That They May Be One – Reflections on Christian Unity


Though Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, ‘that they may be one’[i], it surely must seem to any student of Christianity that His prayer has failed. Any impartial observer writing a history of modern Christianity might legitimately describe it as being inherently divided and divisive. In fact research has suggested that there are over 33,000 different Christian groups operating in the world today[ii]. Each one with their own slightly, or radically, different theology and practice. The doctrine of Christian unity is a difficult one to communicate in such a confused context, and it has practically been reduced to a warm sense that all groups are equally Christian as long as a small core set of beliefs are upheld.

One example, the Churches Uniting in Christ process, which seeks to unite 9 churches in the US[iii], does not require any change to take place in the constituent churches over matters such as ministry, homosexuality and baptism. And in one of those constituent churches, the Disciples of Christ, the exclusivist point of view appears to have been replaced in modern times by a policy of seeking unity based only on a core of doctrines[iv]. Of course the great difficulty in resorting to a confession of core doctrines is that there are in fact no undisputed doctrines to form a core from. Baptism is often presented as a core doctrine, but the Orthodox or Catholic doctrine is radically and irreconcilably different to that of the Baptist. The same is true of most other doctrines. In practice the core of belief becomes simply and solely a non-doctrinal confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

When the Anglican Communion considered how to cope with an almost impossible diversity of theologies it proposed that

“the word ‘heresy’ should be abandoned except in the context of the radical, creative theological controversies in the early formative years of Christian doctrine.” [v]

And the World Council of Churches, that organisation created especially to promote Christian unity, has as the slogan of its Life and Work – ‘service unites, doctrine divides’. No wonder then that the W.C.C. Evangelism Secretary, Raymond Fung, urges the Christians of Denmark,

“…That it is proper and useful to relate to the inactive and indifferent as if they are indeed Christians; that the church speaks to them as if they are part of us and not strangers from outside. However secular and non-religious their outlook is, I would suggest we speak to them as if they are indeed Christians.”[vi]

If we have no doctrines to stand for then evangelism requires no commitment, no principles, no sorting of sheep and goats. Everyone can become a Christian, even without knowing it. This is the philosophy, which allowed members of the Mormons to participate in a ‘March for Jesus’ in Utah, USA in March 1999. The local organizer stated,

“Mormons are part of the “body of Christ. The March for Jesus unites believers, regardless of colour, race or denominations, into the Body of Christ. The names on the church buildings don’t mean a thing.”[vii]

Even in the Korean Presbyterian Church, renowned for its massive numerical growth it is clear that the pressure to adopt a less exclusively Christian position is squeezing historic Christian doctrines. At the ‘Re-Imaging God, the Community and the Church’ conference held in 1993, the Presbyterian Chung Kyun Kyung addressed the delegates, saying,

“I want to share three images of God … and how these … [goddesses] transformed my Christianity. … Kali, Quani, and Enna [are] … my new Trinity. … Kali is … a Hindu image. Quani is Buddhist … Enna … is the indigenous goddess of Philippines….”[viii]

At the Seventh World Council of Churches International Conference in Australia, 1992, Chung had already caused controversy by summoning the spirits of the dead in a plenary session. And the W.C.C. Director of Inter-Faith Dialogue, at the same conference, stated,

“Being a good Christian did not include going around telling people of other faiths they had got it all wrong.”

No wonder the local press described the conference in the following terms,

“The World Council of Churches took ecumenism to its farthest limits at the weekend, suggesting Muslims, Hindus and others achieve salvation in the same way as Christians and warning the latter against `narrow thinking.’”[ix]

The danger of the ‘core doctrines’ philosophy is that Christian doctrine disappears completely. This teaching that Muslims, Hindus and others are saved in their own religion is a theology – but it is no longer a Christian one. These examples are not given to criticise those who hold them, but the positions themselves are theological and doctrinal. To consider non-Christians as Christians is a doctrine. To consider that ‘service unites – doctrine divides’ is a doctrine. There is no escaping doctrine.

Some small groups such as the Plymouth Brethren in Great Britain, were born in the late 1820’s out of a desire to experience Christian fellowship and communion beyond denominational boundaries. A.N. Groves, one of the early leaders of this movement wrote,

“In the summer of 1829 our family was at Kingstown, and dear Francis Hutchinson at Bray. We saw each other occasionally, and spoke of the things of the Lord. But where he went on Sunday at that time I cannot tell. I attended the Scotch Church at Kingstown, where all who were understood to be newborn were welcome. But on returning to Dublin in the November of that year, Francis Hutchinson was quite prepared for communion in the name of the Lord, with all, whoever they might be, that loved Him in sincerity.”[x]

The early Brethren history shows that their communion was founded on the expression of a simple shared love of Christ. But within a few years they had fragmented. Doctrinal positions intruded and in fact by the end of the 19th century there were 4 or 5 different Brethren groups, all out of communion with each other. The point is not that doctrine was the cause of division and should have been excluded, but that doctrine can never be excluded from any group seriously seeking after truth and will always cause division. It is only a Christianity that is devoid of any coherent Christian content, which is satisfied with encompassing mutually exclusive theologies.

