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"Let your light shine forth ...": challenges to Orthodoxy in the new millennium.

External challenges

I begin with my own perception of how Orthodoxy is affected by some recent historical developments which seem to me urgently to require a concerted response from the leadership and the faithful of the churches.

1. In the wake of what has been called the "new world order", there seem to be various attempts today to subordinate or discredit Orthodoxy as being the inspiration for certain anti-Western religious, cultural or social attitudes. This is especially felt in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where Western initiatives are -- willingly or unintentionally -- exacerbating existing divisions among Christians, interreligious sensitivities, intercultural tensions and international conflicts.

2. Especially after the radical changes in Eastern Europe, certain secular ideologies, such as modem nationalism, socialism and communism, have been marginalized and even disappeared. The result in some places has been social and political fragmentation and a shift to pragmatism or Realpolitik, based on economic self-interest and a self-centred concept of security, on the national, communitarian and even individual levels. This new climate is tempting Christians, including the Orthodox churches, to withdraw into their particularism and thus to become isolated from one another. At the same time it is creating an ethic of selfishness that affects the Christian spirituality of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

3. In some countries this withdrawal of uniting secular ideologies has created space for an ethnic or religious nationalism to emerge which emphasizes the sacralization of the "particular" in a people's ethnic or religious identity. All religions are tempted to replace those ideologies by their own spiritual ideals, exposing themselves -- and God -- to political and military exploitation and thus appearing as a cause of division and war rather than a factor of unity and peace between people of different confessions, faiths, cultures, ethnicities or ideologies. Christianity, including Orthodoxy, is in some places succumbing or in danger of succumbing to this temptation.

4. In some parts of the world, the Orthodox, like many other Christians, feel themselves victims of a conflict between two cultures. One of these is called "Western". Dominated by secular humanism, it has, according to many observers, invested so much power in the human being that God is marginalized or even eliminated through materialistic and atheistic philosophies. The values of this culture are believed to have been made internationally valid through Western colonialism and mission and through the concept of internationalism promoted by the United Nations and (some would say) the ecumenical movement. The other cultural trend attempts to re-centre power in God leading sometimes to exaggerated trends called in some places religious fundamentalism or ethnic chauvinism. This is also leading to the elimination of the human being in the name of God or ethnic purity.

Will this conflict be allowed to destroy human societies? Or will opposing cultures find a way to interact constructively on the basis of the assumption that God and the human being have been reconciled in Jesus Christ as the prototype of the new humanity? If the latter alternative is adopted, it could aim at discovering common values for harmonious living and peace between people of different historical experiences.

Internal challenges

Against the background of these external challenges, the Orthodox churches appear to suffer from a number of serious but unrelated problems.

1. The internal tensions arising within some churches from ethnic, cultural, legal or political considerations are exploited by religious or political powers, leading occasionally to proselytism among the Orthodox or to their emigration. Such tensions not only hinder Orthodox witness within the ecumenical movement at the local level but also threaten the heritage of other religions and society in general.

2. New obstacles to Orthodox unity arise from the increasingly strained relations between autocephalous or independent churches for ethnic, political and canonical reasons. These appear not only at the level of the leadership, but also locally in some cases, where parishes refuse eucharistic hospitality to each other.

3. There are few opportunities for common reflection on modem challenges to Orthodoxy. including the radical social and political changes mentioned above, the requirements of a just peace in the world, the impact of Western culture and cultural conflict, the issue of Chalcedonian unity and Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement.

4. Inter-Orthodox cooperation and mutual support in developing church-related educational, pastoral or other diaconal institutions are lacking. Many Orthodox churches seem to assume that autocephaly and independence mean self-sufficiency, and that the principle of sharing of resources portrayed in the New Testament account of the early church is no longer valid. For the same reasons, the existence of something like a pan-Orthodox fund to support local projects seems to be foreign to the Orthodox churches.

5. Limitations of financial and managerial possibilities are hindering the improvement or development of local church-related institutions. Many Orthodox churches are saying that they do not have the funds or trained personnel to build or improve the educational, pastoral and diaconal institutions which church people increasingly require in order to counter the alienating forces of proselytism and emigration.

