Recently, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope of Rome gathered together and delivered a joint statement. The momentum of the event has led to an intended meeting of some kind to commemorate the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (held in 325), planned for the year 2025. Well meaning, conservative but ecumenically minded (at least with regards to the Orthodox) Roman Catholics have expressed appreciation for this and have asked me what I thought. In sum, I have told them it is a step in the right direction but as long as Moscow and Istanbul remain in a spitting match and Orthodoxy (at least in America) continues to attract people who want to deny being Western Christians and continues to foster an anti-Western-Christian perspective in Eastern European countries, the refusal to pursue serious dialogue for change will remain a stumbling block within Orthodoxy.
Recently, an anonymous essay available on a ROCOR site, which Holy Trinity Monastery presents as it’s “response” to the patriarch and pope (see here), has fabricated such a stumbling block. I realize from the outset, some of us will have positive or negative reactions, perhaps to slight extremes. Some will want to hang on every word since it comes from a “monastic” source. Others will wonder why a monastery even ought to offer a “response” the patriarch and pope. Isn’t that a bit impudent? I think there are times when one can risk impudence so I don’t think we should dismiss it on its face and yet sometimes what comes from a monk or monks may be misguided, bizarre, or simply wrong. In the case of this essay, I think it is misguided.
I agree with the dear priest that one should not remain at the level of cliche but should examine things theologically. I also agree that we Orthodox should not want an ecclesiology that is destructive to church unity. Sadly, that is precisely what the essay in question presents. Here, a stark, dichotomy is drawn between “church” and “not church,” to the point that an ecclesiology of “fullness” is misrepresented (perhaps because it was first misunderstood). If one is going to speak of a church as having a “fullness” to its faith that another church does not have, it does not mean: ” this ecclesiology allows for participation in the Church’s sacraments outside of her canonical boundaries.” That simply doesn’t follow. It could follow, and one could argue that another church body is so close to one’s own that intercommunion ought to happen, but intercommunion itself doesn’t necessarily follow from “fullness.” One may see something precisely along this line within church history, as the distinction between schism and heresy developed. For one might not rebaptize someone from church A but might (re)baptize someone from church B. Herein lies the central problem to rejecting an ecclesiology of “fullness.” One is left with an all or nothing ecclesiology. Either it is fully “church” or it most certainly is not. Within that framework, then, Roman Catholicism becomes seen as most certainly not and Orthodoxy is seen as entirely so.
As for stating that the church divided “in time,” the patriarch was simply making a historical statement. Even on a most basic level, one cannot have a “schism” without a “tearing.” The separation or division happened from within the church. Schismatics are not people following a separate religion who do not join ours. A schism occurs when there is a separation. Nor does such a statement or “fullness” ecclesiology mean the Orthodox Church would be seen as no longer possessing “all the truth.” Again, the one does not necessarily follow from the other.
A useful example might be the Novatianists, a schismatic church that actually supported the Orthodox party during the Arian crisis and eventually died out by way of being integrated into the Orthodox church. It’s not a perfect example, as our current situation is not the same, but it is close.
Another thing the author of the article left out was the body of ecumenical statements concerning various theological issues, such as the filioque. This is a glaring omission, for by ignoring more recent discussions, the author is able to appeal solely to earlier statements as though later discussions and developments do not matter.
In the end, while I agree some of us in favor of ecumenical dialogues do use cliche statement too often, the theology presented by this anonymous (and why be anonymous when pontificating?) priest is just as cliche. Sadly, it is yet another example of cliche Orthodox sectarianism–burying one’s head in the sand regarding history (look only to the statements one likes and ignore development) combined with an all or nothing ecclesiology (assisted with an erroneous rejection of “fullness” ecclesiology). Orthodoxy needs to mature beyond this point. Our response to Roman Catholicism and the West should not be to shove our heads in the sand and flip the bird to the outside “Western,” world. We should proclaim that we do believe we have the fullness of the Gospel and the faith within our tradition and yet we should also be willing to see light as it shines in the other. A sectarian approach not only hurts unity. It also hurts us, for it makes us less, for we do not have to engage our brothers and sisters in Christ in any meaningful way, but merely tell them “become exactly as I am.” That didn’t ultimately work so well for Agent Smith in The Matrix movie series (despite initial successes) and won’t work so well for us either.