True and False Ecumenism

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 6

There is in the Orthodox Church today a growing reaction against "ecumenism." Ecumenism is viewed mainly as clerical pageantry, empty speech-making, futile conference going and inter-ecclesiastical red tape. A vocal and frightened minority invokes the canons forbidding prayer with heretics and proclaims that the Orthodox faith goes down the drain at every ecumenical event.

A similar disappointment--in a different theological context--is visible among many Roman Catholics and Protestants: the radicals among them consider that ecumenism is unnecessary for the simple reason that Christians are already one, and that only Church "structures" and "institutions" divide them. These structures therefore must be phased out. As long as they exist, inter-Church councils, inter-Church conferences, and the like, are only solidifying the "churches," instead of duly liquidating them. For liquidation is indeed the radicals' avowed goal. Conservative Roman Catholics and Protestants, meanwhile, lose interest in superficial ecumenical activity and are fearful of the relativism and doctrinal indifferentism which it creates.

Attacked from the left and from the right, ecumenical agencies and councils try to justify their existence by promoting Christian "action" and by publishing pronouncements on various topics of political concern in the name of Christian witness. They rarely succeed in being either truly relevant or uncompromisingly Christian because, behind these pronouncements, there is actually very little agreement on the nature, the function and the meaning of Christian faith.

The situation is indeed rather bleak and critical. It requires a positive conscious reaction. The greatest mistake the Orthodox can make is to think that they can avoid involvement and responsibility.

In the opinion of this writer, the history of the ecumenical movement has reached--in 1968--a point when it will either become serious and true, or much of contemporary Christianity will dissolve itself through a peculiar polarization between small fanatical fundamentalist sects and a relativistic pseudo-religious humanism. The unique responsibility of the Orthodox is to discover and to define ecumenism as an authentic search for truth in love--a search which is only compromised by solemn assemblies and empty ceremonies, giving a false appearance of unity, fitting nicely into the popular American small talk about pluralism, but actually empty of true Christian content.

It is not, for example, the very idea of ecumenical prayer which should be put in question. If sacramental intercommunion remains, of course, excluded for the Orthodox as long as true union in faith is not achieved, other forms of prayer with the non-Orthodox are certainly possible, for the canons which forbid "prayer with heretics" had in view conscious apostates from the Church and not sincere Christians who never personally left it.

But authentic prayer is inseparable from the search for Truth. While based on a common commitment to Christ, it should also make manifest the unity which does not yet exist--otherwise it can only be construed as a substitute for true unity.

And nothing is more dangerous than a substitute. In the Middle Ages, when medicine was not yet a science, doctors used to dress themselves in fancy robes and impressive hats to impress their clients. Contemporary patients do not need dressed-up doctors because they trust them; they believe in medicine and do not need substitutes.

But perhaps the Orthodox ecumenical witness in America will only become authentic when the Church itself will become American, and thus a challenge to Americans, instead of presenting itself as an exotic, ethnic and irrelevant relic of the Eastern past. And, actually, this has been achieved to a large degree on the parish level. This is why positive guidelines for an Orthodox approach to ecumenism are urgently needed -- for our priests, for our youth, for our brothers who are not members of our Church and are looking for a true image of it, and, ultimately, for the sake of the Christian Gospel itself.

February, 1969

posted April 21, 1998