A new round of ecumenism in Alexandria

19 June 2023 11:58
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Where does the theological dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians lead? Photo: UOJ Where does the theological dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians lead? Photo: UOJ

In Egypt, Catholics and some Orthodox discussed and signed another ecumenical document. What is its essence, the significance of the event and what to expect next?

From June 1 to June 7, 2023, the Fifteenth Plenary Session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches took place in Alexandria, Egypt. It was held under the patronage and presence of Theodoros II, whose title reads as "His Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa". The emphasis on the title is not accidental, as the See of Alexandria in the first millennium actively asserted its claims to primacy in the Church and competed in this matter (if not fought) with the See of Constantinople and, to some extent, even with the See of Rome. Hence, the word "pope" in the title of the Bishop of Alexandria.

The current event was related to the theme of primacy. The signed document is titled "Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today". The media especially note that this is the first document signed between Catholics and part of Orthodox Christians in the last seven years. In 2016, the Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches adopted a document that also addressed the topic of primacy. It was entitled "Synodality and Primacy in the First Millennium". Thus, theologians examined views on synodality and primacy throughout the two thousand years of Christianity.

The Vatican was represented by 18 participants led by Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. On the Orthodox side, the meeting was attended by 24 theologians from 10 Autocephalous Churches: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, the Polish Orthodox Church, the Albanian Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and the Antiochian Orthodox Church were absent. It can be assumed that Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria would not mind inviting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), but then he would have to settle for receiving only representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, and the Church of Cyprus, as only these Churches recognized the OCU.

Among the protocol events of the meeting were two liturgies followed by receptions, one of which was celebrated by Catholics in the presence of Orthodox participants, while the other was celebrated by Orthodox participants in the presence of Catholics, thereby violating a number of canonical rules:

  • Canon 10 of the Holy Apostles: "If anyone shall pray, even in a private house, with an excommunicated person, let him also be excommunicated."
  • Сanon 45 of the Holy Apostles: "Let a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, who has only prayed with heretics, be excommunicated: but if he has permitted them to perform any clerical office, let him be deposed."
  • Canon 65 of the Holy Apostles: "If any clergyman or layman shall enter into a synagogue of Jews or heretics to pray, let the former be deposed and let the latter be excommunicated."
  • Canon 33 of the Council of Laodicea: "No one shall join in prayers with heretics or schismatics."

However, these rules have long been disregarded in the context of the ecumenical dialogue taking place today.

On the final day of the event, bidding farewell to its participants, Patriarch Theodoros delivered a brief and enthusiastic speech in which he stated, among other things: "In our days, there exist disagreements, minor differences, and senseless confrontations that torment our tumultuous world as well as the Church, which longs for peace, unity, and love. As history has shown, this event of peaceful, foundational, fruitful, and blessed dialogue between the two Churches serves as a vivid example of goodwill and cooperation. Thus, it instils hope for a better future of mutual understanding, humility, and solidarity."

This statement reflects the understanding of the Church that is common for supporters of ecumenism and directly contradicts the Orthodox teaching on the Church. Ecumenists, including some Orthodox believers, attempt to present the matter in such a way that the Church of Christ on earth is one and consists of all those who believe in Christ. All disagreements on doctrines or moral rules are considered insignificant. One can be united while believing and understanding differently what sin and virtue are, not to mention the different views on prayer and spiritual practices.

Such a topic as delusion is generally considered inappropriate to discuss, and it is set aside. According to ecumenists, all existing divisions among the Churches arose long ago due to political ambitions and no longer hold any significant meaning today. They believe that the vocation of today's Christians is universal unity, after which all existing disagreements will simply not be mentioned.

However, the Orthodox teaching on the Church assumes that the Church is united in faith, in moral teaching, and in the Holy Spirit, through the continuity of ordinations from the apostles to contemporary bishops and priests. The Church has always fought for the purity of faith, rejecting heretics who introduced alien teachings.

The current meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue, as well as the one that took place in 2016, was dedicated to the question of primacy. In the process of ecumenical rapprochement between the Vatican and the Phanar, this question is the main issue. Both sides declare this. And it is precisely this question that, at present, apparently remains unresolved, which is an obstacle (albeit surmountable) to the union between the Vatican and the Phanar.

To put it simply, they cannot agree on who will be the head in the future unity and what the concept of primacy itself will mean. This shows how far these people have strayed from the Gospel understanding, for the Lord said very clearly, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35).

