Orthodoxy and Ecumenism I

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 1

The present involvement of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement is regularly and faithfully reflected in the columns of our newspaper. However, the movement today is a rapidly evolving and highly confused phenomenon. Orthodox Christians, especially those living in the West, simply cannot fail to face the problem. Some of them give, at the very start, an enthusiastic approval to any ecumenical enterprise. Some, on the contrary, react with a violent opposition to any ecumenism, which they identify with a betrayal of the faith. The vast majority, however, remains passive, expects guidance from the Church and feels uneasy when guidance fails to come or is given in a contradictory and inconsistent way.

The purpose of this editorial, the first of a series devoted to problems of ecumenism, is to provide our readers with a few fundamental principles from which the Orthodox attitude to other Christians, and to ecumenism, stems.

First of all the Orthodox Church is neither a "sect" nor a "denomination," but the true Church of God. This fact defines both the necessity and the limits of our evolvement in ecumenism:

(1) The Church of God, because it is "catholic" and "apostolic," is concerned with the whole of humanity, with the whole of Truth and with everything positive and good happening in the world; if we refuse to learn, to listen, to be concerned with the life and beliefs of other Christians, we will not only miss much ourselves, but we will also be unfaithful to Christ's commandment of love and to our responsibility to witness to Orthodoxy everywhere. Inasmuch as the various ecumenical meetings, councils and assemblies provide us with these opportunities, it is our Christian and Orthodox duty to be there.

(2) However, since the Lord had established only One Church, since our being Orthodox implies that we are members of it, and since, therefore, the fullness of Truth is accessible to us (even if it is not entirely understood by each one of us individually), there cannot be, on our part, any compromise in matters of faith. Our essential responsibility in the ecumenical movement is to affirm that true Christian Unity is not unity on the basis of a "common minimum" between denominations, but a unity in God. And God is never a "minimum": He is the Truth itself. The limit of our participation in the ecumenical movement is in our opposition to relativism.

Now the ecumenical movement itself has gone through many historical phases. In the beginning of this century, when it was still a private enterprise of a few Protestant leaders, it was dominated by the "Life and Work" principles. This meant that theological, doctrinal differences were to be disregarded, and Christians were to "live" and "work" together as if the differences did not exist. Soon the leaders of the movement found that this approach was a utopia: people taking their faith seriously could not disregard it and live on the as if principle. Thus, the "Faith and Order" movement was started and placed theological discussion at the forefront; Christian unity was to be reached through doctrinal agreement.

The next phase of the movement, of which the creation of the World Council of Churches (Amsterdam, 1948) is a result, was the principle that active, practical cooperation and doctrinal discussions were to be held simultaneously and that, in fact, they were inseparable from each other, if one was to avoid both superficial activism and abstraction.

It is on the assumption that these reasonable principles were accepted by all that the Orthodox Churches joined the ecumenical movement. In recent years, however, new factors bear heavily on the situation. These are:

(a) The massive involvement of the Roman Church in the movement;

(b) The emergence, in Protestantism, of a "new theology," based on "existentialism," denying the very existence of "doctrines" and "doctrinal issues" between Christians and implying that unity will be found only through a joint involvement in social action, politics and practical activity; this theology pushes the movement back to "Life and Work."

(c) The fact that some Orthodox centers, including the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, found themselves in such overwhelmingly difficult conditions, that they in fact sympathize with the "practical" approach to ecumenism, disregarding the fact that such an approach is not compatible with Orthodox tradition, and hope essentially to use the ecumenical movement in their own everyday struggle for institutional survival.

We will devote the next editorial to a discussion of these issues.

(March, 1967)

posted April 21, 1998