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Ecumenism, anti-ecumenism and mission

4 June 2010

The visit of the Pope of Rome to Cyprus is apparently a hot issue. Hat-tip to Ad Orientem for this piece: For some, the past is never another Country | OBL Articles:

IF NOTHING else, the small, but very public dispute over the Pope’s visit to Cyprus has highlighted the deep divisions within the Church of Cyprus.No sooner had the ink dried on a Holy Synod circular – bearing the signature of all the metropolitans – welcoming Benedict XVI to Cyprus, than a number of bishops aired their disapproval, citing concerns that the Pope’s visit was inappropriate and might ‘harm’ the Orthodox faith.

The police meanwhile have confirmed they are assessing information on possible disturbances breaking out during the Pontiff’s stay. Security around the Pope will be draconian, and authorities will be on the lookout for fanatics flying in from Greece. There may be good reason for this. In October last year, around 100 Orthodox protesters, including monks, were arrested after demonstrating at an inter-faith conference hosted by Paphos Bishop Georgios.

I wonder if it is attitudes like these that are responsible for the altogether underwhelming response (at least from the Orthodox side) to the proposal for a joint Orthodox-Roman Catholic missiological symposium. Do they see such a thing as a manifestation of the heresy of Ecumenism?

The problem is that “ecumenism” is very loosely defined, and can mean many different things to different people. As I understand it, the heresy of Ecumenism, as defined by some Orthodox Christians, consists in denial that the Orthodox Church is the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” referred to in the Symbol of Faith, and believing that the Orthodox Church is merely one denomination among many.

The difficulty is in how one interprets this. Does talking to, or even being willing to talk to Christians who are not Orthodox constitute Ecumenism in this sense? Clearly for some Super-Orthodox it does. To continue in the Cyprus context for the moment, For some, the past is never another Country:

“The Orthodox Church suffered a great deal under the Latins,” says Andreas Papavassiliou, a well-known theologian who often writes on the subject.

“There is a dark history where the Catholics are concerned. We can never forget, for instance, the Crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204, which precipitated the downfall of the Byzantine Empire.”

“Under the Latins [Lusignan rule],” he goes on, “the 14 bishoprics of Cyprus were cut to four, and the Orthodox bishops were reduced essentially to vicars.”

So is it all about old grudges? No, says Papavassiliou: more than that, there are deep, irreconciliable theological differences between the two religions.

And he has no qualms about labelling Catholics heretics. “A heretic is someone who believes wrongly. Catholics are Christians, but they are heretics. That is why our religion is called Orthodoxy [loosely translated as ‘true faith’].”

As hard-hitting as the above views may sound, they come from someone who for years participated in inter-religious dialogue and is well-versed in the subject.

And that is where I disagree. Roman Catholics are not heretics, or at least not the vast majority of them. A heretic is a member of the Orthodox Church who knowingly and deliberately teaches something contrary to the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, for which the penalty is excommunication. The only “heretics” in the Roman Catholic Church are those (relatively few) who were formerly Orthodox and have rejected the teaching of Orthodoxy in order to become Roman Catholics.

Yes, we do have many theological differences with Roman Catholics, but one of the problems is that we very often don’t know what those theological differences are. If we are not quarrelling about old grudges, then we should be able to examine these differences, and see if they can be overcome.

In the case of the proposed missional symposium, the differences are missiological. That is not the whole of theology, it is one aspect of theology, but it happens to be the aspect that I am most closely concerned with. And one of the things that concerns me is that very often Roman Catholic missiologists totally misunderstand and often misrepresent Orthodox missiology. I recently blogged about an example of this in a review of Constants in context by Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder. In that book, the authors wrote about Orthodox missiology and got it wrong. A couple of days after writing the review I met Roger Schroeder, and chatted briefly to him, and he acknowledged that he knew very little about Orthodox missiology. Yet readers of his book will learn a lot of rather misleading things about it.

So I think that a meeting of Orthodox and Roman Catholic missiologists could be a very good thing. I suspect that Orthodox missiologists know a little bit more about Roman Catholic missiology than the other way round. That is because Roman Catholic missiologists have written more books, and Orthodox missiologists are likely to have read some of those books. But until we meet the writers of those books and discuss the questions raised by their writing, we are quite likely to miss some of the theological implications and presuppositions of their writing. Orthodox missiologists rarely have a chance to meet with each other, at least not internationally. So meeting with each other, in the presence of Roman Catholic missiologists, might help Orthodox missiologists to articulate their own mission theology more clearly. In addition to helping the Roman Catholics to correct some of their misconceptions about Orthodox missiology, it could put Orthodox missiology on a firmer footing. And if there are misconceptions on the part of the Orthodox about Roman Catholic missiology, those could be cleared up too.

