by Fr. Timothy Evangelinidis


Many times, while attending ecumenical functions, I have been amused and at times a little frustrated to see a registration table for Roman Catholics and another for Protestants. I would stand between them and shrug my shoulders wondering where I should go. Orthodoxy is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant; it has much in common with both, but it also stands apart from both. Orthodoxy also sees itself in a fragile position within the Ecumenical Movement. It is neither completely at home within ecumenism, nor is closed to other Christian groups wishing to dialogue with it. To understand this, one needs to understand something of the nature of Orthodoxy.

In this attempt to outline the Orthodox approach to ecumenism, I need to convey a glimpse of the theological issues behind this idea. This is not merely a question of action, "Should we or shouldn't we?" It is a more important question of theology, "Can we or can't we, and if we can what form does our ecumenism take?" This short paper will attempt to give some insight into the dilemma of Orthodoxy and ecumenism. However, it is not a summary of Orthodox Dogma or Tradition it is only trying to read the pulse of Orthodoxy as it considers the ecumenical movement.

Many churches are facing modern crises that are calling them to question their often long held beliefs and dogmas. Issues such as the ordination of women to the sacred Priesthood of Christ and Modernism have been on the 'agenda' of Churches for some time. Other issues such as 'New Age' philosophies and the increasing dilemma of bio-ethics have seen various Christian groups take stances completely opposed to those of other Christian traditions. There are even some controversial subjects that have seen division within Churches. The Orthodox also are facing new dilemmas, but these are about how the Church relates to a modern and rapidly changing world, and to other Christians who, to the Orthodox at least, seem to be constantly changing their face and their nature. It may seem extraordinary to some, but one of the most controversial issues that has gripped Orthodoxy in recent years has been ECUMENISM.

Much of the heat of the ecumenical argument within Orthodoxy comes from a difference of opinion as to the nature of ecumenism. This confusion, I think, exists within other Christian groups.

In his book "Our Orthodox Christian Faith", Athanasios Frangopoulos lists ecumenism with nasties like Arianism and other heretical teachings. He states:

"Ecumenism is a new heresy that has appeared in our days … we Orthodox must stand far apart. Indeed, we ought to fight against it by enlightening those Orthodox who are ignorant of ecumenism and what it entails".

In stark contrast are the views expressed in the writings of the now famous convert to Orthodox Christianity, Timothy (or later Kallistos) Ware. This 'western' Orthodox theologian is now an assistant Greek Orthodox Bishop in England. Bishop Kallistos cites the opinions of many theologians who see ecumenism not just as a positive action of the Orthodox Church, but as a necessary response to other Christian groups that do not share the same environment, the same attitude, the same phronema (Spiritual identity and intention) as Orthodoxy.

The next question is an obvious one, how can theologians belonging to the same Tradition express opposing views on ecumenism? I quote from Athanasios Frangopoulos again:

"Ecumenism maintains that: the truth and Grace of Christ is not to be found in any one single Church, but partially in all the Churches … Now if we put all these Churches together and create an Ecumenical Church we also unite all the pieces of the faith and the truth, and come up with the whole truth of Christ … (However), that which is divided cannot be joined, and the Ecumenists shall never achieve the 'union of the Churches' because there are not many Churches but one … the Orthodox Catholic Church".

Many non-Orthodox Christians involved in the ecumenical movement would hold to the above belief that Frangopoulos so completely rejects. Bishop Kallistos and most of the Orthodox Churches (the family of Orthodoxy) would agree with Frangopoulos on the unique and fundamental integrity of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church. They would, however, DISAGREE with the above definition of ecumenism. There is not a difference of doctrine here, but, as I have already said, a difference in the understanding of the nature of ecumenism.

Most of the Orthodox see ecumenism as an expression of love, a working out of the desire to be one in Christ, even as the Son and the Father are one. We cannot hope to understand each other if we do not share of ourselves and try to explain what it is that makes us what we are. However, for this hope to become reality, Christians of differing backgrounds will need to agree on the fundamentals of the Faith. If we attempt to by-pass this, to compromise ourselves, then unity is false and the fears of Frangopoulos are justified. Ecumenism involves discussion and education; these must precede any attempt at reconciliation of the Churches. It is this that most Orthodox believe is ecumenism.

The Orthodox assert that only they have retained the fullness of the Truth, handed down by Christ to the Apostles, and handed on by them to the Church, down to the present day. The Orthodox claim is made without any false pride. It is not arrogance, but adherence to the Holy Tradition — unchanged. Many of you would no doubt wish to argue this point, but it is the Orthodox position. For us Orthodox to be faithful to this claim, a sharing of this truth with those outside Orthodoxy is not an option; to act otherwise is to be false to ourselves, and to what we believe. We speak with other Christians out of love, but also because we believe that we have the truth that only Orthodoxy, out of all the Christian Churches, has retained. There can be no coming together of divergent dogmas, no 'partial' union; when we can be of the same Tradition (with a capital 'T'), then and only then can our ecumenism lead us to unity.

