The Story of a Tired Ecumenist

Section I: My Story

1. Introduction

Professor Leon Dion, a Canadian expert on constitutional law, once called himself “a tired federalist” thus expressing his frustration with the apparently insurmountable difficulties that have plagued all attempts to renew Canadian federalism. After the failures of Lac Meech and Charlottetown—two reform attempts sponsored by the federal government—and the victories of the “no” side in two Quebec referendums on independence—obviously sponsored by Quebec sovereignists—the question of Quebec’s political future, either inside or outside the Canadian confederation, has not yet been settled. It is easy therefore to understand that the eminent, federalist professor was tired.

I would like to use this example to describe myself as a tired ecumenist.

2. The Beginning: The Protestant Hope

To begin with, I was born on September 6, 1944, in Joliet, Illinois, USA. […]1 I grew up in a little town called Wilmington, Illinois, through which flows the Kankakee River and which was part of the Mississippi River system that French explorers, after Louis Joliette, used to get to New Orleans. And in that little town, Wilmington, there is a Presbyterian parish, of the Calvinist Protestant tradition, where I received my first Christian education. Thanks to the people in that parish, and especially thanks to my mother, I am what I have become today. They laid the foundation stones for the “building.” I would like to express to them all my deepest gratitude.

In 1960, at the age of 16, I heard about a speaker, Eugene Carson Blake, an eminent Presbyterian pastor at the time, who had preached a sermon in Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. In his presentation, he proposed a union between four Protestant Churches: the Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian Churches as well as the United Church of Christ. His proposition has since come to be known as the Consultation on Church Union, and I was immediately won over, following the negotiations with great interest and hope.

I knew about three of the Churches mentioned in the proposal: the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Christ. These Churches had parishes in Wilmington and were “regular” Protestant parishes, well known in the United States and Canada. On the other hand, I knew nothing of the Episcopal Church. So I decided to find an Episcopal parish and discover what was for me something new. There was an Episcopal parish in Joliet, Christ Church, of the high‑church, Anglo-Catholic type, having a great affinity with Roman Catholicism. In that parish, I found a version of Christianity I had never known before, one that I found very attractive. At the time, at the end of high school, 1960–1962, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the Protestant interpretation of Church history: The 1st‑century, New Testament Church, very good, and the 16th-century Reformation, very good also, but the fifteen centuries between the two? Where was Christ’s Church during that time? In general, the interpretation was, and is, that the visible Church, as opposed to the “spiritual” Church, slowly became corrupt, especially during the Middle Ages, and so the Reformation was necessary.

This interpretation did not satisfy my sense of history. I was looking, probably without knowing it, for a form of Christianity that could claim a continuous historical existence from the apostles down to the present time. When I started to read the history of the Church of England, especially the high-church version, I found its interpretation more and more convincing. The liturgical and sacramental aspect of high-church Anglicanism was enormously appealing. So when I went to college in 1962, to Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, I discovered a small Episcopal parish there, was received into its communion, and became a fervent advocate of Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism. As for my hope of union between the Protestant Churches, the fruit of that tree is rather meager. A few mergers have taken place here and there, between very closely related Churches, usually in the same Protestant family, but the Great Union did not happen. That was my first disappointment.

When I discovered Anglicanism, I also learned about something very surprising to me: the Orthodox Church. The history of the Church of England after the Reformation shows that many Anglicans had a great sympathy for the Oriental Christians: the Greeks and Russians. In general, this feeling was mutual between the two Churches. Knowing nothing about the Christian East, I decided to look for an Orthodox parish and to learn as much as possible about this great friend of Anglicanism. There was, and still is, a small, Russian church in Joliet, Illinois, St. Nicholas parish. There I met the local priest who welcomed me quite warmly. In Joliet, there were two other Orthodox parishes, a Greek one and a Serbian one, very ethnic both of them, but they did not hold as much interest for me as the Russian parish where the liturgy was in English. I continued to read everything I could find on the Orthodox and their relations with Anglicans.

3. The Story Continues: The Anglican Chapter

When I became Anglican, of the Anglo-Catholic variety, my enthusiasm for the Consultation on Church Union quickly changed into fierce opposition. If the Protestant Churches wanted to unite, I had nothing against their doing so; it would even be a good thing, for them. As for the Episcopal Church though, which, according to its Anglo-Catholic interpretation, was not a Protestant Church but rather a catholic Church—like the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Old Catholic Churches—uniting with Churches that had no apostolic succession and none of the sacramental attributes of a Church called “catholic” was out of the question. I did everything I could to fight against the participation of the Episcopal Church in the movement toward a united Protestant Church that included Episcopalians.

