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20381Reflections on the future of the Oriental Orthodox Communion

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Aug 7, 2014
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      Reflections on the future of the Oriental Orthodox Communion
      by OCP on June 27, 2014

      Prepared by – George Alexander, Secretary and Spokesperson
      Edited by – Ahira Sanchez (OCP Associate)
      Department of Church Research and Studies – OCP Society

      Visit the Addis Ababa Conference Portal:

      The six ancient Oriental Orthodox (OO) Churches, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian (Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin & Armenian Catholicate in Cilicia), Indian, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, include within their scope the British Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church in India, the Brahmavar Orthodox Community (organized into episcopal diocese), the French Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem and Constantinople (which are considered autonomous). These churches continue to provide witness of Jesus Christ and his teachings to the world. Despite the huge political, religious, and geographical challenges, these ancient churches have survived and provide the true essence of holy Orthodoxy to the modern world.

      With the survival of ancient Orthodoxy in mind, it is time we focus on strengthening alliances between sister OO churches to ensure future conciliar unity. As we all know, the relations between local Orthodox Churches are of conciliar nature. The Coptic Pope, presently Pope Tawadros II, is considered to be the spiritual father of the OO Communion and is given primacy of honour among the OO Churches as a part of the homage paid to the Alexandrian Throne of St Mark the Evangelist. However, while the Coptic Pope does enjoy primacy of honour, he does not have any authority over sister churches.

      Existing Gaps

      There are a number of existing gaps between the ancient OO churches that need to be addressed by both church leadership and laity. One reason for the existing gaps is ignorance; many OO Christians themselves are unaware of their sister churches. For example, this author has met several Copts who are not aware that the British Orthodox Church is canonically a part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. An OO Christian should have a basic understanding on the autocephalous and autonomous nature of the communion of the Church.

      It is the tendency of most OO clergy and laity to focus solely on their churches which contributes to the existing gaps between the ancient OO churches. Let us consider the case of pilgrimage. There are limited common pilgrimage centres for OO churches. In the Holy land, there are pilgrimage centres for the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. Apart from the Holy land, there are several other important centres of Orthodox Christianity such as in Egypt, India, Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Eretria. However, these centres remain unknown to the majority of those belonging to the OO communion. And while it is true that visiting pilgrims may not have a chance to visit all sister OO pilgrimage centres, the leadership of the communion of OO churches has a great responsibility in educating their faithful about the culture, worship, traditions, and specialties of the sister OO churches, or else they will remain alienated. Sunday school as well as other forms of theological education serve in equipping OO clergy and laity on the fundamentals of the OO communion. Efforts must be taken to form a common syllabus shared within the OO communion and dedicate exclusive learning sessions based on that syllabus.

      If we also consider the case of what is considered to be the Orthodox Diaspora, another reason for the gaps between the ancient OO churches is evident. There are several ethnic OO churches throughout the world, but they remain to themselves. Interactions between sister OO communities of the Orthodox Diaspora happen once in a blue moon. Inter-orthodox celebrations on special occasions such as the Nativity do occur as well as gatherings at ecumenical events with other church communities. However, while there has been such interactions, they have not resulted in a permanent conciliar global structure for OO churches.

      Action must be taken to establish a sense of common identity for OO churches, which should commence at grass root level. For example, the Armenian Orthodox Christians living in a village in Armenia should be aware that there exists a church built by St Thomas, which is more than 1500 years old, and that it belongs to her sister church in India. Likewise, the faithful in India and Ethiopia should have a good understanding of the Armenian Genocide and sufferings of the Armenian Orthodox Christians. At the very least, Orthodox Christians should be aware of the names of the Patriarch/Catholicos of their sister OO churches. Every OO Christian should develop a common understanding of the ancient OO communion.

      The Addis Ababa Conference

      In the year 1965, the entire family of the OO communion came together on a single platform at the Addis Ababa Conference in Ethiopia. It was a great occasion of unity and Orthodox brotherhood. All OO church primates were seated together; they spoke and worshiped together. A number of decisions were reached but stopped short at their implementation, including the establishment of a common theological education and research centre. Of course, there has been cooperation at different levels, mutual visits, and theological exchange programmes; regional Oriental Orthodox Councils in the UK and USA have been formed with lively activities and the heads of OO churches in the Middle East also have began to meet regularly (starting in 1996 at the St. Bishoy Monastery ), but none of those efforts have paralleled that of the spirit and objectives of the Addis Ababa Conference.

