Orthodox Ecumenism

A Contradiction in Terms?

by Peter Bouteneff

Just this past May, the Georgian Orthodox Church took an important step in its life and in the life of the global Orthodox Church. Under pressure from monastic groups who were threatening schism, the church’s Holy Synod arrived at the decision, which surprised members across the entire spectrum of “liberal” and “conservative” views, to withdraw from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and from the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

At his visit to the WCC last year, the Catholicos and Patriarch of All Georgia, Elia II, a wise and irenic man and a past president of the WCC, voiced his support for the Council and his gratitude for the help which his Church receives from and through it. In addition, in conversation with Orthodox colleagues on the staff of the Council, he spoke of the intense need in his church and in the wider Orthodox world for literature — pamphlets, books, etc. — which would explain simply, pastorally and unpolemically the rationale, or even the necessity, for Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement. He noted that while there was a substantial amount of material angrily disparaging what it called “ecumenism,” there was virtually nothing available to explain in a balanced way what the Orthodox are attempting to achieve in their involvement with bodies such as the WCC.

The tensions within the Georgian Church are certainly not unique to that locality. Last February I attended a special meeting of the Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church, as it prepared its recommendations to the Synod of Bishops meeting later that month. There I experienced first hand the acute split felt within that Church (thanks be to God that it is not, at least for the moment, a formal split or schism) between those who were in favor of the continued encounter with non-Orthodox churches through national and international bodies, and those who were against. Churches throughout the Orthodox world are facing the same questions and, to a great variety of degrees, the same “pro and contra” division. Nearly everywhere the imbalance is the same: numerous pamphlets, books and videotapes attacking the “heresy of ecumenism,” and virtually nothing to explain why ecumenism, as properly defined, is not only unheretical but a necessary task of the Church.

The conclusions of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Theological Commission as well as its Bishop’s Synod, both of which contain members of pro- and anti-ecumenical leanings, were in favor for the time being of remaining full members of the WCC and the CEC. Significantly, both the Commission and the Synod made a specific point of saying that decisions of how and whether to take part in ecumenical organizations must be taken on a pan-Orthodox level. A similar resolution has just been taken by the Serbian Orthodox Church: to remain for now, and to take the final decision together with the other Orthodox Churches. This is of course immensely appropriate in that (a) relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox are clearly a matter of reflection for the whole Orthodox Church, (b) all canonical Orthodox Churches, with the recent exception of Georgia, are in fact full members of the WCC, and (c) ecumenical involvement has been explicitly affirmed in the Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conferences as well as other high-level pan-Orthodox fora. As all the Orthodox Churches necessarily come to reflect upon questions of ecumenical involvement, it is useful to gain some perspective on the literature and views of those who oppose it.

The character and sources of anti-ecumenical arguments

The Orthodox Church sees itself as the very One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church we confess in the creed. It represents the Church in unbroken continuity with the Church of the Apostles; the Church from which, for doctrinal and political reasons, other bodies have broken away over time. This is how the Orthodox Church understands itself.

While many Orthodox see that these facts do not preclude but rather necessitate some form of continued contact with non-Orthodox Christians, others feel that our formal and informal encounters with the non-Orthodox represent a dilution of our purity, a compromise of doctrine, a sell-out. Hence, the driving force behind much of the anti-ecumenical literature is a kind of ecclesiological isolationism. In some cases — in Russia, for example — this can derive from and breed on a parallel sense of national isolationism and self-sufficiency. A representative quotation from a recent article in the Russian journal, Moskva:

…we all must learn to defend the holy things of Orthodoxy not only from external enemies, the overt enemies of God and Russophobes, but also from enemies within who are undermining the religious foundation of the Russian national consciousness while imagining themselves to be “reformers” of our church life.

Any Orthodox who is involved in the ecumenical movement knows that ecumenism as practiced today is by no means a problem-free endeavor, and it benefits from constructive, honest criticism. But this serious prophetic opportunity is missed when it is obscured by a crude polemicism, exaggeration, misrepresentation of facts, and by finger-pointing. The literature under discussion tends to be selective in its approach to Church history and doctrine, ignoring the notable attempts in history to reconcile ecclesiastical divisions, to maintain contact with the severed brethren. Significantly, it emanates most often from groups who have placed themselves out of communion with the canonical Orthodox Church. These self-proclaimed “churches in resistance,” together with some of the monastic communities in the canonical Orthodox Church, are the source of the large majority of the material which is published and disseminated in opposition to Orthodox ecumenical involvement. The sometimes frenzied spirit of these materials is contagious; particularly in Russia it finds its way into the popular media, generally that of the right wing. It is also characteristic of isolated groups within all of our Churches.