Let's look at what another Orthodox writer says of ecumenism. Stanley Harakas has written in "Something is stirring in world Orthodoxy":

"The chief issue for the Orthodox regarding participation in the ecumenical movement has been the doctrine of the Church. Some Orthodox feel strongly that participation … implies a betrayal of the faith … The fears of the anti-ecumenists have not been realised … However, neither have the rosy expectations of the Orthodox ecumenists been fulfilled".

Orthodoxy is enigmatic to many other Churches, but they themselves are often embarrassed and troubled by the actions and opinions of others in the ecumenical movement. Orthodoxy has been involved in the ecumenical movement from the beginning. If ecumenism involves dialogue with an honest wish to work towards unity — a physical communion with all who are Christian — then the Orthodox rejoice. However, if Ecumenism is about compromise, about rejecting the basic dogmas of the Tradition of the Church of God, then the Orthodox will pull back because they will not give up on this treasure — this "pearl of great price" — which is Orthodoxy. The Orthodox have not reached agreement with other Christians on the fundamental and important doctrines of the Christian Faith, but they go on in their wish for unity, and continue (for the moment at least) in the ecumenical movement.

The words expressed in this paper may seem harsh and unbending. Many may find the Orthodox position an insurmountable obstacle to the unity of the Churches. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church persists in ecumenical discussion because it seeks the visible unity of all Christians in truth and in love. However, for the Orthodox to ignore their fundamental beliefs in a bid to create some tenuous, 'common denominator' Christianity, unity will not be achieved at all; such a thing is destructive. It is a creation of DISUNITY of the Church from her Tradition.

Despite what might seem a gloomy and negative prognosis, there is still hope and encouragement on many fronts for Orthodoxy. I am here presenting this paper this evening. This surely indicates the hope of at least one Orthodox priest for positive discussion with other Christians. If the Orthodox saw no constructive purpose for the ecumenical movement, this exercise would be pointless and merely an attempt at dissension and ecumenical terrorism.

Orthodoxy is in dialogue with many other Churches, eg: The Uniting Church in Australia, the Anglican Churches, The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches. Much social statement and action have seen various Orthodox Churches joining Roman Catholics and Protestants with a united front. Ecumenism has allowed the Orthodox to come to an understanding of the traditions of many other Churches, and it has also opened up Orthodoxy to the curious eyes of the rest of Christendom.

Although much of Orthodoxy's agreed action with others has been on a 'non-doctrinal level', discussion, common action and an acceptance of the integrity of other Christians must precede any unity on more fundamental levels. Orthodox Christians are usually not permitted to share in the Eucharistic Supper with other Christians, nor are Orthodox and other clergy permitted to co-officiate at services. However, because we can and do attend each other's services, the desire for understanding and unity is there. Will this desire ever lead to unity? I cannot say, but my hope is that this will take place.

Sadly, much has occurred in recent times that has seen the Orthodox question their position in the ecumenical movement. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has seen serious division and even a suspension of official dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The ordination of women to what many Churches believe is the sacred Priesthood of Christ, is seen by the Orthodox as a grave obstacle to unity.

The recent World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Canberra had the Orthodox delegates meeting in the midst of this ecumenical gathering to consider whether they should continue in the ecumenical movement at all. Many Orthodox now see WCC in a new sinister role. They view it as a catalyst for a total liberalising of the Christian Faith, a movement to coalesce the churches into a 'Super Church', without set dogma and tradition. Some more extreme Orthodox writers even refer to WCC as heralding the anti-Christ. These may not be universal opinions within Orthodoxy, but they do show something of the tension and hesitation that Orthodoxy feels concerning itself and ecumenism.

I began this short paper with some questions. Should Orthodoxy be involved in reaching out to other Churches and Christians of a different 'phronema'? My answer is yes. If we are to be true to the words of Christ, "that they all may be one", then I can answer only yes. However, if the question is: "Will the Orthodox continue in the ecumenical movement?", then my answer is not nearly so definite, it all depends on what the ecumenical movement becomes and how other Christians continue to see the nature of ecumenism. Orthodoxy continues in ecumenical dialogue in many countries and on an international level. Indeed about half the member Churches of the Australian Council of Churches are Orthodox. What form our ecumenical involvement takes in the future, is the subject of much consideration and prayer.

Based on a paper presented at the
Tasmanian Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission on 20 July 1993