Thursday 17 April 2014

A Conversation about Unity with the Eastern Orthodox

From a conversation...

I have also found myself questioning whether the dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church will find any formal fruition in my lifetime.  I have to say but I grow both less hopeful and more hopeful as my experience of corresponding with Eastern Orthodox Church members becomes more extensive. Back in 1994 when I first became Orthodox I rather naively believed but all that was required for reconciliation would be a better explanation of our own faith.  But in fact it has become clear that there is a significant group within Eastern Orthodoxy who do not wish to understand what we believe, and cannot countenance reconciliation and union between our two communions under any circumstances, other than perhaps the complete and abject submission of each one of us to the Eastern Orthodox historical and theological narrative. On the other hand, I am in contact with more and more generous hearted and intelligent Eastern Orthodox who do understand that there is no substantial or significant difference in our faith and practice.

Perhaps I will comment on your e-mail paragraph by paragraph.  In your first paragraph you describe several people who seem to have been unable to enter into our Orthodox Church because of the moderate and even ambiguous position we hold on Chalcedon. Have I understood you correctly. I certainly know of one member on an online forum who is unable to choose between Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy. He often sends me such big questions which I have no possibility of answering satisfactorily. But I do know of others who are or have been Eastern Orthodox and have found our views to be much more coherent. Some of them have become Oriental Orthodox, others find themselves in a difficult situation.

The bottom line of my own position is that I cannot accept the Council of Chalcedon as an historical event. It seems to be fatally flawed from so many points of view. But I am able to accept but the documents of Chalcedon can be interpreted in an Orthodox manner. This says nothing particularly revolutionary, as almost any text can be understood in an Orthodox manner, and in a heterodox manner. Both a Christian and a Muslim could confess that God is one but they would mean by that one statement very different things.

When I look at Chalcedon I see an event which I cannot consider ecumenical in any sense other than that it was representative of many Bishops. I cannot consider it authoritative, and have to very carefully pick away at it to accept it as even defectively Orthodox. Yet it seems to me that as I read the work of more neutral scholars such as Dr. Richard Price and his wonderful edition of the Acts of Chalcedon, that it is possible to find a Cyrilline Chalcedon, but it becomes visible only in retrospect.  Surely there were a number of Councils of Chalcedon. This is what I have proposed to Dr. Richard Price. He sees the Cyrilline one, but there was also the Roman one, the Alexandrian one, the Eastern one, and the Council of the many Bishops there who were simply trying to preserve the security of their sees in a moving theological landscape.

The fact that it might be possible to find a Cyrilline Chalcedon does not mean of course that it was the dominant one. I do not believe that it was. Presently I understand Chalcedon as having been driven by Imperial and Roman agendas. My reading of other Oriental Orthodox primary texts leads me to believe that Pope St Dioscorus was already well aware that he would be facing a kangaroo court. Some of the scholars in the U.S. with whom I am in contact accept as historically accurate the Oriental Orthodox tradition that Nestorius had been recalled from his exile to appear at the council but died before he could leave Egypt.

I have written a little bit about the six anathemas which were issued against Chalcedon, and they all seem to me to be relevant and have some force. I do not reject Chalcedon simply because the anathemas exist, but because they must be answered by the council and those who support the council. Chalcedon, as far as I’m concerned, is fatally flawed. I will not be able to accept it as an ecumenical council.

But it does seem to me that it would be possible to take the documents of Chalcedon and the documents of the later councils, subject them to analysis based on our own theology, and produce a document with theological glosses which could be presented back to the Eastern Orthodox as our interpretation of these councils, and the basis on which we would be able to consider those documents, and those documents alone, to be Orthodox.  This would not be the same as considering them ecumenical.

This can only be possible because the Eastern Orthodox we are dealing with now have indeed conducted three or more councils after Chalcedon, and through which Chalcedon must be viewed.  When the Eastern Orthodox wish to place themselves most firmly on a purely Chalcedonian basis then we are furthest apart. Today I had cause to visit a website and even though I was reading posts that were several years old it reminded me of the absolute and unwavering resistance to our communion which is found among many English speaking Eastern Orthodox. We have seen the same thing on other forums.

