Liberating Ecumenism Considering the Charismatic and Counter-hegemonic Contribution of Orthodox Ecclesiology

by Graham McGeoch  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский

Fr. Georges Florovsky (right) at a meeting of the Provisional Committee for the World Council of Churches

Conciliar Ecumenism reflects the institutional models of its formative period. Conciliar Ecumenism has been interpreted by the World Council of Churches as the coming together of Christians – locally, regionally or globally – for common prayer, counsel and decision. In addition, the search for unity is envisaged as a conciliar fellowship, with each local church possessing the fulness of catholicity and apostolicity. Like other movements, the ecumenical movement followed the patterns emerging around the Bretton Woods consensus and the UN system at the end of World War II and established its own international institutions as a contribution to conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation.

Within Conciliar Ecumenism, Protestants have read the Ecumenical Patriarch’s encyclical of January 1920, which called for a league of churches, similar to the League of Nations, as a major stimulus to Orthodox participation in ecumenical institutions. Less well known is a 1933 essay by Georges Florovsky which sets out a ‘canonical’ and ‘charismatic’ Orthodox ecclesiology.

While Protestants have pursued a Conciliar Ecumenism with Orthodoxy rooted in canonical ecclesiological principles, Florovsky’s essay reminds us that charismatic Orthodox ecclesiology brings absent ecclesiologies into Conciliar Ecumenism, and distinguishes nuances of relationship between canonical and charismatic ‘limits of the Church’ that challenge models of Conciliar Ecumenism. It may be time for Protestants to press Orthodox ecclesiologies and pursue an ecumenism in the charismatic boundary of the Church, rather than the canonical models of inherited Conciliar Ecumenism.

In practical terms, this means understanding Orthodox ecclesiology as contesting the Enlightenment tradition within Western Christianity and Western theology. Orthodox ecclesiology also contests the hegemonic Protestant ecumenical project by resisting ecclesiological assumptions invented by Protestants, such as denominational or confessional understandings of the churches. The Orthodox have long held concerns about the hegemonic Protestant nature and ethos of the ecumenical movement, and given expression to this through the work of the Special Commission in the WCC. The subaltern Orthodox voice helps to recover lost or suppressed ecclesiologies and introduces new locations for living a charismatic and counter hegemonic ecumenism.

The critique of Protestant hegemony in Conciliar Ecumenism, which can be derived from Orthodox ecclesiology, reminds the ecumenical movement that it is not possible to be ecumenical without Orthodoxy, and it forces the ecumenical movement to rethink its ecclesiological understanding of unity from its concrete historic and charismatic commitment. At the same time, and in an example of Walter Mignolo’s double critique, it is not enough to be only Orthodox to be ecumenical.

Following the methodology of the theology of liberation which resists ‘canonical narrowings’ of ecclesiology, the critiqued ecumenical hegemony needs to explore ways to reassemble ecclesiologies in the search for unity through the praxis of the ecumenical movement. The praxis of the ecumenical movement is greater than the canonical inter-church dialogue and co-operation. A charismatic and counter-hegemonic ecclesiology – an ecclesiogenesis, to use Leonardo Boff’s word – introduces concrete alternatives for Conciliar Ecumenism mediated through engagement with institutions, projects and peoples. This is the praxis of a liberating ecumenism.

Florovsky’s insight into the charismatic limits of the Church is potentially a liberating ecclesiological contribution to the ecumenical movement which challenges the hegemonic search for canonical recognition and unity. An ecumenism developed in the charismatic limit (or borderline) encourages an ecclesiological approach that is in dialogue with peoples’ and social movements, inter-religious spirituality (incorporating its socio-political aspects) and political systems.

Ecclesiological and ecumenical questions emerging from a charismatic and counter-hegemonic Orthodox ecclesiology include: what is ecclesial in peoples’ or social movements?; what is the experience of the charismatic in the praxis of the Church?; and importantly, how does the church practice the exercise of power, and in whose interests, in different political systems?

A liberating ecumenism is not simply the replacement of one hegemonic project with another; it is an invitation to do ecumenism differently. Homi Bhabha’s study of borderline engagements of cultural difference potentially revolutionises ecumenical commitment and theology because he suggests that it is necessary to create meaning from the point of interactions. Moreover, he implies that there is no meaning without interactions. In other words, the churches cannot ‘signify’ without ecumenism. It is the ecumenical movement that helps to create points of interactions between the churches, and between Protestants and Orthodox.

If, as Bhabha argues, meanings are created from interactions, an ecclesiology requires an interaction to ‘signify’ the church. The borderlines and limits, what Mignolo calls ‘border-thinking’, become the location of significance for the ecumenical movement. The interaction with the peoples’, social and ecclesial movements of historical transformation are locations of significance for the ecumenical movement. Furthermore, the revolutionary offer to the ecumenical movement is that it is encouraged to begin with complex concepts and representations, including the canonical and charismatic. This beginning may not necessarily start with affirmations of difference, Protestant-Orthodox, for example, but with recognition of a spiritual disquietude in the practice of canonical and hegemonic ecumenism. The unity of the church is potentially sought and expressed in the borderline and boundary interactions which can draw out the charismatic and counter-hegemonic in the ecumenical movement.

The continued Orthodox participation is fundamental to the movement remaining ecumenical. But the ecumenical movement needs an ecclesiology that, in the words of Marcella Althaus-Reid, responds to God’s geography. It needs to commit to peoples’ struggles and in doing so develop a charismatic and counter-hegemonic ecclesiology that responds to concrete historical projects, mediated by institutions, projects, and people. The ecumenical movement in rediscovering the movement in ecumenical encourages the Church to develop an ecclesiology that moves towards a liberating ecumenism.


Graham McGeoch is a theologian and minister of the Church of Scotland. He served on the Executive & Central Committee of the WCC (2006-2013), and as Depute Moderator of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (2014-2017). He teaches theology at Faculdade Unida in Vitoria, Brazil. This article is based on parts of his PhD entitled, ‘Liberating Ecumenism: an ecclesiological dialogue with the Final Report of the Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches’.

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.