One of the most important figures in the development of the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th century was J. N. Darby. He was an Irish Episcopal priest who came to reject most the historical churches as apostate and bearing false witness to the Gospel. When discussing the basis of fellowship and participation in the Eucharist, or breaking of bread, as they preferred to describe it, he writes late in his life,

“They do not come really to break bread with us on the ground of the unity of the body, if they think they are not one with us in coming…in the present state of the church we must have much patience, as their minds have been moulded in church membership.”[xi]

It was one of the distinctives of the Plymouth Brethren that the church was encountered in simple worshipping communities such as theirs, and that the basis of such communion was a ‘waiting on the Lord’. There could be, for them, no other church membership than that of membership in the body of Christ. It might be thought that this would produce an ethos which sought union with all other Christian bodies, but in fact these were rejected as being false churches. The simple basis of fellowship did not prevent a strict judgement on others. Darby wrote about the missions of Moody and Sankey, saying,

“I do not fear it, it is wakening up as all these revival works. God graciously allows the work to go on, that there may be this, and people called out; for it has a popularity which is most useful to it as a service (but which it would soon lose – perhaps would never have – if they were faithful).”[xii]

So even as the central doctrine of Plymouth Brethrenism was preserved, that of the simple association of believers ‘waiting on the Lord’ as a remnant, so a strict line of demarcation was drawn between this true church and all the others who were unfaithful. This was not how the movement had begun, but it took only a few decades for it to become thus. And having judged the Christian denominations as wanting it was not so long before judgement was directed towards those who held divergent views within Brethrenism.

The factors behind the disintegration of Christian groups in modern times are indeed complex. In the case of the Plymouth Brethren they concerned Christological and Ecclesiological matters. The Brethren had a particular understanding of the nature of the Church and different perspectives on this doctrine tended to directly cause breaches in communion. Someone who believed differently about the Church of necessity seemed to be outside the communion of those who thought correctly.

In other groups the matters causing division seemed to be much more practical, but at heart these also reflected different theological concerns. In Scotland between the 18th and 20th centuries the national Presbyterian Church of Scotland suffered from many controversies. As an example, in 1733 a group left the national, though not established, Church over the matter of patronage. Was it right that a landowner could appoint the minister of a Church, or should it be a matter for the congregation? Of course this was really an issue of different ecclesiologies. But then this seceding group also split again in 1747. This time the cause was a section in the oath required of all officials in the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth. Thus two groups were formed, Burghers and Anti-Burghers. Just 50 years later both of these groups suffered further fragmentation over the jurisdiction of civil authority within the Church, and there were then four groups of seceding Presbyterians – New and Old Light Burghers, and New and Old Light Anti-Burgers. There were many other divisions within Scottish Presbyterianism, and even though the doctrinal core was substantially the same for all of the groups these practical matters all had a theological component. In fact looking back at those divisions, and the re-unions which took place in the 19th century, Professor G.N.M. Collins of the Free Church College, Edinburgh, writes,

“Now it is not of the true spirit of Presbyterianism to rejoice in division, and when long-parted brethren decide to confer about the causes of disunion, with a view to removing them, the occasion is, and ought to be, one for praise and thanksgiving. But it is just at that point that care has to be exercised, for too often it has happened that in such negotiations the zeal for reunion has induced a spirit of compromise in which agreements are reached that blur vital principles and override the teaching of the Holy Scriptures — that teaching that must always be regulative of the Church’s life and doctrine if she is to enjoy Divine blessing in her work.”[xiii]

Even today then, the descendants of those engaged in these controversies do not look back on them as being merely matters of practice, but as issues which were resonant with theological content. In both the Plymouth Brethren and Presbyterianism there are those for whom these century old disputes are still alive.

The more common, modern Christian response to such divisions is to categorise them as signs of human weakness, lack of love and unnecessary exclusivity. As a result relationships between Christians of different groups have increasingly become dependent on shared experiences rather than a shared doctrinal base, outside of certain variable core beliefs. Even at the time of the Billy Graham evangelism crusades in the 1950’s in London young people were discovering that if theology were put to one side then in fact they could all share in the worship of God at these major events. This has been summed up by some modern Christians as – ‘we need less doctrine, more love’. Graham’s methods are criticised savagely by some traditional evangelicals,

“As a young Christian, I attended that Crusade(1966); despite sitting attentively, I did not realise that Graham had just spoken, let alone that he had just given a ‘gospel’ message!  The meeting was hyped-up by extensive use of emotional music; many counsellors were wishy-washy or Biblically unsound.”[xiv]

Of course we always need more love, but the practical rejection of doctrinal distinctives is itself a doctrinal position. In the British Isles this has resulted in groups such as the Plymouth Brethren virtually ceasing to exist as a coherent movement since they have assimilated so many other features of modern evangelicalism. The Plymouth Brethren is now simply another variant of 21st century evangelicalism with paid pastors, even women leaders – and has quietly dropped those teachings which maintained a separate identity.[xv]

At major Christian events Roman Catholics attend as freely and comfortably as Evangelicals. Within a single generation the nature of ecumenical relationships has completely changed. Even 30 years ago most Evangelicals would not attend a Christian event where a Roman Catholic was taking some public part. But now, it is almost a mark of progressiveness that the list of speakers and contributors should be as wide and varied as possible. Billy Graham is criticised for working with Roman Catholics, but increasingly such criticism sounds strident and out of step with the times.

Who could criticize the greater evidence of Christian charity which is now exhibited. But something has been lost. Such freedom of association and communion is an entirely theological position, and like every other theological proposition requires consideration and evaluation. The modern opinion, that in fact as far as the important Christian truths are concerned everyone believes the same, depends on some agreement as to which Christian truths are core.

