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Common prayer.

The question of joint prayer has been a recurrent topic in ecumenical meetings and theological dialogues. The reasons why this subject has remained ecumenically apposite, and why it has occupied the Orthodox world, are many because of the relevance of this topic to theology, history and the canonical tradition of the Orthodox church. We must note together with this that from the beginning Orthodox theologians have presented distinct understandings of the question of joint prayer, depending to a large degree on their theological matter and their interpretation of history and the canonical tradition.

The unity of theology and prayer

In theology, and in the life of the Orthodox church, there has always existed an inseparable connection between dogma and worship, between theology and prayer. The Orthodox prayer and worship did not constitute a "chapter" independent from the faith of the church, rather it was probably an idolatrous expression of the one and inseparable dogmatic teaching of the church. The lex orandi [est] lex credendi has always been an inviolable canon which defined the Orthodox ethos. This approach is clearly expressed by the words of Evagrios: "If you are a theologian, you will pray in truth; and if you pray in truth, you are a theologian." (1)

It should be stressed that the term "Orthodoxy" does not merely indicate right opinion or belief as opposed to heresy, but also right glorification. More accurately, it indicates right glorification as something which encompasses right belief, and a right way of expressing belief. Thus, right doxology--or simply doxology--is a more comprehensive definition than right belief.

We must make it clear that, according to an Orthodox understanding, doctrinal tradition is not exclusively an intellectual exercise or a system of thought. Rather, it is inextricably bound together with liturgical action. It is within the worshipping community, and in light of the community's liturgical life, that doctrine becomes "a field of vision wherein all things on earth are seen in their relation to the things of heaven". (2) In this respect, the lex orandi becomes the focus of the lex credendi, of the lex cognoscendi, and of the lex vivendi: in other words, the dogmas are not abstract speculations in and of themselves. Likewise, the Christian life is not a moralistic and external behaviour, based on regulations and laws. Both doctrine and the Christian way of life are understood within the liturgical context. Within the worshipping community, doctrine becomes the action, which constitutes the highest point of the Christian faith. Thus, the Orthodox approach to both doctrine and the Christian life is fundamentally a liturgical one. (3)

Such an understanding of prayer and worship imposes on us an analogous attitude--and challenge. If prayer follows right faith, it ceases to be a superficial need for a sentimental and shallow communion with God and becomes true communion, based on the free acceptance of ecclesiastical doctrine. This means that common prayer is possible for all those who participate in, and are sympathetic to, the same faith. As extreme as this seems to be, it does have its theological foundation in the premise that dogma and worship are two views of one and the same truth. Although these are not two extremities constraining the life of the church, they are a common basis connecting all human aspects in order to form one body, the body of Christ.

For the Orthodox it is self-evident that theology, as God's doxology, does not have the characteristics of an individual, monistic dialogue between the theologizing person and God; and although personhood remains in its reality, it is an ecclesial offering. That is, the person who theologizes uses his/her own theology to apprehend the mind of the ecclesial body, and then offer it to God in a unique and personal manner. I believe that this ecclesial conscience of theology and prayer is expressed in the liturgy immediately before confessing our common faith in the triune God through the creed, when we urge: "Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (4)

Ecumenical joint prayer and certain questions of the Orthodox

Ecumenical joint prayer has been viewed with scepticism in the past few years by a group of Orthodox believers, and even churches. The reasons for this scepticism are connected with history and, at the same time, have been strengthened by today's ecumenical activity. It is realistic to comprehend that today's reaction has its historical foundation. The Orthodox churches, presumably not without justification, have related common prayer to proselytism. Primarily in the last three centuries, the Orthodox East became an area of activity for Western missionary efforts. Organized Roman Catholic and Protestant missions arrived in Orthodox countries which, because of historical circumstances, experienced various difficulties and were offered by the missionaries possibilities for a better way of life. The missions organized schools, and founded hospitals and other public welfare institutions. Parallel to various religious gatherings, which were usually limited to common prayer, they operated indeed as "missions": in other words, they practised proselytism by taking advantage of (to some degree) the naivete and indigence of the people.

