Future of Ecumenism: Some Challenges and Prospects An Oriental Orthodox Perspective / Fr Dr K M George


Hit Refresh (Harper, 2017) is an interesting book by Satya Nadella, the current CEO of Microsoft company. A computer engineer from South India, Nadella outlines the future of humans and machines, and suggests an ethical framework for the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He predicts that Artificial Intelligence, Mixed Reality and Quantum Computing together will radically alter the human mind and consciousness. Yet he also envisages the timeless human values in the digital age – empathy, trust, love, collaboration, privacy, free speech…

Writing the foreword to the book of his colleague and successor, Bill Gates comments on the title Hit Refresh : `When you hit refresh on your browser you do not completely break with the past, some of what’s on the page remains the same’. I wish to borrow this expression and apply it to the ecumenical vision of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. There are innumerable prayers and supplications in our Oriental liturgies for the unity of the Church, cessation of conflicts and for the enhancement of true faith in Christ Jesus in the Triune mystery. The Holy Spirit of God whom we invoke most solemnly in liturgy holds the key to refresh and renew the ancient Churches.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are liturgically and culturally so diverse one from the other that, unlike the Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine tradition, they have no one single liturgical text nor any uniform set of rituals that they can con-celebrate. These Oriental Churches remain deeply loyal to the teachings and  decrees of the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431). They are basically (West) Asian and African autocephalous Churches faithful to the Apostolic tradition of the undivided Church. The spiritual sensitivity and the liturgical theological ethos of these churches are very different from those of the Western Churches – both Catholic and Protestant.

It is certainly surprising that the Churches of the Reformation tradition and the Oriental Orthodox Churches could got along so long and rather well in the fellowship of the World Council of Churches. (Two of these Oriental Orthodox Churches, namely, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Indian Malankara Orthodox, are founding members of the WCC at the Amsterdam Assembly).

It is well-known that there  was an intimate connection between the western missionary movement of various Protestant denominations during the colonial period and the rise of modern ecumenical movement that resulted in the formation of the WCC in the 20th century.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches had never been much enthused by any ambitious missionary outreach or church expansion in the western sense of the term, and therefore the above situation, namely, the concern for a united move in the mission fields as once felt by various western missions in the colonial era, would be totally alien to them.

At this point may we ask the question as to why there remains a deep suspicion in several quarters of the Orthodox churches regarding missionary outreaches from the west and the modern western concern for the unity of the church?

Some of the more evident reasons for this are historical, theological and liturgical:

First of all it should be borne in mind that the Oriental churches in general had been the mission field of the Roman Catholic Church first and later, of various Protestant churches during the last 500 years or so. Every member Church of the Oriental Orthodox family now has an “Oriental Catholic” counterpart like for example Armenian Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Ethiopian Catholic or Malankara Catholic created by a process of uncharitable proselytism on the part of the  Roman Catholic Church over the centuries from the time of crusades followed by  colonial occupation by the western powers. The means and methods used for converting members of the ancient autocephalous Oriental churches to the Roman Catholic fold, were sometimes brutal , sometimes diplomatic and persuasive, but in most cases involving western colonial authority like  those of the Portuguese, the British and the French,  economic enticements among believers, huge western funding and the deployment of large contingents of clerical and monastic orders like Jesuits, Carmelites, Franciscans and others. They tenaciously launched their missionary enterprises in the Oriental Churches with the blessings and authorisation of the Roman Catholic authorities, and under the beautiful terms like Mission and Reunion.

As a concrete example best known to this writer one may cite the case of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India ( sometimes called the Indian Orthodox Church) tracing it’s origin to the apostolic work and martyrdom of St Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Christ, in India around AD 53. Since then a small Indian indigenous Church continued mainly in the south west region of India, now known as Kerala. In 1498 the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama and his crew landed in Kerala, known for its ancient sea ports and the spice trade with ancient Romans, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Arabs and Syrians. The strong tradition supported by circumstantial evidences is that the Apostle Thomas came to Kerala or the region of Malabar along with a group of Jewish traders who had already settlements in Kerala’s port towns. At the end of the 15th century the Portuguese who arrived in Kerala (Malabar) met to their great surprise Indian Christians who had no contact with or knowledge of Roman Christianity. The Jesuit missionaries who followed the Portuguese navigators started a brutal mission among the ancient Indian Christians who then had sporadic spiritual connections with the East Syriac tradition of Mesopotamia. The ruthless Portuguese colonial and Roman ecclesiastical interventions in the life of the Indian Church created the first historic division when the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church was carved out in the 17th century despite massive protests from the helpless Indian Christians. All the story of the painful tearing apart and still continuing conflicts and fragmentation of the one ancient apostolic Church of India started with the Portuguese colonial invasion, mission and forced latinisation. Even in the 1930s a new Uniate Catholic church was formed out of the Malankara Orthodox Church thus keeping alive the pain and tensions at the heart of an ancient Oriental Church.

