Prepared by George Alexander -08/10/18
(For the Department of Church Research and Studies) – Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE
The ‘night’ before the ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican is an important time for Oriental Orthodox (OO) Churches, especially in the current context of ecumenism and Church unity. This is the time when OO theologians, scholars and representations come to discuss and decide on the major topics of discussions with Vatican theologians the very next day. This has been a regular practice since the establishment of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2004. It is fine. I am not against ecumenism. I appreciate a lot of good things about ecumenical movements and they have played a vital and successful role in Church unity and inter-Christian cooperation. But I am unable to accept the current trend in which OO hierarchs shake hands at ecumenical events alone, especially events organized by the Vatican. At the same time, I am also happy that there has been a lot of ice melting between OO Churches and the Vatican. Let ecumenism bear fruits of Christian cooperation and unity. I have discussed my concerns in several of my previous articles. My main concern is the widening gap between the Oriental Orthodox Churches or the Orthodox Churches in general.
We live in a world where Church leaders and the majority of the faithful talk about ecumenism and Christian unity, sharing high hopes on Orthodox – Roman Catholic unity. It is not my intention to prove that Oriental Orthodox Churches are less united; rather I would like to say that we almost forgot our priority of Pan-Oriental Orthodox unity. OO Primates take part in a lot of ecumenical and interfaith events which are part of the official policy of their respective Churches which needs to be supported for the common good of all sections of the society. OO Primates took part in ecumenical prayer meetings with Pope Francis of Rome; they took part in the celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in Europe. Nevertheless, we do not see the same enthusiasm when it comes to inter-Oriental Orthodox unity. In 2015 Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Indian Primates met in Yerevan as part of the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. Regional OO councils are active (to some extent) as well. Oriental Orthodox Church Council in the Middle East, SCOOCH etc., holds regular meetings and interactions. Council of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the UK & Ireland – one of the regional councils in Europe seems to be less active as well. However, these councils do not represent the whole of OO Churches. Regional councils are very important for the total strengthening of OO Unity. It has fostered cooperation through liturgical con-celebrations; get together, conferences and other events. But, regional councils alone are not enough. Hence, a strong and unified Pan-Oriental Council in concilliar nature is the need of the time.
“The real failure of the Orthodox Church does not appear to lie, at least to the present writer, in her missionary laziness, but rather in her unsanctified, power-hungry, quarrelsome, self-pre-occupied and selfish life in the world. It is not a missionary organization that she stands most in need of, but rather evangelical simplicity and Eucharistic sanctity in ordinary life, manifesting the love, freedom, and wisdom of God to mankind.” ― Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorious (Gregory of the East).
Let me invite your attention to the Addis Ababa Conference of 1965. It was the last time all OO primates came together to discuss the need and priority for unity. Many decisions were taken. Unfortunately, none of these decisions were implemented despite of some follow-up meetings (by the Standing Committee of the Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Churches- COOC). I strongly believe that if the Addis Ababa decisions were properly implemented, the destiny of OO communion would have been totally different in several ways. One of the major stumbling blocks that prevented the actual OO unity can be referred to the on-going administrative schism in India between the Malankara Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian schism has come to an end and the Eritrean schism may end soon with the help of the Ethiopian Church and the Ethiopian-Eritrean government support. Let us hope that the schism in Malankara will end soon as well.
Some OO clergy and laity hold the view that they need to blindly support and follow the official ecumenical policies of their Church. That is right and correct. It doesn’t mean that they need to ignore the need and importance of Pan-Oriental Orthodox Unity. The sad part is that this group of people tends to condemn others who hold different views on ecumenism and Pan-Orthodox unity. Orthodoxy gives a lot of importance to the fusion of episcopacy and democracy. Hence the Church leadership has a responsibility to listen to all sections of the faithful, not only to one’s who support official policies.
I would like to mention a bit on the Vatican ecumenical diplomacy. In 2016, at the height of Christian persecution in Iraq and Syria, Patriarch Raphael Louis I Sako of the Chaldean Uniate Eastern Catholic Rite made a diplomatic proposal to the Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East to create a union of a canonically independent Assyrian Church but united with Rome. The sad situation in Iraq was pointed out as one reason for union with Rome. If that is the case, then there are other Christian denominations, which are still in Iraq and should be invited to seek union with Rome. Assyrian Churches rejected the diplomatic proposal by the Uniate Chaldean Patriarch. Such invitations may also reach the doorsteps of OO Churches.
Apart from the International Commission for dialogue, OO Churches in the USA engage with the Vatican through United States Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Church dialogue. Moreover, in India, the Roman Church holds separate annual dialogues with the Malankara Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church.
The recent ecumenical prayer meetings in Bari (Italy) hosted by Pope Francis was a great event indeed. Oriental Orthodox Patriarchs (Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian-Cilicia) discussed the on-going conflicts in the Middle East with the Roman Pontiff. I wonder if such discussions ever happen between the Primates of all Oriental Orthodox Churches around a common Pan-Oriental table. OO Churches have reached historic agreements with the Anglican Communion, local and international agreements with the Vatican, whereas the entire decisions taken during the Addis Ababa Conference are shelved.
In a way, Eastern Orthodox Churches are in a better position when it comes to inter-Orthodox unity. They have been successful in organizing a Pan-Orthodox Council, despite the hesitancy from some Byzantine Churches who did not take part in the event in Crete. They have successfully constituted a permanent the Pan-Orthodox Secretariat under the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
A year back, my beloved friend Varghese John Thottapuzha (delegate of Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE) was invited to speak at a diocesan workshop of Malankara Orthodox Christian Sunday School teachers (in Kerala). He spoke on Orthodox Christian Churches and the need for Pan-Oriental Orthodox unity. While interacting with the teachers, he asked them to provide names of all Oriental Orthodox Churches (it was an open question). To his surprise, the group of teachers found it hard to name local Churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion. Out of six Churches, they could only name three or four. This may not be the case elsewhere. I doubt how far our faithful get informed on the structure and details of the OO communion. Mostly, the reach of information on OO structure and details and updates on sister OO Churches are limited to few leaders or learned circles (who take special interest to learn such things). However, the aggressive impact of social media has contributed to a lot of information sharing and interconnections among OO faithful.
Our faithful are trained to envisage ecumenical unity above inter-Orthodox conciliar unity. Ecumenical events get high media coverage in comparison to inter-orthodox events. This contributes to the idea that ecumenism is the most important priority for OO Churches.
There are a lot of unsettled matters among OO Churches. Hence the priority should be given to settle or at least take efforts to settle inter matter. This is not possible in a day or two. Continues and constructive efforts are required.
It was reported that the Holy Synod of Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is planning to organize a grand gathering of Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Primates sooner or later. This is a very promising move. We need to wait and see further developments in this regard.
Many people criticize me for writing and sharing my opinion on Pan-Oriental Orthodox unity or Pan-Orthodox unity, stating that these are just my opinions. Unity of Orthodoxy is not just my opinion. Many people share my same opinion. I am not willing to back out or change my opinion on the need of Pan-Oriental Orthodox Unity; rather I will do my best to propagate its importance and benefits. Recent developments in the Ethiopian Church are a classic example of unity. Hence, I do not regret my stand. I do not find anything in wrong in propagating concilliar unity. If the Church leaderships are busy with ecumenical matters, it is our duty to remind them for the need of Pan-Oriental Orthodox unity.
Unfortunately, the ‘night’ before the dialogue with the Vatican is the most important arena of the Oriental Orthodox get-together.
A look at Pan-Oriental Orthodox Cooperation and OO Ecumenical Cooperation
Pan-Oriental Orthodox Cooperation
Addis Ababa Conference with full OO Participation – 1965
Four meetings of the standing committee of the Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (COOC)- Fourth meeting held in 1968
OO Primates get together in Yerevan – 2015
Regional Councils like SCOOCH and Oriental Orthodox Church Council in the Middle East hold regular meetings
OO- Vatican Dialogue
2004 to present day without fail
Oriental Orthodox –Eastern Orthodox Dialogue
Geneva – 1985
Egypt – 1989
Geneva – 1990
Geneva – 1993
Working Group Consultation
Athens – 2014
Cilicia – 2018
WCC Participation of OO Churches
1948 to present day
OO- Anglican Dialogue
From 2001 to 2003
From 2013 to 2017
From 2010 until present day
OO- Global Christian Forum
From 2007 until the present day
OO-MECC (Middle East Council of Churches)
From 1974 until the present day
Pics and References
Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, OCP Media Network, Pramvir, Armenian Orthodox Church in Lebanon, Anglican Communion, WCC, Global Christian Forum, The Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative, Oriental Orthodox Church Portal.
OCP News Service