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Priest-monk Andrew (Kostadis)

How Are We to Evaluate Ecumenism?

Perhaps many of you associate the word “ecumenism” with the term “heresy.” I would suggest that ecumenism is much more complicated than this. In my opinion, “ecumenism” is an “umbrella term,” one which includes at least two opposite approaches. Most Orthodox today practice what we could call "responsible" ecumenism, articulated by the late Fr. Georges Florovsky as the preaching of Orthodoxy to the heterodox, and especially to the Western world. The opposite is what we could label “irresponsible” ecumenism, which seeks an extra-ecclesial union, promulgated by people such as Patriarch Athenagoras, Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and very many non-Orthodox participants, for instance in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches.

“Irresponsible” ecumenism actively attempts to reduce Christianity to a series of social causes and as a consequence can change Orthodoxy itself. Therefore, it is an ideology and harmful to Christian teaching. Thus it is necessary to consider the extremes of ecumenism within the main fields of Orthodox knowledge:
Dogmatically: We have two principal commandments: to love God and to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-38). The love of God teaches us to fulfill all other commandments (John 14:21), particularly to preserve His teaching in purity (John 14:21, 15:10 and many others [1]). Extreme ecumenism places the second commandment above the first and thus “oversteps the commandment of God because of their own tradition” (Matt. 15:3). Devoted ecumenists teach that we are to surrender our dogmas in order to show our love to believers among non-orthodox confessions, i.e., to give up the first commandment in order to fulfill the second. Christ showed the correlation of the two commandments (Matt. 22:39). Therefore, the opposition of the two commandments made by ecumenists does not agree with the teaching of Christ.

Historically. Orthodox has always condemned cases similar to “irresponsible” ecumenism, e.g., the Councils of Florence and Brest.

Scripturally. The Old and New Testaments mention the necessity of keeping the right faith intact. The brothers Maccabees are good example.

Canonically. Orthodox participants in ecumenical meetings must often violate canons, particularly concerning the prohibition against praying together with heretics, which disturbs many devoted Orthodox Christians. Being in communion with “irresponsible” ecumenical Orthodox hierarchs is also disturbing for many Orthodox Christians.

Liturgically. A number of services glorify defenders of Orthodoxy and condemn attempts at union or compromise with unorthodox teachings.

Finally, Orthodox tradition normally resists any suspicious innovations and has always maintained a defensive attitude.

An example of a “responsible” ecumenism is that presented by bishops who acted in America at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The best example, perhaps, is the later Patriarch of All Russia, Saint Tikhon. He is deeply respected by both opponents and followers of the ecumenical movement. Saint Tikhon, as the American bishops before him, closely collaborated with Anglicans in social causes. He also attended their services and called them to the Orthodox services as honored guests. However, his priests baptized or chrismated those who joined the Orthodox Church and chrismated or ordained those Anglican priests who joined the Church. His successors before the beginning of the Russian revolution acted in the same manner. The last Russian bishop in America before the revolution organized a series of lectures for Anglicans in America at which Orthodox canons, rules, and traditions were systematically explained to them. Nearly 50 of the almost 200 Anglican bishops in America attended these lectures and, more importantly, they implanted Orthodox practices in the daily life of their church.

All the above testifies to the very controversial, obscure, and unresearched nature of contemporary ecumenism. I personally, and I think many others here, have had a chance to experience this problem directly. I studied in two schools which hold opposite views on ecumenism: Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville and Saint Vladimir's Theological Seminary. In Jordanville, I repeatedly heard that “ecumenism is very bad.” When I asked “why?” the typical answer was “are you an ecumenist…?” “No,” I answered, “I am not an ecumenist. But, if you say it is bad I want to know why.” Unfortunately, neither people I spoke with nor the anti-ecumenical literature provided me with a satisfactory answer. I found the same situation at Saint Vladimir's, though their convictions were quite the opposite. I heard many times, especially in special courses, that ecumenism is good and a very correct modern attitude. When I repeated my question: “Why does the Orthodox Church have to participate in the ecumenical movement?” they usually answered: “of course, you are from the Russian Church Abroad…” Finally, even the fact that we are sitting here, discussing ecumenism, best demonstrates my point as to the uncertainty of this subject.

