On Communion and Church Unity|
A Paper Presented to the Assyrian Church of the East Synod
This short paper on the question of communion and Church unity was presented on November 2, 2005, by Bishop Bawai Soro to the assembled members of the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East held in Chicago. The Synod reject the proposals herein and voted to sanction Mar Bawai from his diocese, which led to his eventual removal and excommunication.
Bishop Mar Bawai Soro
- A true Apostolic Church cannot possibly remain isolated and alone without being in full ecclesial communion with other Apostolic Churches. If the Apostles of the Lord: Thomas, Andrew, James, John and Peter were bound together in Apostolic communion then also their churches must also be bound with the same communion of their founders. However, due to historical factors, namely, political and geographical, between the Persian and the Roman Empires, ecclesial ties between the Assyrian Church of the East and the rest of Christendom, i.e., the three major ecclesiastical families in Christianity: the Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox, communion was ruptured for many centuries. As a result of this regrettable reality, we notice that today the Assyrian Church of the East is not in ecclesial communion with any other Apostolic Church.
- Therefore, the state in which we find our Church in today is for many legitimate reasons contrary to ecclesial logic and true theological and apostolic understanding. The following points below are the basis for us, as a church, to seek the restoration of communion with other Apostolic churches:
- The dogmatic prayers of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Saint John in which Jesus prays to the Father that all His followers be one just as He and His Father are one (Jn 17).
- The ecclesial reality of the early New Testament Church shows the Apostles never were independent from one another but all were united in communion, prayer and charity (Acts 2: 42-47).
- Model of communion between our Church of the East and the Western Church during the first five centuries of Christianity was characterized by the willingness of our Church Fathers to receive from the Western Fathers church teachings (creeds), liturgical texts and instructions and canonical legislation. An excellent example of such communion is the Synod of Mar Isaac in 410 AD.
- Common sense dictates that in today's world there is a need for Christians from all churches and traditions to form a strong bound of brotherly witness so that the world may believe in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our people's instinct of spiritual and cultural survival demands that we unite and form communion with other Apostolic churches to maximize our people's chances of such survival in a world that is increasingly becoming more hostile by the day.
- Various liturgical, canonical and patristic texts used and accepted until today in the Assyrian Church of the East during the Holy Qurbana and the Office for Prayer would certainly teach us two fundamental standpoints:
- The Assyrian Church of the East belongs to the Great Body (Gushma Rabba) of the one Holy Catholic Church established by our Lord, which is also the holy undivided Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27; Eph. 4:12). The following segment of a prayer recited by every priest and bishop celebrating the Holy Qurbana every Sunday illustrates the above point: "In your mercifulness, my Lord, you have deemed the vileness of our feeble nature worthy to be made recognized member in the Great Body of the Holy Catholic Church, to administer spiritual assistance to the souls of the faithful." Within the one body of the Lord, which is the Church, there cannot be independence because the body is one. There can only be mutual recognition, respect, harmonized planning and action among Christian brethren. In a body, the hand cannot go independently from the feet and still belonging to the same body (I Corinthians 12:14-21). On the contrary in every functioning of the body there is interdependence and mutuality. Indeed, in the history of the Church there were and still are several particular churches who have their autonomy (self-government) but organically they are harmonized as one in the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., His Holy Church. Such sacred objective of the unity of Christ's Church must however be developed from an ecclesiological mentality not political, from an apostolic way of thinking not secular. Because, in a civic or political context a group of people ought to seek objectives as freedom and independence but in an ecclesiastical and spiritual reality, churches are a part of the holy Body of Christ and therefore are tied together in a communion that is characterized by charity, hope and faith. Again, we ought to learn how to think and behave like a church from the New Testament model of the early church to see how these churches were actually living in communion (Acts 2: 42-47).
