THE SELF-UNDERSTANDING OF THE ORTHODOX ...

AND THEIR PARTICIPATION IN THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT

by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon

 

With reference to Florovsky’s essay reproduced in this dossier (in fact, to its incarnation in The Ecumenical Review), Metr. John tries to suggest ways beyond the "ecclesiological laissez-faire" of the Toronto Statement. He stresses the eschatalogical and sacramental character of the Church in Orthodox thinking, but while retaining the identification of the Orthodox Church with the Una Sancta, and while rejecting the concept of the WCC as church, he attempts to describe the WCC’s "ecclesiological significance"

 

Introduction

The subject on which I have been asked to speak is a complex and vast one. I have no ambition to deal with it exhaustively, or even properly. I shall limit myself to certain reflections of a theological nature, hoping that these might help the present meeting to reach a clearer view of the role of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement, and the WCC in particular, as well as of what this role entails both for the WCC and the Orthodox themselves.

The question of the Orthodox self-understanding in relation to the Ecumenical Movement was raised almost from the start, as soon as the WCC was formed in the late ‘40s. At a time when the Eastern European speaking Orthodox were still taking a negative view of the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church was looking at this institution with deep suspicion, the problem could not but be debated almost exclusively among the Greek speaking part of Orthodoxy which, led by the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Encyclical of 1920 and the enthusiastic initiatives of Greek ecumenists, such as the late Prof. Alivizatos, undertook to defend the participation of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement. It was at that time that the first articles were published in Greece dealing with the matter. Almost with no exception the position taken by the authors of these articles was that the Orthodox Church participates in the Ecumenical Movement with the clear consciousness that she is the Una Sancta, a conviction that could not be affected or diminished in anyway whatsoever by this participation. On the basis of this conviction, common to all Orthodox participants in the Ecumenical Movement of that time, the first divisions made their appearance, mainly in Greece, between those who would support the Orthodox involvement in the WCC and those who would fiercely oppose it, such as the late Metropolitan of Samos Irenaeus (incidentally one of those who had signed the Encyclical of 1920) with the argument that since we are the Una Sancta we cannot accept to be treated like the Protestant members of the Council — an experience found by the above mentioned Metropolitan to be deeply humiliating when he attended the Amsterdam Assembly. This division continued to dominate the Orthodox Church in Greece long after Amsterdam (surviving to some extent even in our own days) sometimes leading this Church to the point of wondering whether, for example, she should not be represented in the ecumenical meetings solely by lay theologians or priests so as to protect the episcopal dignity of her bishops. In the end, albeit with difficulty at times, the Orthodox delegations to the WCC meetings have always included bishops, something due to a considerable extent to the fact that from 1961 onwards the Russian and other East European Orthodox Churches not only radically reviewed their attitude to the Ecumenical Movement but came to the WCC meetings in huge episcopal delegations. This, at the, so to say, psychological level.

On the level of theology, a decisive factor contributing to the continuing full participation of the Orthodox in the WCC was, in my view, the support given to the Ecumenical Movement by the eminent and deeply respected in conservative Orthodox circles Russian theologian, the late Fr G. Florovsky, whose role was decisive, particularly at the Evanston Assembly. Florovsky was the first one, as far as I am aware, to raise the question of the Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement at a theological level. Up to that time the Orthodox limited themselves to the assertion that only the Orthodox Church is the Una Sancta, avoiding to raise the question of what the other participants in the Ecumenical Movement ecclesiologically were. When pressed to give an answer they would usually repeat Khomiakov’s view, shared by many emigrй Russian theologians of this century, namely that we Orthodox can only say what we are ecclesiologically, and it is only God who can decide about the fate of the others. The Toronto statement of 1950 did not simply have a negative function, namely to protect the Orthodox — and Roman Catholics — from a loss of their ecclesiological identity, but must be seen against the background of what we may call an "ecclesiological agnosticism" expressed by Khomiakov and many Orthodox with regard to the non-Orthodox members of the WCC.

Florovsky took the matter further, and the step he made must be taken into account even today. First, he insisted that the true catholicity of the Church requires the co-existence of both, Eastern and Western Christianity. Speaking of the "catholic ethos" of the ancient undivided Church, he made the point that this was due to the creative exchange between Greek and Latin Christianity, an exchange which ceased to exist after the great schism of the 11th century. His slogan "ecumenism in time" did not aim at an assertion of traditionalism, but expressed the conviction that the division between West and East has affected seriously the catholicity of the Church.

