The Orthodox have been right in the middle of the ecumenical movement from the get-go. They weren’t at the 1910 Edinburgh conference, the “birthday” of ecumenism, though that’s because they weren’t invited. But in 1920, as the whole Christian world was reeling from World War I and its aftermath, the Orthodox communities put forth a suggestion that made a huge impact on the movement’s direction.
In this year the ecumenical patriarchiate of the Orthodox Church issued an encyclical called “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere.” It expressed a desire for a growth in unity among all the churches that would overcome “antiquated prejudices, practices, or pretensions.” Therefore the suggestion was made, “especially in view of the hopeful establishment of the League of Nations,” that there be established “a contact and league (fellowship) between the churches.” Such a fellowship could address such problems as the differences in church calendars, proselytism, and so-called “mixed marriages”; it could facilitate the exchange of resources for service, of visiting representatives, of “brotherly letters on the occasion of the great feasts,” and of students and faculty at theological schools; and it could study doctrinal differences at pan-Christian conferences with an eye to resolving them. It took some time, and the growing strength of the respective Faith & Order and Life & Work movements, before anything concrete could be done. But the outcome of this encyclical, almost thirty years later in 1948, was the formation of the World Council of Churches.
Another early and important Orthodox contribution came in 1927 at the first-ever Faith and Order conference. Metropolitan Germanos of Thyateira made the following statement: “Although the Orthodox Church considers unity in faith a primary condition of reunion of the Churches, yet it rejects that exclusive theory according to which one Church, regarding itself as the one true Church, insists that those who seek reunion with it shall enter its own realm. Such a conception of reunion, amounting to the absorption of the other Churches, is in every way opposed to the spirit existing in the Orthodox Church, which has always distinguished between unity on the one hand and uniformity on the other.” In other words, ecumenism’s goal isn’t to declare a “winner” among the churches that gets to gobble up everyone else. Unity without uniformity, reunion without absorption: these are the ideals and have guided ecumenism ever since.