On Ecumenoclasm: Let Us Pray?

by Paul Ladouceur

Orthodox opponents to ecumenism are highly critical of Orthodox participation in prayer and other services in common with non-Orthodox Christians. This opposition is usually based on ancient canons forbidding prayer with “heretics and schismatics.” Among frequently cited canons are Apostolic Canons 10, 11, 45, 65 and 71. Apostolic Canon 10, for example, reads: “If one who is not in communion prays together, even at home, let him be excommunicated;” and Canon 45: “Let any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon that merely joins in prayer with heretics be suspended, but if he had permitted them to perform any service as clergymen, let him be deposed.” (See, for example, here and here.)

Referring to ancient canons is relevant to Orthodox involvement in ecumenical prayer services, but several major qualifications are in order. Most importantly, the invocation of such canons in isolation from both their historical context and the actual practice of the Orthodox Church over the last century is insufficient to guide Orthodox conduct now and in the future. Orthodox canon law is not a consolidated and regularly updated code of ecclesial law such as exists in the Catholic Church, but is a rather unsystematic collection of rules or canons adopted by local, regional and ecumenical councils over a period of nearly two millennia. Taken as whole, these canons contain certain inconsistencies and many have long since ceased to be relevant to the situation of the Orthodox Church and the needs of the faithful. The Orthodox canon law tradition emphasizes a dynamic interpretation of canons rather than merely an invocation of the letter of ancient canons. The latter is canonism, not the living canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

A classic case of a senior Orthodox hierarch praying with non-Orthodox occurred in 1930. In 1921, Saint Tikhon (Belavin) (1865-1925), Patriarch of Moscow, appointed Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky) (1868-1946) to head the Provisional Administration of Russian Parishes in Western Europe and to represent the Patriarchate of Moscow in Western Europe. In 1929, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the French Protestant Churches and the Orthodox Churches in Western Europe initiated a week of common prayer for the victims of religious persecution in the Soviet Union. In February 1930, Metropolitan Evlogy participated in ecumenical prayer services at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and L’Oratoire in Paris. At that time, Evlogy’s archdiocese was still affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, which declared in response to the ecumenical initiative that there was freedom of religion in the Soviet Union. Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) (1867-1944), then de facto head of the Moscow Patriarchate, attempted to remove Evlogy from office, not for participating in ecumenical prayer services, but for being disloyal to the Soviet regime. In 1931, as a result of Moscow’s attempted disciplinary measures against Evlogy, Evlogy, with the support of most of the clergy, parishes and faithful of his administration, placed himself and his diocese under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The example of Metropolitan Evlogy’s participation in ecumenical prayers for the suffering Russian Church, and that of numerous other Orthodox hierarchs in prayer services in many ecumenical contexts over the past century, must be weighed into any assessment of the current relevance of the ancient canons against praying with “heretics and schismatics.” In contrast with a reductionist and modernist view which restricts the Orthodox canon law tradition by insisting solely on the letter of these canons, must be posited a dynamic notion of tradition as the gradual building of a wide consensus within the Church, articulated by canonical hierarchs, concerning the achievement of the Church’s mission and pastoral responsibilities in the present age. In this case, we now have almost a century of canonical hierarchs having decided that in certain circumstances, and mostly by those specially authorized to do so (notably official Orthodox representatives at ecumenical gatherings), some forms of prayer with non-Orthodox are permitted. This relaxation of the ancient canons is an aspect of a long tradition of the Orthodox Church keeping contacts open with non-Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox Church acts under the ecclesiological imperative that she must always seek to bring others back into unity with it, and the assessment of hierarchs over the past century has been that this can best be achieved by participating in the ecumenical movement and in common prayer services, including the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, rather than boycotting them. In the tradition of Orthodox canon law, those advocating boycott would be required to demonstrate that their approach would better promote unity and indeed better exercise Orthodox pastoral concern for non-Orthodox, than participation in the ecumenical movement and common prayers.

This relaxation of ancient canons is conditioned by the existence of clear limits to common prayer and services in ecumenical gatherings. Prayers at ecumenical fora typically focus around elements which all accept, with the Our Father, the Nicene Creed (without the filioque) and readings from the Bible (notably psalms and extracts from the Gospels and the Epistles) usually featuring as major components. There is no question of intercommunion or the partaking of other sacraments. Often religious services at ecumenical meetings are those of one denomination, with members of other denominations participating especially in prayers and hymns normally recited by the members of the Christian community in question. Orthodox are frequently asked to celebrate vespers or other services, thereby providing invaluable opportunities to bear witness to the richness of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. Orthodox are steadfast in maintaining that must be no “eucharistic hospitality.”

A rigorous, rigid, literal and rationalist interpretation of Orthodox canon law is a modern novelty which does not correspond with Orthodox tradition. Ancient canons forbidding common prayer, and indeed many other types of contacts with “heretics and schismatics,” are important historical testimonies of how the Church assessed that she could best achieve its missions of witness, pastoral responsibility and the achievement of unity at the time of their adoption, especially in the context of the official status of Orthodox Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The judgment of leading Orthodox hierarchs over the last century has been and continues to be that the application of these canons is no longer the best means for the Orthodox Church to carry out her mission in the contemporary world. The simple invocation of ancient canons is insufficient to outweigh the judgment and practice of the Church over the past century. Jesus says unequivocally “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).

*I am grateful to Dr. David Wagschal for comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

The Orthodox Christian Studies Center’s signature event, the Annual Orthodoxy in America Lecture, will be presented Tuesday, September 27 by Vera Shevzov of Smith College.  Find more information and register here.