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Unity Efforts Between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

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Unity Efforts Between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

An Interview with Catholicos Aram I

Window Quarterly 4, 4 (1994); ACRAG c. 1994.

A Conversation with Archbishop Aram Keshishian (now Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia)
Moderator of World Council of Churches and
Prelate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon

by Hratch Tchilingirian

Q. What is the position of the Armenian Apostolic Church with regards to the unity efforts between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, and particularly with regards to the joint communique that was signed in Switzerland in 1991?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Before I touch the question of the position of the Armenian Church, pertaining to the ongoing dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox family and Eastern Orthodox family of churches, I think it is important that I say a few words about this dialogue.

In fact, this is not the first time that these two families have engaged in theological dialogue. As you remember, the Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches had already organized four unofficial dialogues among the theologians of these two families of churches. These dialogues took place, as far as I remeber, late in the 60s and early 70s. In these meetings, the theologians have raised the basic questions concerning the respective christoligical and doctrinal postitions of these two families. The issues – as they have been developed in the course of history of each respective church – were treated in substanial and serious way Therefore, we should not underestimate the theological literature that was produced by these four consultations and dialogues. As I said, these were informal dialogues, the theologians who took part in these discussions were not official representatives of their churches, but they were individuals discussing mutual concerns. And they treated the subject as such. In other words, four documents or statements that were produced by these four dialogues – theologically, christologically speaking – were very much in line with the positions of the churches in the two families. From a new perspective, in a new context, and with an ecumenical spirit, these efforts were serious attempts in terms of reevaluating the christological question that divided the churches. Obviously, these documents were never sent to the heads of the churches, and as such, the churches never reacted to their conclusions.

Unlike the previous efforts, the latest dialogue that started between these two families is a formal dialogue.

First, those who take part in this process formally represent their churches. Secondly, the intention of this dialogue is not just theological discussion – for the sake of clearifying some of the misunderstandings or misinterpretations that marked the history of these churches – but the restoration of communion between these two families. Therefore, it was with this intention and aim that this dialogue was initiated.

We had four meetings. During these meetings, we produced three christological statements and one pastoral statement. Of course, the process is continuing. We face some difficulties. Nevertheless, at the same time we realize that the substance of our faith is the same – we are not different in terms of the very essence of our doctrine of faith – but we are different in formulation and expression of our faith.

Q. When you say “formal meetings,” does that mean that the process was set up by the respective churches?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes, “formal meetings” denotes the fact that the dialogue was initiated by the churches of the two families. To be more precise, the initial step was taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate [in Constantinople]. The Ecumenical Patriarchate sent a representative to the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches to discuss with them the possibilities of starting this formal dialogue. In this sense, the dialogue is formal, that is, the churches are talking with each other and not individual theologians sharing mutual concerns, which was the case with the previous dialogues.

Q. What are some of the issues and aspects in the formal documents that were produced during these four meetings?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: There are three spheres to these documents. First sphere:

a) Christology. We came to say, always in a formal way, that Nestorianism and Eutycianism have been rejected and anathematized by our churches and we adhere to that. In other words, we both anathematized, once again, Eutycian and Nestorian hereasies. This is the first step.

b) Formula. We said that the well known Cyrilian formula of “One nature of the Incarnate Word” has constituted the basis, the crux of our christologies.

c) The issue of Natures [of Christ]. In terms of definition, when one family says “One nature,” it means “Two natures united.” We do not speak about numerical one, but always united one. When the other family says “Two natures,” it does not mean two separate natures, but united natures. In other words – when we use these two formulas or terminologies – we mean exactly the same thing: united two natures, without confusion, without alteration, without change, without division, without separation. (In fact, this was said by our own St. Nersess the Gracious in the 12th century). Hence collectively, we came to this conclusion. On the other hand, we realized that there are some nuances, some differences of emphasis – as they have been developed in the course of our histories. For instance, for us the Oriental Orthdox, it was very important to put the emphasis on the fact that it was the Logos who assumed humanity. We always put the emphasis on the divinity of Christ and this is in line with the Alexandrian christology. We also say “two natures” in theoria – because in our understanding we cannot speak about “two natures” after the “unity,” after the incarnation. So, even though there are some differences of emphasis, essentially we are saying the same thing. And this is very important. We realized this issue and reiterated it together, this time in a formal way. This is more or less the christological aspect of our dialogue.

