by Fr. Gregory Hallam


In the great High Priestly prayer of John 17 which Christ uttered before he went to his passion he prayed:

"I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me and I in You; and that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent me." [John 17:20-21]

The Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov who was very active in the World Council of Churches in happier ecumenical times commented that unity is not only something given but also something we must attain to. This is clearly in conformity to Christ’s Prayer. We have our unity in Him, but this unity must be sought, strengthened, deepened and extended. By seeking always ecumenical agreement and conformity, the Church witnesses to the unity of the Godhead, the unity of the Trinity with the Church and the unity in God of all mankind. The Blessed Apostle St Paul affirms this understanding in his teaching, exhorting the Ephesians to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." [Ephesians 4:3]

Although most Christians would agree with this biblical teaching the application of the same to the ecumenical task varies enormously. The diversity of policy and practice has much to do with the different understandings of the Church held by the different churches. Clearly you can not pursue Christian Unity in anything other than a most ghostly manner without building into the ecumenical task the nature of the Church as a visible body.

Excluding diversities of approach within each church we may, (roughly), observe that there is a greater agreement between Rome and Orthodoxy on these matters than exists with Protestantism. Although the main obstacle to ecumenism in the Roman camp is the papacy, nonetheless, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree that the Church, once identified, must be a sure vehicle of salvation in Christ and that she is that Community in which the fullness of Christian faith and life resides. Anglicanism still sets great store by the so-called "branch theory" and because this is somewhat of a special case, I shall leave consideration of this Church until the end of my talk.

Protestantism, as opposed to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, largely holds to an understanding of the Church as invisible, dispersed and imperfect. A Protestant is loathe to say: "Yes, here is the Church." Of course this has much to do with the rejection of the Church as a structured organisation for salvation at the Reformation. Although, therefore, Orthodoxy can agree with Geneva that the Church is not merely an institution and that the evolved papacy is a destructive innovation, she cannot agree that the Church is unidentifiable or unreliable or irrelevant as a vehicle of Christian truth and salvation.

Therefore, the greatest problem Orthodox encounter in ecumenical encounters with Protestantism is relativism, by which I mean the resistance of Protestant Christians to the idea that there is one True Church. This leads them of course to the justification and practice of inter-Communion, something Orthodox and Catholics can never agree with, because we believe that this subverts the goal of visible Church unity. If two churches are not in Communion with each other, they must pursue unity in order to receive Communion in each others’ churches. It is not too wide of the mark to compare anticipation of Communion before unity to sex before marriage; not the worst sin in the book but erosive of both marriage and unity, and in the end, perhaps, equally as destructive of true love.

When Orthodox and Catholics hold to the truth that there is one True Church, they do not mean by this that there is no truth, or grace, or faith, or godliness in other churches, or indeed in other faiths. Far from it. The Father is merciful, compassionate and strong to save in many different pastures, albeit, always through Christ who is the "Way, the Truth and the Life," and in the Holy Spirit. However, we believe it is quite wrong to go on from this to say that the Church does not exist visibly in its fullness in one particularly Communion or body. The New Testament knows nothing of "denominations" or notions of an "invisible Church," both heresies being most dear to Protestants who perhaps sometimes cherish their religious "freedom" even above truth.

It is very difficult to see, then, how Orthodoxy can realistically hope for much progress in ecumenism with Protestants unless and until they reform their understanding of the Church. Until this happens, Protestants will continue to innovate far more radically than Rome, (viz., the ordination of women to the presbyterate, the reconstruction of doctrine along liberal lines and the abandonment of Christian Moral Theology).

Such innovations have already proved to be "one bridge too far" for some Orthodox. Recently the Orthodox Church in Georgia left the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical body dominated by Protestants. Most commentators think that the Russian Orthodox Church is moving towards a similar position. This is very sad, but understandable in the circumstances. Many Protestant Christians just do not seem to understand that the New Testament does not allow them unfettered freedom to change whatever they will, whenever they will. Christian unity with them is best served by Orthodox lovingly but firmly saying: "No." Saying "no" however, has to be backed up with deeds. Separation needs to be maintained with a charitable disposition and with doors firmly open to that more constructive contact which will follow on a return to the witness of the One Holy and Undivided Church, a true Reformation, in short, Orthodoxy.

In its relations with Rome, Orthodoxy has a far more complex problem. Although there are some hard line Orthodox who would reject Rome out of hand, at the very least, she cannot be ignored. In some areas, (papacy vs. conciliarity, organisational vs. mystical unity), Orthodox have very different and important understandings of the Church than those shared with Roman Catholics. However, we are at one with them on the notion of the Church as one, visible, necessary and dependable body. In this sense the visible Church is never divided. Other Christian bodies may fall away from the Church but these can never harm the visible Church’s intrinsic unity.

