The Roman Catholic–Orthodox Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue produced a statement this past June on the vexed issue of papal primacy and the timely topic of synodality. The Alexandria statement, “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today,” describes the history of the split between the Orthodox and the Catholics and chronicles the efforts to bridge those divisions. Agreeing on a fair statement of what actually happened is an accomplishment. Ultimately, however, the dialogue participants signaled the need to go further. “Purely historical discussions are not enough,” they state. And in the end, they make an assertion that I find intriguing: “A eucharistic ecclesiology of communion is the key to articulating a sound theology of synodality and primacy.”
What is eucharistic ecclesiology? The document itself does not define it, but some general reference points can help to put this term into context. On the Orthodox side, eucharistic ecclesiology is associated with the groundbreaking work of the eastern Orthodox theologian Nicolai Afanassieff (1893–1966), who taught in Paris at the St. Sergius Institute, and whose thinking and writing influenced other Orthodox luminaries such as Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and John Zizioulas. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex subject, the basic premise here is that believers are united with Christ through the Eucharist, and Christ is not divided. Therefore, eucharistic assemblies are not merely “part of” a larger church. Rather, they are the Church in a qualitative way. Where the Eucharist is, there is the Church.
This argument is based upon a reading of the first three centuries of the Church’s history and presumes the presence of the bishop as the president of the local eucharistic assembly. In this view, primacy also has a place, provided it is understood as preeminence and respect. Consultation, resolution of disputes, support of the weak, safeguarding of unity, and so on, are assisted by primacy—not understood as command and control, but as a service to the mystery manifest in each local church that gathers for the Eucharist. Again, the model is taken from the apostolic church.
A “return to the sources” in the liturgical movement and through the patristic revival of the twentieth century also opened up for Catholics some intriguing insights regarding eucharistic ecclesiology that were then articulated at the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) stated that the bishop celebrating the Eucharist, surrounded by his presbyters, ministers, and all the faithful, is the “pre-eminent manifestation” of the Church (SC, 41). The very introduction to the liturgy constitution affirms a strong link between Eucharist and ecclesiology: “The liturgy… and most of all the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (SC, article 2).