Responding to the challenges

These external and internal factors constitute a challenge to Orthodox leaders and organized groups to intensify their efforts towards Orthodox renewal, unity and witness. Let me offer some suggestions in five areas.

1. Inter-Orthodox relations. Bilateral and multilateral meetings between Orthodox churches should be promoted in order to exchange views on common challenges, help each other define common responsibilities and cooperate in responding to common needs.

In particular, an inter-Orthodox ad hoc committee chaired by a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate seems to be needed at this stage to assist the Ecumenical Patriarch in his ministry. Such a body could help to propose solutions to the immediate internal problems and organize common theological reflection on the challenges we have enumerated.

2. Common theological reflection. Several theological issues need clarification for both modem Western and Eastern minds. Orthodox clergy and lay theologians, who are presently dispersed and sometimes marginalized, should have opportunities to meet, with the aim of further interpreting -- to Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike -- the important theological assumptions of the Orthodox response to modem challenges.

But these assumptions should not only be explained. They should also be clearly and correctly reflected in contemporary Orthodox life and witness. Here are some examples: -- The historical and transcendental dimensions of the church. The church as the mystical body of Christ is at the same time historical and transcendental. Therefore, how far should Orthodox be involved in historical changes -- without succumbing to the "historicism" which they often criticize in Western ecumenism -- and how far should they be transcendent, without escaping historical challenges? In other words, is Orthodoxy today maintaining in praxis the balance between these two dimensions of the church? -- The institutional and mystical nature of the church. In some places Orthodox churches are expected by their members (as well as by outsiders) to have adequate economic possibilities, specialized staff and management. At the same time, some church leaders tend to justify their own financial and managerial inability by pointing to the non-institutional "mystical" nature of the church. The question is thus whether Orthodoxy today can accept compatibility of the institutional nature of the church, which requires efficiency, with its mystical or eschatological nature. -- God and the human being reconciled. These two points lead directly to the issue of the relation between the human and the divine in the Orthodox faith. I mentioned earlier that Western Christian culture has accepted the possibility of the human being's marginalizing and even eliminating God, while the opposing culture has emphasized God's divine power at the expense of the human being. The question is whether Orthodoxy today can demonstrate through the ministry of reconciliation that God and the human being have been reconciled through Jesus Christ, the prototype of the new humanity. Is Orthodoxy able to create a new international ethos of reconciliation and peace between people of different faiths and cultures? -- Apophatic theology. While the Orthodox everywhere are pressured to offer a theological opinion on historical events or human behaviours, they are often, on the basis of their "apophatic" theology, reluctant to do so. Is Orthodoxy able to demonstrate at least its pastoral concern for all human beings without necessarily issuing related "positivistic" opinions? -- Authority in the church. Lay people are occasionally frustrated by the way authority is exercised in some Orthodox churches. While the faithful are told that, as temples of the Holy Spirit, they are full participants in the life of the church, authority in some churches seems to be centralized in the priest, the bishop, the holy synod or the patriarch. Can the Orthodox churches solve this duality by reinterpreting more concretely the convergence of the apostolic succession with the will of the faithful? In other words, how could the Orthodox churches make authority today be perceived as the result of a collegial process that includes both clergy and laity?

3. Solving the Chalcedonian controversy. After numerous inter-Orthodox as well as Oriental and Eastern Orthodox meetings facilitated by the Orthodox Centre in Chambesy, theologians of both families of churches have reached a Christological formula recognizing that Jesus Christ is both human and divine. Unfortunately, instead of seeing in this common conviction a constructive way to Chalcedonian unity, the synods of some Orthodox churches or groups within them are still asking for more clarification or insisting that full agreement should first be obtained on the whole Council of Chalcedon. Of course, non-Chalcedonian churches have their own problems, such as the relations between the Coptic and the Ethiopian churches, the lack of commonality of opinion between the two catholicossates of the Armenians and the internal divisions in the Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

Nevertheless, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches should be able soon to transcend the political heritage of the emperors and the cultural powers of the philosophers as well as the ethnic considerations that have divided them in the past. Their unity, if fulfilled, would definitely change the attitude of Western Christianity towards them and would give new blood and orientation to the ecumenical movement.

