The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ecumenism by Fr George Metallinos
Updated: May 31
One of the main Presentations of the Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference in Thessaloniki, with the theme: "Ecumenism: Origins — Expectations — Disenchantment" (20-24.9.2004), which was co-organized by the Department of Pastoral and Social Theology of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Society of Orthodox Studies, was the following very interesting presentation given by Archpriest George D. Metallinos, Dean of the Theological School of the University of Athens.
Religious Ecumenism, as a trend and movement for the mutual agreement and accommodation of divergent religious groups, is twofold: inter-Christian and inter-religious. In both these types of ecumenical activity our Ecumenical Patriarchate has undertaken a leading, pioneering, and in many ways, decisive role. Of course, the inter-Christian Ecumenical Movement began, as is known, in the 19th century in the Protestant world and culminated in the 20th century, which was called the "century of the ecumenical movement". There are even many, who consider the Ecumenical Movement as its greatest event. The participation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the inter-Christian unification effort is an enormous topic, with a likewise vast literature. In this brief Presentation, however, I will necessarily limit myself to some critical and clarifying remarks.
Father George Metallinos
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the "first throne" in the "community of the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches", does not "coordinate —only— as the head of the entire operation of the Orthodox ecclesiastical body, ensuring ‘the dutiful preservation of the unity of the faith and the canonical order in the functioning of Orthodox relations’, but ‘also for the canonical requirements for the development of the Orthodox Church relations with the rest of the Christian world.” This is how the twofold mission of the Ecumenical Throne is described by a distinguished member of the ecumenical dialogues, Professor Vlasios Feidas. This double role was not disregarded by the Throne of New Rome even during the long servitude, as the theological dialogues with Western Christendom at that time prove. The problem, therefore, was not the renewal and continuation of this ecumenical effort on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the 20th century, but the foundation on which this initiative was built. Characteristic of its inter-Christian theological contacts from the 16th century to the mid-19th century was the adherence to the patristic and synodal tradition about the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Orthodoxy in salvation and the call to it, as a faithful and unshakable continuation of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, from the experience and confession of Her Saints.
From the second half of the 19th century, mainly practical relations began with Anglicanism, the official belief of the leading world political power of the time, Britain. Thus, from contacts with the Anabaptists (18th century) and the Oxford Movement of the 19th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the Second Patriarchate of Gregory VI (1835-1840, 1867-1871), proceeded to the burial by Orthodox priests of deceased Anglicans in the East (1869), to reach, with a progressive widening, the recognition, under Meletius IV, of Anglican ordinations (1922) and in the meantime expanding relations with the whole Protestant world.
For this shift, a significant change in the attitude of the Ecumenical Throne took place, which is indicated by the comparison of its Encyclicals from 1836 to 1895. The progressive change of spirit in Constantinople is clearly visible at the Theological School of Halki, with the transition from Constantine of Stavroupolis (Typaldos), supporter of Tradition, to Philotheos Bryennios, Germanized and bearer of a different mentality. Since then (around 1865) a new attitude towards Western Christianity is inaugurated, in the spirit of pro-Westernism and Europeanism and ecumenical relations. “The update of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's attitude towards the West (in a broader sense), as a demand of the times and especially of the political relations” of the Ottoman Empire with the Western Governments, begins. "The spirit of the times probably spoke with the mouth of Bryennios”. This movement, following the fluctuations in political relations and developments, strengthened at the beginning of the 20th century, as confirmed by texts of great historical importance, with an increasing trend from 1902 to 1920.
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The Pioneering text in this direction has been the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1902, which is continually extolled by the praisers of the Ecumenical Movement, because it "expressed the pastoral interests and ecumenical sensitivity of the Church of Constantinople". Moreover, “it is a programmatic and bold initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III for a substantial reassessment or even revision (my emphasis) of the basis not only of inter-Orthodox, but also of inter-Christian relations”. And this encyclical is considered something unprecedented in inter-Christian relations by ardent ecumenists, both domestic and foreign. What is surprising is the language used in this text. Without any, not even the slightest, movement to return the Protestant world to ecclesiasticism, and even though thirty-two years before, papal infallibility had been doctrinally established at Vatican I (1870), the Christian sects of the West are called "the two great branches of Christianity," "the Western (i.e. Roman Catholicism) and the Protestant Church”. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (as if they were one) are characterized, albeit with some limitation, as Churches.
According to Professor Vlasios Feidas, “this proposal suggests a positive ecclesiological view of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches”. And trying to mitigate the impression that the patriarchal text itself creates, he clarifies the term “branches”, and adds, that the Encyclical “recognizes a concrete form of ecclesiasticism in the ecclesiastical bodies of the Christian world of the West that have separated from the Orthodox Church, on the basis of the established principle of ecclesiastical dispensation/administration and of the obligation to strive for the restoration of the ecclesiastical unity of the Christian world." It is, in fact, a novel tactic, unknown until recently in the Great Church of Christ.
Therefore, the impression that the Encyclical has made on the Western Christian world with this change is significant, as something indeed “unprecedented,” as already mentioned. Interpretations of this fundamental change are, of course, being sought. Spiritual and pastoral motives are offered by Professor Vlasios Feidas, and Professor Ioannis Tarnanides investigates the Mt. Athos effect, the suffocating position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Ottoman Empire is invoked by others (e.g. the issue of privilege). But it must be taken into account that the ecumenist preparatory work was previously done by, among others, the Lambeth Conference (1880) of Pope Leo XIII, who with the encyclical of 1895 laid the foundations of Roman Catholic ecumenism, while at the same time Cardinal P. Tontini was lecturing in Constantinople on the calendar issue (at the “Philological Society” of Constantinople), propagandizing the calendar change from 1894. Patriarch Anthimus VI (1895/6) prohibited the discussions, but Joachim III promoted the relevant discussion (1901), thus clearly placing the calendar issue in the framework of his wider ecumenical initiative.
The Proclamation of 1920 is a legal continuation of the 1902 Encyclical, and marked the beginning of the Ecumenical Movement in its true dimensions, as well as the participation of Orthodoxy in it, with the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a pioneer. According to Fr. George Tsetsis it was “a marginal expression of Orthodox Ecumenism and a milestone in the history of the Ecumenical Movement.” And this Encyclical was progressively received with enthusiasm by the Western world and was especially praised, because Western Christianity found in the Ecumenical Patriarchate a triumphant recognition.
This important text is addressed “To the Church of Christ Everywhere,” with a bold excess of the language of the 1902 Encyclical. An official representative of the Ecumenical Throne acknowledges that with this Encyclical "the Ecumenical Patriarchate has presented both the golden rule of Orthodox Ecumenism (Zander), and the charter for the attitude, that the Orthodox faction should keep in the future within the Ecumenical Movement." But the Patriarchate's idea of a “Community of Churches” was also adopted by Western leaders. It was claimed that the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Throne preceded it. And two more drafts by Nathan Söderblom and J. H. Oldham followed. With a vacant Patriarchal Throne, the initiative was taken by the Locum Tenens Dorotheos of Prussa, who maintained relations with Söderblom and the other western leaders of Ecumenism. And the dynamics of personal relationships in any decision is understandable. That is why, I believe, that further research for the clarification and understanding of this and every other similar “initiative” (e.g., the involvement of Meletius Metaxakis, then of Athens) must continue. After all, the 1920 Encyclical has received various contradictory interpretations.
The Essence of the Encyclical is the approach of the “churches of Christ everywhere” on “practical and moral ground.” No more word of “branches” (a necessary and reassuring use of the term in 1902), but directly and openly of “Churches of Christ.” Equality has occurred. A course of 11 “steps” is defined, the first being the “creation of a common calendar." Thus the Encyclical and its objectives are directly and steadfastly linked to the calendar issue. And it is also important that this Encyclical is considered an imperative necessity of the time and its mainly political problems. That is why it has been welcomed by the Orthodox Churches, especially the Balkan Churches, to strengthen them as they face current socio-political problems. The Proclamation of 1920 became the charter of inter-Christian Ecumenism and an indicator of the course of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, without any deviation from its objectives.
