Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

Towards an Active <i>Metanoia<i>

by Razvan Porumb (Author)
Monographs X, 274 Pages
Series: Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy, Volume 4


This book explores the relationship between the Orthodox tradition and the ecumenical practice of engagement with other Christian traditions. This relationship has for a long time been compromised by an underlying tension, as the Orthodox have chosen to participate in ecumenical encounters while – often at the same time – denouncing the ecumenical movement as deficient and illegitimate. The author perceives this relationship to be even more inconsistent since the core of Orthodoxy as professed by the Orthodox is precisely that of re-establishing the unity and catholicity of the Church of Christ. This vision informs Orthodox identity as essentially a Church of exploration, of engagement and dialogue, a Church committed to drive all other traditions, but also itself back to the «right» primordial faith. The book exposes the risk of Orthodox theology turning into an oppositional picture of Orthodoxy as necessarily opposed to a heterodox antipode, rather than being the continuous dynamic reality of the living Church of Christ. The author proposes the rediscovery of a set of paradigms in an ethos of humble, active metanoia that would enable a more plenary ecumenical operation for the Orthodox as well as a renewed awareness of their own spirituality.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Orthodoxy and the Orthodox
  • Chapter 2 A fresh theological vision of ecumenism
  • Chapter 3 Problems faced by Orthodoxy vis-à-vis ecumenism
  • Chapter 4 Negotiating Orthodox discomfort towards ecumenism
  • Chapter 5 A new Orthodox paradigm for approaching ecumenism
  • Chapter 6 The consubstantial humanity
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I wish to express my deep gratitude to Zoë Bennett and Jeremy Morris, who supervised the initial doctoral project on which this book is based. Their inspiring guidance, extraordinary dedication and constant faith have turned this process for me into a fascinating, soul-enriching exploration.

I am also extremely grateful to all my colleagues at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, for their fellowship and support.

I would like to thank Ms Sasha Anisimova and Dr Meera Juncu for their numerous invaluable comments and suggestions along the way.

Special thanks are due to Mrs Jeanne Harper, of blessed memory, without whose help, encouragement, and prayerful commitment to the theme, this study would not have been possible.

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There is a joke that has been circulating for some time among Romanian Orthodox clergy – and probably in other Orthodox circles too – that tells the story of a group of Protestants who, having happened to die at around the same time, find themselves standing before the pearly gates being welcomed by St Peter into heaven. As celestial custom would dictate, St Peter proceeds to take the group on an introductory tour of their heavenly abode. He shows them each of the sections with its customs and regulations. Upon reaching a section surrounded by a great tall wall, St Peter whispers to the visitors to keep their voices down. ‘Why must we keep quiet here?’ ask the puzzled newly arrived. ‘Well’, replies their guide, ‘this is the Orthodox quarter and they like to believe they are alone here’. This joke has always been met with hearty laughter, and no priest or faithful has ever cut in to point out the serious ecclesiological aspects at stake. I have always found this response encouraging and have taken it as a reminder that, despite certain prevailing anti-ecumenical attitudes, there is fundamental goodwill among most Orthodox with regard to their Christian brothers and sisters.

However, setting out as an Orthodox participant in an ecumenical, inter-Christian context can often be a frustrating, sore experience. Local Orthodox hierarchies habitually place certain expectations upon their representatives, namely, that they are to witness Orthodoxy and the tradition of the one true Orthodox Church to the non-Orthodox, that they are to defend the Truth of the Faith in a rather ominous and unfamiliar environment, and that they are never to yield to any compromise, doctrinal or otherwise. The presence of the Orthodox, who are often in the minority at such encounters, is therefore bound to trigger a degree of surprise, bafflement or even commotion from fellow participants. In a better case scenario, such specimens might be treated with benevolent curiosity, as interesting additions, by their Western counterparts, or they might be considered to be naive idealists by their gently condescending Orthodox brethren. At worst, Protestants will view such Orthodox participants with ← 1 | 2 → suspicion, defensively anticipating haughty or inflexible attitudes while, for their part, the more uncompromising among the Orthodox will automatically manifest severe distrust, or even label these Orthodox ecumenical participants as heretics or traitors to the Church.

