The involvement of the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies has become a matter of bitter debate among Orthodox Christians. The discussion can often take a harsh, polemical quality. Sometimes it is unclear what “ecumenism” even is.
The purpose of this web page is to post some of the texts which provide the foundation for Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement, as well as essays which introduce into the discussion the perspectives of Orthodox who are actually involved in it.
The essays come from a variety of sources. Their authors cannot readily be categorized as “liberal” or “conservative”, “traditionalist” or “modernist” (as useful as these terms may or may not be). But there are three perceptions which emerge from all of them without exception:
Ecumenism is not a heresy — or at least the “ecumenism” that is derided as “heresy” in some people’s estimation, and the “ecumenism” that is actually practiced by the Orthodox who participate in ecumenical organizations are two different things. If one looks at the anathemas which some have written about ecumenism, it is clear that what is being anathematized is the so-called “Branch Theory”, something which is not held by Orthodox “ecumenists”.
Orthodox involvement in ecumenism is a missionary responsibility. As in any missionary situation, a person’s actual conversion to Orthodoxy is left up to God, but the responsibility lies with Orthodox to be present and witness to their apostolic faith, to teach, and also to learn from the encounter.
Orthodox involvement in today’s ecumenical institutions merits serious examination. Orthodox Christians need to remain critical of problematic tendencies within institutionalized ecumenism. They also need to reflect seriously among themselves about the nature and purpose of their involvement with it.
It is hoped that the texts and essays on this site can help to balance the discussion on ecumenism and the Orthodox Church’s participation.
— Peter Bouteneff
Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1920. “Above all, love should be rekindled and strengthened among the churches, so that they should no more consider one another as strangers and foreigners, but as relatives, and as being a part of the household of Christ and ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ’. (Eph. 3:6)”
Report of the III Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference of 1986. “It is essential to create within the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and other inter-Christian organizations, the necessary conditions which will enable the Orthodox Churches to act on an equal footing with the other members of the above-mentioned organizations.”
“The World Council of Churches is not and must never become a Super-Church” — so declared a the “Toronto Statement” received by the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in 1950. Here are the highlights plus the full text of that declaration.
A summary history of Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement by Protobresbyter Georges Tsetsis, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the World Council of Churches. “Unity is to be understood as a conciliar life, not in any juridical sense, but in the sense of a real communion. Unity is a harmony in Christ among members within the Church and also among Churches. And it is precisely the achievement of this harmony which should be at the center of any ecumenical debate.”
Orthodox complaints are a ‘family disagreement’, says Catholicos Aram I: For many years the Orthodox churches in the World Council of Churches felt themselves a bit isolated, on the margin of the World Council of Churches’ life and work. They issued separate Orthodox statements on important occasions … I believe that this is the time that we bring the Orthodox churches out of that psychological, political or theological situation, and make them an integral part of the one fellowship of the World Council of Churches. Catholicos Aram announced that a “mixed theological meeting” of representatives of Orthodox and other WCC member churches would be held near Geneva on 22 June.
Essays on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism by Fr. John Meyendorff. Fr. John (+1992), one of this century’s greatest Orthodox theologians and historians, was an active participant in the ecumenical movement. In the seven editorials we reproduce here, he writes with clarity, sobriety and conviction about the problems, opportunities and responsibilities of ecumenism for Orthodox Christians.
The Church, the Seminary and the Ecumenical Movement by Fr. Thomas Hopko, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, wrote this brief but penetrating essay for friends and supporters of the Seminary in order to clarify the nature and purpose of participation in the ecumenical movement.
Orthodox Ecumenism: A Contradiction in Terms? by Peter Bouteneff. The author is Executive Secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and author of Daily Readings in Orthodox Spirituality (Templegate, Springfield, IL). There is also a link to responses published in the October In Communion and Peter Bouteneff’s reply to those letters.
Excerpts from an article by Metropolitan Isaiah printed in the Denver Diocesan Newsletter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The author cautions against misunderstanding the terminology of “the pan-heresy of ecumenism” and against carelessly calling people “heretics” on the basis of this definition. He addresses the issue of resurgent Donatism in church life today.
Report of a meeting between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches’ respective Departments for External Church Relations. It highlights the distinction between constructive criticism of the ecumenical movement, and criticism whose purpose is to undermine the structures of canonical Orthodox churches. It reflects the desire to re-examine ways in which Orthodox can participate in ecumenism today.