The Patriarchal Encyclicals of 1902 and 1920, from a theological point of view, especially the latter, appear to set as a foundation the “Baptist Theology” and the principle of the “expanded Church.” and to reinforce doctrinal pluralism and "secular politics.” This is how these texts are understood by senior Clerics of the Ecumenical Throne. According to the appropriate observation of Professor Christos Yannaras, the Encyclical “substitutes or silences the truth of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and the existential mystery of salvation, for the sake of the socialist and pietistic conception of an ideological Christianity,” for in it “there is not even a hint of the truth."
The Ecumenical Patriarchate has remained unwaveringly faithful to the spirit and directions of these Encyclicals. Thus, at the First Pan-Orthodox Conference of Rhodes (1961) the matter was discussed: “Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement: a) The presence and participation of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement in the spirit of the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1920.” The 1952 Encyclical issued by Patriarch Athenagoras is the integration of this planned course. And the citation of the terms of participation were also here intended to placate the opposing traditionalists, as it turned out afterwards, because progressively these terms fell into oblivion. Supported above is the relation (and) of the 1920 Encyclical to the evolution of the calendar issue. One need not be an “Old Calendarist,” to ascertain this, which has already been done by many. It was on these Encyclicals, moreover, that the 1923 Pan-Orthodox Congress, which applied the first “step” of the 1920 Encyclical, was based. The course of Patriarch Meletius (Metaxakis) has given rise to much discussion.
The Encyclical of 1902 opened the way for participation in the inter-Christian Ecumenical Movement. The Encyclical of 1920 prepared the way for entry into the WCC, while the one of 1952 expanded and sealed it. Great Orthodox Theologians, despite their known loyalty to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, did not fail to express their hesitation to these exposures and their reservations about the noted developments.
Professor Ioannis Karmiris thus considers the 1952 Encyclical "a continuation and completion of that first proclamation (1920)." And it insists on the conditional participation of the Orthodox in the Ecumenical Movement ("both of them —1902 and 1920— determine the conditional participation as well as its relationship to the WCC." Their purpose always wants to be seen as practical and moral. And that is why he views the participation in the "Faith and Order" Commission with hesitation:
"It would not be in agreement with the theoretical principles of Orthodoxy and its
long tradition, as well as the teaching and practice of the seven Ecumenical
Councils and their Holy Fathers."
A similar cautious attitude was also adopted by Fr. Georges Florovsky, though he was a cleric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And this was, after all, the reason for his removal from the WCC leadership. The resignation of Ioannis Karmiris and other Professors from the Dialogues, but also the attitude of many Professors against them says a lot. And they were not the only voices. We limit ourselves to a relevant statement by the late [Saint] Fr. Justin Popovic:
"I wonder if it was necessary for the Orthodox Church, that immaculate God-human body and activity of the God-man Christ, to humiliate itself so monstrously, that its Theologians’ representatives, and even Hierarchs" "should seek organic participation and inclusion in the WCC?". "Alas, unheard of treason!"
Fr. Theodoros Zisis’ point is therefore understandable: "Not only should we not organize anniversary celebrations for the patriarchal encyclicals, but in repentance we should reproach ourselves, and ask for forgiveness.”
The Inter-Christian "dialogue" was connected by the leaders of the Ecumenical Movement to the inter-religious one. The non-Christian Ecumenism was programmatically established by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which proclaimed that the three great monotheistic religions believe in the same God, so as to facilitate the path towards unity in the inter-religious sphere as well. Patriarch Athenagoras, without inhibitions, promoted the goal of Vatican II. The inter-religious gatherings were formalized in 1986 with the first meeting in Assisi. The participation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from that time is incontrovertible, as are the internal related initiatives of the Ecumenical Throne, such as its ecological conferences and other activities (books, speeches, etc.).
