Orthodox Ecumenism: Speaking to the responses

by Peter Bouteneff

The editor has asked me to reflect further on points made in my essay on Orthodox ecumenism in the July 1997 issue of In Communion (also reprinted in Sourozh), in particular on the basis of responses from readers, both published and unpublished. The article elicited a sizeable number of letters. I hope that the remarks below will prove useful in furthering the discussion.

My main objective in writing on these issues so far has been to assist in the reflection that is taking place concerning Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. It is clear to me that the first step within such a reflection is to draw a sharp line between insubstantial criticisms brought against Orthodox ecumenical involvement and those concerns which are real and worth addressing — indeed worth addressing in a much more thorough and responsible way than is now being done in our local Orthodox churches. To this end, I focused in large part on trends in some of the anti-ecumenical literature and anti-ecumenical anathemas, and urged greater precision in the use of the word “ecumenism.”

As it stands now, many people define ecumenism as the heretical ecclesiology which holds that the “World Church” consists in a combination of all of the existing Christian bodies today, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. The problem arises when the same people go on to call an Orthodox person, organization or church “ecumenist,” for in so doing they are by their own definition labeling them as adherents of a heretical ecclesiology. That is a very serious accusation, and in nearly every case it is false.

It needs continually to be made clear that for an Orthodox Church to be a member of an ecumenical institution such as the World Council of Churches, or for an Orthodox Christian to participate in ecumenical dialogues, does not oblige him or her to take a heretical view of the Church.

Indeed, most Orthodox use the term “ecumenism” to refer simply to inter-Christian dialogue and cooperation, and if they come out in support of “ecumenism” they mean something very different than “ecumenism” as defined by its detractors. A well-informed and constructive participation in ecumenical forums is a part of the Orthodox mission responsibility, and this is by no means a novel view: it has been evident since the inception of the modern ecumenical movement in the early decades of this century. Understood in this way, Orthodox ecumenism is certainly not “a contradiction in terms.” It was heartening to see that virtually all the responses to my article reflected agreement with this point.

Secondly, while I did not go into the specific problems inherent in the contemporary manifestations of the ecumenical movement, or the inevitable shortcomings of Orthodox participants (who are fallen human persons), I did want to indicate that problems exist. To name one: ecumenical encounters tend to be based upon Western, most often Protestant, concepts and within Western, chiefly Protestant, institutions. For these reasons, as well as because of apathies and inconsistencies within the Orthodox churches, the Orthodox are a minority voice.

A vital implication of this is that even as the Orthodox rightly continue to work towards better representation in ecumenical meetings and forums, we also have to re-examine our commitment to ecumenism through a serious appraisal of how our vision of the Church can work within today’s ecumenical realities and today’s ecumenical forums. We have reached the point where we need either to improve the quality of our participation so that it becomes truly prophetic, or we must indeed consider shifting our participation in some forums in the direction of the “observer status” now held by the Roman Catholic Church.

As we engage assessing our participation, however, there are several pitfalls which need to be avoided. One mistake is to treat ecumenism generally, and the WCC in specific, as a monolithic and undifferentiated phenomenon. As opponents of any movement or trend are apt to do, opponents of “ecumenism” often isolate and combine certain unrepresentative events and statements to paint a cataclysmic portrait of the WCC or of what they call ecumenism.

For example, two events which occurred at the WCC’s last General Assembly at Canberra in 1991 have come in the minds of some people to represent everything that the WCC stands for. One was the opening worship service of that Assembly, where Assembly participants walked through incense to enter the place of worship, and where they saw Aboriginal members of the Anglican Church in their traditional scanty dress, dancing and playing traditional instruments on the stage. (A separate essay could be written about both the problems and the non-problems of this event.) The other episode was a presentation at a plenary session of the Assembly, where a Korean feminist theologian invoked the spirits of “earth, air, water and sea creatures.”

These happenings do indeed require measures of explanation and/or protest — and latter event in particular has justly received harsh criticism from the Orthodox participants of the Assembly, as documented by the minutes. But they have been telescoped in such a way as to suggest that this kind of thing is all the WCC ever does. Symptomatic of this distortion is the fact, for instance, that in one response letter (cf. In Communion, Oct. 1997, p. 31) the two events are conflated into one, even though they in fact occurred in separate settings on two separate days, and in another letter (p. 30) we read that the ecumenical institutions are run by “neo-Pagans.”

Another mistake is to judge the events and statements emanating from the ecumenical movement or from WCC officials as if they had authority, whether doctrinal or ecclesiastical, over the Orthodox Church or over anybody. If it were true that anything written in a WCC message or anything said by a WCC official had binding authority on the member churches then the Orthodox would have withdrawn long ago or never would have joined. Indeed, much is said and done in the WCC that runs counter to Orthodox doctrine and ethos.

As Patriarch Bartholomeos has recently stated, “There is no doubt that things occur in the WCC that the Orthodox Churches disagree with. But we must be there to correct these mistakes.” Being a minority voice in the institutional ecumenical movement, and furthermore as a voice fragmented by our own internal problems, Orthodox participants surely find this task of “correction” all the more arduous. And here two things need to be admitted: that not all the necessary corrections are always made, and that Orthodox “corrections” are sometimes made in a way which, to Westerners at least, seems ill-advised and clumsy. But it is better that we are there at all. As the French say, “Les absents ont toujours tort” — the absent are always proved wrong.

