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

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.


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.

  • 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.

A Response To The Agreed Statements

A Response
(Romanian Orthodox Tradition)

By Fr Nicholas Apostola

While I have been asked to speak from the perspective of the Romanian Orthodox tradition, I can’t really say that there is a specifically or uniquely Romanian Orthodox outlook on this issue. Historically, there has been a sizable Armenian community in Romania. The relations between the two Churches have been warm and friendly. Many Oriental Orthodox theologians have studied in Romania. A Catholicos of the Armenian Church was born and educated in Romania. Throughout, the Romanian Church has been an enthusiastic supporter of the dialogue. So, rather than restate the obvious, I would like to make two observations and proposals about how to proceed from this point. (more…)

The Current State Of The Dialogue For Orthodox Unity In The Middle East [Published in 1998]

The Current State Of The Dialogue For Orthodox Unity In The Middle East

by Gabriel Habib [St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 125-132]


During the last three decades, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East realized the urgency of their Unity, mainly for the following reasons:

1. Facing the same ecclesiological and missiological challenges of the western churches in general, they considered that they should have a common contribution to make to the organized ecumenical movement to which they were called to be affiliated on international and regional levels.

2. In light of the inter-Orthodox dialogues held in Aarhus in 1964, Bristol in 1967, Geneva in 1970 and Addis Ababa in 1971, they became aware of the anomaly of their separation since the fifth century. Accordingly, they felt the need to try, through dialogue, to recover their Church unity beyond the divisive powers and principalities that intervened in their life and despite the different philosophical ways of thinking that were used by the Alexandrian and the Antiochian participants at the Council of Chalcedon.

3. Realizing, through separate dialogues, that they have similar ecclesiological problems with the Catholic Church in general and “Uniatism” in particular, they started to cease all opportunities to define common attitudes toward the Vatican and its related Churches.

4. Challenged by the same regional politico-religious juncture, they are increasingly convinced that they are called to a common witness within the Middle East monotheistic ethos.

1. Meetings to form a Middle East Ecumenical Council. Between 1965 and 1972 a series of meetings took place with the participation of Bishop Ignatios, now Patriarch Ignatios IV of Antioch, Bishop Karekin now Catholicos Karekin I of Etchmiatsin, Bishop Samuel of the Coptic Orthodox Church who was killed with president Sadat of Egypt, Archbishop Athanasios Ephrem Boulos and Gabriel Habib who, at that time, was Middle East Ecumenical Youth and Student Secretary. They explored ways of fulfilling rich and effective Orthodox witness in the Middle East ecumenical movement. In 1969 and as a result of their deliberations, they proposed to the Protestant churches of the region to form a Council of Churches, where the 16 Protestant churches will be represented by 1/3 of the members of the Council’s decision making and program committees, the 4 “Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches by 1/3 and the 3 “non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches by the remaining 1/3. They thought that the work of such ecumenical Council will not be determined exclusively by the number of Church representatives but mainly by the ecclesiological nature of the constituent Churches. In that way, they considered that the Council will essentially be composed of 3 ecclesial families of Churches. In 1990, the 7 Catholic Churches of the region, joined the Council as a 4th ecclesial family of Churches. Consequently, the proportion of Church representatives became 1/4 instead of 1/3.
2. Meetings on Orthodox Unity. For the purpose of trying to overcome their historical differences and of defining their present common witness, the Middle East Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches held a first meeting at the Theological School of Balamand, Lebanon, in 1972 and a second meeting at the Pendelli Conference Center, in Athens, in 1978. The delegates to these meetings were mainly Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops representing the non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox churches of the region, i.e. the Coptic, Armenian and Syrian Church of Antioch and the Chalcedonian or Eastern Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch Jerusalem and Cyprus. Their deliberations were based on the studies presented at the international meetings of Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva and Addis Ababa. They also used the statements of the Ecumenical Patriarch of June 1965 and the decisions of the Conference of the Eastern Orthodox Churches held in Chambesy, Switzerland in 1968.

a. The meeting at Balamand monastery, Lebanon, in 1972

At a meeting held in Balamand in 1972, representatives of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches reaffirmed the opinion expressed by the theologians gathered at Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva and Addis Ababa, that the “Chalcedonian” and “non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox Churches have the same Christological faith. They also declared that “all impediments will cease, every cause of division and estrangement will fail and all expression of denigration and enmity will be put aside with every suspicion which has troubled the work of true unity. Accordingly, cooperation in all pastoral areas and activities will be realized so that the words of the Apostle Paul will be fulfilled: “Now, there are varieties of services but the same Lord… For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… (1 Corinthians 12:4-27).”

As a result of their discussions, the church representatives at that meeting made twelve recommendations aiming at increasing the awareness of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities in the Middle East.

These included the following orientations:

  • i. That cooperation be encouraged between the Orthodox Youth Movements of the various Eastern and Oriental churches within the framework of SYNDESMOS, the world Fellowship of Orthodox Youth Movements.
  • ii. That when the Holy Synod of any Eastern or Oriental church meets, it should devote enough time to study the topic of Orthodox unity. On such an occasion a member of a Holy Synod of a Church belonging to the other family of Orthodox churches should be invited to participate.
  • iii. That the Eastern and Oriental churches of the Middle East devote the first Sunday of Lent of each year to Orthodox Unity. This issue should constitute the theme of the sermons delivered on that day by their respective priests.
  • iv. That exchanges be promoted between the theological schools or seminaries of the Eastern and Oriental Churches, on the levels of faculty, students and libraries.

b. Meeting at Pendeli monastery, Greece, in 1978

The delegates to the meeting in Pendeli, Greece reaffirmed in 1978 the conviction expressed by the 1972 Balamand declaration, that the faith of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches is common beyond all differences imposed by history. Accordingly, they have emphasized the need for mutual recognition conducive to full sacramental unity However, they have regarded their meeting as a contribution to the overall efforts towards Orthodox unity facilitated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and as a culmination of the local dialogues recommended by the inter-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes in 1962, for the “Chalcedonian” and of Addis Ababa in l965, for the “non-Chalcedonian” churches.

On the occasion of this meeting, the participants had the opportunity to meet with theologians from the Church of Greece. It was followed by an audience with His Beatitude Seraphim, the Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece who blessed the work of the participants towards Orthodox unity. At the end of the meeting in Pendeli, the participants made several recommendations which included:

i. The need to publish a book which should contain a chronological account of all attempts towards Orthodox unity sincc 451 AD. including the reports of Rhodes in 1962, for the Eastern Orthodox and Addis Ababa in 1965, for the Oriental Orthodox. The book should also include accounts of the non official international consultations held in Aarhus, Bristol, Geneva, and Addis Ababa, as well as the statements of the Middle East meetings of Balamand in 1972 and Pendeli in 1978.

ii. The promotion of exchange of visits between priests, theologians, or lay people, belonging to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches with the aim of increasing knowledge of each other Tradition and contextual witness.

iii. The formation of joint working groups on liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and canonical issues.

The movement towards Orthodox Unity in the Middle East is currently facing the following challenges:

1. The delay in making decisions. According to some church leaders, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not enough urging the Synods of the Eastern Orthodox Churches to act on the statements adopted by the joint commission mainly in Chambesy, in 1985 and 1990. Some, however, consider that the time element involved is not significant when compared with the period of 15 centuries the “Chalcedonian” and “non-Chalcedonian” churches have spent in separation from each other. For instance, in light of the statements of the Joint Commission, the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church had decided to lift its anathemas against the “Chalcedonian” Churches with the condition that these Churches would the same with regard to the “non-Chalcedonian” Churches. It seems that to this date, no Eastern Orthodox Church has taken such an action.

