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March 18, 2017

A Greek Orthodox View of Ecumenism (2 of 2)

...continued from part one.

A Greek Orthodox View of Ecumenism (Part Two)

By Rev. John S. Romanides

(Orthodox Observer, December 1964)

In contrast to these developments in the West, the Churches of the East were not confronted with the problems of a feudal society, since the East Roman Empire continued to exist for almost a thousand years after the Western half of the Empire collapsed. Even within the areas conquered by Islam the basic administration of Church affairs remained that were established during Roman times. Whereas the emperor showed effective concern in the election of the bishops of the capital cities, he did not interfere in the election of the bishops of the provinces, and there were no feudal lords to interfere either. The several autocephalous and autonomous Churches of the East continued to administer their own ecclesiastical areas by means of local synods of all the bishops of each respective grouping. Apart from certain of the Slavic Churches the more or less democratic character of Church administration continued, and there was nothing like the Church-State crisis which shook the foundations of medieval Western society. The Churches of the East Roman Empire could not even evolve theories, let alone dogmas, concerning centralized Church administration, since the very numerous Churches of apostolic origin were careful to preserve their ancient customs and privileges. One is reminded of the insistence of the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 that the Churches of the Island of Cyprus had been independently self-governed or autocephalous since ancient times. Then there is the peculiar phenomenon of St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai, which is a self-governing autocephalous Church headed by an Archbishop elected by the monks and enjoying a status equal to the other autocephalous Churches and higher than the autonomous Churches.

Dogmatically and sacramentally, Orthodox unity has remained that of the pre-Constantinian period of Church history. The post-Constantinian ecclesiastico-political synthesis was built into the canon law of the Church, but never elevated to the status of dogma. Dogmatically and sacramentally all bishops are equal. However, the bishop of the capital of the Empire and the bishops of the chief cities in the Roman dioceses and provinces had a primacy of honor as first among equals and were the presiding bishops of the local governing synods. With the establishment of New Rome or Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire, the Second and Fourth Ecumenical Councils recognized its bishop as having an equal primacy with the bishops of Old Rome. According to the canon law of the ancient Ecumenical Councils both primacies of Old and New Romes are founded upon the political fact that these cities are capitals of the Empire and not because of divine right. In order to understand Eastern theory and practice one must bear in mind within the Oriental Diocese of the Roman Empire not only the bishop of the capital city of Antioch, but even the bishop of Caesarea, the provincial capital of Palestine, had primacy over the bishop of Jerusalem. It was only in 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council that the bishop of Jerusalem was made a Patriarch and given the Fifth place of honor after Old Rome, New Rome (Constantinople), Alexandria and Antioch. It is important to remember that this external organization of the Churches into autocephalous and autonomous groupings was not based on the principle of national boundaries or nationalism, since almost all of the first autocephalous and autonomous provincial and diocesan groupings of bishops originated within one united Roman Empire.

This decentralized and non-dogmatic nature of Orthodox external organization, together with the dogmatic and sacramental nature of Orthodox unity, makes it possible when dealing with Protestants to approach questions of Christian union without injecting into the discussions of basic principles the elements of the Roman period of ecclesiastico-political synthesis which belong to the level of non-dogmatic factors. However, in dealing with Roman Catholics the situation till recently has been quite complicated.

It is generally recognized that the Orthodox Catholic and the Roman Catholic Churches in origin belong to a common Catholic tradition. One would expect that this would make it easy for these two Churches to come to an understanding and engage in dialogue in order to find solutions to the problems of unity. Till this day, however, dialogue has not begun. Before Pope John XXIII the Papacy for centuries had been insisting that the Orthodox accept as dogma the Papacy's medieval understanding of herself and that they substitute this for the traditional understanding of Christian unity. The Orthodox in the late middle ages could accept in principle the Papacy as an administrative system for Latin Christians, since this is what Latin Christians seemed to want. However, the dimension of the revolt of those Christians who were finally called Protestants has hardened the Orthodox against this possibility, although it is still there and has never been repudiated. Nevertheless, it is impossible for the Orthodox to accept the Papacy either as dogma, or an administrative system for themselves. In this respect there are very encouraging signs that administrative centralization as an ideal is weakening under the impact of forces let loose by Pope John XXIII, and there are some Roman Catholics who see no reason why in the event of union the Orthodox should not continue to adhere to their ancient administrative principles and customs. An extension of this attitude towards Protestants would perhaps do a tremendous service to the whole Ecumenical effort. Of course the Orthodox have been following with great intentness the restoration of the Roman Catholic episcopate to a form of collegial equality with the Pope. Both the new approach toward the Orthodox principle of autocephalicity and the clarification of the episcopacy's relationship to the Pope will greatly determine the future relations between them concerning the causes of their separation. The current victory of the conservative forces within Roman Catholicism will radically change relations with the Orthodox and Catholics for the good. This may sound confusing, but those Roman Catholic theologians who are considered liberal by Protestant and Catholic standards are from the Orthodox viewpoint conservative, since they are the closest to the traditions of the Orthodox Churches. The real liberals are the ultramontanes who had a field day during Vatican I.