Thus, the classical Pentecostal teaching that the gift of tongues is the initial sign of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is dropped within wider Evangelicalism because it is exclusive and does not fit in with the spirit of the age. The Anglican introduction of women priests is described in terms of equality and enabling so that any who have a theological criticism are labelled as misogynists or anachronistic.[xvi]Those who have difficulty with the acceptance of homosexual practice, or wish to retain some authority in the text of the Bible, are equally likely to find themselves under attack. In fact what the modern ecumenical movement detests more than anything else is firmly held theological opinion. Even organisations with commendable social aims such as Faithworks in the UK, display no willingness to deal with doctrine as a necessary component of social action. Politicians stand beside beaming Christian leaders in staged photo opportunities, and a wide variety of Christian groups are members of the governing body. But if there is to be no distinction between Moslems, Roman Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals, as long as all share the same social aims, and all are represented on the Faithworks Council of Reference, then what form of Christianity is being promoted through social activity? Indeed the Faithworks website has little to say about faith at all. Members are not required to accept even a bare minimum of historic Christian doctrines but must rather accept a series of policy statements that are exactly of the sort produced by secular social services departments around the world.

In recent years this ecumenical drive towards tolerance of everything except principled opinion has led to inter-faith services as well as inter-denominational activities. If what matters is sincerity and love then how may a sincere Muslim, or a sincere Hindu be excluded from the community of those who love God, whatever His Name may be. One such event took place in a Methodist church in Guam in 2001, it was not at all extraordinary. Baha’is, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all joined together in prayer. A Christian has the right to ask to which God these people, united in genuine feelings of shared experience and human fellowship, were praying? Such a service denies the particularity of Christianity at an extreme which most Christians still hesitate to accept. Nevertheless, it is not such a great step from a Christianity devoid of doctrine to union in prayer with all who are sincere in their religious opinions.

At it’s heart this modern ecumenicism rejects discussion of doctrine and theology as being opposed to love and charity. But the very rejection of such dialogue is itself a rejection of love and charity. If I will not hear what another believes then how am I showing love by embracing him, I am in fact rejecting who he really is and what he really believes.

What are those who hold to traditional Christian values and teachings to do in these circumstances? Strangely enough the model for a theologically robust dialogue is found not in the West but in the East. In the West, over just the last generation, this minimalist model of inter-Christian relationships has gained almost universal acceptance. Dr Nazir-Ali, Anglican bishop of Rochester in England, was recently asked about the prospects for Christian unity if women bishops were introduced into the Church of England. He replied that “unity can never contradict the Church’s commitment to justice”[xvii]. What this really means is that unity with those who reject women bishops will be allowed to wither away as long as the modern theological commitment to sexual equality does not suffer. Unity is clearly predicated on the rejection of traditional ways of thinking, which are re-branded as ‘unjust’.

Organisations have come into being in many of the Protestant churches which seek, as the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church describes,

“…to confront and repudiate teachings and practices in The United Methodist Church that currently challenge the truth of Jesus Christ–the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, and the Lord of all.”[xviii]

There is a real need for such principled stands. The Confessing Movement describes the situation in the United Methodist Church as being one where,

The United Methodist Church is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith, particularly Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of history and the Church. While giving assent to Jesus Christ as Lord, our denomination tolerates opinions that “strike at the root of Christianity” (John Wesley). Our Church suffers from private versions of the faith that do not find their root in Scripture.“[xix]

The difficulty which all of these confessing groups face, and there are many such groups in most historic Christian denominations, is that they are always engaged in a conflict with others in the same body who profess a different theological position. In Anglicanism, as well as in Methodism, Lutheranism and the Baptist movement, the identification of theological variation tends to produce conflict. Each side is seeking to win the body over to its way of thinking and believing. There is an urgency about such contests because there is every possibility, as modern church history illustrates, that the community could indeed be lost to one party and control gained by another.

This is evidenced by the description of the practical, ecclesial and pastoral results of such conflict. Dealing with a real situation which the U.M.C. is being forced to consider, a member of the Confessing Movement writes,

“….this radical minority of clergy in open defiance of The Discipline disavow their vows and would lead the Church astray. The Western Jurisdiction boldly proclaimed this in a statement, “We Will Not Be Silent”. The statement declares, ‘We cannot accept discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons and, therefore, we will work toward their full participation at all levels in the life of the church and society’. (This means homosexual ordination and same-sex covenants.) The Council of Bishops remains silent while one part of our connectional system ignores, violates and openly rejects the polity of our Church. Are we really a Connectional Church? Is there a covenant that binds us together as United Methodists? There was a time when we could count on General Conference maintaining our unity, even if we had theological differences. Today, the broken covenant is destroying our unity and eroding any basis for trust. Without trust, there is no foundation for a relationship. If people cannot and will not keep the vows of a covenant, will there be a United Methodist Church?”[xx]

It seems then, that in the real world liberalism and doctrinal orthodoxy cannot exist together. Liberalism is unwilling to extend tolerance to those who have a distinct theological position, while doctrinal exactitude requires the exclusion of non-Christian doctrines and practices. This is why in many churches the repetition of this conflict between an a-theological liberalism and a theological conservatism lead to division and discord. The answer is not further liberalism. That way leads to the abandonment of any coherent Christian position. But equally, it seems that the constant battle for influence and authority within Christian denominations, even on behalf of orthodox and historic doctrines, cannot help but sap the power and vitality of countless committed Christians. Perhaps it is time for such confessing movements to withdraw from those who hold incompatible doctrines. This is not to fragment the church but to allow for the possibility of unity and fellowship among those who love traditional Christianity.

In the East a different model for inter-Christian dialogue prevails. In this model the theological concerns are central, all matters of difference and controversy are brought into the open for honest investigation and discussion. Love and charity are manifested by the acceptance of both difference and the fact of disunity in a spirit of respect and integrity. One of the foundations of this dialogue is that each side believes that it maintains a coherent and historic faith. The participants are not seeking to find some ‘new way’, but to rediscover that they have both been walking along the old ways of their fathers.