Therefore, the main question today is: How should we evaluate the phenomenon of ecumenism? Orthodoxy knows two means of cognition: natural and supernatural. What is supernatural cognition? It is a miracle wherein God reveals to man fundamental knowledge concerning human salvation. Therefore, in order to obtain supernatural revelation, one must be a saint, a condition essentially higher than righteousness. “But we have conciliarity,” someone may object. But Church practice shows that some conciliar decisions are not in accordance with “the Holy Spirit and us” (Acts. 15:28). This happens with false councils and this can happen with each church council. Every regular council of good Christians, like today's council, may have this unfortunate result because Christ said not only “for where there are two or three gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20), but He also said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). If a council is not solely looking for the truth, but, for example, is influenced by politics, executive decrees, or is looking to approve some predetermined sentence in the field of Orthodox teaching, it is impossible to expect a truly Orthodox decision in result. We may be tempted to think that a council of bishops, simply by the act of gathering, will produce an infallible decision inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, it is not by any outward criteria alone that a Council gains authority Ė there have been many false councils Ė but by delivering the truth. And to reach this truth we need both the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our own rigorous moral and intellectual preparation, participation, and research.

Consider the Ecumenical Councils: the bishops did not simply meet and spontaneously define dogma and write canons under the influence of the Holy Spirit. No, they prepared painstaking research years before assembling. We cannot expect automatic Grace from above; rather we must raise our intellect to meet the guidance of the Spirit in act of synergy.

Due to time limitations, I am going to present only one example, the work of the 6th Ecumenical Council, where “theological discussions were held in a peaceful manner and all details, citations, and quotations were verified against the originals. This council was a true Ďconciliar' act of theological thought not only by its name, but essentially by its nature.” When dilemmas arose, “the authentic acts of the previous Ecumenical Councils were brought from the archives. Their reading began with the acts of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, because the acts of the 1st and the 2nd councils did not exist… The 2nd meeting was entirely dedicated to the readings of the acts of the 4th Ecumenical Council… they also read the Epistle of the Pope Leo among other documents… At the 3rd meeting they began to read the acts of the 5th Ecumenical Council… ”

After careful study and many verifications, monophylite doctrine was not found in the acts of the 5th Ecumenical Council; after that, the “emperor demanded the next series of arguments Ė from the holy fathers… Two volumes of citations were presented. The 5th session was entirely dedicated to their reading…”

All the above stated directly bear on our estimation of ecumenism, which we are now discussing, and leads to the following conclusion. In order to have the most profound estimate of the phenomenon of ecumenism, we need research. Undoubtedly, such research has to begin with careful study of our own ( ROCOR) history and also the study of the history and main concepts of the ecumenical movement. Only a deep, comprehensive, and truthful study of ROCOR's experience will produce the right answer to the question why ROCOR no longer participates in ecumenism and to the subsequent question: is ecumenism right or wrong? Therefore, according to my opinion, the only escape from today's uncertain situation is to establish a committee, which must:

  • Collect and systematically study the history of ROCOR;
  • Use the recent atmosphere of good will to pacify the relationship between the MP and ROCOR and to ask our bishops to request copies of all possible data concerning the history of ROCOR from Russia;
  • Carefully study the history, methods, and the main ideas of ecumenism;
  • Finally, to produce a grounded evaluation of ecumenism, based on the studied historical data.

Every epoch presents its own challenges, new phenomena arise, and new teachings influence our Christian world. Therefore, every generation of Christians should evaluate these new phenomena and teachings: are they a heresy or simply a new form of the same unchanging ancient Orthodox teaching? We call ourselves Orthodox Christians, therefore the controversial phenomenon of ecumenism is a challenge to us. As Orthodox clergy, we do not have any right to use our own opinions to estimate such an important phenomenon. We can and therefore we must estimate ecumenism from the point of view of the Orthodox teaching.

Thank you for your attention.

Priest-monk Andrew (Kostadis)

December 2003, Glen Cove.

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[1] As is known, the Church separated dogma from “economy” only in the 4th century. Therefore, when the Gospel says “the commandments,” it normally understands both moral and dogmatic standards.
[2] Kartashev, A.V., Vselenskiye Sobory [The Ecumenical Councils], pp. 443-434.