- The Church of the East attributes a prominent role to Saint Peter and a significant place for the Church of Rome in her liturgical, canonical and Patristic thoughts. There are more than 50 liturgical, canonical and Patristic citations that explicitly express such a conviction. The question before us therefore is, why there must be a primacy attributed to Saint Peter in the Church? If there is no primacy in the universal church, we shall not be able to legitimize a primacy of all the Catholicos-Patriarchs in the other apostolic churches. If the patriarchs of the apostolic churches have legitimate authority over their own respective bishops it is so because there is a principle of primacy in the universal Church. If the principle of primacy is valid for a local Church (for example, the Assyrian Church of the East), it is so because it is already valid for the universal church. If there is no Peter for the universal church there could not be Peter for the local Church. If all the apostles are equal in authority by virtue of the gift of the Spirit, and if the bishops are the successors of the Apostles, based on what then one of these bishops (i.e., the Catholicos-Patriarchs) has authority over the other bishops?
The Church of the East possesses a theological, liturgical and canonical tradition in which she clearly values the primacy of Peter among the rest of the Apostles and their churches and the relationship Peter has with his successors in the Church of Rome. The official organ of our Church of the East, Mar Abdisho of Soba, the last theologian in our Church before its fall, based himself on such an understanding when he collected his famous Nomocanon in which he clearly states the following: "To the Great Rome [authority] was given because the two pillars are laid [in the grave] there, Peter, I say, the head of the Apostles, and Paul, the teacher of the nations. [Rome] is the first see and the head of the patriarchs." (Memra 9; Risha 1) Furthermore, Abdisho asserts ". . . . And as the patriarch has authority to do all he wishes in a fitting manner in such things as are beneath his authority, so the patriarch of Rome has authority over all patriarchs, like the blessed Peter over all the community, for he who is in Rome also keeps the office of Peter in all the church. He who transgresses against these things the ecumenical synod places under anathema." (Memra 9; Risha 8). I would like to ask here the following: who among us would dare to think that he or she is more learned than Abdisho of Soba, or that they are more sincere to the church of our forefather than Mar Abdisho himself? This is true especially since we the members of the Holy Synod have in 2004 affirmed Mar Abdisho's List of Seven Sacraments as the official list of the Assyrian Church of the East. How much more then we ought to consider examining and receiving Abdisho's Synodical legislation in his Nomocanon?
- As an implementation of the above mentioned principles of full-Communion and Christian Unity, the restoration of ecclesial unity with the Old Calendar and the Chaldean Churches would be the most historically fulfilling objective from any other project we may seek to fulfill. In fact this noble aim has been already recognized by our hierarchs in the past decade when letters of reconciliation and unity were exchanged with the Old-Calendar segment of the Church of the East, and a dialogue was opened and an agreement was reached and signed by the two Catholicos-Patriarchs and the rest of our bishops to bring about a comprehensive formula of unity between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. Unfortunately, this serious dialogue has been interrupted and paralyzed from 1998 until the present time. In my opinion, this noble quest for unity is the only valid way for the Church of our forefathers, the Church of the East, to fulfill its historic destiny and thrive in the future. Such an action would be a solid ground for our people to activate the mechanism that may also lead one day to a national unity.
The above statement is also my conviction in front of God, you my brothers, and my own church and nation. This conviction I have learned from Mar Abdisho of Soba and cannot abandon it, for it will be a betrayal to my church fathers and to my duty as a bishop of the Church and a shepherd of my people. Accordingly, I do believe that we ought to Implement these principles with caution and in a Christian manner in order to fulfill the objective of church unity and ecclesial communion. This is done so that the Assyrian Church of the East could unite with both the Chaldean and the Old Calendar Churches and all three of them can once again become one United Church of the East. Then and there, this united Church of the East could formulate a common position to negotiate with the Catholic Church how this New United Church of the East could preserve its spirituality, canon law, liturgy, theological terminology and self-governance but at the same time be in full-communion with the Universal Church.
then bishop of Western California in the Assyrian Church of the East