When the British colonial power was enthroned in India from the 18th century onward, the Anglican missionary societies arrived in the Malankara Orthodox Church with the offer of the “Mission of Help”. Again another series of proselytism (this time to Protestant streams), conflicts, litigations, and eventual divisions starting with the formation of the reformed Marthoma Church towards the end of the 19th century. (Even the unfortunate 20th century internecine tensions between the autocephalous  Malankara Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Antioch have the backdrop of the Portuguese and British colonial-imperial-ecclesiastical interventions in the ancient  Indian church).

I cite these examples with the awareness that other Oriental churches had similar experiences with the missions from the west. These missions deeply divided the ancient churches and continue to reduce their number and disrupt their internal unity through Uniatism or Mission of help. Generally speaking, they made ferocious efforts to change the theological positions and liturgical practices most faithfully held by the Oriental churches, and to replace them, as in the case of the Portuguese in India, with Latin liturgical practises, Roman canons and dogmas, and in the case of the British, with Reformation theology and Protestant patterns of worship. The methods and degrees of such attempts, of course, varied with individual oriental churches.  So it was quite natural that the Oriental churches remained suspicious of any move originating in the west for the unity of churches in the 20th century. This historically justified suspicion and mistrust still linger in sections of the clergy and the faithful and particularly in several monastic circles in our churches. So a major challenge is how to overcome this traditional attitude against the western “ecumenical” outreaches in order to conceive of a  different vision of Christian unity as prayed for by Christ himself and a new inclusive and truly ecumenical initiative towards this vision.

It seems we cannot be over-ambitious about the unity of the churches as envisaged by the World Council of Churches. The Orthodox Churches maintain the hope of sharing in the same Eucharistic communion in true faith and love as the ultimate expression of unity. But that presupposes unity in the fundamental teachings of the undivided Church, that is to say, the doctrinal positions held by the Church before the major divisions. This process of arriving at consensus was initiated by the WCC at several fronts like the compilation of a common liturgical text called the Lima Liturgy, the celebrated project on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the encouragement for multilateral dialogues between member churches to restore Eucharistic communion, evolving a common vision of the one ecumenical movement, providing ecumenical education as in Bossey Institute, Special Commission for Orthodox Participation and so on. But as far as the Orthodox churches are concerned none of these could substantially alter their time-honoured theological positions in matters of doctrine and liturgy. In such circumstances  sharing  the same eucharistic table is not at all an easy goal.

Already in an article written in 1978 well known Oriental Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, former Associate General Secretary and President of the WCC, said that no dramatic developments could be expected in Orthodox-Protestant relations: “The ecclesiological difference is too great to be easily overcome by verbal formulae. The best we can hope for is a continuation of cooperation and conversation, especially in the field of service to the world and in the issues that confront humanity as a whole.” (On Ecumenism, edited by Jacob Kurian, ISPCK & MGF, Delhi -Kottayam, p.206)

It seems to me that a major part of the attempt to connect the Oriental Orthodox to a new ecumenical movement depends largely on the leadership in our churches. If an able ecclesiastical leader is adequately exposed to the current world scenario and genuinely committed to Christian unity as a gospel imperative it would hugely impact the clergy and the faithful in a positive way.

