Orthodoxy and Ecumenism in View of the Upcoming Great and Holy Council

by Will Cohen

Some members of the Orthodox Church, who regard ecumenism as a heresy, have been predictably critical of the preconciliar document “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” since it was approved by the Orthodox primates at Chambèsy in October 2015.  In that document, the identification (¶1) of the Orthodox Church with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene creed is entirely consistent with Orthodox ecumenism (¶4).  For anti-ecumenists, by contrast, this identification can only mean that all others that call themselves church are not church at all.  As the eminent Greek theologian Fr. Theodore Zizis in a recent talk on the upcoming Great and Holy Council said about Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches, “The Church amidst 340 Protestant groups!  What business do we have there?  Are we a heresy?  Do we lump ourselves in with the heretics?”  The idea is that we know all we need to know about what other Christian traditions think and believe.  There is no reason to pay it any further attention. 

Paradoxically, it is also characteristic of the very worst kinds of Christian ecumenists – and thankfully, few if any Orthodox participants in ecumenical dialogue fit the type – that they, too, proceed as if we already knew all we needed to know.  Only their conclusion is the opposite:  it’s that between any one Christian tradition and another all the differences are assuredly so minor we can blithely assert an essential unity without resolving them.  If Orthodox ecumenism were of this kind, those who categorically oppose it would be right to do so.  But it isn’t.  And the Council in June can do a great deal to foster greater internal consensus on Orthodoxy’s ecumenical engagement by clarifying that this caricature of Orthodox ecumenical involvement is just that, a caricature, and that what the Council supports is something theologically far more serious and profound.

In particular, the Council ought to emphasize that ecumenism, properly understood, is approached humbly as an ascetical task.  Unlike either the pseudo-rigorism of total disengagement or the pseudo-love of undifferentiated inclusion, it requires a profound receptivity and openness both to the possible joy of finding unexpected common ground and to the possible disappointment of finding a widening breach.  The preconciliar text recognizes this dual possibility; it aptly states about ecumenical dialogue that it may “identify common principles of the Christian faith”; and that it may “reveal possible new disagreements” (¶11).

Authentic ecumenism understands dialogue as taking place in the mystery of real time with real people.  It prays for the grace to see not just what it wants or has already made up its mind to see but what truly presents itself.  What another Christian tradition has said on paper is important, but not enough, to know the faith of those who inhabit it, because traditions, even schismatic or even outright heretical ones, are not static and frozen in time.  In imperceptible ways they may over the course of decades or centuries have been influenced by the Holy Spirit at work in them through any number of means, including, perhaps, seeds planted through direct or indirect encounter with persons of the Orthodox Church or their writings.  Fr. Georges Florovsky held that while it may not be possible to say, precisely, that schismatics remain in the Church – although St. Basil the Great did say this of some schismatics – it would be “truer to say that the Church continues to work in the schisms,” and Florovsky spoke affirmatively of the “validity” of sacraments outside the visible unity of the Church.

This perspective allows for an understanding of non-Orthodox Christian communities as living and dynamic, historically still in process. If a tradition like that of the Oriental Orthodox should come over the course of centuries to be able to affirm that the christological formulation of Chalcedon it once thought did not express its own faith turns out, after all, to do so, the Orthodox Church must rejoice in this, as then the pre-Chalcedonian formulation (of St. Cyril) used by the Oriental Orthodox would be able to be interpreted in a Chalcedonian key.  Similarly, if some Protestant traditions are discovering — in part through ecumenical encounter with the Orthodox — that such practices as icon veneration and intercessory prayer they had once considered inimical to the apostolic faith are authentic expressions of it after all, this has the potential to bring their lived ecclesial life and that of the Orthodox much closer to each other.  There is no guarantee that with time, separated communions will converge; they may drift farther apart.  But the historical fact of a division is not in itself enough to tell us the trajectory going forward.

This is why Archbishop Nicetas of Nicomedia and Patriarch John X Camateros were both able to refer to the Church of Rome — even in the 12th century, with the East-West schism already a century old — as a “sister church” of the Orthodox.  It is also why St. Mark of Ephesus, three centuries later, could attend the Council of Florence with the hope expressed in these words:

“There is truly a need for much investigation and conversation (πολλῆς ἐρεύνης δεῖται καί συζητήσεως) in matters of theological disputation (ὃσα τῶν δογμάτων ἀμφισβητήσιμα), so that the compelling and conspicuous arguments might be considered. There is profound benefit to be gained from such conversation if the objective is not altercation but truth, and if the intention is not solely to triumph over others; . . .  [I]nspired by the same spirit [as the apostles at the council of Jerusalem] and bound to one another by love, the goal should be to discover the truth, and we should never lose sight of the purpose that lies before us (μή ἁμαρτήσεσθαι τοῦ προκειμένου σκοποῦ); even when its pursuit is prolonged, we should still always listen carefully to and address one another amicably so that our loving (ἀγαπητικῶς) exchange might contribute to consensus (συντείνοντι πρός ὁμόνοιαν).” (Patrologia Orientalis XV [Brepols, 1990], pp. 108-109)

St. Mark would never have attended the Council had he not seen the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Latin West as still in need of “much investigation and conversation”.  His rejection of the Council’s conclusions did not shut the door on future dialogue, but rather indicated the need for it.  Orthodoxy’s relationship with the rest of the Christian world remained then, as it does now, a question, to be explored through “loving exchange,” with truth and not triumph as its objective.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.