Furthermore, in an article in The Ecumenical Review Florovsky took the bold step of raising the question of the limits of the Church, thus addressing the issue of the ecclesial character of the non-Orthodox bodies. Comparing and analysing with his remarkable patristic scholarship the ecclesiologies of Cyprian and Augustine, he distinguished between the "canonical" borders (St. Cyprian’s position) and the "charismatic" borders (St. Augustine’s view) of the Church, not hesitating to accept as his personal view that of St. Augustine: the Church is not exhausted by her canonical borders; there is charismatic life beyond these borders (who can deny the holiness of persons like Francis of Assisi, he wrote); there is, in other words, some kind of ecclesiality beyond the canonical borders of the Orthodox Church.

These views of Florovsky were so advanced that I myself found them difficult to accept when I was writing my doctoral thesis, not because they appear to be unacceptable, but because they call for a great deal of explanation and investigation of the fundamental and still unresolved problem of the relation between the "canonical" and the "charismatic" in the Church. In any case, this position of Florovsky does not seem to have enjoyed a following, and the question still remains open whether the Orthodox participate in the Ecumenical Movement not recognising any ecclesiality in their non-Orthodox partners, or whether they do so by implicitly admitting that there is some kind of ecclesiality in the latter, Some extremely conservative Orthodox would deny the use of the term "Church" with reference to any other group outside the Orthodox Church, while others would allow this use with the understanding that the word "Church" is used by these non-Orthodox groups to define themselves, and not by the Orthodox to define these groups — in other words the word "Church" does not carry the same ecclesiological meaning when applied by the Orthodox to their own Church as it does when applied by them to the non-Orthodox bodies. In the latter case "Church" can mean anything from an "incomplete" or "deficient" ecclesial entity to en entirely non-ecclesial one.

All this is possible because of the famous "Toronto Statement". This statement allowed such an ecclesiological ambiguity, which made it possible for the WCC to develop and work without being hindered by it. Indeed, as history has shown, the WCC can exist without clarifying the position of its members with regard to the ecclesial status of their fellow-members. There seems to be no compelling reason why we should force the member churches to state clearly what they believe about the ecclesial status of the others. But this is only half of the story of the Toronto statement. The other half has to do with the question of the ecclesial character of the WCC itself. And this point, although different from the previous one which concerns the ecclesiality of the non-Orthodox members, is still dependent upon ecclesiology. Without clarifying our Ecclesiology the Orthodox cannot answer the question of the ecclesial character of the WCC. Let me offer some remarks on this:

 

I. Some fundamental Orthodox ecclesiological principles (relevant to our subject)

(1) The Church is one and only one, and she is an historical entity. We cannot be satisfied with an "invisible" Church or an "invisible" and "spiritual" unity. Bulgakov’s plea to approach the Church as a "spiritual" reality, as "experience of life" can be misleading. The Orthodox expect that the other Christians will take the visible unity of the Church seriously, and it is indeed gratifying to see that since Nairobi at least the call to visible unity has become central in the ecumenical agenda and language.

(2) The Church is also an eschatological entity. This is not a statement to replace the previous one concerning the historical character of the Church. It is meant to remind us that the historical entity called Church is constantly called to reflect the eschatological community, to be a sign and image of the Kingdom. Without an eschatological vision the Ecumenical Movement will deteriorate into an ephemeral secular affair. The Orthodox wish to be there as a constant reminder of the eschatological vision of the Church. Whatever we are as historical entities each of the Church-members of the WCC must be constantly judged by what the Kingdom calls us to be, by what we shall be. It is encouraging to see such study programmes in the WCC agenda as that called "the Church as a prophetic sign of the Kingdom", but is doubtful that such an eschatological vision marks the Ecumenical Movement in its entirety and in a decisive way.