2. The opposition to Orthodox Unity. From certain quarters in Greece, Russia, Jerusalem and Ethiopia, there is presently, an important opposition to Orthodox Unity based on the assumption that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should not only confess the Christological belief of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but should also recognize the validity of the whole council of Chalcedon.

3. The internal politico-ecclesiastical tensions. The new political juncture, mainly in Eastern Europe is causing inter-Eastem Orthodox problems. It is also causing tensions within Oriental Orthodoxy, such as between the Coptic and Ethiopian Churches or between the Armenian Catholicosates of Cilicia and Etchmiatsin. In addition, ecclesiastical splits have recently occurred, in India, within the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch.


Despite the problems faced on the road to Orthodox Unity, one could discern the following signs of hope:

1. The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of Antioch. In 1991, the synods of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch have approved a joint statement concerning their pastoral needs and obligations. Their joint statement called the faithful to fully respect the spirituality, Tradition and the Saints of the two Churches as well as to preserve their respective Byzantine and Syriac liturgical cycles. It also asked them to include the fathers of both Church Traditions in the Christian Education Program and the Curriculum of their theological schools which should organize, between them a program of exchange of students and faculty. It also mentioned that if only one priest, from either of the two Churches concerned, is found alone in a region which has one Church, that can administer the holy sacraments and the other pastoral responsibilities, including the holy liturgy. In the case the sacraments of baptism and marriage are administered, that priest will have to keep separate registers for the two Churches involved. If two priests from the two Churches concerned are found in one place with one Church building, they can celebrate the liturgy alternatively. However, Inter-communion and mutual proselytism remained forbidden.

2. IOCC Middle East Consultation. From April 2 to 4, 1997, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) held a consultation in Cyprus to define its future work in the Middle East region. The Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Armenian Orthodox Church of Cilicia were invited to send representatives. According to the recommendations of the consultation, these Churches will be asked to send there representatives to the future national committees.

3. SYNDESMOS Consultation on Orthodox Unity. In May 1997, SYNDESMOS, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth Movements organized a conference in Douma, Lebanon, on the relation between the Eastern and Oriental Churches. It was then recommended that Orthodox youth should activate dialogue towards Orthodox Unity. In particular, SYNDESMOS should publish booklets, in different languages, which should clarify the agreements made between the Churches involved and spread enough knowledge about their respective particularities as well as the significance of their common witness.

4. SYNDESMOS Conference in Cyprus. In July 1997, (SYNDESMOS) held a large gathering in Kikko monastery in Cyprus, to which it invited young people from the Oriental Orthodox Churches i.e. the Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Churches. The aim was the promotion of cooperation and exchange between youth from all the Orthodox Churches. 165 participants came from around the world.

5. Meeting of the official Joint Commission in Syria. In 2-5 February 1998, the Joint Commission of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches met in Damascus, Syria under the auspices of His Beatitude Ignatios IV, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and His Holiness Mar Ignatios Zakka I, Patriarch of the Syrian Church of Antioch. They agreed to reaffirm that the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches “basically maintain the old liturgical traditions in their local liturgical types, which coexisted in the undivided Church”. Also, the Joint Commission formed a joint Working Group to meet, for a week in Athens, between Easter and Pentecost of 1998. It is hoped that the Joint Working Group will discover ways of facilitating the mutual lifting of anathemas towards full Orthodox Unity.

Through their joint meetings of Balamand in 1972 and Pendeli in 1978, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East have reiterated the conviction that they have the same Christological belief and a common understanding of ecclesiology that should make them urgently overcome the dogmatic and canonical obstacles that separated them for almost 15 centuries. Facing the same phenomenon of proselytism from foreign missions and the same politico-religious challenges, these churches have also become convinced that the fulfillment of their unity is of absolute necessity for credible witness within monotheism and in the ecumenical movement, in general. Moreover, those two meetings helped the participating Churches to fully subscribe later to the work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue which met in Corinth, Greece in 1987, in AnbaBishoy monastery in Egypt in 1989, in Chambesy in 1990 and 1993 and recently in Damascus in 1998. All these meetings affirmed the common Christological faith and ecclesiology between the Eastern and Oriental churches and consequently envisaged the possibility of lifting the anathemas between them towards their sacramental unity. Nevertheless, disappointments continue to be expressed with regard to the slow pace of the work for Orthodox Unity. For this purpose your contribution and prayers are highly needed.

[Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 125-132]

The Monastic Concerns Regarding Unity And Reconciliation of Traditions

The Monastic Concerns Regarding Unity And Reconciliation of Traditions

By Bishop Suriel [Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 118-124]

I wish to thank St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess Seminaries for their kind invitation to attend this symposium and to speak to you today.

What are the Oriental monastic concerns regarding unity and reconciliation of traditions?

I truly believe that this is a very important subject that perhaps has not been discussed very much so far in the dialogue between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. We need to know what the monastic tradition teaches us in this regard and what is its viewpoint with regards to unity.

We need to remind ourselves of the aim of monasticism. Monasticism was meant to unite man with God, man with his fellow man, and also man with nature. This was the ideal that the early fathers were aiming for and succeeded in achieving. It was St. Arsenius who said, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.” He also said, “If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” Unity and reconciliation between man and God is what those early monastics sought. They also sought unity with their fellow man. Abba Isaac said, “I have never allowed a thought against my brother who has grieved me to enter my cell; I have seen to it that no brother should return to his cell with a thought against me.” Also Saint Anthony the Great said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” We also see that these monastics were living in harmony with the nature that surrounded them. Saint Paul the hermit had a crow bring him half a loaf of bread each day and on the day that Saint Anthony visited him, the crow brought them one whole loaf of bread. They also ate from whatever the nature around them provided, for example dates. They also used the palm trees for their living: to weave baskets, to keep themselves busy, and for these baskets to be sold in the cities to provide for their bread. It was a harmonious life indeed.

Another important way that monasticism should be a way to unity is through prayer. Even though the monk leaves the world, its troubles and wars, yet he prays for peace. He prays for unity and for the healing of schism. It is the life of prayer without ceasing. As Saint Paul tells us to pray at all times. The power of prayer especially by those who have consecrated their lives for it definitely has the effect to solve many disputes.

So then, the point I am trying to make here is that monasticism should be a point of unity in all aspects of life and not something that divides. It is the source of spirituality and piety in the Church. We need to remember also that we have many common monastic fathers whom we revere and honour in both of our Orthodox families. Great fathers such as Saint Anthony the Great, Saint Macarius the Great, Saint Pachomius, the Syrian fathers Saint Isaac and Saint Ephrem, Saint John Cassian and Saint Palladius, just to name a few. We really have so much to unite us in monasticism, and it is these roots that can bring our traditions closer together and unite us once again by God’s grace. These fathers that came from different backgrounds were also willing to learn from each other. We see for example Saint John Cassian and Saint Palladius coming to Egypt to learn monasticism at its source. The lives of these great men and their sayings deepened the spirituality of Christian life. They were also a source of inspiration to many who repented at reading or hearing about them. One famous example was that of Saint Augustine, who was deeply affected by the biography of Saint Anthony that was written by Saint Athanasius the twentieth Pope of Alexandria.

