The Sacrifice of Ecumenism

Window of Saint Tikhon in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Window of Saint Tikhon in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Whether I agree or disagree with him, Fr. Stephen Freeman’s writing is always brilliant. His recent posts under the label “Un-Ecumenism” are no exception (found here, here, and here). Freeman argues that one of the effects of modernity is a watering down of classical Christian ecclesiology. He makes a number of valid points about the rise of the nation state as a replacement for the Church and the absurdity of the notion of an invisible Church in which people who are bound through no tangible, sacramental union are still supposed to pretend that an abstract union based on good sentiment exists. Nonetheless, Freeman’s analysis begins to fall flat when he adds ecumenism into the mix.

The main thrust of Freeman’s critique seems to be that ecumenism by its very nature assumes an equivocation about where the boundaries of the Church are to be found. The closest he comes to a direct description of this problem is when he describes what he believes to be Roman Catholicism’s moment of surrender to modernity:

The pressure of ecumenism (which is not about unity but about diminishing the ecclesiology of the faith) has been felt deeply within Roman Catholicism. The document Lumen Gentium in Vatican II, declares that the Mystical Body of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church, thus no longer saying that the two are one and the same. It seemed a gesture of generosity, but it was a capitulation to the centuries-old demands of modernity.

I will return to Lumen Gentium in a moment, but first it is necessary to ask whether Freeman’s basic description of ecumenism is correct. Is it true that ecumenism exists to promote a false unity at the expense of a genuine ecclesiology?

Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

“The success of modernity has been to reduce The Church into an idea, a concept,” says Freeman. He cites as examples everything from the general drift of denominationalism to the movement towards things like the misleadingly named “open Communion.” I would not deny for a second that such things are outgrowths of a long post-enlightenment drift towards more and more individualism mixed with less and less of a sense that tradition has a voice worth hearing. In many ways, what Freeman criticizes here is not much different from what I have criticized elsewhere as the distinctly American (and post-enlightenment) development of generic Protestantism, an idea that would have flummoxed even the Protestant Reformers.

Still, it seems a stretch to say that ecumenism is identical with all of this drift. Freeman writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, yet he does not acknowledge just how deeply indebted to the contributions of Orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the Roman Catholic Church has never been an official member of the World Council of Churches, for instance, most of the Orthodox Churches have been members right from the organization’s founding in 1948. The most immediate predecessor to the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, was at one time a delegate to the WCC and a member of the organization’s Central Committee. Likewise, many people attribute the 1920 Encyclical “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere” by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as being the starting point for the Ecumenical Movement’s development.

Anglicans and Orthodox

Window of Charles Chapman Grafton in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Window of Charles Chapman Grafton in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

We can see the contributions to ecumenism by the Orthodox far earlier by examining the relationship between Anglicans and Orthodox. While there had been exchanges with the Orthodox going back even to the Non-Jurors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic revival in nineteenth century Anglicanism became a major catalyst for the development of relationships between Anglicans and the Orthodox. The great ritualist John Mason Neale revered Orthodoxy. He wrote a history of the Orthodox Churches that remains influential even today and he traveled to Russia to establish some of the first ecumenical ties. In 1864, the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association was founded to encourage mutual dialog. Later, through the efforts and friendship of Episcopal Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton and Russian Orthodox Bishop (and later Patriarch and canonized saint) Tikhon, the groundwork was laid for a flourishing relationship.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, many Orthodox found themselves as refugees living in the west where they encountered other forms of Christianity for the first time. In 1927, a young Russian refugee in England named Nicolas Zernov helped to found a series of conferences in which Orthodox and Anglicans were able to learn more about one another. It was through these conferences that the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius was born. From the beginning, the goal of the Fellowship was not merely education but sobornost, a Russian word meaning a deep spiritual cooperation between peoples in which individualism is given up and a striving for common faith is carried out. The goal of the Fellowship, in other words, was communion, not through some facile ignoring of differences, but through the hard work of sacrifice and love out of which true unity is born. That this communion has yet to be fully realized does not invalidate the work that has been done towards its end.