At the time, Vatican II was in full session and the change in attitudes and the reforms of the Roman Catholic Church were only just beginning. As an Anglo-Catholic Anglican, I very favorably welcomed these changes, hoping that they would lead, rather quickly, to a union of Anglicans and Roman Catholics. I remember how my attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church had changed at the time. Having grown up in the pre-Vatican II atmosphere where there were two Christian camps, Protestant and Catholic, and where coolness, if not open hostility, reigned between them, I did not have a very favorable attitude toward Roman Catholicism; I was after all a good Protestant. But during the 1960’s, in the euphoria of Vatican II, I reoriented my ecumenical interest and hope toward the Church that claimed to be “catholic” and not Protestant, so I decided to go and introduce myself to the priest of the local Catholic parish, St. Rose in Wilmington. I did not know him at all, not even his name, and I had no idea how I would be received. I presented myself at the door of the rectory, and there I met a young priest, the assistant to the much older pastor. Fr. X—I do not even remember his name—was very happy to meet me. We spent some good times together. I do not know what the old pastor thought of all this, I never met him, but it was very nice being with Fr. X. Finally, our paths diverged, and I never saw him again. Please understand that my interest in Roman Catholicism was not for Catholicism itself. I had no intention of becoming Roman Catholic. I wanted the ecumenical spirit to sweep away all the obstacles so that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism would find the necessary agreement that would permit communion between the two Christian confessions. Time has shown that this hope was to be frustrated; the hoped-for goal has never been achieved. Anglicans and Roman Catholics are still part of two divided Churches. This is not to say that relations on the whole have not greatly improved, between all the Churches; friendly relations have been established there where coolness and hostility once reigned. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal of the Ecumenical Movement, the healing of the schisms between the Churches and the restoration of communicatio in sacris between them, especially my dream of Anglican-Roman Catholic union, well, that does not seem to be for tomorrow morning. Second disappointment.

In 1966, after college, I started my theological studies at the Episcopal seminary, Seabury-Western, in Evanston, Illinois, the first suburb on the lake, north of Chicago. There, my interest in the Orthodox Church grew stronger because of a professor, Fr. Winston Crum, who also had a great sympathy for Orthodoxy. We mutually encouraged each other in our common interest. During my time at Seabury-Western, I think I visited all the Orthodox parishes in Chicago. Early each Sunday morning, I went to a Eucharist in the seminary chapel, and this freed up most of the morning, so I was able to be an ecclesiastical tourist and visit Orthodox parishes, one after the other. I felt very attracted by the liturgy, the music, the icons, the theology, and the history of the Orthodox Churches, but, after every visit, I had the same feeling: I always felt as though I were in a foreign country. The parishes were always very ethnic, in a language I did not understand—in a language, sometimes, even the parishioners did not understand despite their protestations to the contrary. Yes, I had an intellectual interest and a personal taste for Orthodoxy, but I had no place in those parishes.

All through my Anglican period, I was always a convinced Anglo-Catholic. I accepted and defended the ecclesiology of the high-church brand of Anglicanism: the branch theory. According to this interpretation, the Catholic Church was united during the first 1000 years Christian history. Western and Eastern Christians, despite their quarrels, maintained a unity of faith and communicatio in sacris, but during the second millennium, cracks in the oecuménè—Christendom—occurred but without touching the essential nature and unity of the Church. So there were two branches. In the West, at the time of the English Reformation, another crack appeared: this time between the Roman Catholic Church and the English Catholic Church. According to the branch theory, there was one trunk of the Church tree until the schism between the Greeks and the Latins; then, two branches until the English Reformation when the Latin branch split into two, thus making three branches: Greek, Latin, and English. Protestant Churches are excluded from the Church tree because they rejected the essential characteristics of a catholic Church: mainly, apostolic succession, the priesthood, and the fulness of the sacraments. This branch theory is very seductive, and the ecumenical program that it proposes seems ingenious. All that has to be done to reestablish the unity that existed in the first millennium is for each of the three branches to recognize in the other two the fulness of catholicity. Each branch would, of course, have to be tolerant of the particularities—local traditions—of the two others, and unity and communion would be reestablished. The differences among the branches could be mutually tolerated in a spirit of openness and understanding.

I sincerely believed in the branch theory and in the eventual unity of at least two of the branches: the Anglican and Orthodox ones. It would take a bit longer to bring Roman Catholicism on board; it was a more difficult case to resolve. Due to my taste for everything Orthodox—except for ethnicity—I nourished the great hope that one day, when the Anglican and Orthodox Churches were united, during my lifetime obviously, I would be able to cross over the bridge established by the union and fully participate in the Orthodox liturgy, without having to renounce the branch theory that I believed in and defended with such fervor.

Then the earthquake happened.

4. The Earthquake: My Atheist Period

Without much fear of being wrong, I think we can say that I matured slowly. I suppose we can even say that I was a real nerd, a bookworm, with little experience of the world. At that time, the 1960’s came to an end with everything we associate with that decade: the Vietnam War, social and university agitation, the civil rights movement, the babyboomers booming, etc. It was an explosive period when many people crossed the line, went too far, broke the rules. Why should I have been different? I was not, and, very quickly, I made up for lost time. The old wineskins could no longer hold the new wine.

