Mission and Ecumenism

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 7

Participation in the ecumenical movement is hardly popular among the Orthodox in America. The reasons for this lack of popularity are to be found, on the one hand, in the peculiar trends which have been predominant in organized ecumenism (i.e., such agencies as the World Council of Churches or the National Council of Churches) in the sixties and the seventies. On the other hand, Orthodox parishes and dioceses still often determine their relations with "outsiders" in a provincial, ethnic way, without real concern for mission. The situation is further complicated by the activities of super-conservative (or pseudo-conservative) agencies and pressure-groups which spread deliberate misinformation about ecumenism. For instance, to the Orthodox they affirm that participation in ecumenism implies renunciation of the Orthodox Church's claim to be the True Church. At the same time, addressing the Protestants, they pretend that Orthodox participation in the WCC leads to the rejection of biblical ("fundamentalist") purity in favor of superstition. Furthermore, since the WCC membership from the third world is very vocal in condemning racism, the South African government, which supports racist "apartheid" in South Africa, lobbies against the WCC. Recently, a truly partial and misleading critical article about the WCC published by The Reader's Digest was widely distributed to American clergy of all denominations by the South African Embassy in Washington.

Be that as it may, it is quite understandable that Orthodox participants at ecumenical assemblies feel uncomfortable. They see no sufficient reason to accept the extreme criticisms coming from fundamentalist Protestant circles, but, at the same time, they hardly approve the flat reduction of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God to the lever of sociopolitical ideology -- a reduction which, unfortunately, has often prevailed in recent times among liberal Protestants. They know by experience about the ultimate evil of Communist totalitarianism, which is often ignored by third world politicians for whom the enemy is only the Capitalist or the Racist, and who, with the support of Western pseudo liberals, consent to be manipulated by Moscow.

Why then participate? The answer to this question is simple: the mission of the Church requires it. As Orthodox we have no right to ignore the world around us; this world requires our presence and our voice wherever it can be heard, precisely because our message is unique and because the Church is the guardian of a universal Truth. We have no right to restrict our witness to situations where "we" feel comfortable. Actually, such situations do not really exist. True spiritual "comfort" will come only in the Kingdom of God.

The mission of the Church certainly--and primarily- consists in assuring the growth of our parishes, in establishing new communities, in spreading education. But it also presupposes the full use of such opportunities as are provided by the various existing ecumenical forums, where the witness of Orthodoxy takes the form of dialogue in an atmosphere of mutual openness and friendly encounter. This does not mean at all that we should compromise our faith or approve every statement of the World or National Councils of Churches. These bodies do not speak for the Orthodox Church but for occasional majorities which are otherwise divided on essential points of faith and political commitment. Such statements are simply sent to the member churches for their "study," and are in no way binding on anybody. But there are situations -- like, for example, the case of the recent WCC document on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministries" -- when a strong and articulate Orthodox voice succeeds in achieving true progress on some essential points of the faith.

We do not know -- God knows -- how much closer to true Christian unity such individual successes can bring us, but we cannot avoid our mission in the ecumenical movement as it exists today, and promote within it, together with the Orthodox autocephalous churches, which all also participate, the faith "once delivered to the saints."

(February, 1983)

posted April 21, 1998