With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Oriental Orthodox in Ecumenical Dialogues 2

III-1 Return to Dialogue: The Initial Contact Between the Oriental Orthodox Churches with the East and West In the Modern Era

Much has changed since the early ecumenical dialogues the Chalcedonians had with the non-Chalcedonians. In politics, the direct influence of Christianity has tremendously diminished. We can see that in our present age, as the Coptic Orthodox priest Fr. Tadros Malaty puts it, “...every church deeply desires Church unity on an ecumenical level.”[1] Many new factors have led to such a change. It is no longer fear of Islam which creates a need for churches to be united. It is the embarrassment of a divided Christianity in the wake of a secular world which makes Christians pause and think something needs to be done. And now we have new ways to engage dialogue; we have been given new hermeneutical tools which can be used to uncover what each side of the dialogue has been trying to say, and not just get bogged down by the same miscommunication that has happened before.

If we want to see what has been going on in recent times between the Oriental Orthodox Churches with Chalcedonian Churches, it’s best to go back to 1951, because that year celebrated the1500th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon. In that year, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, wrote an encyclical that called for a dialogue between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. What Patriarch Athenagoras said within it is quite interesting and relevant: even though the Oriental Orthodox churches do not use the same terminology as the Council of Chalcedon, they are to be seen as perfectly orthodox in their Christology.[2]

Although Patriarch Athenagoras called for dialogue in 1951, it took over a decade for it to materialize. It was at the Pan-Orthodox meeting at Rhodes in 1961 when both sides finally agreed to start such a dialogue. A representative was chosen by both sides to work together, and find the place and means whereby that dialogue could begin.[3] In the next several years, there were four unofficial meetings between the Oriental Orthodox and Orthodox Churches: at Aarhus, Denmark in 1964; Bristol, England in 1967; Geneva, Switzerland in 1970 and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1971.[4] At these meetings, several points were made that would find themselves restated in the much later official dialogues. The statement made Aarhus shows us the roots of the Christological agreement which would take place between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox. In it, it states:

On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement. Through the different terminologies used by each side, we saw the same truth expressed. Since we agree in rejecting without reservation the teaching of Eutyches as well as Nestorius, the acceptance of non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon does not entail the acceptance of either heresy. Both sides found themselves fundamentally following the Christological teaching of the one undivided Church as expressed by St. Cyril.[5]
The theological writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria became a link which united the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches. Both sides were able to see each other as being faithful to his teachings, even if they did not portray it in the same way. They begun to understand that the intentions behind historical Christological definitions, and not just the letter of those definitions, needed to be grasped and used. For it was quite apparent that what each side understood as the meaning behind those definitions were not the same: their conflict and confusion rested in how each side had a different technical meaning for the words used in the definitions. Peter Bouteneff provides an ample demonstration of this by looking at Armenian theology, and how even within the Armenian church itself there are different understandings as to the meaning of important terms like hypostasis and prosopon (person):

A clear example of the different uses of the terms hypostasis and prosopon can be found in the Christologies of certain Armenian theologians, who teach that because it is impossible that there be a nature without a hypostasis, one cannot say that the Logos assumed human nature alone from the Virgin Mary, but a human hypostasis and prosopon. To Chalcedonian ears, at any rate, this sounds not like monophysitism but Nestorianism![6]

If it can be difficult within the same cultural background for people to have the same understanding about key terms, then it is obvious how difficult it would be to portray this in dialogues that go beyond the domains of a single culture. It is because of this that the theologians recognized that what was needed was to look at what each side was actually trying to say about Christ beyond the words they were using. When they did so, they came to the conclusion that they shared the same Christological heritage.
At Bristol, the agreement from Aarhus had not simply been restated. The meeting sought to go deeper into their Christological examination. It provided a clear statement as to the common agreement between the churches: both sides recognized in Christ there was a union of the two natures where they were united without change or confusion and yet unable to be separated or divided from each other after the incarnation.[7] At Geneva, coming into the meeting with this common understanding of Christ, the questions went beyond the Christological and into more practical concerns: can there be re-union between the churches if both sides do not agree upon the authority of the same number of Ecumenical Councils; what should be done about the saints that each side possessed who had been anathematized by the other (should they all be recognized as saints, and if so, how since one side would see the others’ saints as condemned?); lastly, since the churches often had jurisdictions in the same region, and it was seen as improper that more than one bishop should have jurisdiction in the same area, how would this jurisdictional problem be resolved if intercommunion was established.[8] The fourth conference at Addis Ababa reiterated a difficulty that had to be resolved about the saints: could the churches lift anathemas that condemned each others saints, and if so, how, since many of those anathemas came from the highest level of authority accepted by each respective church (such as an ecumenical council)? Would an ecumenical council itself be the only authority by which those anathemas could be lifted? It was also agreed by the end of this fourth meeting that something more official should be set up between the churches, and that the unofficial meetings had done as much as they could do on their own.[9]

In the 1970s, while there were occasional consultations between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox, those official dialogues did not take place. But it was during this decade that improved relations between the West and the Oriental Orthodox began to take place. First, there were four unofficial ecumenical meetings between the Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches at the Pro Oriente Ecumenical Institute in Vienna during 1971, 1973, 1976, and 1978.[10] Secondly, several bi-lateral dialogues between the Catholic church and individual Oriental Orthodox churches had taken place, and some ended with a common declaration between the two. In Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II reflected upon these dialogues and what he saw as to their success: “And precisely in relation to Christology, we have been able to join the Patriarchs of some of these Churches in declaring our common faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Pope Paul VI of venerable memory signed declarations to this effect with His Holiness Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch, and His Beatitude Jacoub III, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.”[11]

Following the theological investigations, unofficial meetings, and official declarations that had been made in the 1960s and 1970s, the next two decades provided even more indications that the problems the Oriental Orthodox has had with Chalcedonian churches are either near or at an end. Huge strides have been made, although, it must be noted, not without some questions which still need to be addressed, and we will look at a few of them later.

[1] Tadros Malaty, Introduction to the Coptic Orthodox Church. (Alexandria: N.p., 1993), 290.
[2] Thomas Fitzgerald, “Toward the Reestablishment of Full Communion: The Orthodox-Oriental Dialogue” The Greek Orthodox Review, vol. 36, no. 2 (1991), 171.
[3] The Orthodox representative was Nikos Nissiotis and the Oriental Orthodox representative was Paul Verghese of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. See Theodore Pulcini, “Recent Strides Towards Reunion of the Eastern and Oriental Churches: Healing the Chalcedonian Breach” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 30, no.1 (Winter 1993), 37-8.
[4] Thomas Fitzgerald, 172.
[5] Agreed Statement (August 14, 1964), The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 10, no.2 (1964-5), 14.
[6] Peter Bouteneff, “Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 42, no.2 (1998), 156 –7.
[7] Theodore Pulcini, 40.
[8] Ibid., 41.
[9] “Fourth Unofficial Consultation Between Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Theologians, Addis Ababa, January 22-23, 1971” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 16, no.1-2(1971), 213.
[10] Damaskinos Papandreou, “Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue: Historical Introduction” chap. in Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level 1982 – 1998. ed. by Jeffrey Gros, Harding Meyer, Wililam G. Rusch, Faith and Order Paper No. 187(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 688.
[11] Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, paragraph 62.


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