Two Orthodox Contributions to Unity

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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.

One thought on “Two Orthodox Contributions to Unity

  1. Not strictly on the Orthodox contributions, but interesting and coincidental (or providential) as regards the World Council of Churches – I just finished a novel in which George Kennedy Allen Bell (Bishop of Chichester 1929-1957) is a chief historical figure.

    Ultimate Prizes, by Susan Howatch, is set in England primarily during 1942-1945. The main character Neville Aysgarth, an archdeacon in the Church of England, setup a ministry to German prisoners of war in his area, and was eventually commended by Bell for his efforts. Bell also prompted Aysgarth to consider working with him in the reconstruction of Europe and soon to be formed World Council of Churches (WCC).

    From what I have gathered, Bell seemed to have been a prominent voice in Ecumenism and also participated in the establishment of the WCC.

    – Susan Howatch’s Author’s Note at the end of the novel states about Bell: “After the war he went to Berlin and preached the Christian message of reconciliation to the thousands who flocked to hear him. Deeply involved in the reconstruction of Christian Europe, he became a leading figure in the World Council of Churches. He was eventually awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, with sash and start, the highest honour the Federal Republic of Germany could bestow…”

    – According to Encyclopedia Britannica [ ] Bell was chairman and president of the WCC, though this must be different than General Secretary which I see more prominently identifed on the WCC website [ ]

    Thank you for your efforts, and may the God who is, was, and is to come bless and protect you today.

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