Ecumenism as Death to Self

This is where the heart of ecumenism lies and where it differs dramatically from what Freeman describes. True ecumenism acknowledges the differences that divide us, but it also names that division for the sin that it is. True ecumenism does not begin with me saying to you, “What will you do to be worthy of me,” but rather begins with each of us saying, “Let us understand one another better, in order that we may learn to serve each other more fully.”

In his most recent post in the series, Freeman takes a fair number of pot shots at Anglicanism, complaining that Thomas Cranmer was more “political” than “spiritual” and that the Book of Common Prayer helped to enshrine a Protestant sense that the unity of the Church need not lie in concrete realities:

But with Cranmer, and the other reformers, something new was set forth. There simply was no longer an expectation of the One Church. There were no particular efforts to form a single Protestant or Reformed Church. Something fundamentally new came into the world.

In addition to being uncharitable, there are a blistering number of historical inaccuracies in just these few lines. First, the Church of England understood herself as the same church after the Reformation as before, the Catholic Church of the English nation, reformed but not destroyed and rebuilt. Second, Cranmer and others did seek out ties of unity within the One Church, an effort that did not meet with immediate success but which bore fruit in later centuries as I have shown above. Third, there were many efforts amongst Protestant churches to find unity with one another for the sake of the one Church, all of which have been well documented. That Freeman would not know these things, especially as a former Episcopalian himself, is baffling, but it only serves to underline the need for more ecumenism rather than its abolition. We cannot even begin to sacrifice for each other if we do not know each other, including knowing each other’s history, and in recent years there has been a tendency amongst Christians of many traditions for us to crawl back into our holes and defend our turf rather than to remain in difficult and sometimes painful relationships for the sake of the Gospel.

Us and Them

The difficulty for Orthodox Christians is in squaring the circle of how to make sense of Christian gifts of grace existing outside of the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church. Many centuries of persecution, division, and the lack of any means of communication made it possible for the Orthodox not to have to deal with the question of what to do with the rest of us, but now that the world has become smaller and more interconnected than ever, it is something that Orthodoxy must face, just as we all must.

Freeman regards Lumen Gentium as the Catholic Church giving up on the notion that she is the One Church, but in fact Lumen Gentium is a bold and brilliant attempt to deal with this reality of God’s abounding, lavish gifts of grace. In the document’s own words, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Church’s] visible structure” and “these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” The approach of Vatican II is to no longer ignore the graces that God is granting to other Christian communities, but instead to say that the signs of vibrant Christian faith and life seen outside of the Church have been given by God for the benefit of the Church herself, which is why the Church must always be striving to bring into communion those who have become separated. The compelling reason for engaging in ecumenism is not only for those who are not yet a part of the Church, but also for the enriching of the Church herself.

Of course, Anglicans will balk at pieces of that definition, but the point is that it is possible to engage deeply with what God is doing in the life of other Christian communities without losing the essential claims of your own tradition. Lumen Gentium may not be perfect, but it opened a door that has allowed for a moving closer among Christians in the last half century, a casting off of old prejudices and a willingness for us to find our way to the union that God calls us into in the One Church. What Lumen Gentium has shown is that it is possible to acknowledge the need for ecumenism without either letting go of the claim of the oneness of the Church or the visible, tangible reality of the Church. The only way to find fault with that is if we believe that there are no graces at all being given to Christians different from ourselves, which seems a claim so self-evidently false as to be unworthy of reply.

It requires neither a capitulation to modernity nor a degree in biblical theology to say that Our Lord would rather that all those who call upon His name be united in the One Church and that all the gifts that He gives are for the benefit of that Church. Ecumenism is not a call to individualism and abstraction. It is a call to the hard work of sacrifice in which we give ourselves for each other, to each other, for the sake of each other. It is the call for us to look away from ourselves and towards Our Lord who set the example for us by carrying the cross. He offers us that same cross, not as a burden but as a gift, that we might learn to share with each other what we share already in Him, forgiveness and a washing clean so that we may be presented as a spotless bride.

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12 Responses to The Sacrifice of Ecumenism

  1. Joshua says:

    Anglicans need to figure out what they believe in before they can dialogue with anyone else. Return to the 39 articles and away from Calvinism,Arminianism, Eastern orthodoxy, and Roman Catholocism. Just be Anglicans. There are some fine Christian men and women in all of these churches but there doctrines cannot be reconciled to Anglicanism in any historical sense.

