Tag Archives: Ecumenism

Some Reflections on the Approaching Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church

by Rev. Dr. Andrew Louth

It seems to me of paramount importance that the Synod, as His All-Holiness asserts, should show that the Orthodox Church wants genuinely to communicate with the world. We have treasures to share, in the Gospel, and the wisdom acquired through many centuries of believers following in our Lord’s footsteps and living in the grace of the Resurrection. It is also true that many in the West want to hear our voice, what we have to tell them of Christ. It will be a betrayal of everything we hold dear if the result of the Synod is that the world perceives the Orthodox apparently concerned solely with themselves in a fearful and introspective way.

Nevertheless, like many people, I have some reservations about the synod.  First, eleven days seems minuscule in comparison with the 1200 and more years we have to make up.  Secondly, the preparatory documents have been unavailable until very recently, and seem to have been prepared by a small circle of people, mostly (or exclusively?) associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whereas one would have expected widespread consultation beforehand.  Thirdly, the ecclesiology of voting by patriarchates is unprecedented and unsustainable, apparently overriding the duty laid on each bishop ‘rightly to discern the word of your truth’, as we pray in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, citing 2 Tim 2:15.  Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the only voice that counts at the synod is that of the Holy Spirit, so, despite all the fumbling of human preparation, it is important that we should earnestly pray that the fathers of the synod will hear and attend to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Although the preparatory statements tend too much towards blandness, they seem to be on the right lines, with some reservations mentioned below. The emphasis on the Church’s concern for the world in which we live today is vital, and the presentation of the life of the Church as springing from the Eucharist is expressed well.  So too the emphasis on ecumenism and a readiness to work and pray together with our fellow Christians, especially those whose baptism we recognize: all that is important. Although I can well understand the logic of the position of those who deny that there are other Christians than the Orthodox—since we, as Orthodox, hold that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Symbol of Faith is identical with the Orthodox Church—it seems to me that it is a logic isolated from life.  We must (and in practice do) recognize that there are Christians who find their ecclesial identity in other communions than the Orthodox Church. Do any of us really believe, for example, that Catholics are not Christians, and that the see of Rome is vacant, Pope Francis being no more than an unbaptized pagan? It makes nonsense of our behaviour: one Sunday recently I worshipped in San Teodoro in Rome, a church given to the Greeks by the pope some years ago. Should we have refused this gift? When we look at the history of the Church, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that there is one community completely innocent, namely the Orthodox Church, and that division is simply the result of the sins of others: Catholics, Protestants, or whoever.  The principle of ecumenism lies in repentance, expressed clearly in the words of his elder brother, recalled by the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov: ‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’.

Some of the preparatory statements could have been more radical. The statement on fasting is banal; it would have been useful in the context of understanding fasting in a non-Mediterranean world—the point raised by the statement—to have been reminded of the way fasting is justified by the Fathers: commitment to greater simplicity in our eating, an exercise in detachment, an opportunity to greater commitment to almsgiving. The statement on marriage fails to address any of the burning pastoral issues: what later commitment to marriage demands of young people; how marriage is to cope with a society in which men and women are much more equal; the challenges of the capacity to control pregnancy for the practice of sexuality. The section on War and Peace is all right as far as it goes, but makes no mention of conscientious objection to participation in war.

Finally, the statements on the diaspora and autonomy seem to me to ignore the changes in political society between the world of the Mediterranean in late antiquity and the world in which we live today. The ideal of one bishop leading the Eucharistic community in a city reflected the world of the early Christian centuries. The world today is very different, but the statements simply see the diaspora as a passing phase, leading to a worldwide network of autonomous/autocephalous ‘local’ churches. That, on the one hand, ignores the way in which the experience of diaspora enabled many to realize the Pauline sense of Christians as essentially aliens in this world, ‘every foreign country is theirs and every country foreign’, as the epistle to Diognetos put it, and, on the other hands, ignores the way in which many people, not least Christians, move from country to country, as well as the way in which ‘cities’ nowadays are vast amalgams of communities, so that the Christian community in a modern city is really, at best, an imagined community, made up of real communities without necessarily any territorial base. We need an ecclesiology to measure up to that, not an attempt to restore an ancient ecclesiology that no longer corresponds to the social reality in which we live.

 Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University.

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Rethinking Ecumenism

Speaking in September in Aachen, Germany, at an interreligious forum, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, was sharply critical of tendencies in the ecumenical movement to place secular ideologies higher than holy scripture. Extracts from his text follow:

kirill “For the last ten years we have heard about the crisis of the ecumenical movement more often than ever. … Some people are afraid of excessive bureaucratization in modern ecumenism. They would like to see a more ‘charismatic’ approach to the problem of cutting the Gordian knot of differences and divisions.

“Others, having resigned themselves to the tragedy of division and even convinced themselves that this is not a tragedy at all, insist on ‘broadening the horizons,’ on the inclusion… of a maximum number of communities of different trends irrespective of their teaching…

“It looks as if the ecumenical movement is really in crisis, even at a dead end. In a certain sense this crisis was inevitable. As far back as the eve of ecumenism, in its most romantic period, the outstanding Russian theologian Archpriest George Florovsky warned against easy ways, against dangers of ‘dogmatical minimalism,’ and exposed the futility of hurried efforts aimed at reaching any result as soon as possible. He saw other serious danger in domination of humanitarian and peace-making subjects… at the expense of Christian unity, return to the spirit and life of the early Ecumenical Church, which… continues her ceaseless being in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in many respects in the Roman Orthodox Church.

“Today, paradoxical as it may seem, the ecumenical movement has become a hostage of politics aimed at underlining human values rather than particularly Christian ones. The movement itself is not to be blamed, as it consists of the Churches and Christian communities, which bring their concerns and priorities into it… processes of modernization that took place in the Protestant world under relatively favorable post-war conditions…

“[T]he ecumenical movement on the whole has not fulfilled its most important task in history, namely the rapprochement of Christians at the profound level of spiritual life, but rather has left them separated in their experience of faith…

“[I]nstead of spiritual revival and rapprochement we have faced new obstacles that make our common witness to Christ more and more difficult in the world, from which Christian values are being ousted. In our opinion, uncritical adoption of secular humanitarian ideology by many theologians and Churches in the West played a negative part in it. Secular humanism in many respects differs from Christian Biblical anthropology, which is far from the unequivocal support of freedom in every form…

“[M]any liberal values connected with personal rights and freedoms have become coated with doubtful theological argumentation, which has a different evaluation and is considered doubtful by many people. At present these values are perceived as equal to those of the Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition or even higher. Moreover, the clear and unequivocal witness of the Word of God when it differs from the secular liberal values is ignored or… distorted.

“The protection of personal rights, which is in compliance with the Church tradition (especially under tyranny, persecution for faith, wars and poverty), was radicalized to the detriment of the norms of the Apostolic Tradition, and in female ordination, ordination of homosexuals, and so on. The secular legal principle of religious tolerance was extrapolated on dogmatics and brought about syncretism, which is often hidden beyond the facade of inculturation…

“No wonder that the Churches that confess the changeless values of Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition resist the impulse to subject ‘old truths’ to reform and revision. But this resistance consists neither in raising outside barriers, nor in refusing to communicate with ‘brothers, separation from whom tortures us,’ to quote St. Gregory the Theologian…

“It is evident that the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches as the Churches of the Tradition, which are the closest in their history, teaching and church order, and many Protestant communities that try to keep the norms of the Apostolic Tradition in their life, should work together to assert the Word of Christ in the world in order to save many.

“Probably we should seek the ways of a more adequate representation of the ‘catholic’ tradition in the framework of the global inter-Christian forum, which is the World Council of Churches, or whatever structure may replace it.

“Many people fear that the inter-Christian dialogue is losing its dynamics and meaning and that it is maintained for the sake of a certain political correctness. We have talked about many dogmatic truths for fifty years, but have not reached complete understanding, and many people say that the dialogue has no future.”

[Full text: www.russian-orthodox-church.org.ru]