From high school on, I never doubted what I wanted to be: first a Presbyterian minister and then an Anglican priest, but in the beginning of 1969, after a very agitated fall on many college campuses, my faith crisis and new interests pushed me to leave the seminary to… Well, I did not know exactly what. Having always been interested in education, I decided to take courses to obtain a high school teaching certificate. I got that after a time, and for a year I taught French as a second language in a Catholic high school in Chicago. This was my atheist period, and I was also a taxi driver, a social worker, a security guard in a Coca-Cola plant, a substitute teacher, and a school security guard. None of this had anything to do with ecumenism because during the period 1969–1974, I lived outside any Church, calling myself an atheist. Why not? In reality, it was a transitional period. Toward what? Toward the next stage.

5. The Decision: The Orthodox Period

During the period 1969–1974, I had the growing sense that my future was not to be in Illinois. I wanted to live in a Francophone country, but immigrating to Europe was too difficult and too far away. So I tried to find, and did find, a teaching job in Quebec where I moved from Illinois. After my delayed adolescent crisis, I began to go to an Anglican parish near Montreal. In June 1977, I got married to Denise in that parish which had become my new spiritual home. Naturally, with the renewal of my faith, still Anglican, my old interest in Orthodoxy also came back to life. Thanks to a very good deal during the summer after our wedding, a package offered by the Soviet agency for student tourism, Denise and I decided to spend our honeymoon in the Soviet Union, weird but true. During that trip, I had an experience that changed the direction of my life.

It is important to understand, first of all, that among Anglicans during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the liberal current was growing in force. It produced many liturgical experiments, some attempts to redefine the faith, and numerous innovations of all kinds. The distance between the liberals and the conservatives grew increasingly wide. As for me, being a good Anglo-Catholic and little inclined to doctrinal deviations, I did not have much sympathy for the liberal theological wing of Anglicanism. So Denis and I were in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1977, and we had a great time, but in Vladimir, as I was coming out of the hotel one morning, I saw an English-language newspaper, from the British Communist Party, which stated in big letters: “Anglican bishop rejects the doctrine of the resurrection.” When I read the article, my heart sank. “Oh no,” I said to myself. “At least here—in the Soviet Union—the people who say that are not in the Church. There may be those in the Church who don’t believe, but at least they don’t announce it from the pulpit.” Something inside me snapped.

When I got back to Montreal, I said to myself: “Steven, my friend, you’ve got to decide once and for all if this fascination of yours for Orthodoxy is really love or if it is just one of your fantasies. It’s time to choose your sides.” So I decided to do an experiment: I would put myself as close as I could to the Orthodox Church without having to leave Anglicanism and find out if it was really for me or not. But how should I proceed? Well, at that very time, in September 1977, I learned that there was in a Russian parish in Montreal a small group of Orthodox, Russians and converts, that had a liturgy in English early Sunday morning. Here was my chance. I would sing in the choir as often as possible, and after a year I would decide, once and for all, what I should do. In actuality, I did not need a year to make up my mind because when I started to sing the Russian melodies in English, I was immediately seduced. The following year, September 8, 1978, the little 8 o’clock group founded a new parish, and I was received into the Orthodox Church at the liturgy on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin.

Obviously, my old dream, my heartfelt hope, was now dead. Through the experience in Vladimir in the Soviet Union, I became aware of two things: 1) My theological orientation no longer had a place in the Anglican Church. My faith, which had been Orthodox for a long time, was no longer the faith of Anglicanism. At best, it was the faith of a section, of a party, of the Church while other parties professed their faith, just as freely. As an Anglican, I was free to believe what I wanted; others were too. 2) The hope of union between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches was a pipe dream which, despite good relations, would never be realized. There would never be a bridge I could cross to have the best of both worlds. And with the death of my ecumenical dream died also my belief in the branch theory. The Church of Christ was united and historically continues, from the apostles down to us. Having abandoned the branch theory, there were only two alternatives: the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church.

So here was another disappointment in the ecumenical area: 1) the Protestant Churches; 2) the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches; and 3) the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. What real hope was there left? And then there appeared a last hope: the Chalcedonian Churches (the Greeks, Russians, Romanians, etc.) and the non-Chalcedonian Churches (the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Syriacs, and Indians).

6. The Last Hope: The Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Project

Here is the big question: In my lifetime, will I see any real ecumenical progress? Will I see the healing of a major schism before I die? The only one that it seems to me to have the slightest chance of being healed is in fact the oldest one: the schism between the Chalcedonians and the non Chalcedonians, both groups claiming to be Orthodox. In two recent documents2, published by an official commission of the two groups, the theologians expressed the opinion that the dogmatic differences between the two traditions, especially on the subject of Christology, are verbal in nature and not dogmatic. According to the commission reports, the two groups confess the same Christological faith but use different words to do it. In fact, they profess the exact, same Orthodox faith, period. If it is true that the Chalcedonians and the non Chalcedonians are both fully Orthodox in their faith, being separated by two distinct vocabularies, then there must be great joy in heaven. These official documents do not resolve all the problems, but after fifteen centuries of polemic, it is certainly very good news.

