On Christian Unity and the Problem of Religious Rivalry

By Bishop Basil of Sergievo

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins each year within the period when, on the Old or Julian Calendar, the Russian Church is still remembering the Baptism of Christ, celebrated on the Feast of Theophany or Epiphany. This gives us an opportunity each year to look at Christian unity in the light of Baptism – and in particular in the light of the Baptism of Christ.

Looking again at the Baptism of Christ, I am struck by its relevance to our struggle for unity – not as a theological event, but as a human event. What we see here is one man asking to be baptized by another – but it is the greater who asks to be baptized by the lesser. John knows that Jesus is greater than he is. As he himself says: “I am not worthy even to stoop down and unloose the latchet of his shoes.” And: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Spirit and with fire.” The texts of the Orthodox service for the feast stress this point: “The clay cries out to him who formed him” … “Our Deliverer is baptized by his servant” And then, echoing the language of St Paul: “Wearing the form of a servant, you come forth to be baptized by a servant.”

What is going on here? What does this deliberate self-emptying mean? It seems to me that Christ is clearly seeking to avoid any rivalry with John. He does not place himself above him, cite his own greatness and say, “Move aside, so that I can take over.” He places himself below him and invites John to be for him what John has been for the other penitents, even though he himself has no need of baptism “for the remission of sins.” In this way, Christ says, we shall “fulfill all righteousness” – that is, the righteousness of God, not the righteousness of men.

What is particularly striking is the way in which John understands what Christ is doing, and he himself does not seek to set himself up in rivalry with his master. This is clearly reflected in the Baptist’s acceptance that ” [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.” Rivalry is completely absent from the relationship of John and Christ – on either side.

Is this important? The answer is emphatically “yes.” If we look at the Gospels as a whole, we see that criticism of rivalry – both implicit and explicit criticism – is found throughout. It is a major theme in Christ’s teaching. The most obvious example is the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who come to Christ asking that they be given the right to sit on his right hand and on his left when he comes in glory. Note that the rivalry here is not just between James and John and the other disciples, but between the brothers themselves: which of the two will be given precedence and allowed to sit on Christ’s right hand, thereby outdoing the other? And needless to say, when the other disciples here of this they “began to be much displeased” – since they are rivals for Christ’s affection as well.

We should note that at a very early stage in the development of the tradition this teaching about rivalry was already being downgraded. Luke does not include the incident included in the Gospel of Mark, and Matthew makes a point of telling us that it was not James and John who approached Christ, but their mother!

In a lighter vein, we should note the competition between Peter and John as to who should be first to arrive at Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection. John runs faster and gets there first, but Peter is the first to enter the tomb. John, however, then goes in himself, and is the first to see and believe. Were they aware of their rivalry? Probably not.

What, then, is the relevance of all this to the Week of Prayer of Christian Unity? It is immense. The movement for unity in the Christian Church has reached the point where we can work together, and are able to hold serious theological dialogues on the issues that divide us. But I do not believe that we have realized that behind our disunity lies a huge amount of unacknowledged rivalry.

As far as one can tell, the primacy of the see of Rome was generally accepted by the end of the third century, within the framework that governed the relationship individual dioceses at that time. But the creation by the Emperor Constantine of a second capitol, Constantinople, the “New Rome,” at the beginning of the fourth century introduced a new factor into the equation. The “New Rome” was adorned by taking statues and monuments from the “Old Rome,” and it must have been apparent very quickly that the “New Rome” was a serious rival to the “Old.” It is no coincidence that the first attempt to fix the canonical prerogatives of the “Old” Rome took place at the council of Sardica (modern Sofia, the capitol of Bulgaria) less than twenty years after the establishment of the “New.” The original capitol of the Empire was threatened by its upstart rival and moved to preserve its position.

The next few centuries were marked by intense rivalry between the great sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch, until Alexandria and Antioch were effectively neutralized by the Arab conquest in the seventh century. The succeeding centuries then saw the rise of Moscow as a center of ecclesiastical life. Perhaps foreseeing the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, in 1448 a Synod of bishops elected a new metropolitan of Moscow without reference to Constantinople, thereby effectively declaring Moscow to be autocephalous for the first time. By the first half of the sixteenth century Moscow was already styling itself the “Third Rome” in rivalry to both the “Old” and the “New” Rome. Its position was then strengthened in 1589, when it acquired the status of a patriarchal see.

The point I wish to make is that the scandal of Christian disunity has been largely driven, I am afraid, by the “scandal” of unseen or unacknowledged rivalry. Why unseen? Because it is the very nature of a “scandal” – in the New Testament sense – that it is unseen. The Greek word skandalon means “stumbling-block,” something that trips you up as you walk along. And the reason that one is tripped up is that the stumbling-block, the skandalon is not perceived. If it were perceived, we would step over it or go around it.

Church leaders – and Church members as well – need to become aware of their propensity to become rivals of one another. We need to take Christ’s teaching about rivalry seriously. For Christ the answer was for each of to become the “servant” of the “other,” just as he himself became a “servant” of John the Baptist at his baptism, having become man in the first place in order to be the “servant” of us all.

Against this background the famous 34th Apostolic Canon, which belongs to the canonical tradition of both East and West, assumes particular significance. The canon specifies that in every region the bishops of that region “should know the one who is first among them, and recognize him as their head, and to do nothing outside their own diocese without his advice and approval … but let not [the first] do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all.”

The effect of this canon – and its purpose – is to bring any rivalry between bishops out into the open and then to bring it under control. This canon is the very foundation of the conciliar structure of the Church, which is essential for fostering and maintaining its unity. Its implementation is not only a way to incarnate the teaching of Christ about rivalry, but of praising God the Holy Trinity. The canon in question ends with these words: “For thus will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Part of what Christ has revealed to us is the extent of our fallenness, in particular, our inclination to enter into rivalistic confrontation with one another, both as individuals and, in the end, as Churches. Let us try to recognize this – and modify our behavior accordingly.

Bishop Basil of Sergievo heads the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in Great Britain. His text was delivered as a sermon at Westminster Cathedral in London as part of Christian Unity Week last January. The event was attended by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain.

‘This icon, “Christ is our Reconciliation,” was made for Pax Christi International at the Monastery of St John in the Desert, near Jerusalem. Further information: http://www.paxchristi.net/symbols/