01 September 2015

Two contrasting Orthodox views on
the purpose of ecumenical dialogue

Sunshine in the gardens in Sidney Sussex Colege, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This year’s summer conference in Sidney Sussex College is looking at ecumenism and dialogue, and we got down to some of the “nitty-gritty” problems in dialogue this morning when Dr Razvan Porumb and the Revd Dr Alexander Tefft spoke in very different and contrasting ways of the opportunities and limitations in ecumenism from different Orthodox perspectives.

Dr Porumb is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer and Development Officer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. He recently completed his PhD through the IOCS and the Cambridge Theological Federation on the topic of “Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. Towards Active Metanoia.”

This morning Razvan spoke on “Orthodoxy and ecumenism: towards active metanoia.”

He pointed out that for most Orthodox theologians, the Orthodox Church sees itself as the Church named in the Creed, and this influences all dialogue with other Christians. They regard others as deficient, and dialogue is about bringing other Christians to Orthodoxy.

Drawing on Florovsky, Bulgakov, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he said most Orthodox theologians argue that schisms throughout history are created by chosen to leave the unity of the Orthodox Church, and talks on unity are about the return of schismatic groups to the one church, the Orthodox Church.

He said the Orthodox Church, claims an exceptional position, and has an exceptional role in the ecumenical task, with responsibility for reuniting the Church.

Orthodox theologians see the existence of others as never the result of a separation, but see others as having left the Church, and that the Orthodox Church has maintained unity.

In offering another working paradigm for an increasingly plural world, Razvan spoke of the Trinity as the supreme structure of unity, and he asked whether the unity of Orthodoxy is maintained for the benefit of the Orthodox Church alone, or for the benefit of all Christians and for all humanity.

He suggested a shift of perspective would come with more humble and penitent approach, and that we must struggle towards lost unity.

Quoting Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, he said “We know where the Church is, but cannot be sure where it is not, paraphrasing.”

He suggested a new paradigm would involve journeying together. He told the story of a saint who met a woman who had been sitting in her room and never moving out. He asked her why she stayed sitting in her house. “I am not sitting here,” she told him. “I am on a journey and I starting from here.”

He said unity or catholicity is core to Christian identity, and the search for unity seeks not the sum of the parts but the fullness of the Church. He spoke of unity as a spiritual exercise and of ecumenism as dynamic, and they require spiritual exercise and action. This is a calling for all and not just a specialised few, and ecumenical participation is as much about prayer as it is about dialogue.

There is a risk involved, with the fear of the loss of identity and of betraying inheritance. But there is a need for patience, for impatience is the cause of much of the present impasse in ecumenism.

Drawing on the work of the Romanian theologian Dumitru St─âniloae (1903-1993), author of The Dogmatic Orthodox Theology (1978), he offered an image of human consubstantiality, a Trinitarian model for humanity, and a koinonia of diversities.

Razvan was introduced by his colleague, Father Dragos Herescu, who is Assistant Lecturer and Secretary of the Institute. He is currently working on a doctorate with Durham University, exploring the secularisation paradigm in the social and religious context of Eastern Orthodoxy, with particular focus on Romania.

Father Dragos also teaches at undergraduate level on the degree programmes offered through the IOCS and the Cambridge Theological Federation. He serves for Saint John the Evangelist Romanian Orthodox parish in Cambridge, and, as part of the Institute’s liturgical life, leads the small Byzantine choir.

Praying the chapel in Sidney Sussex College during this week's summer conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Later this morning, the Revd Dr Alexander Tefft (IOCS) spoke on “Integrism and the Limits of Dialogue.”

Father Alexander is chaplain at IOCS and a tutor for the distance learning courses. A graduate of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the US, he is also Parish Priest of the Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, meeting at Saint Botolph-Without-Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street, London. He has been Assistant to the Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and Ireland and theological advisor to its ordination committee.

He argued that dialogue not always what it seems. Present ecumenical dialogue assumes pluralism is inevitable if not desirable, and both parties must be treated equally.

But he asserted: “If there can be no heresy, there can be no orthodoxy.”

He accepted that his position risks of being labelled sectarian or even fundamentalism. He said there is a fine line that divides heretics and schismatics, but a sect remains a sect and the Church remains the Church. Vestiges are vestiges and do not make a Church.

The Orthodox Church is the Church, and the Church, the Body of Christ, cannot be divided, he said. She is the only Church and the only Church, he said. Is it possible to be a Christian outside the Orthodox Church? Christians and the Church are not synonymous.

There can be no churches outside the Church, he said, and the sacraments and traditions are experienced only in the Orthodox Church.

A hassock in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Today [1 September] is the beginning of the New Year in the Orthodox Church. A pious tradition of the Orthodox Church says that Christ began preaching the good news of his mission on 1 September when he entered the synagogue, he was given the book of the Prophet Isaiah to read, and he opened it and found the place where it is written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4: 18-21)

Orthodox tradition also holds that it was in September that the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. In Biblical and Mediterranean lands, the summer harvest was completed, the crops were stored, and this was a time when people began preparing for a new agricultural cycle; and so it was the appropriate time for new beginnings. In the services for the New Year, the Church beseeches God for fair weather, seasonable rains, and an abundance of the fruits of the earth.

I began this morning attending the early morning Eucharist at 8 a.m. in Saint Bene’t’s Church, close to Corpus Christi College and King’s College. The Revd Richard Ames-Lewis presided at the Eucharist, and the Gospel reading was that same passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel.

Sometimes we come together in ways that are unexpected and that may surprise us.

In the afternoon, Dr Dominic Rubin (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), addresses “Orthodox-Muslim interaction in Russia today: between ideology and theology,” and Dr Mangala Frost (IOCS) speaks on “Karma and the Cross: a dialogic study of suffering.”

Once again, the day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel at 5.30 p.m. and dinner at 6.30 p.m.

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