Ecumenical Relations and the Pan-Orthodox Council

by Edith Humphrey

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on ecumenical relations.)

“A household divided against itself falls.” This seems an apt proof-text for the 1920 encyclical of the Patriarch of Constantinople regarding ecumenical relations in his day, words ratified some forty years later by leaders preparing for the Great and Holy Council, and carried into our day by the selection of this topic as essential for 2016. The Patriarch fastened upon “manifest dangers” threatening the Church, joined by those who (in commending topic nine) urged that Orthodox participation in ecumenical endeavors is “indispensable:” the urgency is more keenly felt in the twenty-first century, with the increasing dissonance between secular perspectives and Orthodoxy, division among Orthodox themselves, and the mounting scourge of extreme Islam. Only a united household will stand.

Yet immediately the term “household,” oikumenē, frustrates us. For present purposes, I take “ecumenical relations” to involve those who profess Trinitarian faith, but without prejudice as to what is implied by “household:” I will not adjudicate whether “household” is coterminous with “Church,” either historical or eschatological, or whether it is a metaphor describing a variety of Christians whose ecclesial status is left undetermined. I am grateful that we are gathering under the rubric of “ecumenical relations” rather than discussing “ecumenism” or “ecumenicism” as isms. It is much simpler to talk about how and for what purposes we might be in ecumenical relationships than to navigate polarized discussions concerning the absolute hopes or grave dangers of the ecumenical movement.

For purposes of transparency, I cast my lot in with Fr. Georges Florovsky. I consider non-Orthodox who worship the Holy Trinity to have “touched the hem of Jesus’ garment,” yet will not demur concerning the fullness of the apostolic tradition as given to the Orthodox Church. Moreover,I consider that significant contact with non-Orthodox Christians is fruitful for both them and for us–recalling those parts of the Tradition that we have muted, for one reason or another. With Fr. Florovsky,  I acknowledge the paradox of schism and unity, claiming a substantial unity with non-Orthodox who have been baptized, but admitting a palpable difference that prevents inter-communion. This “suspension” rings true theologically, and personally. (When I speak of my journey from the Salvation Army through Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, I am hard-pressed to know whether I should speak of conversion, or fulfillment.)

As we broach ecumenical relations, we are guided by questions of theology, witness and life. We seek a strong theological basis for our ecumenical endeavors, but remain mindful of what is accomplished by our words and actions. It may be that the detailed suggestions of 1920 are overly optimistic and insufficiently realistic. Yet there are at least three actions that even a chastened ecumenical approach can endorse. As we look out to the world, we can be ecumenical in common cause. As we look back to the Fathers, in towards our center, and out to other Christians, we can be ecumenical in committed conversation. And as we look up towards the holy God of the universe, we can be ecumenical in uncompromised worship. These three directions are not uncomplicated, but they are a start.

Edith Humphrey is William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.