The Ecumenical Dialogue of the 21st Century. An Obstacle Course? 25 February 2013
The agenda of the bilateral talks is very full. It covers a range of theological, ecclesiological and pastoral issues related, for example, to Faith and Dogma, the Sources of Divine Revelation, the Apostolic Tradition, Christology, the nature and Mission of the Church, the Unity of the Church, the Sacraments, the authority of the Church, the Vocation of Saint Peter, the Witness of Christianity in the modern world and even the pastoral concerns in mixed marriages.
As regards the dialogue between the Orthodox and the Anti-Chalcedonians, it hardly needs mentioning that the main issue was (and continues to be) Christological dogma, as well as those historical factors which led, in the fifth century, to the severance of the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians and Syro-Jacobites from the body of the Church. As for the dialogue with the Church of Rome, it is well-known that the issues it has addressed have to do with the Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist in the light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Union of the Church in the Sacrament of Ordination, the Apostolic Succession and, more recently, the extremely delicate matter of “Papal Primacy”, in the exhaustive examination of which I predict that there will yet be much bloviation and shedding of innocent ink!
At this point, given the confusion which reigns regarding the aim of the dialogues and the nature of the “Common Documents” which are drawn up at them, it might be useful to underline one thing: that the dialogues are not “Unity councils” and that the texts they publish are not in the nature of an “agreement”, much less “a common confession of faith”, as is often believed and persistently repeated. As Fr. Theodoros Zisis very aptly put it at the 3rd Preconciliar Conference, when he was still a lay teacher in this school, “anyone looking at the proceedings of the Ecumenical Synods will realize that before the fathers at the synod reached the point of formulating terms, there was a long period during which problems were broached and analyzed, positions and studies were investigated and then, on the basis of this preparation, the Synod finalized the formulation of certain terms. So I really don’t think there’s any need at all for the defenders of Orthodoxy to parachute themselves into locations and countries where the talks are being held in order to prevent the “union” of Orthodoxy and the heretical West! It must be stressed again and again that these talk are of an exploratory nature and that the texts prepared at them are no more than “working papers” submitted by those who have written them to the Churches they represent for evaluation and comment. And naturally ad referendum to the Holy and Great Synod. They are merely texts which are of assistance on the path towards Christian unity, texts which Churches are at liberty to reject, as has been shown in practice.
A fundamental problem which exercises many ecclesiastical and theological circles is precisely that of the reception on the part of the Churches of the “common” or “agreed” texts which are prepared at these talks. These reflections have been occasioned by the experiences of many people of the Church and theologians who, in the context of bilateral talks, agreed with their counterparts on theological or ecclesiological matters, but thereafter did not observe any improvement in relations between the Churches which they had been representing, doubtless because of the difficulty or unwillingness of Church leaders in accepting what had been said expressed in common.
Anglican theologians, for example, who took part in the first phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-I) and had agreed with high-ranking representatives of Rome on matters across the board, are today asking themselves what the point was of their lengthy, tiring but fruitful work with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at a time when another Pontifical Council, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rejected the text of the Joint Committee as inconsistent with the teachings of the Church of Rome.
A similar question might be posed as regards the texts prepared by the representatives of the Orthodox Churches together with their counterparts in talks. What was the use, for instance, of the text prepared by the Orthodox and Anti-Chalcedonians on Christological Dogma when, before the talks had even been completed and while the texts was still being evaluated, plenty of people were casting doubt on its “orthodoxy”, adopting a negative stance towards efforts aimed at bringing the Orthodox and Eastern Church closer together and attempting to put a brake on these bilateral talks which had promised so much. Or what benefit was derived from the common texts from Freising and Balamand on the Unia, when, on the one hand, people from the Unia rejected them, accusing the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of “selling out” the Eastern Rite flock to the Orthodox Church because it no longer believed that the Unia was the right model for unity and, on the other, our own circles, in an effort to provoke the faithful and inflame their predisposition against talks with Rome, cast doubts upon and condemned what had been agreed by Orthodox representatives?
 See, Πρακτικά Γ΄ Προσυνοδικής Διασκέψεως, p. 99.
 Personally, I would rather that the texts in question were not signed so as to avoid any sense of formal shape. They should be sent to the local Churches unsigned, as is the case with texts prepared at the WCC.