What Is Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity?
Pan-Orthodox Christian conciliar unity is focused on bringing Orthodox Christians across various jurisdictions and cultures onto a common, universal platform. It is a cross-cultural interaction and approach between various Orthodox jurisdictions and a call for an extensive dialogue and action between Eastern, Oriental, Western, non-canonical, Old Believers, Traditional, Old Calendar and new generation Orthodox Churches. It aims at full sacramental communion between the various Orthodox Christian families. The focus here is on conciliarity because the nature and structure of administration and decision making in Orthodox Churches are always based on councils, unlike the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Councils are given importance, as they are considered to be measuring scales. If a dispute arises in the Church, then a council is organized to make an appropriate decision. Orthodox Christianity highlights the importance of the fusion of episcopacy and democracy.
There is always a scope for collective decision-making. The primate of each local Orthodox Church (Patriarch, Catholicos, Archbishop or Metropolitan) is considered first among equals in the Synod of Bishops, who is chosen to lead the Church but does not have authoritarian rights to decide, by himself. The schism between the Orthodox families, particularly between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, was a result of politics, misunderstanding and misinterpretations of theological and Christological doctrines.
The Council of Chalcedon
The Council of Chalcedon is considered one of the most important ecumenical councils in the history of Christianity. Sadly, it split the Christian East into two families of Churches—Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox. Later in 1054, the Great Schism split the Roman Catholic Church (the ancient Orthodox Patriarchate of Rome) from the Eastern Orthodox communion of Churches.
“We must confirm that the purpose of the Council of Chalcedon was to maintain the Church’s faithfulness and unity, not its rupture. Today our duty is to explain the problems of the past and reconsider that this Council could be one of unity, not of separation”, explains Bishop Demetrios Charbak of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch & All the East.
The first major schism in the East was between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. We should not forget the fact that the Roman Catholic Church (at that time the Orthodox Church of Rome) was part of the Orthodox communion. There have been several attempts in the past to reconcile. At present, the pace of reconciliation is slow in several aspects. A number of agreements along with official and unofficial dialogues between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox families have been accomplished which have to be upgraded to the next level. The volume and intensity of the dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox for Christian unity and ecumenism practiced within the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian bodies are very high in comparison to the amount of dialogue and action between the various families of Orthodox Churches. I personally believe that there should be an immense shift. There should be more focus on inter-Orthodox action. The agreements concerning sacramental unity between both families of Churches have remained on paper rather than in practical action. They are not yet properly circulated or practiced among the faithful and clergy. Moreover, these agreements are yet to be officially recognized by the synods of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Only then will it have practical effects.
The agreements that have been reached are not just to be shelved or for theological and academic purposes or just for the sake of publishing. Rather, they should be used to achieve full sacramental unity between both families of Orthodox Churches. It should also invite other Orthodox jurisdictions like the Old Believers, Traditional, non-canonical, Old Calendar, unrecognized, and new generation Churches for dialogue. We need to overcome a lot to boost inter-Orthodox cooperation. We need to fight our ignorance, skepticism and bad attitudes towards each other. We need to forgive our past mistakes and all those elements that hinder the smooth process of Pan-Orthodoxy. There is a long way to go.
Why Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity?
Conciliar unity between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox is to bring together those brothers and sisters separated for 1500 years due to misunderstandings about theological interpretation, misguided terminologies, language and politics. It is to bring all families of Orthodoxy into dialogue with love and mutual respect to achieve full sacramental unity, or at least to build a world platform and conciliar organizational structure, which will enable them to share their diversity, to build a common voice and to work for a better tomorrow. To bring them together to experience the power, glory and blessings of a united Orthodox Christian witness. In the words of Fr Heikki Huttunen (former president of SYNDESOMS and Finnish Orthodox delegate to the Official Theological Dialogue): “The rediscovery of the unity in faith among the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox is a unique event in Christian History. To recognize the Orthodox faith in brothers and sisters separated for 1500 years, and to discover together the divine-human mystery of Christ is a great gift from God. The gift is also a calling, a challenge for us. We are to act it out, to incarnate it in our lives. It takes humility to admit that we are only beginners on the Orthodox way, and it takes a grain of free will to open ourselves to the ever-surprising new possibilities of growth and spiritual renewal offered to us by God who is with us.” Pan-Orthodox Christian conciliar unity is a wholesome and inclusive approach.
Pan-Orthodox Christian conciliar unity is not something that should be restricted between various local Orthodox Churches of the Eastern Orthodox communion or the Oriental Orthodox communion. The essence of Pan-Orthodoxy should be widely circulated among all Orthodox jurisdictions. Pan-Orthodoxy is complete when it has representations from all Orthodox jurisdictions.
Ecumenism and Pan-Orthodox Christian Unity
Orthodox Christians understand ecumenism. They are familiar with the concept, but sadly, many of them don’t understand the concept of Pan-Orthodox unity. Many are confused with the whole idea of Orthodox Christian conciliar unity. There are clear differences between ecumenism and Pan-Orthodox unity. The common idea is that any inter-Church relations fall under the umbrella of ecumenism. When it comes to Orthodox Churches, I would like to relate the concept of ecumenism to the relations between the Orthodox Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, et al.) and non-Orthodox Churches. Any relations between the Orthodox Churches should fall under the umbrella of Pan-Orthodox relations or inter-Orthodox relations. The ecumenical movement is well known and vibrant, whereas Pan-Orthodox unity is a unique area with less vibrancy. The Pan-Orthodox movement is a premature and developing sector. The ecumenical movement is widely recognized and welcomed by Churches in general. Pan-Orthodox unity has huge challenges within Orthodox circles and may not be welcomed by all parties.