How, then can we sustain our own understanding of Orthodoxy as the one True Church against Rome’s identical claim? Well, it is in those areas on which we disagree concerning the Church, that we believe Rome to have compromised its claim to be, (as it once was), the Orthodox Church of the West. So, whether it is the papacy or the filioque, the Immaculate Conception or Augustinian teaching on original sin, Rome’s claim both to her own jurisdiction and her supposed jurisdiction over all other Christian churches are heresies which must be lovingly but firmly resisted. Furthermore, these are heresies which compromise fatally the present exercise of Rome’s former dignity and status as first amongst equals in the Christian world.

Although western forms of Orthodoxy have occasionally been an "embarrassment" to a few Orthodox bishops who have had to support the Mother Church in resisting uniate proselytism in the East; the fact remains that Orthodoxy has every right to be a missionary Church on its own terms in the West until Rome, (or Canterbury for that matter), re-enters the Orthodox fold. In the mean time, our relationship with Rome, (as with all other churches), should be cordial, open and loving; determined to pursue convergence in Orthodox faith and life but without any lessening in missionary spirit and fervour. This is not an easy balance to maintain when dealing with a Church with a highly developed sense of "turf," but is a necessary task if neither Church is to concede its own integrity to the other.

Finally, Orthodoxy has to deal with another Church which has a highly developed sense of "turf," at least in this country ... the Anglican Church. Although many Anglicans would today reject the "branch theory" as an understanding of the Church, nonetheless many still hold to this idea, even if not by name. The branch theory suggests that there is indeed, at the root as it were, One Church of Christ, but that this Church has a number of branches, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox. Protestant Churches which have forfeited catholic order are communities imperfectly joined to the whole.

When the Anglican divine Richard Hooker wrote in this manner, (16th Century), the aforementioned Churches were still, largely, geographically separated. The Roman Catholic Church was the Church in Italy; the Orthodox Church was the Church in Russia, and, so the argument ran, the Church of England was the Church in England. There were, (and are), two problems with this. Firstly, the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have never themselves accepted such a demarcation as between each other. Secondly, arguably, when the Church in England broke away from Rome to become the Church of England, neither Rome nor Orthodoxy accepted this a legitimate move towards autonomy within the Western Patriarchate, (Rome), or in place of Rome as Orthodox in the West, (Constantinople).

The branch theory therefore remains an Anglican invention to bolster Anglican claims, accepted by neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy and dismissed by Protestants as irrelevant. The "via media" or middle way approach of Anglicanism has more mileage in it as helping to heal the Protestant - Catholic breach but this cannot of course serve as a rationale for the long term existence of Anglicanism. Many Orthodox would probably regard the breach with Rome as necessary or inevitable but would then go on to question the preservation of orthodox catholic faith and order within Anglicanism, especially since the last War, and more specifically since 11 November 1992. In consequence, the great hopes of Anglican-Orthodox rapprochement and even union which peaked in the 30’s have now been dashed. Orthodoxy, like Rome, looks at Anglicanism and doesn’t know who to deal with. Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Anglo-Orthodox traditions in Anglicanism all have their place but, as Dom Aidan Nicholls observed in "The Panther and the Hind," this necessitates a tripartite ecumenical strategy. Again, union with Anglicanism as a whole now seems even more remote. This is a tragedy in Anglican-Orthodox relations bearing in mind the progress made up to and including the Dublin Agreed Statement of 1984. But this, notwithstanding continuing cordial ecumenical relations, is where we are at in ecumenical relations between the two churches.

And so, what of the future? Many Christians, now recognising the steam that has gone out of much ecumenical work, seem to be reconciling themselves to the abandonment, for the time being at least, of the great hopes of yester-year. This is both premature and deeply worrying. Christ prayed for the Church to preserve and strengthen its unity. No Christian or church can stand idly by as lethargy or even downright antagonism sets in again. If there are new obstacles in the path of ecumenism, they must be removed, transcended or in some other way overcome. The "grand union schemes" have indeed proven, in many cases, to have been misguided or misconstrued. The minimalist and "hands-off" mission drag of bogus ecumenism has indeed been exposed. But, the divine call to authentic ecumenism remains. This "new ecumenism" must be maximalist. It must not shirk differences or even conflict. It must be prepared to say "no" as well as "yes." But, it must also be prepared to work harder, longer, and more deeply in love for that unity which Christ wills. It must accept that listening, patience, prayer, courage, friendship and deferring to one another are surer ways forward than Committee-lead negotiation or bureaucracy. In this spirit ecumenism will indeed be blessed as a return to the faith and life of the Undivided Church. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!