Interview with Fr. Vassily Kobahidze, press secretary of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Fr. Vassily discusses the tensions and the breakaway groups which prompted the withdrawal of his church from the World Council of Churches.
Interview with Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin, professor at the Moscow Theological Academy and a leading specialist on canon law in the Russian Orthodox Church. Deconstructing the “ecumenism as heresy” position, Fr. Vladislav discusses the political motives which lie behind many anti-ecumenical arguments.
“Towards a New Ecumenism” by Christos Yannaras. There are many ways to react to the encounter with Christians of traditions other than one’s own. Some will be satisfied with dialogue; others will want more, writes Christos Yannaras, a well-known theologian who is Professor of Philosophy at Pantion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece. He has written many books, among them Freedom of Morality and Person and Eros.
“The reaction against ecumenism [in Russia] at the moment of freedom was as inevitable as the economic stratification of the population after the liberalization of prices, writes Vladimir Zelinsky in his essay on “Rebuilding Russian Orthodoxy: the Ecumenical Issue“.
For numerous documents critical of Orthodox participation in ecumenical organizations, see the “Ecumenism Awareness Page” maintained by Patrick Barnes. This site includes the text of two Orthodox encyclicals: The Encyclical of 1848 (a reply to the Epistle of Pope Pius IX, “to the Easterns”) and The Encyclical of 1895 (a reply to the Papal Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Reunion).
Will the Ecumenical Ship Sink? — re Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches; an interview with Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of the Moscow Patriarchate published in April 2006.
Every year, tens of thousands of people are killed in armed conflict. Of those, nearly 45 percent have been in nations where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant form of Christianity. No other form of Christianity is on the front lines of as many devastating conflicts as Orthodox Christianity. Because of this, Orthodox Christians are uniquely situated in the world stage when it comes to conflict resolution.
In light of this, there is a great need for Orthodox conflict resolution efforts. Sadly, 23 percent of mediation efforts initiated by intergovernmental organizations fail. This is because most IGOs do not possess the kind of social capital necessary for conflict resolution.
Peacemaking efforts are most successful when they are closely connected to the parties in conflict or are from the same social group as the parties. Regional groups are far more successful than IGOs, with a 62 percent success rate for mediation.[cite source?]
Given the rate of conflict in areas where Orthodoxy is present, and the success of local or regional organizations over and above international IGOs, such as the UN, it is distressing that there are no specifically Orthodox international conflict resolution organizations. In contrast, there are many Catholic and Protestant (not to mention secular) peacemaking organizations active in such places as Syria, Palestine, and Ukraine.
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is committed to being a voice for reconciliation in international situations of conflict. Working with international partners and local churches, we are pursuing several peacemaking initiatives in multiple Orthodox countries. This undertaking is dedicated to the fifth century saint, St. Acacius of Amida who through his various activities was able to play a significant role in ending a war between the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires in 422.
If you would like to donate to this work, please mark your donation for Acacius Ministries on our donation page. If you would like to receive training in conflict resolution at our certificate program, or volunteer on one of our projects please contact us at: [email protected]
In the fourth century, prior to St. Macrina, monasticism was chiefly concerned with taking distance from the world. St. Macrina, together with her brothers St. Peter and St. Basil the Great, set up a new type of monasticism, one that was integrated into the world and served the needy. St. Macrina was the spiritual leader of this new community which was really a Christian “city” practicing the works of mercy. In it, men and women held all their property in common and lived in common, working to serve the poor, the homeless, the stranger, the orphan, the elderly, and the sick. They lived alongside their guests, in this way living alongside Christ. It was in every way a self-sufficient city, producing its own food and other basic requirements. It was also a place of learning, both of wisdom and of trades. A place of healing of both soul and body, it was actually the world’s first hospital. Out of the abundance of the community, healing poured over into the world, as those in need were invited to come and stay and participate in the healing. This city exemplifies the seamless fabric of Christian social consciousness, as all manner of love and healing were available to all. No person was without place in this city, except those who only wanted to live only for themselves.
Macrina’s vision had a powerful effect on Byzantine religious life. One fourth century canon records that “a house of hospitality should be founded for the poor in every city and every diocese.” By the mid to late Byzantine Empire, these houses of hospitality could be classified as belonging to one type or another: basilias, which were the world’s original hospitals, or xenodocheia, which were houses for refugees, strangers, and travelers, gerocomeia, homes for the elderly, orphanotropheion, orphanages, ptocheia, which were houses for the poor, xenotapheia, which were cemeteries for the poor and strangers, typhlocomion, or homes for the blind, and parthenones and cherotropheion, which were homes for women.
