Dimitris Salapatas on the Ecumenical Movement and dialogue between East and West

Relations between the two Christian denominations have been a reality since the seventeenth century; first having an unofficial character with visits of Anglicans to the East and of Orthodox to the West. The Oxford Movement, in the nineteenth century, contributed vastly towards the further understanding and establishment of more formal relations, having Christian reunion as one of its main objectives. However, the twentieth century has taken the relations to a new level, resulting in the establishment of the Official Dialogue between the two churches. This has been an inevitable result of the globalized world we currently live in. This century will be known as the Age of Ecumenism, the age in which all Christians were awakened and concerned of the scandal of disunion, and endeavoured to find a solution to this great issue.

The Anglican view

The Anglicans wished to verify their existence, their traditions and theology through an ancient church which of course was not papal, i.e. Roman Catholic; this they found in the Orthodox Church. Archbishop of York, Michael Ramsey, during an Anglican-Orthodox Conference on 1 September 1960, expressed the Anglican sentiments towards the relations with the Orthodox, paraphrasing them as follows:

‘Hurray, we are not alone in maintaining on this globe the existence of a non-papal Catholicism…There is another in another part of the globe, and this it is all the more apparent that non-papal Catholicism is a reality and not an English device invented by John Henry Newman…Non-papal Catholicism is something that exists in its own right, doubly attested by the existence of another great Church in Christendom which, like us maintains a continuity with the ancient, undivided Church’ (Ramsey, ‘Holiness, truth and unity’).

Political agenda

The Orthodox Church, however, saw the relations in a different manner; they were not only interested in theology, they also had a political agenda. The Orthodox states were under major political and social difficulties, being either under Communism, the Ottoman Empire,

oppressive governments or Muslim rule. Any help from the West was needed and desired, in order to obtain peace and freedom, in the ecclesiastical and social fields. This was of course a time when the Anglican Church and its hierarchs had political power and could intervene in foreign affairs or government policies. Nevertheless, a theological basis existed in the talks and conferences that took place, showing, therefore, an ecclesiastical and doctrinal interest between the two distinct groups; conversely, it is more likely that the theological matters were discussed in order to achieve political and economic gains from the West.

Ecumenical groups

The Ecumenical Movement and Anglican-Orthodox relations have been greatly developed in the UK. The first Ecumenical group in Britain was the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association (AECA) in 1864. The AECA’s purpose was to ‘inform Anglicans of the state and position of the Eastern Christians; to make the doctrines and principles of Anglicanism known in the East; to take advantage ‘of all opportunities which the providence of God shall afford us for intercommunion with the Orthodox Church, and also for friendly intercourse with the other ancient Churches of the East’; to give financial assistance to the Orthodox bishops to assist in their efforts to promote the spiritual welfare of their flocks’ (H. Brandreth, ‘Anglican Eastern associations: a sketch’).

Prominent theologians

The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius is the other important Anglican-Orthodox group, based in Oxford, with branches all over the world. It came into existence during the Second Anglo-Russian Conference, late 1927, having a strong Anglican and Russian Orthodox presence. Currently its members are from all the Orthodox countries and jurisdictions. Its first members were Fr Sergius Bulgakov, Dr Nicolas Zernov, Fr George Florovski, Bishop Frere and many more, showing that it attracted the intelligentsia of the time, prominent members and scholars from both denominations. This tradition is continued today, since its members are among the most famous theologians of the twentieth and twenty-first century. This Society does not conduct any official negotiations; its unofficial character has allowed it to venture into interesting and ‘dangerous’ theological paths, such as intercommunion within the Fellowship, a topic which has been discussed since the early stages of the relations between the two churches. Its conferences, its liturgical life, its historical course and its aims have also affected the general Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stated, during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent visit to Constantinople that: ‘These two societies have fostered countless ecumenical friendships; and without such ecumenical friendships, on the direct and personal level, we cannot hope to build a firm foundation for Christian unity’.

The WCC has also contributed to the official relations between the Anglican and the Orthodox. The objective of the WCC ‘is not to build a global ‘super-church’, nor to standardise styles of worship’, as is believed by the ‘enemies’ of Ecumenism, but more accurately it aims to deepen the fellowship and the relationship of the Christian churches in order to identify the true manifestation of what we all claim in the Creed, i.e. ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. The churches that took part in this new organization ‘were animated by a sincere desire to serve the cause of Christian unity and to resolve their fellowship with Christians of other confessions’ (N. Zernov, ‘Enterprise and encounters – the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches’).

