dramatic conversion experience he returned to the faith of his ancestors, he soon became a leading figure in the Orthodox Church. His concept of the Church was influenced by the lay theologian Alexei Khomiakov, best known for his views of the unity of the Church featuring “sobornost,” a vision of all members of the Body of Christ taking a share in everything pertaining to the welfare of the Church.

The initial concern of the assembly gathered to work out the ways in which Christians can unite is naturally to define what each communion meant by the term “Church.” It appears to be self-evident – when any Christian, even a theologian, gives a meaning to that expression. In fact, it defies definition.

Fr. Sergius asked for the floor at the Faith and Order Conference at Lausanne, 1927, and stated:
Holiness is the goal and essence of the Christian’s life. The holiness of the manhood of Christ is actualized in the communion of the saints. But we cannot separate the humanity of our Lord Jesus from that of His mother, the unspotted Theotokos. She is the head of mankind, in the Church; mother and bride of the Lamb; she is joined with all the saints and angels. Others may not yet feel drawn as I do to call on her name in prayer, yet as together we approach nearer doctrinal reunion it may be that we are coming closer to each other even in this regard.

The Chair at the conference declared the comment to be out of order and requested Fr. Bulgakov to take his seat. That incident defined the distance between Orthodoxy and Protestantism from that time and to the present. The Church as continuation of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the subsequent work of the Spirit through the apostles and their successors at every age and stage of development through the centuries, paring away sectarians and heretics, ever open to the presence of Him who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world,” Christ’s very Body given through our gift to the Father, the Mother of God – all that simply does not compute. She is the evidence of God’s love for the world to such a measure that “He gave His only-begotten Son…for the life of the world.”

The Roman Catholic Church has a veneration for Christ’s holy mother somewhat like our own, yet enclosed in a variant ecclesiology. If Protestants consider our love of Mary to detract in some form from the unique role of Jesus Christ as Savior, the Roman Catholic complicates at best if not actually violating the Orthodox insistence on sobornost as an integral element in our understanding of Church. Indeed, sobornost completes the true catholicity of the Church, because all members are offered and expected to have a share in coming to recognize and express authority, which in the Roman Church is usurped by one prelate. There is a freedom in love that bonds all believers into a unity with the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit.