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The Commission on Faith and Order and the Orthodox Church

By Metropolitan Vasilios of Constantia and Ammochostos

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, held in Crete (2016), in its official document concerning the “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” gave a special mention to the Commission on Faith and Order.

«The Orthodox Church wishes to support the work of the Commission on «Faith and Order» and follows its theological contribution with particular interest to this day. It views favorably the Commission’s theological documents, which were developed with the significant participation of Orthodox theologians and represent a praiseworthy step in the Ecumenical Movement for the rapprochement of Christians. Nonetheless, the Orthodox Church maintains reservations concerning paramount issues of faith and order, because the non-Orthodox Churches and Confessions have diverged from the true faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church» (21).

It is true that the Commission was created in 1927 with the purpose of the multilateral theological dialogue among the member Churches even before the creation of the World Council of Churches (1948).

The history of the ecumenical movement in general and the Commission on Faith and Order in particular demonstrates that the Orthodox participation is important both in terms of people, with the participation of distinguished Orthodox personalities, and theological contribution. We shall not refer to persons and historical situations. Our attention shall focus on the basic question on the expectations and perspectives of the Orthodox Churches from the Faith and Order Commission, and it should be clear from the beginning that they are none other than the unity of Churches. Through this reference we will try to answer at the same time the questions on: a) the contribution of the Orthodox theology in the clarification of the concept and pursuit of unity and b) the position of the Orthodox Churches towards the efforts and the results of this unity’s pursuit.

It is obvious that the participation of the Orthodox Churches in the Faith and Order Commission had a single, more of a one-way goal, the unity of the separated Christian Churches. At this point, there have been meetings in this purpose with other Churches that undertook the initiative of the theological discussion and pursuit for the unity of Churches. I refer to the World Missionary Conference at the beginning of the previous century (Edinburgh 1910) and the First World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927 in Lausanne.

Many important meetings of the Commission have been held since then, producing important theological texts. You can find information on the theological studies and the texts of the Commission on its website. The issues of the World Conferences of the Commission are indeed important for the question we are considering in the present text. They concern many aspects of the unity of Churches sought, issues that divide and issues that unite the separated Churches. The Orthodox part has nothing to object on this thematology. Besides, the Orthodox members played an important role in the determination of not all but many of the issues.

The work of the Commission is crucial from a theological point of view. Its contribution, for Faith and Order in particular, can be organized in the following fields.

a) World Conferences and regular meetings of the Standing Committee on Faith and Order.
b) Collaboration with the World Council of Churches and substantial contribution in the determination of the WCC theological positions.
c) Theological studies and publication of texts from the Committee.

The first two World Conferences of the Commission — in Lausanne in 1927 and in Edinburgh in 1937 — focused their work on the presentation, comparison and analysis of the positions of the Churches that were represented at the Conferences on the various theological issues. The representatives also made some cautious evaluations in order to see whether existed any similarities between the theological positions of the various Churches. In particular, the Lausanne conference dealt mainly with issues of unity of faith as well as ecclesiological matters and issues related to the life of the Churches.

The Edinburgh Conference focused its attention on the relationship between Ecclesiology and Christology as well as with Church unity. The aim of the meetings was to reveal the possibilities offered by dialogue in terms of overcoming the theological, doctrinal and ecclesiological differences and other problems related to the life of the church, with the ultimate aim of achieving unity of faith.

The Third World Conference, which was held after the end of World War II, in 1952 at Lund, Sweden, moved away from the methodology of comparative theology and ecclesiology of the two previous Conferences, towards the methodology of dialogue. The thematology of the Conference led to a discussion on important issues, such as the relationship between the Holy Scriptures and tradition and to a broadening of the discussion not only on Christology but on Trinitarian theology as well. For the first time, the concept of Church unity was linked to non-theological factors, including social, cultural, political and racial aspects affecting either the division or the unity in the Church. In its message, the Conference asked the Churches «whether they should act together in all matters, except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately». This formulation became known as the ‘Lund principle’. In other words, the meeting explored the relationship between Christology and Ecclesiology, the notion of apostolic succession, and of course the diversity of ways of worship and the equally important issue of the use of the common cup for the Eucharist.

