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Restoring the Unity in Faith: The Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Theological Dialogue

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Restoring the Unity in Faith: The Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Theological Dialogue

By Fr Thomas FitzGerald

The Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches throughout the world are engaged in a process of reconciliation. This process is aimed at affirming the same faith and restoring full communion between the two families of churches. This process is taking place through theological dialogue, common witness and service, and prayer. The division between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches dates from the period following the Council of Chalcedon in the year AD 451.

The holy synods of all the autocephalous Orthodox churches and the autocephalous Oriental Orthodox churches have formally blessed and encouraged this process of reconciliation. The churches have affirmed that their divisions from each other are contrary to the reconciling message of the gospel of Christ. Our Lord has prayed that his followers be united in a manner that reflects the unity of the persons of the Holy Trinity (John 17). The churches have also affirmed that their divisions inhibit their witness to Christ in the world today.

Informal theological dialogues between theologians from both families of churches began in 1964. These dialogues benefited from renewed studies of the theological and historical issues of the fifth and sixth centuries. These dialogues and the related studies also provided the churches with new perspectives on the old issues of division.

Because of these theological studies and preliminary dialogues, the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches formally acted to establish a commission for theological dialogue. This was a clear expression of the desire of the churches to address the issues of division. The Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches first met in 1985. Since then, it has produced official statements in 1989 and 1990. These statements were reaffirmed at a meeting of the Plenary Commission in 1993. The commission has also encouraged greater understanding and cooperation between the two families of churches at the regional and local levels.

The results of the formal theological dialogue have been remarkable. Through their studies, the official representatives of the churches have examined all aspects of the division. In its statements, the commission has concluded that both the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox share the same historic apostolic faith despite over fifteen centuries of formal separation. The Joint Commission has recommended that the churches take the appropriate steps to end their division and to restore their unity.

The churches are now studying the agreed-upon statements of these formal theological dialogues and their practical recommendations. The ultimate goal of the theological dialogue is the restoration of full communion through the profession of the apostolic faith. This unity in faith will be expressed in the sharing of the Holy Eucharist.

The unity of the churches means a true communion of churches that profess the same apostolic faith and are united in the teaching of that faith. Unity in faith does not mean the absorption of one church by another. The unity in the faith recognizes a diversity of customs and traditions that are part of the life of the churches. Unity does not mean uniformity in all aspects of church life. Rather, unity in the historic Orthodox faith can also treasure the distinctive history, liturgical traditions and cultural inheritance of the various churches. This diversity, however, should not impede unity in the faith and the communion of the churches.

Here in North America, the relationship between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox has been developing both informally and formally for more than fifty years. Already there have been many valuable opportunities for cooperation in the areas of theological education, youth ministry, and religious education. There have also been valuable opportunities for cooperation in the areas of ministerial and priestly formation. Some local parishes have also already developed opportunities for cooperation.

Recognizing the advances made here and in other parts of the world, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches established in the United States a joint commission in 2000. The commission seeks to assist in the process of restoring unity. The activities of this commission will build upon the theological agreements that the churches have achieved already. The commission is especially concerned with increasing contacts and cooperation among the bishops, clergy, and laity of the two families of churches. Since the year 2001, the commission has sponsored an annual service of prayer in the New York City area.

Historical and Theological Background

The Church and the Apostolic Faith

The life of the Church is centered upon Jesus Christ and his gospel. Christ is our Lord and Savior. As the Word of God, the Lord took flesh and dwelt among us for our salvation (John 1:1-18). He united himself with us in order to restore us to communion with God the Father through the Holy Spirit. As the “light of the world” (John 8:12), Christ revealed to us the depth of divine love for us. In so doing, the Lord taught us about the triune God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He affirmed the dignity of the human person created in the “image and likeness” of God. Our Lord taught us that we are created to live in communion with God and with one another in the midst of creation. As “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Christ revealed to us a new way of living. He taught us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). He established the Church as a community of believers who honor God in worship and proclaim the message of the gospel. As the risen Lord, Jesus conquered the power of sin, Satan, and death. Today, the Lord is not a remote figure of the past. He is present in our midst. He promised to be with us always!

From the time of Pentecost, the apostles and disciples were obedient to the command of the Lord to preach the gospel throughout the whole world (Matt 28:18-20). The Church was truly a missionary community of faith. The message of Christ was not meant to be confined to a particular place or to a particular people. Wherever the early missionaries went, they preached the gospel and Christian communities were established. This pattern has been followed through the centuries. From the very beginning, the Church that Jesus established guided believers in their relationship with the triune God and with one another. The Church is a sign and an expression of the salutary relationship that God offered to all.

Because of her concern for the salvation of all, the Church has always sought to teach and to preserve the faith free from distortion. The Church has opposed false teachings, which challenge the essential and saving truths of the gospel. In using limited human language to describe the mighty acts of the loving God, the Church has expressed her faith in a way that both forms its members and maintains its members’ unity. Ultimately, this concern for teaching the faith and preserving the unity of the Church was rooted in its faithfulness to the Lord and was expressed in its desire to guide all towards salvation. As the community of faithful believers, the Church has been the sacred instrument of the triune God who “desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

The Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople

The early encounter with peoples and cultures beyond Palestine also raised new challenges for the Church. Among the most serious doctrinal challenges were questions related to the understanding of the Holy Trinity. During the first four centuries of its life, the Church was challenged to express its faith and to defend it against distortions and heresies. Among the early heresies were the teachings of Arianism, Gnosticism, and Pneumatomachianism. Each of these heresies presented distorted views of the persons of the Holy Trinity, often with misleading references to the Scriptures and Tradition.