Second sphere:

We discussed the whole question of anathemas. We have to realize that things are very much interrelated – you cannot divorce christology, anathema, councils and other aspects of the debate from each other. Christology, necessarily leads us to the old question of anathemas. In this respect, we agreed that we are ready to lift the anathemas pronounced against persons and synods, provided that lifting of anathemas should not necessarily imply the acceptance of that person or synod as holy or ecumenical. Therefore, lifting the anathemas should not imply anyting specific. It is just automatical lifting of anathemas. We said that lifting of anathemas should not be done in a solemn way, but rather each church should do it in its own appropriate ways, according to their own traditions.

Third sphere:

We discussed the old question of conciliarity – the ecumenical councils. Of course, during our discussions we reiterated our acceptance of the first three ecumenical councils and that we hold fast to that. The [Eastern Orthodox] family accepts seven ecumenical councils. And they attach a particular importance to the seven councils. As far as they are concerns, you cannot divide these councils, they all go together. However, what we said, is the following: historically, theologically, doctrinally or in whatever perspective you want to look at them, you cannot put all these councils in one basket; you cannot deal with each of these council on the same level. They are theologically and qualitatively quite different from each other. Even the ecumenicity of the first three councils has much more weight than the other councils. Therefore, we tried to make a clear distinction between the first three and the ones that followed them. For us, the crux, the substance of Christian faith is in the first three ecumenical councils. The four councils that followed them just reinterpreted and re-elucidated the theological teachings of the first three. In fact when you look at these councils closely, you realize that they did not have anything substantial over the earlier teachings of the councils. In view of this, our position was firm on accepting the first three as the most fundamental and conclusive of all councils.

Q. How pragmatic were these discussions?

The most recent meeting that we had was very crucial in this respect – we tried to establish a process to implement our decisions. At this stage we wanted to raise some questions which are important to Christian unity – after all Christian unity is not just theological unity. We raise four main questions and tried to treat them in a very critical and objective manner:

a) What is the competent ecclesiastical authority from each side for the lifting of the anathemas? What are the presuppositions for the restoration of ecclesiastical communion?

b) Which anathemas of which synods and persons could be lifted in accordance with the proposal of paragraph 10 of the second common statement?

c) What is the canonical procedure for each side for the lifting of the anathemas and the restoration of ecclesiastical communion?

d) How could we understand and implement the restoration of ecclesiastical communion in the life of our churches? What are the canonical and liturgical consequences of full communion?

Having raised these questions, at this stage, we faced some difficulties. For instance: the Eastern Orthodox said to us that they cannot draw a line demarcation between the first three ecumenical councils and the four that followed them. They go together. So whatever we do, we have to do it as a “package deal.” Of course, our position was very clear on that. Then the status of the church families was raised – in other words, what will happen to the two families after the restoration of full communion? Whether the families should stay as they are or dissolve into one entity. This is another question that needs serious discussion. Another question was the dypthics – commemorations during the liturgy, the mention of the name of patriarchs and heads of churches. For instance, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they mention all the patriarchs – starting with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Another question was the issue of protocol, which I remember I raised at the meeting. For some it may sound funny, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed. There is a well established protocol among the patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, what will happen after the unity? We do not have such protocol in the tradition of the Oriental Orthodox churches. So, what will happen when we come together? What would be the arrangement? Of course, this is a question of protocol, but its implications are more than that. There were other similar issues that we tried to deal with in a very practical and realistic way.

In light of our discussions, we prepared a statement which is a summary of our conclusions and sent it to the churches.

Q: What is the next step?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: As I said earlier, we have produced a christological statement. These were sent to the heads and synods of the churches for their formal response. Some churches responded with some observations and remarks and some churches did not.

On the other hand, parallel to this process, we have started a new process, as I said, raising some critical questions. First, it is important that we have the formal response of the churches concerning the christological questions.

Q: Was the non-response of some churches a part of your discussions?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, this is not related to this process. This new process is taking place while we are waiting for the responses and comments from the churches. We thought that – at this juncture – it is appropriate that we raise some critical questions concerning the procedure that will follow the restoration of communion. We wanted to start that now. And I think that these two processes compliment each other. On the one hand, we have to push our churches to sent their formal responses and on the other hand, we need to discuss the canonical and practical questions – in order to clarify the ambiguities of these complex issues. So, this is where we are. Up to this point, non of the churches have taken any formal steps toward full communion.

The discussion is among the formal representatives of the churches, we have come together, we have discussed certain things, wrote down the conclusion of our discussion and sent it to the churches for their formal reaction. This is where we are.