Monasticism should also be a source of strength and a torchbearer for correct teaching and Orthodoxy. It preserves the true faith for us and fights against heresies. The monastic fathers did not remain quiet when it came to heresy. They looked for unity amongst Christians, but this unity was built upon unity and oneness in faith. This was exactly the case with Saint Anthony the Great. He defended the faith against the Arian heretics. It was said that, “he was well acquainted with their schisms,…and he even exhorted every man to withdraw himself from them, for he used to say, ‘Neither in the discussion of them nor in their result is there any advantage.’” When the Arians came to spread their poison in the desert he cast them out from the mountain like the other wild beasts and vipers. He even went down to Alexandria to defend the Orthodox faith against the Arian heresy. Of course he was so well known and respected all over the world, and his words had their influence and confirmed the people in sound doctrine.

It was similar with Abba Agathon, who was willing to accept any type of ridicule and insult except to be called a heretic. At being called a heretic he replied, “‘I am not a heretic.’ So they asked him, ‘Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult.’ He replied, ‘The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God. ’”

If we look for a moment at some sad history, we see that many monks had to endure many tribulations. Several emperors attempted to force Coptic monks to accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. One such famous monk was Saint Samuel the Confessor. Otto Mienardus, in his book titled Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert, speaks of Saint Samuel’s theological activities and especially his keen opposition to the decrees of Chalcedon when an attempt was made to impose the decrees upon the monks. “Saint Samuel was imprisoned and beaten, and after severe questioning, was about to be publicly flogged when the civic authorities saved his life.”

If we now move to the current situation, we see that monasticism is still playing a positive role in leading us towards unity and reconciliation. Several of the official dialogues between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox took place at Saint Bishoy Monastery in the ancient site of Scetis, which dates back to the fourth century. So, monasticism today still regards that working towards reconciliation and sharing the same faith as vital to its survival. It is also of great importance to note the work of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. His Holiness has worked so hard in planning, attending and participating in many of these dialogues. In fact under his leadership the Coptic Orthodox Church was the first Church to accept the Agreed Statement of 1990 signed in Chambesy, Switzerland. He takes the subject of unity seriously and again this is stemming from his monastic roots. He is a great theologian, and he did not only gain a Bachelor of Theology’ from the Seminary in Cairo, but did extensive reading and research while he was a hermit at El-Sourian Monastery in Wadi Natrun. Even though he is the Pope and Patriarch he has not forgotten for one single instant that he is a monk first. That is why he spends approximately half of each week at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy. This time is spent in contemplation, prayer and writing.

From the Coptic Orthodox point of view, we have no reservations with regards to unity with the Eastern Orthodox. The Coptic monks as well as all of the Coptic community are well aware of all of the agreements that have taken place so far. In the official magazine of the Coptic Orthodox Church named El-Keraza (Preaching), His Holiness Pope Shenouda III always publishes the latest news on the dialogue. Also many articles are written to explain the process of the dialogue and the decisions that have been taken by our Holy Synod with this regard. I can say with confidence that our people are for this unity and so are all of the monks. I know that I myself am awaiting for this blessed day, when I can partake of the Eucharist with my brothers in the Eastern Orthodox Church. When I was serving our parish in Hawaii, before I was ordained as a Bishop, I had very good relations with the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr. George Bessinas. Since we did not yet have our own church, on many occasions he would allow us to use his church for our services. It was a relationship of love and mutual respect. One day he invited me to attend a liturgy of the Pre-sanctified gifts. It was very moving experience for me and I enjoyed it so much. But at the same time it was such a painful experience for me, because I could not share in the Body and Blood of Christ with him. I pray and hope that this day will come soon, when we can be fully united in Christ the incarnate Logos.

Another important point I wish to make that is evident today, is the effect of monasticism to unite people of non-Orthodox background. Recently I was reading a wonderful article by Tim Vivian titled “The Monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, Egypt: A Monastic and Personal Journey” that was published this month in the American Benedictine Review. At the end of his article Tim Vivian states, “For the first time in my eight-year monastic journey, I was connecting what I had learned from books with what I could study in the field and hold in my hands; for only the second time in my academic career, I was teaching the subject I care about the most, and I saw monastic spirituality connect with my young students; visiting the Coptic monasteries of the Wadi Natrun showed me the many strengths and beauties of ongoing monastic tradition; I marvelled at the monastic renaissance taking place in Egypt, and I could only admire these monks and lay Christians who devote themselves to Christ in the face of persistent adversity.” Perhaps monasticism will also play an important role in restoring the whole Christian Church to one faith. One flock for one Shepherd, Who is Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I think that for us Copts – and I am speaking as a monk also, if there are any concerns with regards to reconciliation, they would be with regards to the monks of Mount Athos and some Traditionalist groups within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The document titled, “Declaration of Mount Athos Against Reunion with the Non- Chalcedonians” concerns me somewhat. To go through it in detail is beyond this lecture, but let me mention a few brief points. In this document the Eastern monks are demanding “the unconditional acceptance of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and of their sacredness and universality by the Non-Chalcedonians.” Well, first of all, we were not even part of these councils to begin with, and did not take part in the decision making. So, how can we just accept them as such? In a recent paper by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, the Co-President of the Official Dialogue, he stated, “ …the Orthodox interpretation of the teachings of the four later councils of the (Eastern) Orthodox are the same as the doctrine of the Oriental Orthodox who have always refused both the Nestorian and Eutychian heresies. The two families are called to reinforce each other in their struggle against heresies and to complete each other as one body of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.”

The Eastern monks continue to say things like denouncing the Joint Commission of the dialogue, naming Saints Dioscorus, Jacob and Severus as heretics, and stating that there is radical disagreement between the Joint Commission and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. The document also questions, “Has there not been a scandalous deception in the information given to the people of God?” They are also in opposition to the removal of any texts which degrade or attack the Oriental Orthodox in Eastern liturgical books. I feel that this type of spirit on the part of our brothers the Eastern Orthodox monks of Mount Athos will only divide even further and delay reconciliation between the two families of Orthodoxy. I know that committees have been set up to produce books to explain and clarify the positions and teachings of both families of Orthodoxy. I hope that these books will be a great source of help in clarifying the Agreed Statements even further and press the move towards unity. I believe that one other important way by which monks from the different traditions can come to understand each other is through an exchange program. Monks from Mount Athos could spend some time in Oriental monasteries in Egypt, Syria or Armenia and also perhaps some Oriental Orthodox monks could spend time becoming familiar with the monastic tradition on Mount Athos. This may help to bridge the rift that has lasted for fifteen long centuries now.

There is also another group named, “The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies,” which attacks the Oriental Orthodox Churches severely, especially the Coptic Orthodox Church. They call us all sorts of names such as “The Non-Chalcedonian Heretics”; “The Copts are Monophysites and thus heretics. Their Mysteries are invalid and, should they join the Orthodox Church, they must be received as non- Orthodox.” Very harsh and damaging words, indeed destructive and far from the spirit of ecumenism that we are living in the 1990’s. Such a group may be a minority, but they certainly have a loud voice and can [harm] relationships between the average people who do not know better. I do not wish to harp on the negatives, but they are certainly a concern for us. Please remember also that quote from Abba Agathon, “But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.” None of us could wish this upon anyone, to be separated from God, yet such people are insinuating such an idea.

