Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “ecumenism”

Are Roman Catholics and Orthodox about to unite?

There has been quite a lot of talk in the blogosphere about an imminent reunion between Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Father Milovan writes about it in “The Arrogant Papal Brow” | Again and Again. The Roman Pope has visited several Orthodox countries recently, and there has also been a proliferation of Byzantine-style ikons in Roman Catholic churches, as this Orthodox writer notes OCA – Q & A – Orthodox Influences on Roman Catholicism:

Of course, it is difficult to objectively detail influences Orthodoxy has had on Roman Catholicism. Very often an individual or a small group of individuals may have contact with Orthodoxy, digest certain things which they discovered, and incorporated them into the life and thought of their communion, generally without the knowledge of the Orthodox. Last May I encountered a Roman Catholic priest from France who operates a school for young adults interested in missionary and evangelistic outreach. He gave me a copy of the school’s magazine, which sported photographs of the school’s chapel, the interior of which was completely frescoed in Byzantine iconography. Other pictures revealed another small chapel filled with icons, as well as the priest himself in Orthodox vestments celebrating the Eucharist. Odd as all of this might be — imagine how one would react to find an Orthodox church in which the Sacred Heart statue was prominently displayed! — it does show that, in many ways great and small, Orthodoxy has had some influence, even if it is only external.

The last point, about the Sacred Heart, indicates, however, that there is still a very long way to go. Why is it that, as an Orthodox Christian, I find this Byzantinised image of the Sacred Heart (found at Clerical Whispers: Prayer To The Sacred Heart) quite shocking, and almost a desecration?

I don’t mind if Roman Catholics use Byzantine ikons, but this image strikes me as abuse rather than use. It indicates that the gulf is much wider than we think.

Unity is a lot more than Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops visiting and being polite to each other. I’m all in favour of them doing that, and even doing the same thing with Anglican and Zionist bishops, but it doesn’t mean that reunion is imminent.

Some think that it is only a few minor theological issues that can be sorted out quickly. But it’s not just papal primacy and the Filioque that keep us apart, but a millennium of history. We differ in soteriology (Anselm’s theory of the atonement, which swept the west, never got much traction in Orthodoxy), ecclesiology (the Orthodox temple versus the Roman monolith and the Protestant heap of stones) and missiology (Roman missiologists believe that Orthodox missiology is derived from Origen).

All these have led to a different culture and ethos, and this is just as much theology as the kind of theology that is written in books. And so before there can be any reunion, these things must be faced and examined.

So if Roman Catholics want to have images of the Sacred Heart, I think it would be better if they stuck to ones like the one on the left.

Unlike some writers, I don’t think a hasty marriage is imminent. We are far closer to the Oriental Churches, like the Copts and Armenians, than we are to the Roman Catholics, and I don’t see reunion happening there very quickly. I’ll believe it when I see an agreement that the next Pope of Alexandria to die will not be replaced, but that the other one will simply move in to succeed him and that thereafter there will just be one. But I see no sign of that happening yet.


Some other posts that point to differences that need to be examined and sorted out before we can say that the time is ripe for reunion:

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria on ecumenism

There’s an interesting and wide-ranging interview of the Orthodox Bishop of Vienna and Austria by Peter Bouteneff. I think that the whole interview is worth reading, but what the bishop said about ecumenism certainly rang bells for me.

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff — An Interview with His Grace, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria:

After more than thirteen years of intensive ecumenical involvement I can declare my profound disappointment with the existing forms of “official” ecumenism as represented by the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and other similar organizations. My impression is that they have exhausted their initial potential. Theologically they lead us nowhere. They produce texts that, for the most part, are pale and uninspiring. The reason for this is that these organizations include representatives of a wide variety of churches, from the most “conservative” to the most “liberal.” And the diversity of views is so great that they cannot say much in common except for a polite and politically correct talk about “common call to unity,” “mutual commitment” and “shared responsibility.”

I see that there is now a deep-seated discrepancy between those churches which strive to preserve the Holy Tradition and those that constantly revise it to fit modern standards. This divergence is as evident at the level of religious teaching, including doctrine and ecclesiology, as it is at the level of church practice, such as worship and morality.

