Will a new gathering of Orthodox scholars and leaders push ecumenism forward?

Bulgarian Orthodox men take part in a Good Friday liturgy at St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral in Sofia April 10, 2015. (CNS photo/Stoyan Nenov, Reuters) 

The ecumenical movement in Christianity seems to have stalled today. But the responsibility for moving it forward may fall upon the historic churches: the Roman Catholic Church, the 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches (churches who choose their own leaders; now 15, with the addition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine) and the ancient Oriental Orthodox churches—the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Malankara and Syriac.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of Catholicism’s “special consideration” of the Eastern churches, noting their great love of the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharist, their devotion to Mary the Mother of God, the established sacraments, apostolic succession, priesthood and their rich spiritual traditions, especially monasticism. Given this common heritage, the council in its decree on ecumenism, encouraged some common worship (“communicatio in sacris”), contingent on the approval of “local episcopal authority, unless otherwise provided for by the Bishops’ conference according to its statues, or by the Holy See” (“Unitatis Redintegratio,” No. 8).

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The aftermath of the council saw some powerful examples of ecumenical progress, chief among them the meeting in 1964 of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, where the two prayed together and exchanged the kiss of peace, and the lifting of the anathemas of 1054 by the two communions a year later. In spite of this, however, not much has changed in their relationships. The Orthodox authorities quickly rejected the possibility of common worship, based on their belief that eucharistic communion requires a fully united church.

According to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Orthodox lack a clear consensus about the ecclesial and salvific character of the non-Orthodox churches and about the validity of their baptism. The distinction between full and partial communion, so important to Roman Catholic ecumenical theology, is not part of their official teaching. Cardinal Kasper cites a remark of Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky that Orthodox ecclesiology is still in a “pre-theological stage”—in other words, it has experienced little theological development. Some Orthodox churches do not even accept Roman Catholic baptism and routinely rebaptize converts from other churches. From an ecumenical perspective, the Orthodox churches have considerable work to do.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of Catholicism’s “special consideration” of the Eastern churches.

The IOTA conference

This is why a recent Orthodox conference (Jan. 9 to 12, 2019) in a snowy Iaşi, Romania, was so significant. A response to the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which took place in Crete in 2016, the conference represented the inaugural meeting of the International Orthodox Theological Association. Founded by Paul Gavrilyuk of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and some leading Orthodox scholars, the conference was the largest gathering of Orthodox scholars and church leaders in modern history, with several hundred participants gathered for lectures on Orthodox theology, history, culture, liturgical celebrations and fellowship. Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University cosponsored the conference. I was there as one of a number of ecumenical observers.

The conference opened with a worship service led by Metropolitan Teofan, the archbishop of Iaşi, and an address by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the best-known Eastern Orthodox theologians today. In commenting on the theme “Pan-Orthodox Unity and Conciliarity,” he observed, “We have to confess, with humility and realism, that while we affirm synodality in theory, all too often we have neglected it in practice.”

The days that followed were fascinating. I found myself slogging through snowdrifts and slush early in the morning, once to morning prayer in St. George Church, the old cathedral with its walls covered with images of the saints, and back the next day for the divine liturgy, its plaintive chant breaking the early morning silence. A highlight of the conference was a reception hosted for all the participants by Metropolitan Teofan in his residence, with tables loaded with bread, cheese, cold cuts, sausages and wine.

The talks addressed topics in Orthodox history and spirituality, approaches to Scripture, relations with Islam, ecology in the context of God’s care for the cosmos, the limits of liturgical inculturation, women in the life of the church, the impact of political changes in Eastern Europe on the ecumenical movement, and Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. One presenter compared the parental language of Rome, with its emphasis on Rome as the mother church and filial obedience, to the more fraternal language of the East, noting that the Roman emphasis today has shifted—even if that has not always been recognized by the Orthodox churches.

Several speakers addressed the relationship between primacy and synodality, one arguing that the latter belongs to the nature of the church, while primacy is only a question of human right, a crucial question for the Orthodox-Roman Catholic relationship. Another topic frequently referenced was the 2016 council in Crete, which turned out to be less than a full expression of Orthodox unity when the Russian, Bulgarian, Antiochian and Georgian churches chose not to participate. Still, the gathering was a step forward: The last general council of the Orthodox churches was in 1872.

Ecumenism for the Orthodox remains somewhat problematic. The Orthodox have long memories and some cherished grievances.

Orthodox Ecumenism

Ecumenism for the Orthodox remains somewhat problematic. The Orthodox have long memories and some cherished grievances. In spite of the fact that a number of Orthodox churches took part in the founding of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948, there remains a strong anti-ecumenical spirit among many in the laity and monastic communities. One scholar asked if Orthodox ecumenism remains open after the council in Crete. That council affirmed that most Orthodox churches participate actively in the ecumenical movement. Nevertheless, theological questions remain. Many see no possibility for salvation outside the Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic Church, which explicitly affirmed at Vatican II that salvific grace is mediated by churches beyond the Catholic in “Unitatis Redintegratio” (No. 3). Some Orthodox theologians also argue today for a broader interpretation of the Orthodox position.