Many Orthodox initially approach the ecumenical table with genuine commitment and enthusiasm, as a real chance to heal schism. Yet, forging friendships in such places seems a tricky thing for them: would this not impair their ability to discern clearly between truth and fallacy? Would they still be able to detect ulterior motives and erroneous ways were they to get entangled in such ‘sentimental’ liaisons? Moreover, the more rigorous among the Orthodox will surely deem them irresponsible idealists, accuse them of immature, shallow romanticism, or ‘naked sentimentality’.1 Better instead to refrain altogether from bringing the concept of love – Christian, human or otherwise – as viable argument.

Orthodox representatives tend to freeze under the enormous pressure of all these expectations. Theirs is a difficult task: at once navigating the occasionally daunting complexities of the ecumenical discussion while doing so with the awareness that their ecumenical involvement is fuelling suspicion back within their home communities. They need to decide fast whether or not they have what it takes to remain a part of this treacherous situation. A high degree of political skill and diplomacy alongside an expert knowledge of the Orthodox theological tradition appear prer-equisite for the ideal Orthodox candidate, as does the skill to manoeuvre between sentiment and reasoning, and between apparently contradictory understandings and views.

Such unfortunate Darwinian selection has given birth to an oddly adapted, ambidextrous, double-minded ecumenical creature, distrusted to some extent both by the Orthodox and by the Western Churches. The associated ambivalent stance – acknowledging both the Orthodox Church as one, but also serving the multitude of Christian Churches ← 2 | 3 → worldwide – was deemed as ‘double speak’ by one Orthodox anti-ecumenical writer, who placed it in the same category as schizophrenia.2

It was in the first-hand experience of this frustration, pain and disingenuousness that this study has found its impetus and motivation. The starting question underlying this theological exploration is: why do the Orthodox participate in the ecumenical movement, and how can they negotiate an involvement in the ecumenical movement – considering that the Orthodox see their Church as the only one true Church? The premise of this study, however, is that there must be another way for the ecumenical operation, for the Orthodox to approach and become engaged in ecumenical activities. The aim of this research is to explore the tension ever-present in inter-Christian environments between Orthodoxy and ecumenism, between the vision of Orthodoxy as the one true Church, self-sufficient and whole, and a vision of Orthodoxy as a humble, pastoral, outreaching reality in a fragmented pluralistic world.

Research on this theme is scarce as it runs counter to a prevailing attitude in Orthodox circles that avoids or marginalizes the topic of ecumenism as inflammatory, or even as an attack or betrayal of the Church establishment. Such research is all the more necessary given the intolerance and hostility which some groups within the Orthodox Church manifest towards the ecumenical endeavour, a stance which has marred and prevented a genuine constructive dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian communities.

This book will attempt to present the themes of Orthodoxy and ecumenism, their theological interaction, and to seek new theological angles which would enable an honest, unforced and responsible participation of the Orthodox. My hope is that this study would contribute to a deeper renewed understanding of the way the Orthodox view Orthodoxy. Moreover, that it might present a new, clearer and more credible vision of ecumenism for both Orthodox participants and for participants in the ecumenical dialogue more broadly. It will also seek to delineate new ← 3 | 4 → reception paradigms for Orthodoxy and ecumenism, where central aspects of Orthodox theology would move away from a paradigm of ‘passive conservatism’ to one of ‘active transformation’, while ecumenism would need to move towards becoming a part of the inner life of the Church and not merely an external ‘diplomatic’ reality.

Our exploration focuses on the period commencing, roughly, with the start of the ecumenical movement around the turn of the last century up until the present day. Documents presented for analysis, whether theological writings or official documents issued by representatives of the Churches, are taken primarily from this period. Research relies entirely on textual analysis and interpretation of contemporary Orthodox and Western sources pertinent to the theme of this study.

Especially in its first chapters, this book engages in analytical interpretation of the sources, with a view to determining how they interact and coalesce into visions that inform the relationship between Orthodoxy and ecumenism. The analysis prepares the ground for the later interpretative stages of the discussion, which deals with the paradigms for Orthodoxy and ecumenism that will enable future ecumenical interactions of greater efficiency and integrity.

