Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Answering Critics

Continuing my earlier post, I would argue that the document, "Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions" (BPA) is offered at least in part as an answer to those in the Orthodox Church who would reject ecumenical dialog either whole or in part. The legitimacy and urgency of ecumenical discussion needs to be affirmed and articulated because support for it is absent in many quarters of the Orthodox Church. Unlike our Western Christians brothers and sisters, many Eastern Christians have not yet put behind us the "intolerance and suspicious[ness]" that have for too long characterized our relationships with Catholics and Protestants. Many in the Church are actively hostile not simply to ecumenical activity but or even of an ecumenical attitude or disposition.

While there certainly are abuses, much of the opposition to ecumenism is the result of bad will and misinformation. And so: "The Church condemns those who, by using inauthentic information, deliberately distort the task of the Orthodox Church in her witness before the non-Orthodox world and consciously slander the Church authorities, accusing them of the 'betrayal' of Orthodoxy. (7.3) Quoting the pan-Orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki in 1998 (7.3) BPA calls those who reject ecumenical discussions and encounters "schismatics," and members of "extremist groups" within the Church who "deliberately distort . . . and consciously slander" the Church. Speaking in a pastoral voice, they say that these anti-ecumenical voices are sowing "seeds of temptation" among the rank and file faithful and are "subject to canonical sanctions" (suspension or defrocking for the clergy, excommunication for the laity).

To repeat what I said yesterday, in BPA, ecumenical dialog is seen as an imperative. Again quoting from Thessaloniki 1998, the bishops' argue that Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialog "has always been based on Orthodox tradition, on the decisions of the Holy Synods of the local Orthodox Churches, and on Pan-Orthodox meetings." Indeed it is not optional, but part of "the mission laid upon us by our Lord Jesus Christ, the mission of witnessing the Truth before the non-Orthodox world. We must not interrupt relations with Christians of other confessions who are prepared to work together with us." Responding to Orthodox critics of ecumenical dialog, the bishops affirm that during the Church's "'many decades in the ecumenical movement, Orthodoxy has never been betrayed by any representative of a Local Orthodox Church. On the contrary, these representatives have always been completely faithful and obedient to their respective Church authorities, and acted in complete agreement with the canonical rules, the Teaching of the Ecumenical Councils, the Church Fathers and the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.'" (7.3)

This is not to say however that the bishops' are wholly supportive of everything done in the name of ecumenicism. The characterize as a "threat to the Church . . . those who participate in inter-Christian contacts, speaking on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church without the blessing of the Church authorities, as well as by those who bring temptation into the midst of Orthodoxy by entering into canonically inadmissible sacramental communion with non-Orthodox communities." (7.3) It is the very seriousness and necessity of ecumenical work that makes these actions unacceptable. It is worth noting that BPA's criticism is not simply for those on the "liberal" or "progressive" side of the issue. Yes, there are those who rush to celebrate sacramentally a communion that does not exist. I doing so they presume to speak for the Church. But, there is also a threat to be found in those self-appointed defenders of Orthodoxy on the "conservative" or "traditionalist" who in their own way also distort the teaching of the Church in their rejection of any common ground between Orthodox and Western Christians.

Ecumenical work is not something that can be engaged in simply out of a personal interest—one needs to have the blessing of the Church in order to represent her in ecumenical contacts. It is, I would suggest, a vocation, a ministry to which one is called by Christ and which must be confirmed by the Church. There are those in the Church who Christ calls to help heal the wounds on the Body of Christ. Much like the priest in confession, ecumenical healing requires that we examine ourselves and our respective communities carefully. This is done not simply to root out sin but also to uncover God's hidden mercy in the midst of human failings and shortcomings. As presented in BPA, ecumenical work participates in the larger therapeutic work of Christ and His Church.

But this raises for us a question: If ecumenical dialog and encounters are therapeutic, at least in part, how then are we to proceed in our witness to Christians in other confessions?

To be continued. . .

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