The question remains, however: Will I see the healing of the schism between the Chalcedonians and the non Chalcedonians? Only God knows, but of all the bilateral and multilateral dialogues, the one between these two groups of Churches seems to be the most promising. I can therefore reasonably hope that the Ecumenical Movement will produce at least one significant fruit during my life or not too long after: the healing of the schism caused by the disagreements over the Council of Chalcedon. I must admit, however, that it is quite possible that this schism will not be healed and that for a fourth time, I will be disappointed. It is equally possible that the ultimate goal of the Ecumenical Movement, the healing of all schisms, is unattainable and that we will have to wait for the Second Coming to see any serious progress.

I hope now that you can see why I call myself, yes, an ecumenist, but a tired one. A wise man recently said that in the ecumenical realm, the keywords are hope and patience. He was certainly right, but for people made of weak flesh and blood, it is difficult to maintain hope and remain patient in the face of so many disappointments. Nonetheless, long live hope; Lord, help my fatigue and impatience.

Section II: Analysis and Evaluation of Ecumenism

1. Introduction

Some people could easily say,

OK, Fr. Steven, you are tired and disappointed because the Ecumenical Movement has not attained its ultimate goal. Isn’t that a little like being tired and disappointed that the Kingdom of God has not yet fully come? Maybe your standards are set too high. Shouldn’t you evaluate ecumenism at least on two levels: the ultimate goal and more down-to-earth, more immediate goals?

Alright, those are good observations, and they merit a response. We do have to recognize the distinction, without making it into an opposition, between the goal we are moving toward and the ups and downs of the daily march toward that goal. It is also true that I am personally inclined to live on the high plain of idealism, of ideas, of Romanticism, of dogmatics, and Church history. OK, I am an egg head, an intello, and, I suppose, I am happy to be one. Idealist or not, I live in this world as an Orthodox Christian, and, as such, I am interested in the Ecumenical Movement without being on either extreme of the question. In the Orthodox Church, as in any group, there exist a left-wing, a right-wing, and the extreme center. As for ecumenism, those on the left wing of Orthodoxy—I call them ecumaniacs—believe that unity between the Orthodox and Catholics will be proclaimed tomorrow morning, if the “ayatollahs of Mount-Athos” and other fanatics do not derail all progress. Union with the Protestants will take a little more time: at least a week. The Orthodox right wing—the “hardliners,” the “Orthodoxy-or-death” group—want nothing to do with any union with heretics and schismatics; these are their favorite words. According to them, outside the canonical limits of the Orthodox Church, there is nothing but a vast spiritual desert. Between these two poles, there is a whole rang of opinions: more or less for this or that, more or less against that and this. As Orthodox, living inside the canonical limits of the Orthodox Church, we deal with these two tendencies, sometimes well sometimes not so well.

Being myself part of the extreme center—theologically a bit to the right and liturgically a bit to the left—I have various evaluations of the down-to-earth Ecumenical Movement; let us take a look at some aspects of Ecumenical Movement as it is lived out on a daily basis.

2. Ecumenism and Interreligious Relations

For more than a century now, the Ecumenical Movement has been dealing with relations between Christian Churches, their cooperation, and ultimately the healing of the schisms between them. During the 20th century, secularism became an ever stronger movement, and the center of interest imperceptibly shifted to improving relations between the world’s religions. This shift has sown confusion in the minds of many about the definition of the word ecumenism. In fact, we can even say that the interest in unity between the Churches has diminished to the same degree that interest in inter-religious affairs has increased. We certainly need to improve inter-religious relations, to promote understanding, and to reduce tensions in order to eliminate hatred, fanaticism, a spirit of war, etc. Nonetheless, the desire for healing the schisms between the Churches and that of promoting good inter-religious relations cannot be both called ecumenism, but in many people’s minds, they are the same. Since today the movement for Christian unity seems to be standing still, there appears to be more hope, urgency, and progress possible in the realm of inter-religious relations than in inter-Christian affairs. Is this good or bad? Everything depends on your point of view, but for me I can only regret the confusion between the two areas: interreligious and inter-Christian affairs. We always choose the field we want to work in, and mine has always been inter-Christian relations. When I see the movement for improving relations between the world’s religions come into competition with, and even overtake, the movement for Christian unity, it is not for me a sign of hope and rather contributes to my fatigue.