Learning to listen

Many within the Christian world dispute on whether the various denominations should be in a dialogue status. However, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, when explaining about dialogue with various religions, gives a valid answer to this dispute, explaining:

‘Dialogue does not imply denial of religious faith or betrayal of religious affiliation. Instead, it signifies a shift in our mind-set and a change of attitudes, what in spiritual language we call ‘repentance’ – or, as we have already seen, in Greek, metanoia, which literally means seeing things through a different perspective. This is why dialogue is the start of a long and patient process of conversation, not a fundamentalist drive toward conversion or some legal exchange of ideas like a contract. It is a way of learning how to listen in order to hear…’ (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encountering the Mystery).

A new phase

The Official Dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church has produced three agreed statements, Moscow 1976, Dublin 1984 and Cyprus 2006. Many Orthodox claim that their Church should not be part of the Ecumenical Movement; however, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia claims that ‘the Ecumenical Movement in turn is important for Orthodoxy: it has helped to force the various Orthodox Churches out of their comparative isolation, making them meet one another and enter into a living contact with non-Orthodox Christians. We Orthodox are there, not simply to bear witness to what we ourselves believe, but also to listen to what others have to say’ (in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church). Currently, the Official Dialogue is entering a new phase, preparing the Fourth Official Statement on Anthropology and the understanding of the human person, proposed by Metropolitan Kallistos – an interesting topic, which could explain many of the differences between the two traditions, on issues such as women priests.

Results in the UK

In Britain we can all see the results of the Anglican-Orthodox relations; due to the relations of the two peoples the Ecumenical Patriarchate established the first Orthodox Archdiocese in the West in London and not in any other metropolis. The fact that there are more than 150 Orthodox communities in the UK is significant and an evident result of these dialogues and relations. Only five, out of 115 Greek Orthodox Churches, have been built by the Orthodox. Most Orthodox Communities have bought their church buildings from the Anglicans, showing that cooperation exists on all levels. Co-inhabitancy is also evident. For example, St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street, London, is an Anglican church, which also hosts the Romanian Orthodox community .

Another significant consequence of the relations is the fact that many Anglican churches have at least one icon, an important change which has been increasing over the last 80 years. Icons are not a new reality for the West, introduced by the Orthodox Church. They are a revival of the ancient tradition of iconography in the West, as is evident in many cathedrals in England, such as St Albans and Winchester Cathedral.

Many question the dialogue and the relations, due to their slow pace in taking and applying decisions. However, the results of the Ecumenical Movement will not be evident immediately. Whoever is involved in the Ecumenical Movement can understand what Fr George Florovski claimed, that ‘the highest and most promising ‘ecumenical virtue’ is patience’; patience is imperative for all sides in order to take small steps and achieve our goals, salvation and unity between mankind and God.

Taking things slowly

A good example is given from the Greek world; the Greeks are known for smashing plates when celebrating. Christianity could be considered to be a plate. It is easy to smash this plate in many pieces. It happens in an instance. However, putting these pieces back together is a long process, which needs patience and understanding. And again, some cracks will be evident. Therefore, we should all take small and careful steps in order to progress towards the main objective of the relations, i.e. to receive Holy Communion from a Common Cup.

Continuing dialogue

The Anglican-Orthodox dialogue should and can continue. There are a number of difficult points; however, we should endure in a dialogue status. The wisdom of the people involved in the relations (on an official and unofficial level) has shown that, even when obstacles occurred, the dialogue continued. Archbishop Justin Welby, during his visit to Constantinople claimed that: ‘There is much that unites us and as we continue to strengthen the bonds of friendship our understanding of each other’s traditions will grow’.

The Ecumenical Movement is a mystery for those who do not comprehend the fact that ‘repentance is the driving force behind it’ (A.M. Allchin, ‘The revival of the religious life and Christian unity’). Therefore, we need to try and achieve what the Orthodox proclaim in the Divine Liturgy: ‘For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of God’s holy Churches, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord’. ND