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

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oriental Orthodox in Ecumenical Dialogue 4

IV Some Final Reflections and Questions

Despite all the praiseworthy advancements that the Oriental Orthodox have made in their dialogues with the Eastern Orthodox and the West, there are still considerable problems and obstacles that need to be addressed. Early in the 1990s it looked like the Oriental Orthodox would achieve communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches. The plans were in place so that both sides would mutually lift the anathemas which divided them, and then they would have an official celebration of communion together by leaders of the churches. However, that has not yet occurred. In 2001 the Coptic and Greek Orthodox Patriarchs of Alexandria, having noticed that restoration for communion had not been achieved, found that they therefore needed to address practical pastoral issues, the chief of which was the issue of mixed marriages by those within each other’s churches.[1]

It has also been revealed that unity will require more than a top-down approach to communion. It will require more than just official dialogues and agreements between the leaders of the churches: it will require the acceptance and understanding by the laity of the different church communities. Efforts have been made to help bring this about, for example, in 2002, the Middle East Council of Churches decided that there is the need “...for the publication in local languages of three Christological agreements signed by the two families of Churches [Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, note mine]...”[2] While the union of the Oriental Orthodox with the Eastern Orthodox churches remains a much more likely possibility than with the West, this kind of activity is also needed within the Oriental Orthodox-Western Church dialogues in order to help solidify the advances which have already been made.

On the other hand, one can look at these pauses and begin to wonder how successful these dialogues will actually turn out to be in hindsight. Looking at historical examples, one can find many failed or short-lasting attempts at unity. Even in the time of St. Cyril of Alexandria, one can note that St. Cyril made an agreement with John of Antioch that looks reminiscent of the theological dialogues of our day. We can see that it was not soon after the death of St. Cyril, however, that controversy once again arose, with the result of the split at Chalcedon. As such, dialogue can be fruitful, but there is the need to make sure that the bonds of unity are stronger this time, so that it does not end up yet another historical example of where good will alone does not help keep a reunited Church.

Another question that needs to be addressed is whether or not the new definitions and agreed statements will be found to be acceptable by both sides. Once again, history provides us clear warnings of what can happen, when definitions are made, accepted, and then, when re-examined, are found insufficient theological strength to hold the union together. Probably the greatest example of this was the development of monothelite theology in the seventh century. By stating that Christ only had one “will” and one “energy,” the Byzantine Emperor and Patriarch thought that this would appease the Oriental Orthodox, which in fact it did. But it was only a short-lived reunion with the Armenians and Coptics, and some could even suggest because it was only made by a Christological word-play.[3] We must also remember it has not been merely theological problems that have to be addressed. While the Christological issue is central, we must see that the real problems behind the original schism must not be overlooked or forgotten. It is easy to see how different Christological positions often talk around each other, without recognizing the unique understanding each of the members in the dialogue possess. When an agreed Christological statement is made, it must be asked: do both sides actually understand that statement with the same intention? What is being done to make sure both sides do so? Have we truly learned from our mistakes as to the significance of culture in how it shapes our own understanding of the words said in agreement, so that it might look like there is an agreement that has been made, but we will find out, in time, as with before, that the true disagreement still remains?

Yet, we must take the positive action between the churches as a good sign. Peter Bouteneff asked, “Do we really want unity, with all the joys and also the challenges and strains that arise from an increased diversity?”[4] All indications say the answer is yes. We live in a time and an age which will work harder to make sure unity can be achieved and sustained. We can look at the Christological debates of history with hindsight; we can look at the disputes, and better understand their root causes, and work to overcome them. But, I think the question of whether we want this unity will be answered by the kind of struggle we make to create it and keep it. Instead of creating a simplified theological statement that can be ambiguously interpreted by different sides we should continue to work and confront the true social-linguistic confusions that remain. Even if the theologians and leaders of the churches can understand the theological agreements which have been made, this understanding needs to be better explained to others, especially to those who fear the ecumenical movement.[5] Those who fear a “false union” need to be shown that they really have nothing to fear, otherwise, if they are not convinced, it is quite possible they will work from within the churches to prevent the desired unity. In the end, we must ask, will good will prevail and allow the churches to be united in love, or will division continue to rule by the dictates of fear?

[1]Petros VII and Shenouda III, “Pastoral Agreement” (2001).
[2] Middle East Council of Churches, “Oriental Orthodox Patriarchs to Build Grass-roots Support for Inter-Orthodox Rapprochement,” MECC News Report, vol. 14, no. 1 (Summer 2002). Journal on-line. Available online http://www.mecchurches.org/newsreport/vol14_1/orthodox.asp. Accessed September 8, 2003.
[3] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 36-7.
[4] Peter Bouteneff, 166.
[5] As an example to the concerns of many of the Orthodox for “false union,” see the introduction to Ivan N. Ostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence. trans. Basil Popoff (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1971). According to the introduction, the Council of Florence should be mentioned whenever talk of ecumenical union is underway – because it represents the fear that councils and reunions forced upon the churches from them can be false unions abandoning the “true faith.” Often those who look to the ecumenical movement with distaste within the different churches do so out of such fears (the fear of accepting heresy), and they use such historical examples to encourage others to follow them in this fear.


  • At 2/22/2009 4:06 PM, OpenID marshmk said…

    Henry, thank your posts on ecumenical dialogue. I am sure you are aware that my own church - Episcopal/Anglican - is in the midst of these dialogues with itself.

    I like Bouteneff's question: “Do we really want unity, with all the joys and also the challenges and strains that arise from an increased diversity?” He describes the reality well. Unity and diversity, it seems, are both necessary to each other. One cannot stand without the other.

    There is in the Anglican Communion a move towards a covenant. This may help move us forward but only if it is an expression of inner reality. I do not see how a document can create unity - compliance perhaps, but not true unity.

    Maybe for now the closest we come to unity is the mutual willingness to continue the conversation. My hope and prayer is that as Anglican we will do this with each other, with the Catholics, and with the Orthodox.

    You summarized well the choice before us - love or fear.


  • At 2/22/2009 6:55 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    When I originally wrote this, a few years back, I think the dialogue between the Anglicans and the Oriental Orthodox was only beginning; I know I made a brief mention of what had occured, although I think since that time, things have progressed further -- as you said the dialogue continues, and I've not kept up with it.

    One of the friends of a friend of mine, who was at VTS, did a summer of work in Egypt, and brought back for me beads from the monastery of St Anthony (my patron saint); from what I gather, there is in general good will even in Egypt, unlike, say, the Coptic response to evangelicals or the JWs.


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