Orthodoxy and Ecumenism II

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 2

Last month we described the present stage of the ecumenical movement as characterized by: (1) The massive involvement of the Roman Catholic Church; (2) The emergence of an "existential," fiercely "anti-dogmatic" and fundamentally relativistic tendency in Protestantism, (3) The political threats which determine the attitude of the traditional centers of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

All three points underline the tremendous responsibility which history places upon the shoulders of the Orthodox living in the West.

First of all, we live in daily contact with the non-Orthodox world. This circumstance is often considered as "dangerous," and dangerous it certainly is, if our own knowledge of the mission of Orthodoxy in the world is weak. But it is also a unique and unprecedented opportunity to know and understand the Western Christian world. Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are today in a state of flux: their concern is openness to the world, openness to each other, openness to Orthodoxy as well. This openness often takes dangerous forms when it is based on wrong presuppositions: for example, the Roman Catholic presupposition frequently stated, that it does not really matter what you believe, or how you express your faith, as long as you accept the institutional structure of the Papacy; or the Protestant presupposition that "doctrines divide" and that only "common action" unites. In both cases openness lacks the conviction that the knowledge of the full Truth is given in Christianity, that it has become accessible to the community of the Church in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that it can neither be subject to external infallible authority, nor relativized.

However, facing the Roman Catholic and Protestant "openness," the Orthodox Church does not -- or should not -- present the picture of a "closed" world. The Church is open to everything good because she is truly "catholic": she is closed only to error and sin. Every human being, created in the image of God, is her actual or potential child, and should be the object of her love, her attention and her care. The "heretical" West has, in the course of its history, produced many authentic saints; it has created a tradition of civil liberties which we all enjoy and which were often lacking in the Orthodox East; it is involved today in many generous and authentically Christian concerns: all these positive elements are not "heretical" but essentially Orthodox, and no one today will pay attention to the message of the Orthodox Church unless we lovingly and openly meet and accept as such the blessings and the wisdom which God has so obviously bestowed even upon those who are not members of the one visible Orthodox Church.

There will certainly be no true Christian unity outside Orthodoxy: the uninterrupted, organic tradition of united Christianity is authentically preserved in the Orthodox Church. And it is our responsibility to make this truth to be accepted as a relevant challenge in the ecumenical movement. Unfortunately, Orthodox thought in the matter is too often polarized between two equally wrong positions: "open" relativism and "closed" fanaticism. The first accepts a naive Protestant idea that it is sufficient to forget about "doctrines" and practice "love" to secure unity. The second fails to recognize the authentically Christian values of the West, which Orthodoxy simply cannot reject, if it wants to be faithful to the fulness of Christian Truth.

Between these two positions- which are both unfaithful to the present Orthodox responsibility -- lies the road of a conscious and sober participation in the ecumenical movement, implying no compromise, but much love and understanding. This road is the right one, not simply because it is the "middle" road, but mainly because it reflects the truly catholic spirit of the Orthodox faith. It is also the only truly responsible one: for if Orthodoxy does not bear its witness, who else will?

(April, 1967)

posted April 21, 1998