(3) The Church is a relational entity, and this means several important things. The first is that the Church is not a petrified entity transmitted from one generation to another as an archaeological treasure. Some Orthodox would tend to give to this "conservation" of the past the utmost priority. And yet, if we take such an attitude — which is not what the Fathers did — we shall soon end up with a Church unable to relate to the problems of each time and incapable of carrying on the saving work of Christ in history. The Church is only where the Spirit is, and where the Spirit is the past relates to the present and the present is opened up to the future. All this is implied in what we call Reception of tradition. What we have inherited from the Fathers, be it dogmas, ethos or liturgy, must be received and re-received all the time, and in this process the past becomes existentially, and not simply mentally or ritually, present. The agenda of WCC seems to have paid attention to the problem of Reception, and yet it is questionable whether this is being done satisfactorily. This is so because the Orthodox, on the one hand, do not seem to be willing to let their tradition (dogmatic and otherwise) be challenged enough by the problems of the day (cf. their reaction to what is named "horizontalism"), while the non-Orthodox, on the other hand seem to be totally unwilling to take into consideration what has traditionally been conveyed to us (cf. the way in which the issue of the ordination of women has been decided by them). The Orthodox are there in the Ecumenical Movement to remind us of the importance of tradition, but also of its creative re-reception. The Ecumenical Movement has to see the mystery of the Church against the background of reception all the time.

The relational character of the Church concerns also her structure and ministry. It would be a mistake to think of the Church as an unstructured entity, but it would also be wrong to think of her structures as valid in themselves, apart from the koinonia, which they are meant to convey. The same is also true of the Church’s ministries. This is what we are taught by Trinitarian theology, and Pneumatology in particular, as the basis of ecclesiology. The concept of koinonia is gaining ground in the agenda of the WCC, and this is a good thing. It is too early to say where this new approach will lead us. One of the dangers that the Orthodox would wish to see avoided is a kind of sanctification of diversity at the expense of unity (on the Roman Catholic side the danger would be the opposite — cf. the latest Papal encyclical). It is in any case important to underline the critical significance of this concept for the Ecumenical Movement. Orthodox ecclesiology will have to make a crucial contribution on this matter, on which, I personally believe, the future of the Ecumenical Movement will depend a great deal.

(4) The Church is a sacramental entity. This is another point on which Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement would focus its contribution. This point is probably the most difficult one owing to the fact that it involves eucharistic fellowship which the Orthodox deny to the non-Orthodox. The discussion of the problem does not have to be repeated here. What seems to be crucial is that eucharistic fellowship should not cease to be the goal (the Orthodox would say the ultimate goal) of the Ecumenical Movement. The importance in keeping this issue alive and central lies in the fact that through it the WCC will maintain its non-secular character, which otherwise it may lose. BEM is a good beginning, and it has revealed a great potential for further progress. Protestant Churches have made through this document a big step towards sacramental, particularly eucharistic, thinking, and this in itself is quite significant. The question that the Orthodox will soon have to answer, if this sacramental thinking continues to mark the problematic of the Ecumenical Movement, is to what extent recognition of Baptism implies recognition of ecclesiality.

These are but a few, yet fundamental, ecclesiological principles that the Orthodox carry — or should I say ought to carry? — with them in the Ecumenical Movement. This is how they understand the Church, and this is how they would like their ecumenical partners to think of the Church. They do not wish to see the WCC turn into a Church of this kind. They do wish, however, it to be a "fellowship of Churches" aiming and working towards conformity to this kind of Church. Unity will be restored in a healthy way when this "fellowship" encouraged, supported and built by the WCC will be constantly inspired by and aspiring at the right "model" of the Church indicated by the above principles. This may mean, in final analysis, that the ecclesiological pluralism proposed by the Toronto statement will have to be rejected. The WCC must not become a Church, but it must eventually acquire a basically common idea of the Church. We cannot go on for ever and ever holding different or contradictory views of the Church. It was wise to begin with the ecclesiological "laissez-faire" of Toronto but it would be catastrophic to end with it.

 

II.The "ecclesial" character of the WCC

The WCC cannot be turned into a Church but it must acquire an ecclesial vision shared by all its member churches. This seems to be the conclusion of the previous section. But how would the WCC perform this mission? Is it simply by organising meetings, publishing books etc.? Or is it rather through the fact of being a "fellowship", i.e. of being an event of communion? If the latter is the case, as it in fact seems to be, the question of its ecclesiological significance appears to be inevitable. For you cannot build up a fellowship through which the consciousness of the Una Sancta would emerge before the eyes of those not having seen it before without acquiring some experience of the reality of the Una Sancta. If the means by which you come to experience the true Church is through the fellowship, sometimes painful as the lack of intercommunion can show, then this fellowship must inevitably carry an ecclesiological significance.