The Crete council’s decree on the “Relations of the Orthodox Church to the Rest of the Christian World” remains controversial. Many see the decree as exclusively identifying the Orthodox Church with the church of Christ. It is not clear that the Crete council recognized the ecclesial reality of other churches. Pointing to the “ontological nature of the Church” whose unity cannot be “perturbed,” it says, “In spite of this, the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her” (No. 6). Some Orthodox commentators give this a maximalist interpretation, arguing that to accept the name is to accept the reality. Others follow a minimalist interpretation, arguing from the text that the Orthodox Church has reservations concerning issues of faith and order “because the non-Orthodox Churches and Confessions have diverged from the true faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (No. 21).

Pope Francis is planning to visit Romania in late May of this year. Catholics in Romania hope that he can rebuild relations between Catholics and Orthodox in the country, which have cooled since Patriarch Daniel succeeded to the head of the Orthodox Church in Romania in 2008. In an interview last year, Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest, the president of the Romanian bishops’ conference, said that the patriarch “has not encouraged the celebration of joint prayers, not with Catholics nor with any other religious denominations. There is not even anymore a joint prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

Another highly controversial issue was the situation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine after Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople recognized its autocephaly in 2018, uniting two non-canonical Orthodox churches into the one Orthodox Church of Ukraine. For the Russian Orthodox Church this was very painful: It saw the creation of this church as splitting the Russian world, betraying Ukraine’s cultural roots and joining with the United States to create a belt of instability on the Russian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin was vehemently against it. (One Russian priest came discreetly to the conference in civilian attire.) On the other hand, many Ukrainians justify the movement on historical and postcolonial grounds: They have used the Ukrainian language liturgically since 1919 and point to the “false synod” in Lviv in 1946 that subordinated Ukrainian Greek Catholics to the Russian patriarch. They see autocephaly as a way to free the church from Russian denomination.

The talks at the conference were of high quality, though with four general sessions a day, each hosting multiple topical sessions often with four or more speakers, it was exhausting. Perhaps 40 percent of the speakers came from the United States, and some were from other churches. In spite of the presence of scholars from more than 40 countries, more attention might have been given to the situation of the global church, with the present demographic shift of the Christian population from Europe and North America to the Global South, where more than two-thirds of world’s Christians live today. Few talks addressed the question of relations with the “new” churches of the Southern Hemisphere: the evangelical, Pentecostal and especially neo-Pentecostal churches so plentiful there. Nor were the social and cultural issues faced by the church today, including the loss of faith on the part of so many, substantially addressed.

The work of IOTA could help move the ecumenical movement forward.

Hope for the Future

Still, the IOTA conference is an encouraging sign of greater concern for ecumenism within Orthodoxy and the theological development that progress will require. Theology played an enormous role in the preparation of Roman Catholics for the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal John Henry Newman’s emphasis on historical study and the development of doctrine was particularly important, as were the encyclicals of Pope Pius XII on biblical interpretation, the liturgy and the church as the mystical body of Christ. So was the so-called nouvelle théologie of Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac, among others that helped move Catholic theology beyond an arid neo-Scholasticism to a “ressourcement,” returning to the sources of the faith in Scripture, the liturgy and the fathers of the church.

The Jesuit John Courtney Murray was the principal author of the council’s decree on religious liberty, “Dignitatis Humanae.” Orthodox theology also played a role, especially the eucharistic ecclesiology developed by Orthodox theologians like Georges Florovsky, Nicolas Afanassief, John Meyendorff and John Zizioulas. It played a major role in the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” “Sacrosanctum Concilium.”

If Orthodox ecclesiology today remains underdeveloped or in a “pre-theological stage” as Cardinal Kasper has suggested, the work of IOTA could help move the ecumenical movement forward. IOTA plans to meet every four years, on the model of the Olympics. It could become a blessing for all the church.

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Michael Bindner
5 months ago

It will be amazing how quick all of the theological issues will vanish once Rome recognizes that Petrine Primacy moved to New Rome when it was established (while Rome was Aryan. Sadly, it is now sexually Docetistic. Orthodoxy is only partially so). That New Rome recognized Anglican Orders in 1922 is never mentioned. I suspect without much effort the rest of High Church Protestantism can included as well, leaving the Southern Baptists and Mormons out.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months ago

This was a fascinating article to someone who has so little understanding of the Orthodox churches. The only thought that kept coming to mind while reading it is the seemingly unusually strong cultural and national affinities of the Orthodox churches with their homes of origin. So much so that I think they have no sense of Christianity being a global phenomenon but rather a local phenomenon. ( I am particularly disturbed by the behavior of some of the Orthodox churches during the communist era in their respective nations.) In so thinking and acting do they self-limit the instruction of Christ to witness and convey the Gospel to the world? My perception may be all wrong but that’s what it seems to me.

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