Hat-tip to Ad Orientem: Bp. Hilarion (Alfeeyev) Speaks

I have plenty of pale and uninspiring texts mouldering in files and on shelves, produced by ecumenical gatherings, and the only thing that stops me throwing them out is the thought that I might need to quote something from one the following day. And I’ve been to plenty of ecumenical gatherings where talk is cheap and action non-existent. A few have been worth attending, not for what they achieved, but for the insight they gave into the reasons for non-achievement.

One of the latter class was a meeting of the South African Council of Churches a few years ago on Zimbabwe, where members of the South African observer team of the Zimbabwean elections confessed that they had been persuaded to sign a statement declaring the elections free and fair when it was pretty evident that they were not, and at the meeting they spoke of their remorse at having thereby exacerbated the problems in that unhappy country instead of helping to solve them.

Ecumenism and Orthodoxy

In a long and wide-ranging post the Ochlophobist looks at ecumenism from an Orthodox point of view. In an earlier post on the Emerging Church and Orthodoxy I pointed out the different views of ecclesiology that make “ecumenism” a controversial concept for Orthodox Christians. The Ochlophobist, however, looks at it much more widely: The Ochlophobist: real ecumenicic, augustinomianisms, there’s no such thing as the wicked witch of the west, or, we are all the wicked witch of the west, etc., part 2.

When I taught missiology at the University of South Africa under the late Professor David Bosch he published his magnum opus,Transforming mission, in which he wrote about the “emerging ecumenical paradigm of mission”. Unfortunately his untimely death put an end to the discussion about this. But much of the emerging ecumenical paradigm seemed to be built on a Western paradigm, Western history and Western assumptions. The Ochlophobist questions many of these from and Orthodox point of view.

Concerning the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Ochlophobist says

We have many differences, but some of them are obviously compatible. Easterns hold crowns over the heads of bride and bridegroom at weddings, many Orientals hold crosses over the heads of bride and bridegroom. Both obviously mean the same thing – that the couple is called to martyrdom. Here we have a classic example of common Orthopraxis. The Oriental and Eastern Orthodox wedding services clearly mean the same thing. Christian wedding services from other traditions, in terms of both text and actions, seem to quite clearly mean something different. For reunion to take place, so say the Holy Elders, there must be acknowledgement of a unity of faith and of a common life. The acknowledgement of the unity of faith must happen among bishops, and among Orthodox and Oriental theologians, and it must happen among clergy and laity at local levels. I must experience as an Eastern Orthodox layman, the act of going to an Oriental church and hearing the same faith taught that is taught in the Eastern Church. The acknowledgement of a common life must come through the broad recognition among bishops, theologians, and the rest, that both Easterns and Orientals share the same intuition with regard to discipline, piety, and prayer. There are differences. The question is whether or not both sides come to understand and trust that the differences are semantic, as it were, and not substantial.

With the Oriental Orthodox — the Copts, Armenians and Syrian Jacobites — the Orthopraxy is sufficiently similar, as in the wedding example, to make us feel at home in one another’s churches and services. Thouigh there are cultural differences, there is also much that seems familiar. It is not so much the Orthopraxy that is different, it is the Orthodoxy, and specifically the christology over the two natures of Christ.

When it comes to Roman Catholics, and the thousands of Protestant groups, matters become more difficult.

Some thirty years ago in South Africa a group of denominations in South Africa decided to commit unity. Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists and several varieties of Presbyterians were joined in the Church Unity Commission (CUC). And on one Sunday in 1974 they were all to get together locally and have a service of commitment to unity.

I was then an Anglican, and in our area there were six congregations belonging to the CUC. The clergy of all of them got together to plan the unity service. It was agreed that it would be a Eucharist, and that it would be held in the Methodist Church and that we would use Anglican blotting paper for bread and Methodist furniture polish for wine. We would use Anglican chalices rather than dinky little Methodist glasses, and we would use the order of service provided by the CUC.

Then began the fun: who gets to do what. We decided to put the names of the clergy into a hat, except that there wasn’t a hat, so we used the Anglican rector’s fondue pot (fondues were big in the 1970s, but I haven’t seen one for years). The Anglican rector’s name was pulled out for the celebrant, who would say the Eucharistic prayer. Sighs of relief from the Anglo-Catholics — it wasn’t going to be done by one of those heretics who lacked apostolic succession, so it might be a valid Eucharist. The Presbyterian pulled the intercessions. The Congregationalist objected, because everyone knew that the Presbyterian was charismatic, and that would give him licence to do weird stuff. The Congregationalist also didn’t like the fixed form of confession provided by the CUC. He didn’t want extemporary prayer from charismatic Presbyterians, but trusted himself with an extemporary confession. The Anglicans objected to that — how can you confess our sins?