“Ecumenism” as heresy

Interestingly, much of the logic presented for calling “ecumenism” a heresy rests upon a consistent and serious oversight. “Ecumenism,” as it is defined by its detractors (I draw below from a brochure), consists in the view that:

…the full truth is not to be found in any one single Church but partially in all the Churches. A little bit of it is to be found in the Orthodox Church, a little bit in the Protestant 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. The Ecumenical Church, the Ecumenists claim, is a tree with many branches. This is the way they try to deceive the simple-minded.

The “heresy” of ecumenism, therefore, in the definition of such literature, is co-equal with the heresy of the branch theory of the Church. It is by no coincidence that the letters from the Georgian monasteries to their Patriarch threatening schism say exactly the same thing about ecumenism:

Ecumenism is heresy! Moreover, it is the heresy of heresies. Of all the errors which the so-called “ecumenism” comprises, the most fundamental and profound is its error concerning the very nature of the Church itself… The so-called “World Council of Churches” already in its very name contains this contradiction of the Orthodox Christian doctrine concerning the Church. And in its “Branch Theory” it totally rejects this dogma… By participating in its activities, the Orthodox Church declares her agreement with all its teachings.

The logic is plain: Orthodox participants in ecumenical organizations are “ecumenist heretics,” as they are all adherents of “ecumenism,” meaning the branch theory of the churches.

If the authors of such materials cared to examine the foundational documents of the WCC (e.g., the Toronto Statement of 1950), they would find explicit safeguards against association of the Council with any ecclesiology, notably the Branch Theory. It was precisely such safeguards which enabled the Orthodox to continue or initiate participation in the Council, which itself constitutes nothing more than a federation of ecclesiastical bodies, with no “teachings” of its own and no policy-making authority over any church. To my knowledge, no Orthodox participant in ecumenical activities holds any kind of “branch”-style ecclesiology.

Yet whether through carelessness or through deliberate misinformation, most anti-ecumenical literature consistently fails to distinguish between the “branch” ecclesiology, which has always been foreign to the Orthodox Church, and inter-Christian dialogue and cooperation. The decided approach of such literature is to hold on to “ecumenism” as an Orthodox swear word, and to consign all Orthodox participants in the ecumenical movement to “heretics,” whether these be laypersons, clergy, or the Ecumenical Patriarch.

If the authors of anti-ecumenical literature could concede on the basis of sheer fact that the branch theory is one thing, and Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement is another, might there be the possibility of some kind of reconciliation between “pro” and “contra”? If those who decry ecumenism on the basis of one particular definition of it would be willing to see it rather as many others do — namely as meaning the encounter of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, where possible and appropriate, through dialogue, cooperative relief efforts, and even through periodic shared (non-sacramental) prayers — might they then see “ecumenism” as unheretical? Surely this would be a start in healing an ever-growing rift within our Church’s life.

Unfortunately, while defining our terms carefully is always useful, it does not, in this case, address all the disagreements between us. For there are those who believe that they are most faithful to the canons, councils and Fathers of the Church in spurning any and all relations with non-Orthodox, branch theory or no branch theory. There are those who believe that all non-Orthodox are in the patristic category of “heretics” (a category which in fact has no fully consistent definition in Church history) and dwell in an undifferentiated state of gracelessness. The canons which forbid “prayer with the heretics,” therefore, are interpreted as referring not to the Gnostics or Manichaeans, but to Roman Catholics and Protestants, and therefore if an Orthodox so much as recites the Lord’s Prayer with a Lutheran he is seen to have disobeyed the canons. Inspired by the Fathers at their most polemical and largely forgetting them at their most irenic and inclusive, treating the Church’s canons in a monolithic and homogeneous way, seeing them not as living tradition but as a dead letter, some Orthodox do not acknowledge grace and salvation outside the canonical borders of the Orthodox Church. To the adherents of such views, ecumenism by anyone’s definition is heresy.

Two starting points

Aside from the misunderstandings about what the word “ecumenism” actually means and about what the World Council of Churches actually is, the disagreement between pro- and anti-ecumenism rests in the difference between two approaches, or starting points, with regard to the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. One place to start is the exclusiveness of the Orthodox Church. Here one defines the Church and its life by what it is not and looks at the other with suspicion, noting almost exclusively what is wrong in his faith and practice. The other starting point is to consider the inclusiveness of the Orthodox Church. It is the True Church, and here one rejoices in all truth found outside its canonical fold. Here one looks at the other to see what is right and true in another’s belief despite his formation in a confession which is not fully orthodox, and seeks also to work constructively on what is untrue there.

