(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.)
As the Orthodox churches gather to consider their common approach to ecumenism, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at how the Roman Catholic Church approached this same issue when it gathered in council over 50 years ago. I do not mean to suggest that the Orthodox need to find the same answers, but it may be quite helpful to examine some of the same questions. Among them, the four most important would be:
1 – What is the goal of Orthodox ecumenism?
Often in the Orthodox world one hears ecumenism described as “cooperation with other churches in preserving Christian values,” which seems to have as a goal not full ecclesial union, but rather coordinated action for some particular good (e.g., assisting Christians in the Middle East, eliminating injustice, etc..). If, however, the goal of Orthodox ecumenism is the reunion of Christendom, then perhaps this should be stated clearly so that both the Orthodox and their dialogue partners can proceed accordingly.
2 – What principles guide Orthodox ecumenism?
There are a number of theological questions that are involved here, not all of which have been answered definitively by the Church. The most significant is the relationship of Orthodoxy to the True Church of Christ —i.e., whether the True Church of Christ IS the Orthodox Church in such a way that other churches are completely outside of it and must return or whether there are (as in Roman Catholic thinking) “levels of communion” with the True Church so that what Orthodoxy possess in its fullness is somehow shared by other Christians albeit in an incomplete form. In this latter model the methodology would not necessarily be seeking the “return” of other Christians, but rather dialogue in order to seek full communion.
3 – What is the ecclesial reality of other Christian bodies?
Although the various Orthodox jurisdictions take different approaches to the reception of non-Orthodox Christians, and have usually treated these matters as disciplinary rather than theological (usually under the umbrella of “economy”), the fact remains that how the Church receives Catholic and Protestant Christians says something about how it views these other groups (i.e., as “churches” or “ecclesial communities”). If the Roman Catholic Church is a “church” in the proper sense, then should one re-baptize a Catholic seeking full communion with Orthodoxy as if s/he was a non-Christian? What about the reception of Catholic priests and the validity of their orders?
4 – To what degree do other Christian bodies differ from Orthodoxy and from each other?
Orthodoxy’s relations with other Christian bodies often depend on a variety of factors (e.g., geography, historical experience), not all of which are theological. The Oriental Orthodox, Assyrians, Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants all have some relationship to the Orthodox Church, but the Church itself has never clarified what makes some churches closer to Orthodoxy than others. Adherence to the councils and canons? Valid episcopacy and Eucharist? Liturgy and Spirituality? If Orthodoxy seeks to bring other Christians closer to itself, it should perhaps make it clearer what would be required for them to do so.
Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Clement and Helen Pappas Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion at Stockton University.