When I first became Orthodox I very much wanted to be accepted as Orthodox by the Eastern Orthodox I met online. I thought it would only require a simple explanation of my faith on my part.  How foolish I was. Many of those who will not accept us as Orthodox, will not even accept some members of their own communion as Orthodox. What are we to do?

It seems to me, as I sense you are also thinking, that we need a much more rigorous response to the Eastern Orthodox than we have so far seen. This need not become negative, but I have seen some Eastern Orthodox stating that we cannot be seriously Orthodox because we accept the Eastern Orthodox Christology so easily. There is indeed some force in this argument. Just a few days ago I read a statement by a senior Russian orthodox clergymen who has been involved in the dialogue, who said that there were no serious academic theologians within the Coptic Orthodox Church with whom they could dialogue. This seems to me to be to some extent both true and rather shocking. I have read a paper by this clergymen which was very critical of our Christology but I am not sure who could respond to it adequately.

For myself I’m trying to find a way forward by rooting myself in the teaching of St Severus. I do not see how we can respond to Eastern Orthodoxy by ignoring our own Fathers. Nor do I mean that we should simply repeat the same arguments and fight the same battles. But if we are not immersed in their thinking then what is the basis of our own position? I have almost entirely had to turn to non-Orthodox writers to learn about St Severus. Presently I am translating a chapter from French into English by the first and greatest student of Severus, Joseph Lebon, who wrote, at the turn of the 20th century, le monophysisme severien. How beautiful it is. I am fortunate to have a battered copy of the book signed by the author, a Roman Catholic but entirely sympathetic.

Yet even while I consider a more robust response to the Eastern Orthodox teaching and theologians, I sense that a different response is required towards ordinary Eastern Orthodox lay people who have no greater theological knowledge than ordinary Oriental Orthodox lay people. If communion is determined by passing a written theology exam then I sense that many of our churches will be empty.  But if it is determined, in the case of the laity, by a genuine commitment to the substance of Orthodox theology and spirituality, then how do we refuse a young Romanian family for instance, when they are isolated from their own community but wish to worship and receive the sacraments among Orthodox faithful.

If I turn again to the practice of our own communion in the past and it is clear that the laity were always subject to a very simple test, that they reject heresy. Even in the case of clergy they were received into our communion by a simple rejection of heresy with a period of one year’s probation before they were able to take up their ministry as deacons, priests and Bishops again. The Eastern Orthodox have never been the subjects of re-baptism as far as I can see. The excellent paper by Dr Youhanna Youssef shows that even in the late 19th century Eastern Orthodox were received by confession of faith and not by re-baptism.

Likewise in the Patristic period many of the heterodox groups were not received by re-baptism. Yet there was no sense that it didn’t matter where you went to Church. In the period after Chalcedon the hierarchs had to make efforts to preserve the faithful in their own communities. But the Chalcedonians were not non-Christians, nor were many of the other heterodox groups. What does this mean for us? It seems to me that as a priest I am required by our tradition to receive those who come to me seriously and with faith, being concerned that they do not hold to any formal heresy, but otherwise being very generous to laity. This is the explicit instruction of St Timothy Aelurus.

A different response may be adopted with those who a serious and generous in their intent towards us and who are clergy. It seems to me that they require respect, consideration as true priests and clergy, yet separated from us, if they do not hold to any formal heresy. We may not be in communion with them – though I believe that we may offer Eucharistic hospitality to some Eastern Orthodox laity, but we should be in ecumenical dialogue with them and participate in fellowship with them as far as possible.