Fr. George Dragas in a paper titled “The Rapprochement of the Orthodox and Orientals” also thinks that the reason for such negative reactions is lack of information. He states, “In my opinion, however, such negative reactions are primarily due to a lack of information on the recent history of constructive contacts between the two Orthodox families of Churches and especially on the very significant theological classifications and agreements which have been made from both sides in many ‘consultations,’ both unofficial and official, as well as in new constructive and fundamental theological researches by individual theologians.” Another important point that Fr. George Dragas makes in his paper is that in the teachings of Saint Athanasius and Saint Cyril we have a common foundation for modem dialogue. He says, “It should be pointed out that Orthodox share with the Oriental Orthodox certain unquestionable patristic authorities. They share common fathers and common patristic conciliar decisions. The great Alexandrian fathers St. Athanasius and St. Cyril, as well as the great Cappadocians, St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom … and also the first three ecumenical councils … are wholeheartedly accepted by them. Is this not sufficient ground for orthodox rapprochement? … Indeed I believe that these particular authorities provide all that is necessary for orthodox advance and consolidation.”

There can be no doubt, then, that the monastic tradition can have an important role in bringing this dialogue to complete fruition, culminating with the lifting of the anathemas and – along with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in His Church – the restoration of the one glorious and undivided Orthodox Church of God.


[Source: St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 118-124]

Anathema! Some Historical Perspectives On The Athonite Statement Of May, 1995

Anathema! Some Historical Perspectives On The Athonite Statement Of May, 1995

by Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo [Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 103-117]

On May 27th, 1995, the Sacred Community of the monastic republic of Mt. Athos issued a formal warning against “hurried union” with “the Anti-Chalcedonians.”’ While I shall deal with the contents of the statement shortly, I would like first to address the question of its existence. What is it that prompts a group of monks, several or most of whom are not ordained clergy, let alone bishops, to pronounce on a question of doctrine? The Athonite fathers are indeed quite explicit about “our responsibility for the protection and preservation, without innovation, of the doctrine and ecclesiology of the holy Church.”2 What is the basis of this claimed responsibility which is neither episcopal nor, I think, simply equivalent to that general responsibility for the truth which is shared by all the people of God, as affirmed a century and half ago by the Eastern Patriarchs?3 More specifically for our purposes, what does the Athonite document, both in its content and in what the fact of its existence presupposes, signify regarding the future of a dialogue which has been underway now for nearly forty years?

From its beginnings, Christian monasticism has seen itself as in continuity with the prophets and apostles. The Lives of the founders, of Anthony the Great and particularly of Pachomius, make a point of linking their heroes with the great figures of Israel’s past, with Moses and Elijah.4 In Abba Besa’s Life of Shenute, for example, the titles “prophet” and “apostle” appear together and are routinely attached to the great abbot’s name,5 while John Rufus’ Plerophories and Cyril of Scythopolis’ several Lives of the luminaries of Palestinian monasticism, at the beginning and end respectively of the sixth century, deploy the language of prophecy and apostolic authority with respect to their subjects. I believe myself that these claims in connection with Christian ascetics go back to Christian beginnings, indeed even into certain strains of later Second Temple Judaism.7 And the line of claims carries on past the early monastic centuries to the present. Symeon the New Theologian certainly argued for charismatic authority and, indeed, embodied prophetic endowment in the eleventh century, while in the fourteenth Gregory Palamas’ Tomos of the Holy Mountain bases its opening argument on a parallel between the Old Testament prophets and “the saints made worthy of mystical revelation,” i.e., predominantly (if never in theory exclusively) the holy hesychasts, the hermit monks. In our own day and in the recent past of Athos and nineteenth century Russia, one may point to sainted elders gifted with clairvoyance and even prophecy as part of their extraordinary intimacy with the things of heaven.9

The charismata claimed for certain outstanding monks venerated by the Christian laity, again from the time of Anthony (if not before) to the present, have resulted in a certain real weight accorded the monks’ witness in doctrinal debate. Athanasius, for example, thinks it important to enlist Anthony in the struggle against Arianism; crowds of monks provide formidable – to say the least! – backing for the later Alexandrian popes, Cyril and Dioscurus, while Theodoret and Severus differ over the doctrinal allegiance of Symeon Sylites.10 John Rufus, Cyril of Scythopolis, and John Moschus – all three of whom we shall hear from again – provide accounts of the holy ascetics’ testimonia to the different sides of the Chalcedonian debate. In the next century, Maxiumus the Confessor, a lay monk, will defend his position against imperial Monotheletism, literally contra mundum, and will be ultimately vindicated (if, unfortunately, only posthumously).” Subsequent Byzantine Church history sees the monks leading the way against the Isaurian Emperors’ iconoclasm, against the Emperor Leo Vi’s marital arrangements, against Michael the VIII’s disposal of the Lascarid dynasty and summary retirement of the Patriarch Arsenius, and against the false unions of Lyons and Florence championed by, respectively, the same emperor and his descendent, John VIII. Positively, it is the monk Maximus who frames the more or less definitive shape of Byzantine Christology and anthropology, the monks John Damascene and Theodore Studites who supply fundamental articulations of iconodule theology, the monk Symeon who witnesses to the living God of Christian revelation in the face of a conservative and complacent society, and who also thus supplies basic elements for that Hesychast renewal which, in one historian’s phrase, “lit up the whole Orthodox world” on the eve of the millenial empire’s destruction at Ottoman hands.12 Nor was that last flash of Byzantine Christianity the end of the story, since it was the monks again, in the eighteenth century and especially in the persons of SS Nicodemus Haghiorites and Paissy Velichkovsky, who initiated the recovery of patristic thought and spirituality whose effects are still being felt today, two hundred years later.

This extraordinary and extraordinarily powerful continuity of protest and positive witness lends force and persuasiveness to some otherwise rather startling remarks by Bishop Kallistos Ware. “There are,” the bishop writes, “ in a sense two forms of apostolic succession in the life of the Church. First, there is the visible succession of the hierarchy, the unbroken series of bishops in different cities…Alongside this, largely hidden, there is secondly the apostolic succession of the spiritual fathers and mothers in each generation of the Church, the succession of the saints.”13 What normally remains “largely hidden” emerges, as the summary above just indicated, front and center during periods of crisis. It could be argued that our own era, which has seen ancient monarchies collapse, death and martyrdom on a scale unprecedented save perhaps for the worst outrages of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and the concisions of contemporary secularism (to which many would attach the ecumenical dialogues), is just such a period. Hence it is not surprising that we find an Athonite hieromonk emphasizing the particular importance of the Holy Mountain and its witness: “This incontestable authority held by Athos in the Orthodox Church…is not a rival to the legitimate teaching authority of the hierarchy, but rather constitutes the latter’s prophetic and eschatological complement.” The monks, he continues, “hold themselves as lookouts, like the prophet from his watchtower (Hab. 2.1),” and this watchfulness is, exactly, “one of their responsibilities regarding the Church.”14

We have thus returned to the language of the recent Athonite statement, which it is now time to summarize. The Memorandum opens with three statements of principle, proceeds to eleven denunciations, and concludes with a plea and a warning. The three principles are: “the unconditional acceptance [anepiphylaktos apodoche] ” by the non-Chalcedonians of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the necessity of a conciliar decision on the issues of union (as opposed to the secretive conventicles of the “experts,” technai), and, once more, Athos’ responsibility for the protection of holy Church.15 The eleven denunciations, which I will not list in detail, expand on the first two principles, which the fathers feel are threatened by the dialogue, in particular by the joint statements issued in Egypt in 1989, and in Geneva in 1990.16 Five times, in denunciations two through four, six, and ten, the Memorandum raises, directly or indirectly, the status of the anathemas against Dioscurus, Severus and Jacob launched by the last four Ecumenical Council, affirmed by different Fathers, and commemorated liturgically by the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. The principle the Athonites see threatened here is “the infallibility and authority of the Holy Spirit” (Denunciation II). The Rumanian Synod’s recent statement to the effect that these anathemas were pronounced without a “spirit of love” is, in Denunciation X, labled “a profound blasphemy against the Holy Spirit through Whose inspiration these decisions were made.” Thus, in Denunciation XI, the proposal by the joint commission to amend the liturgical books in order to eliminate the accusations of heresy comprises “a mutilation” of the witness of the Confessors, and the silencing of both the Synodikon and the Synaxaria, the lives of the saints. We are not, the Athonites conclude, to regard these texts as “ornamental elements [diakosmetika stoicheia ] but rather as “foundational [ themeliode].” Their removal would be an “unacceptable innovation [aparadektos kainotomiaj” leading to the “eradication of Orthodoxy.”

