Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: straight talk from an Englishman goes a long way towards mutual understanding

Posted on February 28, 2012

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In 1904, Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III the Magnificent was writing letters to his Orthodox brother bishops. He was seeking to bring the Orthodox churches together in order to engage the Western churches in ecumenical endeavors. In his encyclical of that year, he wrote:

Lest we be charged with indifference for our [non-Orthodox] brethren who are seeking what is right and God-given and who long for ecclesiastical intercommunion and union with us, let us not be misunderstood as doing them an injustice by judging them on rumours and reports rather than on authentic and official confessions…a clear and precise and official confession of their faith, published and subscribed by their bishops and pastors in council, that so it might be possible to have a discussion and clarification and an understanding and (with God’s help) fulfillment of our common desire [for reconciliation].[1]

This statement shows clearly a very mature insight into the problem of Christian division. To a large and significant degree, it is the result of following “rumours and reports” rather than official teachings. Embittered by envy, mistrust, hatred or else awful fratricidal blood, Christians for eighty generations have been stirring up dissension among brothers[2] on the pretense of rumours and reports. Therefore the modern Ecumenical movement has to a large and significant degree been the process of Christians finally understanding one another’s teachings, and finding a mutual communion through love of the Lord Jesus. This does not supersede our doctrinal divisions, but nevertheless now acts as a buffer against estrangement based on hearsay. Bl. John Paul II described this process as “brotherhood rediscovered.”[3]

Once we have moved past these frivolities, Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim of blessed memory then exhorts us to consider only the “official confession” which is “published and subscribed” to by the official overseers of the Christian faith—the bishops. We will leave off the difficulty that this presents in dialogues with Christians who have no bishops, and focus on the dialogue between Christian bodies possessing Aposotlic succession, specifically the Catholic Church and Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. This is where His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware follow’s Joachim’s exhortation and becomes a welcome relief in the midst of ecumenical confusion. But let us first briefly examine that confusion before we bid him welcome.

For the relationship between the body of bishops in communion with the pope of Rome—the Catholic Church—and the body of bishops outside of communion with the pope of Rome—the Orthodox Church—has suffered greatly from the “injustice” of prejudgments based on “rumours and reports.”[4] But this has always been t

he case in the Church. That is why the “official” path of “bishops in council” have always served as the remedy to Church division since the council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles. There have always been councils.

But the most important council for Christian unity is the ecumenical council. For this institution constitutes the very highest and most authoritative ability to make statements most accurately termed “official.” It is only from this institution that any Orthodox Christian can properly say with definitive, infallible clarity that “this is what the Orthodox Church teaches.”

But after the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west, and the decline of the Roman Empire in the east, the pope of Old Rome assumed the responsibility for calling ecumenical councils and confirming them, which most bishops of the east rejected. But without a strong political power, the eastern bishops were deprived of any method for calling and confirming an ecumenical council.[5] It seems that since a larg

e majority of the bishops of the east were no longer in communion with Rome, an ecumenical council no longer was a common practice (or perhaps even a possibility). Thus there have been many eastern bishops who have said that ‘such and such is what the Church teaches concerning Purgatory’ or ‘this is the teaching of the Church concerning the filioque.’ But in fact there is no definite, official teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning these things, since no ecumenical council has definitely ruled on them.

Instead, the Orthodox churches collectively teach their doctrine based on the current consensus. Over time, it is hoped, this consensus will either coalesce into one common Orthodox mind, or else manifest itself in an Eighth Ecumenical Council.[6] But until this occurs, Orthodox Christians divide against each other as to what the official teaching of the Church is.

In this difficult confusion, it becomes ever more exacerbating when it is vehemently proclaimed by Orthodox Christians that ‘such and such is correct’ or that ‘this is the teaching’ on any matter not dealt with in the Ecumenical Councils. Unfortunately in the English speaking world, there are many who seem to be convinced that the Orthodox Church has a definite teaching on nearly anything that has to do with Protestants and Catholics. This creates a situation in which many people are being taught that the Orthodox churches are unanimous this point when in fact they are not, or else homogeneous on that point when in fact they are not. This aggravates the efforts of the modern ecumenical movement, because it is nothing else than “rumours and reports” and not an “official confession” by the bishops.

It is into this confusion that we may finally welcome His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. In his classic book, The Orthodox Church, he speaks honestly about the teachings of the Orthodox churches. His presentation through the book is very fair and well-balanced. Consider his dealing of the filioque clause:

Most Orthodox believe the Filioque to be theologically untrue…There are, however, some Orthodox who consider that the Filioque is not in itself heretical, and is indeed admissible as a theological opinion—not a dogma—provided that it is properly explained. But even those who take this more moderate view still regard it as an unauthorized addition.[7]

There is no official position of the Orthodox churches on the Filioque. Since these churches are working by consensus, His Eminence explains to us with charitable erudition that a consensus is not yet absolute on this point. This is in contrast to many who denounce the Filioque as a definitive heresy and claim that all eastern Christians have always said the same. This type of vehemence is like a spiritual libel, which obscures the historical and contemporary teachings of the Orthodox and hinders mutual understanding. His Eminence, by admitting the reality objectively, helps to rectify this confusion.

