by Archbishop Peter (L'Huiller) of New York and New Jersey


No one can doubt that nowadays there is a malaise in the Orthodox world regarding the position which must be adopted vis-B-vis Ecumenism, namely with our involvement in the organized Ecumenical Movement (World Council of Churches) and the dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. This situation is the result of circumstantial factors and unsolved substantive questions. Both of them are so intricate that disentangling them is very difficult. This situation, moreover, is not something new because it has existed from the twenties of our century when the Ecumenical Movement was sketched. The problem became more acute when it had definitely taken shape after the Second World War. In both cases ecclesiastical politics played a role probably more important than ecclesiological considerations and this ambivalence has ever since lasted.

In the twenties a widespread atmosphere of optimism prevailed and led to a conciliatory attitude in inter-church relations. Suffice it to bear in mind the recognition by Economy of the validity of Anglican Orders by some Orthodox Churches during the twenties and thirties. By that time, however, two different factors affected the Orthodox world, namely the lack of involvement of the Russian Church because of the Bolshevik persecution and the weakening of the Constantiopolitan Patriarchate after the treatise of Lusanne in 1923. Shortly before, in 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had made a proclamation favoring the organization of the various Christian Churches modeled on that of The League of Nations. It is also noteworthy that with the exception of Fr. Geroges Florovsky, the majority of the Orthodox theologians supporting Ecumenism belonged to a liberal tendency and accepted relativistic views on the oneness of the Church (branch theory). The strongest reaction against ecumenism came later in a completely different historical context:

In 1948, the resolutions adopted by the Moscow Conference of the Autocephalous Churches contained an unconditional condemnation of the goal and method of the WCC and consequently turned down any participation in its activities. Furthermore this conference expressed its hostile feelings toward the Vatican. Those negative positions were brought about by an unholy alliance between the Soviet government intending to isolate the Eastern block from the West and the most retrograde elements of the Orthodox Church. Actually only the Churches located behind the Iron Curtain followed strictly this line.

In 1952 the Ecumenical Patriarch sent an encyclical to the heads of the autocephalous churches recommending an Orthodox involvement in the WCC but strongly emphasized the priority of practical cooperation and expressed reservation about any kind of doctrinal discussions. Meanwhile, the political situation evolved behind the Iron Curtain after the death of Stalin (1953) and the appearance of a relative thaw. Thus the WCC ceased to be regarded as merely an instrument of the West. The Soviet Authorities envisioned too the possibility to use the Church in order to spread so called "Progressive" ideas in the Western World. The Churches in the Communist countries saw the opportunity to break their isolation. Contacts were slowly set up with the WCC. Nevertheless, those Churches, in contradistinction with the position advocated by Patriarch Athenagoras insisted on the significance of the theological dialogue, a condition that was accepted in principle; eventually in 1960 the Russian Church became a member of the WCC and subsequently the other Orthodox Churches having their See in Socialist Countries followed the same path. Besides, under the pontificate of John XXIII and Paul IV (1958-63 and 63-78) the relations between Rome on the one hand and Constantinople and Moscow on the other hand considerably improved to the extent of seeming to be cordial. However, paying attention only to externals would be naive.

First the Orthodox realized soon that the WCC did not seriously take into account the Orthodox standpoints and embraced the most questionable positions with respect to Liberation Theology, ordination of women and generally, extreme forms of the so-called feminism and acceptance of moral laxity. We should also notice that the opening toward the WCC and Roman Catholicism did not necessarily reflect the feelings of the majority of the clergy and people. The collapse of the Communist system had, of course, a profound impact on the life of the Orthodox Church.

If the consequences were by and large extremely positive, some side-effects were less welcomed. We have in mind the active proselytism of Protestant sectarians and the reconstitution of an aggressive Uniatism. Furthermore, the marginal Orthodox groupings had thenceforth the possibility to set up parallel hierarchies in the Countries of the former Eastern block. All together, those afore-mentioned factors contributed to push the Orthodox Churches to reconsider their membership in the WCC and their relations with the Vatican.

We should honestly acknowledge that many arguments previously adduced in favor of an organic participation in the WCC had not an inconvertible character. We do not intend to suggest the arguments against every form of involvement in the ecumenical movement are convincing. For example, the recourse to ancient canons forbidding contacts with heretics is irrelevant because those texts are quoted out of context. Demanding the cessation of the theological dialogue with Roman Catholicism lay on a debatable premise, namely that the Orthodox involved in such a dialogue are either theologically incompetent or ready to betray the true doctrine. We must also keep in mind that for the marginals and even some canonical Orthodox this kind of rejectionism is conceived as part and parcel of Orthodox self-identity more especially as it tends to blur the reality of blatantly irregular situations.

Perhaps it is time for the Orthodox to thoroughly investigate the issue of inter-confessional relations with equanimity and objectivity within the framework of one or several well prepared consultations on a real pan-Orthodox level without excluding the opponents as long as they are not members of marginal groups. We think that a completely negative decision would be unfortunate. With regard to the WCC, an active but selective involvement in the activities of Faith and Order and also in charitable initiatives remains desirable. With regard to Roman Catholicism, some Orthodox have certainly manifested in the past, especially during the sixties and seventies, and exaggerated optimism brought about by spectacular gestures often motivated by ecclesiastical politics and not by ecclesiological reasons.

Nowadays the theological dialogue has not only to be continued both on national and universal levels but also deepened regardless of some bad regional situations.  In this short article we are realize that several facets of thorny and emotional problems have not been addressed. We hope, however, to have expressed some common sense ideas in a Christian spirit.

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Spring/Summer 1998