IS ECUMENISM ORTHODOX? by Razvan Porumb

porumbIn Orthodoxy and Ecumenism: Towards an Active Metanoia (Peter Lang, 2019), my exploration focuses on the rapport between Orthodox tradition and identity and the ecumenical practice of engagement with other Christian traditions. This relationship has for a long time been compromised by an underlying tension, as the Orthodox have chosen to participate in ecumenical encounters while—often at the same time—denouncing the ecumenical movement as deficient and illegitimate. This relationship has proven to be all the more inconsistent since the core of Orthodoxy as professed by the Orthodox is precisely that of re-establishing the unity and catholicity of the Church of Christ.

Indeed, the Orthodox Church sees its role in the Christian world as special and prophetic, since it alone has remained the faithful carrier and witness of the plenary truth of faith, and so has the task of calling back all stranded Christian groups to the one original Church. Orthodoxy has not safeguarded the truth of Christ’s Church from the other Christians who are seen as having departed from it and chosen less perfect ways, but, in a sense, for them.

The Orthodox are then often caught in the dialectic of guarding the truth of faith as it has been inherited from the early Church and fiercely rejecting any other perception or perceived innovation—while at the same time feeling it belongs naturally at the core of any ecumenical process, as intrinsically urged by their own identity. This “existential” tension between Orthodox tradition/identity and ecumenical hands-on engagement impairs not only the quality of ecumenical interactions but also Orthodox Christians’ self-understanding of their own identity, of their inner vector and vocation. The Orthodox understand that they have been keeping alive a spirit of energy and action—a vision of Tradition as a dynamic process of continuity and renewal in the Holy Spirit. This understanding of Tradition prevents an understanding of Orthodoxy as an institution confined to the past.

A novel approach is necessary regarding the way the Orthodox understand their Orthodoxy in relation to the rest of the world. My book proposes that, if the Orthodox often find themselves today in a position of “reserved conservatism,” they ought to shift their perspective to one of “active metanoia.” The position of “reserved conservatism” implies a denial that there was ever a separation between large communities of Christians, instead insisting that the Orthodox Church was abandoned by groups of “schismatics” or “heretics.” This view also implies that everything, including the original unity, has been preserved in the Orthodox Church, since unity in Christ can never in fact be altered. But by so doing, such an approach places upon the non-Orthodox the full need and responsibility of actively seeking to regain the Orthodoxy of the early Church.

A new working paradigm for Orthodoxy of “active metanoia” as proposed by my book implies a shift of stance allowing for a more transforming and repentant approach to Church unity. Whilst still maintaining the premise that the unity of the Church means a return to the spirit of the primordial catholic/universal Church—a return to Orthodoxy as purified Christian life within the sacramental universe of the Church—the new vision would propose a new set of principles or paradigms, as outlined below.

I have thus focused on an image of “journey” that could describe and define both the realities of Orthodoxy and ecumenism. A traditional metaphor for the early Church, which was referred to as “The Way,” the concept of a journey faithfully renders the continuous and eminently dynamic nature of faith, its character as progress, and the necessarily action-based quality of Christian life. Very importantly, the call to Orthodoxy is addressed primarily to the Orthodox. It is not an admonition addressed only to the non-Orthodox, for that might give the Orthodox a false presumption that their own call to Orthodoxy had somehow been fulfilled and no further action from them was required. Ecumenism too should be seen as an ongoing journey, a constant aspect of theology, since its goal has been and will always be to “maintain unity and to counter division” (Gillian R. Evans, Method in Ecumenical Theology: The Lessons So Far, Cambridge: CUP, 1996, p. 19).

My proposal is that the reality of Orthodoxy should be seen in association with the concept of theosis/deification. If the calling of the Orthodox can be seen as a “continuous conversion of the Orthodox to a permanently purified Orthodoxy” (“The Orthodox Churches and the World Council of Churches,” in Limouris, Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism, p. 194), then this same quest is that envisaged by theosis, which directs all the faithful towards an increasingly intimate life with God in the Holy Trinity. Like deification, Orthodoxy is a continuous aspiration towards a perfect Christian life, and not something that can be fully inherited, “reached” or “possessed”—an appropriated state or reality. It is, in a sense, more appropriate to say “I am becoming Orthodox” than “I am Orthodox.” Moreover (and most importantly), according to Orthodox theology the search for deification cannot be self-oriented, as the salvation of others is as important as one’s own salvation. The Church as the community of the faithful has been described as a “communion of deification” (Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man. St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984, p. 57). This communion of deification refers first to the proximate community of one’s local Church, or, as is the case of the Orthodox Church, to the eucharistic network of local Churches, but extends also to the wider world. Such a vision is grounded in Trinitarian theology, seeing mankind as “one being but multi-hypostatic, just as God is One Being in Three Persons” (Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, London and Oxford: Mowbrays, 1977, p. 88).

