The Ecumenical Dialogue of the 21st Century. An Obstacle Course? [1]

22 February 2013

Paper delivered at the Ecumenical Symposium in Honour of Professor Petros Vasileiadis (13-14/1/2013)

The main subject of this Academic Symposium in honour of the long service  to the Church and to theology on the part of Professor Vasileiadis is both extremely interesting and very topical.

Interesting, because the Ecumenical Movement, from the very first days of its appearance on the Church stage, at the beginning of the 20th century, mobilized, as it still does, both supporters and detractors, who, with conviction and combative arguments on both sides have tried to express the “pros and cons”, to promote the advantages which it presents or to point out the risks it engenders. It is certain that the movement in question brings concerns, challenges and positive and negative stimulation, but does not go unnoticed. Not only in our own Orthodox sphere, but in Christianity at large.


The subject under examination, however, is also extremely topical in the light of the persistent questions which have been posed for a long time now on the part of a variety of ecclesiastical and theological agencies. Questions aimed at the impasses or “marking time” in the course of the ecumenical dialogues which are being carried out either bi-laterally, between two ecclesiastical traditions, or multi-laterally, within the context of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) or of the Churches in Dialogue Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

Throughout the Christian world today and on the international level generally, there are some forty ongoing bilateral dialogues involving, in official terms, the Orthodox Church as a whole, all the anti-Chalcedon Eastern Churches, the Church of Rome, the Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, the two largest ecclesiastical groups which emerged from the Reformation of the 16th century, that is the Lutherans and the Post-Reformationists (Calvinists, Zwinglians, Congregationalists), the newer Protestant confessions such as Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, and certain of the recent Pentecostal movement, which has spread apace throughout length and breadth of the planet.

Each dialogue is naturally distinguished for its own features and is unquestionably influenced by the history of the partners involved. Most of these dialogues envisage no more than an attempt to get to know the others and a familiarization with both ecclesiastical traditions, which do not have common origins and are not linked to any historical ties. Some, though, aim, according to the expression of the 3rd Panorthodox Preconciliar Conference, at the restoration of the unity in the proper faith and in love[1] of those Churches which once constituted the One, undivided Church but were estranged by the flow of history and finally separated. To this category, unequivocally the most important, belong the bi-lateral theological talks between the Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome, on the one hand, and with the Ancient Eastern Churches on the other.

It should be noted that of similar significance, though in an entirely different historical and ecclesiological context, are the bilateral discussions between the Church of Rome and the Anglicans, Lutherans and Post-Reformationists, because, although they were all part of the Western Church until the 16th century, they broke away from Rome in the maelstrom of the Protestant movement.

The same can be said as regards the dialogue between Anglicans and Methodists, given that Methodism appeared as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church, although it was later converted into a separate Church.

The bilateral talks of the Orthodox Church are certainly a belated- by 60 years- realization of the initiative of Patriarch Ioakeim III at the start of the 20th century. This was an initiative which envisaged, more than anything, reconciliation and cohesion within Orthodoxy itself which, at that time was riven with strife and schisms, though it also aimed at bridging the gap between East and West. And indeed, with his two famous encyclicals of 1902 and 1904, Ioakeim III not only addressed the current and urgent issue of Pan-Orthodox unity, but also brought to the attention of the heads of the Orthodox Churches the question of “our relations with the two great offshoots of Christianity, that is the Western and Protestant Churches, advising that ways be found “of friendly and mutual accession” to them[2], given, as he stressed, that “they, too, believe in the Most-Holy Trinity, pray in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ and hope to be saved by the grace of God[3]. It was the conviction of the Patriarch that such an approach would open the way which might lead, if God so willed, to the union of the Church of Rome,  the Protestants and also the Old Catholics with the Orthodox Church.

This bold move by the Patriarch bore fruit, in a first stage, at the 1st Pan-Orthodox Conference in Rhodes in 1961, with the inclusion into the agenda for the Holy and Great Synod of matters relating to the relations of the Orthodox Church with heterodox Christianity and with the Ecumenical Movement in general. This was given firmer shape with the resolution of the 3rd Pan-Orthodox Conference in Rhodes in November 1964, which inaugurated theological dialogues with Rome, the Anglicans and Old Catholic Churches. (I stress, with a Pan-Orthodox resolution and, naturally, the consent of the of the Synods of the individual Orthodox Churches).

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the talks with the Church of Rome are the logical consequence of the opening towards the rest of the Christian world which was effected at the innovating Vatican II Council, which dealt at length with the issue of Christian unity and made signals which put an end to the previous positions of Rome regarding the rest of the Christian world. In this way, the statement of the Council on unity, known as Unitatis Redintergatio, which was passed in November 1964, had nothing in common with Pius XI’s Mortalium animos (1928), which forbade the participation of members of the Church of Rome in non-Roman conferences, on the grounds that the union of Christians cannot be achieved except by the return of the fallen to the true Church of Christ[4] that is the Church of Rome! The Decree of Vatican II did not merely recognize an, albeit imperfect, “communion” with Rome on the part of those who had “valid baptism”, but declared that one of the prime aims of the Conference was the restoration of the unity of Christians. It also urged clergy and laity to engage actively in the efforts of those who, in the spirit and grace of the Holy Spirit and through prayers, words and deeds, labour to achieve the desired unity under Jesus Christ[5]. This is supported by the fact that, since 1965, the whole of Rome’s ecumenical activity, both in the context of bilateral contacts and in its co-operation both with the WWC and CEC has been based on the principles propounded in the Decree in question.

It is also true, however, that, in the same period, many Protestant Churches and Confessions which had realized the critical state of affairs occasioned by the splintering of the Protestant world and had been stimulated by the multilateral talks held within the framework of the “Faith and Order” Commission, also instituted discussions among themselves, in the hope of achieving an, even inchoate, theological agreement and Church unity. In certain cases, these talks resulted in the amalgamation of two or more confessions in a “United Church”, particularly in the USA, Canada, Australia, India and some other countries of the so-called Third World. Other discussions did not achieve as much, despite theological agreement and the restoration of Eucharistic communion between the Churches, because of the historical past of the interlocutors and their emotional attachment to their confessional identity. As the late Metropolitan Damianos of Switzerland and, later, Adrianople once said, it is difficult for Churches and Confessions to break away from the fundamental ecclesiological, theological and ecclesiastical principles which go to make up their very identity[6]. This became clear at the three inter-Protestant unity conferences at Leuenberg (1973), Meissen (1988) and Porvoo (1992), where the delegates, while recognizing the validity of ordinations of the clergy of the Churches and restoring their sacramental communion, did not risk taking the final step, declaring that the Churches involved in the talks, be they the Anglican Church of Great Britain, the Lutheran Churches of Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic and the many Post-Reformation-Calvinist Churches of Europe would henceforth be “one Church, united in faith, worship and sacraments.

[1] See The Secretariat for the Preparation of the Holy and Great Synod, Proceedings and Texts of the Third Proconciliar Panorthodox Conference, 1986, OCOP, Chambésy, Geneva, p. 270 ff. (Hereafter: Proceedings).

[2] Encyclical of 1902.

[3] Encyclical of 1904.

[4] See http://www.vatican. va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19280.

[5] Documents of Vatican II

[6] Θεολογικοί Διάλογοι-Μία Ορθόδοξη Προοπτική, Kyriakidis Publications, Thessaloniki 1986, p. 105.