What’s in a Name?

29.06.2018, 11:59
The Eastern Orthodox - that is, those Christians whose Orthodox traditions, theology, and spiritual practice are lived outside of communion with Rome, yet with communion amongst themselves and at least four ancient, apostolic sees - often suggest that it is not possible to be Orthodox in communion with Rome, as just being in communion with Rome nullifies any claim to Orthodoxy.

As I have long argued, Ukrainian Greek Catholics are Orthodox Christians for whom circumstances have led to renewed communion with Rome, and who have stayed in communion with Rome in spite of great suffering. I am, of course, well aware of the criticisms of this position, as well as the concerns of those ethnic Ukrainians who see the use of the term ‘Orthodox’ as intimating a closer connection with Moscow, but what I am asserting are the simple facts of history. What we make of those facts, and how they evolve over time, it must be conceded, may mitigate my argument; but in terms of our origins, and our historical experience, I believe there is little to dispute.

The Eastern Orthodox - that is, those Christians whose Orthodox traditions, theology, and spiritual practice are lived outside of communion with Rome, yet with communion amongst themselves and at least four ancient, apostolic sees - often suggest that it is not possible to be Orthodox in communion with Rome, as just being in communion with Rome nullifies any claim to Orthodoxy. Not all Eastern Orthodox believe this, of course, but it is remarkable that those theologians who do have been unable to substantiate such a position on legitimate, theological grounds. Indeed, among Orthodox theologians there are many suppositions about what being in communion with Rome entails, including making too many theological concessions to the Latin monolith for Orthodoxy to abide. ‘Concession’ and ‘accommodation' are not the same thing, however, and all historical precedent shows that some theological accommodation is entirely feasible and, indeed, enriching.

In light of all this, I am very much a subscriber to the ideas of Archbishop Elias Zoghby - of blessed memory - who believed unfailingly in the authentic Orthodoxy of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome. I also think that, as an Orthodox Church - albeit one whose history down a different path to the others - it is incumbent on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to act like one. It must do this, above all, by manifesting the Gospel as is the prerogative of all true Churches, but also by asserting her Orthodox identity so that all may understand what she is, and feel able to enter her doors.

In a small Belgian town near Chevetogne Abbey, there is a shop with the messiest, most cluttered front window. On display are magazines, souvenirs, toys, soft drinks, and some additional random small items. For all the times I have passed it, I have only ever taken a quick look in, because there would have been no other way of knowing what the shop is for. The thing is, I still don’t know. I don’t know if it is a souvenir shop, a newsagent’s, or a general store, and even if I did, its approach to retail would inspire no confidence in me at all. Yet for all anyone might stay away from such a shop, similar things could be said of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We have an unwieldy name born of, and in the midst of, 19th century sensibilities, and comprehensible in the context of the Austrian Empire. We have ended up with a mixed identity, partly a result of historic circumstances, and partly self- inflicted. Roman Catholics are often perplexed at how we can call ourselves Catholic. The Eastern Orthodox tend to eschew the notion that we can be Orthodox while being in communion with Rome. The unchurched, who naturally shy away from confusion and ambiguity, often keep their distance from us, preferring the clarity, perhaps, of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Evangelicalism.

As one who did not grow up in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I chose the Church for a number of reasons. The first of these was a simple love of Orthodoxy: it’s theology; it’s spirituality; it’s liturgical life. The second was family. With grandparents from Ukraine myself, and being married to a woman of Ukrainian background, the traditions of Ukraine simply resonated. The third was communion with Rome. St Irenaeus posited communion with the Chair of St Peter as a mark of orthodoxy as early as the second century, while my doctoral work on St Theodore of Tarsus, introduced me to a figure who embodied the truly ecumenical nature of the Church in communion with Rome. Consequently, it became apparent that being authentically Orthodox, while sharing communion with a Church that did not necessarily express itself in the same theological terms, or share precisely the same traditions, was not only possible; it was normal. To be united with Rome was not to be subordinate; it was to have access to universal traditions, and to be able to contribute to the universal mind of the Body of Christ. And so I chose to put on the mantle of Orthodoxy as a Ukrainian Greek Catholic.

But if I wasn’t mistaken in ending up where I did, then there are things that we Ukrainian Greek Catholics need to consider now, in the twenty-first century, regarding how we go about our work. One of these things is how and what we are communicating to the world around us, while a prominent part of communication is how we self-identify. I am a Ukrainian priest. Does that mean that I serve only Ukrainians? No. I am Greek Catholic. Does that mean that I am Greek? No. I am Catholic. Does that mean I am Roman Catholic? No. Yet all of these ideas  represent suppositions that people make if they don’t already know us. If we flip them around, however, it is possible to see among them the possibility of a different approach to identity.

I am a Ukrainian priest. I serve Ukrainians, and anyone else who wishes to encounter the Christian Faith as it has been received in the East historically influenced by Byzantium. I am not Greek, but an Eastern Christian, whose traditions are shared with the Greeks, and the Arabs, and the Slavs. I am not a Roman Catholic, but a Catholic whose practice looks very little like that of his Latin brethren, and whose religious culture and language is so different that it would seem almost unintelligible to many Romans. And these descriptions, among even those who are least informed of Church matters, is generally understood as Orthodox.

I say, then, that we of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church should lay claim to a word that has been used against us for a very long time, and yet should represent no offence at all. ‘Uniate’ may be a word that has been used to deride us, but I am happy to live out my Orthodoxy in union, so why should I feel derided? Moscow may see us as betrayers, but of what? Betrayers of not being united with Rome? Betrayers of Muscovite imperialism? I am quite happy being derided for that.

A scholarly friend suggested to me once that the best term for us is ‘Uniate Orthodox’, and at first I thought he was kidding. The more I considered the implications of the idea, however, the more I realised that my friend was not only completely serious; he was right. It is a term that can equally apply to all the Eastern Churches who have re-entered communion with Rome, from Ukraine to Syria, to Egypt and Ethiopia, to India. It is a term that does not deny the Latinisations that have crept into some of our Churches and which some of the faithful hold dear; it simply absorbs them as a feature of ‘uniatism’, and permits them to wane naturally and with gentle, pastoral teaching. It is a term that does not shy away from the question of our relations with the Holy See; indeed, it asserts it with confidence. Most importantly, though, it describes where we have come from, what we are meant to be, and where we must return - whether in this world or the next. For this reason, I plan to start using the term, and hope that others will join me.

James Siemens