A preliminary note should be made at this point regarding the term ‘ecumenism’. It is fair to say that after the many decades of a ‘remarkably consistent unease of the Orthodox Churches’ in ecumenical environments,3 ‘ecumenism’ has become a term largely distrusted and ‘tainted’ even within the less conservative circles of the Orthodox world. ‘A great deal of criticism of ecumenical work has been accumulated in the Orthodox milieu’, observes an official of the Russian Church. ‘For the Orthodox, the very notion of “ecumenism” often means a totality of alien theories and methods which the Orthodox are forced to accept’.4 He then adds that ‘the Moscow Patriarchate prefers today to use the terms “inter-Christian dialogue” and ← 4 | 5 → “inter-Christian relations” rather than the notion of “ecumenism”’.5 The seminal Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983) also expressed some while back a preference for the term ‘missionary’ to the term ‘ecumenical’ – thus revealing at the same time his position on the scope of ecumenism – as he found the word ‘ecumenical’ too ‘general and ambiguous’ and in need of being ‘redefined’.6

Indeed, while the Orthodox are not generally averse to the idea of ‘inter-Christian’ relations, the notion of ‘ecumenism’ is likely to elicit a negative reaction. This undoubtedly has to do with what the Orthodox have come to associate this term with over the years: an ‘alien’ unfamiliar environment wherein theories and methodologies were imposed upon the Orthodox; a system, the ethos of which is seen as irremediably compromised. Following the global impasse and weakening of the ecumenical movement in recent decades, the term has acquired an almost taboo character in some Orthodox circles, and has arguably lost much of its cachet in Western contexts too. It may thus appear safer for this study to have utilized the term ‘inter-Christian’, particularly as it tackles primarily the Orthodox context.

However, even if this study identifies the ecumenical movement as imperfect, due mostly to the rushed establishment of its theological foundation, it does not see the first ecumenical century as a ‘mistake’. Its evolution, although anticlimactic, is seen as part of the perennial process towards Church unity – which is bound to have both highs and lows – and not as a failed project. It would have been thus disingenuous to avoid the terms ‘ecumenism’ or ‘ecumenical movement’. Moreover, this study is steering towards the discovery of a fresh starting vision that could potentially lead to a resolution of the ecumenical crisis, chiefly with regard to Orthodox participation. The hope of this research is that the ecumenical movement will continue in a renewed state by employing fresh theological parameters and methodologies, and so too Orthodox participation in the movement. ← 5 | 6 → If, therefore, the ecumenical quest towards Church unity is rehabilitated, one may hope that the term that came to define it will be too.

Besides, the word ‘ecumenical’ has a special significance for the Orthodox, as it is used to define the seven early Ecumenical Councils of the Church which are believed to have shaped the Orthodox Church as it exists today. The term pointed back then, not unlike today, to the intrinsic drive of the Christians to keep the Church as One by countering schism and division.

The focus of the discussion in the following chapters will be on the ‘modern ecumenical movement’ as distinguished from the more general understanding of ecumenism as a continuous aspiration and activity of the Church, the origins of which extend to the time of Christ, the Apostles and the early Church. Although this study will indeed refer back to the core of the Christian faith in its Biblical expression and in the understanding of the tradition of the Church, its main focus will remain the recent phenomenon involving most of the Churches worldwide and known as ‘the ecumenical movement’.

Finally, a note regarding the Orthodox sources which will be used in this study: the research will focus almost exclusively on texts of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which recognizes the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the totality of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and not on sources belonging to the Oriental ‘non-Chalcedonian’ Orthodox Churches. Eastern Orthodoxy is itself a rather heterogeneous reality, but one, at least, wherein Eucharistic communion conveys and ensures an essential underlying doctrinal and theological unity. Operating outside this unity, the similar ethos and theology of the Oriental Churches notwithstanding, would make the task of this study excessively complex.

