A less than optimistic view on Christian Unity

KNEWS – June 2016

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Book: The Orthodox Dilemma: Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity

Author: George Alexander

Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby

Early this year, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met in Cuba, delivering a historic joint declaration that partly outlined the following:

– Notwithstanding [our] shared Tradition of the first ten centuries, for nearly one thousand years, Catholics and Orthodox have been deprived of communion in the Eucharist. We have been divided by wounds caused by old and recent conflicts, by differences inherited from our ancestors, in the understanding and expression of our faith in God, one in three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin, which has occurred despite the priestly prayer of Christ the Saviour.

– Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re–establishment of this unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed. May our meeting inspire Christians throughout the world to pray to the Lord with renewed fervour for the full unity of all His disciples.”

Undoubtedly, the Great Schism in 1054 remains a thorny issue. And despite the climate of interfaith dialogue between the leaders of the Roman and Orthodox Church there is still a sense of an irreparablecenturies-old damage caused by competing theological and political positions. While the meeting heightened expectations that “the one holy catholic and apostolic church” will one day signify a single body, many are doubtful. But beyond the Roman and Orthodox divide, there is an unnerving discordwithin the Orthodox Church itself.

Not surprisingly, there is a mood of pessimism that seeps through the pages of George Alexander’s “The Orthodox Dilemma.” His thesis is as lucid as it gets: The Orthodox Churches are the true heirs to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, but a centuries-old schism between Eastern and Westernorthodoxy threatens its identity and survivability more than ever before.

According to Alexander, there is disinterest and lassitude in resolving theological misunderstandings concerning Christology, in particular, the nature of Jesus. Political and ethnic differences have also fanned the flame of distrust.

Although some steps have been taken toward compromise and accommodation, the author presents a fractured Orthodox Church rife with internal strife. He cites tensions between the Antiochian and Jerusalem patriarchates over canonical rights regarding Jerusalem; conflicts between the Serbian and Macedonian churches; the separation of Old Calendar Greek churches from the Greek Orthodox Church; and Old Believers parting ways with the Russian Orthodox Church.

He decries the use of term, ‘heretical’ against Eastern Orthodoxy, reminding accusers that Oriental believers are not monophysites as commonly held. Relatedly, he invokes the stature and wisdom of St Cyril, the ostensible father of both families of Orthodoxy, who comprehensively explained the mystery of Christ.

Both bodies, Alexander opines, define the same truth through their own political and cultural prisms. Compellingly, he chronicles his ostracism by Eastern Orthodox prelates during a visit to the Middle East,and recounts similar anecdotes to cement his exigent call for dialogue. “For me,” he writes, “the acceptance of the seven Ecumenical Councils [by Oriental Orthodoxy] and the subsequent removal of anathemas should be modeled upon step by step constructive dialogue…” Alexander laments the failure of the 1964 Addis Ababa conference to address disunity, although he is marginally encouraged at efforts toward rapprochement between 1964 and 1984.

Further, he cautions against meddling in orthodox affairs by the Roman See, arguing that its overtures to some oriental churches work against orthodox homogeneity. While Alexander does not denounce ecumenism, he views the Vatican as surreptitiously and subtly attempting to bring orthodoxy under its control. He emphatically states that “the pope cannot be a coordinator for orthodox unity,” and warns against falling “prey to the pomp and glory of the Vatican,” and the divide and conquer tactics it employs.

Instead, he advocates prioritizing inter-orthodox dialogue at local, regional, national, and international levels; the establishment of theological and secular institutes; and the use of mass media to promote pan-Orthodox issues. ýHe also asks that the faithful be vigilant against the evangelizing efforts of Christian churches. It is a point that he advances throughout his work.

Alexander’s passion is heartfelt, almost palpable. The historical mission of the body of Christ – the Church is marred by disunity

But he has an able response. His “bloodless revolution” calls for full sacramental communion. It is a broad based. Beyond canonical churches, he welcomes an all inclusive platform that invites old believers, old calendar, non-canonical, new generation, recognized, and traditional orthodox churches to heal the wounds within the orthodox body. Robust pan-Orthodox institutions do not require full communion among churches, he argues.

The Orthodox Dilemma offers a detailed panorama of the Church History and is a boon for researchers and proponents of interfaith dialogue. It is revelatory and timely, especially in a period riddled withinternecine violence and religious tribalism. Ironically, in his uncompromising, strident promulgation of Orthodox supremacy, Alexander may be an inadvertent contributor to the global divide he is determined to fight.

The Orthodox Dilemma: Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity by George Alexander 2015

By George Alexander
OCP Publications, $9.60, 202 pages, Format: eBook
ISBN: 9781329629783
Available at Amazon
Ratings: Recommended