Orthodox Ecumenism? a forum of letters

Peter Bouteneff’s essay in the last issue — “Orthodox Ecumenism: A Contradiction in Terms?” — stimulated a spirited exchange on the OPF List, our discussion forum for OPF members who keep in touch with other via modem. (If you want to join the OPF List, send a note by e-mail to Mark Pearson.) Here are some extracts. Peter Bouteneff had hoped to add a response but his travels in recent weeks, first to Lebanon, now to Zimbabwe, have not given him enough time. We hope to hear from him in the next issue. (There were two errors made in identifying him in the last issue. He is executive secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University.)

I agree that it is essential for Orthodox ecumenists to present their side of the argument, but I feel they must do more than simply reiterate the explanation already given by Florovsky half a century ago. That explanation, as beautifully presented in Bouteneff’s essay, is to be sure sound, Orthodox, and impeccable, but it is not with Florovsky’s theory that the anti-ecumenists take issue.

Indeed, most of them agree that an Orthodox witness and “inter-religious” contacts are essential. But there are two problems: first, the history of 20th Century Orthodox ecumenism in practice, especially before the WCC era, is disturbing; second, it is far from clear what the Orthodox witness on the Council has actually accomplished. An apologist for Orthodox ecumenism needs to address these issues.

It is significant that the Russian nationalist quoted in the article couples ecumenism with renovationism. While the liturgical renewal the nationalist author has in mind is probably something which most OPF members would support — vernacular language, lay participation, etc. — his opposition is by no means irrational. St. Tikhon of Moscow himself observed that the Renovationist schismatic churches set up by the Bolsheviks poisoned ecclesiastical reforms by the act of endorsing them. Hence, anyone who supports such measures must also deal with the unfortunate legacy of Renovationism.

In the same way, early 20th century Orthodox leaders who imposed the Gregorian calendar created a legacy of bitterness which underlies anti-ecumenist stridency today. Many of these leaders are often quoted, perhaps out of context, as having apparently endorsed the branch theory; the methods they employed to enforce their policies were heavy-handed enough that Old Calendarist synaxaria can list confessors and even martyrs “for the Orthodox calendar.”

Moreover, during the decades following, several hierarchs (probably because of unendurable pressure from Communist or Islamic forces) made statements which are at best ambiguous and which can certainly be construed as suggesting the equivalence of various religions. It is this background primarily against which anti-ecumenist alarm must be viewed. Orthodox ecumenist writers, in my opinion, should devote much attention to elucidating or repudiating such statements, and should apologize for the past treatment, indeed unfortunately the present treatment, of dissenters.

Even if all Orthodox ecumenical involvement is in the spirit of Bouteneff’s essay, there remains a serious question: what has it achieved? Achievement moreover should be defined here in terms the anti-ecumenists accept. The goal of dialogue with non-Orthodox must ultimately be their conversion; while we do not know the edge of the Church, and while all that is good and true is Orthodox, and while all who are not against Christ are for Him, still it would better if all churches and indeed all religions were united in Truth to the Truth fully and openly.

Now, has the evangelical and apostolic witness of the Orthodox at the WCC done this? I am aware of all sorts of sects and groups which have embraced (Caledonian or non-Caledonian, canonical or non-canonical) “Orthodoxy” in the 20th Century: the Order of mans; parts of the Old Catholic Church, of the Campus Crusade for Christ, of the Marcus Garvey and Rastafarian movements; dissident Anglican churches; various Protestant congregations; even, I understand, a Messianic Jewish temple. Did any of these come in because of Orthodoxy’s witness at the WCC? If not, is Orthodoxy at least slowly infusing the fragrance of divine theology into the Protestant mainstream because of Orthodox presence in the ecumenical movement? These are questions for the defender of ecumenism who is not “preaching to the converted”!

Of course, the ecumenical movement might also in principle lead to the discovery of “lost brethren”; perhaps some world religions really are Orthodox Christianity under another name, and reunion requires no “conversion” for their members. This seems to be what most mainstream Eastern Orthodox theologians are saying about the Oriental Orthodox, and surely we all may rejoice if (as I myself also believe) this turns out to be the case.

However, here again Orthodox ecumenists are doing rather a poor job of explaining their “discoveries.” Surely very serious questions about the authority of Councils, the identity of saints, and the meaning of history must be taken into account as well as the evidently now nonexistent disagreement over Christology. It is also a little hard for some to understand how philosophers of Alexandria and Antioch could have misunderstood, as we are assured, the subtleties of the Greek language. However the official statements about the dialogue which are circulated to the public do not (so far as I know) go into these questions; until they are answered, the skepticism of the Athonites is not only understandable but appropriate.

In summary, I think that Bouteneff’s article does not so much represent the position of Orthodox ecumenism as opposed to anti-ecumenist fanaticism as it does the common position shared by ecumenist and rational anti-ecumenist alike. It is incumbent upon canonical Orthodox leaders, if they truly support this common position, to be sure their words and actions alike accord with it.

Norman (Dionysios) Redington, Lubbock, TX

Most of those Orthodox who call ecumenical activity heresy do believe that by accepting membership in these bodies we are accepting the branch theory. Those who do any reading at all know that the foundational documents of these bodies explicitly refute this notion. The blanket accusation of heresy against Orthodox who favor involvement in the movement is clearly unwarranted and inflammatory.