3. Emotion or Theology

In my experience, ecumenism is quite often a sentimental and emotional affair, not theological, that is, the Catholics and Protestants I have met are very happy to meet an Orthodox priest, and I am always happy to meet them. The meetings take place on a personal level: me an Orthodox, them Catholics or Protestants, but it is not on the theological level that we have our first encounters. This is in fact a good thing because I definitely prefer meeting people on a personal basis rather than on a theological basis. If I meet someone on the personal basis first, we have the chance of building a friendship before discussing theological questions—assuming that such discussions take place. I have had both kinds of meetings. Sometimes I meet people for the first time and a discussion of theological and ecumenical question ensues. Such discussions being what they are, we quickly arrive at diverging points of view, before we become friends, and finally we separate as “disputants” rather than as friends. Sometimes a personal meeting is not possible before discussions, and that is regrettable. It is rare, in such cases, that we go from the “disputant” level to the friendly level. The contrary, however, is possible. I have had, and still have, meetings with people on the two levels, but the friendly should come first: we become friends, and on that basis we have vigorous theological discussions. In the end, we decide to recognize that we both have our opinions; we decide to live and let live.

Meeting Protestants and Catholics who are happy to meet an Orthodox priest can sometimes, however, cause problems. I never begin a theological conversation at those moments, but rather often, they do. They want to know the Orthodox position on such and such a subject, and when they ask, I try to answer. Sometimes they are happy with my answer, sometimes not. One time, I went to an ecumenical gathering on mixed marriages. When my turn came to speak, I said that marriages between people of different Churches, to say nothing of different religions, is not really a very desirable thing. In fact, Orthodox Christians do not have the right to get married outside the Church; nonetheless, I know very well that such things happen. Very often, it is a loss for both Churches involved because if both the bride and the groom are weak in their faith, being separated on that question does not favor the deepening of Christian life in either of them. They either adopt the attitude that “it’s all the same anyway,” “we’re both at the same time,” or some such relativist attitude wherein the specificity of the two confessions is denied. If one of the two is strong in his or her faith and the other weak, then usually one confession “wins” and the other “loses.” I continued my presentation by saying that the Orthodox Church, in the case of mixed marriages, hopes that the two will become strong, active Orthodox Christians so that the family will be united in faith. Such a decision must, of course, be arrived at without any constraint, pressure, or coercion.

I had the impression that my talk was not very well appreciated. The atmosphere of the conference was of another kind: mixed marriage, “what a joy, what a good opportunity to open up to the other, to learn about the other, to live ecumenism.” My presentation did not quite fit in even though I was only giving a resume of the Encyclical on Marriage of the Orthodox Church of America. This was an example of what can happen when emotional ecumenism meets theological ecumenism before bonds of friendship are established. I was never again asked to such conferences.

4. Ambiguous Language

Two times in the past, at the Council of Lyon, 1274, and the Council of Florence, 1438‑1439, the Latins and the Greeks tried to heal the schism between the two halves of Christendom. The attempts failed because of, among other things, ambiguous language which meant one thing to Latin Catholics and another to the Greek Orthodox. On the other hand, the last union council between the East and West that succeeded in healing the schism between them, the Council of Constantinople, 880, achieved its goal precisely because the language was clear and meant the same thing to all participants: among other things, the rejection of the filioque in the creed and a reaffirmation of the interdiction of adding or subtracting anything from it. It is thus rare that an ambiguous text can really promote a reconciliation between two disputants.

4.1. Sister Churches

And on this point, I will limit myself to contacts between Orthodox and Catholics. The dogmatic positions of Orthodox and Protestants are sufficiently divergent so that any attempt to fudge over differences with elastic words is too obvious to allow any chance of success. So, in my view, an ecumenical dialogue full of imprecise language, ambiguous words, and notions that sidestep the real questions can only damage sincere efforts to promote Christian unity. Unfortunately, we often hear an ecumenical dialogue lacking in such precision. Here is an example: the expression “sister Churches.” What does it mean to Orthodox? On the first level, the word Church in the singular and capitalized designates all people who are recognized to be members of the Orthodox Church. In the plural, “Orthodox Churches” refers to the several local Orthodox Churches in the world, Churches which recognize each other as being fully Orthodox. We can thus say that they are sister Churches: the Serbian and Romanian Orthodox Churches are sister Churches, like all the others. However, we have recently heard this expression applied to the relation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It is said that they are sister Churches. And yet this expression, which is clear and precise when used to describe two or many local Orthodox Churches, becomes ambiguous when used to talk about the Orthodox and Catholic Churches because the Catholic Church is not recognized as having exactly the same faith as the Orthodox. There are serious theological problems that prevent communcatio in sacris between them. It is these problems which have brought about the Ecumenical Movement. If these two Churches were really sisters, there would be no need for a movement aiming at uniting them.

In this case, the expression “the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are sister Churches,” for the Orthodox, is a novelty; it does not mean what it normally means. What does it mean then? Well, that is a good question. Must we recognize that there are two definitions for “sister Churches”? It is quite possible to give another definition to an expression; new conditions do require new words and definitions. This is acceptable if everyone understands which definition is being used in which situation. As far as I know, there is not much clarity on this question; ambiguity and confusion seem to be spreading. According to the first definition, these two Churches are not sisters, but according to the second, whatever it is, they are. It is quite understandable that Catholics are confused when some Orthodox affirm that the two Churches are not sisters (the first definition) while others affirm the opposite (the second definition). The quest for unity is not well served by such imprecise language.