The early fathers and mothers of the Church responded to these heresies. They sought to defend the faith and maintain unity among Christ’s followers. The great teachers always explicated the apostolic faith in relationship to questions being raised through a proper interpretation of Scripture and the early Tradition. When necessary, they also acted to restore the unity of believers wherever possible through a common profession of faith.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 were important meetings of bishops at which the faith of the Church was expressed in opposition to a number of heresies including Arianism, which denied the full divinity of Christ. In their creedal affirmations, the councils did not create the apostolic faith. Rather, the councils bore witness to the apostolic faith in relationship to the distorted teachings of the time.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which emerged from these councils, became an important expression of the apostolic faith. Since that time, this creed has been used in preaching and teaching the faith by all the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. The creed has also been used as an expression of unity among the churches and as a basis for restoring unity among divided believers.

The Council of Ephesus

During the early fifth century, the Church was confronted with new challenges related to its understanding of the person of Christ. Affirming the experience of the first Christians, the Church always taught that Christ was both truly and fully divine, as well as truly and fully human. This was an affirmation of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God. By the early fifth century, however, new questions began to be raised about the relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ as well as about the appropriate terminology to express this reality.

Especially significant were the different perspectives on Christology, which characterized the theological traditions of Alexandria and Antioch in that period. The Alexandrian tradition emphasized the unity of humanity and divinity in Christ. The Antiochian tradition emphasized the distinctiveness of humanity and divinity in Christ. Both traditions in their best expressions affirmed that Christ is fully human and fully divine. However, both traditions looked at the reality of Christ from different perspectives. Moreover, both traditions often used the same theological terms differently. Both perspectives on the mystery of Christ were correct and complementary, provided they were not pushed to an extreme.

This is precisely what happened with the Nestorian heresy in the fifth century. Nestorius and his followers emphasized the distinctiveness and integrity of humanity and divinity in Christ to such a degree that they could not easily affirm a true unity of the two in the single person of Christ. The sign of this difficulty was the unwillingness of Nestorius to refer to Mary as the Theotokos. The perspectives of Nestorius and his followers pushed the Antiochian perspective to an extreme.

Opposed by St. Cyril of Alexandria, the position of Nestorius and likeminded teachers was formally rejected at the Council of Ephesus in 431. At this council, the christological teachings of St. Cyril were affirmed. At that time, the Cyrilian statement that that the incarnate Word was one nature (physis) became the hallmark of the opposition to Nestorianism. In this instance, St. Cyril was using the phrase “one nature” (physis) to mean “one person.” Sadly, the initial actions of this council led to a break in the relationship between the Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Patriarchate of Antioch.

Fortunately, moderate teachers in both churches repudiated the division and actively sought to heal it. By the year 433, the differences between the two churches were resolved under the leadership of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch John of Antioch. An historic statement of reconciliation and unity was agreed upon. This statement spoke of Christ as one person of two natures and clearly opposed the extreme teaching of Eutyches. At the same time, it sought to clarify terminology. In accepting the two-nature terminology in 433, St. Cyril recognized that the phrase “two natures” could also be used in reference to the divine and human realities in the one Christ. This agreement ultimately led many in the Church of Antioch to accept the decision of the Council of Ephesus.

In the course of time, however, some elements of the Church in East Syria and the Persian Empire refused to accept the Council of Ephesus and the agreement of 433. This eventually led to the development of the Assyrian Church of the East, at that time located chiefly in the region of the Persian Empire. It is worth noting that St. Isaac the Syrian of Niniva, the great teacher in the late seventh century, was a member of this church. Yet both the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox honor him as a saint.

There also was an extreme reaction to the position of Nestorius and similar teachers led by the Alexandrian monk Eutyches and his followers. They emphasized the unity of the divine and human in Christ in such a way that his full humanity was not preserved in the union. It appeared as though the humanity was lost through its contact with the divine. The teachings of Eutyches pushed the Alexandrian tradition to an extreme.

The Eutychians were true “dogmatic Monophysites” because they taught that Christ’s human nature was subsumed by his divine nature. In speaking of the “one nature” of Christ, the followers of Eutyches did not properly affirm the integrity of the divine and human in the one Christ. However, their extreme views dominated another meeting of bishops held in Ephesus in 449 under the leadership of Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria. Although this meeting was subsequently repudiated, it created a true crisis that divided a number of the regional churches.

The Council of Chalcedon

A new council of bishops was held in the city of Chalcedon, near Constantinople, in 451. It was designed to heal the growing christological division. This council was a bold and swift reaction to the meeting of bishops held in Ephesus in 449. That gathering, dubbed the “Robber Synod” by Pope Leo of Rome, had expressed an extreme Alexandrian Christology. The bishops at Chalcedon repudiated the council of 449 and deposed Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria because of his role in that gathering.

The bishops at Chalcedon were concerned with bearing witness to the fullness of the apostolic faith in opposition to extremes in both the Alexandrian and the Antiochian traditions. The council was also concerned with reconciling the ever-widening division between the regional churches, which were expressing divergent theological tendencies especially in the wake of the council of 449. Although they were opposed to the extreme tendencies of Eutyches, the bishops affirmed the christological teachings expressed by St. Cyril of Alexandria. The bishops of the Council of Chalcedon did not wish to create a new creed. Indeed, the Council of Ephesus had forbidden the creation of a new creed that would supplant the Creed of Nicaea of 325. Yet the bishops clearly wished to reject both the heresy of Nestorianism and the heresy of Eutychianism. In rejecting the decision of the council of 449 and the extreme tendencies reflected in it, the bishops recognized the need to fashion a statement of faith that would express more clearly the Church’s understanding of reality of Christ.

