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The Orthodox Church and the other Christian churches

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Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

The Orthodox Church today maintains cordial relations with other Christian churches and participates with them in joint efforts to recover the visible unity of all Christians. In this effort, it gives primacy to those aspects of faith that brings all Christian churches and communions closer without ignoring the substantive doctrinal and theological differences that caused their separation. While most of the faithful perceive the involvement of the Orthodox Church in this joint quest for unity to be guided by the Holy Spirit, others express fear that the faith of the Church is somehow compromised for the sake of unity not always grounded in truth. In this short article, we will try to address these concerns by responding to two important questions: Why have the Orthodox churches decided to be involved in the ecumenical movement for the unity of God’s Church, and how does this involvement relate to their claim to be the embodiment of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?

The Ecumenical Patriarchate[i], in an encyclical addressed to all Orthodox churches in 1902, invited the Orthodox churches to move towards more dynamic inner communion, conciliarity and cooperation, in order to work with other Christian churches and communions towards the visible unity of all Christians. This is the desire of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17) and the prayer of the Church in her liturgy. This unity is presented in the encyclical as a gift of God’s Spirit whose reception requires the ardent efforts of all who believe in Christ and "walk in the paths of the evangelical love and peace." In 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a second encyclical addressed to all Christian churches suggesting the formation of a " league of churches" for common witness and action. It envisioned that the churches could move towards greater unity if they could overcome their mutual mistrust and bitterness by rekindling and strengthening the evangelical love. This could lead them to see one another not as strangers and foreigners, but as being part of the household of Christ and "fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ" (Eph. 3:6). Such unity couldn’t be advanced simply by just overcoming doctrinal differences, but it demands interchurch diakonia and common witness to God’s love for the life of the world. In 1986 the Third Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox conference unequivocally stated that the "Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement does not run counter to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church. It constitutes the consistent expression of the apostolic faith within new historical conditions."[ii]

The Orthodox churches understand their participation in the ecumenical movement to be inspired and guided by the Spirit of God who wills all to be united with the risen Christ. Thus, it is not simply a response to God’s reconciling love, but a movement of the Holy Spirit in which the churches participate. The Spirit of God invites all to break down the walls of enmity, overcome isolation and self-sufficiency, and become a communion of love for God’s glory. The late Greek Orthodox theologian Nikos Nissiotis, in his opening address as Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC in Bangalore (1978), stated that the churches transcend their confessional boundaries and heal their divisions when they let the Spirit of God guide their lives. "The Spirit is the advocate of the dynamic over the static, of the multiform over the uniform, of the exceptional over the regular, of the paradox over the normal." [iii]When the separated Churches gathered together, affirming faith in Christ and searching for ways to actualize and experience their unity in God’s eschatological promise, reflect in their fellowship and efforts towards unity the presence and operation of God’s Spirit. "The operation of the Spirit fills the gaps, unites the oppositions, bridges the distances, links the different gifts of grace."

The endorsement of the ecumenical involvement does not necessarily mean that the Orthodox churches have abandoned their ecclesiological claims; on the contrary, they participate in the ecumenical movement without compromising its essential faith to be the fullness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. What facilitated the fuller participation of the Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement is the statement on "The Church, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches" produced in 1950 in Toronto by the World Council of Churches.[iv] The ‘Toronto statement’ assured the churches that their participation in the World Council of Churches in no way prejudices the outcome of the ongoing quest for unity, neither would the churches be obliged to change their ecclesiology. Although the World Council of Churches is understood as a "fellowship of churches," the Toronto statement noted that the "the member churches of the World Council consider the relationship of other churches to the Holy Catholic Church which the creed profess as a subject for mutual consideration. Nevertheless, membership does not imply that each Church must regard the other member churches as churches in the true and full sense of the word." It also recognized that member churches retain the "constitutional right to ratify or to reject utterances or actions of the Council." The Toronto statement facilitated the involvement of the Orthodox churches in the ecumenical movement without compromising their understanding about the nature, mission, and witness of the Church.

While the Orthodox churches may view involvement in the Ecumenical movement as consistent with their ecclesiology, they have been unwilling to address the claims of other Christian churches and communions concerning their relation/identity with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This has immediate consequences in the ecumenical witness of the Orthodox churches and makes ecumenism a divisive issue within the Orthodox Church. "We Orthodox," Bishop Kalistos (Ware) of Diokleia[v] notes, " do not at the moment have an agreed attitude towards non-orthodox Christians." Among the Orthodox churches, different visions of ecumenism and of inter-Christian reconciliations lead to conflicts about ecumenism. "Some of us [Orthodox] see ecumenism as a sign of hope, others as a pan-heresy. Some of us think that Roman Catholics have true priesthood; others consider that they should be re-baptized. When we meet other Christians, we speak with a divided voice. Consequently, our participation in the ecumenical movement has been far less effective than it could and should have been."