Here the options before the Orthodox are limited: either they regard the WCC as a mere organizer of meetings in which case Church unity will emerge through theological persuasion and conversion, or they accept it as a fellowship through which, i.e. through being and working and reflecting theologically and suffering, and witnessing etc. together, and above all by sharing a common vision of what the Church is, they will come to the point of confessing not only one Lord but also one Church, the Una Sancta. There is logically no other alternative laid before the Orthodox with regard to their participation in the Ecumenical Movement. It seems to me that there are indications that the Orthodox have in fact opted for the second of these two alternatives. These indications include the following:

(a) The Basis of the World Council of Churches. The Orthodox more than anyone else have insisted from the beginning that the basis of WCC be narrowed down as much as possible, and they have in fact succeeded in bringing it down to the confession of faith in the Holy Trinity. They now express the desire to limit membership of the WCC to those accepting and practising Baptism. This is all very good, but what about its implications for the nature of the WCC? If the WCC acquires its identity — this is what the basis means — through confession of faith in the Trinity and Baptism, these things constitute lines of demarcation from other communities or organizations. The WCC, therefore, cannot be considered "as a pagan or a tax-collector" (Math. 18:17); there is something to it stemming from faith in the Triune God and from Baptism, otherwise what is the point in insisting that the WCC should be made up only of such people? Are such things as Trinitarian faith and Baptism sufficient to make up an ecclesial reality? Certainly not. Yet that they are totally insignificant ecclesiologically would be hard to accept.

(b) The Confession of the Creed. The Orthodox attach great significance to the Creeds, and rightly so. Particularly the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the object of reverence and the basis of ecclesial unity for the Orthodox. We have not come to the point of making this Creed the sole basis of credal confession in the WCC, but there has been some progress in this matter. Is this totally irrelevant ecclesiologically? The Orthodox would say that until all Protestants accept the seven Ecumenical Councils there can be no ecclesial reality in them. This is so. But is the movement in that direction totally void of ecclesiological significance? This is a question that cannot be avoided.

(c) Common action in facing contemporary issues. Ethics cannot be separated from faith anymore than Orthodoxia can be divorced from Orthopraxia. We act as Christians not because of some impersonal moral imperative but because we believe in a God who not only orders us to behave in a certain way, but offers Himself as love for His creation and wants us to share this love. It is because we believe in a God who is communion as Trinity that we are called to be persons of communion. All moral issues have for us a theological basis. This means that in acting together in the WCC on ethical issues we share and express the same faith. This is not necessarily the case in all ethical action, for many Christians do not make necessarily the connection between faith and ethics. Here the WCC is often seen to act as a humanistic or sociological entity. This is what made the Orthodox at Uppsala accuse the WCC of "horizontalism". The more, however, it relates its social, ecological etc. activities with faith the more the question is raised whether our common action is ecclesiologically irrelevant. Father Borovoy has rightly underlined the statement of early ecumenists: "to act as if we were one Church". He rightly recognizes ecclesiological significance in such a statement, for although acting as if is a conditional expression, it nonetheless indicates a common motivation and perhaps a common vision. And what we are looking for together affects to some extent what we already are.

 

Some Conclusions

The question of Orthodox self-understanding was raised at the beginning as a matter of self-consciousness vis-а-vis the WCC. This is still the case with many Orthodox and with the Orthodox Church officially as a whole: it is a question of "us" versus "them" (the WCC). This is not inexplicable. A great deal of responsibility for this attitude of the Orthodox belongs to the WCC itself which has often tended to push the Orthodox to the margin and treat them as a troublesome minority. The WCC documents were often written by Protestants, and the Orthodox were simply called to comment on them. Majority votes have often frustrated the Orthodox and made them want to produce their own separate statements. It would be totally unrealistic to ignore the fact that the Orthodox feel at times that they belong to the WCC only nominally and constitutionally, while they remain strangers spiritually. There is, of course, a great deal of responsibility for this situation that belongs to the Orthodox themselves. When staff positions are offered to them, they are unprepared to fill them with appropriate candidates. Very often they display a negative spirit at meetings, as if they were seeking confrontation rather than co-operation. There is also in certain quarters a spiritual terrorism against ecumenism which paralyses church leaders who fear that they may lose their "good reputation", since genuine Orthodoxy has become identical with negativity and polemic. All this contributes to the formation of Orthodox self-consciousness in opposition to or vis-à-vis the WCC.

But what about Orthodox self-consciousness as it emerges from within the membership of the WCC? For it is undeniable that for decades now the Orthodox Church is an integral and organic part of the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC, and as such it has been forming its self-consciousness not vis-à-vis but as part of the WCC. What, in other words, is Orthodox self-consciousness in relation to the WCC when it is considered not as "them" and "us" but as simply "us"?