In addition to the divine inspiration of the anathemas, we find two complaints, in Denunciations VII and VIII, about vagueness concerning the “Anti-Chalcedonians” ’ necessary recognition of all seven Councils. “We ask,” say the Athonites in VIII, “which Orthodox bishop, who has given an oath to defend the Ecumenical and Local Councils, will accept intercommunion with bishops who want to discuss whether or not the Ecumenical Councils are ecumenical?” In Denunciation IX we find the assertion that those involved in the dialogue have tended to conceal the discussion and provide misleading information about its progress, in order to arrive, unimpeded by synodical review, at decisions like the mutual lifting of the anathemas. Thus the fathers cite with evident approval both the recent (February, 1994) decision of the Church of Greece to require “Anti-chalcedonians” to submit to all seven Ecumenical Councils “without interpretive statements,” and the in fact much less categorical statement of the Russian bishops (December, 1994) asking for time to study the matter. These two local responses are then held up (a little bit disingenuously in view of the Russians’ caution), against the “blasphemy” of the Rumanian synod (Denunciation X again).

Only twice does the actual matter of Christology arise, that is to say, why the anathemas might or might not be justified, but in each case the nature of the “heresiarchs”’ heresy is left unexplored. Denunciation V lists two expressions from the Geneva statement as susceptible to monophysite interpretation: “one united theanthropic nature,” and “the natures are distinguished by thought [theoria] alone.” Denunciation VI follows this up with the assertion that the Fathers did not anathematize merely the “extreme Monophysitism” of Eutyches, but the “moderate Monophysitism” of Dioscurus and Severus as well. Just what that “moderate Monophysitism” signifies, however, is not specified, and over all we are left with the fact of the patristic and conciliar anathemas. At no point in the document are the contents of the “monophysite heresy” ever explored. I do not know myself whether this is because the Athonite fathers simply assumed some unstated mental picture of the heresy in question, or whether because, knowing from recent studies (the last forty years of the dialogue, in fact) that there is no substantial difference between the two Christological formulations, they have chosen to focus on the liturgical and traditional elements they feel are at risk, i.e., seven councils (not three!), the Synodikon, Synctxaria etc. The Memorandum’s basic point in any case is that the Holy Spirit has spoken, and that whoever rejects the divine inspiration of all the councils in every detail is not of the Church. Thus both the first Denunciation and the Memorandum’s conclusion bring up the issue of ecclesiology. To say, as the Geneva statement has it (paragraph nine), that “both families of churches have always preserved the same authentic Christological faith” is for the Athonites to question the nature itself of the una sancta. Presupposed throughout, I believe, is the neo-Cyprianic ecclesiology advanced with such force by St. Nicodemus Hagiorites in the late eighteenth century and defended by Mt. Athos – and most Greek Orthodox – ever since as the perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church.17 In the Memorandum’s concluding lines the fathers therefore plead for a “re-establishment [epanatopothetesis] ” of the dialogue on “correct foundations” – presumably those enunciated by the Church of Greece – in order both to preserve Orthodoxy unspoiled, and to allow the “anti-Chalcedonians the possibility of return to the true Church …from which they have been cut off [apokekommenoi] for over fifteen centuries.” Mt. Athos will absolutely reject, they add, any union which – God forbid! – would take place “outside of the only Truth.”

I shall return to the Memorandum in my concluding section, but in order to get there I would like to take us on a little historical detour which, I hope, will serve to place in some context the Athonite fathers’ attitude toward anathemas and raise some questions about the fruitfulness of recourse to the monks’ claims to prophetic office when confronted with, as it were, the fine print of doctrinal controversy. What I also hope will emerge is a challenge to the ecclesiology which the Memorandum presupposes, and therewith perhaps a chink or two in the solid wall which the Athonites see as separating our two communities.

So we shall go back a millenium and a half in order to ask how monks then dealt with the doctrinal debate which still separates us today. Not being an expert on the Christological controversies, allow me to limit myself to four texts: Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks of Mar Bassus, John Rufus’ Plerophories, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow.18 The first two represent the protest against Chalcedon, the second pair the pro-Chalcedonian side. All four are written by, or deal with, monks. I think we shall find a remarkable similarity to the tone and spirit of the Athonite Memorandum, together with a couple of subtle but very significant – and I hope eventually liberating – differences.

It is the similarities with the Athonite statement which must strike us immediately about Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks of Mar Bassus. The date is around 512, when Severus is about to be, or has already been, installed as Patriarch of Antioch and, together with Philoxenus of Mabbug, is lining up the opposition to Chalcedon. The broadly generous interpretation of Emperor Zeno’s Henotikon, hitherto prevailing, is now at an end. The abbot of Mar Bassus, a certain Lazarus, has written a letter (no longer extant) to Jacob, the famous circuit inspector and preacher, asking him to make his own position clear. Jacob replies that he has detested the Christology of Diodore of Tarsus and his ilk ever since the first time he ran across it forty-five years before as young student in the famous school of Edessa. He cheerfully adds Theodore (of Mopsuestia), Theodoret (of Cyrrhus), Nestorius, and Eutyches to his spontaneous anathema, together with “those who count and clarify the natures after the union and recognize their properties and characteristics,” a clear if unspecific reference to the Tome of Leo of Rome.19

That lack of specificity – vagueness, if you will – does not please the good monks at all. Jacob’s letter, they tell him, was “weak and sickly, dead, lifeless, subversive and dangerous,” and they have sent it back by return post, ordering him instead to:

… write us explicitly and anathematize in writing … Diodore, Theodore, Theodoret, Nestorius, Eutyches, the Tome of Leo, bishop of Rome…the additions made at Chalcedon, whoever has refuted the ‘Twelve Chapters of Cyril’… in short, all the heretics.

If Jacob does not agree to do this, they will include him in their anathemas! “Here is our true faith,” they conclude, “we anathematize the people and the headings we have briefly mentioned. Without embracing this true faith and anathematizing the heretics, peace will never be re-established in the Church.”20

The equation of anathematization with orthodoxy certainly has a familiar ring, as does the overall rigorism of these monks. One difference from the Athonite Memorandum is notable, however, and that is the hope for the “re-establishment of peace in the Church.” The fathers of Mar Bassus were quite as zealous for anathema as the fathers of Athos today, but with a difference (other than, of course the slightly different list of anathematizees). For the Athonites, the Church is a “closed shop,” while for these Syrian monks of the early sixth century, the una sancta still appears to include, somehow, the adherents of the other side. This is a note which will also show up in the other documents from the period.

