Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Russian Orthodox Church and Ecumenism

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Russian Orthodox Church and Ecumenism

Article excerpt

This conference is timed to the centennial of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, from which the common search of Christians for unity is reckoned. Five years after the gathering in Scotland, Nicholas Berdyaev, a well-known Russian Christian philosopher, wrote in Russia:

   In all the world, in all Christendom, all positive spiritual
   Christian forces should begin uniting against anti-Christian and
   destructive forces. I believe that sooner or later "a sacred union"
   of all the creative Christian forces, all those who are faithful to
   eternal shrines should emerge in the world. It will begin with
   repentance and penance for the sins for which terrible trials have
   been sent us.

However, 100 years later, we speak of not a closer union of Christians but, rather, a crisis in the ecumenical movement. In my view, this crisis actually lies in the fact that, on the one hand, the rupture between Christians is felt stronger in face of various challenges of time and that, on the other hand, in real life there are ever more divisions and even confrontations happening between Christians concerning not only public life but also doctrine, especially theology, church order, and morality. Moreover, the crisis is aggravated by the fact that among Christians there is no common understanding of how to move toward unity.

The Russian Orthodox Church, at its Bishops" Council in 2000, adopted a document on Basic Principles of Attitude to Non-Orthodoxy. It presents the Moscow Patriarchate's attitude toward the ecumenical movement and an Orthodox vision of ways for attaining Christian unity. The document states that today's theories of ecumenism--such as the theory of branches or the teaching on one invisible Church, as well as all their other versions--are not acceptable for the Orthodox Church. But, it is on the basis of these ideas that the methodology and forms of inter-Christian cooperation have been developed on both regional and international levels. Even with the Orthodox and Catholic contribution to the development of the ecumenical movement, it continues to use the methodology and terminology of its Protestant origin. For this reason the crisis has struck precisely the ecumenism that has been advanced by Protestant circles.

As you know, a great deal of criticism of ecumenical work has been accumulated in the Orthodox milieu. For the Orthodox, the very notion of "ecumenism" often means a totality of alien theories and methods, not generally elaborated, for achieving church unity, which the Orthodox and some other Christians are forced to accept. It does not mean that the Orthodox deny the very idea of seeking Christian unity. So, in the Basic Principles of Attitude to Non-Orthodoxy, (1) the search for Christian unity is viewed as a task "of the highest priority for the Orthodox Church at every level of her life" (para. 2.1). Therefore, in order not to confound the search for unity and the concrete theories that are unacceptable for the Orthodox, the Moscow Patriarchate prefers today to use the terms "inter-Christian dialogue" and "inter-Christian relations" rather than the notion of "ecumenism." Moreover, such terms become useful when interfaith dialogues are developing and by mistake people include in ecumenism the relations between different religions. So, this term has become increasingly unclear for many people.

I would like to stress, however, that the Orthodox see the problem not in the existence of other opinions, traditions, or positions in Christendom but in the fact that all the above-mentioned theories are chosen as universal grounds for the work of inter-Christian movements and the conduct of joint activities. It is precisely for this reason that the Orthodox, as well as representatives of other Christian traditions, sometimes cannot avoid feeling that their freedom is infringed upon, and they cannot act on such platforms or share their approaches with the others. …

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