Approaches to doctrinal, social and ethical issues from the perspective of an Orthodox member church
by Fr K. M. George
Documents from Sub-committee III,WCC
(Chania, Crete, August, 2000)
Years ago, while serving on the staff of the National Council of Churches in New Delhi, I made friends witth the director of a research institute on Sikhism. Once I invited him to a public lecture in Delhi by Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios on Science and Faith. My Punjabi Sikh friend had till then absolutely no idea of "Orthodox Churches" or bishops. During the meeting he heard several references to Mar Gregorios as the Indian Orthodox Bishop of Delhi. As usual, the bishop, with his versatile mind, gave a brilliant lecture on the topic. My friend, the intellectual, was deeply impressed. He had no words for the appreciation he felt for the "orthodox" bishop. Nevertheless he looked puzzled. As we were leaving the conference hall, he quietly confided the puzzle to me; "But, Fr.George, why do they call him ‘orthodox’? He is so progressive"!
My friend knew the English language rather well.
Let me point out a few issues of "approach". (An approach implies a perspective, a method, an attitude and a world-view):
1. Modern European languages in general retain a predominantly pejorative sense of the word ‘Orthodox’. Makers of dictionaries and keepers of prejudices seem to like it that way. So the dichotomy of the conservative versus progressive, the outdated versus modern and the irrelevant versus relevant continues to play in the ecumenical circles as well. The emergence of post-modern sensitivity has challenged the legitimacy of this dichotomy to some extent, but not always in a way useful for ecumenical dialogue. Our dialogue needs to be liberated from the clutches of traditional semantic and theological dichotomies. Our usual self-definition in opposition to the other as well as our caricaturing of each other need to be transcended in the process. St.Gregory of Nazianzus once ironically observed: "We become pious by condemning the impiety of others". Most often our self-righteousness makes use of this convenient tool.
2. Another set of categoris we use is ‘East’ and ‘West’, apparently more legitimate and congenial than the conservative progressive pair. The Orthodox Churches, in spite of their acknowledged identification with "the faith of the undivided church" and "the church of the oikoumene," the whole inhabited earth, consider themselves as "Eastern" Churches. This is quite understandable in the light of the ‘local church ecclesiology’ of the Orthodox tradition. A true local Church can be local and catholic at the same time. It can manifest itself at the same time as the one Body of Christ diachronically and synchronically. Our present historical experience is that the western local church has become universal ever since the historic colonial conquests beginning with the 15th century while the Eastern churches have remained parochially local due to known historical coincidences. This has created theological and emotional imbalances in the dialogues between the Eastern and the Western church traditions.
3. In terms of spiritual and theological sensitivity, the East-West cultural distinction still holds good in much of our ecumenical conversation. Culture is the key here. Culture of the East, however one may define it, has cut so deep into the faith and practice of Orthodox churches that the sight, smell and sound of Orthodoxy are clearly distinguishable from those of the western churches. Theological arguments and attitudes are also shaped on these cultural lines. So it is hard to fully agree and identify with each other’s positions. We may at best make some verbal agreements as in the BEM document for instance, but the way forward from that point on is not necessarily handled by theologians but by custodians of culture whoever that may be. From obviously non-theological questions like whether the priest should carry a beard to purely doctrinal matters like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son too, East-West relationship has always been determined to a significant measure by the respective cultural attitudes of the partners in dialogue.
4. The Orthodox approach to all issues is necessarily ecclesial. In spite of the historical contradictions and counter witness of some of the local churches, the Orthodox never cease to be ‘romantic’ about the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Body of Christ, the People of God. They speak of the sin and shortcomings of Christians, but never of any defect of personified Holy Mother Church. She is always the Bride of Christ being prepared and perfected for the ultimate revelation of glory. Questions of unity, doctrine and ethical action can never be raised and reflected on except through the ecclesial channel. This is not very often perceived sympathetically by western partners in the ecumenical dialogue where individual theological opinions and contextual ethical concerns may hold sway. The Orthodox are naturally apprehensive that such crucial matters like the authority of Scripture and Tradition, the teaching authority of the Church and the total experience of life in the Holy Spirit attested to by the saints and martyrs are eclipsed by the overriding currents of individual and group demands to interpret the Gospel to suit their passing needs.
5. The Orthodox ecclesial approach to issues is shaped by the life of worship. Praising and worshipping the Holy Trinity in words, symbols and ritual celebrations takes centre stage in the life of devout Christians. Concerns of this world seem to be sidelined, if not totally ignored. The liturgical-eclesial approach may look strange, to say the least, to those who are brought up in an Enlightenment rationality tradition. It has been this latter tradition that dominated the modern ecumenical movement. Hence the movement has become acutely aware of the pressing social-ethical issues of humanity. In many instances worship was sidelined, and occasionally questioned as irrelevant in face of the material needs of humanity. The WCC is making great efforts to bring worship back to prominence, at least in its major assemblies. The divergence of approach, however, continues to create difficulties for the on-going dialogue.
6. The crumbling of authority in general in our contemporary world has eclipsed our traditional reference points on the ecumenical pilgrimage. The time when ecumenical movement began with forms of clear traditional authority both in the Protestant and Orthodox families has radically changed. The secularization of the West had its tremendous impact on the Western Churches and their affiliates in the rest of the world, while most Orthodox churches had to undergo quite different historical traumas. So the perspectives have changed in both camps. A convergence now seems to be hardly possible. Yet we are called to struggle, united in our one hope in Christ Jesus our Saviour.
7. God’s love for humanity (philanthropia) manifested in the incarnate Christ is the basis for the Orthodox Church’s care for the world and all social action. In the fellowship of the WCC, the Orthodox Churches have been constantly exposed to the cry of the poor and the oppressed, call for justice, peace and integrity of creation and all the ethical reflections they required. The sense of ecumenical fellowship acted as a ferment and challenge without which many local churches would probably have remained insensitive to the forces of social evil, and contented themselves with some acts of charity. However, these churches also make it clear that they do not want to confine the fellowship to a simply humanitarian organization which risks to be dominated by the rich do-goodists and their agenda. The Orthodox Churches need to bring out more clearly its fundamental conviction that ethics can never be divorced from theology. Working out God’s philanthropy for our world which is in dire poverty at one extreme and ecological catastrophe at the other is a holy task laid on the Orthodox Churches. This is also one of the ways in which we can make our fellowship in the WCC more fruitful and less tense.