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EASTERN ORTHODOX-ORIENTAL ORTHODOX RELATIONS: PRACTICAL STEPS TOWARD UNITY

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EASTERN ORTHODOX-ORIENTAL ORTHODOX RELATIONS:
PRACTICAL STEPS TOWARD UNITY

by Fr. Theodore Pulcini
Associate Professor of Religion
Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA 17013
<pulcini@dickinson.edu>

Professor Erickson has just given us an overview of some of the more auspicious episodes in the history of relations between the Chalcedonian and pre-Chalcedonian Churches, and in a few minutes Archbishop Krikorian and Father Malaty will examine how the theological controversies which for centuries divided these two families of churches were resolved in recent years through theological dialogue and other efforts. I will therefore prescind from historical and theological discussion in this presentation. Rather, I wish to concentrate on what practical measures must be taken before Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians can achieve the unity for which they have been striving for so many years. It is my conviction that no matter how much good will the participants of this dialogue have shown and no matter how successfully they have bridged the theological breach between them, unity will remain only a theoretical construct, a spirit without a body, unless it is experienced on a practical, experiential level. Without commitment to unity on a practical level, the final steps toward rapprochement may well never be taken.

A Recognized Need

The need for a practical experience of unity has consistently been recognized throughout the dialogues between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox. At the Bristol consultation (July 1967), for example, participants affirmed that Christology (obviously the primary concern of the theological discussions) must not be viewed in speculative isolation from, but rather in relation to, soteriology, and that both Christology and soteriology must be related to the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, ecclesiology, liturgy, and spirituality. The participants thus called for an integrative and holistic approach — not simply a theoretical one. At the Geneva consultation (August 1970), participants addressed some of the practical, canonical problems that militated against reunion between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. While noting the ideal of one bishop, one presbyterium, and one Eucharist in a local church, they stressed that the ideal could be reshaped according to specific circumstances, as indeed it would have to be in this case. The legitimacy of a plurality of expressions in terminological, liturgical, canonical, and administrative matters, within the bounds of a common faith, was affirmed. To further the cause of reunion, the participants in the Geneva consultation also suggested the establishment of a joint commission to study remaining obstacles to full communion. They called for, among other things, a statement of reconciliation, academic cooperation between the two sides, and common catechesis of young people.

Furthermore, the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches, meeting in September 1989 in Chambesy, recommended a number of practical steps toward union: reciprocal visits (by bishops, priests, and laypeople) among the various churches, exchange of students and professors among theological institutions, joint worship, joint publications designed to explain the histories of the various churches and their common faith (including Joint Commission documents), mutual recognition of baptism, bilateral agreements regarding inter-church marriage and child-rearing, revision of instructional materials to reflect the unity between the two traditions, and programs of education for clergy and laypeople on questions relating to reunion. Despite these calls for practical measures, I know of only one case in which extensive practical guidelines have actually been promulgated and implemented: in the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Antiochian Situation

The Chalcedonian dispute was particularly disruptive in the church of Antioch, where long-standing tensions had existed between Christians of Greek bent and those of more Semitic, specifically Syriac, orientation. Chalcedon confirmed their mutual alienation, pitting the Greek Orthodox against the “Jacobites,” as the Syrian Orthodox came to be called, after their leader Jacob Baradaeus. As the years passed, the former became ever more influenced by the Constantinople, gradually adopting its liturgical rite, with only minor variations, in its entirety; indeed they came to be derided as “Melkites,” or “emperor’s men,” by the Jacobites, who, in turn, were branded as “Monophysites” by their opponents. During the period of Byzantine ascendancy the Jacobite community became ever more marginalized. Despite undeniable animosity between the two churches over the centuries, the Greek and Syrian Orthodox of the see of Antioch never completely lost sight their primordial unity. Events of the past few years, in particular, have spawned hopes that their reunion is imminent.

The Eastern Orthodox patriarchate of that historic city has jurisdiction over some million souls worldwide; the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate, over some 243,000. (In Syria, they number some 200,000 and 81,000, respectively. ) Their numbers are therefore quite comparable; and in their Middle Eastern homelands, members of the two churches interact frequently in day-to-day life. Could not Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians of this patriarchate be reunited by means of a regional union? The late Father John Meyendorff recognized this sort of regional union as a means to a broader union between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. He clearly considered formal proclamation at a Great Council to be the most proper means of achieving union, he admitted that “the history of the Church has also known precedents for initiatives taken regionally.” Even while recognizing the dangerous obstacles that such regional efforts could present to a general union, he provided a description of a regional union properly conceived and executed:

No issues concerning doctrine, ecclesiology and discipline should be overlooked. Substitute “ideologies” such as regional nationalism, or anti-Western animosity, or political considerations involving the influence of foreign interests, should be regarded as poison. A union, solemnly proclaimed on a regional basis, would be communicated officially to all churches on the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian sides, and their approval would be formally asked. A positive reaction should logically lead to further union steps. A negative reply would place before the church involved a clear option: it would have to decide which “communion it considers to be the communion of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Indeed in 1988, intimations of an effort aimed at a regional union in the Patriarchate of Antioch were reported. In August of that year, a meeting was convened in Geneva at which, under the direction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV, a number of clergy and laity discussed issues of concern to the patriarchate in particular and world Orthodoxy in general. The primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, attended and, upon his return, granted an interview to the editor of the official Archdiocesan periodical, The Word, in which he discussed, among other things, the desirability of a regional union between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. In the course of the interview he stated:

The question arose whether issues should be resolved in an ecumenical council or can be resolved by an autocephalous church alone. We felt that since the problem was an Antiochian problem in origin, a clear theological position should be articulated by Antiochian theologians after this unity is restored and presented to all sister autocephalous Orthodox churches.

The metropolitan recognized that certain practical problems would have to be addressed — “the existence of two patriarchates, two synods, the difference in liturgical rites, the calendar, etc.” — but felt that none of these were “monumental” enough to preclude reunion.

I too fail to see why any of these problems should prove insurmountable. It is true that the ideal of Orthodox ecclesiology is to have one bishop in a particular territory. If the Greek and Syrian Orthodox of Antioch united, there would be two patriarchs in full communion with each other occupying the same see, each with his own synod. Their bishops would be presiding over overlapping dioceses. Even though such a situation would be anomalous, it would certainly not be intolerable. I believe the traditional Orthodox ecclesiology was articulated to avoid the establishment of parallel or overlapping jurisdictions. From an Orthodox perspective it would be irregular for different Orthodox groups to go into a territory, establish the church there, and then set up competing bishops in the same locale — or for one Orthodox church to “invade” the territory of another and set up a parallel hierarchy. This would clearly not be the situation in a “reunited Antioch.” Because of centuries of separation, it is simply a fact that where there was once one united church there are now two distinct, highly developed, legitimate churches. The vicissitudes of history led not only to mutual alienation but also to a sort of “mitosis” within the primordial united community which produced two well-defined, parallel bodies. Having a parallel hierarchy in Orthodox Antioch, therefore, would not be the result of the deliberate establishment of competing canonical jurisdictions but of the simple recognition of a historical reality that cannot be denied or forcibly changed. Besides, although the Greek and Syrian Orthodox would have their own patriarchs and synods for matters of administration, would it not be possible to have a “united synod” as well, which met on a regular basis and over which the two patriarchs would preside in alternation? This group would consider issues of mutual concern to the sister-churches and would serve as a highly visible sign of their unity in a common faith. The fact is that the traditions of the Greek and Syrian churches have, over the centuries, become “immiscible”; both are equally valid expressions of the same Gospel, and it would be wrong to attempt to reduce one to the other. The main manifestation of this immiscibility and irreducibility is the distinctive liturgical rites that have crystallized in the two churches. A number of lessons, both positive and negative, can be learned from the multi-ritual structure presently obtaining in the Roman Church. As a concession to pastoral necessity, Rome has accepted the existence of parallel Catholic hierarchies in the same territory for the purpose of better serving the needs of the various “rites,” or “particular churches,” that co-exist there. In a reunited Orthodox Antioch, the pastoral welfare of the church would necessitate the same sort of multi-ritual co-existence between the Greek and Syrian churches. There should be no attempt to “homogenize” the two traditions. By maintaining the fullness of their particularity, they would be mutually enriching.

Indeed it seems that such an attitude of mutuality prevailed at a meeting between the leadership of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches of Antioch held in Damascus in July 1991. A policy statement drafted at this meeting defines, in practical terms, future relations between the two churches. It calls for “complete and mutual respect” in all matters of liturgy, spirituality, and heritage. The patristic legacy of both traditions is to be respected and included in catechetical materials and theological school curricula. Neither church will convert members from the other. The administrative independence of each is to be maintained in all matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, adoption, etc. The synods of the two churches will meet in conjunction whenever necessary. Perhaps most significant is that the document foresees full communicatio in sacris in that it provides guidelines for liturgical concelebration of the clergy of both churches, most notably at the Eucharistic liturgy and marriage services. Godparents and marriage witnesses can now be chosen from either church without discrimination. Organizations from both churches are to cooperate fully in educational, cultural, and social matters. The bishops close the document with a promise “to continue strengthening our relationship with the sister church.” From the foregoing discussion it becomes evident that both in general terms (at Bristol, Geneva, and Chambesy) and in specific terms (in the Patriarchate of Antioch), those engaged in the process of fostering the reunion of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches recognized the need for practical guidelines in the following areas: (1) sacramental intercommunion, (2) liturgy, (3) spirituality, (4) administration, (5) catechesis, (6) theological education, (7) marriage and child-rearing, (8) publications, and (9) social and cultural undertakings.

