An Eastern View of Ecumenism
Paulos Mar Gregorios
December 3, 1977
Several of the oriental Orthodox churches, especially those of India and Ethiopia, are founder-members of the World Council of Churches. All five of then, i.e., the Egyptian, the Syrian, the Armenian, the Indian and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches, are now members of the W.C.C. The Indian Orthodox Church has taken an active part in the ecumenical movement since 1930. In general, the Oriental Orthodox had already accumulated a great deal of ecumenical experience by the time Pope John XXIII opened the doors and windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in the ecumenical wind.
The time has now come for the Oriental
Orthodox to assess the ecumenical experience and to draw up a fresh
priority list of ecumenical concerns. It was done before, in 1965,
at the Addis Ababa Conference of the Heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Have the priorities changed since then?
It was clear in 1965 that the first
priority for the Oriental Orthodox was to restore communion with the
Byzantine Orthodox churches. The four unofficial conversations, i.e.,
Aarhus (1964), Bristol (1967), Geneva (1970) and Addis Ababa (1971),
have now confirmed the basic insight of Addis Ababa. The differences
are hardly theological. There are problems like the acceptance of certain
councils, anathemas against saints and fathers of the other side, and
the rank of patriarchs; but none of these really constitutes a substantial
difference in faith. This relation remains the first ecumenical priority
for the Oriental Orthodox. Whether it is also similarly a first priority
for the Byzantine Orthodox can be clearly seen only after the next Byzantine
The second priority at Addis Ababa
was relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and the third, relations
with the Protestant churches. This pattern remains basically unaltered.
What has become clearer is that the first of these two relations cannot
be conducted and developed through medium of the World Council of Churches.
The W.C.C. has been useful in the past in developing the relations between
the Oriental Orthodox and the Byzantine Orthodox. But that stage is
now over. Whatever relations are developed will now have to be worked
out bilaterally between the two families of churches at an official
level. For this, the W.C.C. can be of only limited use.
This leads to the conclusion that
membership in the W.C.C. for the Oriental Orthodox churches is mainly
for the purpose of maintaining relations with the Protestant churches.
There is a great deal of discussion in Orthodox circles about whether
membership is actually necessary for maintaining these relations. The
W.C.C., as a body that coordinated the work of the Protestant churches,
will remain an important element in the ecumenical movement, and the
Orthodox churches, both Oriental and Byzantine, will have to continue
in formal membership in the W.C.C., so that the council can continue
to be regarded as something more than merely a pan-Protestant organization.
At least that is the present position of most Oriental and Byzantine
Orthodox who are ecumenically minded and experienced. To withdraw from
membership in the W.C.C will be a direct affront to the Protestant churches,
and there does not seem to be sufficient reason for such an affront
at this time.
What really emerges as new from
the last 25 years or more of ecumenical experience and participation
is the possibility of a closer relationship between the Roman Catholic
Church and the two families of Orthodox churches. This
possibility is such a surprisingly new development in our century’s
ecumenical movement that ecumenists are beginning to talk about a new
structure to give more body to this new phenomenon and develop it as
a high priority.
The Orthodox churches are now sufficiently
clear that no dramatic new developments are to be expected in Orthodox-Protestant
relations. The possibilities have been explored. The ecclesiological
difference is too great to be easily overcome by verbal formulae. The
best we can hope for is a continuation of cooperation and conversation,
especially in the field of service to the world, and the issues that
confront humanity as a whole.
But, among the three families of
Roman Catholic, Byzantine Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, there has
recently emerged such common found, ecclesiologically, that some form
or structure has to be devised to make this common ground visible as
a platform for further work.
For the Oriental Orthodox, until
recently, relations with Roman Catholics was only a second priority.
But the initiative of an unofficial body, like Pro Oriente in Vienna,
has made possible enormous advances in Orthodox-Roman Catholic relations.
What began with the participation of the Orthodox observers at Vatican
II has now developed into a large network of bilateral and multilateral
conversations between Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
On the Oriental Orthodox-Roman
Catholic level, we have now had three major unofficial conversations,
all organized under the aegis of Pro Oriente. The leadership given by
Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna has been surprisingly productive. Many
points on which there seemed to be misunderstandings have now been
cleared. It has made the following achievements:
Since similar progress has been registered also in the relation between Byzantine Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, is it not opportune for us now to propose an ecumenical coordinating structure for the three families of churches?
Such a structure would strengthen
the ecumenical movement and give new hope to millions of Christians
in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches who are now rather frustrated
about the lack of ecumenical progress.
It would be a modest structure,
something less than one-tenth the size of the present World Council
of Churches. The pattern of representation in such a council would follow
Thus, for example, from a country
like the United States, there will be representatives of the Catholic
Bishops’ Conference, who will be the largest number of American delegates.
The Byzantine Orthodox Bishops’ Conference in the United States could
also choose a certain number of delegates in proportion to the number
of Orthodox in the United States. The Oriental
Orthodox (especially Armenian, Coptic and Syrian) bishops could also
get together and elect delegates to the central body.
Such a central body could then
meet and elect necessary executive officers and staff to carry on the
work. The Vatican, as the central authority of the Roman Catholic Church,
can be given special power to nominate or approve certain officers,
and even be given special representation in addition to the delegates
of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. Observer status can be given to
other ecumenical bodies, like the W.C.C., and to confessional bodies,
like the Lutheran World Federation or the World Methodist Council.
The general secretary of the body,
as chief executive, will have to be a bishop of one of the three churches,
assisted by associates from the other two churches, who will also be
bishops--titular or diocesan. The staff will be from the three churches,
and will live in community, following the traditions of their own churches,
and, at the same time, developing patterns of ecumenical worship.
The main orientation of the new
structure would be to develop ways of renewing and uniting the three
churches, which means:
My suggestion would be that this proposal
should first be considered unofficially by a group of interested people
from the three churches, and a more complete plan be prepared for submission
to the churches. If it is God’s will, the Spirit may thus get us out
of the present ecumenical stalemate.