Not long ago Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople invited the Roman Catholic church to join the World Council of Churches on the occasion of the WCC’s fiftieth anniversary. Although Catholics have worked since Vatican II with WCC commissions, the Catholic church itself does not belong to the organization or to any of its national affiliates. Orthodox churches have been directly involved in the ecumenical movement from the very start, but in recent years there has been severe criticism of Orthodox ecumenical involvement, most of it coming from American Orthodox.

I am with the Orthodox-still the majority, I am convinced-who believe that Orthodox involvement with the WCC, the National Council of Churches, and other manifestations of the ecumenical movement is a good thing. But this involvement is not without its difficulties, and the Orthodox experience may be instructive.

One difficulty comes from differing visions of ecumenism and differing ways of understanding what it means to be a church. There is a kind of "common denominator" ecumenism that not only focuses on what we hold in common (a good approach), but considers those things that divide us to be unimportant or completely irrelevant (a bad approach). There is a conception of church which sees all churches as essentially equal, with any differences understood as matters of culture, preference, and history rather than as matters of substance.

Here Orthodox and Catholics share a common vision: we would agree that what divides us, from one another and from Protestantism, does indeed matter, and although history and culture have certainly played a part in our separation, so have matters of theological substance. Orthodoxy’s participation in
the ecumenical movement has always been predicated on the understanding that we do not regard Orthodox Christianity as one denomination among others; we believe ourselves to be the apostolic church, from which others have in different degrees separated themselves. At the same time, we know that we should work for as much unity as is possible between people who share the belief that Jesus is God’s Word and our Lord.

These days this is considered "triumphalistic"-an "exclusive truth" claim. Of course Catholicism would have to make a similar claim, and of course so does the relativism that would counter all such claims. One reason the Catholic church has refrained from membership in the WCC is precisely because of the confusion that might result from belonging to an organization whose members understand "church" in so many, sometimes contradictory, ways.

Where this fragmented understanding becomes most apparent is in the disagreements we have over Communion. Orthodox canon law allows Communion only to Orthodox Christians. At WCC assemblies the Orthodox are asked to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, are hurt feelings: Why can’t everyone receive Communion? After all, the Anglican churches give Communion to everyone; so do most member churches, and so even do some Catholic priests-why won’t the Orthodox?

One reason is that we are not in fact in communion, and the distribution of Communion is not the way to arrive at a common mind-and in fact could impede it, by making a shared understanding of what it means to be Christian less important than a symbolic but somewhat superficial sharing. To share in a symbolic way without engaging those important things that divide us is not to share seriously, but to seem as if we are one, when we are not; and truth is not served when seeming is equated with being. When someone who does not believe that the Lord is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist but that this is done as a memorial service, receives next to someone who believes that the Lord is present, but only spiritually, and that person stands next to someone who believes that the Lord is truly present, but that true communion should involve being in communion with the bishop of Rome, what does this mean? Whatever it is, it is not communion. Communion is not only an individual experience of communion with the Lord, but communion with one another in a shared understanding of what the gathering means.

When the Lollards were persecuted for their denial of the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist (and I am not defending their persecution, though they were wrong), they came up with a kind of jingle to respond to their persecutors: "He was the Word that spake it,/He took the bread and brake it,/ and what the Word doth make it,/I do believe and take it." This was a clever evasion, even reverent in its way, but it seems to be offered now as a formula for union. One defense of it is that the disciples themselves were terribly confused at the Last Supper, hardly aware of what they were witnessing, yet Jesus gave them the bread and wine.

But the Eucharist is not simply a replication of that moment; we understand it after the Resurrection, after Pentecost, and from the beginning how one understood one’s relationship to this act, and to the church which had this act at its center, mattered.

Some Orthodox tell those of us who believe ecumenism to be a good thing that we are wasting our time, at best, or encouraging confusion. I don’t agree. For one thing, we have much to gain. At one practical level, it is a simple fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches (the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian churches-once called "non-Chalcedonian") and Eastern Orthodox churches have arrived at an important theological consensus precisely because the WCC made this kind of discussion possible and desirable. At another, equally important, level, we are called with other Christians to serve "the least of the brethren." Common Christian action to relieve the needs of the poor is a good thing, and the WCC has been involved in this.

Most of all, membership-even when it is complicated by disagreements over definitions of the church and questions regarding intercommunion-can be a witness to a kind of mourning: we should mourn the fact that we are not one. I would argue that, far from being "exclusivist," our refraining from a common chalice is a serious way of paying attention to that continuing sorrow.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: View Contents

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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