The Elephant in the Ecumenical Room

The Elephant in the Ecumenical Room


Especially in advance of the much-anticipated Great and Holy Council scheduled for later this year, there has been much talk about the importance of our ecumenical connections, including the possibility of recognizing the baptisms of all the other Christians churches and denominations. Part of the discussion has revolved around the question of how to receive Christians from such churches who desire to convert to Orthodoxy. Do we receive them by baptism, thereby effectively totally denying the basic ecclesial reality of their churches, or merely by chrismation, accepting their baptisms as valid and thereby giving more ecclesial validity to their churches? Some of the scholarly discussion has invoked the wisdom of St. Basil, who dealt with questions like these in his “canonical letter” to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, which was in turn utilized in the canons attached to the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in canon 95.

This material distinguished between three different situations:

1. Christians whose faith (represented sometimes by the baptismal formula they used) was sufficiently different from that of the Church to require them to be received by re-baptism—which of course, was not really a re-baptism, but simply a baptism, since the baptism they received from their heretical church was regarded as no true baptism

2. Christians whose faith retained enough similarities to that of the Church so as to allow them to be received by chrismation alone, without re-baptism

3. Christians whose faith was sufficiently similar to that of the Church so as to allow them to be received into the Church upon them simply renouncing and anathematizing their former heresies.

Examples of the first group of converts requiring rebaptism were the Paulianists, as well as the Eunomeans, who baptized with a single immersion. Examples of the second group, those received by chrismation alone, were Apolliniarians, who declared that Christ had no human soul, but that the Logos took the place of the soul in Him. Examples of the third group, converts received through simple renunciation of error, were groups like the Nestorians.

Here the details concerning the heresies are less important than the underlying principle involved, which is that various groups were received according to the principle of how far their faith differed from Orthodoxy. Groups judged close to Orthodoxy were only required to renounce their previous errors. Groups judged further out and differing more dramatically from the faith of the Church were required to be chrismated. Groups whose faith was judged as radically incompatible to Orthodoxy were received by baptism, with the implicit judgment that their former faith was not truly Christian, whatever it claimed to be and whatever its outward similarities.

Many scholars still invoke these principles today, and on the basis of them suggest that the Church recognize the baptism of all the other Christian churches. Those churches, they suggest, are sufficiently close to Orthodoxy so as to allow the Orthodox to accept their baptism because they accept the same Trinitarian faith as Orthodoxy does. But are they really?

Here we must speak of the elephant in the ecumenical room. It is probable that most of the representatives of those Protestant churches do indeed accept a Trinitarian faith and have enough proximity to Orthodoxy to allow them to hang out in ecumenical circles and talk to us very articulately. But we Orthodox have had a similar experience before which should caution us to take what is said in such ecumenical discussions with a grain of ecumenical salt. Our previous discussions with Anglicans, for instance, gave us the impression that 1. Anglicanism was confessionally homogenous, with all Anglicans committed to the same faith; and 2. this faith accepted (for example) seven sacraments and seven ecumenical councils. That was because the ecumenical delegates talking to us at ecumenical gatherings accepted these things, and we assumed (gratuitously, as it turned out) that they represented all Anglicans. It was not so. Many Anglicans accepted not seven sacraments, but two, and not the seven ecumenical councils, but four (or possibly five or six), but certainly not the last one, which blessed icons. It turned out that there were High Anglicans, Low Anglicans, and Broad Anglicans, and heaven knows what in between. Having no such experience of confessional diversity (or “comprehension” as the Anglicans called it), we assumed that such diversity did not exist within the churches with whom we were speaking. We were naïve, as it turned out, and were soon disabused of our naivety.

It is high time to learn from our past mistakes. The delegates speaking for the various Protestant churches, let us charitably assume, are convinced and devout Trinitarians, persons whose faith approximates ours enough to allow them to take part in ecumenical discussions. But the devout Anglican Trinitarian does not represent all Anglicans. Anglicanism (to take but one example) allows its members and even its bishops a great latitude in their faith, so that some have been famously anti-trinitarian with no ecclesiastical consequences whatsoever (men such as Bishop Pike and Bishop Spong). Evidently, such diversity (or comprehension) is entirely legitimate within the Anglican Communion.

It is not just anti-trinitarianism that is allowed within the boundaries of their “orthodoxy”.  Their refusal to condemn abortion is allowed, as is the view which says that women can be bishops, and homosexuals and lesbians can be married (and ordained). The rejection of Scripture, Tradition, and the canonical tradition implicit in accepting such teachings is also allowed and is mainstream in these traditions. This reigning theological liberalism is the elephant in the room. Bishop Spong, for example, may declare himself a Trinitarian according to his redefined definitions and recite the Creed every Sunday, but what of it? Liberalism allows him to redefine the ancient creedal words in whatever way he likes, so that although he may say the traditional Creed, he may actually not believe a word of it.  We know that this is allowed, because Spong has written best-sellers to boast about it, and remained a best-selling bishop. Anglican Comprehension apparently is wide and comprehensive enough to include such diversity. Given this, it really scarcely matters what the devout Trinitarian attending the ecumenical gatherings believes. His or hers is a private opinion, and cannot be regarded as really representing the church which he or she purports to represent.

