Monday, November 07, 2005

On Ecumenism

"Ecumenism" is a word that is often bandied about in Orthodox discussions, and particularly those on the internet. It seems to me that the same word is used to describe two different types of activities; and therein may be a part of the problem, as one form of "ecumenism" is not Orthodox; while the other, in my opinion, is certainly Orthodox. Let me unpack this a little bit. The form of ecumenism, which embraces the so-called "branch theory" of Christianity, or which might otherwise hold that all those denominations that profess the name of Christ are essentially equally valid paths to salvation – is not consistent with Orthodox teaching and belief. (Beyond this threshold is the "ecumenism" that would hold that all forms of religious belief -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, etc., etc, etc. -- are essentially equally valid paths. If the former isn't Orthodox, this form is even less consistent with Orthodoxy!)

As a way of distinguishing somewhat what is acceptable from what is not vis-à-vis ecumenism, we might say that "ecumenical relations" are permissible, where "ecumenism" (in the form described above) is not permissible. As such, it is possible for us, as Orthodox Christians, to be engaged in contacts with other Christian groups, in order to bear witness to them of the Orthodox Church and faith. We can also share in activities that do not require us to make a statement about the validity or non-validity of the beliefs and teachings of these other groups. For example, there is not, to my knowledge, any barrier to a group of churches, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, coming together to operate a program to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or to offer alternatives to abortion, or otherwise address a need or confront an evil in the world around us. We do not, and cannot, pray together with those who do not believe as we do; but if we withdraw from their presence completely, we cannot tell them (in word and in deed) about the great treasure that is to be found in the Orthodox Church and faith. The "walling off" is certainly easier to achieve, and involves far less risk of accidentally "crossing the line"; but is that really the form of witness we are called to perform in the world? I don't think so.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the question of the World Council of Churches. Can Orthodox bodies participate therein? When it comes to worship, I'd say, no -- and increasingly, this is the stance being adopted by the Orthodox at the WCC. When it comes to being a signatory to statements that place all beliefs on a common plane, I'd say, no -- and again, the Orthodox members are saying that they must be allowed to make their statements without being obliged to support teachings contrary to our beliefs. I think this is appropriate; and not a surreptitious form of entry into "world Orthodoxy" or into "ecumenism" in its unacceptable form.

What about the position of the Moscow Patriarchate? As I read the document from the Sobor in 2000, entitled "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions," it seems to me that the Church of the MP has defined appropriate and inappropriate activities as described at the start of this article. That is to say, those who accuse the Moscow Patriarchate of being participants in “ecumenism” are ignoring what that Church has said about the issue. Let me quote some relevant parts of the “Basic Principles”:

2.3. Nevertheless, while recognizing the need to restore our broken Christian unity, the Orthodox Church asserts that genuine unity is possible only in the bosom of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. All other "models" of unity seem to us to be unacceptable.

2.6. Orthodoxy cannot accept that Christian divisions are caused by the inevitable imperfections of Christian history and that they exist only on the historical surface and can be healed or overcome by compromises between denominations.

2.7. The Orthodox Church cannot recognize "the equality of the denominations". Those who have fallen away from the Church cannot re-unite with her in their present state. The existing dogmatic differences should be overcome, not simply bypassed, and this means that the way to unity lies through repentance, conversion and renewal.

2.9. The Orthodox Church also rejects the assumption that the unity of Christendom can only be restored through common Christian service to the world. Christian unity cannot be restored through agreement on earthly matters, in which case Christians would be united in what is secondary but still differ in what is fundamental.

3.1. The Orthodox Church is the guardian of the Tradition and the grace-filled gifts of the Early Church. Her primary task, therefore, in her relations with non-Orthodox confessions is to bear continuous and persistent witness which will lead to the truth expressed in this Tradition becoming understandable and acceptable.

4.3. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church conduct dialogues with non-Orthodox confessions on the basis of faithfulness to the apostolic and patristic Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the teaching of the Ecumenical and Local Councils. Any dogmatic concessions or compromises in the faith are excluded.

5.2. With regard to her membership in various Christian organizations, she adheres to the following criteria. The Russian Orthodox Church cannot participate in international, regional or national Christian organizations in which (a) the constitution or rules require the renunciation of the doctrine or traditions of the Orthodox Church; (b) the Orthodox Church has no opportunity to bear witness to herself as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; (c) the decision-making process does not take into account the ecclesiological consciousness of the Orthodox Church; and (d) the rules and procedures make a "majority opinion" obligatory upon the members.

The ROCOR Anathema of 1983

The "ROCOR Anathema of 1983," which condemns ecumenism, reads (in full) as follows:

To those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ's Church is divided into so-called "branches" which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all "branches" or sects or denominations, and even religions will be united into one body; and who do not distinguish the Priesthood and Mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and Eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore, to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or who advocate, disseminate, or defend their heresy of ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, Anathema!

Does the Church of Russia-MP teach or proclaim the branch theory? As far as I know, it does not; and so the Anathema of 1983 does not apply. If someone will say that the MP does teach the branch theory, please cite your sources.

Does the Church of Russia-MP teach or proclaim that the Priesthood and Mysteries are found in non-Orthodox Churches, or that the baptisms and eucharistic offerings of non-Orthodox Churches are effective for salvation? As far as I know, it does not; and so the Anathema of 1983 does not apply. If someone will say that the MP does teach that the mysteries of the non-Orthodox are grace-filled, please cite your sources.

Does the Church of Russia-MP knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or those who advocate, disseminate, or defend their heresy of ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians? The applicability of the Anathema of 1983 in this case will hinge upon the meaning of the word "communion." It is not enough to say simply that the MP presence in the World Council of Churches equals "communion" and that the Anathema thus applies. Participation in joint worship services would be problematic, but not still does not necessarily constitute "communion" as in the Anathema. As for the "official position" of the Church of Russia-MP on this question, the quotations from the “Basic Doctrines” statement of 2000 cited above address this question.

This is not to say that the MP did not, in the past, participate in the ecumenical movement in a way that would cause it to have run afoul of the Anathema of 1983. There is no doubt that the MP, in international meetings, would claim that there was no persecution of the Church or the faithful under the Communists; and similarly adopted positions that were anti-Western, advancing the “peace and freedom” positions that were also the basis for elements of the foreign policy of the secular government of the USSR. There are also people who maintain that the churches of the MP gave the holy Mysteries to non-Orthodox persons, and, in particular, to Roman Catholics (although substantiation of these reports, while requested, has not, at this time, been found or provided in response to these requests). However, it is not unreasonable to say that allowances can, even must, be made for actions and statements that took place during the time that the Church was subject to control by the Communist government, and was not free to oppose the measures “required” of her during the time of her captivity. A more telling question would be to ask whether these positions and practices have continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A fair examination of history over the past fourteen years will lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the MP has abandoned all of these positions and activities.

Bottom line: By my analysis, the Anathema of 1983 does not apply to the Church of Russia-MP.