John Zizioulas: An Ecumenical Appreciation

Published on: February 24, 2023
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It was the Cambridge philosopher of religion Donald MacKinnon who first introduced me to John Zizioulas’s work, passing to me (some time around 1978) a couple of French offprints. Donald was not someone who handed out praise readily, but he was obviously intrigued and impressed—I suspect because these essays on the eucharist and the bishop reflected an ecclesiology as far removed as you could imagine from the anxious policing of boundaries and the institutional self-inflation and self-deceit that Donald found in so much writing about the Church in the Western theology of the mid-century, both conservative and supposedly radical. If conservative theologies of the Church exalted the coercive power of hierarchs and treated the Church as a kind of political unit with ruled and rulers, liberal and radical theologies of the mid-century equally reduced the Church to an association of enthusiastic social reformers hurrying to keep up with a culture in flux. Neither exhibited much sense of what it might be for the Church to be what it claimed to be, the assembly of those transfigured by the Spirit into full (Christlike) humanity and thus into a condition of authentic communion; neither really understood that the Church’s sacramental character meant that the Church’s visible manifestation in the Eucharistic community was quite simply the embodied anticipation of creation coming into that eschatological mutuality and non-separation which it was made for. For a somewhat unconventional Anglo-Catholic like MacKinnon, this represented as strand in Anglican thinking that was already somewhat occluded by the 1970’s – the strong eschatological emphasis of the great Dom Gregory Dix in his classic Shape of the Liturgy, along with the eloquent critique of consumerized, homogenized “market man” that arose from this Eucharistic focus.

These themes, of course, were to be developed richly in Zizioulas’s single most influential work, Being as Communion—a collection of essays ambitiously drawing together sacramental theology and metaphysics (it included translations of the articles I had read in 1978), and setting out a pretty comprehensive dogmatic program. Characteristic tropes about the importance of the monarchia of the Father in the Trinity (to avoid any suggestion of a conceptually prior and abstract unity in the Godhead), the sharp disjunction between the “natural” and the “personal,” the eschatological character of the eucharist and thus of its episcopal celebrant, the serious error of creating ‘specialist’ eucharists for groups of believers differentiated by age or culture, and much else—all these were present in these essays. A generation of readers well beyond the Orthodox Churches found them compellingly exciting, and more than one significant ecumenical text drew heavily on them. In the UK, Zizioulas found a home for his teaching and his ideas in King’s College, London, where the enthusiastic collaboration of a Reformed colleague, Professor Colin Gunton helped to introduce him to a wide audience. Within the Church of England, in the early 1980’s, a radical overhaul of the methodology and aims of training for ordained ministry—inspired and overseen partly by Professor Dan Hardy—placed the Zizioulan emphasis on Trinitarian communion as ontologically basic at the heart of what the candidate for ministry should seek to grow into, to serve and to animate in the Church.

Metropolitan John—as he was by this time—was regularly and inevitably the first choice as an Orthodox representative in assorted dialogue groups and major inter-confessional events. As co-chair of the Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue Commission for many years, he exercised a formidable inspiring and shaping power in the drafting of the 2006 report on The Church of the Triune God. I was a member of this dialogue group up to the time of my appointment to Canterbury in 2002, and had the joy of regularly being able to engage with Metropolitan John on the fundamentals of doctrine in encounters which consistently restored my faith in the possibility of good theological argument.  John and I did not agree on everything, by any means.  He was not at all sure that I was sound on the Father’s monarchia, and I stubbornly defended Augustine against what I still think were sometimes unjust and oversimplified versions of his thought. We argued about whether John’s doctrine of creation brought creation and fall uncomfortably close together, and whether “nature” meant the same in the Cappadocians as in post-Heideggerian thought. But one of the great delights of the dialogue was watching him develop a far richer Christological scheme than hitherto; and in this, as in our thinking about sacramental theology, we were deeply at one. To the occasional exasperation of the rest of the Commission, we sometimes got so happily embroiled in arguing about the detail of patristic texts that the agenda and timetable showed signs of strain; I recall an occasion in Bucharest in (I think) 2000, when a staff member was sent out to retrieve an edition of St. Maximus from the Patriarchal library so that John and I could tussle over the context of various contested quotations and arrive at some kind of concordat, while the rest of the group, with ill-concealed relief, took off for an extended coffee break…

By this time, I counted John as a friend, and I believe it was mutual. I had the deepest respect for him as a thinker—and was occasionally sorry that the unremitting pressure of representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate on so many bodies (a task he performed with assiduity and integrity) made it so much harder for him to write at the kind of length and detail that gets you taken fully seriously in the academic world.  In fact, his reading remained wide and up to date; and when I was asked to write a short introduction to his superb 2006 collection of essays, Communion and Otherness, I suggested that, properly read, this book was actually something very like a systematic theology in unsystematic form, in that it covered such a wide field of topics, from Trinitarian ontology to issues of gender, spiritual practice, church government and much more. Like that other great Elder of modern Orthodox theology, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he was saddened and baffled by the resurgence of ecclesial nationalisms and even more by the enthusiastic adoption among some Orthodox of the agenda of US “culture wars.” For all the immense sophistication of his thinking, there was a surprising simplicity about him (and I am not just referring to his spectacular lack of practicality): in the brash contemporary phrase, he knew how to keep the main thing the main thing. And to see him serving the Divine Liturgy was invariably to see exactly what that main thing was for him: the manifestation in Christ, present and coming, of what we hope for in ourselves, our related and interwoven selves, and in our interwoven world, crying out for reconciliation.

May his memory be eternal. I am so grateful to have known him and learned from him.

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  • Rowan Williams

    Rowan Williams

    Honorary Professor of Contemporary Christian Thought at the University of Cambridge

    Rowan Williams is an Anglican theologian and is currently Honorary Professor of Contemporary Christian Thought at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Master of Magdalene College and, from 2002-2012, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University