And so the discussion continued. And what this service of commitment to unity revealed was that we were far more divided than we thought we were. The Anglicans wanted an offertory procession (bringing up the bread and wine), but the Methodists and Presbyterians saw no need for it, so it was there in the beginning elegantly covered by a mosquito net. The Anglicans ended up consuming all the leftover Methodist furniture polish (vile stuff!) and the Methodists wondered why they didn’t just pour it down the drain.

Compared with that, the question of crosses or crowns at the wedding service is a doddle.

And just to show how effective the whole thing is, the CUC still exists three decades later, and there has been little progress towards unity. The whole ecumenism thing just showed how divided everyone was.

So one really needs to ask what kind of ecumenical mission paradgim is emerging, and whether in fact there is one.

Well he would, wouldn’t he?

No surprises here: Vatican: Non-Catholics ‘wounded’ by not recognizing pope.

A 16-page document, prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict used to head, described Christian Orthodox churches as true churches, but suffering from a “wound” since they do not recognize the primacy of the Pope.

But the document said the “wound is still more profound” in the Protestant denominations — a view likely to further complicate relations with Protestants.

If it weren’t so, we’d all have been Uniate long ago. That’s one of those areas of disagreement that still has to be hammered out before the churches can be reunited. The Orthodox, of course, see it from a different viewpoint. The “wound” is the claim of the Pope of Rome to “universal ordinary jurisdiction”, and perhaps his claim to be “the” Pope. We have a Pope in Alexandria, and as far as we are concerned, he is “the” Pope. The one in Rome is just the head of a non-Orthodox denomination.

All sorts of people seem to be getting their knickers in a knot over this document. But that’s just silly. Would they rather that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pretended to be what they are not, or that their ecclesiology is other than what it is? How can we have dialogues and discuss differences in ecclesiology if everyone is pretending that their ecclesiology is something else? Christian unity is not brought about by papering over the cracks and pretending that differences don’t exist. We need to face the differences honestly. Let’s face it: Roman Catholic ecclesiology is dffierent from Orthodox ecclesiology, and different from most Protestant ecclesiologies. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is just being honest. Would we prefer it if they weren’t?

Emerging church and Orthodoxy revisited

This morning I was playing around with the tag surfing feature on WordPress and came across this post, which was more than 9 months old, so I might not have found it otherwise: Just an apprentice: Emerging church and orthodoxy. This linked to some articles by Scot McKnight, an emerging church theologian, which answered some of the questions I posed in an earlier post here: Notes from underground: Orthodoxy and Evangelical Protestantism. And “just an apprentice” puts a finger on the biggest stumbling block in all ecumenical discussions between Orthodox and Protestants, whether the Protestants are Evangelical, Emerging, Pentecostal, Liberal, or anything else:

This question that Scot McKnight addresses is one that I have been asking on my journey. It is a question of ecclesiology. What is the center of the Christian church? What is the prism through which we worship God, read Scripture, and interact with our culture? What is the relationship of the emerging church with the Creeds of classical Chrisitianity? The commentary and analysis by McKnight are helpful in connecting a few dots.

The stumbling block is ecclesiology.

It was this that nearly caused all the Orthodox Churches to leave the World Council of Churches recently. It is this that causes some conservative Orthodox to call “ecumenism” a heresy.

The book to read is Beyond the East-West divide — the World Council of Churches and “the Orthodox problem” by Anna Marie Aagaard and Peter Bouteneff (Geneva, Risk, 2001 ISBN 2-8254-1350-X).

If you’re Protestant and want to talk to Orthodox Christians, read this book to understand where the Orthodox are coming from. It doesn’t matter what kind of Protestant — Evangelical, Ecumenical, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Emerging, Anglican (even Anglo-Catholic, if you believe in the “branch theory” of ecclesiology).

One can’t go into all the nuances in a blog post, so what follows is probably over-simplified, not to say simplistic, but I try to summarise the point.

Most Protestants share a common basic ecclesiology.