  2. Dan Watt says:

    Hi Fr Jonathan, thank you for this thought provoking article. As an Anglican, I deeply appreciate the need for ecumenism. Being in a relationship with a Roman Catholic, alot of what you said resound with me. I can relate that it is indeed a painful daily dying to self, when both parties who both believes in one Lord can yet disagree on so many things – especially about the authority of the Church, the expression of worship, the differing dogma & doctrine, the differing interpretation of Scriptures.

    But I remember no matter how painful it is for me, Christ is more pained.

    However I do note that Paul wasn’t ecumenical either, reminding the churches not to associate with corrupted teachings. So I cannot blame the Orthodox church. My province will not align with the episcopal church for obvious similar reasons. Yet we will not disregard that other denomination are also of the one true Church. It’s where the line is drawn I guess.

  3. Fr. Jonathan,
    Good article and fair. Just some responses from me.

    On Lumen Gentium, yes, Rome has tried to give more shape to that which lies outside the boundaries of the Church, but I think this is a decided mistake, and there are a number of RC’s who agree, that the passages involved have become like the camel’s nose in the tent. Precisely, their tendency to grant a “validity” to sacraments outside the One Church. This has actually been around Catholic thought for quite a while, but is foreign to Orthodoxy. We certainly receive most converts without re-baptizing them, but we see this as a matter of economia, a way of removing obstacles from reception into the Church. This is an ancient practice, extended in the ancient canons. But this economia is not intended to say that something outside the Church is “valid” (“valid” is such a forensic idea anyway). But Rome’s approach is very problematic. There is an excellent article in the recent First Things that discusses the misuse of Lumen Gentium by a Cardinal who suggests that there can be a “lifestyle ecumenism” in which the Church recognizes many things within same-sex unions that also carry grace, along the analogy of Protestant sacraments. The logic is quite good. But the result is abominable, and shows just how problematic such “vague” approaches to ecumenism can be.

    Orthodoxy, as you note, has been very keen on conversations of an ecumenical sort, and was a founding force of the WCC (though many Orthodox today readily admit that much of the purpose of that participation was at the behest of communist leaders who gladly subverted the WCC for Leftist purposes. Many Orthodox today want out). But there have indeed been historically important conversations with Anglicans, and very important historical acts of generosity and hospitality by Anglicans towards Orthodox refugees and exiles. Some of that good will and earnest conversation continue today. I have been part of those conversations. And the best of them are not of the WCC kind of ecumenism, but are indeed about the One Church and a proper movement towards that. From an Orthodox perspective, the question is how to help others return to the fold of the One Church, with as much generosity and integrity as possible. There is a Western Rite within some jurisdictions of Orthodoxy that is essentially Anglican in form. There are many possibilities in such approaches. But their strength lies in the recognition of One true Church, One communion, etc.

    Many Anglicans should readily recognize how their own denominations were hijacked by the false forces of ecumenism, gutting their Church of meaning, creating an open communion that destroyed every possible boundary, without which nothing exists other than some amorphous, vapid, contentless “love fest” of ecumenical nonsense. Some Anglicans have even proposed dropping a requirement of Baptism in order to approach the Cup. I suspect you would find that as offensive as I do.

    Modernity is the common enemy of all Christians. It has found its way ever deeper into our lives and consciousness and into our faith. It needs to be expunged. My writing in this matter is, if you will, to bring a fire. The teaching regarding the One Church is patristic and Scriptural, and it burns us in its truth. It judges the falseness of our present lives. And though Orthodoxy remains the true, historical union and communion of that patristic, Scriptural Church, it, too, is burned by the same fire, and has been so quite painfully across the centuries. The Orthodox resistance to the Council of Florence is such a burning fire. The resistance to women’s ordination and the other modernist practices is a burning fire. As one mainline denomination after another falls before the nonsense of modernity, Orthodoxy continues its fiery witness.