Let us reflect on what the proponents of ecumenism focus on. Not on how to attain the Grace of the Holy Spirit, not on how to combat sinful passions, not on how to fulfil God's commandments in the modern world. No, all attention is given to who will have primacy over whom. As already mentioned, apparently Catholics and some Orthodox willing to unite with them have not yet reached a consensus on this matter. However, in order to approach it, they are trying to arrive at a common understanding of what is meant by the terms "primacy" and "synodality".

Another significant point is that both Orthodox and Catholic participants in the dialogue seriously believe that these two concepts constitute the foundation of the Church itself. The final document of the Meeting of the Commission for Theological Dialogue states that "the interdependence of synodality and primacy is a foundational principle in the life of the Church" and that this principle "must be applied to meet the needs and demands of the Church in our time".

This also demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the Church is and what sustains it. The foundation of the Church is not synodality, which is often understood by many as a form of democracy, nor is it primacy, which is understood as autocracy. The foundation of the Church is life in the Holy Spirit. After all, the decision of the very first Apostolic Council began with the words: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). Life in the Holy Spirit is not some abstraction or mere beautiful words. It is a reality in which the Church lives, a reality that manifests itself in the life of the entire Church, as well as in the life of each church community and every Christian. This is strongly felt in modern Ukraine. Only the real living Grace of the Holy Spirit allows our communities to endure, not to break, and not to be tempted by all the attacks, threats, and slander that abound against our Church.

But let's return to the meeting of the Commission for Theological Dialogue. The final document refers to the 2016 document and the misunderstanding caused by the phrase that "appeals on disciplinary matters have also been submitted to the Throne of Constantinople and to other thrones".

It refers to the possibility for the clergy who are dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial before their diocesan bishop (or a bishop dissatisfied with a trial before a metropolitan) to appeal to the court of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The current document clarifies that this phrase should be understood in the context of the 9th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451 AD): "And if a bishop or clergyman should have a difference with the metropolitan of the province, let him have recourse to the Exarch of the Diocese, or to the throne of the Imperial City of Constantinople, and there let it be tried."

Representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople insist on their interpretation that clerics from all Local Churches can appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople. It is based on this understanding that the decision of the Phanar to enter into communion with the anathematized Filaret Denisenko and his followers is made.

The proponents of the Phanar claim that Filaret allegedly appealed to Constantinople in accordance with this canon, and his case was appropriately reviewed. However, this understanding is mistaken.

Firstly, the canon itself is aimed at clerics resolving legal disputes within ecclesiastical institutions, not secular ones. This is stated at the beginning of the canon: "If any clergyman has a matter against another clergyman, he shall not forsake his bishop and run to secular courts."

Secondly, the canon refers to the right to receive appeals only from the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the boundaries of which are outlined in the 28th Canon of the same Council of Chalcedon: “…. so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the Most Holy Church of Constantinople."

And thirdly, the condition for the application of Canons 9 and 28, as well as other canons, is the status of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, Constantinople is currently not only not "imperial" or "the city of the king and the synclite" but it is no longer even Constantinople but rather the Turkish provincial city of Istanbul.

What does the resumption of the work of the Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and its adoption of final documents after a 7-year hiatus mean?

In addition to the fact that the event itself took place, it should be noted that this meeting was held in Alexandria and was organized by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodoros. It has already been repeatedly expressed in the pages of the UOJ that the Local Churches, which, to please the Phanar, recognized the OCU, thereby recognising the primacy of Constantinople over them. By acknowledging this primacy, they will find it difficult (if at all possible) to refuse another project of the Phanar, namely, the union with Catholicism. The current event shows that things are moving in this direction. Patriarch Theodoros stated back in February 2023 that the Patriarch of Constantinople is the head of all Orthodox, and now he is implementing the ecumenical agenda of the head of the Phanar.

The participation in the work of the Commission for Theological Dialogue of representatives of those Local Churches which have refused to recognize the primacy of the Phanar over themselves and which have not shown a particular eagerness for unity with Catholics raises some confusion. This participation can be explained, firstly, by a certain inertia of consciousness since not long ago, various dialogues between Christian denominations were considered a valuable part of the general dialogue between countries in the context of political confrontation. And secondly, although the dialogue on church-historical topics promotes the theme of ecumenism, it cannot be regarded as a decision to unite, made at the level of the clergy.

Nevertheless, in the context of the already announced attempt by the Vatican and the Phanar to unite in commemoration of the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council, which will be celebrated in 2025, each Local Church will have to clearly and unambiguously determine its position: whether it remains faithful to Orthodoxy or joins yet another union with Catholicism.

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