Because each participating community is confident in its own theological coherence and integrity there are few of the damaging internal conflicts which preclude real progress in dialogue. When the bishops of one communion speak with and listen to the bishops of another communion it is a matter of fact that the bishops speak for the vast majority of their communities. They have the authority to speak on behalf of all and for the benefit of all. Compare this to the situation in the United Methodist Church, which is only one struggling church among many. There it is possible to find bishops and church leaders speaking on the one hand for the confessing movement and the historical position of the U.M.C., while at the same time other bishops, such as Bishop Judith Craig, advocate the rejection of all historic Christianity, expressing the proclaiming,

“We are saying of tradition and orthodoxy that it is the heresy”.

What hope is there for a clear voice in dialogue with other Christian communities when there is such inconsistency at the heart of any church.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches and those of the Oriental Orthodox Churches do not suffer such debilitating theological controversies within their communities. They have therefore been able to come together to examine the differences between their communions, without having to deal with a multiplicity of divergent theological positions, each arguing for inclusion. Since the 6th century these two ancient communions of Christians have maintained separate jurisdictions and traditions, even within the same geographic regions. Thus there are Greek and Coptic Orthodox Patriarchs of Alexandria. The one is Pope Petros VII, and the other is Pope Shenouda III. The one cares for a community of perhaps a few tens of thousands in Egypt, the other many millions, though both are increasingly responsible for successful missionary efforts in the rest of Africa. In other places there are Greek and Syriac Orthodox Churches co-existing together, yet standing apart for the same 1500 years. Further afield in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Armenia and India other Oriental Orthodox Churches have existed since some of the earliest Christian centuries without being in contact with the Eastern Orthodox.

Likewise, since the 6th century, Eastern Orthodoxy has also developed in Eastern Europe, and, until the schism of the Roman Catholics in the West, had maintained a Western Orthodox presence centred on Rome. These Churches have also grown without any meaningful contact with the Oriental Orthodox.

Neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Oriental Orthodoxy has a centralised organisation analogous to the Papacy in the West. The Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I, may have the title ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’, but this is almost entirely an honorary designation, reflecting the ancient importance of Constantinople in imperial times. Nowadays the Greek community in Turkey is a few thousands, and most of the Orthodox Christians with a relationship to the Ecumenical Patriarch are members of other Churches in Europe and the Americas. The ‘Popes’ of Alexandria are equally not the heads of organisations like those established by Rome. Pope means ‘father’, and both of these bishops, Petros VII and Shenouda III, are senior bishops and spiritual fathers within their respective Churches not heads over them.

In the mind of many Christians, the matters that divided these two ancient communities over 1500 years ago are obscure in the extreme. Questions of hypostasis and physis hardly loom large in many Western conversations. But in the East the controversies of the 5th and 6th century are as important now as they were then. Unlike the Scottish Presbyterians, who have generally reconciled themselves as the matters of controversy became less important, the Orthodox of both communions still find themselves defining their faith by the exclusion of error. They are still on the constant lookout for heresy in a way that is almost inconceivable to an Evangelical, a Lutheran or even a Roman Catholic.

Whereas modern Western Christianity is coming to define itself by experiences and individual spiritualities, Eastern Christianity believes that personal experience and spirituality has no meaning or value unless measured against the doctrinal standard of the whole of the Christian faith. This is the faith which each generation receives and which each strives to pass on unchanged. According to the Orthodox perspective, if a form of Christianity is doctrinally defective then it mediates a defective salvation.

In the West many people may be concerned at the ‘health and wealth’ teaching of some American and Asian pastors. It seems common sense to a lot of ordinary Christians that health and wealth are not necessarily signs of a good relationship with Christ. In fact the philosophy that illness and poverty are due to a lack of faith is deeply offensive to those who have any sort of sympathy with the needy billions in the world. This defective teaching would seem to produce defective understandings of salvation and a perverse spirituality. But it is only one extreme example of the point of view which Orthodox Christians apply to all teachings which deviate from the historic faith they have received.

More than any other Christian communities then, these two, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, have been as careful as possible to maintain from century to century the same doctrinal foundations. They have taken a maximalist view of theology, that is that everything is important and needs to be believed, rather than the minimalist position of the West where a small core of beliefs is sufficient for unity. On the one hand this has preserved actively the same theological controversies which divided them. But on the other hand this has preserved these Churches from the debilitating divisions which seem to have struck almost every other Church.

At present the Oriental Orthodox have some internal tensions due to external political circumstances. The Indian Orthodox Church finds itself divided between those who look for leadership to an indigenous Indian Catholicos, and those who look to the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch. In Africa the Ethiopian Orthodox Church finds it has some problems in its relationship with the newly formed Eritrean Orthodox Church. These are due to the recent history of these two peoples and the continuing civil and political conflict which exists. These are almost entirely the divisions within Oriental Orthodoxy after 1500 years, there are none of the signs of fragmentations which have afflicted every Western Protestant and Evangelical group.

In the larger Eastern Orthodox communion the divisions that exist are of a similar nature. As the Eastern Orthodox Churches have grown in the West and especially in America they have sought a degree of autonomy from the Mother Churches in the East. This has caused some tension. The Russian Revolution in 1918 and the 70 years of communist rule caused other divisions between the Russian Orthodox in the Soviet Union and those in the West. Nevertheless now that circumstances have changed both groups of Russian Orthodox are seeking reconciliation. There is no doctrinal division between them. Other ex-communist countries have experienced similar difficulties while their political and social circumstances have gone through such rapid change.