      It can be assumed that the failure to implement all the decisions of the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference is a result of political, cultural, and regional barriers. However, it stands that there is a continued participation of OO churches in the World Church Council (WCC) and that relations with other ecumenical bodies have been consistently maintained. Hence, the question arises: if the OO churches are able to participate in ecumenical movements, despite of their political, cultural, and regional barriers, why is it that to this day they cannot work together on establishing and maintaining a common platform as intended with the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference with their sister OO churches?

      It has been nearly fifty years since the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference but nothing significant has been achieved by the OO churches. What should have already taken place by now is conciliar unity, the healing of internal schisms (in particular between the Syrian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches) and the pursuing of inter-Orthodox dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox communion.

      We should keep in mind that the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference happened while there was unity and peace between the Syrian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches. But since then a conference of such nature has not been achieved and it is partly due to the existing disputes between the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches along side with the ecumenical dialogues that hinder inter-Orthodox relations from thriving. There are other responses to the question of why conciliar unity between OO sister churches has not yet been achieved. Persecution, political instability, and war are normally considered to be causes for the diminish in direct interactions between OO sister churches. However, these excuses are not justifiable when in fact the OO churches frequently participate in WCC activities, and ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the Anglican communities. For the past several years the OO churches have taken part in an annual ecumenical dialogue with the RCC. Interactions between OO families take place the day before the ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican and their interactions are limited to that meeting. Most OO prelates come together on a platform created by the Vatican to have dialogue with Vatican delegates; yet the OO prelates have not yet come together to form their own platform in the pursuit of healing schisms such as that of the Syrian Orthodox and Indian Orthodox Churches. The interactions between the OO churches must go beyond ecumenical consultations, and go beyond that of the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference.

      As stated before, although none are comparable to the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference, there have been efforts for inter-Orthodox dialogue and unity. One notable effort is the formation of OO councils of the Orthodox Diaspora; there are OO councils functioning in the UK and in the USA. However, it is evident that inter-Orthodox disputes hinder full participation of OO churches in all councils of the Orthodox Diaspora. These disputes, along with other problems, prevent the councils from developing into full-fledged national centres. Consider the dispute between the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches; due to the dispute, the Indian Malankara Orthodox Church is not a member of the Oriental Orthodox Council in the USA. Disputing churches need to set aside their disparities and reach a consensus despite disagreement in order to begin healing the schism, or else remain in alienation. Other councils should be established in all areas where communities of OO faithful are present; for instance, there is a need for councils in the Gulf region, Africa, Australia, etc. These national OO councils of the Orthodox Diaspora should act as secondary structures to the World OO Council.

      Schism and Oriental Orthodox Unity

      The OO churches have gone through less internal schisms in comparison to the EO communion. At present we have four major challenges: the dispute between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Orthodox Church; the schism between Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Synod in Exile; the status of the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church and her relations with the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Malankara Orthodox Church; and the sad plight of the Eritrean Orthodox Church where the church remains divided due to interference of the Eritrean authorities.

      The dispute between the Syrian Orthodox Church in India and the Indian Orthodox Church has deeply affected the unity of the OO communion. An inter-Orthodox platform mediated by all churches of the OO communion can do wonders in bringing disputes to an end, or at the very least establish a common platform to discuss important matters. We have classical examples of overcoming schisms and disputes; particularly between the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.

      The Armenian Orthodox Church is also a classic model of Orthodox concilliar unity with two Catholicates and two Patriarchates; they  exist as one single church with concilliar hierarchical structure, despite the various internal and external challenges.

      Local Orthodox churches always respect the autocephalous and autonomous nature of sister churches with whom they are in communion with and do not interfere in internal matters unless they are invited to do so. However, to overcome schisms there must be mutual and consistent efforts to build an inter-Orthodox platform for mediations and the forming of protocols. Division bears no good fruit; rather, unity is strength. The church leaderships should keep searching for opportunities to build a common platform for unity and peace. There is no room for personal agendas, politics, or ego. Jesus Christ is the head of the Orthodox Church, His Body and His Bride. All are under Him and they are His servants, and it is our duty is to preserve Christian Orthodoxy and hand it over to the next generation as well as to help the heterodox Christians understand their lost Orthodox past.