Thus, to a large portion of the Orthodox, common prayer is associated with a tactic that was not always open and transparent. On the other hand, in recent years there has existed a progressive burdening of the climate at the ecumenical prayers by difficult developments. As written in the report of sub-committee III of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which met in Crete in August 2000, "Orthodox participants have found certain elements within the worship activity of the WCC to be incompatible with apostolic tradition. These include (a) the use of inclusive language in referring to God, (b) the leadership of services by ordained women, (c) the introduction of syncretistic elements."

All of this, in the conscience of a group of Orthodox, worked to encumber common prayer. The question often asked is, what meaning does a "fabricated" common prayer have if this prayer does not express one united ethos, but is rather a joining-together of elements from various ecclesiastical traditions? If prayer is a true doxological expression of ecclesiastical teaching and life, then which common faith and common ethos does joint prayer express? Naturally, these questions are not accepted by all. Nonetheless, they are in fact asked and do create a negative climate in the Orthodox world, producing an image of ecumenical work which of course is inconsistent with, and does not correspond to, the visions of the pioneers of ecumenism.

Joint prayer and heresy

It is often the case that those who are against common prayer at ecumenical gatherings and theological dialogues highlight ecclesiastical laws which forbid joint prayer with heretics (for example Apostolic 45, Laodicea 34). Such a correlation is wrong, and we must confirm this with theological reasoning. First of all, the canons which refer to joint prayer with heretics have one specific historical context within which they were published. That is, they were published by the church to measure the consequences, for the body of the church, resulting from joint prayers with individuals who disputed basic dogmas of the Christian faith such as the divinity of Christ or God's triune nature.

A mistake made by those who appeal to these canons in regard to common prayer is that they ignore or fail to appreciate the fact that the church gave those canons. Therefore, the canons are not "above" the church, but the church is above the canons, which she herself has used, and continues to use, to ease the lives of her faithful. These canons are aimed at specific situations, and cannot be used without condition, or to limit the church and to subordinate the church to regulations that she herself has given. It constitutes a basic ecclesiastical principle for Orthodox theology that the church is the great mystery in Which the world is engaged and blessed. The church, as theanthropic, finds those secure means which look forward to the salvation of humanity. However, in no circumstance can the decisions and the canons substitute for the church, or subordinate it.

Another matter we must face is the topic of heresy and who is called a "heretic". Those who are against joint prayer in ecumenical gatherings and dialogues take for granted that whoever is not in communion with the Orthodox Church is a heretic. Therefore there exists today, as in the past, a group of Orthodox who consider the Roman Catholics and Protestants to be heretics. Based on this drastic simplification, they declare that joint prayer with heretics is forbidden. We must note at this point that to this simplification contributed the ill-advised and impulsive actions of certain persons in the ecumenical movement, persons who did not hesitate to create "common prayers" in which were found an assortment of cultural and religious elements, and in which the message of the gospel was ultimately vanishing.

It is imperative for us to underline here the fact that there are no official synodical pan-Orthodox decisions which characterize Roman Catholics or Protestants as heretics; there are only those statements of individual ecclesiastical writers mentioned today by all those who are against common prayer. In actual practice there exist among the Orthodox those who are in support of the exact application of the holy canons, and those who follow "an approach of economy" [oikonomia]. It must also be added that those who side with the position of supporting common prayer at ecumenical gatherings and theological dialogues usually have the consent of the church which they represent.

