by Fr. Timothy Evangelinidis
Many times, while attending ecumenical functions, I have
been amused and at times a little frustrated to see a
registration table for Roman Catholics and another for
Protestants. I would stand between them and shrug my
shoulders wondering where I should go. Orthodoxy is neither
Roman Catholic nor Protestant; it has much in common with
both, but it also stands apart from both. Orthodoxy also
sees itself in a fragile position within the Ecumenical
Movement. It is neither completely at home within ecumenism,
nor is closed to other Christian groups wishing to dialogue
with it. To understand this, one needs to understand
something of the nature of Orthodoxy.
In this attempt to outline the Orthodox approach to
ecumenism, I need to convey a glimpse of the theological
issues behind this idea. This is not merely a question of
action, "Should we or shouldn't we?" It is a more important
question of theology, "Can we or can't we, and if we can
what form does our ecumenism take?" This short paper will
attempt to give some insight into the dilemma of Orthodoxy
and ecumenism. However, it is not a summary of Orthodox
Dogma or Tradition it is only trying to read the pulse of
Orthodoxy as it considers the ecumenical movement.
Many churches are facing modern crises that are calling
them to question their often long held beliefs and dogmas.
Issues such as the ordination of women to the sacred
Priesthood of Christ and Modernism have been on the 'agenda'
of Churches for some time. Other issues such as 'New Age'
philosophies and the increasing dilemma of bio-ethics have
seen various Christian groups take stances completely
opposed to those of other Christian traditions. There are
even some controversial subjects that have seen division
within Churches. The Orthodox also are facing new dilemmas,
but these are about how the Church relates to a modern and
rapidly changing world, and to other Christians who, to the
Orthodox at least, seem to be constantly changing their face
and their nature. It may seem extraordinary to some, but one
of the most controversial issues that has gripped Orthodoxy
in recent years has been ECUMENISM
Much of the heat of the ecumenical argument within
Orthodoxy comes from a difference of opinion as to the
nature of ecumenism. This confusion, I think, exists within
other Christian groups.
In his book "Our Orthodox Christian Faith", Athanasios
Frangopoulos lists ecumenism with nasties like Arianism and
other heretical teachings. He states:
- "Ecumenism is a new heresy that has appeared in our days ... we Orthodox must stand far apart. Indeed, we
ought to fight against it by enlightening those Orthodox
who are ignorant of ecumenism and what it entails".
In stark contrast are the views expressed in the writings
of the now famous convert to Orthodox Christianity, Timothy
(or later Kallistos) Ware. This 'western' Orthodox
theologian is now an assistant Greek Orthodox Bishop in
England. Bishop Kallistos cites the opinions of many
theologians who see ecumenism not just as a positive action
of the Orthodox Church, but as a necessary response to other
Christian groups that do not share the same environment, the
same attitude, the same phronema (Spiritual identity and
intention) as Orthodoxy.
The next question is an obvious one, how can theologians
belonging to the same Tradition express opposing views on
ecumenism? I quote from Athanasios Frangopoulos again:
- "Ecumenism maintains that: the truth and Grace of
Christ is not to be found in any one single Church, but
partially in all the Churches... Now if we put all these
Churches together and create an Ecumenical Church we also
unite all the pieces of the faith and the truth, and come
up with the whole truth of Christ... (However), that
which is divided cannot be joined, and the Ecumenists
shall never achieve the 'union of the Churches' because
there are not many Churches but one ... the Orthodox
Many non-Orthodox Christians involved in the ecumenical
movement would hold to the above belief that Frangopoulos so
completely rejects. Bishop Kallistos and most of the
Orthodox Churches (the family of Orthodoxy) would agree with
Frangopoulos on the unique and fundamental integrity of the
Holy Orthodox Catholic Church. They would, however, DISAGREE
with the above definition of ecumenism. There is not a
difference of doctrine here, but, as I have already said, a
difference in the understanding of the nature of
Most of the Orthodox see ecumenism as an expression of
love, a working out of the desire to be one in Christ, even
as the Son and the Father are one. We cannot hope to
understand each other if we do not share of ourselves and
try to explain what it is that makes us what we are.
However, for this hope to become reality, Christians of
differing backgrounds will need to agree on the fundamentals
of the Faith. If we attempt to by-pass this, to compromise
ourselves, then unity is false and the fears of Frangopoulos
are justified. Ecumenism involves discussion and education;
these must precede any attempt at reconciliation of the
Churches. It is this that most Orthodox believe is
The Orthodox assert that only they have retained the
fullness of the Truth, handed down by Christ to the
Apostles, and handed on by them to the Church, down to the
present day. The Orthodox claim is made without any false
pride. It is not arrogance, but adherence to the Holy
Tradition - unchanged. Many of you would no doubt wish to
argue this point, but it is the Orthodox position. For us
Orthodox to be faithful to this claim, a sharing of this
truth with those outside Orthodoxy is not an option; to act
otherwise is to be false to ourselves, and to what we
believe. We speak with other Christians out of love, but
also because we believe that we have the truth that only
Orthodoxy, out of all the Christian Churches, has retained.
