Christian Ecumenism: the Royal Road of Moderation

Posted on April 22, 2012

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Between [“open” relativism and “closed” fanaticism]- which are both unfaithful to the present Orthodox responsibility — lies the road of a conscious and sober participation in the ecumenical movement, implying no compromise, but much love and understanding. This road is the right one, not simply because it is the “middle” road, but mainly because it reflects the truly catholic spirit of the Orthodox faith.”[1]

—Fr. John Meyendorff

We begin this brief discussion on moderation with these words from Fr. Meyendorff, which we quoted in our previous essay. Here we will expand Meyendorff’s excellent estimation of Orthodox ecumenism and elaborate on the responsibility that this theme can have for all Christians. Moderation is a crucial theme in significant ascetic writings of the fathers, who are counseling novices about salvation and repentance.[2] On the one hand there is the danger of lackadaisical asceticism, which does not take seriously the intensity of the passion—this leaves man in a pagan, impassioned state. On the other hand, immoderate fasting, vigils, and prayers turns man not into an animal—but a demon.

Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals, who give free rein and scope to their bodily passions; but excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride…Those who relinquish bodily discipline become subject to gluttony, lust and anger in its cruder forms Those who practice immoderate bodily discipline, use it indiscreetly, or put all their trust in it, seeing in it their merit and worth in God’s sight, fall into vainglory, self-opinion, presumption, pride, hardness and obduracy, contempt of their neighbors, detraction and condemnation of others, rancour, resentment, hate, blasphemy, schism, heresy, self-deception, and diabolical delusion.[3]

From this very helpful quotation we may see also reflections of the ecumenical struggle. For this struggle is certainly an ascetic struggle, and it is so vitally true that prayer is really the “soul of ecumenism.”[4] Therefore, let us begin to explore this idea further.

Georgia

We will begin with the situation of the Orthodox Church of Georgia. The Georgians are a proud people with an indelible Christian heritage. Having accepted the faith in 326, the land boasts a continuous line of sanctity and vibrant monasticism. During the twentieth century, as all other Orthodox churches, the Georgians joined the WCC and participated in the Ecumenical struggle. But as is also the case with the other Orthodox, the Georgian church suffered from harsh critics of the ecumenical struggle who deliberately misrepresented its aims and its purpose. Anti-ecumenical literature took WCC statements that were unorthodox as being said by Orthodox bishops (which misunderstand the scope of such documents) and accused the Georgian patriarchate of subscribing to a relativistic doctrine of some Protestants (which it never has). Schismatic articles proliferated in a country already impoverished for theological literature in its own language, which deceived the faithful into thinking these opinions were those of other mainstream Russian and Greek clerics (which they are not).

As the church was trying to recover from Communism, much political anti-establishment sentiment was able to broil over especially from the youth. Using gang violence and lots of shouting, the schismatics seized control of five crucial monasteries in the church of Georgia—something that was deeply felt in the small but ancient church. This caused the church of Georgia to withdraw in 1999 from the WCC in order to deal with its own schism which threatened much of the church because of the schismatics’ deception of the faithful. “Young monks who have barely even finished seminary see themselves as St Mark of Ephesus and Athanasius the Great, and they yell hysterically and deride the bishops.”[5] They denounce not only the Georgian patriarchate, but also every other Orthodox Church. “The real goal of these people is not the purity of Orthodoxy. The goal of these people is the satisfaction of their own ambitions.”[6] Nationalism also plays a significant role, as other Orthodox churches with a strong national character—notable Russia and Serbia—also are significantly affected by these schismatics.

This represents the demonic character of immoderate severity. It is truth with no love, which turns out to be no truth at all. The schismatics wish to smear the Ecumenical struggle falsely, and wreak havoc on the “sober participation” of Orthodox bishops. It also creates an anticlerical bent, which mimics the horrible schisms of the Russian Raskol in the 17th century, turning the faithful against the bishops causing chaos and raucous slander to pass as Orthodox dogma. To what extent are these schismatic tendencies a result of “put[ing] all their trust in [asceticism], seeing in it their merit and worth in God’s sight”? Perhaps this spirit comes from a tenacious pride with which an Orthodox Christian may hold fast the Nicene Creed, thinking himself acceptable to God solely because of his Orthodox confession—without the fruit of good deeds—and seeing participation in Ecumenical struggle as tarnishing that prideful pedestal. This, I believe, is almost always connected with the heresy ethnophylism.