However, the article was lacking in some of the substantive reasons why Orthodox should reevaluate their membership. Some of these are: seemingly less and less common theological ground; downplay of theology for social witness; inevitable attribution of WCC positions to all the members, including the Orthodox, even when the Orthodox object; a lack of understanding and respect for Orthodox scruples about things like sharing sacraments and mutual recognition; a confusion within the Orthodox world about the goals and meaning of participation.

I have come to believe that our full membership in the WCC is counterproductive at this point, and that we should get out. This does not mean that we should abandon contacts with other Christians. I think the Roman Catholic Church probably had the best idea by having observer status and getting involved where it wanted, without giving the impression of giving up its self-image as the church.

Fr. Rade Merick / Wintersville, OH

I am not convinced of the need for reaching an understanding between Christians beyond mutual love and respect. The theological differences between us will not be solved through meetings. There is no point in trying to achieve one Church because there is only one Church. I do not believe that our divisions will be overcome except through prayer. I think that when we pray for the uniting of the churches, it may not mean an earthly uniting of all the different churches but a heavenly one, though I still do not quite understand this petition from the Great Litany. We can only pray that the Holy Spirit will change our hearts; it should not be our focus to convince other people of the truth of Orthodoxy.

My experience is that, between different Christian communities, there is a big difference even in understanding the world around us. Solutions for world problems will therefore also be different. The main thing for me is that I am not here to change things and least of all that I am here to make society a better place, because that is simply impossible. I believe I should help everyone I can help, that I should pray for all people, but the main thing is I need to do is work on my salvation. I need to acquire the Holy Spirit and I hope and pray that my love for people and God, the love I receive from God in the first place will grow on this way. Out of this love grows prayer and I believe prayer is the only true thing that really helps and transforms other people. “Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved,” says St. Seraphim.

Maria Armstrong / Portland, Oregon

It’s a sad thing that has happened to ecumenism. From giants like Bonhoeffer who died for the practical application of his faith to the current batch of neo-pagans who run the institutions that once tried to incarnate his vision and those like him.

There was much to commend itself in the ecumenical movement in 1950, when the WCC was explicitly Trinitarian and a defender of basic morality. As its membership has come to be increasingly theologically and morally wishy-washy, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify participation. We have more in common with orthodox Jews and Moslems in many ways than with the heads of many of the denominations in the WCC. At least, we can concur that there is one God, that the kind of pagan ceremonies that are appearing with increasing frequency at the WCC are an offense to God, and that there are certain given rules of sexual behavior.

The choice is not encounter or lack of encounter, but who we will encounter. We can choose to talk to conservative Roman Catholics and Protestants or to liberal ones. We do not have the option of both. By being in the WCC, we ensure that conservative Roman Catholics and Protestants will not listen to us. That is the tragedy of our participation, for they are the most likely to join us.

In short, we must continue to engage others. That ought not be in question. The question is how, and the WCC seems to be a very poor place to do this.

Anything that helps others to understand Orthodoxy properly and preferably to come toward it is to be applauded.

Unfortunately, we can’t even get our own house in order — witness the recent taking of the mission center from SCOBA back to the Greek Archdiocese, a good way to cut off support from non-Greeks. That’s one thing I find most appalling. Those who talk most openly about ecumenism are often those who do the most harm to relations within the Orthodox family. It would be easier to take them seriously if they were less ethnocentric and more caring toward their other Orthodox brethren.

Daniel Lieuwen / Plainfield, NJ

An Orthodox withdrawal from the WCC need not affect dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, which has never been a member of the WCC, or even evangelical Protestant denominations, most of which will have nothing to do with the WCC. Perhaps the best future for ecumenicity would be to leave behind the ineffectual model of the WCC (in its current form) and move on toward a deeper dialogue and shared service with those who still hold to something recognizable as the gospel of Christ. But shouldn’t an even higher priority be intra-Orthodox unity?

Russ Reeves / Iowa City, IO

The WCC World Assembly two years ago destroyed any illusions which Orthodox Christians may have held prior to that point. Those worship services were clearly pagan. The first Christian martyrs went faithfully, even joyfully, to their death for refusing to offer incense to the gods of Roma. Yet, in Canberra, Orthodox Christian laity and clergy walked without complaint through the “purifying smoke” of incense offered by a Korean Protestant to appease “ancestral spirits.”

It was this which caused the backlash in Georgian monasteries, but this event is unmentioned in this article.

I suggest that we reserve the term “ecumenical” for inter-Orthodox church relations. But when the Patriarch of Constantinople visits the Roman Catholic Pope, that may be described as an “inter-Christian” event.

Fr. James Silver / Lodi, NJ

We in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship are committed in a special way to “seek peace, and pursue it.” One of our members from Russia, Karina Cherniak, rightly commented that if we do not have peace in our own hearts first, we will not be able to find it with others.

There are times for silence and contemplation — surely there should be a significant part of each day set aside for that, our primary Orthodox vocation, and for our beloved monastics, contemplation is action, and whatever good we may do “in the world” is also the fruit of their prayers. But we must follow our own calling as God reveals it in time to each of us, “in honor preferring one another.”

WCC funds have helped raise many Orthodox churches around the world, especially of late in the helplessly-impoverished Eastern European countries. They have certainly made a positive difference in Albania.

I am grateful that a well-grounded and articulate Orthodox person such as Peter Bouteneff represents us to the WCC, and suggest that prayer and fasting be undertaken by all of us with regard to the future of Orthodox participation in that group, and in all other ecumenical endeavors.

Sue Talley / New York City

Note: Read also Peter Bouteneff’s response to the letters.

Reprinted from the October 1997 issue of In Communion