Life in the kingdom of God is ever so much more complicated than allowed for by either canon law or simplistic ecclesiology. This should not come as a surprise. The Spirit blows where he wills.
The ecclesiology of St Cyprian was clear-cut: the Church is defined by her canonical boundaries; there are no sacraments outside the Catholic Church. This is an easy, nonambiguous, uncomplicated ecclesiology. Yet it is also an ecclesiology that the Church has never felt comfortable fully embracing. It was immediately contested by Pope Stephen I, who insisted that Cyprian's position was an innovation
and departure from apostolic practice! Even Cyprian's fellow African, St Augustine, did not feel quite comfortable with it. It is sometimes asserted, especially in internet forums, that Orthodoxy has unequivocally embraced Cyprianic ecclesiology; but this is clearly not the case. I have already cited the opinion of Archpriest Alexander Lebedeff (ROCOR), who believes that the traditional Russian practice of receiving Catholic laymen by chrismation and Catholic priests by vesting is grounded in the conviction that the Catholic Church has "valid Mysteries and true apostolic succession, and that in no way should Baptism and Chrismation, or ordination of them be performed again." Whether Fr Alexander is correct in his assessment I cannot judge, though I did contact Fr John Erickson, retired professor from St Vladimir's Seminary, who confirmed Fr Alexander's interpretation of the Russian practice. Other parts of Orthodoxy disagree with the Russian practice or at least disagree with Fr Alexander's interpretation of it. The Bulgarian Diocese of the U.S., Canada, and Australia, for example, requires that all converts be (re)baptized, without exceptions. No doubt many of the monks on Mt Athos would agree with this policy. Other parts of Orthodoxy receive Catholic and perhaps Protestant converts through chrismation on the grounds of economy. But the appeal to economy at this point is by no means uncontroversial. As Fr Georges Florovsky argued many years ago in his essay "The Limits of the Church
, "One can scarcely ascribe to the Church the power and the right, as it were, to convert the ‘has-not-been’ into the ‘has-been’, to change the meaningless into the valid ... ‘in the order of economy.’" Economy cannot be employed to justify the the substitution of Chrismation for Holy Baptism. If the Church is rigorously defined by her canonical boundaries, then ritual baptism performed outside the Church, even if it mimics the Orthodox sacrament in every way, is not a sacrament of the Church, and no subsequent sacramental action by the Church can make it into an authentic sacrament. No doubt some Orthodox theologians, particularly in the Greek tradition, will dissent from Florovsky's argument; but let's at least admit that Orthodoxy does not speak with one voice on this matter. Several months ago I raised this question with Fr Patrick Reardon of the Antiochian Church. He acknowledged that present Orthodox diversity and disagreement on this question of the validity of heterodox baptism replicates the diversity that existed within the Church in the fifth century, and in the absence of a centralized authority or a binding decision by an Ecumenical Council this diversity would no doubt continue within Orthodoxy until the return of Christ ... but the Church muddles through.
One of the strengths of Orthodoxy is its refusal to be limited by canon law. Cyprianic Purists insist that no one may receive communion in the Orthodox Church who is not a canonical member of an Orthodox diocese. Internet forums are filled with ecclesiastical ideologues. Yet on the parochial ground matters are so much more complicated. I know of one Armenian theologian who partakes of the Orthodox Eucharist, with permission of both his Armenian bishop and the Orthodox bishop. In some places of the world, Melkite Christians receive Holy Communion in Orthodox Churches and Orthodox Christians receive Holy Communion in Melkite Churches. Canon law says that they shouldn't; but life in the Church, which is precisely life in the Spirit, will not be constrained by canon law. Wise pastors understand this. "For where the Church is," St Irenaeus exclaims, "there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace." The work and presence of the Spirit is not limited by canon law.
And this brings us to J Michael's practice of inter-communion. Despite what I have written above, I do not approve of his practice, and if I were his confessor or pastor, I would urge him, and indeed require him, to be faithful to the canons of his Church. J. Michael, even if you are correct in your ecclesiological evaluation, even if both communions enjoy "direct and unbroken apostolic succession" and therefore valid sacraments, even if you will ultimately be judged by God by your relationship with Jesus Christ and not by your ecclesial affiliation, this does not authorize you to break the laws of your Church. You are not living in an emergency situation; the Kingdom has not yet fully arrived; the divisions within the Church have not yet been overcome. Despite the unity that exists between Catholicism and Orthodoxy--and I agree with you that at the deepest theological and spiritual levels this unity does exist--you are not permitted by your Church to partake in the Holy Eucharist of the Catholic Church. We all live under obedience. Without such obedience, life in community is impossible. Until theological unity is achieved, we must continue to suffer the wounds of disunity. There are no easy short-cuts around this suffering.
Of course, if one advocates a pure Cyprianic ecclesiology, such suffering does not exist. There is the visible Orthodox Church, and there is the grace-less wasteland. Until a few decades ago, Catholics also advocated a similar ecclesiology. My wife remembers her father telling her stories about how he and his fellow Catholics were instructed to avoid Protestants. He wasn't even allowed to play basketball in the local non-Catholic high school. I personally find such a black-and-white ecclesiology implausible, as well as spiritually dangerous. It is blind to the work and presence of the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to affirm the Orthodox Church as embodying the fullness of catholic faith; it is quite another thing to deny the possibility of ecclesial reality outside the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church. The Spirit blows where he wills. The gospel is proclaimed. Believers suffer and die in the name of Jesus. Saints are created by God. A proper ecclesiology must address and deal with these realities.
Fr Alvin Kimel