The Agreed Statements: Oriental Orthodox Responses
Prior to speaking of the reactions or the reservations of the Oriental Orthodox Church regarding the “Agreed Statements”, I would like to bring forth what these statements reflect in general.
The theological dialogues between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox churches unofficially began in Aarhus, Denmark in the year l964. This was followed by similar dialogues in Bristol in l967, Geneva in l970, then Addis Ababa in l971. In addition, other dialogues took place at regional levels at locations such as the Middle East.
At the initial conference, a report was issued expressing the unity of both families regarding the Christological dogma and stated the following: “We have spoken to each other in the openness of charity and with the conviction of truth. All of us have learned from each other. Our inherited misunderstandings have begun to clear up. We recognize in each other the one Orthodox Faith of the Church. Fifteen centuries of alienation have not led us astray from the faith of our fathers.”
The report also stated:
In our common study of the Council of Chalcedon, the well-known phrase used by our common father in Christ, St Cyril of Alexandria, mia physis (or mia hypostasis) tou Theou Logou sesarxomene (the one physis or hypostasis of God’s Word Incarnate) with its implications, was at the center of our conversations. On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement. Through the different terminologies used by each side, we saw the same truth expressed. Since we agree in rejecting without reservation the teaching of Eutyches as well as of Nestorius, the acceptance or non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon does not entail the acceptance of either heresy. Both sides found themselves fundamentally following the Christological teaching of the one undivided church as expressed by St. Cyril.
The dialogue progressed throughout the four initial conferences. The result confirmed our unity in faith and the common inheritance that we have shared from our fathers. This also led the participants to discuss the lifting of anathemas in anticipation of bringing about a full unity between both Orthodox families.
The official theological dialogue between the two Orthodox families began in l985. An official council of church delegates was formed and met several times. The outcome of their meetings was based upon the conclusions of their predecessors’ unofficial meetings, in addition to the many discussions and research documents, which took, place and were produced between l985 and l993. Their official “Agreed Statements” reflected the following:
- Both Orthodox families have inherited from their fathers in Christ the one apostolic faith and tradition, though as churches, they have separated from each other for more than 1500 years.
- The common ground of their agreement was based on the teaching of their common father and teacher, St Cyril’s “the one nature of God’s Word Incarnate:” mia physis (hypostasis) tou Theou Logou sesarxomene.
- Both families agreed that the term “Theotokos” is used for Our Lady the Virgin Mary.
- Both families agreed that the Logos, the only begotten of the Father before all ages, became man through His second birth in the fullness of time from the Virgin Mary. Therefore, the Word has two real births that which is eternal from the Father and the other, which is at the fullness of time from the Virgin Mary.
- Both families agreed that both Human and Divine natures were united into one Divine-Human being. Also, He who wills and acts is always the one Hypostasis of the Logos Incarnate (ie the one will and act of Jesus Christ).
- Both families will reject the teachings of Nestorius and Theodoret, as well as totally renounce the Eutychian heresy. They likewise reject the interpretation of Councils, which do not fully agree with the teachings of the Third Ecumenical Council (431 AD) and the letter of Cyril of Alexandria to John of Antioch (433 AD). The Statement also cleared the difference between the early Catholic interpretation of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), which was somehow similar to that of the Nestorian, and the interpretation of the same Council by the Eastern Orthodox Church (Byzantine), which was primarily based on the Fifth Council (Constantinople 553 AD). The teaching of the Fifth Council depended on the teachings of St Cyril and his famous terminology of the one nature of God’s Word Incarnate. This Council affirmed that the Hypostasis of the Logos became composite by the union of His divine, uncreated nature, with its natural will and energy, which He has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and of the created human nature, which He assumed at the Incarnation and made His own, with its natural will and energy. It also acknowledged that the distinction between the two natures is in thought alone, according to St Cyril’s teaching. So when the Byzantine Orthodox speaks about the two natures, except in thought alone (in keeping with St Cyril’s letters to Succensus and Acacius of Melitene, in addition to the other letters written by him).
- Both families agree that the churches should lift all the anathemas and condemnations of the past, which now divide us, in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion of our two families can be removed. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and the fathers previously anathematized or condemned are not heretical.
The historical agreement in the Christological dogma achieved at the meeting held at the Anba Bishoy Monastery in l989 was widely accepted among all the Orthodox Churches. This agreement was the basis for the l990 Geneva agreement regarding the lifting of anathemas.
The first positive reaction supporting the l989 historical agreement was evidenced during the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church held on June 2, l990 and led by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy, Secretary of the Coptic Holy Synod and co-president of the Theological Dialogue presented a report of the “Agreed Statements”. This report was unanimously accepted and adopted.