      The Case  of  Ethiopian Synod in Exile and the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church

      The OO churches should inquire for opportunities on opening inter-Orthodox dialogues with the Ethiopian Synod in Exile and the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church. Despite the controversies associated with both churches, none can deny their Orthodox origin. A mechanism should be developed within the OO family to mediate dialogues with those churches who are in schisms with the mainstream churches.

      Opening Dialogues with Former Churches of Oriental Orthodox traditions

      The Old Orthodox Church  of  Thozhiyoor and the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church of Malabar, which are located in India, owe their origin to the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches. Although they have a Protestant nature, the very essence of their origin is none other than Orthodox.

      Dialogues with Other Churches

      Apart from the mentioned churches, there are a number of other churches that are directly or indirectly connected to Oriental Orthodoxy. A number of non-canonical churches claiming the lineage of Archbishop Rene Vilatte have formed into the Federation of St Thomas Christians in the USA. There are also a number of non-canonical churches that claim to be associated with different OO mainstream churches or that claim to have Orthodox origin such as the Celtic Orthodox, the French Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of the Gauls. However, in order to establish unity with these non-canonical churches, the OO communion should develop a definite mechanism for dialogue with them. The idea is to develop continued and constructive dialogues in order to overcome schisms.

      Dialogue for Unity with Eastern Orthodox Family 

      The dialogue for unity with the EO family is an unrealised dream. There have been serious efforts for unity in the past and several agreements have been reached. Both family of churches have come to the conclusion that they share the same Christology and adhere to the same faith. However, the divisions continue to widen. Many prelates and laity of the EO family still address those of the OO family as Monophysites; despite the fact that OO churches reject such teachings regarding the one nature of Christ. This is fundamentally due to ignorance, lack of interest and interaction between both family of churches, and the absence of a continued and constructive theological dialogue. As many EO Christians do not consider the OO as Orthodox at all, they regard the OO churches as heretics or as non-Chalcedonian churches. Both families invest a lot of their time, money and resources in participating in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican and in the WCC and yet there continues to exist a huge gap between the EO and OO communions. We must revamp the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the EO and the OO. But to rekindle dialogue with the EO, the OO should first be strengthened within. In general, there should be a refocus in the approach of the strengthening of the Orthodox Church and that is to give priority first to inter-Orthodox issues and then secondly to ecumenical matters.

      United Voice against Persecution

      Christians are persecuted day by day around the world in different forms and by different extremists groups. A united voice again persecution must be formulated. As the Lord Jesus Christ has said in the Gospels, “And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”; the OO churches should always be united against persecution and injustice. A strong unified voice of the OO churches will have a lasting effect. While several individual statements have been made by individual OO churches as well as by ecumenical bodies, such as the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), a unified declaration is still to be made by the OO churches as one communion for the detained canonical Patriarch Abune Antonios of Eritrea. The detained Orthodox hierarch and persecuted Christians in Eritrea remain in suffrage.

      United Presence in Mass Media

      The united presence of OO churches in mass media is of great importance. The challenges and sufferings of the Orthodox Christians, their life, and way of worship should be communicated to the whole world. The presence of OO churches, the priorities, and coverage given by mass media for the churches’ events should be reassessed. Much of secular media tends to ignore the OO churches and regard the Vatican and the WCC as the focal points of discussion. A development of a common media centre for OO churches in different languages should be a matter of utmost concern and should be established as it can effectively help the OO churches to communicate their issues to the rest of the world. The whole world should have access to information about these ancient churches and, for this to become a reality, a unified effort and unison of policies on mass media should be defined.

      The Orthodox churches should also use mass media to their advantage to promote inter-Orthodox relations amongst themselves and sister churches. In general, each OO church should allow contributions of sister Orthodox churches in their events as well as in their publications and educational resources. Orthodox mass media and educational resources should be expanded with the objective to educate the faithful on sister Orthodox Christian churches, including that of the EO communion. The purpose is to further develop a general understanding of Orthodoxy and create awareness among sister Orthodox churches of present issues in other sister Orthodox churches.

