I am currently editing a fascinating book from Cyril Hovorun, an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a senior lecturer at Sankt Ignatios Academy/Stockholm School of Theology in Sweden. The book is about the critical distinction, often not made, between the nature of the church and its ecclesial structures. Here is the back cover blurb:
Unity is the categorical imperative of the church. It is not just the church’s bene esse, but its esse. In addition to being a theological concept, unity has become a raison d’être of various structures that the church has established and developed. All of these structures are supposed to serve the end of unity. However, from time to time some of them deviate from their initial purpose and contribute to disunity. This happens because the structures of the church are not a part of its nature and can therefore turn against it. They are like scaffolding, which facilitates the construction and maintenance of a building without actually being part of it. Likewise, ecclesial structures help the church function in accordance with its nature but should not be identified with the church proper. This book considers the evolution of some of these church structures and evaluates their correspondence to their initial rationale. It focuses on particular structures that have developed in the eastern part of the Christian oecumene, such as patriarchates, canonical territory, and autocephaly, all of which are explored in the more general frame of hierarchy and primacy. They were selected because they are most neuralgic in the life of the Orthodox churches today and bear in them the greatest potential to divide.
It is a book informed by a wide and deep knowledge of Christian history, especially Orthodox history. And it is prophetic. Here is a little flavour:
All abuses of the ecclesial structures are encapsulated in ecclesiocentrism. This arch-abuse happens when the church is perceived as possessing a self-sufficient value and autonomy with its own purpose, which is not always compatible with the life of God, the breath of the Spirit, and diakonia to the community and wider society. The ecclesiocentric separation of the church from God leads to its separation from the life of its own people and vice versa. The church then impedes relations between the faithful and God and among the people, instead of facilitating them. An ecclesiocentric church—a church literally “turned in on itself”—loses its relational character and becomes an island isolated from both people and God. This island may be considered holy, yet its holiness turns out on closer examination to be bare, meaningless, and profane. It is like the island of Delos nowadays: not inhabited, with only tourists exploring its scattered ruins. The church can only be freed from ecclesiocentrism when it is not preoccupied with itself, but gives itself fully to God, to God’s people, and to God’s world. The church is faithful to its nature and purpose when it is kenotic, self-emptying. The church is true to itself when it strives to serve and is not content to be served.
Scaffolds of the Church, (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 194.