In the context of American Orthodoxy, today there are many houses of hospitality and similar ministries. These ministries serve a variety of populations and are as diverse as they were in Byzantium. St. Macrina’s Network is dedicated to raising awareness about these ministries, raising funds for their work, and connecting and equipping interested Orthodox Christians in continuing this venerable tradition.
As best we can calculate, currently there are 47 houses of hospitality or outreach in the US and Canada, including senior living facilities, domestic violence shelters, homes for the poor, homes for travelers, free clinics, and other various ministries of mercy.
Please contact us at [email protected] if you would like to volunteer at a ministry near you or start one of your own. If you would like to support this initiative, please donate through the donation page and mark your donation for Macrina’s Ministries.
Peacemaking cannot be done alone. The following organizations, run by Orthodox Christians and inspired by Orthodox Christian principles, focus on some aspect of peacemaking, and are organizational partners to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, in our vision, and when possible in our work. Please consider supporting our partnership through donating to the OPF or one of our partners.
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: A Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection (Easter verses, Orthodox Liturgy).
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God is an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to practice the Christian peacemaking vocation in every area of life, to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict at every level of human relationship, and to promote prayer and worship, acts of mercy and service, and love for all human beings and for all of creation. We are not a political association and support no political parties, agendas, or candidates, and we promote no ideology other than that we should “repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Were we to attempt to formulate an ideology, we could not improve on the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount.
From the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus have sought to live out their Christian faith in its fullness, working to build communities of worship, providing for those lacking the necessities of life, loving not only neighbors but enemies, seeking conversion of adversaries rather than victory over them, and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as normal virtues of sacramental life.
This has never been easy. Each generation has had to confront the problem of evil and combat its structures and also has had to suffer the tension that exists between membership in the Church and citizenship in a political entity, be that an empire or a nation-state.
Often the teachings of Jesus have been dismissed, even by believers, as too idealistic. Yet every generation, even in the era of Hitler and Stalin, has been blessed with heroic witnesses to membership in “an army that sheds no blood,” as Clement of Alexandria described the Church.
Among the principles that guide us:
Aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, we seek recovery of a sense of familial connection which, while respecting national identity, transcends every tribal, ethnic, and national boundary. This is the oneness the Church mirrors when it is gathered before the Holy Table.
We use our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, as we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the child in the womb to the aged awaiting death, in every circumstance of life and across all boundaries.
We aspire to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, and we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation, and other forms of nonviolent action.
We pray that, while no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.
We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We believe conscientious objection to participation in war is consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition.
We respect those who disagree with us and may choose to serve in their country’s armed forces. We do not promote the naive notion that a nation may be pacifist as a national defense strategy and acknowledge that in our fallen world people often feel compelled to choose collective violence in response to evil. Nevertheless, we find no basis for a Just War theology in Orthodox tradition and, consistent with the earliest teaching of the Church, consider all war sin. Rather than seek to justify war, we are encouraged to exhaust all efforts to seek peace. We believe more wars would be prevented by focusing on doing peace well before war rather than waiting for war to arrive to argue how to do it well.
We encourage the compassionate treatment of prisoners and their rehabilitation, with special attention to restitution by wrong-doers to victims of their crimes. We reject the execution of criminals as incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
We commit ourselves to pray for all, especially fellow believers, who suffer around the world from all forms of violence, evil, oppression, and injustice that they may be delivered from evil, healed from their wounds, and enabled to find renewed ways to live in peace and safety.
We further commit ourselves to prayer for enemies and endeavor to communicate God’s love for them, recognizing our own violence and praying that, through Christ’s saving death on the Cross, we will be reconciled with God and with each other.
Thus we strive to avoid bitterness in dealing with controversy, seeking conversion both of ourselves and our adversary. Aware that we are in need of conversion not only in the way we relate to other people but to the world God has put into our care, we try to change our lives in order to live as priests of God’s world, asking continuously for the Holy Spirit to descend and transfigure the earth. We seek to cooperate with efforts to protect and preserve the environment which do not involve violence, coercive methods of population control, the promotion of particular political agendas, or violations of the sanctity of human life.