They also recognized the need to come to an agreement on theological terms. Theological differences had been compounded by the fact that key words such as physis (nature), hypostasis (nature/substance), ousia (substance), and prosopon (person) were often used differently in different contexts. There was not full agreement as to how the terms should be used with reference to the reality of Christ. The statement of Chalcedon, therefore, must be understood within the context of the christological differences reaching back before the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the differing theological terms being used to describe Christ.

The statement of the Council of Chalcedon affirmed that Christ is one person in whom there is a human nature and a divine nature. Each nature is full and complete. Neither his divine nor his human nature is diminished or lost by the union in one person. The two natures exist in Christ “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.” The statement of the council further affirmed that “the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis.” While recognizing the profound mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, the statement affirmed that Christ is one person in two natures.

This statement of Chalcedon opposed both the extreme position of the Alexandrians represented by Eutyches and the extreme position of the Antiochians represented by followers of Nestorius. At the same time, the statement of Chalcedon sought to be faithful to the teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria.

The statement of Chalcedon says in part:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his humanity begotten, for us humans and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us. 2

The statement of Chalcedon sought to express the essential positive elements both from the moderate Alexandrian tradition and from the moderate Antiochian tradition. It also reflected the language of the agreement of 433 between St. Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch John of Antioch as well as a statement from Rome known as the Tome of Pope Leo. In so doing, the conciliar statement sought to express agreement on the use of the key terms such as nature (physis), substance (hypostasis), and person (prosopon), which had been used in different ways by earlier teachers.

In the wake of the council, the difficult process of receiving the statement began in the regional churches. Although the Church of Rome accepted the statement, it did not immediately accept the canons of the council. The situation was even more difficult in eastern portions of the Church. By the middle of the sixth century, the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch were divided between Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians. The Church of Armenia, strongly opposed to Nestorianism, rejected Chalcedon in 508. For a time, the Church of Georgia also rejected Chalcedon. During the reign of Emperor Zeno, the statement of Chalcedon was even rejected by many within the Church of Constantinople, especially between the years 482-518. It was truly a complicated period.

At the theological level, those who rejected the statement of Chalcedon presented a number of reasons that continued to reflect differences in emphasis in Christology and its expression.

First, some opponents of the statement of Chalcedon felt that the use of the terminology of “two natures” went in the direction of the teaching of Nestorius and his followers. They questioned whether there was a genuine contact between the divine and the human in Christ. The council had in fact anathematized Nestorius. However, the on-going teachings of extreme Antiochian theologians could not be prevented by the council. There were, therefore, continuing conflicts with regional churches that adhered to Nestorian views in areas near the Persian Empire. The Church of Armenia was especially troubled by these encounters.

Second, many opponents of the Chalcedonian statement claimed that the “two natures” terminology was a betrayal of St. Cyril’s usual affirmation of “one nature of the incarnate Word.” St. Cyril frequently used this terminology. In doing so, however, he was using the term nature (physis) in the way the council used the term person (prosopon and hypostasis).

It should also be remembered that St. Cyril recognized the use of the “two natures” terminology as understood properly in the agreement of 433. However, some of the followers of St. Cyril overlooked this fact. They continued to prefer to speak of the “one nature” of Christ when referring to the reality of his person. They can be considered “linguistic Monophy sites.” For them, nature (physis) meant person.

Third, many Alexandrians were also troubled by the fact that Patriarch Dioscorus had been deposed at Chalcedon. Although Dioscorus was not accused of heresy, many felt his deposition was unjust. Moreover, many Alexandrians were disturbed by the fact that the Tome of Leo received so much attention at the council. Some Alexandrians felt that its terminology could support the Nestorian perspectives that the council condemned.

Fourth, some of the staunch opponents of Chalcedon, especially in Egypt, continued to express the extreme Alexandrian position espoused in the past by Eutyches. They refused to acknowledge the fact that the full humanity of Christ was maintained in its contact with the divine nature. Like Eutyches, they were true “doctrinal Monophysites” because they taught that the humanity of Christ was subsumed by his divinity. In defending their position, they also strongly accused the council of teaching a form of Nestorianism.

Finally, the gradual divisions between those regional churches that accepted Chalcedon and those that did not also reflected other significant factors. Chief among these were political and cultural differences between those within the Roman-Byzantine world and those living on its boundaries and beyond. During the period following Chalcedon, those who rejected the council’s teaching made up a significant portion of the Orthodox Christians living especially in the southern and eastern portions of the empire and beyond. Their opposition to Chalcedon was intensified because of persecution by some leaders of the Byzantine Empire.

The Period after the Council of Chalcedon

With a desire to heal the growing division, councils of bishops were held in Constantinople in 553 and 680. They accepted the Council of Chalcedon and addressed ongoing questions related to the description of the person of Christ. Both councils were clearly concerned with healing the widening schism. The council of 553 especially sought to clarify the statement of Chalcedon with the hope of reconciling those who had rejected it. In fact, the council anathematized those who did not accept the Twelve Chapters of St. Cyril of Alexandria. These councils eventually were recognized as the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils by the Orthodox churches of the Byzantine-Roman world. The family of Oriental Orthodox churches eventually did not formally recognize these councils as ecumenical, although it is worth noting that bishops from the Church of Armenia participated in these councils, indicating that the lines of division had not entirely hardened.