Of course there are some fringe elements, most especially in the West, who use the name Orthodox but have little or no relationship to historic Orthodoxy. Neither Eastern nor Oriental Orthodoxy should be judged by them. Many of these groups have a liberal, even Gnostic theology, and though they may have been founded in a missionary spirit, they have become, in too many cases, merely a vehicle for the promotion of those who lead them. There is the prospect, however, of some of these groups finding their way into union with the ancient Orthodox Churches. This has already happened with several of these small Churches. In each case, as with the dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, union has taken place on the basis of the whole Orthodox theology rather than on the basis of a small core of agreed doctrines. The fact that this process has taken place on a small scale provides hope that it can also bear fruit between the larger communions.

There is no real background then, in either Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy, of different denominations existing, such as developed in the West. Those that have left Orthodoxy have joined other groups but they have not been able to create additional Orthodox jurisdictions. Most importantly this is because of the maximalism of Orthodoxy. If someone is really Orthodox then there is little scope for personal and individualistic denominationalism, the whole weight of 2000 years of Tradition militates against it. Anyone seeking to start something new is immediately, and self-evidently, not creating something Orthodox. If a group within one of these Orthodox Churches begins to teach or practice something that does not agree with the received doctrine of the Church then it is not very long before those responsible for preserving the doctrine of the church and the spiritual safety of the people take notice, and then take action. This can be shown to have taken place even in recent years in many of the Orthodox Churches. In November 2001, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church threatened to excommunicate any Russian scientist found to be involved in human embryo cloning.[xxi] In the West there might be years of difficult internal conflict over such a matter within a church that sought to maintain such a position. In Orthodoxy there would hardly be any controversy at all. Such matters are entirely appropriate to the bishops who exercise their ministry within the continuing tradition of their Church.

The Eastern Churches are therefore deeply theological and doctrinally conservative in all things. In this respect they are unlike almost all Western Churches. But if, in the West, theology and doctrinal principle are seen as obstacles to union, how could two Churches, so absolutely committed to preserving a pure doctrine, ever be able to even start talking to each other?

Taking the activity of the Holy Spirit apart for a moment, the theological and doctrinal conservatism of each side is actually a positive aspect in such discussions. If people are talking the same language then they may continue to disagree but at least they can come to understand each other. More than this, the opportunity for theologians of both sides to meet together in a variety of international contexts had led to an informal sense that some of the theological stereotypes with which both sides viewed the other might not be wholly true.

Unlike all of the other points of contact within the last 1500 years there is a real prospect in the 21stcentury that these two ancient communities of Christians could at last be reunited. Both communities exist within a wider pluralistic Christian context and there is no longer any sense in which firm action can protect Christendom from fragmentation. It is already fragmented. Equally the Churches are no longer entangled with the state, dependant on it for support and civil authority. Orthodox, of both families of Churches are now able to work to preserve their own integrity without being either able or desirous of using state power in place of argument.

The oppressive régimes which dominated Orthodox Church life for the past centuries have also crumbled and made possible an open dialogue, free from external interference. There are still local problems, the Greeks in Turkey and the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt still suffer civil disabilities which impair their witness. But they can speak to each other in a way that was not possible even one hundred years ago.

Even the recent development of new technologies such as the Internet have made instant communication something that even bishops and patriarchs take advantage of. It no longer takes months for garbled and partial information about an event to spread around the world. Now the full details, with colour pictures and even video clips, can be made available globally almost immediately. Interested and thoughtful members of both communities are in constant contact with each other, not only in the historic homelands of Orthodoxy, but in the West, via email and countless other forms of communication.

The world has changed, and though both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox remain as committed as ever to the tradition and theology they have each preserved, nevertheless a changed world both enables and demands that positive and respectful communication and dialogue take place. It is no longer the case that either party in these meetings will be exiled or face hardship and death. There are no armies at the gate seeking to enforce a theological perspective. For the first time it is possible for each side to meet and simply listen and discuss and understand. There may perhaps be no reunion at this time, but everything is gained and nothing is lost by understanding what the other believes and teaches.

To participate in a dialogue is not to grant the other side any theological legitimacy beyond that required towards any thoughtful theological position. It does not require acceptance of the ‘branch theory’ of ecumenics, that we are all branches of one Christian tree. It does not require acceptance of fault or blame or any deficiency. It merely requires the exercise of Christian charity and a willingness to let the other explain for himself what he believes. Indeed in these discussions between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox it is clear that both consider themselves the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ which they equally seek to preserve. Both approach the other with a mixture of caution and interest.

Of course there are real obstacles towards the reunion of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and these must not be downplayed. But at least the Orthodox of both communions are speaking much the same theological language, despite terminological and historical differences.

The main areas of controversy are of course those concerning the Christological controversy of the 5th and 6th centuries. It is necessary to determine what is actually believed by each side and how far the different terminologies reflect a similar theological substance. This has occupied much of the discussion over the last 35 years. The most important theological matter concerns the manner in which Christ is understood as both human and Divine. Is He God united in some manner with a man, or is He God and man in some third way which is neither Divine nor human, but a mixture of both? Or is He perhaps almost entirely Divine and has His humanity been swallowed up in an ocean of divinity? Of course all of these positions are considered heretical by both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, but they are the type of accusations which each has levelled against the other. There is still a great deal of work to be done to express the positive content of each communion’s Christology in a manner which satisfies the other as far as possible.