Any attempt to address this problem theologically requires that we take seriously the faith and the sensitivities of the Orthodox Church about the unity of the Church. The Orthodox Church is especially sensitive in maintaining its continuity with the faith, life and witness of the apostolic Church. Every division in the history of the church has been viewed as a denial of its nature, a separation from Christ’s body, a departure from the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Church, coping with schism and apostasies, emphasized the importance of unity and promulgated canons to fortify its unity and communicate its belief that those who separate themselves from the una sancta depart from the domain of God’s salvific grace extra ecclesia nulla salus. While the Orthodox Church never refuted this belief, it refused to accept its practical consequences. Metropolitan John Zizioulas[vi] believes the problem of the limits of the Church and of the implication for those individuals and communities who exist outside of these limits continues to be an unresolved issue for Orthodox theology. He states: " it is certainly not easy to exclude from the realm and the operation of the Spirit so many Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church." He believes that baptism creates the limits of the Church and that "within this baptismal limit it is conceivable that there may be division, but any division within these limits is not the same as the division between the Church and those outside the baptismal limit." From this perspective, without baptism, there is no Church; within baptism, even if divisions exist, one may still speak of the Church.

The Orthodox churches seem to have adopted an ecclesiological agnosticism that avoids reflection on the ecclesiological claims of other Christian churches concerning their relation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This ecclesiological agnosticism has been challenged by Fr. George Florovsky[vii] who has consistently argued that the Orthodox churches make implicit judgments about the ecclesial nature of the other Christian churches by the manner in which they admit their members to the Orthodox Church either through re-baptism, chrismation, or mere recital of the creed. The Orthodox churches, he maintains, need to rethink their understanding of schism in relation to una sancta.

Florovsky observes that in the history of the Church there are occasions when the Church by her very actions gives one to understand that the sacraments of sectarians – and even of heretics – are valid, that the sacraments can be celebrated outside the strict canonical limits of the Church. The Church customarily receives adherents from sects – and even from heresies – not by the way of baptism, thereby obviously meaning or supposing that they have already been actually baptized in their sects and heresies. In many cases, the Church receives adherents even without chrism, and sometimes clergy in their existing orders. Fr. George Florovsky interprets the practices of the Church as a sign that, in the Orthodox tradition, the "mystical territory" of the Church extends beyond "her canonical borders." He argues that the Church as "a mystical organism" and "the sacramental body of Christ" couldn’t be adequately described by an exclusive use of canonical terms and categories. He also suggests that neither the recognition of sacramental grace outside of the boundaries of the Orthodox Church can be grounded in the notion of economia which in his view entered the life of the Orthodox churches during a time of theological confusion and decadence.

The belief of St. Cyprian that outside of the canonical boundaries of the Church there is no salvation must be respected as a strong urge to maintain and respect the unity of God’s Church. However, today’s needs require it to be supplanted with the theology of schism advanced by St. Augustine. For St. Augustine, schismatic and heretical communities, in spite of their formal separation from the una sancta, continue to maintain bonds of unity with it. All the separated Christian churches are related to each other and in communion, however imperfectly, with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The recognition of this relationality is warranted by the fact that there are many still unbroken bonds whereby the schismatic communities are held in certain unity with the One Church. These bonds, in the words of Florovsky, include " right belief, sincere devotion, the Word of God, and above all the grace of God, which ever heals the weak and supplies what is lacking." There is thus in every schismatic and heretical community something of God that connects them with the life of the God’s Church. "What is valid in the sects is that which is in them from the Church, that which remains with them as their portion of the sacred inner core of the Church, that through which they are with the Church. "

What does this mean for the participation of the Orthodox churches in the Ecumenical movement? Recognizing the operation of God’s Spirit in other Christian churches, which are not in communion with the Orthodox Church, implies at least the theoretical acknowledgment that these churches in their ecumenical commitment have the potential to enhance the life and the ministries of the One Church as well as these churches to be enhanced by the catholicity of the Orthodox church. As the churches recognize their limitation in their separation from one another and the need to move towards unity in faith, life and witness, they need to receive with humility and appreciation the gifts that God’s Spirit has bestowed in each one.

The refusal of the Orthodox churches to be in sacramental communion with other Christian churches, despite the affirmation that they are in an imperfect and incomplete manner members of the One Church of God, should not be perceived as a sign of arrogance; neither it should be a source of Orthodox triumphalism or self-sufficiency. It is a painful reminder for all that the unity of God’s Church requires the fullness of the apostolic faith and tradition. It does not allow the churches to become complacent with present relative unity and collaboration. This leads to an irrevocable and unabated commitment of the Orthodox Churches to the fellowship of Christian churches that seek jointly to discover their unity in the faith, life and witness of God’s Church.

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology



[i] Gennadios Limouris ed., Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism: Statements, Messages and Reports on the Ecumenical Movement, 1902-1992 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1994), pp. 1-8

[ii] Ibid., p.112

[iii] Nikos Nissiotis, "The Importance of the Faith and Order Commission for Restoring Ecclesial Fellowship," in Sharing in One Hope (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1978), p.13ff

[iv]"The Church, the Churches and the WCC," in Lukas Vischer edit., A Documentary History of the Faith and Order Movement 1927-1963 (Saint Louis,MI:Bethany Press, 1963), pp.166-7

[v] Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, "The Witness of the Orthodox Church," Ecumenical Review 52(2000) p. 50

[vi] Metropolitan John of Pergamon, "The Self-understanding of the Orthodox and their Participation in the Ecumenical Movement," in The Ecumenical Movement, the Churches and the World Council of Churches: An Orthodox Contribution to the Reflection Process on the ‘Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC, George Lemopoulos ed., (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1966) p. 45

[vii] Fr. George Florovsky, "The Doctrine of the Church and the Ecumenical Problem," Ecumenical Review 2(1950) p. 161

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