But those who are not generous towards us, those who have adopted an antagonistic attitude, it seems to me that we should be robust in our response without being negative. We should surely state that we cannot enter into communion with anyone who persists in positively anathematising St Severus, for instance, but that we do not require that he be proclaimed a saint and Father by the Eastern Orthodox if they don’t want to. I think that we should adopt a variety of responses and not consider that either all Eastern Orthodox are well disposed towards us, nor that they are all ill disposed to us. There is surely no one Eastern Orthodox Church, and we must deal with Eastern Orthodox as we find them. It is the Eastern Orthodox themselves who must decide how they deal with the various hard-line and pseudo-traditional elements within their ranks.

I know that the Church of Georgia was forced to disengage from ecumenical processes because of a small group of vociferous monks who were willing to go into schism. The monks of Athos seem hugely ignorant of our actual beliefs yet are very vocal. Likewise the people we meet on the internet. Yet there are those who do know what we believe and are working towards reconciliation. We can do  no more than become more educated ourselves in our own tradition, and explain and express that tradition in a generous manner with those who wish to dialogue, the others among the Eastern Orthodox are not our problem.

But this does require a recognition that many Orthodox are ignorant and that systematic knowledge of theology is not required to be Orthodox. This makes our boundary rather porous. A committed Romanian Orthodox may be more Orthodox, even in our own terms, than a less than committed Copt.
This opens up a whole load of ecclesiological questions for me that I am not able to answer. Is a devout Eastern Orthodox a member of our own Orthodox Church, it seems to me that in a real sense the answer is yes. But I must also say that this seems to me to be true of many Roman Catholics, even though it seems necessary that there is a Eucharistic discipline which normally precludes communion even of laity. Even among many Protestants I would want to see them having some sort of unspoken catechumenate status and being associated with the Church, with our Church, with the only Church, in some sense that I cannot define because they are clearly not without faith and commitment to Christ.

I was on a train going to London the other day and we stopped at a station that had a siding. I reflected that if a train were in that siding it was either moving away from London and towards a dead end, or else it was moving in the same direction as I was. I wondered if that was something that applied to many groups which are not members of our Orthodox communion. They are separated from us in some sense but are they moving towards the same destination or moving away from it. It matters. We have much in common with those heading in the same direction even if they are presently on a parallel train track. But if they are moving away from our destination then they are headed into a dead end and we have nothing in common. There are Eastern Orthodox moving in the same direction as us, and Eastern Orthodox moving away from the destination. There are Roman Catholics and Protestants also on the same journey and we have something in common with them.

I do wonder from time to time how important theological definitions are in respect of God’s will and activity in the world. At one point, if we insist that theology must be 100% accurate, we end up disqualifying ourselves because we are bound to disagree with one another on some issue or other. But it does matter because it is the framework within which we grow in the likeness of Christ.Nevertheless I wonder if there is a distinction between those who teach and those who are taught? If I teach error then I am liable to judgement now and in eternity, but if I love God and have been taught error then I do wonder how much error is too much error, not least because I meet Copts who have a wrong view of various doctrines.

I have not answered your email very systematically. Do please read what I have written and respond with your own further reflections. It seems to me that we need a variety of responses to most things.

I.    We deal with the theological issues with respect to Eastern Orthodoxy robustly
II.    We also deal with the theological issues generously.
III.    We deal with those who resist and diminish our Orthodox Church robustly
IV.    We deal with those who are simple-hearted among the EO generously
V.    We take a robust and enquiring attitude towards history and historical persons
VI.    We are generous towards the present members of communities and meet them as they are now and not as they were then.

I am studying to write two pieces at the moment. One will be about the activity and will in St Severus’ teaching. The other will be hopefully a major consideration of the Three Chapters and the documents of the Fifth Council to see how far they can be considered Orthodox and to propose how they might be accepted as Orthodox without being ecumenical. I don’t think we need do more, but I do think we do need very, very much to examine in great detail these councils. It is not enough to make some vague statement in the Joint Statement.

Ultimately I think we can only do what we must do for unity. It is up to the Eastern Orthodox to sort themselves out. If we have gone several extra miles then we will not be judged. The aim must not be to unite with the Eastern Orthodox at any costs, but to bear witness to our being the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and to the sense we have that the Eastern Orthodox are also that Church.

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