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Ecclesia and syneleuseis

November 14, 2009

In the current climate prevalent within first-world Anglicanism, discussions of the Church and of ecclesiology are often veiled political discourses or – as frequently – bald-faced polemics on the wedge issues of the moment. It is small wonder, then, that a straightforward accounting of the whys and wherefores of church life, in the present day, should be infrequently seen. Even when Anglican theologians do broach the topic, the Communion’s numerous white elephants loom large over the writing. Too often, our writers on this topic will come across either as glassy-eyed, foolish lightweights; strident reactionaries (both liberal and conservative); or closet cases, hiding behind the cloth. In a sense, we are all closet cases, not so long as our divisions remain unhealed, but so long as we fail to comprehend that our divisions cannot be healed by legislation or canon, and must simply be endured as we hope for greater understanding.

We may find, however, some powerful notes on the Church from one of our cousins within that great, mystical space of Byzantine Christendom. That the writer should happen also to be a chaplain in the United States Army (i.e. deeply engaged with the life of the world) makes his writing doubly compelling. And although he poses questions to a military audience who face battles in distant lands, there exists a powerful metaphor for our own, comparatively sheltered lives: although the “Church Militant” is a term out of favor, who among us can really deny that we fight continually against both sin and death (Sin and Death), and that the Church forms our united front in this contest? What follows is a balanced, considered, and faithful exposition on what it means to be a church, and we are all well to read on.


Worship or Sanctification of Time?
by Chaplain (MAJ) Peter A. Baktis, USA

In our contemporary nomenclature we use and hear the words “Church”, “Worshiping Communities” and “Prayer Fellowships” as if they were somehow the same. Yet if we look back in history what we find are two distinct terms for Christian gatherings: the Greek ecclesia (church) and syneleuseis (meetings).1 The ecclesia, was not the visible building but the solemn assembly for the liturgy (the work of the people), syneleuseis were gatherings of Christian friends and acquaintances. The difference between them is significant in that the ecclesia was the corporate all-inclusive nature of worship, which every Christian had a right and duty to attend. The syneleuseis was a gathering, or meeting. The ecclesia is a coming together2 not merely in one place, but in general assembly where unlike in the gathering, would be the official presence of the liturgical ministry of bishop, presbyters and deacons. How does this apply to us in the military?

What we first gather from the difference between ecclesia and syneleuseis is purpose and intent. When we call people to come and gather what is the purpose and intent? Is it to mutually learn, read, sing hymns, some other general purpose, or, to do the liturgy, the work of the people where we have “one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy unblameable …. Be zealous to come together, all of you, as to one temple, even God; as to one altar, even to one Jesus Christ ….”3 The ecclesia is not a gathering for Bible study but to enter into the very life of God. For the Orthodox Church it is not only the time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist), but also to sanctify time.

If we were to look in Holy Scripture to the very first book of the Old Testament, we find an order in creation. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day” (Gen 1:3 NIV). This order that we find in Genesis becomes the order or cycle of prayer. Evening begins the day, not sunrise. This is the present understanding in both Judaic and in Orthodox Christian worship. Again this is not just a nice thing to know, but for those who believe in a creator who creates with logic and purpose, they must ask the questions, “What does this mean for me? How can I learn and further not only my understanding of God, but what we are doing when we gather to worship?”

This leads into the question of private and corporate prayer. In the Prophet Daniel we read: “Three times a day he would open his chamber window towards Jerusalem eastwards, doing reverence on bended knee and praising his God” (Daniel 6:11). This practice carried over in the Christian practice of the hours: Third, Sixth, and Ninth. The theme for each of these hours focused on Christ’s Passion to His Resurrection.4 The implication is the same as worship in the ecclesia; private worship also has purpose and intent. It is not just a matter of what I want to do, but what I will do to build a deeper understanding of my God and Creator. Worship is a purposeful movement and action on the part of the believer.

It is important to understand, that Christian worship emerged not only from a scriptural basis, but also from a growing cultural and historical context. The purpose was not to impose limitations and order for the sake of rules, but to work from within the created order revealed and made anew in the life, death and resurrection of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ. Space, time, language, movement, music: all is to reflect the glory and mystery of God. When we gather, and worship as the ecclesia, we are to have the One Mind of God, to be joined to the One Body of Christ.5

As an Orthodox Christian, I understand that for worship there is a focus on the sacredness of space and time. The place that we come together as ecclesia is not something ordinary, but reflects the purpose and intent for which we are there. In like manner, I understand that my God is the author of all creation, and as the incarnate God, has entered into time and space and reclaimed, redeemed and sanctified it. Therefore it implies that worship should somehow be reflective of this sacredness of time. When we invite someone to our home for a celebration, do we not clean, set apart space and plan how the celebration is to unfold so as to make our guests feel they are the most important person present? In our worship preparation, who is the focus, God or us? What and who is being glorified, and further, does it challenge and make us want to change our lives?

In the military we are challenged with many obstacles for worship. These challenges include multipurpose buildings in garrison, field exercises and real-world deployments, time schedules and the list can go on. However, it is our responsibility as chaplains and chaplain assistants, both Christian and non-Christian, to bring God to people and people to God. This call has both specified and implied tasks.

The first is to know what we are doing. Who is the object of worship and what is the purpose and intent? Second, we must make the space and time somehow extraordinary. Whether we find ourselves in a building, or in the middle of the desert, how do we claim that space and time to be redemptive and healing? Have we prepared ourselves for the worship event that we are about to lead or support? Do we understand our purpose and intent?

People have worshiped their understanding of a god or deity for generations. Despite who, or what their understanding of their god is, there are common elements. The first is the sense of holiness or mystery. Somehow the worshipers understand that they are not the subjects of the worship. Second, there is a sacred space, be it a shrine, temple or even a holy mountain. Third, there is an expectation that there will be a life transforming experience. Lastly, time somehow is transformed. There is not just “the holy hour,” but the whole of time is holy.6

The challenge for us as Army chaplains and chaplain assistants is to bring the reality of the otherness of God to the ordinary life of our soldiers. We must have a purpose and intent, so that when we gather as ecclesia, we reflect the One Mind, One Heart, and One Body of Christ.


1. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, (London: Dacre Press Adam and Charles Black 1978), 19-20.
2. See Hebrews 12:23
3. Ignatius, Epistle to Magnesians, vii., 1-2.
4. For a detailed understanding of this development see: Josef A. Jungmann, S.J., The Early Liturgy to the Time of Gregory the Great, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), Chapter 9.
5. See 1 Corinthians 12:12ff: “The body is a unit, although it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.”
6. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959).



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