The Fourth World Conference of Faith and Order in Montreal, Canada 1963, presented an innovation in the effort to define unity and the practices and theological solutions proposed. The Conference revolved around three topics: 1) Christ and Church; 2) Worship; 3) Tradition and traditions. As these topics clearly show, the Conference touched upon the essence of the ecclesiological differences regarding Apostolic Tradition, the meaning of Tradition in relation to the Holy Scriptures as well as the subject of the Sacraments and the concept of the presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

The Fifth World Conference of Faith and Order was held on 3-14 August 1993 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on the subject: “Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness». Despite the fact that the Conference had been preceded by the General Assembly of the WCC at Canberra (1991) on “The Unity of the Church: Gift and Calling”, where ‘koinonia’ was placed at the center of the discussion on church unity, Faith and Order discussed, from its very beginning, the notion of ‘koinonia’ in a number of forms: as an ecclesiological term describing the unity and communion among the Churches and in the Trinitarian sense of unity as communion. Of course ‘koinonia’ has been understood in various forms and meanings, mostly in the sense that constitutes the best way to experience unity through diversity. However, the Orthodox, who had proposed the term ‘koinonia’ at Canberra, did not mean exactly that. This is made clear in paragraph 10 of the Conference’s Message:

“Concrete challenges stand before the churches. In relation to faith, the churches must continue to explore how to confess our common faith in the context of the many cultures and religions, the many social and national conflicts in which we live. Such confession emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of the church and its apostolic character in the light of the Holy Scriptures. In relation to life, the churches must dare to take concrete steps toward fuller koinonia, in particular doing all that is possible to achieve a common recognition of baptism, agreement on a common participation in the Eucharist, and a mutually recognized ministry. In relation to witness, the churches must consider the implications of koinonia for a responsible care for creation, for a just sharing of the world’s resources, for a special concern for the poor and outcast, and for a common and mutually respectful evangelism that invites everyone into communion with God in Christ. But beyond all particular challenges, the churches and the ecumenical movement itself are called to the conversion to Christ that true koinonia in our time demands”.

This meeting attempted to break the barrier of the ‘Lund principle’, proposing to the Churches to move beyond this. “But they must go further. Unity today calls for structures of mutual accountability”. This describes the concept and content of koinonia, from which of course the concept of koinonia according to the Trinitarian model is absent, main point of the contribution of the Orthodox theology and ecclesiology.

The Commission currently was restructured by canceling the Plenary (120 members) and creating a larger Standing Commission with forty to fifty people. What is more important is the obvious sign that the Commission has to orient to more “actual” topics than the so-called “classical” theological issues. As orthodox we don’t reject the consideration of actual issues reflecting the problems the Churches are facing by exercising their mission in the world today. But this has to be done not against the sincere theological, ecclesiological and traditional issues. The Orthodox Churches are very sensible on these matters. For example, the Commission, after the Bussan General Assembly of WCC, among others, is charged to make a study on the main topic of the Assembly, on the «Theological-Ecclesiological Foundations for ‘The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’».

The Orthodox ecclesiology determines the notion of the unity of Churches on the basis of its ecclesiological position, as it was also stressed by the Holy and Great Pan-orthodox Council in Crete, that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Of course, the notion of the unity cannot be limited only to the ecclesiological aspect with its doctrinal extensions, but takes as important components of this unity, both the Holy Scripture and Tradition and the functional and normal structure of the Church. The notion of unity is determined within the context of the lived experience of the Orthodox Church.

In the ecclesiological text of Ayia Napa Consultation where the orthodox response to the text ‘The nature and mission of the Church’, is recorded, the Orthodox delegates stressed, among other things:

The One Church today is the continuation of the apostolic community of the first days. If the denominations are to overcome their present stage of division, communion must be restored among them. They must find the common roots of their faith, the living tradition, which is experienced in the sacramental life of the one Church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, communion must be realized anew in each place and time. The Church exists within the context of its calling to proclaim God’s purpose for the world, and to live it out in historical contexts and situations.