First, though, we should cast a brief glance at Jacob’s replies to his daunting correspondents.21 He protests his treatment as a heretic, repeats his loathing of Nestorius (better that he had never been bom!), emphasizes for the monks’ benefit his veneration of the “Twelve Chapters” and of the Henotikon, and dutifully includes Pope Leo’s Tome along with the others responsible for denying the Lord’s unity (making “two Christs”) and refusing the title, Theotokos, to the Blessed Virgin. So Jacob does give way and bow to the pressure, both in this letter and even more in his next one, where he adds praises of the Emperor Anastasius and heaps execration on Chalcedon and that “friend of Nestorius,” the Emperor Marcian.22 Yet in both epistles, and much more strongly than in the letter of the monks, there is clearly the presence of deep regret for the divisions appearing within the Church, “the tearing of the body of Christ,” and for the lack of love that produced them.23 Indeed, Jacob typically adds “those who proceed without love” to his list of required anathematizations, and pointedly troubles to remind his monastic inquisitors of St. Paul in Phil. 2:6-8 on the subject of the divine love that had led the Son of the Father to empty Himself on our behalf.24 It is also undoubtedly to underscore his distaste for the hubris and alarms of abstract theology that he concludes both his replies with characteristic meditations on the paradoxes of the Incarnation, the wonder that One of the Trinity was crucified in the flesh, which paradox, to be sure, both he and his examiners felt had been betrayed at Chalcedon.25

The betrayl and prevarication of Chalcedon is certainly the message of a contemporary of Jacob’s, the sometime bishop of Maiouma and disciple of Peter the Iberian, John Rufus. Right around or shortly after Jacob’s exchange with the fathers of Mar Bassus, John edits a collection called Assurances [Plerophories] and Witnesses and Revelations against the Council of Chalcedon, or more briefly, The Plerophories. 6 The “witnesses and revelations” of the title come chiefly from monastic sources, particularly from elders and prominent ascetics known to John’s master, Peter. The linkage between monks and prophets with which I began is thus quite clear. John in fact begins his collection with a series of prophecies set in the years immediately prior to Chalcedon. Their content is all essentially the same: warnings of the disaster to come. Thus, for example, the story of an unnamed ascetic who rejects the devil’s demand that he be worshipped: “Why don’t you want to worship me?,” the evil one asks, “After all, soon I ’m going to be gathering a council of all the bishops where I’ll have all of them worshipping me!”27 Other stories, set in the period of Chalcedon itself or afterwards up to John’s own time, provide accounts of visions where heaven’s displeasure with the council is made crystal clear, such as the hermit Paul’s heavenly voice anathematizing the “two natures” and “dividing of Christ,” or Bishop Pamprepios’ vision of a heavenly parchment, on which is written, twice over for good measure: “Anathema to this council! They have denied me! Let them be anathema!”28 When Archimandrite Romanus, south of Jerusalem, is told by a voice “ to stay true to the faith of the three hundred and eighteen [i.e., at Nicea],” and his monks point out to him that this was also the stated intention of Chalcedon, the voice obligingly provides clarification by way of a list of patristic authorities concluding with Cyril, Celestine, and Dioscurus, and then again, just in case he did not get the point, a heavenly letter to inform him explicitly that: “Those of Chalcedon are apostates. Anathema!”29 John the Baptist and the Patriarch Jacob appear to ascetics worshipping at their shrines in order to warn the holy monks that their respective presences will soon be departing the premises due to impending Chalcedonian tenanacy.30 The Theotokos and company of the saints, in one vision, and the Holy Spirit, in another, are seen departing the liturgy of a Chalcedonian celebrant.31 A trial by fire adjudicates between the Chalcedonian horos and a decree of Timothy Aleurus condemning it, with by now unsurprising results: the first is consumed while the second remains untouched.32 A dying Chalcedonian woman is converted by a vision and made well by receiving the Eucharist from Peter the Iberian’s hands.33 Elsewhere the consecrated elements of the orthodox reveal the truth of the resistance by appearing as bloody flesh,34 while those of the Chalcedonian heretics crumble into spoiled bread and vinegar.35

John defends his stories. They have come to him, he tells his readers early on, from “pure men, aged and worthy of trust…holy monks.”36 In the middle and at the end of the Plerophories he explains at some length the reason for these signs and portents. Chalcedonians are liars, for they teach what before at Ephesus they had condemned, i.e., Nestorius, and their invocation of the universal creed is thus pure hypocrisy.37 Chalcedon’s betrayl is a matter of genuinely apocalyptic proportions. Leo’s Tome, John says at his book’s end, brought in its train the fall of elder Rome and opened the door to the coming of Anti- Christ.38 While the fact that John’s side of the debate was in the minority, at least in Palestine, might account for the high pitch of his alarm, higher than in Jacob or the fathers of Mar Bassus, it also leads him into a comparison of the faithful with the remnant of Israel.39 This is interesting, for it presumes again the idea that the struggle is taking place within the one people of God. If, on the one hand, the bishops and abbots and other leaders are obliged to declare their anathema to the betrayl at Chalcedon, this is because it was on their level that the betrayl occurred. For the laity, on the other hand, things are different. As the story of the dying woman indicates, the believer has only to turn to the Eucharist of the faithful remnant and commune. Nothing else is required. Presumably thus all the laity are still “of Israel,” with their obligation confined to aligning with the shepherds who have not divided Christ and denied the Mother of God.

In Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and much more so in John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow, the same thinking is at work and, I would add, the same faith is being defended. Cyril himself does not provide us with many accounts of wonders and visions, at least in connection with the dispute over Chalcedon. Indeed, the one vision which does deal with the Christological debate begins with the great Sabbas’ displeasure at finding out that the monks living up the hill from his lavra are Nestorians. Then, Cyril continues:

He had a vision of himself in the holy church of the Resurrection during the celebration of the Eucharist and these monks [i.e., the Nestorian neighbors] were being thrown out by the vergers while he was pressing the vergers to allow them to receive communion. In a stern voice they replied to him: ‘They cannot receive communion, for they are Jews in not confessing Christ to be true God or holy Mary to be the Mother of God.’

Eventually, the great ascetic wins the recalcitrants over and so to communion.40 When the references to the Chalcedonian controversy do appear, Cyril is as predictable as John Rufus was. Severus is “the source of all the evils” among the monks, says Sabbas at one point (apparently forgetting for the moment his problems with the Origenists), while on the occasion of a trip to Constantinople to request a tax break for Palestine, he refuses – politely – the Empress Theodora’s request that he pray she have a child, “lest,” as he remarks to his disciples later, “ it suck up the doctrines of Severus and cause worse upheaval to the Church.”4 It is in the Vita Euthymii, though, that we find Cyril’s positive teaching on Christology where, in fact, he sounds very like Jacob or John Rufus above. Euthymius convinces the sceptics about Chalcedon by preaching the three hypostases of the Trinity and – somewhat anachronistically – the “one composite hypostasis” of the Incarnation.42 Here, clearly at work, is the sixth century’s interpretative gloss on Chalcedon, pace the Church of Greece’s prohibition on “interpretations”!