      Our Priority: Orthodox Unity or Ecumenism

      Let ecumenism bring in wonderful results; however, our first priority must be to unite with our own Orthodox brethren and then, once unified, face ecumenical dialogue together as one family. We have seen several OO primates making apostolic trips to the Vatican to engage in brotherly encounters with Pope Francis. The smiles, gifts, and hugs exchanged between the primates of the various OO churches and Pope Francis are commendable. As Orthodox Christians, we also love to see such brotherly affection exchanged between the hierarchs and faithful of all OO churches. However, it seems that some Orthodox ecumenists only have reunion with the Vatican in mind, dismissing completely what should be the priority. If you desert your own brethren, do not shake hands, nor smile at your own family, then what is the use of shaking hands with a stranger? Let us first embrace our own brothers and come to terms with them; at the very least, we should be able to try to sit together and have a loving conversation over a cup of coffee. While we do have annual prayers for Christian unity, likewise, we need prayers and active efforts for inter-Orthodox unity and the healing of schisms.

      However, at times it seems to be that ecumenism is treated as the only priority and such focus displaces efforts for inter-Orthodox unity. There are many people who think that the RCC and other heterodox Christian communities are taking major advantage of the internal disputes within the OO family. The Vatican has taken the opportunity to make several agreements with some of the churches of the OO communion. Apart from the annual Oriental Orthodox- Roman Catholic Dialogue, the Vatican has held separate dialogues with the Indian Orthodox Church and Syrian Orthodox Church in India, succeeding in making various types of agreements with both warring Orthodox churches in Malankara (India). It seems that both churches are competing with each other, to see, who is the first, to sign agreements with the Vatican. This will in fact weaken Orthodox unity and to an extent has already become a reality. Once OO churches begin to participate in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican as one unified voice,that is when they will really strengthen the position of Oriental Orthodoxy. What need is there for separate dialogues with Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches? The Pan-Oriental Orthodox system is what will help the churches develop a conciliar line of control in ecumenical engagements. In the light of increased persecution, we need a united Christian voice. However, in the efforts to unify, the true faith of Orthodoxy should not be compromised nor should a common platform be used to make liberal theological agreements with non-Orthodox churches. We do, however, need enhanced social cooperation with other churches to improve relations.

      In the past, there have been numerous occasions for OO primates to share a common platform, but some of them refrained from participating due to the existing disputes with sister OO churches. We are in such a situation that OO church delegates only come together on a platform created by the Vatican for ecumenism. Let ecumenical dialogue flourish and let it bear fruits of Christian unity. The focus of ecumenism is well and good; however, it must not undermine the efforts to build conciliar unity in the OO family. Let us first commence to initiate a dialogue between our sister OO churches and pave our way towards the establishment of permanent Orthodox unity.

      Protecting Common Rights and Mutual Support

      Read: Indian Orthodox Church Letter Sent to the His Holiness Pope, Major Archbishop of Malankara Catholic Rite  and other Roman Catholic Prelates

      All sister churches share equal responsibility in protecting common rights of the OO communion and at the same time extending a helping hand to support each other. As stated before, “unity is strength”. I’ll give an example to demonstrate the need for inter-Orthodox unity and how it would help ensure the protection of common rights. The Indian Church has been a victim of canonical violations by the Malankara Catholic Rite (An Eastern Catholic Rite in Indian that is in communion with the Pope of Rome) since 2005. The primate of the Malanakra Catholic Rite Major Archbishop and Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal has stolen the canonical titles of the primate of the Indian Orthodox Church. The titles like Successor of Apostolic Throne of St Thomas and Malankara Metropolitan are canonical privileges of Catholicos of the East who is the primate of the Indian Orthodox Church. This title was stolen and officially published on the Malankara Catholic Rite’s website and in their official documents. This incident is equal to a situation where as if the Coptic Catholic Patriarch would be claiming the canonical titles of the Coptic Pope; the Armenian Catholic Patriarch claiming the titles of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Armenia; the Syrian Catholic Patriarch claiming the titles of Syrian Orthodox Patriarch; or the Ethiopian Catholic Archbishop claiming the canonical titles of Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch. This is a serious canonical violation that should not be accepted and has been officially brought up to question by the Indian Orthodox Church several times to which the Vatican has not yet responded. This issue has never been an official point of discussion in any of the Oriental Orthodox – Roman Catholic dialogues and the Indian Orthodox Church has participated in all sessions without fail. Why is it then that the Vatican has not responded to the numerous complaints made by the Indian Orthodox Church? Without a doubt, the Vatican is being two-faced. They express ‘love and ecumenism’ using the smile of the Pope to win hearts, and the pomp and glory of the RCC to woo the Orthodox ecumenists; yet at the same time the RCC supports the Eastern Catholics who attack the Orthodox Churches.