There are other issues of equal importance that have been raised in these decades of discussion. These must also be dealt with even if agreement on Christology is reached. What should be done with the later four ecumenical councils of the Eastern Orthodox? How should certain historical figures, venerated by one community and judged unacceptable by the other, be dealt with if re-union came about? What about the historical fact of overlapping jurisdictions, and the anathemas issued by each group against the other? How should the liturgical texts, with great antiquity, be dealt with when they condemn Christians of the other community?

These are all live issues that will still present obstacles to re-union even if the theological controversy is resolved once and for all. But surely if a positive doctrinal unity is established then these other matters should not be allowed to promote the continuation of a separation which lacks substance.

Over the last centuries there have been several opportunities for reconciliation. In the earliest centuries, as will be described later on, the possibilities foundered over the status of the Council of Chalcedon. Indeed it seems that discussion rarely proceeded as far as explaining the particular beliefs of each group. The Oriental Orthodox had a low opinion of the council, and the Eastern Orthodox a high opinion. Rapidly it became the subject of polemics, a standard for defining Orthodoxy. This prevented peaceable discussion of it’s content and purpose. It prevented sensible discussion of the objections raised against it as well. The introduction of civil penalties against those who either supported or rejected the council only made a normalising of church life even more difficult.

The last of these early opportunities took place between 532-535 A.D. The Emperor Justinian was married to the Empress Theodora who tended to support the non-Chalcedonian bishops. She had already provided important encouragement and worked hard to mitigate the severity of any official actions being taken against those who could not accept the outcome of the council of Chalcedon.

At the beginning, soon after her marriage, she had persuaded the Emperor to call off the persecution of the non-Chalcedonians. Bishops and clergy were able to travel even to the Imperial capital itself, Constantinople, where they were received with dignity and honour by Theodora. Even one of the palaces, that of Hormisdas, was given over to non-Chalcedonian monks, who thereby enjoyed the protection of the Empress.

The Empress persuaded Justinian that if a series of meetings were held between the two parties then there was some hope of reconciliation. Certainly more hope than any amount of persecution offered. It was especially important that Severus, the exiled patriarch of Antioch be present at such meetings. He had been the tutor of Theodora herself when she had spent time in Alexandria, together with Timothy of Alexandria, whom she called ‘her spiritual father’.[xxii]

Justinian agreed to meet Severus and an invitation was sent to him in Egypt. Severus, and those with him, were suspicious of this approach, seeing as how they were already in exile as the result of Imperial policy. On this occasion Severus begged to be excused because of his age, invitations were sent to others who shared the theological position of Severus and the planned series of meetings took place in Constantinople. The details of these meetings have not been preserved except for a reference to them in a number of letters.[xxiii]

It would appear that up to 500 bishops and leading monks assembled in Constantinople in March 532 A.D. The non-Chalcedonians submitted a confession of faith to the Emperor, explaining why they could not accept the council of Chalcedon, or the Tome of Leo, and setting out their own doctrinal position. A hoped for reconciliation did not take place. But at least each side had been able to present its position without violence. Persecution had ceased and the non-Chalcedonian movement was prospering. In such circumstances the suspicion of some of the leaders of the non-Chalcedonians diminished, and Severus agreed to travel to Constantinople.

In May 535 A.D. Jacob Baradeus, Peter of Apamea in Syria Secunda, the monk Zooras, Sheikh Harith ibn Jabala of the Christian Arabs, all arrived and were given accommodation in the Palace of Hormisdas. And of course Severus of Antioch came also, and impressed the Emperor as much as Theodora had hoped. One minister of state, Theodore, even gave away all of his wealth and joined the non-Chalcedonian monks, and aristocrats such as Tribonius were also converted by the visitors and became monks, or opened their homes for the non-Chalcedonians to minister in.

On 5th June, 535 A.D. the Patriarch Ephiphanius of Constantinople died and his replacement was announced as Anthimus, a man with a good reputation for learning and asceticism, but also with secret sympathies for the non-Chalcedonians. Shortly after his consecration however, Patriarch Timothy of Alexandria also died, and the Empress once more made every effort to secure an appropriate successor. The choice was a moderate non-Chalcedonian, Theodosius, but back in Alexandria another party had chosen a more extreme man, Gaianus.

All of this illustrates the complexity of the times. These meetings between the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians could not take place in a vacuum. But were constantly influenced by events unfolding in the world around. But at the early stages of this second series of meetings non-Chalcedonians were Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria, and were de jure Patriarch of Antioch in the person of Severus.

Yet this hardly promoted the process of reconciliation. It is said that they complained that,

“Severus was a pagan in league with the devil, who practiced black magic in his spare time; Peter of Apamea was an immoral pig having his stomach for God and regularly patronising prostitutes; Zooras was off his head, a dangerous madman; and Anthimus, the new patriarch, was awolf n sheep’s clothing, a sly and deceitful hypocrite, a liar and dissembler.”[xxiv]

This being the case it is clear that no amount of theological agreement could ever be reached when such animosity lay hardly buried beneath the surface of the Chalcedonians in Constantinople who were furious that they had suffered such setbacks in just 10 years of Justinian and Theodora’s rule.

In fact at this very time Pope Agapetus of Rome arrived in Constantinople on a diplomatic mission for Theodahad, the Gothic King of Italy. War was pending between the Goths and the Empire, but Agapetus had been sent on a surprise mission to try and prevent hostilities. In fact the main issue in his own mind was the potential for what he perceived as heresy gaining control in the East. He took the Emperor to task and it became clear that the price of support for the Emperor in the West was his rejection of the non-Chalcedonians.