John Moschus’ collection of tales is neither in the service of a single definite purpose, as were John Rufus’ Plerophories, nor certainly in the disciplined and sober hagiographical tradition of Cyril’s Lives, but the Spiritual Meadow does provide us with an often stunning mirror image of the former, particulary with respect to miracles and revelations touching on the Christological controversy. “Why,” John asks at one point, “are there so many prodigies and miracles in the Church?” “Most of all,” he answers, “because of the heresy of Severus Akephalos,” and thus for the sustaining of “weaker souls.”43 The “miracles and prodigies” in question are fewer than John Rufus supplies, only about thirteen which bear directly on the factions fighting over Christology, but they are of exactly the same kind. One is not to commune in any church save one that recognizes the four councils, as an angelic visitation warns one ascetic, and a heaven-sent dream another monk.44 The Chalcedonian Eucharist survives boiling water, and even cools the pot right down, while the Severian Eucharist disintegrates.45 A Nestorian receives a vision of hell, at the behest of Abba Cyriacos, wherein he sees Nestorius in the flames, together with an unlikely and doubtless quarrelsome crowd of other villains: Theodore, Theodoret, Eutyches, Apollinaris, Evagrius, Didymus, Dioscurus, Severus, Arius, and Origen.46 The Duke of Palestine, a man of Severian persuasion, is convinced of Chalcedonian orthodoxy when an angelic ram prevents him from entering the Anastasis, while in a preceding story a patrician’s wife is persuaded by the Mother of God herself to conform to the Fourth Council.47 The Emperor Anastasius’ dreadful end, struck down in the gloom of a thunderstorm, echoes John Rufus’ account of the dark portents heralding Marcion’s reign.48 Obviously, the polemical miracle story is fully in play here, too, and likewise it has been transmitted chiefly by the holy ascetics, but we find some other familiar – and more promising – features as well. The Duke’s heresy is cured by communing at the Chalcedonian altar, and likewise a Severian is convinced of Chalcedonian truth on beholding another miracle involving the Eucharistic elements and ends his opposition by communing. John Moschus emphasizes Mary Theotokos, as in the story of her refusing to enter Abba Cyriacos’ cell because, unbeknownst to the good father, a few writings of Nestorius were secreted away in an otherwise innocuous codex.491 cannot, finally, resist including the haunting words Moschus ascribes to Abba Palladius, with their – doubtless unconscious – echo of Jacob of Serug’s anathema against the loveless: “Believe me, children, heresies and schisms have done nothing for the holy Church except to make us love God and each other very much less.”50

Our historical detour completed, we can perhaps begin to place the Athonite Memorandum in a kind of context. The fathers of the Holy Mountain are clearly and classically within a monastic continuum. They reproduce, in places almost verbatim, the demands of Abbot Lazarus and the monks of Mar Bassus. Doubtless, neither group would much appreciate being compared with the other, but the likeness – not to say functional identity – is undeniable. Identity also applies to the substance of the faith that both communities sought and seek to defend. The “one composite hypostasis of the Incarnation,” which Cyril of Scythopolis places in Abba Euthymius’ mouth and which the Athonite fathers as well would have to acknowledge as their own faith, is clearly the same as the Geneva Statement’s “one united theanthropic nature” – with the physis of the latter equating to the hypostasis of the former – to which to the good fathers objected, while both formulae answer to the objections the ancient monks of Mar Bassus raised against “two Christs.” The Memorandum itself does not appeal to “miracles and revelations,” but it clearly assumes the same sort of milieu as produced our four sixth century writers: heaven has decreed; the Holy Spirit has spoken. But how clear is it that the Spirit inspired these anathemas, I wonder, when two communities who have been condemning each other for over fifteen centuries realize that their faith and piety are functionally identical, and moreover have been so all along? This is an admittedly uncomfortable question, and the fathers on Athos are understandably unwilling to ask it, but ask it, I think, we must. One thing in any case does seem certain, and that is that if recourse to the prophetic charismata of holy ascetics did not work especially well fifteen hundred years ago, it is not likely to be particularly helpful today, either.

The key discontinuity between the Memorandum and the ancient writers lies in their views of the Church. All four of the ancients share a common understanding. For them Israel, the Church, still includes those faithful who are under the leadership of erring bishops. True, none of the four seems to feel that divine grace is active on the other side of the divide, thus the spoiled Eucharists and dramatic exits of heavenly figures, but all of them appear to understand its recovery as a very simple thing: just come on over to divine services on our side of the fence, they say. There is no mechanism of reception other than that, no adaptation of the sacraments of initiation, no anointing of any kind, not even a formal statement of faith save, perhaps, for the clergy. If I may draw a comparison between them and other figures from the patristic era, then I would point to Augustine’s conclusions from the Donatist controversy or, if in somewhat less detail, Basil the Great’s distinctions in his letters to Amphilocius.51 In the Memorandum, however, the ecclesiology presupposed is of much more recent vintage. It reflects the decree of Contstantinople in 1755 ordering the Baptism of all other Christians seeking to enter the Orthodox Church, a position supported most notably by the commentaries of Nicodemus Haghiorites on the Pedalion. The historical circumstances which precipitated this change are not my business here, but the difference from the sixth century writers is obvious. It is here, in the adoption of this closed ecclesiology, built on neo-Cyprianic lines, by both the contemporary Church of Greece and an increasingly vocal element in Orthodoxy outside of Greece, that we find a real challenge for the self-understanding of the worldwide Orthodox Church, and, until that challenge is confronted and put to rest, there is little, I fear, that we can reasonably expect from an attempt at formal union between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox except – God forbid! – the likelihood of schisms within the former.

The Athonite Memorandum has therefore done us all a considerable service in pointing to a dangerous situation within the Orthodox Church. Without addressing that situation, for example if the Constantinopolitan hierarchy were simply to attempt silencing the fathers of the Holy Mountain with the sort of clumsy bluster that has become all too common in recent years, we could have a schism that might well lead to another fifteen hundred year exchange of “inspired anathemas.” Rather, the holy fathers there, together with virtually the entire hierarchy of the Church of Greece and others in the Orthodox world, need themselves to be challenged to think again on the issue of ecclesiology in general and, specifically with respect to the matter of the Ecumenical Councils and church traditions, to reflect on the nature of the anathemas and their relation to the teaching they were intended to protect. I would myself suggest that the anathemas served almost as caricatures, that is, as exaggerated presentations of the figures they ostensibly delineated which thus brought into relief elements of doctrine that all of us today would reject: e.g., the in fact inaccurate pictures of Leo as teaching “two Christs” and of Severus as effectively obliterating the humanity of Jesus. Surely, the final issue, the “bottom line,” must always be the actual faith that all of us, I believe, hold in common. To see that common faith in the other, however, requires that we look past the caricatures. It requires in fact an act of ascesis, an exercise of sober, reflective, and above all charitable attentiveness. Sadly, both in our ancient sources and in the Athonite Memorandum, there seems to have been precious little effort to listen carefully, and virtually no room at all for the same charity which was recently invoked by the Synod of Rumania, and whose absence long ago was lamented by Jacob and Abba Palladius.

What then does the Memorandum mean for the dialogue between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox? Negatively, I fear it means a slowdown, at least in the progress toward a formal union (as opposed to the informal arrangements which are already in place in many areas). It signals an incoherence within the Eastern Orthodox themselves, one which must be addressed before real progress – again, of a formal kind – can continue. Positively, the Athonite fathers have indeed been true to their vocation of witnessing to the faith once received, and in raising, however unwittingly, the issue of our ecclesiological self-consciousness so sharply. They are in effect asking all of us who are vitally interested in seeing the end of our millenial schism to persuade them that, while they are right to be concerned for the defense of the faith, they are wrong in failing to discern its presence in our brothers.