A further mistake within Orthodox discussion on the ecumenical question is to approach statements and texts produced through ecumenical processes with unreasonable expectations. Very often people expect everything coming from an inter-Christian forum to sound as if it emanated from an Orthodox synod or an Orthodox dogmatics text.

A certain amount of realism is necessary when considering, for one, that the documents emerging from ecumenical encounters are the product of a great variety of processes, and they have an equally great variety of intended uses. So here, as with all texts, the reader is responsible for applying the appropriate mode of interpretation: is this a doctrinal statement, a policy document for my church or a proposal for discussion? Is this a speech by one individual, the product of a meeting of ten people, or the process of ten years of conferences and church responses?

In addition to asking such questions, it must be borne in mind that the persons in dialogue with the Orthodox have generally come from generations of Protestantism, Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, and whether or not their views are mistaken on a given subject, they are often as convinced of them as we are convinced of ours. These views are not apt to change quickly. To take an example, in reading a document such as Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, a text produced by the Faith and Order Commission in 1982, or Confessing the One Faith, a book which studies the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, one will find portions that are problematic or unOrthodox; but one must also take heart in the remarkable degree of Orthodox influence. If one only knows how weak a doctrine of the Eucharist is held in some Protestant circles, it becomes clear that much of the BEM text constitutes for them a great challenge, indeed a challenge from Orthodoxy. The BEM text has encouraged a liturgical and eucharistic revival in many Protestant quarters.

The realism called for above does not exonerate us from the responsibility of reviewing ecumenical texts with great care and with the intent of correcting them in a constructive fashion. (Would that there were more Orthodox who were ready and willing for this task!) Our vision of Church unity rests on the criteria of the Orthodox Church, a eucharistic understanding of unity which is based on unity in faith — the apostolic, patristic, Orthodox faith. The WCC is, for us, a council of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian bodies (we use the term “churches” in a dictionary sense rather than a dogmatic sense), which encounter each other in dialogue and cooperative efforts based on a certain, though incomplete, agreement in Christian belief and practice.

Now it is quite true that the vision of many Protestants and Anglicans differs significantly: for these, the “Universal Church” consists in something like a combination of the various Christian traditions, and the WCC, insofar as it represents these traditions, can be seen as something of a model or provisional structure for this “Church.” This false ecclesiological vision, insofar as it does undergird the theology of many participants in the ecumenical encounter, is liable to inform certain of the WCC’s statements or portions thereof, particularly when these have not been attentively reviewed by a larger constituency. And thus, while the commitment not to impose on one another any view of the Church, “branch” or otherwise, or any ecclesial character to the WCC, is firmly in place in the past and present policy documents, a constructive attentiveness to the witting or unwitting violations of that commitment is entirely appropriate.

Many aspects of the ecumenical realism I am trying to describe can be found in the writings of Fr. John Meyendorff. His essays in Witness to the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987) testify to his unparalleled understanding of Orthodox Church history and doctrine, as well as his experiences, both good and bad, as an active participant in the ecumenical movement. While citing honestly the problems of the ecumenical endeavor, including the decay in its quality which is quite rightly cited by several OPF respondents, and while clearly delineating between “true” and “false” ecumenism, he notes that “the awareness that ‘wrong’ ecumenism is indeed heresy should not lead us to forget the mission of our Church to the world, to the people around us, to those who sincerely seek the truth, for, as we forget this mission, we cease to be truly ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ and become nothing but an introverted sect” (pp. 43-44).

He writes, too, that “the self-proclaimed defenders of Orthodoxy who try to suggest that the Orthodox participation in the WCC implies the adoption of non-Orthodox views on Church unity and Christian truth are deceiving themselves and those who listen to them” (pp. 35-36).

Concerning another hot issue, Fr. Meyendorff writes that “if sacramental intercommunion remains, of course, excluded for Orthodox as long as true union in faith is not achieved, other forms of prayer with the non-Orthodox are certainly possible, for the canons which forbid ‘prayer with heretics’ had in view conscious apostates from the Church and not sincere Christians who never personally left it” (p. 46).

All this said, I return to the point that the ecumenical movement is problematic on many levels, and we Orthodox need to be discussing the precise nature and character of our involvement at all strata of church life. My purpose in the “Orthodox Ecumenism” essay and in this postscript has not been to account for all the problems and insufficiencies, nor to act as a spokesman for the WCC or any ecumenical institution, nor indeed to attack any particular group holding anti-ecumenical opinions, but to facilitate that discussion, working towards disentangling the real issues from among the half-real and the unreal.

There is a lot of static on the radio which needs to be tuned out so that the true problems — and the true opportunities — of today’s ecumenical movement can be realized.

Peter Bouteneff is Executive Secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He has a master of divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and a doctor of philosophy degree from Oxford University.

posted: January 27, 1998 / as published in the Theophany 1998 issue of In Communion