4.2. The Word Primacy

We have another example: the primacy of Peter and the Bishop of Rome. Confusion exists here also because both Churches speak about this primacy. The Orthodox Church affirms that it has always recognized it and does not hesitate to reaffirm it today. The problem is not in the expression itself but in the dogmatic content that it expresses. In 1995, Pope John-Paul II invited the Orthodox to a dialogue on how the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should be exercised: “…to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation3.” As with the preceding expression, “sister Churches,” we need at least two definitions.

  • definition 1: the Roman Catholic one, expressed in the Vatican I dogma and
  • definition 2: the Orthodox one expressed by “primacy of honor.”

Now in Pope John-Paul II’s invitation, we are speaking of definition 1. The Orthodox have few problems with the manner of exercising the Roman primacy. The Roman Catholic Church has every right to exercise this primacy in any way it sees fit. The problem is not in the exercise, but rather in the definition of the primacy. Therefore, even though the invitation expresses an openness and magnanimity—that is not at all in question here—it contains a little blip: if the Orthodox accept the invitation to discuss the exercise of the Roman primacy (definition 1), that would assume that they accept definition 1 when in fact they accept definition 2. I wonder how many Catholics understand the deeper meaning of the invitation.

4.3. The Word Church

There is a similar problem on the Protestant side. For a long time now, the Orthodox have been part of the World Council of Churches and of other national and local Councils of Churches. In the beginning, Protestants founded these organizations, and the Protestant spirit continues to dominate them. This often creates problems for Orthodox members. For example: the word Church, especially in the singular and capitalized. For the Orthodox, as we have seen, the word means the Orthodox Church, period: definition 1. For Protestants, in general, according to their ecclesiology, “The Church” is a synonym for all Christians organized in their various Churches, regardless of the diversity of doctrines and practices that may exist among them: definition 2. It is obvious that the word Church is understood in different ways. The problem comes when these ecumenical organizations and many who are interested in ecumenism use this word with the second definition. What should the Orthodox do? Should they protest each time that the word Church is used in a Protestant sense? That would be very tiring for them and for everyone else. Orthodox and Catholics are aware of exclusive definitions of that word and are careful to avoid clashes in meaning by an imprecise use of language. The problem is rather on the Protestant side, and again, ambiguity of terms in ecumenical dialogues is a source of irritation.

4.4 “But we’re already Orthodox.”

Here is a frustration that I run into much too often: it is the necessity of affirming my own identity, of defending the fact that the Orthodox are different, and of countering “it-is-all-the-same”ism. This problem manifests itself in two ways: 1) through ignorance and relativistic niceness and 2) by a conscious desire to promote the claim that such and such a group is already Orthodox. In both cases, the Orthodox have either to be quiet and say nothing, hoping to avoid confrontation, or to defend their right to be different. It is not a nice situation to be in, to have to make such a choice. If I say nothing—for fear of contradicting or offending—I feel a bit like a traitor for letting someone present his or her point of view as thought it were mine when in fact it is not. If I say that the Orthodox Church and such and such a Church are similar but not the same, I run the risk of being seen as fanatical, and sometimes, of provoking the anger of the person I am talking to, as though I am ecumenically uncouth.

Whatever inspires the relativist attitude in others, this point of view denies the dogmatic and ecclesiological specificity of the Orthodox Church. I call it “internal syncretism.” Instead of saying that all world religions preach the same thing, that they really are just different forms of one religion—external syncretism—people mix together all the Churches together into one Church found in many forms. This is a non-theological, unreflective attitude, one that damages the movement toward Christian unity by promoting a false “ecumenical” spirit. The syncretist attitude assumes that all the divisions between Christians are the result of political, cultural, personal, etc. rivalries, in other words, unworthy of being taken seriously. We certainly do not want to deny that some problems have their source precisely in various human weaknesses. Internal syncretism, however, denies that some Christians, motivated by the noblest attitudes, can honestly disagree about whether such and such a thing is faithful or not to the Scriptures, to the Gospel, to Christ himself. I often meet this syncretist attitude among laypeople who have good, but uninformed intentions; sometimes clergy also have it. It is not possible to have an ecumenical dialogue with someone who has this point of view. Before beginning to discuss differences and divisions, we must recognize that they exist. Personally, if I sense that I have to fight for the recognition of Orthodox specificity before trying to overcome differences, I prefer to do something else. In such a case, dialogue is sterile and pointless. So when I hear someone express the syncretist attitude, I say to myself that life is too short and that I do not have the time or energy to pursue the conversation.