Major attempts at reconciling the two families of churches were suspended by the seventh century. At that time, the rapid rise of Islam led to new and difficult challenges for the churches. The ancient centers of Christianity in North Africa and the Middle East came under the political control of Islam by the eighth century. The political situation created a further wedge between those churches that accepted Chalcedon and the subsequent councils, and those that did not. Despite many efforts, this prevented an enduring reconciliation between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonians. From that time, the two families of Orthodox churches generally went their own ways.

There were, however, some noteworthy contacts and movements towards reconciliation during the Middle Ages. Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, whose mother was of Armenian background, wrote to the Armenian Catholicos Zacharia in the ninth century in an effort to heal the division. Similar contacts, especially in the tenth and twelfth centuries, took place between representatives of the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Armenia. These theological dialogues nearly led to a formal reconciliation at the time.

Yet as time went on, opportunities for genuine encounters and theological dialogue diminished. Indeed, as the divisions became more solidified, a polemical spirit frequently characterized the relationship between the two families of churches.

The churches which accepted the Chalcedonian statement were accused of being “diophysites” or Nestorians by the Non-Chalcedonians. The Chalcedonian churches refected these accusations, since they repudiated the Nestorian heresy. Likewise, those that accepted the decision of Chalcedon accused those churches that rejected the Chalcedonian statement of being “Monophysites.” The Non-Chalcedonian churches rejected these accusations because they repudiated the heresy of doctrinal Monophysitism as expressed by Eutyches. Both families of Orthodox churches, however, honored St. Cyril of Alexandria and affirmed his christological teachings.

The rapid and extensive growth of Islam after the eighth century tended to prevent further dialogue, especially between the Chalcedonian Orthodox of the Roman-Byzantine world and those Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox living in Egypt and the Middle East. Christians living in lands dominated by Islamic political power had little opportunity for theological reflection and dialogue.

Moreover, the growing alienation between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople came to occupy the attention of Byzantine theologians from the ninth century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the fall of the empire to the Ottoman Turks, the Byzantines also had limited opportunities for theological reflection and dialogue. Increasingly, survival in a hostile political environment became the principal concern.

Clearly, these facts demonstrate that the period after Chalcedon was a complex one involving legitimate doctrinal concerns, theological perspectives, and terminological differences.

Moreover, this complexity was also compounded by political factors, most especially the desire of many Byzantine emperors to reconcile with the Non-Chalcedonians and, thereby, avoid divisions within the empire. Some of these attempts, such as those by Emperor Zeno with his Henotikon in 482, proved to be shortsighted. Other attempts, such as those guided by Emperor Justinian between 531 and 536, nearly healed the division. Although Emperor Heraclius initially followed a policy of reconciliation in 610, he eventually turned to a policy of military conquest.

Likewise, the alienation was gradual, taking place over the course of decades, if not centuries. The differences in theological emphasis and terminology existed prior to the Council of Chalcedon. Yet Chalcedon marked the formal beginning of a division that endures to this day. This division did not occur overnight. It was a gradual process that varied in intensity from place to place. At times, there was dialogue and a restoration of communion. As time went on, however, the theological division, compounded by politics and geography, became more pronounced.

Renewed Contacts and Dialogues

New opportunities for contact between the theologians of both families of churches accompanied their involvement in ecumenical gatherings from the early decades of the twentieth century. The meetings of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches frequently provided valuable opportunities for theologians of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches to meet and discuss common concerns. With these meetings and discussions, the centuries of formal estrangement began to be overcome.

On the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon in 1951, Patriarch Athenagoras and the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople formally called for the establishment of a process of dialogue that would lead to the healing of the schism. In this encyclical, the patriarch referred to the historic observation of St. John of Damascus, who claimed that those who did not accept the terminology of Chalcedon were “nevertheless Orthodox in all things.”3

At the Pan-Orthodox Conference in Rhodes in 1961, the Orthodox Church formally recognized that its relationship with the Oriental Orthodox churches was one of the most urgent matters awaiting serious attention. Likewise, the patriarchs of the Oriental Orthodox churches proposed the establishment of a theological dialogue with the Orthodox Church in 1965.

During this period, highly respected theologians held a number of significant but informal theological dialogues with both families of churches. These were held in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1964; Bristol, England, in 1967; Geneva, Switzerland, in 1970; and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1971. Each of these consultations undertook intensive theological studies of the issues related to the division. Each meeting produced a significant statement. Because of these discussions, the theologians affirmed a common christological teaching. They affirmed that both families of churches profess the historic Orthodox faith. Their conclusions also provided a valuable basis for establishing more formal theological dialogue.4

The statement issued at the meeting in Aarhus in 1964 provided a significant foundation for all subsequent discussions.

A valuable portion of the statement says:

On the essence of 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 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 teachings of the one undivided Church as expressed by Saint Cyril (of Alexandria), (par. 4)

Following the Fourth Preconciliar Conference in 1968, the Orthodox Church established a Preliminary Commission for dialogue. The Oriental Orthodox churches agreed in 1972 to establish a similar commission. Representatives from both commissions met in 1972 and 1978 to discuss the direction of the dialogue. These meetings laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Joint Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Following an inaugural meeting in Chambesy, Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985, the full commission met June 20-24,1989, at the Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi-El-Natroum, Egypt, and produced its first statement. The second statement was produced at the meeting of the full commission held at the center of the ecumenical patriarchate in Chambesy on September 23-28, 1990. The third meeting of the full commission was also held in Chambesy on November 1-7, 1993. This meeting produced a communique that dealt especially with the lifting of anathemas by both families of churches. In addition to these meetings of the full commission, there have been numerous meetings of subcommittees of the Joint Commission.