The difference in the methodology, content and the ecclesiological context of the unity of the Churches from an Orthodox point of view is more than obvious. Nevertheless, I could put forward, for further consideration, the question about whether the Orthodox in the multilateral dialogues:

a) Remain constricted in a formalistic ecclesiological notion of the unity. For example, whether they simply seek the use of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by everyone (and they have right to insist on that) or they intend to move on to a substantial discussion and determination of the notion of unity. Of course, the Orthodox part has repeatedly said that the basis for the unity of the Churches is the common faith and tradition of the undivided Church of the first Christian millennium; faith and tradition defined and determined by the seven Ecumenical Councils.

b) Are the Orthodox ready to accept the results of the multi- and bilateral theological dialogues or do they hold these dialogues simply to hold a discussion and nothing more? This question is asked due to the fact that the theological texts of the Faith and Order Commission are used very little if at all, by the Orthodox Churches, the theological schools etc. The known document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, that celebrates this year its 30th anniversary, almost did not concern the Orthodox Churches whereas the references of this text from Orthodox theologians are almost nonexistent, except those which deal with the ecumenical movement. However, I would say that, after the first enthusiasm with this text, the other Churches have almost forgotten about it as well. The question of the texts’ reception and use should concern the Commission itself.

Besides, the Orthodox Churches entered these dialogues — both multi- and bilateral — having the conviction that the Orthodox Church is the only one to have preserved the orthodoxy of faith in comparison to other Churches that caused distortion of the content of faith and their ecclesiological structure. That is to say, distortion of the faith and the canonical order, like the canonical order in terms of the ministry, the liturgical tradition and the ecclesiastical life and Christian ethos in general.

The discussions on the unity of Churches both from the Faith and Order Commission and the ecumenical movement in its totality have followed their own course. However, the awareness of the other Churches-partners of the Orthodox in the dialogue is not the same with that of the Orthodox for the heterodox Churches. On the contrary, as a response to the aforementioned orthodox perception of the oneness of ecclesiology and the orthodoxy of faith, the other Churches believe that they keep and confess the common Christian faith as well. The differences in terms of formulation are interpreted in various ways. Either they are included in the notion of ‘diversity’ or they are understood as cultural differences that do not have to do with the content of the faith. This is how it is raised the question: «how is it possible to confess together what we confess individually?» and not the question: «how will everyone seek and adopt the same content and the same confession of faith?” This position reveals in our point of view a consolidation of opinions and lack of will to enter into dialogue of the truth. In many texts of the ecumenical movement, the Churches are asked whether and to what extent they are ready to recognize in others what they have in their Church.

I would like to refer once more to the questions I had put forward to the Faith and Order Plenary Commission Meeting in Crete in 2009, as moderator of the Commission at that time, because faith is confessed in ecclesiological context and the content of the faith cannot be evaluated outside the church.

How do Churches today perceive and define the nature of church unity? What is the current situation affecting the life of the Churches and sometimes being supportive of their efforts for unity and some others presenting obstacles to these efforts? Another question which could also be asked is the following: do the Churches today really want unity and is the church unity feasible in the light of the current diversity of contrasting and opposing ecclesiologies, or the existence of Christian groups without any ecclesiological basis? For which unity do we speak and for what Christians, when the biggest number of Christians either refuses to take part in this process or rejects the ecumenical movement as a whole? All these questions demonstrate the complexity of the Churches’ unity issue. Many Churches in the ecumenical movement obtained self-confidence by getting to know their own ecclesiology and comparing it to the ecclesiology of other Churches. It is obvious that what they want is relations of ‘good neighboring’ and ‘sociological collaboration’, meaning new ecclesiological contexts without having the will to make solid steps of unity on the basis of common confession of faith, sacraments, worship, canonical order etc.

The last convergent ecclesiological text of Faith and Order, «The Church: Towards a common vision» describes these difficulties. In the chapter on unity it is noted: “Visible unity requires that churches be able to recognize in one another the authentic presence of what the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (381) calls “the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” This recognition, in turn, may in some instances depend upon changes in doctrine, practice and ministry within any given community. This represents a significant challenge for churches in their journey toward unity” (par. 9).

– Metropolitan of Constantia and Ammochostos Vasilios, Cyprus, was auxiliary bishop of Trimithus (1996-2007) and then elected to his diocese on 2007. He represents the Church of Cyprus to the Central Committee of WCC. From Porto Alegre (2006) until Bussan Assembly (2013) he was also Moderator of Faith and Order. He is member of the International Commission for the Dialogue between Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. He teaches dogmatic at the Theological Faculty of the Church of Cyprus.

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