Few concepts are more universally controversial in the Christian world today than ecumenism. The word can conjure up all sorts of different ideas for different people, and yet still different opinions about those ideas.
As might be obvious based on the title of this series, I am hoping to address the common tradition shared by the Orthodox East and the Latin West and to explain how Orthodox today should view our current dialogue with Rome in a positive light—that is, this series is going to be unapologetically “pro-ecumenist.” However, before we get into that (and before I start receiving all the hate mail), let’s address precisely what ecumenism is not.
Most importantly, ecumenism cannot ever mean change or compromise in matters of the Faith. The Orthodox Faith is not ours to decide; it is our gift from God to know, love, preserve and hand down to the next generation. It is the Faith of Christ, not the democratically elected faith of mere man. It is nothing short of divine revelation. We simply cannot unite the Truth of Christ to falsehood. Period. That is not ecumenism, it is heresy. Some have called ecumenism “pan-heresy” and if they understand ecumenism to mean the disregarding of the Faith, then they’re absolutely right. This is the problem with the ecumenism of the Protestant world, which seeks a “least common denominator” of basic premises and dismisses the idea of the fullness of Faith in Christ. This is not Orthodox, and never can be.
So, without sacrificing the least bit of the Faith of Christ, how can we possibly consider “Christian unity” with the likes of the Latin West, whose theology can often sound so very different (e.g., unorthodox, heterodox or maybe even heretical) from our familiar language and expressions? In our dialogue with Rome, we have to remember the intricate history between our churches. It is a very unique situation. While, in general, the Eastern Orthodox feel much closer to the Non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox (and I do agree that we, with them, proclaim the same Christ), canonically we are actually much closer to Rome. The schism of Chalcedon happened long before the East-West schism, and remains entrenched in the canonical quagmires of mutual anathemas and the decrees of an Ecumenical Council (by the grace of God, one day that can be resolved). But no such council ever separated the Greek East from the Latin West. While there is a complex history of local councils, there has never been a truly ecumenical rejection of one by the other, either as a universal recognition of schism or of heresy. Essentially, our communion fell apart over time, with both and neither parties simultaneously at fault.
We also have the problem that the East never really knew Latin very well, and that the West forgot Greek. Cultural isolation has led to a number of poorly stated polemics on both sides. We Orthodox in particular have developed all sorts of objections to Latin theology (against indulgences, primacy, purgatory, the “Latin” Marian dogmas, original sin, etc.) by generally misunderstanding the Latin theological framework and language, missing that much of these developments also have foundation in the East and could potentially be understood as legitimate expressions of Orthodoxy, just like our post-schism theological developments (not innovations) are legitimate. If you want to find an Orthodox understanding of purgatory, read St. Leo the Great or St. Gregory of Nyssa; if you want to understand the Immaculate Conception, read St. Gregory Palamas or St. Dmitri of Rostov. If you want to understand the Assumption of the Theotokos, read the texts of the Feast of the Dormition. The list could go on and on, and the detail with which we could examine each of the common objections and misunderstandings goes far beyond the scope of this short editorial. Hopefully, I will get to tackle some of this in a later article.
One thing that those of us on both sides of this schism must understand is that the other side cannot be expected to simply become what we are. By that, I don’t at all mean that we should not insist and ensure that Rome confesses the Orthodox faith. That is absolutely vital! There can be no unity without holding the common Orthodox Faith, and we cannot bend and change the Faith to better suit ourselves or someone else. What I do mean, is that we cannot expect the Latin Church, which has its own unique ancient customs, to suddenly look, act and speak Greek. We would balk at the idea of Rome trying to force us to adopt the Latin Mass and other Western practices—and rightly so! Our ancient Greek heritage is that which we have received from our Fathers; we shouldn’t change a thing, and we cannot change anything which is vital to the Faith. Likewise, Rome and her customs are just as ancient. We cannot expect Rome, which was never Byzantine, to suddenly be so.
Again, this does not mean we can be united together and hold a different faith. That is impossible. It is blasphemy. But when it comes to our own particular expressions of a shared Orthodox Faith, we must respect differences in culture and language. We were Byzantine long before the schism; they were Latin long before the schism. This fact means that Orthodoxy can be expressed in a Byzantine way and in a Latin way. The Church embodied that diversity for 1,000 years and can do so again, rejoicing in Christ our God who reaches across all cultures and languages to bring all of mankind unto salvation. Recognizing our diversity in expressing the One Faith is what ecumenism actually is: coming to recognize the other as compatible with the Faith, yet never changing the Faith to fit an agenda.
Recognizing the same faith in a different expression will most likely challenge some of us. Our Eastern Orthodox Church has been completely Byzantine in its expression of Faith for many centuries. It can be offensive to our sensibilities, or at least an odd notion to us, to say that something can be Orthodox but not Byzantine. Yet this is how the Early Church was. Byzantine Christianity was actually a later (very beautiful and legitimate) development in the Church, and was preceded by other expressions, such as Coptic and Syriac spirituality and liturgy, not to mention the ancient Ethiopian Church or the Church of India. These ancient communities were never Byzantine in any way, and yet were no less an expression of the Orthodox Faith. The same is true of ancient Latin Orthodoxy.
As Pope Francis travels to Constantinople to mark the feast of St. Andrew with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, let us step outside of our own cultural comfort zone and examine the Catholic Church, not based on our pre-conceived notions and understandings of Christianity through a purely Byzantine lens, but rather through the lens of Christ and the Orthodox Faith “once delivered to the saints,” which from the day of Pentecost spoke in all languages and delved into all cultures, becoming “all things to all men that some might be saved,” (1 Cor. 9:22).
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