Justinian had committed himself to the military recovery of Italy and could not afford to lose the support of the Italian people. Certainly his support for the non-Chalcedonians had at least partially been a matter of practical real-politik, and now it was more important to maintain unity with the West. Almost overnight Anthimus found himself deposed, Severus and many others were smuggled out of the city and back into exile. The new patriarch, Menas, took a strictly Chalcedonian line, calling a council that excommunicated all of his opponents in their absence. The Emperor legislated against the non-Chalcedonians promulgating an edict on 6th August, 536 A.D. which made it a criminal offence to hold the non-Chalcedonian theological position. All of their churches and properties where made over to the Chalcedonians, all of their bishops and clergy had to maintain their ministries in secret, much as the Roman Catholics during the penal centuries in Great Britain, and no official post in the Empire was open to any of them.[xxv]

It is clear that these discussions in the 6th century actually took place within a context of great mutual political, social and religious hostility. If the Emperor and Empress were able to maintain a degree of respect for the leaders of both parties it is not clear that either side had such respect for the other. Certainly whenever the Chalcedonians were in the ascendant they used every political power at their disposal to disadvantage and persecute the non-Chalcedonians. In such circumstances it is not surprising that the meetings failed to produce the desired results.

With the invasion of much of the Eastern Roman Empire by the Arabs in the 7th century many Orthodox Christians passed out of the direct influence of Constantinople. Although welcomed locally as a relief from Imperial harassment, nevertheless such occupation precluded the development of ecumenical links with the Churches within the Empire. Even with the domination of the Middle East by the Ottomans there was little scope for reconciliation, it hardly suited the Muslim ruling class to have a united Christian community within their boundaries. On one occasion, when the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria made moves to unite with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate he was poisoned to death. Orthodoxy is by nature conservative but the experience of hundreds of years of oppressive regimes worked against any imaginative schemes for opening contacts between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communities.

This present context is perhaps the most hopeful since the first breaches in understanding took place even before the council of Chalcedon. The political, social and even religious circumstances no longer apply. Orthodox are Christians in a pluralistic world. It is not possible for all of Christendom to be encompassed by one communion, as far as we can see, by mere force of argument, or by political pressure. Thirty thousand different denominations in the world cannot be undone by a U.N. declaration.

Neither side has anything to fear from the other. There will be no exiles, no imprisonments, no ruin of monasteries and villages. For almost the first time in history there is the opportunity for bishops, theologians, clergy and religious to simply talk to each other, listen to each other, understand each other. There are no pressures, except the requirement to maintain the integrity of each position. There is every scope for imaginative solutions to 1500 years of separation.

If the Orthodox Churches have such an unprecedented opportunity to work for the restoration of communion then what is required of them to make the most of this dialogue? Surely it must be a willingness to listen to the other party with sincerity and honesty putting aside all polemics and stereotypes. The Oriental Orthodox can easily fall back on accusations of Chalcedonian Nestorianism, and the Eastern Orthodox have their accusations of non-Chalcedonian Eutychianism. Such attitudes prevent all progress and are essentially un-Orthodox, since they fail to show that Christian charity which is the mark of true faith. There must be a willingness to unravel the historic theological terminology each side has used and promoted. Language in itself is neither Orthodox not un-Orthodox, it is the meaning and content of language which must be judged. Orthodox of both communions must ask what the others mean, not having regard simply to what is said.

There should be some sense in which it is made possible to think ‘outside the box’. What if both communions do confess the same Christology in substance? How far must the differences be pressed, how far must there be an insistence that the developments which have taken place in one communion are superior to those which have taken place in the other? Discussion of these possible outcomes should not be seen as equating to having adopted any possible outcome. There are too many Orthodox, especially in some of the small separatist ‘traditional’ Orthodox groups, who consider that dialogue is the same as agreement.

This method of approaching these controversial matters has now gained almost 40 years of practice. From the first un-official meeting held at Aarhus, Denmark in 1964, to the more recent official meetings and the Joint Statements produced by some of these meetings, a great amount of listening has taken place. It is clear from the documents of the first meetings that there was still a great deal of hesitancy on both sides, but even in 1964 important theologians such as Fr. John Romanides, of the Greek Orthodox, were able to write, as an example of the growth in understanding of each side,

“In the self-justifying heat of polemics after 451 each side claimed a monopoly of understanding of the precise meaning of the term physis which from the point of view of the history of dogma is untenable. Failure to realize this can only lead us back to the ridiculous debate concerning the superiority of one’s own Fathers over the Fathers of the other side. We must be very clear about the fact that the Chalcedonians means two ousiai when they speak of two physeis after the union, whereas the non-Chalcedonians, as pointed out very clearly by Father Samuel’s paper also, do not mean one ousia when they speak of one physis after the union.”[xxvi]

Had any other Eastern Orthodox been able to draw such a considered and sympathetic judgement on the position of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox at any time between the fifth century and 1964? There were certainly not many opportunities for such an approach, and at no other time have the fruits been so genuine and likely to succeed.

Of course Orthodoxy is both separate from, and engaged in ecumenical dialogue with, a variety of other Christian groups and Churches. There are dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, with the Lutheran Churches, the Anglican, the Reformed, even with the Assyrian Church, those who reject the Third Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in 381 AD. In all of these cases the dialogue proceeds on the same basis as that between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. The integrity of the faith is paramount, everything is discussed with that understood as the Orthodox position.

With some of these other groups the progress is not so encouraging. The dialogue between the Anglican and Oriental Orthodox Churches has often stalled because the Anglican side has been unable to present a coherent position. After some years of contact an International Commission was finally established in July 2001. That Christology was at the heart of the first meetings planned for 2002 should not be a surprise. The Orthodox participants in all of these discussions and dialogues are unable to separate theological matters from ecumenical relations.