Q: Has the Armenian Church responded?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Concerning the position of the Armenian Church, during the last meeting, I read a short paper about how I understand the restoration of communion among the churches. First, let me say that the Armenian Church is represented with two delegations: representing the Etchmiadzin Catholicosate and the Cilician Catholicosate. Nevertheless, it has been our understanding that on the issues that pertain to Armenian theology and christology, the Armenian Church as a whole, we would have (and we have had in the past) one position – the Armenian Orthodox position.

The documents were also sent to the heads of the Armenian Church: Catholicos of All Armenians and the Cilician Catholicos. However, we have not yet responded formally. Recently, when Catholicos Karekin II was in Armenia, he raised this question in the presence of Catholicos Vasken and the two Patriarchs [Archbishop Torkom of Jerusalem and Archbishop Karekin of Istanbul] reminding them that as a church we need to formally respond to this document. We need to respond. So far we have not. I know that some of the Oriental Orthodox churches have already responded. We need to do it also.

Q: What should be the position of the Armenian Church?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I have to give you my personal understanding and evaluation, my personal conception of the whole process. First, after fifteen hundred years of separation, we cannot restore communion with two or five or ten meetings. We need to take our time. There are numerous questions that need to be discussed. I don’t think that we should leave anything ambiguous. We need to clarify everything that is related to the relationship of these two families of churches – because we have had some bitter experience in our relationship with the churches of Byzantine tradition. We had a long history of controversies, of animosities, of tensions, so we need to be very careful. We cannot erase or change history. History is a continuous reality. Therefore, I think we should not hurry. We should take our time to deal with all the pending questions and problems related to the dialogue.

Secondly, we have to be very faithful to our own tradition, to our own christological tradition. The christological position of the Armenian Church has been developed in the course of history. When you take the christology of St. Nersess the Gracious and the christology of the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries, you immediately realize a tremendous difference of approach that exist between these theologies of the centuries. So, we need to realize that our christology has been evolved over the centuries. We have been very flexible during the Cilician period of our history, yet our position has been very tough and firm during the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries. Therefore, what we are saying in our dialogue is that through the centuries we have been open and understanding toward various positions. Just as with the example of St. Nersess the Gracious, we have been very ecumenical and dialogical. St. Nersess has beautifully described the position of the Armenian Church, that is, he has reconciled the two positions saying that when the “formulas” are explained they fundamentally mean the same things. I believe that in our present dialogue we should take the statement of St. Nersess seriously and that should provide us the framework and the context within which we can very easily express our christological position. We stick to our formulation, but at the same, if the crux of your formulation corresponds to that of ours, no problem. The problem is not one of formulation but one of content of our faith.

Q: So far does the Armenian Church have a christological agreement with Byzantine churches?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, because we are working as part of a group and not as Armenian Church. Within our Oriental Orthodox group, we are expressing our views as “one family.” Of course, the Armenian Church is well represented in that group with three theologians. For instance at our last conference, I presented a paper stating the position of the Oriental Orthodox churches. So our views and position is very much there, we are very actively participating in these dialogues, but we are working as a group. However, now that the statments have been prepared and sent to the churches, we need to respond as the Armenian Church. Therefore, the synods of the Armenian Church should come together and discuss just one issue and we need to have one response. This is what we’ve proposed to His Holiness Catholicos Vazken I.

I do not think that we would have any difficulty with the formulation of the content of the christological debate – because they are saying the same thing as we are, but in different formulations. However, after the restoration of communion, it is important that the specificities, the particular characteristics of each family and each church be maintained. This is very important for us. We cannot become a part of the Byzantine tradition. We cannot go against the course of history, because these churches have been developed in different ways. We cannot change the historical, cultural, linguistic, liturgical, theological, patristic identities of these churches. So, we have to be faithful to our own traditions, to our own identities and particularities.

Q: What you are saying is that inter-communion would not mean assimilation.

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes. There should not be a kind of a merger of the families. This is an important question for us. However, this is not acceptable idea for the Byzantine churches. They are unable to understand our concerns in this matter. In fact, I raised this question in a very strong way at our last meetings and one of the Metropolitans said, “wait a minute, I disagree with you, because in Orthodox theology we do not believe in inter-communion, but communion. He said, your description of communion is inter-communion, as if two families are coming together and restoring their communion, that is to say, they are entering into inter- communion. And that is not acceptable. Theologically and canonically speaking, he is right. I said, I agree with you theologically, but you cannot forget the historical level, the “life” level. The question is how do we reconcile these positions: the historical development, the practical aspect and the theological dimension. We need to do it.