Let us for a moment prescind from this discussion and play a game of historical imagination. Let’s pretend that St. Basil could be presented with the case of a church that allowed its bishops to publicly and emphatically reject the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the existence of hell, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Let us assume that he knew further that this church allowed abortion, blessed homosexual marital unions, and even ordained such homosexuals to the highest offices in the church.

In which of the three categories we have mentioned above do you guess he might place this church? Is there any doubt that he would regard such a confession as essentially Gnostic and receive its converts by baptism? For all of the churches he surveyed in his days agreed with his Orthodox church regarding all these moral issues. Churches which dissented so radically about such basics as our modern liberal Protestant churches do would not have been accepted by Basil and the Councils after him as sufficiently close to Orthodoxy as to allow their baptisms to stand. The issue of what determines ecclesial legitimacy cannot be confined to Christological matters and Trinitarian theology. It embraces orthodoxy of moral praxis as well as orthodoxy of belief, and churches which diverge so dramatically in matters of basic moral issues cannot be considered true churches. Calling darkness light (see Isaiah 5:20) is enough to forfeit credible claim to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

This being so, it has important implications for our ecumenical discussions. All our past ecumenism has been based upon the happy principle of confessionalism—i.e. that a certain church or denomination was more or less consistent in its confession of faith. Thus all Protestants could be counted upon to accept the divinity of Christ, all Calvinists could be counted upon to accept the Westminster Confession, and all Lutherans could be counted upon to accept the Augsburg Confession. That is why the rite of receiving such converts found in Hapgood’s Service Book asks the Reformed converts (for example) if they renounce the “false doctrine of predestination of men”, because they assumed that all Reformed converts accepted the same Reformed confession of faith. We assumed that each denomination was characterized by fidelity to its historic confessions and could be counted on to keep to that historic path. For the last generation at least it has clearly not been so, and Christians from those confessions have been free to accept or reject the historic confessions of their past, or in fact anything else they liked. That is why they now reject Protestantism’s historic theology of the sanctity of unborn life, of Holy Orders, of sexuality, and of gender. It should be noted that I am here referring only to the “historic” Protestant churches of the Reformation now characterized by theological liberalism, not the more conservative Evangelical Protestant churches which have retained a more traditional moral praxis.  It should also be noted that these reflections are intended to have implications only for those converting to Orthodoxy in the future; those already received by chrismation alone should of course be fully accepted with no suggestion that their previous baptism requires remedy.

As long as Protestant churches allow such diversity (or heresy, to give its ancient name) our ecumenical discussions will partake of a certain unreality. We will pass motions accepting the baptisms of all Lutherans, assuming that all Lutherans are like the Lutherans we have been talking to, when in fact many of them are nothing like them at all. The fact that theological liberalism reigns in the historic Protestant churches has not been mentioned in any of the ecumenical documents I have seen. If that elephant in the room has indeed been noticed by Orthodox participants, no one has been speaking about it.  It is time that we did.


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About author

Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979 before serving Anglican parishes in central Canada. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and spent two years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the O.C.A., St. Herman of Alaska Church.

The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C., where they worship each Sunday. The community has planted a number of ‘daughter churches’, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, published by Conciliar Press, including the Bible Study Companion Series, with verse-by-verse commentaries on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, the Early Epistles, the Prison Epistles, the Pastoral Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, as well as a volume about how to read the Old Testament , entitled The Christian Old Testament. He has also written a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, entitled, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. SVS Press has published his book on Feminism and Tradition, examining such topics as the ordination of women and deaconesses. He has also written a synaxarion (lives of Saints), published by Light and Life, entitled A Daily Calendar of Saints, recently updated and revised and available through his blog. He has also written a series of Akathists, published by Alexander Press, including Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness, Akathist to the Most-Holy Theotokos, Daughter of Zion, A New Akathist to St. Herman of Alaska, Akathist: Glory to the God who Works Wonders (a rehearsal of the works of God from Genesis to Revelation). His articles have appeared in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger (the official diocesan publication of the Archdiocese of Canada), as well as in the Orthodox Church (the official publication of the O.C.A.), in The Handmaiden and AGAIN magazine (from Conciliar Press).

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at the local Regent College, Vancouver. He can also be found on his personal blog, Straight from the Heart.

Fr. Lawrence lives in Surrey with his wife, Donna. They have two daughters, and three grandchildren.