Alliance against Hedonism

In 2006 the Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev was interviewed about the Ecumenical struggle. He also described the smear campaign carried out by anti-ecumenical Christians of Russia, particularly the presses, which deliberately attempted to misrepresent what the bishops are trying to accomplish. For example, one photo in such a publication was of Orthodox and Protestant Christians sitting in chairs holding a conversation. The caption read “Orthodox delegates during an Ecumenical prayer.” Or when local dancers in Brazil performed during breaks (no doubt as part of a generous hospitality and cultural offering to the Ecumenical guests from the locals), a schismatic publication captured the dancers and captioned “Fire worship becomes a mandatory rite of ecumenism.”[7] What these schismatics suffer from is a willful myopia which blinds them to the reality of the broader problems which Ecumenism is attempting to address.

Bishop Alfeyev said in 2006 that in his ten years of Ecumenical experience, he sees a widening chasm which is broadening between the “churches of tradition”—Catholics and Chalcedonian or Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (and in general Protestants from the global South)—and those Christian communities with a “more liberal bent”—mainly the global North Protestants. Alfeyev stated that as this divide widens, the possibility of dialogue will become more and more difficult. He proposed then some sort of cooperation between these traditional Christians in the face of the hedonism now surrounding them.

I am not talking about the serious dogmatic and ecclesiological differences which exist between these Churches and which can be considered within the framework of bilateral dialogue. I am talking about the need to reach an agreement between these Churches on some strategic alliance, pact, union for defending traditional Christianity as such — defense from all modern challenges, whether militant liberalism, militant atheism or militant Islam….the liberal, weakened “Christianity” of the Protestant communities cannot resist the onslaught of Islam; only staunch, traditional Christianity can stand against it, ready to defend its moral positions.[8]

This is the fight against the “love without truth”—the “animal” man of Brianchaninov—which is suffocating the Western civilization and the militant Islam which continues its slow advance through immigration and intimidation. It is the nature of schismaticism to be myopic, and because of the severity of these threats, this myopia becomes particularly tragic. The demonic pride of the schismatics contrasts the animalistic paganism of the liberals, and in the middle the Church struggles for moderate and sober struggle for Truth in Love. Alfeyev’s words are incredibly wise and should be hearkened to by all Christians as are servants of Christ.

Catholic convert Peter Kreeft offered a very important reminder in 1988 when he wrote that

The agreements between orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics are far more important than the agreements between orthodox Catholics and liberal, or Modernist, or demythologized Catholics, and far more important than the agreements between orthodox Protestants and liberal Protestants.[9]

Kreeft then lists ten vital tenets of our faith—the truth of miracles, heaven, hell, the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and especially the reality of a personal relationship of Man with his Creator in Christ—with which those Protestants and Catholics who value tradition can heartily agree. In the face of secularization, these crucial points become the fulcrum of any semblance of stability as civilization disintegrates into animalism or splinters into demonic sectarianism. This is why “sober participation” can and must be a foundational practice of every true Christian. It is the way of moderation.


[1] Meyendorff, “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism II,” 1967; Accessed at http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/24/meyendorff-on-ecumenism-2/

[2] I think especially of St. John Cassian’s The Institutes

[3] St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena, trans. Lazarus (Holy Trinity Monastery, 1997) 138ff

[4] Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, ch. 6

[5] Interview with Fr. Vassily Kobahidze, head of the Press Office of the Georgian Patriarchate, Press Secretary of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, 1997. Accessed at http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/24/kobahidze-interview/

[6] Ibid

[7] Interview with Hilarion Alfeyev, 2006; Accessed at http://www.incommunion.org/2006/04/23/will-the-ecumenical-ship-sink/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peter Kreeft, “Toward Reuniting the Church.” accessed at http://catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0028.html

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