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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Orthodox Church and The reunion of Christians
      • One Holy Catholic Church: What do we mean?
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One Holy Catholic Church: What do we mean?

The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic, and

Apostolic Church,’ of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides

Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There are divisions among Christians, but the

Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be.

Christians of the Reformation traditions will perhaps protest, ‘This is a hard saying; who

can hear it?’ It may seem to them that this exclusive claim on the Orthodox side precludes any

seriousecumenical dialogue’ with the Orthodox, and any constructive work for reunion. And

yet they would be utterly wrong to draw such a conclusion: for, paradoxically enough, over the

past half century there have been a large number of encouraging and fruitful contacts between

Orthodox and other Christians. Although enormous obstacles still remain, there has also been

great progress towards a reconciliation.

If Orthodox claim to be the one true Church, what then do they consider to be the status of

those Christians who do not belong to their communion? Different Orthodox would answer in

slightly different ways, for although all loyal Orthodox are agreed in their fundamental teaching

concerning the Church, they do not entirely agree concerning the practical consequences which

follow from this teaching. There is first a more moderate group, which includes most of those

Orthodox who have had close personal contact with other Christians. This group holds that,

while it is true to say that Orthodoxy is the Church, it is false to conclude from this that those

who are not Orthodox cannot possibly belong to the Church. Many people may be members of

the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The

Spirit of God blows where it will, and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church.

We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not; and so we must refrain from

passing judgment on non-Orthodox Christians. In the eloquent words of Khomiakov: ‘Inasmuch

as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which

the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only

within her own limits; and ... does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as

excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind,

whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her,

she leaves to the judgment of the great day’ (The Church is One, section 2 (italics not in the original)).

There is only one Church, but there are many different ways of being related to this one

Church, and many different ways of being separated from it. Some non-Orthodox are very close

indeed to Orthodoxy, others less so; some are friendly to the Orthodox Church, others indifferent

or hostile. By God’s grace the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of truth (so its members

are bound to believe), but there are other Christian communions which possess to a greater or

lesser degree a genuine measure of Orthodoxy. All these facts must be taken into account: one

cannot simply say that all non-Orthodox are outside the Church, and leave it at that; one cannot

treat other Christians as if they stood on the same level as unbelievers.

Such is the view of the more moderate party. But there also exists in the Orthodox Church a

more rigorous group, who hold that since Orthodoxy is the Church, anyone who is not Orthodox


cannot be a member of the Church. Thus Metropolitan Antony, head of the Russian Church in

Exile and one of the most distinguished of modern Russian theologians, wrote in his Catechism:

Question: Is it possible to admit that a split within the Church or among the Churches could

ever take place?

Answer: Never. Heretics and schismatics have from time to time fallen away from the one

indivisible Church, and, by so doing, they ceased to be members of the Church, but the Church

itself can never lose its unity according to Christ’s promise’ (Italics not in the original).

Of course (so this stricter group add) divine grace is certainly active among many

non-Orthodox, and if they are sincere in their love of God, then we may be sure that God will

have mercy upon them; but they cannot, in their present state, be termed members of the Church.

Workers for Christian unity who do not often encounter this rigorist school should not forget that

such opinions are held by many Orthodox of great learning and holiness.

Because they believe their Church to be the true Church, Orthodox can have but one ultimate

desire: the conversion or reconciliation of all Christians to Orthodoxy. Yet it must not be

thought that Orthodox demand the submission of other Christians to a particular center of power

and jurisdiction (‘Orthodoxy does not desire the submission of any person or group; it wishes to make each one

understand’ (S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, p. 214)). The Orthodox Church is a family of sister

Churches, decentralized in structure, which means that separated communities can be integrated

into Orthodoxy without forfeiting their autonomy: Orthodoxy desires their reconciliation, not

their absorption (Compare the title of a famous paper written by Dom Lambert Beauduin and read by Cardinal

Mercier at the Malines Conversations, ‘The Anglican Church united, not absorbed’). In all reunion discussions

Orthodox are guided (or at any rate ought to be guided) by the principle of unity in diversity.