Q: For instance, we are in communion with the other Oriental Orthodox churches and yet there is no dissolving of identities or characteristics.

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes, we are in communion with them, but not inter-communion. The intention of the present dialogue with the Byzantine churches is to become one family of Orthodox Church: theologically, canonically, liturgically, etc. and not two families as it is currently the situation. This is a problem for us, because there are other questions that are related to this. For example, as I raised the question earlier, the issue of dypitcs. If we become one family, the dyptics should be organized accordingly. A protocol should be organized accordingly.

Their perception is quite clear: we were one family and we were divided into two families and we have to restore our communion of becoming one again. This is a serious question that we need to tackle.

Personally, I do not think we are going to face other major problems. For us as Armenian Church, the Armenian identity, the Armenian tradition, the peculiarities that mark the specificity of the Armenian Church is very important. We need to maintain our specific identity. Otherwise, I do not see any major problem. This is where we are for the time being. We need to proceed in this process very slowly and seriously. We are not there just for dialogue, but we are there to restore communion. Whatever happens, the autocephality, the identity of the Armenian Church, in all its manifestations, in all its dimensions and aspects, need to be maintained intact. This is very important for us.

Q: Do you see any possibility that a member church or some of the churches in the Oriental Orthodox family would unilaterally declare communion with the Eastern Orthodox family?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, because we have raised this question amongst ourselves and have agreed that no member of the Oriental Orthodox family would – under any circumstance – unilaterally establish communion with the other churches. This is our understanding and it is very clear. In fact, the Coptic Orthodox Church in her response has raised that question. They said that we agree with these christological statements, provided that the other members of the Oriental Orthodox family agree with this as well. So, their agreement was very much conditioned by the agreement of the other churches. This is an important term. We sit, we talk, we act as one family.

Q: Can you give a time frame when these dialogues and meetings would lead to a final agreement and communion? How long is it going to take?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I remember in one of my statements, I said, in an enthusiastic way, that before the end of the century we need to do our utmost to establish communion among our churches. But, we see some difficulties with our partners – the Eastern Orthodox side.

During our last meeting, I expressed my thoughts to our partners. I see two trends in this process: the first is a very open ecumenical approach in favor of unity, as soon as posible, and this trend is headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Patriarch has had – and continues to have – a very constructive and decisive role in this whole process. I have seen a clear flexibility and realism exercised by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The second trend is the approach of the Greek speaking churches – such as the churches of Greece, Cyprus, Alexandria Patriarchate. These churches are very conservative and hold fast to their tradition, especially christological issues. They say how can we restore communion with the other family when they are not ready to accept the Seven Ecumenical Councils – at least they are not ready to accept the Council of Chalcedon. Their approach is very conservative and it reminds us the debates and fights of the fifth, sixth, seventh eighth, ninth centuries, when Byzantine emperors and patriarchs put some conditions and demands for the restoration of unity.

These are the two tendencies on the Eastern Orthodox side. I should say that despite all our difficulties, the general climate is very positive. For instance, a few months ago, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan Damascinos, informed me that once again the Patriarchate is willing to continue and speed up the process of unity.

In sum, I could say that we have not prepared any kind of a time table for this dialogue. But we need to remind the heads of our churches that, first of all, they need to respond formally to the christological statments, so that in light of these responses we may revise or edit or rewrite the whole statement and send it back to the churches for their formal approval. This will take some time.

Q. How about the Syrian Orthodox Church or the Jacobites who have gone a step further beyond this document – due to political conditions or other factors in the region – and have made some agreements with the Patriarchate of Antioch (in Syria)?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I read their statements of agreement and I have spoken with their representatives and as well as the Syrian Patriarch – there is no formal theological agreement or unity between these churches. They have just established terms for practical collaboration concerning some practical areas of pastoral, educational and other issues in their communities. What they’ve done is to strengthen their closer, practical collaboration and not theological statements. This is due to the situation in this part of the world, which pushes or neccesitates the churches to give much more importance to the pastoral, practical aspects of their collaboration than to theological dialogue.

Q. What is your understanding of church unity?

For me unity is not a theological statement. We cannot just declare unity. Unity needs to be translated into action in the real life of the church and community. That is real unity.

*This interview was conducted in Antelias, Lebanon, on June 22, 1994.


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