In the case where certain other Christians seek to promote their point of view which affirms that they are already Orthodox, as I am, I lose all patience and sometimes I get irritated—sinners do that. For the most part, some Anglicans and Greek Catholics (Uniates or Easter Rite Catholics) take this point of view. As in the previous case, a real ecumenical dialogue is not possible. If they and we are already fully Orthodox, as they say, then to refuse to recognize that state of affairs is simply mean-spiritedness or bad faith on the part of the Orthodox. What can we do when faced with an attitude like that? Not really very much. I much prefer to talk to Evangelical Protestants who know they are not Orthodox and do not want to be it than to discuss with those who deny the reality of the divisions between us. Discussions of the latter sort lead nowhere, and I have more important things to do.

4.5 Ecumenical Politics

Wherever you find men, and women, you will find them acting like fallen creatures. In all organizations or groups of people, there are power games, intrigues, rivalries, etc., and between organizations, the same thing. Unfortunately, Churches and the people in them are no exception to the rule. If we define politics as “every activity that seeks to obtain, exercise and keep power,” then Churches, as on one level human institutions, are not exempt from this phenomenon which so wonderfully manifests the condition of fallen man. We should not be surprised then—saddened, of course—to see that politics is at work in and among the Churches. In one aspect of its functioning, ecumenism is also a power game. Structures of power, such as the Vatican, the Phanar4, the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Anglican Establishment, the world, national and local Councils of Churches, etc. maneuver to maintain and increase their zones of influence. They all ask the question: “Who will be the boss?” The never-ending rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow is the subject of unending discussion, and all Orthodox know about, and generally lean to one side or the other. Even so, from time to time, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these same rivals do rise to a higher level and defend the greater interest of Orthodoxy.

The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who sees himself as the head by divine right of all Christians and who sees his influence in Europe and the whole world declining, is naturally seeking to maintain and strengthen his position of leadership, among other things, by promoting good relations with the Orthodox and speaking of the ultimate goal of the Ecumenical Movement, the healing of the centuries-old schism between the Christian East and West. His prestige increases as he is seen beside various patriarchs who do not recognize his authority and primacy as he conceives them; nonetheless, such meetings are progress. This is not to say that everything is base politics, calculations, power games, but it is certain that the Pope will do nothing to compromise his theological vision of the office he occupies.

The Patriarch of Constantinople sees his very existence threatened in Turkey by the slow but sure decline—we can even say extinction—of the number of Greeks in Turkey. His position of primus inter pares of the Orthodox hierarchy is not being contested by anyone, in theory, but his influence can certainly be reduced if the number of metropolitans around him in the Phanar exceeds the number of faithful under his direct authority in Istanbul. He therefore favors a policy that seeks to strengthen and increase his prestige in the Orthodox world.

  • The Patriarch is seeking good relations with other Christians, through ecumenism, and especially by promoting relations with the one person who can grant him the greatest visibility: the Bishop of Rome. We often see them, they themselves or their delegates, together promoting this or that cause, and of course, the ultimate goal of healing the schism between the Orthodox and Catholics. But just like the Pope, the Patriarch will do nothing to compromise his theological vision of the post he occupies. He knows very well that his followers are paying close attention to what he says and does, for as we have already seen, all Orthodox are not as enthusiastic for ecumenism as he is.
  • In the Orthodox world, the Patriarch is trying to reconcile dissident Orthodox, those in a gray zone in relation Orthodoxy in general; he naturally wants to reconcile them under his wing—better to say sponsorship. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada is a good example. It has recently been integrated into the full communion of the Orthodox Church under the homophorion—the authority—of the Ecumenical Patriarch. This is a very good thing, of course; it heals an unfortunate schism, but also increases the Patriarch’s prestige. He is also creating a worldwide network of bishops in the “diaspora”—the countries outside the traditional zone of Orthodox countries: Western Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Australia. He is seeking to solidify his position among all Orthodox as the only one who can claim an international status, independent of all attachments to a particular government. We will talk about his link to Turkey below. He wants to present himself to the world as THE spokesman for world Orthodoxy: in 2004, he visited Cuba where he met Fidel Castro and other dignitaries. Neither the Patriarch nor Castro were ignorant of the subtle message sent to the Patriarch of Moscow: Cuba, former client of the Soviet Union, received the Patriarch “of the Greeks” and not of the “Russians.” The Greek-Russian rivalry is a constant, and its shadow hovers over everything that happens in the Orthodox world.
  • The Patriarch supports Turkey’s request to enter the European Union. In his position, how could he do otherwise? It is difficult to know what he really thinks on the question, but it is certain that it serves his interest to promote Turkey’s admission into Europe. If Turkey were in Europe, then all the European regulations would apply to him as to any everyone else, including full religious liberty. His isolation from “Christian Europe” would be eliminated, and he would play on a field dominated by a Christian past, at least much more Christian than that of modern Turkey. By being in Europe, Turkey would feel the political and religious pressure of European powers. And who has a certain influence on these powers, if not the Pope? So by playing the ecumenical and the Turkey-in-Europe cards, the Ecumenical Patriarch is promoting his interests and hopes to guarantee his own survival and to increase his influence.
  • The Patriarch of Moscow plays a different game. Since the fall of Communism, his situation is just the opposite of that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian Church is in full expansion and taking advantage of the Russian political policies to increase and deepen its influence in the world and in Orthodoxy. It does not need Rome or, ultimately Constantinople, even though it cannot ignore the Ecumenical Patriarch either. The attitude of the Patriarchate of Moscow toward ecumenism is therefore different and is much more critical than that of Constantinople. It is the Bishop of Rome who is anxious to meet the Patriarch of Moscow, not the reverse. And even if Moscow is not the world-wide spokesman for Orthodoxy, Rome knows that the influence of Moscow is growing. Moscow can therefore make the Pope wait and require that the Uniate question be resolved first. Moscow also wants to deal with the question of what it sees as an interference into its internal affairs: the establishment in Russia of Latin-rite Catholic dioceses. Moscow sees itself in a strong position. Not needing Constantinople to prosper, Moscow can more freely criticize the policies of Constantinople, oppose them, and on occasion, even threaten the Ecumenical Patriarch, as in the case of Estonia.5