As part of our oriental cultural trait people simply trust their spiritual leaders. We don’t need to go far for examples. When HH Aram I was elected Moderator of the Central Committee of the WCC for two terms consecutively some of us took it, among other meritorious qualifications, as symbolising the Orthodox Church’s commitment to ecumenism. His lifelong ecumenical convictions and leadership inspired a whole new generation of theologians and priests in our churches to take the ecumenical movement seriously. Elucidating the concept of the conciliar model of fellowship he had said that it challenged the Orthodox Church “to place its historical truth, the truth of the ecumenical councils, to the test of its actual existential concerns in the context of the ecumenical fellowship with other churches.“ (Aram Keshishian, Conciliar Fellowship: A Common Goal , WCC, 1992, p.110). We should readily agree that this requirement of the continuous testing of our faith and truth claims is essential for the future of the ecumenical movement and the true witness of our churches. Enlightened leadership in our churches can certainly take us a long way forward.

Another area where we should take up the challenge is theological education. In the training of the clergy and lay leaders, ecumenism still remains a rather peripheral part of the syllabus. While local churches assert and reassert their identities in mutual competition and sectarian concerns, ecumenism in certain regions is usually confined to some carol singing during Christmas season, even that by competing teams representing different churches.

I continue to rejoice in teaching at the Federated Faculty for Research in Religion and Culture (FFRRC) in Kerala for postgraduate theological studies since its inception three decades ago. It was founded by a grand gesture of Orthodox, Marthoma and CSI churches through their respective seminaries. At that time there were leaders in theses churches and seminaries who had a broader vision of the Oikoumene and of the urgency of Christian witness in our country. Here again we need to hit the refresh key.

When the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches met in Addis Ababa in 1965 at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie a priority agenda was the unity between the two Orthodox families – Eastern and Oriental. Already in 1964 unofficial theological consultations had begun in Aarhus under the auspices of the Faith and Order Commission and with the pioneering role of the then WCC staff members like Prof. Nikos Nissiotis of the Greek Orthodox Church and Fr Paul Verghese ( later Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios of the Malankara Orthodox Church). Although the four unofficial consultations, that resolved the hard nut of the ancient Christological issue and reached the positive conclusion that both families shared the same apostolic tradition, were fully approved by the Official Commission that met several times the final goal of unity in Eucharistic communion is still pending. However, there is already  the practice of sharing communion between  the Greek and Syriac Patriarchates of Antioch for example, and also in some  diaspora situations between the two families by applying the principle of oikonomia. There remains, nevertheless, an absolutely vital challenge that the Orthodox churches need to take up as an essential test for the truth of their incessant prayers for unity and for the Christian witness in the world at large.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are deeply rooted in their original geographical-cultural milieu. They are really local churches in the true sense of the term. The modern age of travel and emigration, business and education, war and political conflicts has created significant diaspora for all these churches. Their members live and work in situations once totally alien to their mother churches. Yet most of them maintain close ties with the cultural contexts and traditions once enjoyed by their ancestors. Several different layers of sensitivity to issues ranging from age old doctrinal debates and liturgical-spiritual practices to contemporary ethical and social mores and advanced scientific-technological challenges cohabit the mind of these churches. They may live at the same time in the 4th century and the 21st with the same passion. So they can be open to a new ecumenical movement with fresh ideas and tracks that may not endanger their firm Christian convictions.

Hospitality is integral to the spiritual culture of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox people. They experience a subtle and deep spirituality in offering hospitality to even people who are diagonally distant from their faith, communion and cultural traditions. We should not underestimate this as a matter of social courtesy practised by people universally. There is a theological-spiritual flavour in this Orthodox hospitality that , like the fragrance from the incense in the liturgy in their churches, pervades all nook and corner of space, and touches all human beings to include them spiritually, even those considered to be outside of their firm doctrinal boundaries. Taken in the best spirit there is repentance and hope, embracing and tenderness, unity and a little foretaste of communion in this flavour of hospitality. Many western churches and persons in the WCC and the ecumenical movement in general have experienced it on many an occasion.

Not only the geopolitical, religious-cultural, and scientific-technological paradigms that took shape over the last 500 years or so under European tutelage are now changing fast, but the very concept of the human and human consciousness is radically being altered beyond recognition. How would the emerging “Cosmo Sapiens” look at us the aliens and our churches and rituals and discourses? Are our churches spiritually ready for a completely new world order and style of life that might be rather brutally imposed on humanity by some impending ecological -biological and climatic apocalypse?

Let us look for answers to such questions and a host of others as the one Body of Christ, inspired by “the Holy Spirit who perfects all that is and all that is to be” (Liturgy of St James).