They do not seek to turn western Christians into Byzantines or ‘Orientals,’ nor do they desire to

impose a rigid uniformity on all alike: for there is room in Orthodoxy for many different cultural

patterns, for many different ways of worship, and even for many different systems of outward


Yet there is one field in which diversity cannot be permitted. Orthodoxy insists upon unity

in matters of the faith. Before there can be reunion among Christians, there must first be full

agreement in faith: this is a basic principle for Orthodox in all their ecumenical relations. It is

unity in the faith that matters, not organizational unity; and to secure unity of organization at the

price of a compromise in dogma is like throwing away the kernel of a nut and keeping the shell.

Orthodox are not willing to take part in a ‘minimalreunion scheme, which secures agreement on

a few points and leaves everything else to private opinion. There can be only one basis for union

— the fullness of the faith; for Orthodoxy looks on the faith as a united and organic whole.

Speaking of the Anglo-Russian Theological Conference at Moscow in 1956, the present Archbishop

of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, expressed the Orthodox viewpoint exactly: ‘The

Orthodox said in effect: ‘…The Tradition is a concrete fact. Here it is, in its totality. Do you Anglicans

accept it, or do you reject it?’ The Tradition is for the Orthodox one indivisible whole:

the entire, life of the Church in its fullness of belief and custom down the ages, including Mariology

and the veneration of icons. Faced with this challenge, the typically Anglican reply is: ‘We

would not regard veneration of icons or Mariology as inadmissible, provided that in determining

what is necessary to salvation, we confine ourselves to Holy Scripture.’ But this reply only

throws into relief the contrast between the Anglican appeal to what is deemed necessary to salvation

and the Orthodox appeal to the one indivisible organism of Tradition, to tamper with any


part of which is to spoil the whole, in the sort of way that a single splodge on a picture can mar

its beauty (‘The Moscow Conference in Retrospect,’ in Sobornost, series 3, no. 23, 1958, pp. 562-563).

In the words of another Anglican writer: ‘It has been said that the Faith is like a network

rather than an assemblage of discrete dogmas; cut one strand and the whole pattern loses its

meaning’ (T. M. Parker, ‘Devotion to the Mother of God,’ in The Mother of God, edited by E. L. Mascall, p. 74).

Orthodox, then, ask of other Christians that they accept Tradition as a whole; but it must be remembered

that there is a difference between Tradition and traditions. Many beliefs held by Orthodox

are not a part of the one Tradition, but are simply theologoumena, theological opinions;

and there can be no question of imposing mere matters of opinion on other Christians. Men can

possess full unity in the faith, and yet hold divergent theological opinions in certain fields.

This basic principle — no reunion without unity in the faith — has an important corollary:

until unity in the faith has been achieved, there can be no communion in the sacraments. Communion

at the Lord’s Table (most Orthodox believe) cannot be used to secure unity in the faith,

but must come as the consequence and crown of a unity already attained. Orthodoxy rejects the

whole concept of ‘intercommunion’ between separated Christian bodies, and admits no form of

sacramental fellowship short of full communion. Either Churches are in communion with one

another, or they are not: there can be no half-way house (Such is the standard Orthodox position. But

there are individual Orthodox theologians who believe that some degree of intercommunion is possible, even before

the attainment of full dogmatic agreement. One slight qualification must be added. Occasionally non-Orthodox

Christians, if entirely cut off from the ministrations of their own Church, are allowed with special permission to receive

communion from an Orthodox priest. But the reverse does not hold true, for Orthodox are forbidden to receive

communion from any but a priest of their own Church). It is sometimes said that the Anglican or the Old

Catholic Church is ‘in communion’ with the Orthodox, but this is not in fact the case. The two

are not in communion, nor can they be, until Anglicans and Orthodox are agreed in matters of


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