We have to admit that in any conflict, even political, people can honestly have different points of view and can defend their own interests without that being a synonym for “low-down, dirty politics,” but people’s own self-interest should not necessarily be identified with the greater interest of the Orthodox Church. Having said that, we can only hope that Church people will know how to separate their own interests from those of the Other.

4.6 The Ecumenical “Industry”

When people show an interest in something, a movement forms, and then an industry. We see that in pilgrimage centers. In the 19th century, Russians complained about the Greeks in Jerusalem who sold all sorts of bobbles and “relics” to pious Russian peasants. We see the same phenomenon at other pilgrimage centers and at sports events. The Ecumenical Movement has also produced its own “industry,” especially in the area of publications. Conferences, congresses, colloquiums, travel agencies, etc.; they all serve the desire to reunite Christians, sometimes well sometimes not so well. This phenomenon, like so many others, is not necessarily bad, but it is certainly ambiguous. Meetings of all sorts: committees and councils—“God so loved the world that he did not send a committee.”—dealing with this or that, all interminable and deadly boring. The Ecumenical Movement certainly has a serious case of “meeting-itis.” Nonetheless, Orthodox have definitely benefited from this “industry,” at least in one way. It is often thanks to an ecumenical institution, at one of these much-maligned meetings, that Orthodox have been able to get together, what they could not, would not, have done on their own. The Ecumenical Movement has indeed helped Orthodox unity. Everything is gray, neither black nor white.

4.7 The Real Advantages of Orthodox Participation in the Ecumenical Movement

Despite the ups and downs of the Ecumenical Movement, Christians of all confessions have benefited from it. What are some of the advantages for the Orthodox?

  • I have already mentioned the meetings on neutral ground that have taken place between Orthodox who otherwise would have had little contact with each other. This is especially true for the Churches who lived under the Communist yoke and those who still live in Muslim countries. Some Churches have thus had the opportunity to escape their isolation. Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians were able to get together and peacefully talk to each other for the first time in centuries. Theological discussions between them, at the highest level, have taken place and continue thanks to meetings of various Councils of Churches, thanks to the Ecumenical Movement.
  • Tensions between Churches and Christians have diminished; a climate of “live and let live,” at least that, has taken over. We can talk to each other, and cooperate on certain things, and that is no small matter.
  • Even though Orthodox cannot expect to control the agenda of the Ecumenical Movement, it has nonetheless given them the opportunity to make their voice heard, to have it taken seriously and sometimes followed.
  • The Orthodox have found non-Orthodox allies.
  • Ecumenism has allowed the Orthodox, often separated from each other for centuries by all sorts of factors, to become aware that they form one single Church, despite the differences of language, culture, etc.

5. Conclusion

Among Orthodox Christians, the question keeps on being asked: Is our participation in the Ecumenical Movement, at any and all levels, really worth the effort? Are the advantages more significant than the inconveniences we have to endure? Should we pull out of the various Councils of Churches? The answers are varied, but for the moment, we are still participants and feel, grosso modo, that it is to our advantage to participate. Will this evaluation change in the future? Who knows? But as an ecumenist who wants to heal the schisms between the Churches, I can say “yes, we should continue,” but as a tired ecumenist who is not very optimistic that the ultimate objective will be attained, I will simply let others continue the work. Bon voyage.

1 I have put the following sentences in a footnote because they have relevance only to Quebec: “Be careful, this is not the Joliette in Quebec but Joliet in Illinois in the United States. It is not even the same man who gave his name to the two cities. My ‘Joliet’ is Louis Joliet, the French explorer, born in Quebec City in the 17th century. He passed through the country of the Illini Indians on route to discover the Mississippi River. The city in Quebec is named for Barthélemy Joliette, an important person in the history of the region.”

2 See Official Documents: First and Second Agreed Statements:


4 The seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey.


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