The difference also comes down to how one perceives the limits of the Church, and here Fr. Georges Florovsky’s article, “The Limits of the Church” (Church Quarterly Review, Oct. 1933), is as timely as ever. Florovsky acknowledges both a strictness to the Church’s boundaries as well as a certain permeability, notably in his recognizing the existence of truth and sacramental reality outside those boundaries, by the grace of God. Anti-ecumenical literature tends to treat the Orthodox Church in an all-or-nothing way. One is either in it or out of it. Being out of it means no access to the saving sacramental grace. Being in it means responsibility for guarding intact the untainted treasure we are handed down, keeping it untainted from soiled hands. To cite again from the recent Moskva article:

…the gracious core of the Russian church is being eaten away (alas, with the support of some of the bishops) by two destructive diseases, two insidious heresies: renovationism and ecumenism. They, of course, have not yet fully penetrated the church organism, but if we do not take urgent precautions and energetic measures of collective prevention, in time terrible destruction and disorders, schisms and troubles, await the church’s life.

Orthodox ecumenism

Once again, if one equates “ecumenism” with the branch theory, then “Orthodox ecumenism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. To strive for an “ecumenical world church” under the WCC composed of all the different “branches” as they exist today is obviously not Orthodox. Is there no option lying between the untenable “Ecumenical World Church of Many Branches” idea and an equally untenable option of complete abstention from Orthodox conversation and collaboration with non-Orthodox? Must one choose between sheer relativism and a xenophobic “island mentality”? Finding this middle ground is surely an Orthodox pursuit, if not simply common sense. The Orthodox have always talked with the non-Orthodox; the Fathers engaged in constructive dialogue concerning matters of faith and Church order. Even St. Mark of Ephesus, often raised up as a hero of the anti-ecumenical cause for his refusal to consent to the proposals of the Council of Florence-Ferrara, was present at that council and fully engaged in its proceedings. In this way he was able to provide an invaluable witness there, rejecting, as must we all, any union which relied on unrealistic principles. This too was the approach of the most significant Orthodox witnesses in modern ecumenism, such as Frs. Florovsky, Meyendorff and Romanides, to mention only a few, who not only participated in dialog but also sat on the governing bodies of the WCC (Romanides is currently on its Central Committee). These are some examples of “Orthodox ecumenism,” something we need to ponder further.

Orthodox ecumenism rests on the understanding of the Orthodox Church as the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. From this belief, Orthodox ecumenism is acutely aware of the tragedy of the divisions within Christendom, some of which are the result of political and cultural factors, some the result of real doctrinal differences. It sees the encounter with the non-Orthodox as an opportunity to witness to Orthodox truth, and perhaps also learn something from aspects of the life of the non-Orthodox. Orthodox ecumenism does not limit the activity of the Holy Spirit to the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church, and it rejoices in seeing anything that is true, that is of Christ, wherever it is to be found. It rejoices in the work of the Holy Spirit everywhere, by no means accepting everything uncritically or ignoring differences, but acknowledging them honestly.

In speaking this way of “Orthodox ecumenism,” clearly I am trying to portray “the Orthodox ecumenist,” or more accurately, the ideal to which an “Orthodox ecumenist” strives in the face of the real difficulties and serious problems of today’s ecumenical endeavor. The realities of the contemporary ecumenical movement are such that Orthodox find themselves in a minority and often have difficulty in being heard.

Particularly in the WCC but also in regional ecumenical organizations, the majority is generally made up of people who have spent their entire lives as Protestants, and come from generations of Protestantism. Orthodox witness in the ecumenical movement is under a strain, one that is added to by the all-too-visible internal squabbles within Orthodoxy which mar the effectiveness of our contribution.

As suggested above, the World Council of Churches has stated officially again and again, from its very inception as a council, that it is not and never should become a church, a “super church” or “The World Church.”

Yet it is true that many Protestants do indeed adhere to the “branch” theory and some even have ecclesiastical aspirations for the WCC. This is one good reason why the Orthodox need to be present, constantly to remind people of the commitment not to impose the branch ecclesiology on the member churches of the WCC, or onto the Council itself. Once again, however, the opportunity for constructive, prophetic criticism of the WCC and modern ecumenism is generally lost in the hysteria that infects so much anti-ecumenical writing.

It is a sobering fact that this literature is gaining converts and has an effect on the life of the Orthodox Church, particularly some jurisdictions. The Church of Georgia is the most dramatic example, in its withdrawal from the WCC and the CEC. The action of that church will surely result in a redoubled effort on the part of the authors of anti-ecumenical texts to sway Orthodox people and churches into increasing isolation. How we all respond to such pressures will be a critical factor in the life of the Orthodox Church in the approaching decades.

[from In Communion issue 9 / July 1997 / 1997 by Peter Bouteneff]

Peter Bouteneff is Executive Secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He received a degree in music from the New England Conservatory in Boston. Following two years in Japan where he taught English and served in the Osaka Orthodox parish, he traveled through Asia and visited monastic communities in Greece. He received a master of divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and a doctor of philosophy degree from Oxford University under the direction of Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. He is editor of Daily Readings in Orthodox Spirituality (Templegate, Springfield, IL).

Note: Read also responses published in the October 1997 In Communion. Essay posted July 14, 1997, author note corrected August 11, 1997, links updated October 1, 1997