Our work includes:
Theological research: Much needs to be done within the Church to better understand ways in which Orthodox Christians should respond to division, conflict, injustice, war, and the relationship of the believer to the state. We encourage research on peace in the Bible, peace in the Liturgy, examples of ways Orthodox people and churches have responded to war from ancient to modern times, and the collection of relevant quotations and stories from the Fathers and the saints. One significant result of this effort is the book, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest and published by Syndesmos, the international association of Orthodox youth. The full text of this reference book is also on the OPF web site.
Publication: Our quarterly journal, In Communion, not only provides its readers with helpful essays and news but serves as a forum for dialogue. The main articles from past issues of In Communion plus many other resources are made available via our web site: www.incommunion.org. OPF members are also invited to take part in the OPF List, a news and discussion forum.
Practical assistance in conflict areas: As one of our members, a priest in the Republic of Georgia, points out: “Activity of the OPF is of particular importance in those Orthodox countries going through war and the horror of national conflict. The OPF can help Orthodox people to practice peace and tolerance and to show that war and national conflict are satanic traps.”
Structure: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has members in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its international secretariat is in The Netherlands. Decisions are made by the OPF secretaries and officers in consultation with each other, with counsel from members and the Fellowship’s Board of Advisors. Our largest branch at present is in North America. There are occasional meetings and conferences in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe. We encourage the formation of local and national chapters.
A description of our vocation:
We are faithful sons and daughters of the Church, not the Church’s rescue committee. Fr. John Meyendorff once said to a member of a schismatic Orthodox group, “We do not save the Church. The Church saves us.” Our modest task is not to invent anything or announce a new theology or reorganize the Church but simply to reopen forgotten or neglected Church teachings regarding day-to-day life in a world in which enmity is always a problem, in which millions suffer from hunger, thirst, and homelessness, and in which war is rarely not occurring somewhere on our small planet.
The Church has preserved the Liturgy down through the centuries. It has preserved the Bible and the Creed. It has preserved the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It has developed and maintained a calendar of sacred time. But it has been somewhat less attentive to calling us to account for the teaching it has preserved. Over the centuries, when state and faith were in conflict, we have more often been obedient citizens than obedient Christians.
We believe in a hierarchy of identities. We are not first people of a certain country, then Orthodox Christians. It is the other way around. We are first Orthodox Christians, then people of a particular state, national, or tribal affiliation. We renounce none of these identities nor do we ignore any of their obligations, but when the requirements of one identity clash with another, we are required to know which comes first.
We try to remind ourselves and our neighbors that there is no such thing as a good or holy war––that it defames God and the Gospel to use adjectives associated with sanctity and heaven in that most hellish of all activities, the organized killing of human beings and the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends. Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, but not by cowardly avoidance or failure to recognize evil for what it is and to resist it. Chamberlain was not a peacemaker. Those who fail to see and resist evil are its accomplices. Yet we believe that prayer and fasting are also weapons of struggle, that there is such a thing as spiritual combat, and that what we seek is not the killing of evil people—such a task would require a holocaust that would destroy the human race—but their conversion, which is also our conversion, for the line dividing good from evil runs not between people or classes but, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, right through each and every human heart.
We are people attempting, with God’s help, to love our enemies as Christ commands his followers to do. This is not a sentimental undertaking but a soul-saving quest to be liberated from enmity. In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor put it in these words: “‘But I say to you,’ the Lord says, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.’ Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.”
Our concern about the sanctity of human life is not limited to war. We seek to protect the lives of the unborn—not by denouncing women who feel they have no other choice, but to help them bring their children safely into this world and to do whatever is in our power to make the world more welcoming. With the same motives, we do not regard euthanasia as an acceptable solution for those whose illnesses seem to be incurable or who are severely handicapped. We do whatever we can in support of hospices for the dying, including effective pain relief for those who are suffering. At the same time we oppose taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when in the natural order a person is beyond hope of recovery.
Our view of peace is not borrowed from secular ideologies or political movements. It is not based on the life of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or any of the heroes of nonviolence, even though we greatly admire such people and learn from them. It comes from the Gospel. We understand peace both through the words of Jesus and through his actions. We experience peace in the Liturgy and the eucharistic mystery and try to bring it with us when we return to ordinary life. Day by day we discover peace as the mystery of healing—within ourselves and between each other—the healing that comes from forgiveness, repentance, and love.
Peacemaking is not an idea or principle. It is how we live. It is Christ’s life in us. It is less a refusal to do terrible things to others than doing those things which communicate the love and mercy of God.
We have heard it many times, but let us never stop remembering what Jesus teaches us about the Last Judgement: What we do to the least person we do to him. May God preserve us from harming the least person. May God give us the love which empowers us to be merciful to the least person.