The call for global Orthodox unity and the call for global Christian unity are at different levels. In Pan-Orthodox unity, we are talking about Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox unity, and that is the priority. At the same time, we seek dialogue with Old Believers, Old Calendar, non-canonical Orthodox to see the possibility of achieving reconciliation with them. The genuine effort for inter-Orthodox unity will help canonical jurisdictions to accept and provide themselves with a strong structural platform for interaction and unity with Old Believers, Old Calendar, non-canonical, Traditional, schismatic and new generation Orthodox Churches.
Pan-Orthodox unity focuses on interactions between the various families of Orthodox Christianity, understanding and sharing of theology, spirituality, culture and traditions, reconnecting with our common Orthodox heritage, as well as building a common voice and making the world feel the presence of united Orthodox Christianity. In Pan-Orthodox unity, we reconnect with our own family members, with whom we are not in communion due to various unfortunate events in history. Pan-Orthodox unity is focused on creating and maintaining a conciliar world platform for Orthodox Christian Churches. Pan-Orthodox unity helps Orthodox Christians to overcome their own ignorance and enhances cooperation between various jurisdictions for the betterment of the whole world. Pan-Orthodox unity resolves existing conflicts and prevents schism.
Pan-Orthodox unity or inter-Orthodox unity is an internal affair of Orthodox Christianity. It helps Orthodox Christians to formulate a unified position on several social issues and build a common approach to non-Orthodox Christians and other religious groups. Pan-Orthodox unity aids Orthodox Christians to rejoice in the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, to witness conciliar unity of his body and to propagate unity among all Christian denominations. The goodness of Pan-Orthodox unity should reach all categories of people, irrespective of ethnic differences, gender, caste, religion and creed. Non-Orthodox Churches have a minimal role in inter-Orthodox unity. Ecumenism focuses on unity between all Christian Churches, building closer relationships and understanding between different Church traditions.
In ecumenism, we are trying to help non-Orthodox Churches to reconnect with their lost ‘Orthodox past’ and to find common grounds of social and theological cooperation. Pan-Orthodox unity will enhance speedy reconciliation between various Christian denominations and strengthen ecumenical unity. The love and urge for unity should be expressed between the various families of Orthodoxy, before expressing it with others. The strong fellowship of a united Orthodox Christianity should be the priority.
“We must give our best efforts together in building up and strengthening this relationship, and we know from our experience that dialogue has proved to be the only way to resolve family (Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) disagreements and misunderstandings and to bring about a new unity of purpose”, exhorts His Beatitude Theophilos III, Patriarch of Jerusalem (Letter to the Armenian Orthodox Brotherhood of Jerusalem).
A Brief History of the Eastern-Oriental Orthodox Dialogue
The first unofficial meeting between clergy and theologians of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Aarhus, Denmark in 1964. There were four other unofficial meetings: Aarhus – 1964
Bristol – 1967
Geneva – 1970
Addis Ababa – 1971
These were followed by a series of official meetings between the Churches:
Geneva – 1985
Egypt – 1989
Geneva – 1990
Geneva – 1993
Since the completion of the official dialogue, the work has been continued by a Working Group Consultation, which has met twice: Athens – 2014
Cilicia – 2018
A number of agreed statements were issued by the Joint Commission, including agreements related to pastoral matters. The main agreement is that “We have inherited from our fathers in Christ the one apostolic faith and tradition.”
‘Gratefully acknowledging the guidance of the Holy Spirit so far in the work of the Joint Commission, the working group called for the continuation of the dialogue in all earnestness and for a formal meeting of the full Commission at an appropriate time at the earliest. While acknowledging the good work of the Sub-Committees on theological, canonical, liturgical and pastoral issues, the working group recognized that some Churches raised some serious issues that require further clarification such as the lifting of anathemas, common enumeration of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, mutual recognition of Saints and some questions on Christology. Some solutions to these issues have also been proposed in the Sub-Committees, but they need to be communicated effectively to the clergy, monks, schools of theology and people on both sides to arrive at a consensus.
‘It was noted that three local Churches from the Orthodox family (Alexandria, Antioch and Romania) and three Churches from the Oriental Orthodox family (Alexandria, Antioch and Malankara-India), had already declared their acceptance of the agreed statements and proposals from the Joint Commission.
‘The working group that met in the 50th year [sic] of the first unofficial dialogue meeting between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox took place in Aarhus, Denmark, 1964. Hence, in the spirit of jubilee, the group called for liberation from the misapprehensions and separations of the past, while praying for the joyful common celebration of our life together in Jesus Christ our Saviour in mutual forgiveness, reconciliation and communion in love and truth for the glory of the Triune God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ (Working Group of the Joint Commission for the Dialogue Between Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches, 2014).
“The theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches shows us that we share the same Apostolic Faith and that perfect ecclesiastical communion between our two families of Churches should be restored as soon as possible and the anathemas on both sides lifted.” (Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland, Towards Unity, p. 10).