Moreover, from among the Eastern Orthodox sources, this project will concentrate on those belonging to the European tradition (Russia, Greece and the other European autocephalous Churches), and also those deriving from the Constantinopolitan See, the OCA and the American diasporas. Besides the relative similarity (historical, cultural and otherwise) of the Euro-American perimeter, the decision to focus on it has also been informed by the arguably more pivotal role that the Churches in these regions have played in the ecumenical movement since its inception in the twentieth century. Moreover, I felt that sources originating from the ← 6 | 7 → Middle Eastern Churches (Antioch, Alexandria or Jerusalem) would require a separate investigation due to the particularity of the situation of these communities, not least as minorities in the midst of different and often antagonistic religious settings. The Middle Eastern Orthodox Churches, both Eastern and Oriental, have played a significant role within the ecumenical movement, and this certainly requires renewed specialized focus and research.

The Orthodox journey after the Schism

While Orthodoxy as a concept was gradually shaped and defined in the period of the early Ecumenical Councils, and later on, during and following the Great Schism with the Western (Catholic) Church – aspects that will be touched upon in the first chapter of this book – its self-understanding and geographical sphere of operation became increasingly specific from the post-Schism, post-imperial era onwards, up until the modern day. The multi-pronged history of the Orthodox Churches in this latter period is hardly a homogenous one, and any detailed exposition would be well beyond the remit of this study. Notwithstanding, a brief consideration of this vast period is necessary, as it has fundamentally shaped the identity of the Orthodox and the way in which they relate to the rest of the Christian world.

This section will not follow the multifarious history of Orthodox communities in the past six centuries but will instead focus on a number of unifying themes which have characterized this journey and which are of specific relevance to the research at hand. The themes this study will focus on are: the almost continuous necessity for the Orthodox Churches to struggle for their survival under very difficult circumstances; the pervasive tendency toward internal dissensions within Orthodox communities; and the seemingly unavoidable propensity towards nationalistic attitudes. This section will tackle very briefly each of these aspects with a view to determining how they have informed the way the Orthodox relate today to ecumenical contexts. ← 7 | 8 →

The constant fight for survival

Compromise was sadly what characterized the immediate post-Schism attempts towards the restoration of Church unity which took place first at Lyons in 1274, and then at Ferrara-Florence (1438–1439) – both of which proved to be unsuccessful. These Councils were occasioned more than anything by the increasing need of the Byzantine Emperors to secure political and military aid against the advancing Ottoman threat.7 First, at Lyons, the Orthodox delegates agreed half-heartedly to recognize papal primacy and to recite the Creed with the addition of the Filioque. The Council of Florence followed in a comparable vein, although the talks there were of a much more extensive nature. Both Councils, however substantial the discussions, aimed to sort out in too short a time what had by then become fundamental doctrinal differences. While the Roman Church clung determinedly to its positions, the Orthodox were eventually faced with ‘the unpalatable alternative of either yielding to the Roman view or breaking off the talks and attempting to cope with the Turkish threat alone’.8 The Orthodox, with the exception of the Archbishop of Ephesus, finally signed the Act of Union. However, as had been the case for the Council of Lyons, the terms of the union were never in fact accepted by Orthodox communities back home and were repudiated immediately and unanimously throughout the Byzantine world.

Instead of constituting steps towards unity, the Councils of Lyons and Florence served as bitter reminders of the increasingly insurmountable nature of the division and of the lingering acrimony between the two sides. The events of these Councils penetrated deeply into the consciousness of Orthodox communities and indeed today are used by many anti-ecumenical writers as examples, as it were, of the essentially failed nature of ecumenism. Modern Orthodox ecumenical engagements are often seen to be, as in the case of Lyons and Florence, motivated by political agendas, and are ← 8 | 9 → expected to lead, just like before, to treacherous agreements towards unity against the general will of Orthodox communities.

Biographical notes

Razvan Porumb (Author)

Razvan Porumb is currently Lecturer in Ecumenism and Practical Theology and Vice-Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS), Cambridge. He has taken his doctorate through the Cambridge Theological Federation and IOCS, where he has been as a researcher and a member of staff for more than twelve years.


Title: Orthodoxy and Ecumenism