Searching for a balanced approach to anti-ecumenists

Posted on June 4, 2012

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In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

One of the fundamental principles of christology is this: what is not assumed cannot be healed. When speaking of Christology, some of our holy fathers erected this edifice to combat the many manifestations of antichrist who denies that Jesus came in the flesh. Thus we must assert that our Lord assumed all that is human—nature, mind, will, energy—in order that our being may be healed, and that God might be all in all. This is simply the Incarnation of God, who was rich and became poor for our sakes, associating with our sinfulness, in order that the Rising Sun might come to us from heaven and shine on those living in darkness.

In a similar way, the Orthodox have always understood their purpose in participating in the Ecumenical movement as a means to help Protestants better understand the faith of the Apostles, in hopes that they may find unity in this faith. In was an effort to—in some sense—become like them for their sake. Thus the initial ecumenical work of the Orthodox is praised even by the late Metropolitan Philaret of ROCOR,[1] a virulent anti-ecumenist, when he wrote in his first sorrowful epistle of 1969 concerning the early Orthodox ecumenists:

They thought that the Church would suffer no injury if her representatives appeared among various truth-seeking Protestants with the aim of presenting Orthodoxy in the face of their various errors. Such a participation in inter-faith conferences could be thought of as having a missionary character.[2]

At the founding of the WCC, the Orthodox were assured that their participation would not require them to admit any legitimate ecclesial realities of Protestant churches.

Later, however, as the dominant Protestant character of the WCC began to be shown, the Orthodox participants found themselves quickly outnumbered and marginalized. Some, it seems, capitulated to the Protestant ecclesiology. This was seized upon by certain quarters of Orthodoxy as evidence that the whole of Orthodox ecumenism had been compromised. Scores of Orthodox Christians began denouncing their brethren as heretics or friends of heretics, promoting latitudinarianism. Metropolitan Philaret, in his “Sorrowful Epistle” assumes that the statements of the WCC are necessarily endorsed also by the Orthodox participants—tragically prejudging their motives and purpose because of some of their vague statements.

However, the holy priest of blessed memory, Fr. Seraphim Rose, though a staunchly conservative ROCOR heiromonk, was able to see past the over-zealousness of these critics.

Some would-be zealots of Orthodoxy use the term [ecumenism] in entirely too imprecise a fashion, as though the very use of the term or contact with an ‘ecumenical’ organization is itself a ‘heresy’ Such views are clearly exaggerations. ‘Ecumenism’ is a heresy only if it actually involves the denial that Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ. A few of the Orthodox leaders of the ecumenical movement have gone this far; but most Orthodox participants in the ecumenical movement have not said this much; and a few (such as the late Fr. Georges Florovsky) have only irritated the Protestants in the ecumenical movement by frequently stating at ecumenical gatherings that Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ. One must certainly criticize the participation of even these latter persons in the ecumenical movement, which at its best is misleading and vague about the nature of Christ’s Church; but one cannot call such people ‘heretics,’ nor can one affirm that any but a few Orthodox representatives have actually taught ecumenism as a heresy.[3]

On the contrary, Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote, “the excessive reaction against the ecumenical movement has the same worldly spirit that is present in the ecumenical movement itself.”[4] And what is this “worldly spirit” which Fr. Seraphim eludes to?

In so many Orthodox zealots, it seems to me, there is an intellectual narrowness, combined with some kind of political orientation, that produces factions right and left and loses sight of the ‘common task’ which we thought (and still think) is so clear.[5]

In the liberal Christian dogmatism of WCC members insisting that we baptize in name of the “Creator, Restorer, and Sustainer”, so also in the intransigent ‘zealots’ of Orthodoxy who condemn their brethren for their facial hair. Both sides are attempting to subject the world to their own viewpoint, too myopic not to notice any other side. This really is the essence of Christian division itself. Political considerations, wisely brought up here by Fr. Seraphim, can also not be ignored.

The most salient point, however, which so bristles the anti-ecumenists, is the claim that the Church exists outside of Orthodoxy. The reason for this is that it seems to them to deny that Orthodoxy is in fact the Church of Christ, since, if a Christian may obtain membership in the Church without Orthodoxy, how can the exclusivity of Orthodoxy be maintained?

It seems that anti-ecumenists may sometimes fall into a very black and white picture of this question. If you don’t believe that Orthodoxy contains the only source of grace in the world, while all other Christians are graceless heretics, then you must say that there is no Church, the truth is relative, and that all Christians are equally members of the one Church. This insistence to see only in absolutes betrays the spiritual immaturity that pervades this perspective. Anti-ecumenists think they are being zealots for Orthodoxy, when in fact they are “producing factions right and left” by their “intellectual narrowness.” The liberal latitudinarians do the same, only creating relativism right and left, which also divides brother from brother.

As the Fathers teach, discretion is the mother of the virtues. It allows us to see past absolutism, as Fr. Seraphim could, and look with compassion upon both sides. This is the only thing that will allow the Orthodox to truly help other Christians in the Ecumenical struggle. Instead of vehemently denouncing everyone, they will see how sensitive they must be, especially to Protestants, in order to communicate clearly the Orthodox faith. As St. Benedict said of a good Abbot, “Let him hate ill-doing but love the brethren. In administrating correction, let him act with prudent moderation, lest being too zealous in removing the rust he break the vessel.”[6] At worst, the anti-ecumenists alienate the rest of the Christian world, and seek to enclose themselves within their own bubble of right-worship and correct-opinion. This is the way of the raskol, (at least the schismatic and sectarian Old Believers), who were only being faithful to the traditions of the fathers—but they closed in on themselves, dispersed, and died away. And, as Bulgakov once wrote, “the spirit of schism and division is not only a characteristic of ‘heretics’ and ‘schismatics,’” and Orthodox Christians themselves can be more heretical in their lack of virtue than a humble Protestant.[7]

But at best, the anti-ecumenists are attempting to balance the seemingly top-heavy liberal relativist efforts of many Protestants who wish to simply sweep doctrine itself under the rug, since this would be easier. The anti-ecumenists are completely right in condemning this unfortunate and cowardly dismissal of true Christian struggle against heresy and the sin of division.

So let us hearken back to the principle that what is not assumed cannot be healed, and try to live this out in practice. What does this mean? It means seeing the heretic robbed and beaten on the roadside, stopping to help him, bandaging his wounds, letting him ride your donkey, and paying the inn keeper for his trouble. Not overlooking his wounds, but binding them in truth and love. If we refuse this service, we will be examined at our death and the Lord will say these dreadful words: depart from me…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was naked and you did not clothe me…I was a heretic and you treated me with scorn and derision, snubbing your nose at me and prejudging me. You did not show me love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whatever you did not do for the least of these my brethren, you did not do for me.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas


[1] Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia; a schismatic sect which broke away from the Chalcedonian Orthodox communion for much of the 20th century, vehemently condemning the other Orthodox churches for heresy. Thankfully, they were reconciled to their mother patriarchate in 2007.

[2] Metropolitan Philaret, “First Sorrowful Epistle,” 1969, accessed at http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/library/philaret/firstEpistle.htm

[3] Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, ch 99 accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/fsr_99.aspx

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] St. Benedict, Rule, trans. Justin McCann, ch. 64, p. 147

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, “By Jacob’s Well,” 97

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