While the duty “to achieve the visible unity of Christians is the same for all,” this is because “love is a matter of identity for Christians” (Daniel Ciobotea [Metropolitan], Confessing the Truth in Love. Orthodox Perceptions of Life, Mission and Unity (Iaşi: Trinitas, 2001, pp. 59–60). In the words of Ioan Sauca, “He who will stop praying for the ‘unity of all’ is denying his own Orthodox identity” (“The Church Beyond Our Boundaries. The Ecumenical Vocation of Orthodoxy,” in The Ecumenical Review 56:2, 2004, p. 224). Of particular relevance to the ecumenical context is the intrinsic drive with which the Church seeks to be universal, as well as the cosmic all-embracing character of its catholicity. The catholicity of the Church is understood as what the Orthodox/Christians are, as their very identity, which brings the aspiration towards unity and any ecumenical endeavour closer to the “intimate” life of the Church. Ecumenism, as an aspiration towards catholicity, becomes a day-to-day concern and a matter of essential importance for the life of all the faithful.

Stăniloae employs the concept of “human consubstantiality,” whereby he attempts to project the Trinitarian concept of “perichoresis” (mutual indwelling, or “interpenetration”) into a human context. He speaks of each person rejoicing in the gifts and successes of the others, a mutual human “complementarity,” a beneficial sharing of gifts within the community, a joyful exchange of each other’s competencies. “Human consubstantiality” is not merely a model or a parallel mode of existence to the Trinitarian one, but is in fact intimately connected to the life of the Holy Trinity. In Ciobotea’s words:

Church in its quality of Icon of the Holy Trinity is not built-up as an icon, in parallel or independent of the Holy Trinity, but as participation in the Trinitarian life and as reflection in the world of this participation. (P. 71)

Thus, if Orthodoxy is a journey, it is made eternal by the continuous, ceaseless rotation of Trinitarian self-giving. It cannot be a journey in isolation, but only in and aspiring towards catholicity in communion. It is a journey made by participating in God’s life, by entering the life of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, it is a journey deeply connected to the ecclesial life of the Church, deeply rooted in its sacraments. It is a journey that does not stop at any level, but surpasses any limit, border, or barrier, be it temporal, geographical, social, or psychological. This is understood to be the fundamental, essential drive of all Christian life.

The Orthodox should then participate in ecumenical encounters because they see their aspiration towards a constantly out-reaching communion with their fellow consubstantial humans as their very life and identity as Christians and as human beings, according to the model of the Triune God. Attempts towards communion can be sustained if they rest on that “sacramental” (not “sentimental”) love which is fuelled by a full and continuous immersion in the liturgical life of the Church.

The fact that the Orthodox see their Church as the only true Church should not deter them from joining ecumenical encounters, but, on the contrary, should motivate them even more, since alongside this great privilege of membership runs also the heavy and unique responsibility of gathering together the whole world into the one Body of Christ.

Orthodoxy and Ecumenism: Towards an Active Metanoia can be purchased directly from the publisher or from Amazon. Copies at a discount can still be purchased directly from the author by contacting him at grp29@cam.ac.uk.
See reviews by Archbishop Rowan Williams and Father John Jillions.
See the Book Summaries section in our Archives.

Razvan Porumb holds a PhD in Theology from the Cambridge Theological Federation and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS), where he is currently Lecturer in Ecumenism and Practical Theology and Vice-Principal. He has been a researcher and a member of staff there for more than twelve years.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
Join the conversation on Facebook and/or Twitter, or in an article of your own or a letter to the editors.
Click here to learn how to become a Patron of Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

One thought on “IS ECUMENISM ORTHODOX? by Razvan Porumb

  1. Pingback: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: OCTOBER | ORTHODOXY IN DIALOGUE

Comments are closed.