Methodists (for example) are quite happy to see themselves as one denomination among many within a particular religion — Christianity (which is in turn seen as one religion among many). That applies to most Protestant Christian denominations, and those that do not see it in that way are regarded by the others as sects. Even non-denominational bodies tend to think of themselves as one nondenomination among many denominations and nondenominations within one religion, Christianity.

The Orthodox Church does not regard itself as a denomination, at least in the ecclesiological sense. And even the sociological sense, for conservative Orthodox, comes too close to the “heresy of ecumenism”. The “heresy of ecumenism”, in this case, being to regard the Orthodox Church as one denomination among many.

The Orthodox “statement of faith” (to use an Evangelical Protestant term), is the Symbol of Faith, usually called by Protestants the “Nicene Creed”, though the actual Nicene Creed was a much shorter document, which says nothing about the Church.

Among the statements in the Symbol of Faith is “(I believe) in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (is mian agian kathoikin ke apostolikin ekklesian). Not in many denominations (and nondenominations), but One Church.

In what sense is the Church “apostolic”?

If we read about the day the Church began, in Acts 2, we see that the first Christian converts “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (isan de proscarteroundes ti didache ton apostolon, ke ti kinonia, ti klasi tou artu, ke tis prosevches).

The Orthodox Church believes that it has “continued” unbroken in those four things from that day to this. It is not “Wesleyan” or “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” but “Apostolic”. The “apostles’ fellowship” is maintained by, among other things, the apostolic succession of bishops. The “apostles’ fellowship” is among the key elements of Orthodox ecclesiology, and, with the “apostles’ teaching” is what makes the one holy catholic Church “apostolic”.

There are numerous denominations, especially in the Pentecostal tradition, which have the word “Apostolic” in the name of their denomination, such as the Apostolic Faith Mission (from which many of the others sprang). As David du Plessis puts it, their criterion is not so much “apostolic succession” as “apostolic success”. But for the Orthodox Church the “apostles’ fellowship” (or “apostles’ communion”) is an essential mark of the Church.

In the New Testament the word “church” never means a “denomination” or “communion” (or even a “nondenomination”). In the New Testament the word “church” refers either to the local church or to the universal church. The worldwide church is the “ecumenical church” (not in the modern sense of “many denominations together”, but in the geographical sense of “the inhabited earth”). The local churches are bound together in the apostles’ fellowship through the communion of their bishops, as they commemorate and pray for each other in the Divine Liturgy.

The church is catholic, not in the sense of being “universal” (for the Orthodox that is covered by “ecumenical”) but more in the sense of being holistic. Catholic means “according to the whole”. In a holographic image, if you divide the image in two, you get not two half images, but two whole images. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So the church is like a temple, where the building is more than just the individual bricks and tiles. But each local church is not just a brick in the building, but like a holographic image, whole in itself.

From an Orthodox point of view, therefore, the congregationalist ecclesiology resembles a pile of bricks rather than a whole building, while Roman Catholic ecclesiology resembles a monolith – a single boulder rather than a building.

So for the Orthodox, schism is not within the church, but from the church.

And for the Orthodox it makes little sense to talk of “emerging ecclesiology”, unless it means that the ecclesiology that submerged a long time ago in the West is resurfacing.

I realise that to ecumenically-minded Protestants this all looks extaordinarily arrogant, saying “we’re right and you’re wrong” (non-ecumenically-minded Protestants, like those who generated the Biola report mentioned in an earlier post, assert that far more strongly than most Orthodox). But for the Orthodox it is more a matter of being true to the Orthodox understanding of history — that the Orthodox Church has continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, for twenty centuries, and it would be false to say that it has not. The Orthodox Church participates in the ecumenical movement because it believes that it would be good to restore the apostles’ fellowship among all who declare their faith in the Triune God, but not at the price of abandoning its own ecclesiology and adopting a Protestant one (and there have been times in which there has been pressure within the World Council of Churches for the Orthodox Churches to do just that — see the book by Aagard and Bouteneff for details).

In dialogue there are four things we need to learn: you need to know who I am, and how I see you. I need to know who you are, and how you see me. We need to know the reality of both sides, and the way in which both parties perceive themselves and each other. Or if you want to be really postmodern about it, the way the self is perseived by the self, and the way the self is perceived by the other. And our perceptions of others show the others more about how we see ourselves. So the Biola report about the Orthodox tells the Orthodox a lot about Biola, and much less about the Orthodox.