There can be no coming together of divergent dogmas, no
'partial' union; when we can be of the same Tradition (with
a capital 'T'), then and only then can our ecumenism lead us
Let's look at what another Orthodox writer says of
ecumenism. Stanley Harakas has written in "Something is
stirring in world Orthodoxy":
- "The chief issue for the Orthodox regarding
participation in the ecumenical movement has been the
doctrine of the Church. Some Orthodox feel strongly that
participation... implies a betrayal of the faith... The
fears of the anti-ecumenists have not been realised...
However, neither have the rosy expectations of the
Orthodox ecumenists been fulfilled".
Orthodoxy is enigmatic to many other Churches, but they
themselves are often embarrassed and troubled by the actions
and opinions of others in the ecumenical movement. Orthodoxy
has been involved in the ecumenical movement from the
beginning. If ecumenism involves dialogue with an honest
wish to work towards unity -a physical communion with all
who are Christian- then the Orthodox rejoice. However, if
Ecumenism is about compromise, about rejecting the basic
dogmas of the Tradition of the Church of God, then the
Orthodox will pull back because they will not give up on
this treasure -this "pearl of great price"- which is
Orthodoxy. The Orthodox have not reached agreement with
other Christians on the fundamental and important doctrines
of the Christian Faith, but they go on in their wish for
unity, and continue (for the moment at least) in the
The words expressed in this paper may seem harsh and
unbending. Many may find the Orthodox position an
insurmountable obstacle to the unity of the Churches.
Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church persists in ecumenical
discussion because it seeks the visible unity of all
Christians in truth and in love. However, for the Orthodox
to ignore their fundamental beliefs in a bid to create some
tenuous, 'common denominator' Christianity, unity will not
be achieved at all; such a thing is destructive. It is a
creation of DISUNITY of the Church from her Tradition.
Despite what might seem a gloomy and negative prognosis,
there is still hope and encouragement on many fronts for
Orthodoxy. I am here presenting this paper this evening.
This surely indicates the hope of at least one Orthodox
priest for positive discussion with other Christians. If the
Orthodox saw no constructive purpose for the ecumenical
movement, this exercise would be pointless and merely an
attempt at dissension and ecumenical terrorism.
Orthodoxy is in dialogue with many other Churches, eg:
The Uniting Church in Australia, the Anglican Churches, The
Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches. Much social
statement and action have seen various Orthodox Churches
joining Roman Catholics and Protestants with a united front.
Ecumenism has allowed the Orthodox to come to an
understanding of the traditions of many other Churches, and
it has also opened up Orthodoxy to the curious eyes of the
rest of Christendom.
Although much of Orthodoxy's agreed action with others
has been on a 'non-doctrinal level', discussion, common
action and an acceptance of the integrity of other
Christians must precede any unity on more fundamental
levels. Orthodox Christians are usually not permitted to
share in the Eucharistic Supper with other Christians, nor
are Orthodox and other clergy permitted to co-officiate at
services. However, because we can and do attend each other's
services, the desire for understanding and unity is there.
Will this desire ever lead to unity? I cannot say, but my
hope is that this will take place.
Sadly, much has occurred in recent times that has seen
the Orthodox question their position in the ecumenical
movement. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has
seen serious division and even a suspension of official
dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The ordination of women to what many Churches believe is the
sacred Priesthood of Christ, is seen by the Orthodox as a
grave obstacle to unity.
The recent World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in
Canberra had the Orthodox delegates meeting in the midst of
this ecumenical gathering to consider whether they should
continue in the ecumenical movement at all. Many Orthodox
now see WCC in a new sinister role. They view it as a
catalyst for a total liberalising of the Christian Faith, a
movement to coalesce the churches into a 'Super Church',
without set dogma and tradition. Some more extreme Orthodox
writers even refer to WCC as heralding the anti-Christ.
These may not be universal opinions within Orthodoxy, but
they do show something of the tension and hesitation that
Orthodoxy feels concerning itself and ecumenism.
I began this short paper with some questions. Should
Orthodoxy be involved in reaching out to other Churches and
Christians of a different 'phronema'? My answer is yes. If
we are to be true to the words of Christ, "that they all may
be one", then I can answer only yes. However, if the
question is: "Will the Orthodox continue in the ecumenical
movement?", then my answer is not nearly so definite, it all
depends on what the ecumenical movement becomes and how
other Christians continue to see the nature of ecumenism.
Orthodoxy continues in ecumenical dialogue in many countries
and on an international level. Indeed about half the member
Churches of the Australian Council of Churches are Orthodox.
What form our ecumenical involvement takes in the future, is
the subject of much consideration and prayer.
Based on a paper presented at the
Tasmanian Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission on
20 July 1993
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