Word Magazine April 1999 Page 23-25
ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY AND
THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT
“ONE PERSON’S VIEW”
By Very Rev. Olof H. Scott
ec-u-men-i-cal, adj. 1. general; universal. 2. Pertaining to the whole Christian church. 3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world. 4. of or pertaining to a movement
(e c u m e n i c a l movement), esp. among Protestant groups since the 1800’s, aimed at achieving universal Christian unity through international interdenominational organizations. 5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenical marriage.
ec-u-me-nic-i-ty, n. (in the Christian church) the state of being ecumenically united, esp. in furthering the aims of the ecumenical movement.
ec-u-men-i-cist, n. a person who advocates Christian ecumenicity.1
I have been involved with the ecumenical movement as an Orthodox priest for more than twenty-two years. I serve as vice-chairman of the Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Faith Relations Department of the archdiocese. And as such, I have been a member of the general board and the executive committee of the National Council of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCCC) as well as serving on several standing committees within that organization.
I have attended a Faith and Order consultation of the World — Council of Churches (WCC) and was a delegate of our patriarchate to that body’s 8th Assembly held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December 1998. In West Virginia, where I serve as a pastor and dean, I have been a member of the board of directors and program units of the West Virginia Council of Churches (WVCC) since 1977.
In all of these years I have never thought of myself as an ecumenicist involved with ecumenicity, or of being ecumenical or ecumenically-minded. Rather, I consider that I am a witness to the Orthodox Faith, an apologist for our Church’s Doctrine and Tradition, with the hope of reuniting others to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Only definition 2 under “ecumenical” is appropriate to my thinking.
And the Orthodox colleagues with whom I have served these many years, whether bishops, priests, deacons, or lay, have all shared the same belief.
As a case in point, I recall a meeting of the WVCC hoard many years ago during which the Methodist ecumenical officer was expounding the popular Protestant view of the Christian Church as a “tree.” He proceeded to point out that the trunk was the original church and that the limbs and branches represented the various splittings into different denominations and groupings, but that we were all part of the “one church.”
When he finished to general agreement around the table, I spoke up and stated that if a “tree” was meant to be the illustration of the “One True Church,” the Orthodox view would be that the tree would be the Orthodox Church. After a few seconds of stunned silence, the Regional Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) asked, “Well, if that is the Orthodox view of the tree, where do the rest of us fit in?” With no forethought or plan in mind I responded, “You’re the nuts that fell off the tree!”
Following much laughter the meeting continued with an enlightened discussion of what it means to be “Church.” It is in instances such as these that Orthodox participants are “witnesses” and “apologists” for Holy Orthodoxy, and not ecumenicists.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night of His betrayal, prayed, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:20-23 NKJV; emphases mine).
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that our Lord founded remains to this day in the life of the Holy Orthodox Church. However, there have been losses along the way. These include all of those bodies who claim to be “Christian,” and who hold beliefs that align, each to a greater or lesser degree, with Holy Orthodoxy. It remains our responsibility to witness to the unity of the Orthodox Church and to call back those who have fallen away.
There are those who would argue that this effort is not only futile and foolish but even forbidden. After all, doesn’t St. Paul advise Titus to “avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. Reject a divisive man (some translations render this ‘heretic’) after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:9, 10 NKJV). I would counter that argument by pointing out that our Lord never hesitated to interact with those Pharisees and others who disagreed with Him. Indeed, He challenged them to the end of His earthly life. And, the historical record clearly shows that the Orthodox Church has strived to dialogue with those who have left Her without compromising “the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3b NKJV).
The Orthodox Church has been involved in the ecumenical movement from its beginning in the early part of this century. It has never been easy. In fact it has often been frustrating and irritating, and, at times, seemed pointless. And, as time has moved toward the end of this century, even some of the basic commonality that was held among Christian bodies in the early days, i.e., Trinity, Christology, the sacredness of Scripture, has become further and further marginalized.
So, in light of these developments, why do we stay involved? Why take the chance that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church will be compromised or even corrupted? Those of us with the courage and willpower to undertake the task do so with the understanding that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18b NKJV).
In 1991, the member jurisdictions of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops (SCOBA) which had membership in the NCCC suspended that relationship for a period of time. During the suspension a commission was formed to review our past participation and to reflect on whether or not to resume involvement and what that would entail. I was a part of that commission and the editor of the document submitted to our hierarchs. The words written then are relevant for today and I close by quoting part of that document:
“The present involvement of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement is regularly and faithfully reflected in the columns of our Orthodox publications. However, the movement today is a rapidly evolving and highly confused phenomenon. Orthodox Christians, especially those living in the West, simply cannot fail to face the problem. Some of them give, at the very start, an enthusiastic approval to any ecumenical enterprise. Some, on the contrary, react with a violent opposition to any ecumenism, which they identify with a betrayal of the faith. The vast majority, however, remains passive, expects guidance from the Church and feels uneasy when guidance fails to come or is given in a contradictory and inconsistent way.
“It is well, therefore, to reiterate a few fundamental principles from which the Orthodox attitude to other Christians, and to ecumenism, stems.
“First of all the Orthodox Church is neither a ‘sect’ nor a ‘denomination,’ but the true Church of God. This fact defines both the necessity and the limits of our involvement in ecumenism:
“(1) The Church of God, because it is ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic,’ is concerned with the whole of humanity, with the whole of Truth and with everything positive and good happening in the world; if we refuse to learn, to listen, to be concerned with the life and the beliefs of other Christians, we will not only miss much ourselves, but we will also be unfaithful to Christ’s commandment of love and to our responsibility to witness to Orthodoxy everywhere. Inasmuch as the various ecumenical meetings, councils, and assemblies provide us with these opportunities, it is our Christian and Orthodox duty to be there.
“(2) However, since the Lord has established only One Church, since our being Orthodox implies that we are members of it, and since, therefore, the fullness of the Truth is accessible to us even if it is not entirely understood by each one of us individually, there cannot be, on our part, any compromise in matter of Faith. Our essential responsibility in the ecumenical movement is to affirm that the true Christian Unity is not unity on the basis of a ‘common minimum’ between denominations, but a unity in God. And God is never a ‘minimum’: He is the Truth itself! The limit of our participation in the ecumenical movement is in our opposition to relativism.
“These two principles must remain the primary focus for our continued ecumenical commitment, in spite of the fact that the ecumenical movement itself has gone through many historical phases — ‘Life and Work’ principles, which meant that theological, doctrinal differences were to be disregarded, and Christians were to ‘live’ and ‘work’ together as if the differences did not exist; ‘Faith and Order’ movement, which placed theological discussion at the forefront so that Christian unity could be reached through doctrinal agreement; and the creation of the World Council of Churches.
“It is on the assumption that these reasonable principles were accepted by all that the Orthodox Churches joined the ecumenical movement. And, in spite of the fact that in recent years many new factors have appeared which bear heavily on the situation, we must not shy away from our commitment based on our original principles for participation within that movement.”2
1. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition. 1993.
2. Report of the “Special SCOBA :Commission on Ecumenical Relations” regarding membership in the NCCC ., 1992.
The Very Rev. Olof II. Scott is Pastor of St. George Orthodox Church, Charleston, WV, and
Dean of the Appalachian — Ohio Valley Deanery.