From its beginning, the Joint Commission has been composed of distinguished bishops and theologians who are the designated representatives of the Orthodox churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches. Many representatives have been engaged in discussions on this topic dating back to at least 1964. Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Metropolitan Bishoy of Damietta (Coptic Orthodox Church) have served as the co-presidents of the Joint Commission during most of the history of the Joint Commission.

The meetings of the Joint Commission and its subcommittees have been complemented and supported by the numerous exchanges of visits by patriarchs and bishops of the two families of churches. This isolation, which once characterized the relationship between the two families of churches, has been dramatically overcome, especially in the past fifty years. In their meetings, the members of the two families of churches have engaged in prayer for unity and in discussions of theological themes.

Theological Affirmations of the Joint Commission

The formal statements of the Joint Commission are relatively brief. Yet this brevity does not conceal the fact that the statements represent a precise and cogent affirmation of the common faith shared by both the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox. Since the statements come from a Joint Commission formally established by the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, they deserve great attention. They contain a number of significant points whose importance cannot be underestimated.

The statements reflect both the common doctrinal convictions expressed at the earlier consultations as well as the historical and theological study of the Council of Chalcedon and other events associated with it.

1. The Apostolic Faith

Most importantly, the statements solemnly affirm that both families of churches share the same faith. This conviction is expressed in the opening words of the Anba Bishoy Statement (1989):

We have inherited from our Fathers in Christ the one apostolic faith and tradition, though as Churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the common apostolic faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed….

Throughout our discussions we have found our common ground in the formula of our common father, St. Cyril of Alexandria—mia physis (hypostasis) tou Theou Logon sesarkomene—and his dictum that “it is sufficient for the confession of our true and irreproachable faith to say and to confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos.” (par. 1-2)

 

This affirmation is further strengthened in the Chambesy Statement of 1990. The Joint Commission restates that both families of churches reject both the Eutychian and Nestorian heresies. In opposition to the former, both families of churches affirm that the Logos, “the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, only begotten of the Father before the ages and consubstantial with Him, was incarnate and was born of the Virgin Mary Theotokos, fully consubstantial with us, perfect man with soul, body and mind” (par. 1).

In opposition to the Nestorian heresy, the commission affirms that both families of churches “agree that it is not sufficient merely to say that Christ is consubstantial both with His Father and with us, by nature God and by nature man; it is necessary to affirm also that the Logos, who is by nature God, became by nature man, by His incarnation in the fullness of time” (par. 2).

It is significant that the statements clearly affirm that both families of churches reject both the Nestorian and the Eutychian heresies. In the centuries following Chalcedon, those who accepted the decision of the council were frequently accused by their opponents of harboring Nestorian tendencies. Likewise, those who rejected Chalcedon were often accused by their opponents of harboring Eutychian tendencies. Indeed, they were frequently labeled Monophysites despite the fact that they explicitly repudiated the position of Eutyches. These unfortunate and inaccurate perceptions were frequently the basis of the anathemas that were exchanged in the period following Chalcedon.

Moreover, the agreed-upon statements affirm that both families of churches share a common understanding of the hypostatic union of the divinity and humanity in the unique theandric person of Jesus Christ. The Anba Bishoy Statement (1989) says that this is a “real union of the divine with the human, with all the properties and functions of the uncreated divine nature, including natural will and energy, inseparably and unconfusedly united with the created human nature with all its properties and functions, including natural will and natural energy.” (par. 8). The Chambesy Statement (1990) says that “the hypostasis of the Logos became composite [synthetos] by uniting to His divine uncreated nature with its natural will and energy, which He has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, [the] created human nature, which He assumed at the Incarnation and made His own, with its natural will and energy” (par. 3).

The statements clearly affirm that both families of churches reject not only the Monophysite heresy as expounded by Eutyches but also the Monothelite heresy, which denied that Christ possessed both a divine will and a human will.

2. Common Terminology

While they do not deal directly with the Council of Chalcedon, the statements recognize that some of the important terminology used at that council is shared by both traditions. The Anba Bishoy Statement (1989) says, “The four adverbs used to qualify the mystery of the hypostatic union belong to our common tradition—without co-mingling (or confusion) (asyngchytos), without change (atreptos), without separation (achoristos) and without division (adiairetos)” (par. 10).

The Chambesy Statement (1999) is even more explicit in affirming that both families of churches “agree that the natures with their proper energies and wills are united hypostatically and naturally without confusion, without change, without division and without separation, and that they are distinguished in thought alone” (par. 4).

While no direct reference is made to the statement of the Council of Chalcedon, it is noteworthy that the theologians felt comfortable in citing terms that are so central to the dogmatic affirmation of that council. In this way, the theologians indicate that both families of churches profess the same understanding of the relationship of the human and divine natures in Christ.

3. Different Historical Formulas

The statements recognize that the authentic faith of the Church can be expressed in different formulas which, when properly understood, are not necessarily incorrect or contradictory.

As has been noted, the justification of the division between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches often pointed to different uses of the same terms to describe the reality of Christ.

The Anba Bishoy Statement (1989) says:

Those among us who speak of two natures in Christ do not thereby deny their inseparable, indivisible union; those among us who speak of one united divine-human nature in Christ do not thereby deny the continuing dynamic presence in Christ of the divine and the human, without change, without confusion, (par. 10)

Likewise, the Chambesy Statement (1990) affirms that both families of churches can continue to use the christological terminology to which they are accustomed.

The Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional Cyrillian terminology of “One nature of the Incarnate Logos” [mia physis tou Theou Logou sesarkomene], since they acknowledge the double consubstantiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is “in thought alone” [te theoria mone]. Cyril interpreted correctly this use in his letter to John of Antioch and his letter to Acacius of Melitene (PG 77,184-201) to Eulogius (PG 77,224-228) and to Succensus (PG 77, 228-245). (par. 7)

The statements of the Joint Commission recognize that the same Orthodox faith can be expressed in an appropriate manner by different theological terms. Indeed, some would say that the alienation that came in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon was based in good measure upon the inability of theologians at that time to recognize this crucial perspective. In an effort to affirm the authentic faith, both families of churches held fast to their own theological formulations and rejected those of the other. Each side claimed to follow the christological teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria. However, the spirit of charity, mutual respect and openness to legitimate theological diversity were in short supply. Sadly, the example of Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, who agreed to the historic reunion agreement of 433, was neglected in the polemical period that followed.

4. The Faith Expressed in the Ecumenical Councils

The statements of the Joint Commission deal with the issue of the ecumenical councils. Both families of churches accept fully the councils of Nicaea in 325, of Constantinople in 381, and of Ephesus in 431. However, the councils of Chalcedon in 451, Constantinople in 553 and 680, and Nicaea in 787 are formally recognized only by the Orthodox churches. These four councils are not formally recognized by the Oriental Orthodox churches.

The Joint Commission has wisely sought to deal with the doctrinal affirmations expressed at these councils rather than the more formal issue of the acceptance or rejection of particular councils. The statements affirm that the two families of churches are in full agreement in their understanding of the historic Orthodox faith. This means that the Oriental Orthodox churches recognize the faith of the church as expressed in the doctrinal decisions of the councils of 451, 553, 680, and 787, although they may not formally recognize these councils as being ecumenical.

Conversely, it also means that the Orthodox recognize that the Oriental Orthodox churches profess the same historic Orthodox faith, although the latter do not formally recognize certain councils as ecumenical. The Joint Statements seek to make a clear distinction between the faith expressed at a council and the council itself. The Anba Bishoy Statement (1989) says:

Our mutual agreement is not limited to Christology, but encompasses the whole faith of the one undivided Church of the early centuries. We are agreed also in our understanding of the Person and Work of God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father alone, and is always adored with the Father and the Son. (par. 11)

The Chambesy Statement also refers especially to the understanding of icons:

In relation to the teaching of the seventh Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox agree that the theology and practice of the veneration of icons taught by that Council are in basic agreement with the teaching and practice of the Oriental Orthodox from ancient times, long before the convening of the Council, and that we have no disagreement in this regard, (par. 8)

The statements of the Joint Commission point to a deeper understanding of councils in the life of the Church. The faith of the Church was full and complete in the period before the great councils. The councils did not invent the faith of the Church at a given time in history. Rather, the councils bear witness to the faith of the Church, especially in response to specific challenges. Generally in opposition to a particular distortion, the dogmatic affirmations of the ecumenical councils bear witness to the faith at particular times in history and using particular theological terms. The councils are councils of the Church. It is the Church that convenes them and interprets them. It is the faith of the Church that is expressed in and through the councils.

This perspective on the nature of an ecumenical council and its doctrinal affirmations is quite important. It reminds us that the emphasis must be placed on the faith expressed by the councils and not necessarily on the exact number of councils or the specific representatives who participated in a particular council. Indeed, even the terminology used at a particular council must be understood both historically and contextually.

The Church’s reception of a particular council does not depend on the number of bishops who attend or their geographical distribution or the person who convened it. It does not even depend on whether a council was designated as ecumenical at the time of its convocation. Indeed, there have been such councils, which have been subsequently repudiated by the Church. Rather, the issue of reception is rooted in the reality of the authentic faith of the Church. The doctrinal affirmation of a council is honored and received by the Church if it bears witness to the authentic faith of the Church.

5. The Lifting of Anathemas

The statements of the Joint Commission recommend that the churches lift the anathemas and condemnations of the past as an important recognition of the common faith of the two families of churches and as a step towards reconciliation and unity.

The Chambesy Statement (1990) says:

Both families agree that all the anathemas and condemnations of the past which now divide us should be lifted by the Churches in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion of our two families can be removed by the grace and power of God. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and the fathers previously anathematised or condemned are not heretical, (par. 10)

During the decades following the Council of Chalcedon, some churches in both families imposed anathemas (excommunications) upon teachers from the other tradition. These anathemas reflected the growing divisions and conflicts that could be found in specific places, such as in the churches of Alexandria and Antioch, where rival patriarchs and bishops existed. These anathemas also reflected the inability of each tradition to recognize the fullness of the faith expressed in teachings of the leaders of the other.

Clearly, the theological discussions of the fifth and sixth centuries were difficult and complex. Moreover, they were compounded by cultural and political factors of the time. Because of this, some Oriental Orthodox placed anathemas upon those who accepted Chalcedon and specifically upon Pope Leo of Rome and Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople. This was done because some Oriental Orthodox felt that the Chalcedonian statement repudiated the position of St. Cyril and tended toward Nestorianism. Likewise, the Orthodox placed anathemas upon Philoxenos of Mabbugh and Severus of Antioch chiefly because they refused to accept the terminology of Chalcedon.

As a result of intensive studies of the period after Chalcedon, these teachers can be seen in a more accurate perspective. Each teacher was a proponent of a particular christological perspective and terminology reflecting issues associated with either the acceptance or rejection of the Council of Chalcedon. Given the fact that both the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox recognize that both families of churches have maintained the apostolic faith, they can now also recognize that these teachers bore witness to the faith, although they may have reflected different theological traditions and preferred different terminology in their explication of Christology.