    What I mean to write is an invitation into the fire, not a comparison of relative merits. With Anglicans, there is a recognition of much that is Scriptural and Patristic as well as a deep reservoir of intention towards such a fullness. Anglicanism has even maintained a “taste” for things Eastern, as it rediscovers the roots of Orthodoxy in Britain. But Orthodoxy bids her return to the fullness of her roots and relight the fire that burns so dimly in her native land.

    I would not have become Orthodox had I not been Anglican. I discovered enough Orthodoxy there to make me thirst for more.

    Finally, on “squaring the circle” of trying to give an account for the “Church outside the Church.” I think this is a false undertaking. It would be like trying to reconcile Arianism and Orthodoxy. There cannot be a Church outside the Church, nor can there not be the Church. There are plenty of Orthodox writings on the topic, Fr. Georges Florovsky writings on the “Limits of the Church” (you can find that article on my blog) is a good example. Orthodoxy doesn’t say that what is outside the Church is “nothing,” but we refuse to define what it is. Rome, in Lumen Gentium, says too much. The wisdom of the East has always been to say as little as possible but as much as is necessary.

    To that, I will add, that at least I’ve said enough to provoke a conversation – and perhaps one with the right parameters.

    Thanks for the conversation!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Father Stephen,

      Thanks for reading and engaging. Always appreciated!

      I do not think that Lumen Gentium is attempting to define what or why there are graces of one kind or another found in other Christian communions. After all, it leaves open just what those graces look like. Rather, I think it is a constructive attempt to say that there is a mystery at work, but that God has granted some graces and gifts to Christians outside of the Roman Church (and Eastern Catholic Churches) and that those gifts are for the sake of the Church as a whole. That is really my point, that there is some recognition there that we actually need each other. There is a call to sacrifice.

      On the western rite, my understanding has been that this has not been very well received by the Orthodox, but perhaps that is not the case? I do think that things like the western rite, or the Ordinariates, have the potential to be gifts of graciousness, depending on how they are framed.

      I certainly think that post-enlightenment individualism has been a cancer upon Anglicanism as much as upon anywhere else. I don’t think that is synonymous with ecumenism though. That there have been times when the two have overlapped does not make them both the same thing.

      There is more that could be said of course, like why and what Orthodox understand the shape and contours of the Church to be, and how Anglicans understand the same in a different way, but I think that is better left to actual ecumenical dialog rather than the flaming sword of blog warfare. If you are interested, I have engaged in that warfare in the past on this topic, which can be found by clicking on the “Eastern Orthodoxy” tab in the sidebar. But the older I get, the more that seems like so much tilting at windmills. The battles are cyclical, singularly unconvincing, and the cheap rush of adrenaline that comes from telling people why they are oh-so-very-wrong comes with too high a price when I finally make it into the confessional.

      I will have to seek out the Florovsky essay you mention. I must admit, he is one of the more popular modern Orthodox writers that I have not spent much time with. I did gain a tremendous amount from reading Zizoulas’ “Being as Communion” about ten years ago. I wish every bishop in the Anglican Communion would read that book, preferably twice.

      Grace, peace, and blessings to you.

  4. kiwianglo says:

    From the perspective of an Anglo-Catholic in far-off Aotearoa/New Zealand, I find it difficult for any one of the Christian Church bodies in today’s world to claim prior rights to a sort of sectarian ‘orthodoxy’ in its purest sense. Our only commonality is in our belief in, and subscription to “Christ as Lord, Saviour and Redeemer’ – but not just of, or for, ourselves (our own part of the ‘One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ ). With the Great Schism still in force – from either point of view – there is no prospect of corporate Unity – except in the diversity we all need to accept as reality. As the Anglican Eucharistic rite in our prayer books so rightly puts it: “We are One Bread, One Body in Christ, if we all participate in the One Bread (Who is Christ).

    • AJ says:

      That’s right. Mormons are in fact the church. Unitarians, Jehovah’s witnesses, oneness Pentecostals are the church. Indeed, even the Westboro baptists are the church. No one has claim. Everyone has claim. The Church is void.

      The only difference between the claims of the Orthodox and the claims of Protestant groups is that the later allow themselves the right to “dechurch” others listed above for their “cacodoxy” –or define them as “cults” and “unsaved”, whereas they deny the Orthodox right to define itself as it always has.