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Patriarch Athenagoras inaugurated a course in Ecumenical relations that is continually accelerating, which his successors are unable to revise or even slow down because of the progressive blurring of criteria and resistances and in accordance with international political standards of the faith, on the verge of an inter-Christian "historical compromise". The ineffectiveness of the Ecumenical Dialogues but also their deadlock have been repeatedly pointed out to us by great Theologians.
Insufficient, therefore, are the occasional reassuring statements by the professionals and officials of Ecumenism, if the facts prove otherwise. As soon as faith is ideologized and Theology is detached from its spiritual presuppositions (purification-enlightenment-theosis), it is easily marginalized, and the unifying effort is shifted to other bases. The celebratory declarations, especially of the Orthodox, and triumphalism for the faith, not only are not dissuaded, but reinforced, as long as our participation in the Ecumenical Movement continues and the goals of Ecumenism are not hindered. This is precisely the point on which the representation of Orthodoxy and its presence in ecumenical activity is judged.
Fr. Zisis has stated unequivocally: "the Phanar is a prisoner of Ecumenism," something that is taking place through the country, in which it is based and the international political situation, which knows how to diplomatically impose its demands. What else does the linking of the inter-religious “dialogue” after 9-11-2001 with the confronting of one view of terrorism show? Instead of Orthodoxy influencing the non-Orthodox world regarding salvation, we have come to accept by actions (tacite) “Baptismal Theology,” the theology of the Sister Churches (cf. Balamand Agreement, 1993), “common ministry,” the “enlarged church” and “cultural pluralism,” as has rightly been pointed out.
The text of the Balamand Agreement, the paternity of which also belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, constitutes the unique recognition and praise of the Papacy, the most radical alienation of the very core of ecclesiastical truth. That is why the dialogue continues by the existence of the Unia. For the acceptance of the ecclesiasticism of the Latin Church makes the Unia free from an ecclesiological and theological problem to a secondary problem of a mere jurisdictional nature. That is why the dialogue with the Papacy is more “dangerous” than the one with Protestantism. Because confusion and identities and all kinds of illusions are easier.
Ecumenism in all its dimensions and versions has become a true Babylonian captivity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and all the local leaders of the Orthodox Church, with few exceptions, who however are under unbearable pressure. The boasting and self-admiration of our Ecumenists “for a so-called new era, which the Ecumenical Patriarchate started with the Patriarchal Encyclicals of 1902, 1904 and 1920, are not justified, because what we have achieved is to legitimize the heresies and schisms of Papism and Protestantism. This is the settled conclusion of Fr. Theodoros Zisis, which I unhesitatingly subscribe to.
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After all this one can ask: What has to be done? The only appropriate solution would be in many ways the withdrawal of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the Ecumenical Movement, because its objectives and its results so far require it. This, of course, would not mean silence and lack of interest in social and world problems. On the contrary, every sincere effort of ours in this direction is weakened or disoriented, as long as we insist on cooperating with forces that participate in the creation of problems and rather than hinder or help in their solution. Similar actions will be taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in collaboration with as many Orthodox Churches that will follow — and we believe that, if not all, most will, at least initially.
Reality however also demands the question: What can be done under the present conditions? Is non-participation possible? Is isolationism necessary, when in fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a continuous presence in the Turkish state, and under many pressures? In 1987, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios told my wife and me, that only difficult situations force participation in the dialogues. It is a fact that withdrawal today is difficult, if not impossible, especially as long as the entanglement of our ecclesiastical administration with the various political and state, local and international, schemes continues. No area of our times can remain uninfluenced by the spirit and workings of the New Order.
Maybe, then, some shocking event, which would be equivalent to a miraculous intervention of our Triune God in our historical course, could restrain the ecumenical frenzy and renew our attitude against duplicitous ecumenism, which constitutes the greatest threat to the Orthodox. It is necessary, finally, to allow the tradition of our Saints to be freely discussed with the world.
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