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Already but not yet.

Since the Orthodox Church has been involved in the ecumenical movement, there has not been unanimity about the ecclesiological basis of such an involvement. On the one hand, even if some local Orthodox churches became founding members of WCC earlier in 1948, for some others of them it was the 1950 Toronto statement of the WCC Central Committee (1) which opened the way to join the World Council of Churches. (2) The adoption of that significant document, which kept "the dialectical balance ... between 'ecclesiological neutrality' and promotion of ecumenical endeavors," (3) was a result of precise and constructive criticism from the Orthodox side.

On the other hand, this "ecclesiological neutrality" was seen by the Orthodox theologians as the cause of "polarisation and stagnation" (4) in the ecumenical movement, while ecclesiology had to be recognized as "the fundamental problem not only for ecumenism, but also for social ethics, missiology, globalization, renewal, sacramental theology, spirituality." (5) Therefore, the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC has encouraged the Faith and Order Commission to "explore further the implications of this [ecclesiological] self-understanding within its ongoing work in the area of ecclesiology" (6) as well as ecclesiological reflection within the churches themselves.

The Faith and Order convergence document on ecclesiology had several stages, and the final one, published as The Church: Towards a Common Vision, in its very name bears an in via rhetoric that is well characterized by a heading within its third chapter: "Already but Not Yet." Despite the affirmation of the level of convergence in the introduction to The Church as "an extraordinary ecumenical achievement" which optimistically overcomes the "suspicion that the various confessional ecclesiologies are not only divergent from one another but also irreconcilable," the reflection process, and moreover, the reception by the member churches on all levels has to be reached in order to take the next steps toward unity.

From the Orthodox side, reception of the previous convergence document, the famous Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry was questioned. (7) At the same time, theological reception by the people of the church, and not only by the "ecumenical elite," is a necessary step, and that reception is often lacking. (8) However, the Inter-Orthodox Consultation in Agia Napa gave a positive assessment to The Nature and Mission of the Church, the immediate predecessor to The Church. The former document was identified as the "product of a long and careful process, conducted by dedicated ecumenical partners: people of faith, learning and wisdom, people deeply committed both by their own respective confessions and to the goal of unity." (9)

It is very difficult to evaluate if an ecclesiological convergence document responds to the actual, and not only to the declared needs of the churches. Or perhaps this process is mainly important for theologians "dedicated" and "deeply committed" to the ecumenical movement, while on the level of church people, the broader ecumenical movement, and ecclesiological reflections in particular it is greeted with moderate or militant skepticism, nourished not only by marginal groups but also by respected and legitimate church leaders.

In his opening speech to the Inter-Orthodox Consultation to Agia Napa, Archbishop Chrysostom of Cyprus strongly pointed to the ecclesiological character of Orthodox theology when he stated that "Christianity cannot be understood without Church." (10) Together with declaration of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Christian credo includes also expression of faith in the Church and its essential characteristics as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." The ecumenical movement as a movement to visible unity cannot avoid the issue of ecclesiology, which Orthodox theologians point to as "delicate and sensitive" (11) or even "neuralgic" (12) but still "one of the most central." (13) The ecumenical movement as a movement to Christian unity cannot avoid reflections on the models of unity, presuppositions of unity, and on the theological and non-theological factors of the division; here ecclesiology here can play a role in either overcoming divisions or strengthening them.

As Ion Bria notes, "An ecumenical commitment (openness, solidarity) without a common ecclesiological ground and convictions is empty." (14) Thus, what is done in the convergence document The Church is an attempt not to formulate common ecclesiology on the one hand, and not to present divisions and divergences in particular confessional ecclesiologies, but rather to emphasize crucial ecclesiological issues for ecumenical movement toward Christian unity, to emphasize its centrality for new kind of ecumenism, which the Napa report calls "Church-centered ecumenism and Church-centered theology."

Therefore, tell us why should Orthodox leaders, theologians and laity be interested in The Church: Towards a Common Vision?

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12050

(1) "The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches" stated "The Word Council cannot and should not be based on any one particular conception of the Church. It does not prejudge the ecclesiological problem" (III.3); "Membership in the World Council of Churches does not imply that a church treats its own conception of the Church as merely relative" (III.4); "Membership in the World Council does not imply the acceptance of a specific doctrine concerning the nature of Church unity" (III.5 in The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope, eds. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997), 463-68.

(2) Ioan Sauca, "The Church beyond Our Boundaries: The Ecumenical Vocation of Orthodoxy," Ecumenical Review (56.2), 211.

(3) Todor Sabev, The Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches: Towards the Future (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996), 41.

(4) Ion Bria, "Widening the Ecclesiological Basis of the Ecumenical Fellowship," Ecumenical Review (56.2), 209.

(5) Ibid., 201.

(6) Peter Bouteneff "The Report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC: An Introduction," Ecumenical Review (55.1), 51.

(7) The Third Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Conference, Chambesy, 1986, stated that while the document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, elaborated by the Commission with the participation of Orthodox theologians "constitutes [...] a significant step in the history of the Ecumenical Movement," it "does not express the faith of the Orthodox Church on many points of capital importance" (8). In Todor Sabev, The Orthodox Church, 43-44.

(8) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 1998 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] No. 6, p. 65 (Metropoltan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad (1998), Orthodoxy and ecumenism: new challenges).

(9) Report of Inter-Orthodox Consultation at Agia Napa for a Response to the Faith and Order Study "The Nature and Mission of the Church: A Stage on the Way to Common Statement" (2011). centre/news/NapaReport.pdf.

(10) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2011), press-release of the Inter-Orthodox Consultation for a Response to the Faith and Order Study "The Nature and Mission of The Church: A Stage on the Way to Common Statement" at Agia Napa (2011)-

(11) Sauca "The Church Beyond," 211.

(12) Ibid., 219.

(13) Ibid., 211.

(14) Bria, "Widening the Ecclesiological Basis," 209.

Natalia Vasilevich is a theologian from the Orthodox Church of Byelorussia. She is the Director at Centre Ecumena in Minsk, and contributes to the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. Her academic interests range from ecumenical ecclesiology to human rights and religious freedom.
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Author:Vasilevich, Natalia
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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