The Sons of the Parisian Russian Orthodox Intelligentsia Justify their Ecumenism

Posted on March 20, 2012

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During the terrible days of the Bolshevik take over, the Orthodox Church of Russia and Eastern Europe was faced with excruciating decisions which threatened the salvation of Christians. The hierarchs of Russia were forced to either compromise some what to the Soviets and receive a certain amount of spiritual freedom, or resist and suffer the destruction of churches, monasteries, seminaries, and souls. In the midst of this, many Russian Christians fled the country or else were exiled. One unique group was staunchly royalist and fiercely opposed the compromised hierarchy of Moscow, and later refused to commune with almost every other Orthodox Church, vehemently condemning all manner of ecumenism.[1]

Another group of Russian theologians were exiled from Russia and settled in Paris. These Russians were conscious of their Eastern Orthodoxy but also very conversant in the Western Christian world, seeking to engage it and contribute to its understanding of Orthodoxy, and the work of Christian reconciliation. This Parisian school included many who would become leading figures in the English- and French-speaking Orthodox scholarship which would contribute greatly to ecumenical understanding in the 20th century. But these thinkers came under fire from their Orthodox brethren who accused the Ecumenical Movement of doctrinal relativism, thinking that the Orthodox participation was seeking to compromise the Orthodox faith. But the Orthodox participants were seeking to do nothing of the kind. They only wished to help the West understand Orthodoxy, for the sake of Christian unity.

Protopresbyter John Meyendorff (d. 1992) of blessed memory was born in France in 1926, very soon after the exiled Russian intelligentsia had founded the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris (with the help of people like Sergei Bulgakov and Georges Florovsky). Meyendorff later received his theological training there, and contributed meaningful theological and scholarly reflections in French and English for the rest of his life. He later became the dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York, which was founded by the Parisian Russians.

Meyendorff sought to provide a balanced and thoughtful approach to Ecumenism, and a palatable Orthodox framework for the western mind. But even as he found that his work bore great fruit of mutual understanding and respect among western Christians, his own Eastern Orthodox brethren accused him and other Orthodox ecumenists with trying to “water down” the Orthodox faith, or worse still, that they were heretics.

Meyendorff attempted to assuage their fears.

…there cannot be, on our part, any compromise in matters of faith. Our essential responsibility in the ecumenical movement is to affirm that 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.[2]

Here we have Fr. John flatly denying explicitly the charge laid against him by Orthodox anti-ecumenists. Unless they are prepared to accuse this widely respected and loved priest of God (along with many of his illustrious colleagues) wicked deceivers of souls, let this simple quotation suffice at least to make anti-ecumenists realize the true aim of the Orthodox involvement in Ecumenism.

Meyendorff stressed that since the Toronto statement of 1950, the World Council of Churches explicitly stated that it did not require any member to consider other Christian communities as “churches” in the fullest sense, and thus the accusation by Orthodox brethren against ecumenism is baseless and prejudiced. Later, Meyendorff’s successor as dean at St. Vladimir’s, the Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, would write in 1998, still painstakingly clarifying to his fearful Orthodox brethren:

Ecumenical activity in no way means that participants must recognize each other as real “churches,” or say that all churches are the same, or embrace some sort of “branch theory” in which the Orthodox are considered to be but one “branch” of the full, true Church. If this were so, then “ecumenism” would indeed be a “heresy.” But it is not. Those who say that it is are either ignorant or mendacious.[3]

The Orthodox purpose in participating at all in the Ecumenical movement was to witness to the truth of the Orthodox faith, which constitutes any real basis for Christian unity at all. “No Christian — and especially not Orthodox Christians, who claim to possess that unique Truth without which true Christian unity is impossible — can escape the responsibility to work for unity.”[4] Unfortunately, Meyendorff saw an imbalance in the approach of many Orthodox Christians

There will certainly be no true Christian unity outside Orthodoxy: the uninterrupted, organic tradition of united Christianity is authentically preserved in the Orthodox Church. And it is our responsibility to make this truth to be accepted as a relevant challenge in the ecumenical movement. Unfortunately, Orthodox thought in the matter is too often polarized between two equally wrong positions: “open” relativism and “closed” fanaticism. The first accepts a naive Protestant idea that it is sufficient to forget about “doctrines” and practice “love” to secure unity. The second fails to recognize the authentically Christian values of the West, which Orthodoxy simply cannot reject, if it wants to be faithful to the fullness of Christian Truth.[5]

Meyendorff argued that there is a middle way of  “conscious and sober participation” in Ecumenics without any compromise of faith, but with “much love and understanding.” This approach alone, wrote Fr. John, was reflective of the “truly catholic spirit of the Orthodox faith.”

This represents the sober and thoughtful approach of the Parisian Orthodox theologians, far removed from the political turmoil and bitter rancor that afflicted so much of eastern Europe and may have greatly affected the other Russian group sheltered in Serbia, later to become schismatic for much of the 20th century.


[1] This was known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Perhaps in the future we will investigate their history and their influence on Orthodoxy today.

[2] Meyendorff, “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism,” 1967. This and the following accessed at  http://incommunion.org/articles/essays/orthodoxy-ecumenism

[3] Thomas Hopko, “The Church, the Seminary and the Ecumenical Movement,” 1998

[4] Meyendorff, “The Problem of Ecumenical Beauracries,” 1983

[5] Meyendorff, “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism II,” 1967

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