  • 1 Hypomnema tes Hieras Koinotetos tou Hagiou Horous peri tou Dialogou Orthodoxon kai Antikhalkedonon. I am indebted for the Greek text to Ms. C.K. Contopoulos of the Ecumenical Affairs office of the Greek Archdioces of America, and for the text of the English translation to the librarians of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Ms. Elaina Silk and Ms. Karen Jermyn.
  • 2 Hypomnema, English text p. 2.
  • 3 Quoted by the Hypomnema, p. 5 (ET: p.4).
  • 4 See, for example, the Life o f Antony 7, for comparison with Elijah, and the Greek Vita Prima of Pachomius, chps. 1-2, for the line of the martyrs, John the Baptist, and Elijah, and chp. 126 for comparison with Moses. For comment, see P. Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority, and the Church (Oxford: 1978), esp. 18-67.
  • 5 See the translation of D.N. Bell, The Life o f Shenute by Besa (Kalamazoo: 1983), from the opening words of the first chapter on “our holy father, the prophet Apa Shenute,” to chp. 20 (p.48) comparing him with “the first prophets and apostles,” and so throughout the work.
  • 6 See John Rufus, Bishop of Mayouma, Plerophories, temoinages et revelations contre le concile de Chalcedoine, ed. and trans. F. Nau, Patrologia Orientalia VIII: 1-161, e.g., chp. 8 (pp.20-22) on Abba Zenon the prophet. In Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives o f the Monks o f Palestine, trans. R.M. Price (Kalamazoo: 1991), see esp. the Prologue (p.4) on the succession: apostles to martyrs to monks, and also Price’s comments in his “Introduction,” xxx-xxxiv.
  • 7 For example, on Second Temple Judaism, see the essays by M. Himmelfarb, “From Prophecy to Apocalypse: the Book of the Watchers and Tours of Heaven,” and S. Fraade, “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,” in Jewish Spirituality, ed. A. Green (NY: 1988), Vol. I: 145-170 and 253-288, resp. See also for early Christianity, and again only for example, G. Kretschmar, “Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach dem Ursprung fruehchristlicher Askese,” Zeitschrift fuer Theologie und Kirche 64 (1961) 27-67, and P. Nagel, Die Motivierung der Askese in der alten Kirche und der Ursprung des Moenchtums (Berlin: 1966).
  • 8 On Symeon, see my discussion in Symeon the New Theologian: On the Mystical Life {Crestwood, NY: 1997), Vol. Ill, esp. 17-53, and for Gregory Palamas, volume IV of The Philokalia, trans. G. Palmer,P. Sherrard, K.T. Ware (London: 1995), 418-425 (Greek text in PG
  • CL: 1225-1226).
  • 9 See the stories of sainted Athonite ascetics collected by Archimandrite Cherubim, Contemporary Ascetics o f Mount Athos, trans. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, CA: 1992), or in A. Golitzin, The Living Witness o f the Holy Mountain (South Canaan, PA: 1996), esp. 133-157. For Russia, the popular life of Seraphim of Sarov would do, thus see V. Zander, St. Seraphim o f Sarov, trans. G. Anne (Crestwood, NY: 1975).
  • 10 See the discussion of, among others, Theodoret’s treatment of Symeon in S.A. Harvey, “The Senses of a Stylite: Perspectives on Symeon the Elder,” Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988) 376-394, and the same scholar’s comparison of Severus’ treatment of the Stylite in comparison with Jacob of Serug’s, “The Memory and Meaning of a Saint: Two Homilies on Simeon Stylites,” Aram 5 (1993) 219-241.
  • 11 Thus the famous portrait of Maximus on trial before emperor, senate, and episcopacy. See the translation provided in Maximus the Confessor: Selected Works, trans. G. Berthold (NY:1985), 17-28.
  • 12 D.M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries o f Byzantium (Cambridge: 1979), p. 88.
  • 13 K.T. Ware, “Foreward,” to I. Hausherr, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East, trans. A. Gythiel (Kalamazoo: 1990), p. vii.
  • 14 Hieromonk Macarius Simonopetrites, “The Light of the Holy Mountain,” in The Living Witness o f the Holy Mountain, 129-130.
  • 15 Hypomnema, pp. 1-2.
  • 16 I am referring to the communiques of the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches which were issued at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Egypt, 20-24th June, 1989, and from the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Geneva on September 23-28th, 1990.
  • 17 On the problematics involving St. Nicodemus’ ecclesiology, see the articles by J. Erickson, “Divergences in Pastoral Practice in the Reception of Converts,” in Orthodox Perspectives on Pastoral Praxis, ed. T. Stylianopolis (Brookline, MA: 1988) 149-177; “Sacramental ‘Economy’ in Recent Roman Catholic Thought,” The Jurist 48 (1988) 653-667; and forthcoming from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, “On the Cusp of Modernity: The Canonical Hermeneutics of St.Nicodemus the Haghiorite (1748-1809).”
  • 18 For Jacob of Serug’s correspondence with the monks, see the text, translation, and introduction by P. Martin, “Lettres de Jacques de Sarougaux moines du couvent de Mar Bassus,” ZDMG XXX (1876), 220-271. For commentary, see T. Jansma, “Encore le Credo de Jacques de Saroug,” L ’Orient Syrien 10 (1965), esp. 350-370.
  • 19 “Lettre 1,” pp. 224-226, esp. 1.4, p. 226 for the reference to Chalcedon.
  • 20“Lettre des moines,” p.228.
  • 21 “Lettres,” 246-265.
  • 22 “Deuxieme reponse,” p.262.
  • 23 Ibid., p.262, for the “tearing” of the body of Christ.
  • 24 “Premiere reponse,” p.249.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 251 for the Jacobean extra anathema, and p. 252 for the use of Phillipians 2:6-8. Use of the “Hymn of the Pearl” follows, pp. 253 ff, and for the second reply’s emphasis on paradox, see pp. 264-265. For the “Hymn of the Pearl” itself, see the translation of The Acts o f Thomas in New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. II: Writings Related to the Apostles, Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Revised edition. Ed. W. Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge, UK and Louisville, KY: 1992), 380-385, together with H. Drijvers’ introduction, esp. 330-333.
  • 26 For the dating of the Plerophories, see Nau’s introduction, pp.6-7, and also Jansma, “Credo,” 350-351.
  • 27 Plerophories 9 (pp. 21-22).
  • 28 Ibid. 20-21 (pp. 43-45), and cf. 22 (pp. 47-54).
  • 29 Ibid. 25 (pp. 58-61).
  • 30 Ibid. 29-30 (pp. 70-73).
  • 31 Ibid. 74-75 (pp. 128-130); cf. also 80-83 (pp. 136-138).
  • 32 Ibid. 46 (p. 98); and cf. 47 (pp. 99-100).
  • 33 Ibid. 38 (pp. 87-89).
  • 34 Ibid. 10 (p.24).
  • 35 Ibid. 65 (pp. 122-123).
  • 36 Ibid. 10 (p. 22).
  • 37 Ibid. 59(114-118).
  • 38 Ibid. 89 (150-154). For other references to the Antichrist, see 7 (p.20), 13 (p.29), 17 (p.34), and 26 (p. 67).
  • 39 Ibid. 55 (pp. 109-110), and cf. also 89 (pp. 142-150).
  • 40 Life o f Sabbas 38 (Price, p. 137).
  • 41 Ibid. 57 (p. 164) and 71 (p. 183), respectively.
  • 42 Life o f Euthymius 26-27 (pp. 36-40).
  • 43 The Spiritual Meadow 213 (Wortley, p. 191).
  • 44 Ibid. 178 and 188 (pp. 147-148 and 160-162).
  • 45 Ibid. 29 (pp. 20-21).
  • 46 Ibid. 26 (pp. 17-18).
  • 47 Ibid. 48-49 (pp. 39-40).
  • 48 Ibid. 31 (p. 22); cf. Plerophories 10 (pp. 25-26).
  • 49 Ibid. 46 (pp. 37-38).
  • 50 Ibid. 56 (p. 56).
  • 51 See Erickson’s discussion in “Divergences in Pastoral Practice,” pp. 155-160.

[Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 103-117]