The Chambesy Communique (1993) says:

In the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology at St. Bishoy Monastery in 1989, and of our Second Agreed Statement at Chambesy in 1990, the representatives of both Church families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations of the past can be consummated on the basis of their common acknowledgement of the fact that the Councils and Fathers previously anathematized or condemned are Orthodox in their teachings. (par. 1)

In recommending the lifting of anathemas, the Joint Commission recognizes that such actions would not be unprecedented.

Throughout the early centuries of the Church, there were occasions when anathemas were removed as part of the process of reconciliation. The Joint Commission (1993) recommends, therefore, that the “lifting of the anathemas should be made unanimously and simultaneously by the Heads of all the Churches of both sides, through the signing of an appropriate ecclesiastical Act, the content of which will include acknowledgements from each side that the other one is Orthodox in all respects.” The lifting of the anathemas should imply “that restoration of full communion for both sides is to be immediately implemented” (par. 2).

6. Greater Understanding and More Regular Contacts

The Joint Commission recommends that the relationship between the two families of churches be strengthened through greater understanding and more regular contacts among all members, both clergy and laity. The Joint Commission says in the Chambesy Statement (1990) that “a period of intense preparation of our people to participate in the implementation of our recommendations and in the restoration of communion of our Churches is needed” (par. 1).

With this in mind, the Joint Commission makes a number of important practical recommendations. It proposes that there be exchanges of visits by clergy and laity of the two families of churches, exchanges of teachers and students of theology, and attendance at worship services. The commission also recommends that acts of “rebaptism” not take place and that practical agreements at the local level deal with issues related to marriages.

The commission advocates that the documents of the theological dialogue be made available and that special publications be devoted to the traditions of the various churches. Both families of churches have distinctive histories. They have their own liturgical traditions and customs, which often reach back to the period before the schism. These differences in customs and liturgical practices need not be a barrier to unity. Yet it is important that there be increased familiarity with the characteristics of the various churches.

The process of restoring unity must be done in such a way that recognizes the distinctive liturgical customs, linguistic preferences, iconographic tradition, and legitimate historical character of the various ecclesial traditions. Indeed, this diversity is usually obvious in parish settings. Unity in the apostolic faith does not mean the destruction of legitimate diversity in liturgical practices, customs, art, and languages. Ultimately, this process will affirm not only that the Church manifests the apostolic faith but also that the Church is truly catholic.

7. Common Witness

The Joint Commission also recommends that representatives of the two families cooperate in ecumenical meetings and in providing a united witness in society. Already in the activities of the World Council of Churches and in many local ecumenical councils, the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches generally work together to present a common perspective on the historic Christian faith and Christian ethics. The commission also says that the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox can coordinate their existing activities in the areas of humanitarian and philanthropic assistance. Both families can work together to address issues such as hunger, poverty, and discrimination as well as the needs of the youth, refugees, the handicapped, and the elderly.

The Chambesy Statement (1990) says:

We need to encourage and promote mutual co-operation as far as possible in the work of our inner mission to our people, i.e., in instructing them in the faith, and how to cope with modern dangers arising from contemporary secularism, including cults, ideologies, materialism, AIDS, homosexuality the permissive society, consumerism, etc. (par. 16)

We also need to find a proper way for collaborating with each other and with the other Christians in the Christian mission to the world without undermining the authority and integrity of the local Orthodox Churches, (par. 17)

Some Recent Developments

Since the historic theological statements have been produced, a number of the churches have responded formally in a positive manner to the statements of the Joint Commission. From the family of the Orthodox Church, these are the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Antioch, and the Church of Romania. From the Oriental Orthodox family, these are the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Antioch, and the Church of Malankara, India. The Church of Ethiopia and the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia have made a positive response to the First Agreed Statement. The other Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches continue to study the statements of the commission.

In addition to these formal responses, there have been two important initiatives at the regional level.

First, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch came to an agreement in 1991 on the joint participation of clergy in the sacraments. The agreement affirms that clergy from both churches can join in leading the sacraments other than the Divine Liturgy. With regard to the Divine Liturgy, the statement makes an important recommendation: “In localities where there is only one priest, from either Church, he will celebrate services for the faithful of both Churches, including the Divine Liturgy, pastoral duties and holy matrimony. He will keep an independent record for each Church and transmit that of the sister Church to its authorities” (par. 9). Additionally, the statement says, “If two priests of the two Churches happen to be in a locality where there is only one Church, they take turns in making use of its facilities” (par. 10). This statement expresses in practical ways that both families of churches share the same faith and sacraments.

Second, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria reached an agreement in 2001 with regard to the sacrament of marriage and related regulations. The agreement declares that both churches recognize the sacrament of baptism in each other’s church. This formal recognition reflects the fruits of the theological dialogue. Furthermore, both churches recognize the sacrament of marriage blessed in the other church. This agreement implicitly discourages “dual ceremonies” and the “repetition” of a marriage ceremony in separate parishes of the two traditions.

Future Directions

The members of the Joint Commission affirm in their historic statements that there is no doctrinal issue dividing the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox. The Chambesy Communique (1993) says:

In light of our four unofficial consultations (1964,1967, 1970, 1971) and our three official meetings which followed (1985,1989,1990), we have understood that both families have always loyally maintained the authentic Orthodox Christological doctrine and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they may have used Christological terms in different ways. (par. 1)

How will the unity of the two families of churches be formally proclaimed and restored?

This question does not lend itself to a simple answer. First, it should be noted that the two families of churches are not speaking about the “return” of one group or the “submission” of another. Rather, they are speaking about the “restoration of full communion” between two families of local churches that share the same apostolic faith.