Consider also this honest admission:

While many Orthodox theologians would say that not only the Bishop of Rome but all bishops are successors of Peter, yet most of them at the same time admit that the Bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor in a special sense.[8]

This is in contrast to many who would take the words of someone like St. Mark of Ephesus as the definite teaching of the whole Church, or equal to an Ecumenical Council. In reality different Saints have said different things, and that is why the Ecumenical Councils bring together all the voices to speak as one. When an Orthodox Christian forcefully maintain the bishop of Rome has no unique succession from St. Peter, and that every Orthodox Christian says and has always said the same, he is being myopic, and leading others astray. This is most unfortunate, but it is a result of our spiritual disease of division. In order for us to mutually understand one another, we must admit what the teaching actually is, and who teaches what. Metropolitan Ware’s writing is helpful because it admits the ambivalence that the Orthodox churches have for Catholicism.[9]

His Eminence also helps us understand better the motivations of some Christians whose actions may cause some to react negatively. This is the type of attitude that Blessed Joachim mentions above when he compassionately considers the non-Orthodox to be sincerely “seeking what is right and God-given.” His Eminence sets an example for historical scholarship when he tries to bring out the best intentions in the more divisive times in Christian history. For example, when commenting on the violence and bribery of St. Cyril, he writes that

If Cyril was intemperate in his methods, it was because of his consuming desire that the right cause should triumph; and if Christians were at times acrimonious, it was because they cared about the Christian faith.[10]

And again he speaks about St. Photios when he virulently denounced the Latin patristic teaching and addition of the Filioque as heresy, though he knew no Latin:

Photios has often been blamed for writing this [condemnation]…[as a] ‘futile attack’… ‘inconsiderate, hasty’…But if Photios really considered the Filioque heretical, what else could he do except speak his mind?[11]

These explanations help certain figures of the Christian past—long considered to be the sources of division—to at least be seen with a forgiving, Christian spirit. The language of His Eminence helps us better approach one another by assuming the best intentions of our Christian forbearers. This is what Martin Luther once described as the “rule of love” which “always thinks well of everyone, and is not suspicious but believes and assume the best about its neighbors.”[12] This type of attitude allows us to look at historical divisions in the best possible light with a view towards reconciliation, forgiveness, and communion.

But if we consider the exhortations of Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim, and we see His Eminence showing a most charitable and honest spirit in scholarship, there remains one area where the language perhaps might benefit from the benefit of the doubt:

[Pope] Nicolas [had] an exalted idea of the prerogatives of his see, and he had already done much to establish an absolute power over all the bishops of the west…Nicolas thought that he saw [in the condemnation of Photios] a golden opportunity to enforce his claim to universal jurisdiction.[13]

It is in our treatment of the popes, I believe, that our language must change. It fails to admit that the popes could have had in fact deeply-felt a personal sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum (“burden for all the churches”), and believed that certain circumstances compelled them to act rather strongly in enforcing some position. If we grant this indulgence to St. Cyril and St. Photios, why not to Nicholas I, whom the Catholics view as a Saint? Perhaps if we follow the example of straight talk given by His Eminence, and listen to the exhortation of Patriarch Joachim, we can look clearly at the history, and humbly at our forefathers in the faith. This is the effort of the official dialogues, and its hoped-for fruit is mutual understanding. Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us, amen.


[1] Encyclical of Joachim III of Constantinople (1904) in Gennadios Limouris, ed., Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism (WCC, 1994), 7

[2] Which the LORD hates.Prov. 6:19 (NIV)

[3] John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 41

[4] I will not attempt to summarize this legacy of misinformation, but will leave this statement up to the reader to evaluate based on his own historical reading.

[5] The closest instance of a post-787 Ecumenical Council (beside the disputed ‘Eighth’) was the Palamite councils of 1341-51, at a time when most of the eastern bishops were under Islamic domination, and thus the Greek Emperor of New Rome enjoyed considerable power in the eastern world. Ironically, the Moscow Council of 1667, convoked by the Czar and attended by all other Patriarchs, seems to be rarely if ever mentioned as an ecumenical council possibility.

[6] The Orthodox Church, in fact, has been planning such a council for over one hundred years now. It is very unfortunate that circumstances have not allowed this council to come together sooner!

[7] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church,51

[8] Ibid., 28

[9] He also writes later that only “some” Orthodox would claim Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception as divisive issues between Catholics and Orthodox. He also points out that for the latter doctrine, it was only after Rome’s promulgation of it in 1854 that it became more widespread to think of this as heretical (Ibid., 259, 314).

[10] Ware, 36

[11] Ibid., 55

[12] Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, in E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson eds. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Philidelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 157

[13] Ware, 53

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