So when I describe Roman Catholic ecclesiology as a monolith and Congregationalist ecclesiology as a heap of stones, that tells you more about Orthodox ecclesiology than it does about Roman Catholic or Congregationalist ecclesiology. And so we learn more about each other, even through our misperceptions.

Let the discussion continue.

Thandanani – ecumenical discussion forum

I’ve started a new discussion forum on YahooGroups called Thandanani.

It is for Christians of different backgrounds and traditions to learn about each other’s faith traditions and discuss their worship, theology, doctrines, beliefs and practices in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Thandanani is a Zulu word that means “love one another”.

The aim is to have discussion rather than debate, exchange of information rather than proselytising and polemics. For it to work we need to have active participation of Christians from a wide variety of traditions — the fundamental, the sacramental and the sentimental: all are welcome.

The Thandanani forum has its origins in one with similar aims on the FamilyNet BBS network. That forum was called PHILOS, from the Greek word for friendship. Like that one, Thandanani is intended to be a place where Christians can discuss their differences and what they have in common in a friendly atmosphere.

I was moved to revive it by Les Chatwind, one of my fellow synchrobloggers, who wanted to discuss Orthodox theology, and I couldn’t think of another suitable forum.

For the purposes of the forum “Christian” means those who believe in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s not an interfaith forum — there are other forums for that.

You don’t have to be a Christian to join; you just need to have an interest in the topic and want to learn more.

To learn more, and how to join, visit

Group Email Addresses
Post message:
List owner:

Anglicans: Time for a divorce?

Over the last few days I’ve been reading in the blogs of Anglicans, some friends, and some unknown to me, or known only in the blogosphere, appeals for prayer for the Anglican Primates meeting taking place in Dar es Salaam this week.

Many are speaking of trying to preserve an increasingly fragile unity, but I think that Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of The Times, gets it exactly right when she says that it’s time for Anglicans to divorce.

Since I ceased to be an Anglican more than 20 years ago, it’s no longer a matter of direct personal concern to me. I’m just relieved that I got out when I did, because I’ve missed 20 years of paralysing bickering. It’s not that I haven’t experienced disagreements and squabbles over the last 20 years. There have been many. But they haven’t been over the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

It is interesting to see that just as the Anglicans are tearing themselves apart, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia have been preparing to reunite after a split that has lasted more than two generations. But the reason that they can reunite is that they acknowledge the same fundamental faith. They are agreed on the essentials.
The essentials, however, are precisely what the Anglicans disagree on. When each side in the disputes sees what it regards as morality denounced by the other as immorality, there is no tent big enough to hold them all. So I believe Ruth Gledhill hits the nail on the head when she says

No Communion is big enough for these three Luthers, all equally sincere in their faith and convictions, all nailing opposing theses to their church doors. These are people who see so far from eye to eye that it is right and proper that they should go their separate ways. And there is no shame in that. There is an historical continuity in schism, reflected in the recent pasts of our political parties, in particular the Labour Party. Historically there are always critical moments and for the Anglican Communion, this is just such a moment.

What a divorce may do is free many Anglicans who are almost entirely wrapped up in their own internal problems that they cannot face the more serious problems of the world. I’ve seen many appeals for payer for the meeting of the Anglican primates in Dar-es-Salaam, but very few for a meeting that could have more important and more far-reaching consequences — for the first time in 7 years there is a possibility of a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss the possibility of peace. If an Anglican divorce freed those of all parties to pray for that, it might have more significant effects on the world.

Anglicans and Orthodox

In A conservative blog for peace Serge writes:

So in the Anglican Communion one can have women bishops, gay weddings (at least unofficially) and clergy who don’t believe in the creed (I realise these three issues are not necessarily related!) but leaving out the filioque is supposed to impress the Orthodox. Okaaaaay…

… which puts the whole thing in a nutshell.

Ecumenical encounters

For those interested in the recent meetings of the Roman Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, this web site is giving a running commentary.

US Evangelicals on Kosovo

Any Orthodox comments on this:

(Sorry, the Blog this feature in Blogger Beta is broken – All the features of Blogger are now availabile in Beta — what they don’t tell you before you switch is that they don’t work)

Post Navigation