4. Clarifying Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement. As Fr K.M. George has noted, the Orthodox churches retain in their historical memory two estrangements: the rift between East and West in the 11th century and the rift around the time of the Reformation. "If the first alienation between the East and the West may be qualified as predominantly cultural in the broad sense of the term," he says, "the second one raised more specifically ecclesiological-theological questions... The underlying ecumenical question is how to overcome these alienations -- or is it possible at all?"

Writing in Service orthodoxe de presse (no. 186, March 1994), Nicholas Lossky has pleaded for effective information on what is being achieved ecumenically on the international and local levels. For example, Orthodox leaders and theologians should communicate to their people what the WCC Faith and Order Commission has achieved, especially after the fifth world conference (Santiago 1993), or what the commission for Orthodox-Catholic dialogue declared in 1994 in Balamand, Lebanon, as well as making known other documents which show that ecumenical activity is not a betrayal of Orthodoxy but, as Lossky says, a deepening of what Orthodoxy is.

The new circumstances in the world can affect the relationships of the Orthodox with others in the ecumenical movement either negatively or positively, thus making this a matter of continuous concern to them. Can the Orthodox improve this relationship in such a way as to witness to the tradition of the one holy and undivided church without compromising their theological convictions? Should they embark on this process in isolation from each other or should they do it together? Metropolitan John of Pergamon once stated that "no Christian church can or does any longer act or speak or even think or debate -- I dare also say, decide - in isolation".

5. Developing youth ministry. Although many local Orthodox churches give an active role to their organized younger generation as a dynamic contribution to the renewal process, some Orthodox leaders feel themselves attacked by the changes proposed by youth and thus accuse them of partisan or anti-clerical tendencies.

We thank God and express deepest appreciation to all Orthodox church leadership for allowing Syndesmos to emerge as a prophetic reminder of the need to translate Orthodox mystical unity into concrete inter-Orthodox cooperation in renewal and witness. But the issue here is whether the church leadership, perhaps with the help of Syndesmos, will be able to continue unhesitatingly to facilitate the involvement of the younger generation as a courageous and energetic factor of renewal and witness in the life of the church. At the same time, organized youth should avoid getting involved in power games within the local ecclesial community.

Syndesmos today is called to be a catalyst in helping its member movements to avoid elitist policies and resist the temptation to define their identity in ethnic or social and political terms. Instead, they should be encouraged to deepen the spiritual quality of their members in order to have the spirit and mind of Jesus Christ and not any secular, religious or ethnic ideology.


The Orthodox churches today face external challenges caused by radical social and political changes in the world and internal problems resulting from the trials and tribulations experienced throughout their history. In this context they should not be tempted, either by secularism or by religious fundamentalism or by ethnic chauvinism. On the contrary, they are called to promote the constructive interaction of the conflicting cultural trends impinging upon them with their view of preserving the integrity of humanity and creation and their unity with God through Jesus Christ.

In this regard, Syndesmos and its members are called to facilitate the urgent response of the Orthodox churches to the external and internal challenges they are facing through inter-Orthodox meetings and cooperation. In order to be equipped for the task ahead, Orthodox youth movements should be encouraged to deepen the spirituality of their members, so that their light shines forth to all people and they make an important qualitative contribution to the Orthodox response to the ongoing challenges of this decade and of the new millennium.

* Gabriel Habib is a former general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. This article is adapted from his opening address to the 15th general assembly of the Orthodox youth movement Syndesmos at Kykko monastery. Cyprus, in September 1995. A French version was published in Service orthodoxe de presse, no. 203, December 1995.
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Title Annotation:Does Ethics Divide or Unite? Some Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism
Author:Habib, Gabriel
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Previous Article:The WCC on the eve of the third millenium.
Next Article:Time to unfold the Orthodox tradition.

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