The non-dogmatic character of Orthodox external organization, which is determined by the adaptation the Church makes to political and social changes, has made possible an important agreement in principle among Protestants, Anglicans, Old Catholics and Orthodox at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal. An Orthodox definition of the Church was presented and accepted. The significance of this was discussed and realized, by those directly involved, and it became one of the bases of a report from another section of the Conference. However, the importance of this was certainly not apparent to the majority of Protestants at the meetings. The reasons for this is that many Protestants think in medieval Latin categories and imagine union in terms of organization and mergers. It is not only in fun that the Orthodox say, "Scratch a Protestant and underneath you find a Roman Catholic."

In discussing the relation of the several churches to the Universal Church it was agreed at Montreal that one should not think of the Universal "Church as the Body of Christ, including the saints of all ages and the Christians of all places, which is both present in and one with the local congregation gathered for the hearing of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist..." Thus a first-century bishop declared that "Wherever Jesus Christ is there is the Catholic Church." According to this understanding, "each church or congregation participating in Christ is related to others not by participation in some higher structure or organization but rather by an identity of existence in Christ. In this sense each congregation gathered for the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist is a manifestation of the whole Catholic Church in the very process of becoming what she is in service and witness to the world."

The important thing in this definition is that the local Church and the Universal Church of all ages and all places are sacramentally identical in Christ. The Universal Church is the local Church and the local Church is the Universal Church, and members this Church are those who gather together in love not only for those who are visibly present but also for those of all ages and all places who are invisibly present in Christ. The potential of such a cohesive and unitive force in the world is obvious, and the Roman emperors took good advantage of it. Also the pliability and adaptability of such a self-understanding underlies the administrative principles of the Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox are united sacramentally in a unity of faith, and organize themselves into local groupings of bishops called synods for common action at the local level, and whenever necessary and possible may have more general consultations. Otherwise, the presiding bishops regulate matters of common interest by correspondence and delegated individuals.

The similarity of this Montreal definition of Church unity to the traditionally Protestant doctrine of the gathered Church is obvious. Nevertheless, much hard work and study is needed. Indicative of the difficulties is the protest voiced by a few, represented by a German New Testament scholar, to the affect that this putting of the Eucharist (the Mass in the Catholic Church) back into the center of our understanding of the Church would void the Reformation and steer everyone back to Rome. To the Orthodox, this was indeed a surprising reaction, since they themselves never were at Rome exactly because of this Eucharist-centered understanding of Church unity. That the definition was finally accepted with the term "Lord's Supper" added so that each can interpret the sacrament in his own way is an indication of the type of problems to be faced, but also of real possibilities of future understanding. Orthodox theologians are very free with praises for the intellectual honesty of Protestant scholars generally, but that many of their attitudes toward traditional Christian teachings and practices have been colored by anti-Catholic bias is obvious. In trying to explain the development of Roman Catholicism they have been searching for all those elements in Christian history which have led to the corruption of the original and pure faith, and since the Orthodox have a common ancient history with the Roman Catholics their corruption of the original faith is included automatically in the description. The usual Protestant approach has been, e.g., that St. Paul is the ultimate in the Christian understanding of the message of Christ and the only one in the ancient Church who had a real understanding of St. Paul was St. Augustine, and the only ones who understood both St. Paul and St. Augustine were the Reformers. Since the Roman Catholics also had a claim on St. Augustine, the debate between Catholics and Protestants revolved around him. Then the Orthodox becomes a bit confused because the Fathers of his own tradition never paid much attention to St. Augustine, but they did pay an extraordinary amount of attention to the theology of St. Paul. Then the Orthodox becomes even more confused when he reads that St. Augustine abandoned his attempt to write an interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans because of its difficulty.

I have tried generally to indicate the traditional Orthodox understanding of Christian unity and its bearing on Orthodox relations in the Ecumenical Movement with Protestants and Roman Catholics. This, of course, is not the only problem confronting those Churches seeking union. It will be most important in the beginning since something like this is needed to clear the atmosphere and establish trust and confidence among religious leaders and theologians. Once general principles about the nature of union are agreed upon, then the other problems can be dealt with intelligently. There is no doubt that Orthodox and Protestants will agree on the basic sacramental shape of unity centered in the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, as described at Montreal. Some Roman Catholic theologians have for some time been aware of this approach among the Orthodox and have been fitting it into their patterns of thought. What the final product will be is not yet clear, but that this direction has already been taken by some is significant.

The important thing is that dialogue between the Protestants and Orthodox within the World Council of Churches has recently entered into a new phase. More comprehensive and systematic studies of problems are to be conducted in common. There is a desire for the exchange of professors among Protestant and Orthodox Divinity Schools in order to become better acquainted with each other's traditions.

At a recent Pan-Orthodox consultation on the Island of Rhodes, convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, all Orthodox Churches decided to extend an invitation to the Papacy to cooperate in setting up a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians at the termination of the present session of the Vatican Council. It is hoped that favorable conditions will thus be created for a better understanding between the Churches.