Peacemakers are not rare. We find them everywhere: the parent sorting out a dispute within his or her family, the parish council member finding a solution to a conflict that might tear a parish to shreds, the priest hearing confessions who helps a penitent experience God’s mercy, the missionary who helps awaken faith in another and points the way to baptism, the volunteer who lives a life of hospitality in a neighborhood others avoid, the driver who responds to dangerous actions on the highway with a prayer rather than a gesture of hatred. We could spend the rest of our lives noting acts of peacemaking.
Our fellowship exists to give witness that peacemaking is something absolutely ordinary. It is an integral part of everyday life. It has to do with how we pray, for whom we pray, how we listen, how we speak, what we do with our anger and frustration, our willingness to forgive, and our attempts to serve as a bridge between those who hate each other.
May God give us strength to persevere in being instruments of the divine mercy.
Must I be a pacifist to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship?
No. Pacifism is not a Christian ideology. The term was coined in the late 19th century as a political philosophy and has since been used to describe a wide variety of philosophical and political attitudes toward various forms of violence at different levels of relationship from personal to international. The Gospel of Jesus Christ predates and excludes all political ideologies even while many are influenced by Christian teaching. Pacifism as is generally understood is a Western idea formed in a Christian civilizational milieu and often bears marks of Christian virtue but does not capture or fully reflect the ethos of the Gospel peacemaking vocation. But in its most simple definition, “the belief that all conflict should be resolved peacefully,” pacifism is a great idea! The OPF does not reject the idea but does not endorse pacifism in any form. Some OPF members are pacifists; some are not. Instead, we simply look to Christ and our Orthodox faith and tradition for guidance in becoming fully Christian peacemakers.
The aspiration to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution is something all sane people have in common, yet few would say that they would never use violent methods to protect the innocent. All we can do is attempt to find ways of responding to injustice that are consistent with the Gospel. Clearly nonviolent methods are to be preferred to violent.
Peacemaking is not something optional for Christians. A major element of Christ’s teaching is his call to become peacemakers. They are among the blessed and are witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To be a peacemaker, Christ says, is to be a child of God. In the years of Christ’s life described in the Gospel, one of the most notable aspects is that he killed no one but healed many. He is not a warrior king. Caesar rides a horse while Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Even when he clears the Temple of people who have made a place of worship into a place of commerce, he does so using nothing more than a whip of cords, not a weapon that can cause injuries; the only life endangered by his action was his own. His final instruction to Peter before his crucifixion is, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Saying that, he healed the wound Peter had inflicted on one of the men arresting him.
In the chapters prior to the story of Jesus and his disciples in the garden, Matthew records Jesus describing in several narratives what life on earth would be like, what the Kingdom of God is like, about the end and his return, and the final judgement. Then after the Last Supper came the Garden, where Peter, thinking he had finally put all the pieces together, drew his sword. After telling him to put it away, Jesus said a remarkable thing that is frequently left out in telling this story but when taken in full context, frames Jesus words about living and dying by the sword. Jesus asked Peter “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
When we consider the choice Jesus faced in the garden, we see it was not either swallow hard or chicken out, but was rather a choice between implementing God’s way of salvation or…what would the other choice have been? The alternative had to include slaughtering his enemies! The plan Satan offered Jesus in the desert involved glory, bounty, and bloodshed; surely the world’s template for victory remained an option for Jesus here. Indeed, it seems we too face the legitimate option of violence in dealing with our enemies. Jesus seems to have said not that we have no right to choose, but rather “How will scripture be fulfilled if you do it your way?”
And then, on the cross, far from calling down his Father’s vengeance on those who participated in his execution, Jesus appeals for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Again and again, throughout his earthly life Christ gives his followers a witness of making peace and restoring communion through forgiveness, love, mercy, and sacrifice.
There is quite a lot on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site that helps clarify what Christian peacemaking involves and its implications in one’s own life. Visit us at www.incommunion.org for resources that include past essays from the journal, membership options, and new postings.
Becoming a member:
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship links Orthodox Christians from different traditions and is not under the sponsorship of any jurisdiction. Membership is open to those who embrace the principles of the OPF and that the OPF is rooted in the Orthodox Church and Tradition. Those who wish to receive our journal but not to become members may specify so when they pay the annual donation amount. The annual donation for members and donors is $35, 35 euros, or 25 pounds sterling. Anyone may donate to receive In Communion.