Some might say that the present movement toward reconciliation is unprecedented and, therefore, there is no clear historical precedent for its formal resolution.

On the other hand, some would take note of the historic agreement of 433. With this simple statement of reconciliation, Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch John of Antioch agreed to end the schism and to restore communion between the two local churches. This may prove to be an important historic model.

In recent years, two scenarios have been proposed regarding the formal process of reconciliation. One approach emphasizes a regional form of restoration of full communion between churches from the two families that are in close contact. This is a “bilateral” approach. The agreement already reached between the two patriarchates of Antioch and the two patriarchates of Alexandria are a step in this direction.

The other perspective emphasizes a more multilateral approach, which would involve at once all the members of the two families of churches. Some theologians have suggested that a council would have to be convened formally to proclaim the reconciliation between the two families. This council would bring together the official representatives of the Orthodox churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches. These representatives would solemnly affirm the end of the schism and the restoration of full communion in the apostolic faith. In conjunction with this council, the delegates would then join in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This celebration would indeed be the solemn and public affirmation of full unity.

Both families of churches will need to examine the manner in which the reconciliation will be manifested in the actual organization of the Church in specific places. The process of reconciliation and the restoration of full communion will require pastoral sensitivity, creativity, charity, and patience. Where there are currently “parallel episcopal jurisdictions,” a process will have to be devised to establish one bishop in each city or region and to unite bishops into a single regional synod. This process may take some time. Indeed, the process may have to follow the reestablishment of full communion. It should be clear to all, however, that the bishop must not be seen as the symbol of disunity but rather as the sign of unity of God’s people.

This means that no one should fall into the trap of believing that all organizational issues must be formally settled before the solemn reestablishment of full communion. Certainly, the leaders of both families of churches need to make an unambiguous commitment to the resolution of all organizational concerns. Yet there needs to be patience, prudence, and care that the God-given grace that moves us toward reconciliation is not held hostage to human sin. Indeed, it could be argued that the present state of disunity prevents church leaders from seeing potential resolutions. These resolutions of organizational concerns may become more evident once full unity is restored and the “scandal” of disunity is overcome.

Conclusions

The significance of the agreed statements of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in 1989 and 1990, together with the Communique of 1993, cannot be underestimated. These statements are the work of a Joint Commission composed of the official representatives of both the Orthodox churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches. The conclusions affirmed by the members come from an official body that has a very high standing.

The statements affirm that the two families of churches share the same Orthodox faith in spite of more than fifteen centuries of formal isolation and reflect the study of the “schism,” a study that has been taking place, both in an unofficial and official manner, for nearly forty years. The two families of churches are now in a position to move toward the eradication of anathemas and the development of a plan to proclaim formally the restoration of full communion.

The consensus expressed in the statements affirms fundamental agreement in the understanding of the apostolic faith of the Church. Although the statements recognize that different terms have been used by the two families of churches to express this faith, there is a firm and unequivocal affirmation that the same Orthodox faith is being expressed. These statements reflect the painstaking work of theologians from both families of churches reaching back at least to 1964.

Clearly, the dialogue between Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians should demonstrate to all involved in ecumenical discussions that agreement in doctrinal affirmation is of critical importance. The dialogue between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox has not reflected an indifference to doctrine. On the contrary, both sides clearly desire to seek the truth of the faith and to proclaim it. Clearly, reconciliation is to be based on and expressive of a common understanding of the apostolic faith.

Now the historic conclusions of the Joint Commission must be communicated better at all levels of the churches. These statements should be studied by bishops at their synodal meetings, by clergy at their meetings, by the members of theological schools and by parish communities. The clergy and the laity need to become aware of the conclusions of the commission and to lay the groundwork for the restoration of full communion. The God-given opportunity for reconciliation should not be lost. Many have become accustomed to this schism. Moreover, there is a danger that ignorance, pride and complacency will prevent this process of reconciliation from moving to fruition. Education is certainly needed. Even more importantly, there is also a need for a certain “change of heart.” Through prayer and study, the members of the churches need to recognize the tragic consequences of Christian division. In addition, we need to recognize that division damages our witness to the world. Thus, we need to pray, as the Lord prayed, “that all may be one” (John 17:21), and we need to live our lives in accordance with this prayer.

Notes:
  • 1. Thomas FitzGerald, protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, is Dean and Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Portions of this essay first appeared as “Towards the Reestablishment of Full Communion: The Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Dialogue,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 36:2 (1991), 169-88.
  • 2. “Statement of the Council of Chalcedon,” in Henry Bettenson, ed.,Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 51-52. See also John Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Atlanta: 1973), 35-36. For a comprehensive discussion of the period of the council, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), 226-77; R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey (London: SPCK, 1961); John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus Publications, 1969); Karekin Sarkesian, The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church (London: SPCK, 1965); Aziz S. Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968).
  • 3. Orthodoxia 26 (1951), 484-89. See also St. John of Damascus, The Fount of Knowledge, 2.53 (PG 94.741).
  • 4. See the texts in Greek Orthodox Theological Review 10:2 (1964-65), 14-15; 13:2 (1967), 133-36; 16:1-2 (1971), 3-8,210-13. See also Paulos Gregorius, William Lazareth, and Nikos Nissiotis, Does Chalcedon Unite or Divide? Towards Convergence in Orthodox Christology (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981); Tiran Nersoyian and Paul Fries, eds., Christ in East and West (Macon, GA: 1987).

Source: Fr Thomas FitzGerald, “Restoring the Unity in Faith: The Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Theological Dialogue.” Edited by Thomas FitzGerald and Emmanuel J. Gratsias (Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007) 5-36.

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