Ecumenism — a Heresy?

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 5

Many signs indicate that the participation of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement has entered a critical period of re-thinking and readjustment. The reasons are various and even contradictory. On the one hand, the various ecumenical agencies (which are not to be confused with the ecumenical "movement" as such, and which will be defined below) frequently promote, by majority vote, positions which are clearly irreconcilable with the Orthodox faith. The rights of the Orthodox minority are, of course, protected, and the decisions are not binding upon the Orthodox, but an articulate Orthodox witness becomes more and more difficult. On the other hand, in Communist countries -- particularly the USSR -- the State seems to have returned to Stalinist religious policies which tended to isolate the Church from foreign influences, and curbs upon the Church's ecumenical activities have become apparent. Finally, a very vocal minority among Orthodox churchmen is virulently critical of ecumenism in general, while some hierarchs and theologians make statements of "ecumenical progress as usual," seemingly ignoring the real situation both in the ecumenical agencies and in the Orthodox Church.

If we believe in the Church as the Temple of the Spirit of Truth, we cannot doubt for a second that proper guidance will be given to us in this confused situation. However, as we all know, the will of God for us must be discerned by the whole body of the faithful. This discernment requires a spirit of humility and faith, and a patient effort of clarification. We need to undertake this effort without further delay

The Orthodox have always believed -- and have said so at ecumenical gatherings -- that the Orthodox Church is the One Church of Christ to which Christ promised that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). This promise of Christ would be meaningless if the Church were to be "divided." Thus, we believe that the "oneness" of the Church is still with us -- in Orthodoxy. However, the Orthodox Church has also recognized the sincerity, the devotion, the Christian achievements of non-Orthodox Christians: those who invoke the Name of Jesus Christ cannot be considered as foreign to Him and thus foreigners to His Church, especially when they are sincerely ready to listen, to search, to seek unity in Christ. Their quest, their challenge to us, their witness to the non-Christian world cannot leave us indifferent.

The ecumenical movement has always been understood by the Orthodox as an opportunity for dialogue with the non-Orthodox in which the true unity in Christ and where it really lies would be discovered by all -- in Christ and His One Church, which, as we believe, is the Orthodox Church. As long as ecumenism makes such a dialogue possible, it is an obligation for all Orthodox Christians, who are called by their Master to "love their neighbors." Unfortunately, contemporary organized ecumenism is often based on completely different principles: the wrong assumption that "it does not really matter" what we believe; the presupposition that any strong conviction harms the work for unity; and even the idea -- which is either naive or blasphemous -- that unity will be found when we all cease to debate matters of faith and will rather commit ourselves jointly to social or political causes, as if the latter were not by definition divisive and, in any case, of temporary and often questionable importance.

The distinction between a "good" ecumenism, which can be espoused by the Orthodox and is nothing but an obligation of charity, and a "wrong" ecumenism, which confuses rather than solves the issues, is to be understood clearly by all of us. The awareness that "wrong" ecumenism is indeed heresy should not lead us to forget the mission of our Church to the world, to the people around us, to those who sincerely seek the truth, for, as we forget this mission, we cease to be truly "catholic" and "orthodox" and become nothing but an introverted sect. But, conversely, there is an equal -- if not greater -- danger in accepting relativism, superficiality and secularism (conservative or radical) as a valid principle of our ecumenical involvement.

Much too frequently both the critics and the proponents of contemporary ecumenism forget this vital distinction and thus find themselves in theological dead-ends. It is also quite unfortunate that in practically every country, except in America the various Orthodox Churches in this area, as in others, are guided not only by sound theological reflection and spiritual discernment, but by political pressures from outside We certainly should understand the difficulties of their struggle for survival, but it is our peculiar responsibility to use our freedom wisely in fulfilling our Orthodox task in ecumenical encounters and dialogues.

(January, 1973)

posted April 21, 1998