      It’s clear that each sister church in the OO communion has a responsibility to support and help its sister churches in times of need. The Vatican should not so easily be trusted for support and correction of injustices we suffer today as a church in division. The sister churches of the OO communion should support each other and participate in the ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican as one integrated OO communion. The sister churches should go for mutual bargaining and perhaps go as far as to withdraw from the ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican because of the canonical violation made by a RCC rite against an OO sister church until reparations are made. What we need is a strong inter-Orthodox alliance which will help ensure the protection of our common rights as an Orthodox communion.

      There are several ideas to be implemented. Mentioned below are some important points for reflection:

      International Headquarters and Secretariat for Oriental Orthodox Churches: A world council for OO churches should be developed with a full-fledged secretariat/headquarters at a desirable location. It should consist of a good administrative organization with a strong financial background and with a solid focus of implementing programmes and projects developed to benefit the members of OO churches. National level councils and local councils should be developed under the guidance of the Global Headquarters. Annual/timely meetings of OO primates and delegates should be organized to promote and ensure solid and intimate relations among all sister churches. Various organizations like youth forums and clergy councils should be developed. Steps should be taken to resolve any existing disputes between the OO churches by creating practical protocols and mediating compromises to avoid disputes in the future.

      Education and Mission Activities: There should be establishments of an international University, Academy, and Research Centre for theological and secular education (with special emphasis on Orthodox Christian Research, Human Resource Development, Leadership, Morality, Music, etc). There should be opportunities for mutual exchanges of faculty members, and the development of student and internship programmes for the benefit of all church members. Also, providing mutual cooperation in mission fields and the development of a common Orthodox Mission Training and Research Centre should be considered for implementation for the strengthening and growth of the OO communion.

      There are several OO clergy and laity who are perusing their theological education in Roman Catholic or Protestant institutions. Rather than developing an Orthodox frame work of theology, as students they are most likely to develop a Latin or Protestant understanding of theology. This is very evident in India, where the Theological institutions of both Syraic Orthodox and Indian Malankara Orthodox Churches are affiliated to a Protestant University. There still exist a number of Latin and protestant influences in the life of Syriac and Indian Orthodox faithful in India. Examples are the use of rosary instead of prayer ropes, Latin images instead of Orthodox icons. But certain positive changes are taking place for sure.

      The danger in the development of a heterodox understanding of theology as the principal world view is that those with such theological framework could participate in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican and would most likely be more liberal in reaching a consensus that could compromise the true Orthodox faith. There is an extreme need for the development of inter-Orthodox centres of theology, exchange of resources, and development of OO chairs and study centres in secular universities, even though there are quality centres like SOAS, Coptic study centres, Armenian Theological Faculty at the Yerevan University.

      Oriental – Eastern Orthodox Dialogue for Unity: There is the need for a common platform for regular dialogues between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches for communion in the faith as a continuation of the existing agreement. The halted dialogue process should be revamped. An international council should be established for the purpose of resuming official dialogue at regular intervals of time, quick and timely follow-ups of its results, encouragement of mutual visits, cooperation in theological education, mission-work development organizations, and other areas of common interest.

      Pan-Oriental Orthodox Council

      There should be consistent and constructive steps from all OO prelates, clergy, and laity to strengthen this ancient communion of Christ and His Apostles. Each one of us who are part of the ancient OO communion have a mutual responsibility as there are a number of challenges to be dealt with. The challenges of language, culture, geography, political orientation, and ethnicity are to be triumphed over. The most important thing is to initiate the effort and attempt a common conciliar union. These things are only possible through consistent and serious dialogue.

      The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the great and holy 1965 Addis Ababa Conference; it also marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, one of worst crimes committed against humanity. Let there be a new beginning in the year 2015; a new chapter in the life of the ancient OO Communion.

      Jesus Christ and Dialogue for Unity

      We know that Jesus Christ held dialogues with those who criticized him, and never took arms against them. Instead, He won their hearts with His holiness, His words, His charisma, and with His love. He debated with learned philosophers and theologians of the synagogue, but never rebelled against them or refrained from his dialogue. We saw His fury only when some people tried to contaminate the holiness of the Jerusalem Temple with trade and business. The Orthodox Church is the living body of Christ and both faithful and episcopacy have a great responsibility in contributing to the healing of schisms and unite the broken body of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.

      Dept of Church Research and Studies – Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE Society