To what extent have we accomplished this task? To what extent have we enabled out theological convergence to find expression on the practical level? My fear is that if our unity remains only on the level of theology, our rapprochement on the level of doctrinal formulae, it will be no unity at all. And there will always be the naysayers among us who, because they do not really know “the other,” will continue to use theology as a means of perpetuating division.

Practical Implementation in the American Setting

Let me therefore conclude by offering a few suggestions of what can be done in our own American setting to keep our theological convergence from becoming merely a dead letter, with no effect on our communities. I would suggest that the following three projects be undertaken:

(1) “ENCOUNTER WEEKENDS,” in which a non-Chalcedonian parish would invite a neighboring Chalcedonian parish, or vice versa, to spend the weekend. On Saturday, several talks and workshops would familiarize the visitors with the liturgical prayers, practices, and customs of the host parish. Participants from the two parishes would have the opportunity to socialize and get to know one another on a personal level. The weekend would conclude after the visitors attended the Sunday Liturgy at the host parish. I firmly believe that once the sense of “liturgical strangeness” is overcome through such interactive weekends, much of the resistance to formal union will be overcome. It should also be noted that such encounter weekends would not only benefit the members of the visiting parish; in having to respond to the inquiries of their visitors, members of the host parish will certainly come to a more nuanced appreciation of their own tradition.

(2) EPISCOPAL COLLABORATION in such areas as parish visitation, publishing, and social service programs. As soon as Chalcedonians see their bishops alongside non-Chalcedonian bishops, and vice versa, working for a common cause, bonds of fraternity will be quick to form. Bishops of the two communities could make plans for joint visitation of certain parishes, especially in cities where both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian parishes are found (e.g., Boston, New York, Los Angeles). Publication projects, especially those relevant to the common roots and shared faith of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian traditions, could be undertaken jointly. When responding to the human needs created by natural disasters and political strife, why could our churches not pool their resources, thereby manifesting a united Orthodox witness in the secular world? Why, for example, should the non-Chalcedonian churches not be asked to join with their Chalcedonian counterparts in the work of the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC)? Such common effort produces common vision.

(3) CATECHESIS AND THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION, through which mutual appreciation of the richness of our respective traditions is fostered. There is undoubtedly a need for popular literature in this subject area, which can be distributed to the people in our parishes and used as the basis for parish study groups. But perhaps more importantly, there is a need for us to make each other known in our seminaries and houses of theological study.

Here I would especially like to challenge the non-Chalcedonian traditions to make courses in their spirituality, liturgy, and patristic traditions available to the Chalcedonian theological seminaries. Because the Chalcedonian communities in this country are larger, they have developed the more established centers of theological learning. It makes good sense for the smaller non-Chalcedonian communities to maintain houses of studies in association with the established Chalcedonian seminary — much like St. Nersess does with St. Vladimir’s. But the non-Chalcedonian house of studies should make courses in its tradition available to the students of the Chalcedonian seminary as well. Thus, while it is easy enough for a St. Nersess student to avail himself of courses here that can give him an appreciation of the Byzantine liturgical tradition and of the Greek patristic tradition, I would like to see our students have the opportunity to take a course in the Armenian liturgical tradition or in the thought of the Armenian church Fathers. In other words, while in our seminaries we Chalcedonians have felt ourselves enormously enriched by the presence of non-Chalcedonian students, we have not always been able to familiarize ourselves with their heritage as extensively as we might like. The association between seminary and house of studies should provide opportunities for “theological cross-fertilization.” If our future theologians and pastors, while in seminary, come to a healthy and substantial respect and appreciation for our respective traditions, we can be certain that some of that mutuality will filter down to a popular level, where it can bear much fruit.

Conclusion

It seems to me that it is of little consequence to speak of unity on a theological level if there is no experience of unity in the day-to-day encounters between our churches. On the one hand, theological conviction forms experience; yet it must always be remembered that theological positions are forged as a result of, and in interpretation of, experience. It is always easier to remain separated from someone with whom one has never experienced unity. It is therefore imperative that, on a practical, everyday level, we work to forge an experience of solidarity, mutual respect, and reciprocal familiarity. Then the unity for which we have labored so strenuously over these past three decades will become a living reality among us — a reality in which our common witness to the Gospel is strengthened.

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