Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow on Ecumenism

The recent meeting of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis in Jerusalem has met with many responses and has led to several very spirited discussions on OCN’s increasingly dynamic Facebook page.

Central to these debates is the question of ecumenical relations in general: what should the Orthodox Church’s approach be to dialogue and interaction with Christians outside of Orthodoxy?

Those engaging in vociferous discussion on social media would do well to heed the following words from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, which he delivered as part of a larger speech in September 1999 when he was still a Metropolitan and Head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations:

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Ecumenism is discussed rather widely in church circles today. Church life is divided between supporters and adversaries of ecumenism, the latter by far exceeding the former. There is no dialogue whatsoever between them: neither side wishes even so much as to hear the other. When polemics do take place, they are politicized to the extreme: ecumenism is tagged as a bogeyman, church hierarchs and theologians are accused of the “ecumenical heresy” in order to discredit their activities.

It seems to me that dialogue with heterodoxy is indispensable for us. Encounters between heads of churches and representatives of their administrations are of the utmost importance: only through personal contact can the numerous barriers that exist between Christians of different confessions be overcome. Yet encounters between theologians, both on an official and non-official level, are no less important. We need theologians not only with perfect command of the treasures of their own tradition, but also with a sound understanding of the heterodox tradition with which they enter into dialogue. At present, the Russian church has virtually no such specialists.

Church divisions, schisms, attitudes towards and relations with heterodoxy need to be reassessed theologically at a new level, taking into consideration the ecumenical experience of the 20th century. Russian theology has seen the widest possible array of views on this matter: from the total negation of the presence of divine grace in heterodox churches to the total negation of any real division between the churches. Even now some still think that “human barriers do not reach up to heaven”; and there are others who, on the contrary, are convinced that no salvation is possible for non-Orthodox. Obviously a certain variety of views here is entirely acceptable and natural; yet whatever position a member of the Orthodox church may express, it is essential that this be supported not only by neophyte passion or zeal for the purity of Orthodoxy, but by deep knowledge as well: for any position acquires the right to exist only when it is carefully argued and theologically founded.

The abysmal crisis of the world ecumenical movement today must be understood. Initially it was precisely this – a “movement”: there was much spontaneity, enthusiasm and a lot of hope. Such outstanding personalities and inspiring theologians as Fr Sergius Bulgakov and Fr Georges Florovsky stood at its origins (with all the differences between their positions, they were united in supporting the movement as the most important of inter-Christian initiatives). Yet with time the number of theologians of their stature in the ecumenical movement has dwindled, and the institutional factor has grown ever more prominent. The ecumenical movement has become a bureaucracy, and lost a considerable amount of its initial enthusiasm. This is one of the reasons why, by the end of the 20th century, many were disillusioned with ecumenism.

Of course, ecumenism is not limited to the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations. It exists on the level of individual churches, individual communities and even families. Life itself often puts people in situations that oblige them to be “ecumenists”. Mixed marriages in particular cause people to live, as it were, in two church traditions at the same time. But even everyday ecumenism demands a theological basis, and mixed marriages are an issue that must be treated on a theological level as well.

Theologians must also seek for answers concerning the future of Christianity in the third millennium. We cannot deny the fact that Islam, notwithstanding its many divisions, is a monolithic religion, at least in culture and morals: it has succeeded in creating a strong civilization that conquers ever-new frontiers. But is there a “Christian civilization” in the modern world? Are Christians united in the face of the challenges of our era, such as atheism, nihilism and humanist liberalism? What do the Christians of the third millennium have to offer to counter these phenomena which challenge Christianity and threaten its very existence?

All these matters must be resolved in dialogue with Christians of other confessions. The great jubilee of the coming of our Lord and Saviour to the world, which is being celebrated by Christians who are divided and often even hostile to one another, is yet another opportunity for dialogue to be enhanced with new impetus, new content, new inspiration.

Still, local discussion within the Russian Orthodox Church is necessary as well concerning a whole array of questions related to inter-Christian co-existence and interaction in the 21st century. This should assimilate all that has been undertaken by the church in the field of ecumenical cooperation, and develop a strategy for further action. Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad states the following about this:

Today we face a unique opportunity to include all healthy theological forces in this process of assimilation: theological schools, monasticism, hierarchy, clergy and theologians. The time has come for serious debate on the participation of the Orthodox church in the ecumenical movement in the pages of church periodicals to begin. It should be a serious, thoughtful discussion, not a malicious row. Those engaging in it should be theologically educated, responsible and spiritually experienced persons. Neophite squabbles are totally misplaced in such a discussion.

Yet the problem lies precisely in the fact that for the time being Russia lacks such theologically educated and responsible people. The discussions (or rather, rows) are engaged in by ill-educated people lacking in responsibility. A new generation of theologians is needed, one sufficiently competent to participate in this discussion. We also need to part with prejudiced approaches and stereotypes, which may undermine even the richest of dialogues. Finally a healthy climate within the church is needed, one which presupposes the existence of such a discussion and allows its participants to have an opinion of their own.

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Considering the events of the last 15 years, and the most recent debates online, the Patriarch’s words nearly 15 years ago have proven to be most prescient.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Development at OCN. He holds…
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