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The Orthodox dilemma (book review)

23 June 2018

The Orthodox DilemmaThe Orthodox Dilemma by George Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

George Alexander’s vision, reiterated throughout this book, is for Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity. He has also founded an “Orthodox Cognate PAGE” devoted to promoting that vision. What what “Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity” means, however, is not altogether clear, despite the constant repetition.

Alexander makes some good points about how divided those Christian bodies that call themselves Orthodox are. Not only are “Eastern Orthodox” (Chalcedonian) Churches divided from “Oriental Orthodox” (non-Chalcedonian, but the Oriental Orthodox Churches are divided among themselves. The only time they ever meet each other in anything remotely approaching a council is as a premilinary to a meeting they have with the Roman pope. When the Coptic Pope of Alexandria Tawadros II ascended his throne his first visit was to the Vatican, and not to his fellow Oriental Orthodox, not even to the Ethiopian Church, with which the Coptic Church has had long-standing historical ties, The Oriental Orthodox Churches seem to be more interested in building relations with the Vatican than with each other.

Similarly, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are more likely to meet each other at gatherings arranged by Protestant bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, or the Lausanne Movement, or by the Vatican, than they are to meet each other.

I think that in this Alexander makes a very good point about the need for more communication among Eastern Christians, but I don’t think this book puts it very well.

His vision for regular meetings and for greater cooperation between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian groups sounds good to me. We share a lot in the way of common tradition and a common outlook, even though there is a serious disagreement about Christology. What we have in common is more than we have in common with most Western Christians, and so his appeal that we should give priority to ecumenical relations with our fellow-Eastern Christians rather than with Western Christians makes sense, and might enable the Eastern groups to resist the temptation and pressure to become too Westernised, as sometimes happens in such bodies as the World Council of Churches, where the prevailing Western cultural imperialism caused some Orthodox Churches to withdraw.

But it took me a long time to read this book, because it has several flaws. One of them is that it is very repetitive. This is understandable, because many of the chapters were originally articles published separately in other publications. The one I read was the second edition — perhaps if there is a third edition it could be edited to eliminate some of the inconsistencies. For example, in several chapters there are references to a schism between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Malankara Church, but it is only several chapters further on that we learn what that schism was. Editing should remove such inconsuistencies, and place the explanation with the first reference to the schism, and not with one of the last.

I also think that George Alexander is a bit too dismissive of the Christological problem that has kept Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonians apart for 1500 years. According to Alexander this probem can be solved by “love and forgiveness”, but what is there to forgive? The protagonists in the drama and disagreement have been dead for 15 centuries. We cannot blame each other or forgive each other now for something that happened so long ago. What is needed now is to ask what the declaration of Chalcedon means to us today. And any unity, even Pan-Orthodox conciliar unity, that evades that, will simply not be real.

And there are also consequences that are bypassed in the book. One side castigates and deposed Pope Dioscurus of Alexandria for rejecting the definition of Chalcedon, the other side praises him for heroically resisting it. So was he a saint or a heretic? We can disagree about that, and still meet in love to discuss matters of common concern but whether we can have the kind of Pan-Orthodox Conciliar Unity that George Alexander proposes, I’m not so sure.

And there is also an ecclesiological problem that is not really dealt with in the book. If we were all to agree on Christology, and prepare to unite, who would be the Pope of Alexandria? Theodore II or Theodore II?

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