      The anglican can arbitrarily define “Catholicism in its fullness” to be the four ecumenical councils and the 39 articles etc –but the historic church cannot define itself.

    • The Anglican Church often points to the “undivided Church of the 1st 5 centuries” as a touchstone of faith, etc. The Eastern Orthodox not only continue to hold that faith unchanged (and its practices), but do so in an unbroken historical continuity. How is that not Orthodoxy in its purest sense? In what way do present day Eastern Orthodox differ from the Church of the first 5 centuries?

      • Joshua says:

        I certainly consider the EO a christian church, but we have different understandings what the church is. I understand the church to be where the gospel is preached and the sacraments administered. I guess you would have to point me too where the scriptures and the fathers hold to the EO view of the church.? In my experience the EO jump too the one true church arguement when they run into evidence that does not support some of their doctrine. Most of my conversations with them end on that note. Were the one true church so the fact that the scriptures and the fathers don’t always support us is irrelivant.? Hey. We both confess the creeds and trust in Jesus Christ. We were both regenerated in baptism and recieve our Lord in the sacrament of the altar. You may disagree that I recieve this but Jesus promised to be with us when two or three come together in His name.

  5. I learned long ago that the Church is organic, a mystery. Ecumenism may try to find unity among hierarchical religious bodies, but in reality, true Christians have always known each other in Spirit and in truth, not by the type of miter their bishop wears or what language or edition of their prayer book or missal. Your own blog comments demonstrate this: you have people of all stripes commenting and I would guess that all of them see you as a brother in Christ and you see them the same way. Is that not ecumenical? Is that not a manner of fellowship (no matter how electronic) that transcends religious boundaries?

    In my view, too much division among Christians has been fomented by bachelors in cassocks and vestments quibbling over nonsense. Your one commenter mentions the “church of the first five centuries.” Actually, one does better to look to the first three centuries, when persecution and poverty brought unity in spirit through brotherly love, not ecclesiastical hierarchical bickering and structurally impossible unity of boards, committees, canons and the like.

    • AJ says:

      Notwithstanding the good you’ve had to say barefoot Brian; even the first three centuries of Christianity were defined by councils. I urge you to research the how church governance and unity were seen before 325. All you will find is normative Union in Eucharistic Consiliarity. The picture you paint is ahistorical. The first three centuries saw plenty of what you see as “bickering”.

  6. Jereme says:

    My thanks to Father Jonathan for another great piece and my thanks to Father Stephen for his charitable replies :)

    I do wonder though how much of the current divide (real or perceived) between the Orthodox and the Anglicans is of a soteriological rather than an ecclesiological nature? And I’m sure many Orthodox would say that the two are interrelated, so dividing the issue would be an incorrect approach. Thoughts?

    • This is a very good question. The Anglicans, alone among the Reformation Churches, have a clear sense of ecclesiology (though deeply strained of late). It is an area where conversation with Orthodoxy is probably fruitful. Many criticize Anglicanism as being weak on theology – but I think Anglican theology is most expressed in ecclesiology.

      Orthodoxy tends to be a bit of a seamless garment. Ecclesiology, soteriology, everything, is rooted in the thought and language of the Christological/Trinitarian councils. It was the later attempts at a new soteriology in the West has provoked difficult conversations. For example, the language of penal substitution (forensics) is not the language of those councils and thus feels very foreign to Orthodoxy.

      I think Anglicanism sometimes has a schizophrenia about all of this. It has some Calvinists whose ideas are simply foreign to Anglican ecclesiology (or so I think). When I was an Anglican, and very Orthodox minded (High and Dry), I never seemed to be able to have a useful conversation with an Evangelical Calvinist Anglican. Their sacramental vision was not rooted in ecclesiology, for example.

      The Orthodox experience in the 20th century was that it always depended on which Anglicans they were talking to. Some were so compatible that actual union seemed possible. Others were impossible. It was the Orthodox realization that there was such a mixed bag that began to sour the conversation.

      But today, there are very fruitful and interesting conversations with the non-ECUSA groups.

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