In the past few centuries, Western Christian missions have operated throughout the world, and they have made many mistakes. Orthodox missions, through ignorance, have often reproduced many of these mistakes. Orthodox have often seemed to take the attitude that since we have the true faith, we will not fall into errors, like Western missionaries, and therefore see no need to study the mission methods, mission history or mission theology of the West, and so through prideful ignorance we fall into the very same errors.

Seeking to understand the theology of other Christian groups does not necessarily mean that we have to agree with that theology in all particulars, as some anti-ecumenists seem to fear. Nor does it mean that we are committing ourselves to a form of unity in which we pretend that theological differences don’t matter. The problem, at least in the fireld of missiology, is that we can’t really see how much they matter, because we don’t know enough about what they are.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 June 2010 3:58 pm

    So what would you say are the defining differences between Orthodox and Catholic missiology and what sould you say you have in common?

    • 4 June 2010 8:17 pm

      Well Matt, that’s what I’m hoping we could learn from a symposium 🙂

      One thing we have in common is mission before the 11th century, which was similar in both East and West.

      To give an example of the kind of thing one could learn from a symposium: in my Anglican days I was at one time responsible for training self-sopporting clergy in the Anglican diocese of Zululand. I attended a meeting of people in analogous positions in RC dioceses all over Southern Africa. They all reported on what was happening in their dioceses. They would report things like “We have 30 priests; 28 are expatriate and two are local”. And I reported “We have 50 priests and deacons; 48 are local and two are expatriate”.

      The difference is that each Roman Catholic diocese was entrusted to a different religious order or congregation, usually based overseas, which provided the core of the full-time workers of the diocese, ordained and lay. So the RC diocese of Eshowe, which covered about half the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, was run by German Benedictines. The northern part was run by Servites, another was run by Franciscans, another by Dominicans, and another by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and so on.

      The Orthodox Church doesn’t have religious “orders” or “congregations” like that. Orthodox monasteries are generally independent and self-contained. The Anglican diocese of Zululand had a women’s order, the Community of the Holy Name, but no male order.

      So the Roman Catholic Church was very dependent on expatriate clergy and staff, but it was also growing much faster than most of the other Christian groups, except for some of the African Independent Churches.

      • 5 June 2010 11:04 am

        I recogise the reality that you describe, but wonder to what extent it can (at least in theory) be considered reflective of current Roman Catholic theory. I remember South African Catholics bemoaning the lack of a local diocesan clergy and insisting that that should be the priority for the local church. At least some of the clerical religious congregations operating in SA have made building up a local clergy a priority, rather than attracting members for themselves. But that is not simple, not least because of the celibacy requirement (in which priesthood and “religious life” get totally confused, and also of course the fundamental faultline of Catholic ecclesiology in which the local church is both assented to (more vigorously in some circles than others) and undermined by Roman centralism.

        • 5 June 2010 12:27 pm


          Yes, indeed, and the people at the diocesan trainers’ conference I attended were in the forefront of those aware of the problem. They published a bookled, Transformation of the ministry, which proposed a multi-ministry model for the parish, with local priests, deacons and other ministers, and the church supported ministers really being trainers of these (and actually not needing to be ordained at all). I tried to get the Anglicans to accept that, and was undermined at every turn, as Roland Allen also found, by the stipendiary clergy jealous of their position and perks, who kept increasing the altitude of the hoops that would-be self-supporting clergy had to jump through, in the hope that they could reduce the numbers. And of course the celibacy requirement put the kibosh on that in the RC Church.

  2. Richard Fairhead permalink
    8 June 2010 12:05 am

    Interesting to read about the visit of the Catholic Pope (contrasted with the Orthodox Pope, who I met and filmed once in Cyprus) from someone in South Africa. I did vaguely know the Catholic Pope was coming to Cyprus, but heard nothing about the visit. Almost a non-event. Did anything happen?

  3. 15 June 2010 9:00 am

    Just to say that apparently, a haeresis was originally a school of thought, not a wrong belief. As the word simply means a choice, I do wish Christians of all flavours would stop bandying it about as an insult.

    • 15 June 2010 10:47 am


      It’s not an insult, but a description. Yes, the root meaning of the word is “choice”, but in Christian theological discourse it means choosing, knowingly and deliberately, to teach something contrary to the Christian faith while a member of the Church.

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