The Church, the Seminary and the Ecumenical Movement

by Fr. Thomas Hopko

Since there is so much confusion about ecumenism, and so much misinformation and misunderstanding, not to say slander and falsehood, I want to make five simple points about this subject for our seminary friends and supporters.

1. All Orthodox Churches have participated in the ecumenical movement since it began at the beginning of this century. The Patriarchate of Constantinople took the lead in the early decades to encourage Christians to meet to discuss their differences and to stop fighting with each other.

Participation in the movement was always difficult and painful, but such great and holy people like St. Tikhon the Confessor of Moscow, St. Philaret of Moscow, St. Nikolai (Velimirovic) of Zica and hosts of other dedicated Orthodox bishops, priests, monks and laypeople have participated.

2. The purpose of the ecumenical movement is basically two-fold. The first goal is to identify doctrinal and liturgical differences among those who claim Christ as Lord, to clarify disagreements, and to work to overcome, if possible, errors and divisions.

The second purpose is to cooperate in doing good works where such cooperation for the good of human beings such as feeding the hungry, aiding the poor, settling refugees is possible and desirable. In fact, the suffering Orthodox of this century have been greatly aided in many ways by ecumenical philanthropy.

3. Participation in the ecumenical movement is done officially by churches, not by schools or individuals. There can be ecumenical activities among people on various levels. The professors and students of St. Vladimir’s Seminar y participate in formal ecumenical activities because they are assigned to do so by bishops who are responsible for this work. They participate in other ways, mostly through theological discussions and debates, as part of their theological and spiritual mission.

4. Never has an Orthodox Christian, and certainly not anyone from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, participated in the sacraments of a non-Orthodox service, nor given sacraments to non-Orthodox people.

Nor has an Orthodox Christian ever denied that the Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ, or failed to state clearly that the Orthodox considers other Christian churches to be in some ways defective, incomplete and in error.

Ecumenical activity in no way means that participants must recognize each other as real “churches,” or say that all churches are the same, or embrace some sort of “branch theory” in which the Orthodox are considered to be but one “branch” of the full, true Church. If this were so, then “ecumenism” would indeed be a “heresy.” But it is not. Those who say that it is are either ignorant or mendacious.

5. Following our fathers in the faith and our present church leaders, members of St. Vladimir’s Seminary will continue to participate responsibly in ecumenical activity when asked to do so. We may question many things that are done. And we may make some mistakes ourselves, not being perfect.

But until the Church herself decides that ecumenical activity is contrary to God, Christ, the Gospel and the Church, we will continue to participate as well as we can. We pray to the Lord to guide our way and protect our work, giving us the wisdom and strength to speak and to act according to His holy will.

[published in Saint Vladimir Seminary News, Pascha 1998]

Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Scarsdale, N,Y., and auhor of many books and essays.

posted April 24, 1998