“What Do You Mean by ‘Ecumenical’?”

My guess is that nothing can stop Orthodox conversation and divide a room quite so fast as someone loudly asking the question, “How ecumenical are you?” If ever I was asked the question, I think that I would feel compelled to answer the question with my own counter-question, “What do you mean by ‘ecumenical’?” Most people do not define their terms before asking questions, and this can make for some long answers and some even longer misunderstandings. Before I could sensibly answer the question, I would require a definition of terms.

Strict etymology doesn’t help very much. The term “ecumenical” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, or “world”, which in New Testament times of course meant the Roman empire. Thus “it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the oikoumene” (Luke 2:1)—that is, all the Roman world. Thus St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom are described in our Vespers liturgical material as “ecumenical teachers” in that they had become teachers of the whole world. An “ecumenical council” was a council whose significance and authority was recognized throughout the whole Christian world (as compared to a “provincial council”, which had a more localized significance and authority). Obviously the meaning of the word “ecumenical” has changed a lot since those times.

Now the term “ecumenical” is often used to describe “the Ecumenical Movement”, originally a pan-Protestant movement which took off in the early twentieth century in an attempt to unite the various Protestant churches, or at least increase the amount of inter-church cooperation. Some now cast the linguistic net even wider, and use the phrase “the Ecumenical Movement” or “ecumenism” to describe a similar project of bringing together not just different Christian denominations, but also different religions. Such ecumenical services feature liturgical participation from Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and (if one can find any) Zoroastrians. Sometimes even Wiccans are invited to the liturgical party.

What are we to make of all this? In this brief essay I will leave alone the vexed question of the nature, origins, and intentions of the Ecumenical Movement. It seems that one’s experience of the Ecumenical Movement differs according to where one lives throughout the world, and perhaps according to whether one evaluates ecumenism solely by one’s local relationships with other Christian confessions or by the official statements of the World Council of Churches. Here I will only attempt to answer the question, “If we would be faithful to Orthodoxy, how ecumenical should we be?”

Obviously our interactions with other religious people depends upon what their religion is. In the case of our Orthodox interaction with people of non-Christian religions (such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) we can join with them in worthy social projects, such as working together in soup kitchens, or marching together to protest abortion, but joint liturgical prayer/ liturgical concelebration is out of the question. It is true that of course there is some truth in pretty much all religions. And since (as St. Paul says) “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, for the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for every one who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom. 2:9-10), it appears that even devout pagans may be spared on the Last Day. But St. Paul also says that what those pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God (1 Cor. 10:20), and this means that in their prayers and cultus the pagans do not address the same God as we do. If they are spared on the Last Day, they will be spared despite their religion, and not because of it. Or, in the passage of Paul quoted above, they will be spared because, in their ignorance of the light of Christ and His Church shining into their souls, they still “did good” as they “sought for glory and honour and immortality” (Rom. 2:6-7). They may yet be saved on the Day of Judgment, but our Christian Faith is more than simply eternal fire insurance. It also gives us access to and experience of God’s transforming healing, grace, forgiveness, sonship, and salvation. The other non-Christian religions cannot provide such transformative realities.

It is no use denying all this, and pretending that somehow the pagans of Paul’s day were different than the ones now found in India or elsewhere throughout the world. If St. Paul and the apostles were right (to say nothing of the repeated and emphatic witness of the entire Old Testament), “all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5). It is not true that the deity of Judaism and Islam and Christianity are the same deity simply because all those religions are monotheistic and look back to Abraham as their forefather. Our deity is Trinitarian, and theirs isn’t, and accordingly our prayers are Trinitarian in composition, and theirs aren’t. If they would like to join us as we pray “Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity”, that is fine, but we will not anytime soon be facing Jerusalem or Mecca and praying to the God who is not the eternal Father of the eternal Son. Because of this I suggest that not only should clergy not don a stole and participate in inter-faith services, but that the laity should properly avoid those services as well.

Our interactions with genuine Christians of other confessions require more nuance and discernment. (By the term “genuine Christians” I include, for example, Trinitarian Baptists and Pentecostals, but exclude Mormons as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Unitarians.) Given that we are saved by God’s grace, I have no trouble believing that devout Christians from these other confessions, if they are sincerely following their conscience and striving to serve Christ, are saved and safe under the mercy of God—that is, they are brothers and sisters in Christ. More than this, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in his classic The Orthodox Church, “There is only one Church [i.e. the Orthodox Church], but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church”. Since the essence of the Church is not institutional and bureaucratic but spiritual and charismatic—that is, the essence of the Church is Christ Himself—this life-giving stream constantly overflows the Church’s canonical boundaries. God is not confined to the Church’s canonical limits, nor contained in her like a man contained in a box. We of course are bound by the canonical and sacramental boundaries which the apostles have set, but not God. The Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8). The Orthodox Church is indeed the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church proclaimed in the Creed, the home of the Holy Spirit, and the epicenter of God’s grace in the world. But that Spirit and grace cannot be confined within her strong walls; genuine Christians exist in other confessions too.

Unlike these other confessions (at least the Protestant ones) we Orthodox confess that the Church’s unity is organic and sacramental. That is, the organic and sacramental unity which we once had with the West has been lost through heresy and schism, and therefore inter-communion between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox is not possible until that unity has been restored. We Orthodox consider that our mandate (or our role around the ecumenical table, if you will) is to proclaim the truth and unite everyone within in it—that is, within the Orthodox Church. I am aware that saying that our goal is the conversion of the non-Orthodox to Orthodoxy is considered to be in very poor ecumenical taste by some, but it remains our mandate nonetheless. This is not because Orthodoxy is ideologically imperialistic, but simply because the truth is the truth, and unity can only take place when it is grounded in the truth. It is when the Orthodox do not ‘fess up and admit that this is our historical position and our present goal, that some Orthodox get nervous about ecumenical endeavours—and rightly so.

I am ecumenical in the sense that I am happy to sit around the table with my brothers and sisters in Christ and talk to them. In that conversation, I affirm and rejoice in the truth and salvation that they already have. I also offer the truth which they do not yet have, and invite them to come and partake of it in the fullness of Orthodoxy.

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