How Are We to Evaluate Ecumenism?
Perhaps many of you associate the word “ecumenism” with the term
“heresy.” I would suggest that ecumenism is much more complicated
than this. In my opinion, “ecumenism” is an “umbrella term,” one
which includes at least two opposite approaches. Most Orthodox today
practice what we could call “responsible” ecumenism, articulated
by the late Fr. Georges Florovsky as the preaching of Orthodoxy
to the heterodox, and especially to the Western world. The opposite
is what we could label “irresponsible” ecumenism, which seeks an
extra-ecclesial union, promulgated by people such as Patriarch Athenagoras,
Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and very many non-Orthodox participants, for
instance in the World Council of Churches and the National Council
“Irresponsible” ecumenism actively attempts to reduce Christianity
to a series of social causes and as a consequence can change Orthodoxy
itself. Therefore, it is an ideology and harmful to Christian teaching.
Thus it is necessary to consider the extremes of ecumenism within
the main fields of Orthodox knowledge:
Dogmatically: We have two principal commandments: to love God and
to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-38). The love of God teaches
us to fulfill all other commandments (John 14:21), particularly
to preserve His teaching in purity (John 14:21, 15:10 and many others
). Extreme ecumenism places the second commandment above the
first and thus “oversteps the commandment of God because of their
own tradition” (Matt. 15:3). Devoted ecumenists teach that we are
to surrender our dogmas in order to show our love to believers among
non-orthodox confessions, i.e., to give up the first commandment
in order to fulfill the second. Christ showed the correlation of
the two commandments (Matt. 22:39). Therefore, the opposition of
the two commandments made by ecumenists does not agree with the
teaching of Christ.
Historically. Orthodox has always condemned cases similar to “irresponsible”
ecumenism, e.g., the Councils of Florence and Brest.
Scripturally. The Old and New Testaments mention the necessity of
keeping the right faith intact. The brothers Maccabees are good
Canonically. Orthodox participants in ecumenical meetings must often
violate canons, particularly concerning the prohibition against
praying together with heretics, which disturbs many devoted Orthodox
Christians. Being in communion with “irresponsible” ecumenical Orthodox
hierarchs is also disturbing for many Orthodox Christians.
Liturgically. A number of services glorify defenders of Orthodoxy
and condemn attempts at union or compromise with unorthodox teachings.
Finally, Orthodox tradition normally resists any suspicious innovations
and has always maintained a defensive attitude.
An example of a “responsible” ecumenism is that presented by bishops
who acted in America at the end of the 19th and the beginning of
the 20th century. The best example, perhaps, is the later Patriarch
of All Russia, Saint Tikhon. He is deeply respected by both opponents
and followers of the ecumenical movement. Saint Tikhon, as the American
bishops before him, closely collaborated with Anglicans in social
causes. He also attended their services and called them to the Orthodox
services as honored guests. However, his priests baptized or chrismated
those who joined the Orthodox Church and chrismated or ordained
those Anglican priests who joined the Church. His successors before
the beginning of the Russian revolution acted in the same manner.
The last Russian bishop in America before the revolution organized
a series of lectures for Anglicans in America at which Orthodox
canons, rules, and traditions were systematically explained to them.
Nearly 50 of the almost 200 Anglican bishops in America attended
these lectures and, more importantly, they implanted Orthodox practices
in the daily life of their church.
All the above testifies to the very controversial, obscure, and
unresearched nature of contemporary ecumenism. I personally, and
I think many others here, have had a chance to experience this problem
directly. I studied in two schools which hold opposite views on
ecumenism: Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville and Saint Vladimirís
Theological Seminary. In Jordanville, I repeatedly heard that “ecumenism
is very bad.” When I asked “why?” the typical answer was “are you
an ecumenist…?” “No,” I answered, “I am not an ecumenist. But, if
you say it is bad I want to know why.” Unfortunately, neither people
I spoke with nor the anti-ecumenical literature provided me with
a satisfactory answer. I found the same situation at Saint Vladimirís,
though their convictions were quite the opposite. I heard many times,
especially in special courses, that ecumenism is good and a very
correct modern attitude. When I repeated my question: “Why does
the Orthodox Church have to participate in the ecumenical movement?”
they usually answered: “of course, you are from the Russian Church
Abroad…” Finally, even the fact that we are sitting here, discussing
ecumenism, best demonstrates my point as to the uncertainty of this
Therefore, the main question today is: How should we evaluate the
phenomenon of ecumenism? Orthodoxy knows two means of cognition:
natural and supernatural. What is supernatural cognition? It is
a miracle wherein God reveals to man fundamental knowledge concerning
human salvation. Therefore, in order to obtain supernatural revelation,
one must be a saint, a condition essentially higher than righteousness.