The answer to this question is that, in my view at least, the relation between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox within the WCC is and will always be a dialectical one. This is due to the fact that the Orthodox will always feel as sui generis Christians in relation to the West. This is the sad consequence of the gap between West and East produced by the great schism and deepened by centuries of estrangement and autonomous existence. Both sides cultivate this gap even in our time. On the Orthodox side there is a growing self-consciousness of difference or even superiority over the barbarian West, while in the West books are written to show how the Orthodox world (grouped together with Islam!) is totally incompatible with the civilized West. All this affects the formation of Orthodox self consciousness, and although the WCC has no responsibility whatsoever for this matter it should do its best to convince the world that the gulf between Orthodoxy and the West can and must be bridged. Here is an item of priority for the agenda of the WCC. We must turn the dialectic between West and East into a healthy and creative one. If the dialectic between Orthodoxy and the West becomes within the WCC a healthy and creative one, Orthodox self-consciousness will emerge as bearing the following characteristics:

(1) The Orthodox will never depart from their conviction that the Orthodox Church is the Una Sancta. This is due to their faith that the Church is an historical entity and that we cannot seek her outside the tradition historically bequeathed and appropriated. Unless they have reasons to move to another Christian confession or Church, i.e. as long as they remain Orthodox, they will identify the Una Sancta with their church. But ecumenical experience is taking away all triumphalism from such a conviction. The Una Sancta transmitted in and through tradition is not a possession of the Orthodox. It is a reality judging us all (eschatological) and is something to be constantly received. The Ecumenical Movement offers the context of such a re-reception which takes place in common with the other Christians. This amounts to an overcoming of confessionalism: the Una Sancta is not statically "enclosed" in a certain credal "confession" calling for "conversions" to it.

(2) The Orthodox will have to keep pressing for a common stance on or vision of the Una Sancta in the Ecumenical Movement. In the process of ecumenical reception the "fellowship" of the member Churches will have to grow into a common vision and recognition of what the true Church is. This will be done through the intensification of ecclesiological studies as well as constant reminders of the significance of being and acting together as a matter of common faith and ecclesial vision. In this respect the Toronto statement will have to be stripped of its ecclesiological pluralism. I do not agree with the view that the WCC should not develop an ecclesiology. On the contrary I believe this to be a priority for it.

(3) With regard to the ecclesiological significance of the WCC itself, the Orthodox will not be in a position to accept the WCC as a Church, i.e. as a body that can be identified through the marks of the Una Sancta, for it lacks the presuppositions of such marks, at least from the perspective of Orthodox ecclesiology. But we must distinguish between being a Church and bearing ecclesiological significance. Anything that contributes to the building up of the Church or to the reception and fulfilment of the Church’s life and unity bears ecclesiological significance. In this respect the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC in particular are strongly qualified candidates, for they have as their primary object and raison d’être the restoration of the unity of the Church. This makes it imperative for the WCC to keep the unity of the Church at the centre of its life and concerns. It is this that makes it ecclesiologically significant.

Finally the question must be asked: does bearing an ecclesiological significance amount to having an ecclesial character? At this point terminology becomes extremely delicate. If by "ecclesial character" we wish to mean a "Church", then in accordance with what was stated above such an ecclesial character should be denied. If on the other hand having an "ecclesial character" means participating in the event of a "fellowship" through which the Church’s unity is being restored, such a character clearly belongs to the nature of the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC. Denying, therefore, a priori and without explanation an ecclesial character to the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC would turn these into totally secular entities.

The Orthodox participate in the Ecumenical Movement out of their conviction that the unity of the Church is an inescapable imperative for all Christians. This unity cannot be restored or fulfilled except through the coming together of those who share the same faith in the Triune God and are baptized in His name. The fellowship that results from this coming together on such a basis and for such a purpose cannot but bear an ecclesiological significance, the precise nature of which will have to be defined. In the present paper I have tried to indicate the possibilities as well as the limits of such a definition. Certainly, the matter requires further reflection. I hope the discussion that will follow will contribute to this.

This essay was previously published in The Ecumenical Movement, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches: An Orthodox contribution to the reflection process on "The Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC, ed. G. Lemopoulos, (Geneva: WCC-SYNDESMOS, 1995).

© 2000 World Council of Churches

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