In another meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church held on November 12, l990, the Geneva agreement regarding the lifting of anathemas was also accepted and adopted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the Armenian Orthodox Church of both Etchmiadzin and Cilicia.
In the Holy Synod meeting of the Coptic Orthodox Church on June 2, l990, the “Christological Agreement” which was a product of the l989 Theological Dialogue at the Anba Bishoy Monastery was adopted. In this meeting the Coptic Holy Synod also agreed to accept the sacrament of the Holy Baptism of the other Orthodox Churches that accept our Baptism. This decision by the Coptic Holy Synod was based on the teaching of St. Paul the Apostle, “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). So if the faith is one, the Baptism also should be one as long as this Baptism is based on the true Orthodox faith. This was truly evidenced by the common faith which all the Orthodox churches have inherited from our holy fathers. The agreement of the acceptance of the Baptism was another positive step by the Coptic Holy Synod in supporting the recommendations made by the Pastoral Joint Sub-committee in its meeting in l990 at the Anba Bishoy Monastery and which stated the following: “Clear official acceptance and recognition of the Baptism performed by the two families through the spirit of common tradition and the unity of the mysterieswe can not separate Christ of the mysteries from Christ of the faith.”
Another recommendation made by the Joint Sub-committee addressed the need for regular attempts in our joint theological work to benefit from the fruits of the theological dialogue in the writings and publications of each of the two families, towards a farther objective of creating ecclesiastical relations. This can be realized through exchanging of theological writings, professors, and students of the Theological Institutes. Also, preparation of publications to the congregations of the two families in order to be acquainted with what is taking place in the theological dialogue, and the relations existing between us.
In this respect, the Coptic Orthodox Church assumed a vital leadership role by having the department of Ecumenical Studies of the Coptic Center in Cairo prepare a major Panel Discussion expounding on the Theological Dialogue between the two families. Many shared in this discussion, including His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy (Secretary of the Coptic Holy Synod and Co-president of the Dialogue Committee). Also present were His Grace Bishop Serapion of Los Angeles, Fr Tadros Malaty and Dr. Joseph Morris (members of the Theological Dialogue who represented the Coptic Orthodox Church), along with a host of clergymen and the public. The discussion covered the “Agreed Statements” and answered all questions relating to all parts of the agreement.
The Department of Ecumenical Studies had then prepared a documented publication in Arabic detailing all the official and informal statements discussed at the session. It was then made accessible to all individuals. In addition, several of the letters of St Cyril (4th letter=2nd to Nestorius in 430 AD; 17th letter=3rd to Nestorius in 430 AD; 39th letter to John of Antioch in 433 AD) were translated into the Arabic language and made accessible to all, along with a short summary of the steps taken in an effort to unite both churches from 451 AD to present. All documents were given out at no cost to the public.
A series of articles were written by His Grace Bishop Serapion and published in El-Keraza (the official magazine of the Coptic Orthodox Church). The series discussed the Theological Dialogue and its impact on the Orthodox churches in the world. Also, many of the Youth Retreats and Camps’ Programs included discussion about the Theological Dialogue and its results.
Meetings are being held all over the Middle East for the purpose of consolidating the relationships between the young people of our Orthodox churches to prepare them for a comprehensive spiritual life. The latest of these meetings was held in Amman, Jordan in August of l996. The Coptic Youth Association is also a member of the World Association of Orthodox Youth.
Students of the Theological Institutes are also being exchanged. Egyptian students have joined Athens and Thessaloniki Universities. A Greek student is presently studying the Coptic language and the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt.
For the second time, conferences for the study of the Fathers of the Church were held jointly with the Theological Seminary in Athens. In l990, Pope Shenouda III called for the first convention, which jointly met to study the Fathers of the Church, specifically St. Athanasius, the Apostolic. His Holiness hosted the members of the conference at St. Bishoy Monastery. The 35 participants were professors, post-graduate students, and theologians from Athens and Thessaloniki universities. In l996, the second conference was also held at the same place under the title of “St Gregory the Theologian: His Life and Writings”. There were 11 papers submitted by both parties of 60 participants. Everyone enjoyed the benefits of these conferences, which included constructive dialogues that laid a solid base for mutual understanding.
Also the Theological Seminary in Athens, under the auspices of the University, invited a Coptic delegation for a conference on St. Gregory. The Coptic Orthodox Church participated by two papers; one was prepared by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Demiat and the other by Dr. Joseph Faltas. All this reflected the positive response to the “Agreed Statements”.
In addition, a meeting like the one we are in attendance now, is another step towards consolidating the Dialogue, explaining its dimensions and results to the congregations involved. Hence, I have to express my deepest gratitude to everyone who was instrumental in convening this conference. I am hoping that it can be done again in the future. Thank you.
(Bishop Youssef, 1998, St Nersess Theological Review, pp. 55-60)