Almost two years ago, the Theotokos Institute for Catholic Studies hosted its first theological conference in Cardiff, Wales. The topic of the conference was ‘Eastern Christian Thought and Practice in Twenty-First Century Europe’, and invited speakers included prominent Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic theologians from Europe and North America. Admittedly, the title of the conference was vague; its primary purpose, after all, was to bring together a number of people who might comment on what it was to live out the Christian life according to an ancient, if very much a minority, idiom in the contemporary West.
Organising this conference threw up two experiences that endure as emblematic of the theological problems that plague the Christian East, and which hinder any real ecumenical advancement.
In the first instance, finding a venue proved difficult in light of the fact that, for some reason, the Greek Orthodox Church, which had first been available, became unavailable at the last minute. There could be a number of reasons for this, but the fact that there was ultimately no Greek participation in the conference whatsoever, and the message has since reached Institute representatives that the conference was seen as a ‘Uniate’ affair and therefore of no consequence to the Orthodox, suggests that the cancellation was not merely coincidental. Having never had this confirmed either way, however, it will be my pleasure to re-visit the point should someone want to clarify.
The second experience was of significant online invective. One, young, London-based, convert to Orthodoxy asked why he should be interested in a conference of ‘heretics and schismatics’, and proceeded to call into question the Orthodoxy of any Orthodox contributors who would stand alongside Orientals (presumably the heretics) and ‘Uniates’ (the schismatics). It didn’t seem to matter that the Orthodox contributors involved had earned international reputations either in the theological or pastoral realms, or both. Unfortunately, the young convert’s response was not the only like it.
I am well aware, of course, that the internet is replete with self-proclaimed apologists for any number of traditions, the most vociferous of which tend to be the Roman Catholic ‘rad trads’ and the Eastern ‘Überdox’. Both sides in this case might well bang on about the filioque or papal authority, or whatever – which I am sure is very entertaining – but none of which is of any real consequence when it comes to the question of communion.
There is a strange notion, representing any number of historical fantasies, that the mutual excommunications of the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Constantinople in the eleventh century marked something sudden, absolute, and theologically-considered, as opposed to something vague, political, and only retrospectively theological. The Great Schism was much more like the Phoney War than the D-Day landings. In any case, whatever we might compare it to, it was a few centuries before the more permanent consequences of broken communion would be known.
In fact, there is no point in the Church’s history in the first, or the second, millennium when she enjoyed absolute theological and practical purity and unanimity. In terms of credal beliefs, perhaps (although these, too, did not simply appear out of nowhere; they had to be discerned and then composed), but in terms of ‘secondary’ theological questions, the Churches have each had moments when they have articulated the Faith in different terms, or when they have gone wrong. The Roman Church’s early affinity for the idea of Christ’s work centring on the propitiatory Sacrifice compared to the Alexandrian Church’s assumptions around Christ’s work being primarily theosistic, for example, would result in a significant divergence in language, liturgy, and iconography that we see to this day. Importantly, however, neither Church can be said to be wrong.
How authority developed in one Church compared to another must certainly be understood as secondary to belief in the Holy Trinity and Christ’s two natures, and how Latins describe the procession of the Holy Spirit has been explained by no less than St Maximus the Confessor. It is not only I who would say that neither issue represents serious enough theological difference to warrant the one side calling the other ‘heretical’. Such language is simply not consistent with the Church’s authentic tradition, and merely reveals the historical ignorance and lack of theological imagination of those who use it.
Which brings us back to the problem that inspired this piece in the first place.
I, myself, am an Orthodox Christian who has chosen to live in communion with Rome. I made this choice because I believe the Roman See to be a mark of unity and safeguard for orthodoxy. At the same time, I in no way condemn the Orthodox not-in-communion with Rome. Indeed, on more than a mystical level, I believe that we belong to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, separated not by a wall, but merely a curtain. Stories from the Maidan of Orthodox and Greek Catholics together serving the Ukrainian people as they stood up for themselves, attest to a deep ecumenism among Eastern Christians that all the Facebook pundits and polemicists in the world could never destroy. Tales of Antiochian Orthodox Christians going to Melkite Greek Catholic Churches in Lebanon or Syria (and vice versa) and not knowing the difference is as it should be: NOT because it means, for example, that an Orthodox believer might thereby be drawn into the Catholic family, but because both are Orthodox in the first place – in faith and in practice – and what separates them (history, and with whom each are in communion) is hardly grounds for staying apart.
Here in Cardiff, Wales, people are hungry for the Gospel. There are Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Russians, Indians, and Ethiopians mostly operating as if each of the others do not exist [the Indian Orthodox excepted]. This, in spite of the fact that all of them possess a liturgical and spiritual language for the Faith that holds deep resonance for an otherwise deaf culture. For some, this may be due to ethnicity; for others it is due to communion. Well, this Ukrainian Greek Catholic suggests that we shelve such naïve notions as essential difference, and unite as much as possible to serve God’s people. After all, there are few enough labourers for the harvest, and what keeps our communion fragmented is much more an act of will than it will ever be a difference in Truth.
This article is now available to read on the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.