The object of this present study is to describe the historical and theological circumstances which have led to the centuries old breach in communion between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The aim is to explore and seek to understand each position and honestly suggest the areas in which there are agreements as well as those points on which genuine controversy remains. In the first parts the early history of the Christological controversy will be presented and the various Christological heresies described. There have always been heresies taught about Christ even from the first Christian century. In this study the controversial points will begin with the heresies of Arius, Apollinarius and Nestorius. There will be a need to consider the history of Christological controversy during the times that these heresies flourished since this is the context in which the council of Chalcedon took place. The situation at the time of Chalcedon will be explored in some depth and the means by which the theological disagreements between various parties became the source for ecclesiastical separation.

The different theological approaches to the controversial Christological points will each be considered in turn. These include the Divinity and Humanity of Christ, the Union of Natures, and the Will of Christ. Each of these matters became a source of controversy in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries and served to further harden the polemical and isolationist position of each side relative to the other. Later parts will examine the various theological approaches of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and will seek to describe the points of agreement and areas where disagreement may remain. The work of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox over the last decades has shown just how much agreement is possible. The relative importance of these points of disagreement will also be considered with respect to the possibility of reconciliation between the communions. It may well be that even where there is disagreement this could be allowed as diversity within a theological unity.

The final instalment will look at the recent efforts for union based on the last few decades of official and un-official meetings, and will make some suggestions for future developments in these efforts. There have already been a number of suggestions made by the Joint Commission to promote the reconciliation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Some of these are uncontroversial measures such as promoting the mutual education of each communion about the other. We propose to examine how far these proposals have been taken up and put into practice.

Of course these contacts between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox are not wholeheartedly endorsed in every quarter. The need for an honest approach to these controversial matters requires that even those who object be given a hearing. Some of those who object to the past forty years of dialogue include such venerable bodies as the monks of Mount Athos[xxvii], others are some of the more extreme and isolated Old Calendarist bodies who consider most of the Eastern Orthodox world to have fallen into the ecumenicist heresy.[xxviii]

The intent of this study is to support and promote the ongoing dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Many Eastern Orthodox are still unaware of the actual content of the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox, it is hoped that these chapters may play some small part in supplying that lack. Others on both sides may have only been provided with polemical phrases and caricatures with which to understand the opposing tradition. Perhaps these sections can also serve to make the different positions plain. Certainly this is in accord with the intentions of the bishops and other participants in the Joint Dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. They issued a series of ‘Recommendations on Pastoral Issues’ in 1990 which urged the publication of materials which positively dealt with these controversial matters in an eirenic spirit.[xxix]


[i] John XVII:11


[ii] World Christian Encyclopaedia, OUP

[iii] These Churches are the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the International Council of Community Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church

[iv] Michael C. Armour, Unity in the Churches of Christ – An historical perspective.  Fourth Stone-Campbell Dialogue – 2001 “Among young adults in Churches of Christ, many have no memory of our exclusivist past, for they have no experience with congregations of that stripe. Moreover, they seem to have returned instinctively to Thomas Campbell’s original distinctions. Like him they see no Biblical grounds for drawing lines of fellowship on anything apart from absolute core doctrines. And again like him they feel comfortable praying, worshipping, and working in ministry alongside those who differ with them in various doctrinal details.”

[v] ed. S. F. Bayne Theological Freedom and Social Responsibility The Seabury Press, 1967, p22

[vi] Ecumenical Press Service, December 1-5, 1986, Year 53/Issue 36

[vii] Salt Lake Tribune, Sat., May 22, 1999

[viii] Foundation, July/Aug. 1994, 6-7.

[ix] The Australian, 1992

[x] William B. Neatby, A history of the Plymouth Brethren. 1901

[xi] J.N. Darby Collected Writings Vol XXXI p. 556 London, undated

[xii] J.N. Darby Collected Writings Vol XXXI p. 562 London, undated

[xiii] Professor G.N.M. Collins, The Heritage of our Fathers. Knox Press

[xiv] K.B. Napier, Billy Graham, A man of God?. Bible Theology Ministries website

[xv] Rowland Croucher, Paper presented to Romaine Park Christian Centre. May 1993

[xvi] Comment, New Directions, December 2001

[xvii] Church Times, 23rd March 2001. Women Bishops: Working party will take the next step.

[xviii] A Confessional Statement, The Confessing Movement, United Methodist Church

[xix] A Confessional Statement, The Confessing Movement, United Methodist Church

[xx] Dr. Ira Gallaway, We Confess, The Broken Covenant, Vol 8 Iss 4. July/August 2002

[xxi] RFE/RL Newsline,” 28 November

[xxii] Anthony Bridge, Theodora, p. 32. Cassell 1978

[xxiii] Father V.C. Samuel,  The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, p 171 Xlibris 2001

[xxiv] Anthony Bridge, Theodora, p130. Cassell 1978

[xxv] Father V.C. Samuel,  The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, p 175 Xlibris 2001

[xxvi] John .S. Romanides in Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite, p.65, WCC Geneva 1981

[xxvii] Memorandum of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos concerning the Dialogue between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonian Churches

[xxviii] From Orthodox TraditionVol. XVIII, No. 4 (2001), pp. 2-6. Translated from the Greek original in Orthodoxos Enstasis kai Martyria, Second Series, Vol. I, No. 1 (January 2000), pp. 9-15.

[xxix] Recommendations on Pastoral Issues of the Joint Commission, Chambesy, Switzerland, Sept 23-28, 1990 in Towards Unity, Inter-Orthodox Dialogue 1998. p. 65

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