Response to the Pre-Conciliar Document on Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World

by Fotios Apostolos, Rev. Dr. Radu Bordeianu, Paul Ladouceur, Very Rev. Dr. Harry Linsinbigler, and Edward Siecienski

We have joyfully received the text of the Pre-Conciliar document on Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World and the invitation to comment on it, in the spirit of Orthodox conciliarity. We applaud it for its bold statements, which include: defining the goal of dialogue as the complete restoration of unity in true faith and love (12), recognizing that not all differences are equal and the existence of a certain “hierarchy of challenges” (12), referring to other Christian communities as “Churches” (6, 16, 20), the censure of those who would break the unity of the Church under the pretext of defending Orthodoxy (22), and the continued participation of all Orthodox Churches in the Ecumenical Movement (7) consistent with the apostolic faith and our tradition (4). We would like to focus here on the relationship between the Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church, and the other Churches, as well as its implications for the ecumenical dialogue.  

At times the document runs the risk of being interpreted in an exclusivist manner, as if the Church of Christ does not exist outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Relatedly, some members of our group have found the document’s reference to “Churches and confessions” (20) as potentially confusing, inferring that Orthodoxy endorses the distinction accepted in post-Vatican II Catholic theology between “Churches” in the proper sense and “ecclesial communities” that are not truly Churches because they lack one or more elements of the True Church. We recommend continuing the tradition of the 1920 Patriarchal Encyclical addressed “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere” and thus avoiding the distinction between Churches and communities or confessions. We uphold that the Orthodox Church has faithfully maintained the fullness of Revelation and thus manifests the Church of Christ to a full degree, while other Churches manifest various degrees of that fullness. In this sense, the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils recognized the trinitarian baptism of non-Orthodox faithful and varying degrees of relationship to the Church of Christ.  As St. Basil explains in his first canonical epistle, “it seemed good to the ancient authorities to reject the baptism of heretics altogether, but to admit that of schismatics, on the ground that they still belonged to the Church”  (Letter 188, to Amphilochius).  It is for this reason that Fr. Georges Florovsky distinguished between the canonical and charismatic or sacramental boundaries of the Church, and that Paul Evdokimov wrote, “We know where the Church is, but we cannot judge where the Church is not.”

In discussing Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement we recognize a tension between our conviction that the Orthodox Church manifests the fullness and unity of the Church of Christ, and our recognition of the tragedy of a divided Christendom and the genuine pain this causes the Orthodox faithful.  It is a source of suffering that Orthodox Christians cannot receive communion with their non-Orthodox spouses and children, or that Orthodox clergy cannot minister sacramentally to non-Orthodox and manifest God’s mercy upon all those in need regardless of their Christian affiliation.

We also know that the Church of Christ does not exist in the abstract, separate from its concrete manifestations in various contexts. In times and places where Orthodoxy is absent, other Churches — i.e., those outside of perfect communion with the Orthodox Church — have been, and continue to be, the only manifestation of the Church of Christ, even if in incomplete form. For this reason, Orthodoxy participates in dialogue not only to confess its faith and practices, but also to learn about the ways in which God uses other Churches to manifest the Church of Christ according to their respective charisms. We therefore recommend expressing the limits of acceptable diversity when it comes to theological formulations and pastoral-liturgical practices, in order to clarify the end purpose of the dialogue in paragraphs 6 and 12.

All suspicions of ecumenical dialogue and rapprochement as compromise should be discarded, especially in light of the successful dialogues thus far. Noteworthy among these successes are the recognition that the Christological differences with the Oriental Orthodox Churches are terminological rather than theological in nature, that the Filioque need no longer divide Orthodox and Catholics, and the WCC’s implementation of the Orthodox suggestion for a consensus-based decision-making process (17). Moreover, as a result of these dialogues, we happily note other positive developments — for example, that Orthodox scholars today use the findings of many Protestant and Catholic theologians who have carefully researched the Orthodox tradition, that Orthodox missionaries learn from the successes and failures of Western missionaries; that Orthodox monks study patristic writings carefully researched in the West, and that Orthodox priests minister to Catholic and Protestant spouses and children of our mixed families.  Undoubtedly, dialogue has borne abundant fruit and continues to be a necessity.

We also wish to recommend two practical considerations. First, in line with paragraph 15 that refers to the successful completion of the dialogue and its implementation, we propose exploring concrete ways in which these dialogues can expedite the restoration of communion. The dialogue with Oriental Orthodox Churches has made significant progress and is close to that end-point. We suggest an explicit endorsement of the recently-reconvened Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox dialogue aimed at clarifying remaining issues between the two families of Orthodox Churches. We also commend Orthodox representatives for bringing the dialogue with the Catholic Church to an advanced stage, and we hope to see some of the practical consequences of this progress. Second, the document should include a practical dimension of ecumenism, referring to ways in which Orthodox can participate with other Christians in manifesting the Kingdom of God together: ministering to the poor, the displaced, the sick, and strengthening each other in times of persecution.

We pray that this Council is the beginning of a regular and fruitful renewal of Orthodox Synodality, as it labors towards the restoration of unity. We regard the Council as an opportunity to guide the faithful towards the Kingdom of God in unity with other Christians and to alleviate the pain of living in a disunited Christendom. We pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the works of the Council.

Fotios Apostolos is a scholar of Oriental liturgy and a reacher at the School of Theology  at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Rev. Dr. Radu Bordeianu is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

Very Rev. Dr. Harry Linsinbigler is Adjunct Instructor of Theology at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary in South Bound Brook, New Jersey and priest at Holy Protection Orthodox Church in Dover, Florida.

Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Religion at Stockton University in New Jersey.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

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