“But we have conciliarity,” someone may object. But Church practice
shows that some conciliar decisions are not in accordance with “the
Holy Spirit and us” (Acts. 15:28). This happens with false councils
and this can happen with each church council. Every regular council
of good Christians, like todayís council, may have this unfortunate
result because Christ said not only “for where there are two or
three gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt.
18:20), but He also said, “and you will know the truth, and the
truth will set you free” (John 8:32). If a council is not solely
looking for the truth, but, for example, is influenced by politics,
executive decrees, or is looking to approve some predetermined sentence
in the field of Orthodox teaching, it is impossible to expect a
truly Orthodox decision in result. We may be tempted to think that
a council of bishops, simply by the act of gathering, will produce
an infallible decision inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, it
is not by any outward criteria alone that a Council gains authority
Ė there have been many false councils Ė but by delivering the truth.
And to reach this truth we need both the guidance of the Holy Spirit
and our own rigorous moral and intellectual preparation, participation,
Consider the Ecumenical Councils: the bishops did not simply meet
and spontaneously define dogma and write canons under the influence
of the Holy Spirit. No, they prepared painstaking research years
before assembling. We cannot expect automatic Grace from above;
rather we must raise our intellect to meet the guidance of the Spirit
in act of synergy.
Due to time limitations, I am going to present only one example,
the work of the 6th Ecumenical Council, where “theological discussions
were held in a peaceful manner and all details, citations, and quotations
were verified against the originals. This council was a true Ďconciliarí
act of theological thought not only by its name, but essentially
by its nature.” When dilemmas arose, “the authentic acts of the
previous Ecumenical Councils were brought from the archives. Their
reading began with the acts of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, because
the acts of the 1st and the 2nd councils did not exist… The 2nd
meeting was entirely dedicated to the readings of the acts of the
4th Ecumenical Council… they also read the Epistle of the Pope Leo
among other documents… At the 3rd meeting they began to read the
acts of the 5th Ecumenical Council… ”
After careful study and many verifications, monophylite doctrine
was not found in the acts of the 5th Ecumenical Council; after that,
the “emperor demanded the next series of arguments Ė from the holy
fathers… Two volumes of citations were presented. The 5th session
was entirely dedicated to their reading…”
All the above stated directly bear on our estimation of ecumenism,
which we are now discussing, and leads to the following conclusion.
In order to have the most profound estimate of the phenomenon of
ecumenism, we need research. Undoubtedly, such research has to begin
with careful study of our own ( ROCOR) history and also the study
of the history and main concepts of the ecumenical movement. Only
a deep, comprehensive, and truthful study of ROCORís experience
will produce the right answer to the question why ROCOR no longer
participates in ecumenism and to the subsequent question: is ecumenism
right or wrong? Therefore, according to my opinion, the only escape
from todayís uncertain situation is to establish a committee, which
and systematically study the history of ROCOR;
- Use the
recent atmosphere of good will to pacify the relationship between
the MP and ROCOR and to ask our bishops to request copies of
all possible data concerning the history of ROCOR from Russia;
study the history, methods, and the main ideas of ecumenism;
to produce a grounded evaluation of ecumenism, based on the
studied historical data.
Every epoch presents its own challenges, new phenomena arise, and
new teachings influence our Christian world. Therefore, every generation
of Christians should evaluate these new phenomena and teachings:
are they a heresy or simply a new form of the same unchanging ancient
Orthodox teaching? We call ourselves Orthodox Christians, therefore
the controversial phenomenon of ecumenism is a challenge to us.
As Orthodox clergy, we do not have any right to use our own opinions
to estimate such an important phenomenon. We can and therefore we
must estimate ecumenism from the point of view of the Orthodox teaching.
Thank you for your attention.
December 2003, Glen Cove.
 As is known, the Church separated dogma from “economy” only
in the 4th century. Therefore, when the Gospel says “the commandments,”
it normally understands both moral and dogmatic standards.
 Kartashev, A.V., Vselenskiye Sobory [The Ecumenical Councils],