The church canons and their character

In the life of the church, already from its earliest years, the canons have been the origin of "economy" and have been ways of philanthropy. The canons aim to make the lives of the faithful easier, to give a measure for Christian behaviour and conduct. The canons were always the means with which, and the ways by which, the church protected the life of its children. Truly, the canons were for the faithful and not the faithful for the canons. That is to say, for the canons to have been published and applied there must have been certain reasons, and appropriate circumstances, which forced the church in that situation to carve out the road which the faithful were obligated to follow. In other words, without certain preconditions, the canons would not have been published and there would have been no reason for them to have been applied. This is also apparent from the fact that when the reasons which had demanded the applied publication of a particular canon were effaced, this canon remained useless, that is, ineffectual--though without being abolished. Also, in peculiar circumstances the church has retained the capability to over-ride a canon. A classic example of this occurred during the German occupation of Greece, when there was massive deprivation and hunger causing many people to perish from famine. In this particular circumstance, the holy synod of the Church of Greece asked the faithful to eat meat--or anything else that causes one to break a fast--during the fasting periods.

Thus the canons which forbid joint prayer with heretics, as well as those that forbid someone to eat with or travel with heretics, have their historical context and were prescribed by the specific conjunction of circumstances of that epoch. Although these canons are not now in effect, they are also not abolished and they could be applied again when the conjunction of circumstances that originally prescribed their enactment exist again and return once more to the life of the church. Nevertheless, it is important for us to clarify and repeat that the canons do not confine the church which created them, nor do they bind the church into a context from which she cannot get out. Such a notion introduces legalism into the church, which does not allow space for the life and freedom of grace.

On the basis of this way of thinking, we can say that the church is able to affirm the disuse of certain canons, in order to highlight her evangelical message. The issue of the unity of Christians, which is the context within which the ecumenical effort is addressed and which is the aim of the theological dialogues, has of course--and should have--priority over any application of edicts. Without any belittlement, the canonical tradition is made absolute. This indicates that today the church has an obligation to take a positive stand towards the existing historical opportunities and, above all, to respond to the calling of Christ, "that they may all be one" (John 17:21).

The fact that the church has such flexibility in its course of action is evident from the study of church history. It is well-known, and it remains true until today, that the baptized are members of the church and have always engaged in joint prayer--and engage in joint prayer nowadays--with those who have not yet been added to the ecclesiastical family. In the Holy Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and in the other liturgies, before the eucharistic ceremony there is a common prayer of the catechumens and faithful. The catechumens engage in joint prayer with the faithful, and listen together to the Bible readings. The catechumens are not members of the church and may originate from heretical backgrounds, or they may even emanate from the pagan world. Nevertheless, the church does not hesitate to accept them and to offer them the affection of the church's prayer, since they have expressed their willingness to become her members. It is recognized here that, even given the existence of canons in relation to joint prayer, it is still a matter of the peculiar circumstances. Specifically, it is understood that the church has the right, and the authority, to judge the circumstances and to decide accordingly. This verifies the position which states that it is the church which has the authority either to impose her canons, or to act differently.

The same was true in the case of those who repented in the ancient church. Certain members of the church, during periods of persecution, and from fear or cowardice, had renounced the Christian faith. This was considered a heavy offence and the church cut off from her body those who had renounced her. But later, when certain of them repented of their action and wanted to return to the body of the faithful, the church set for them a period of trials. During this period, those repenting were accepted into joint prayer but not into eucharistic communion. Thus the church did not judge with a legal mentality, but on the basis of spiritual interest and with that conscience of our God and Saviour, "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4).

The nature of joint prayer in the ecumenical movement

I believe it is apparent, after all that has been noted, that joint prayer in the ecumenical movement and the theological dialogues has both a particular and a specific mission to ease the approach of Christians from various traditions to one another. This does not imply that joint prayer is a "means" and tool of compromise and a diplomatic method of proceeding. The matter is simple: in our effort to develop and enhance dialogue and understanding of one another through serious study and an approach to the historical obstacles between us, and also in order for us to observe in a balanced way the dogmatic differences within the ecclesiastic tradition, we need to plead together for divine assistance. This does not suggest a mentality of compromise, or contempt for the ecclesiastical canons. It does demonstrate, however, the freedom of the church to deal with the issues which occur in its experience in history with a disposition to love, and with the goal of the spiritual benefit of the body of the church. Inasmuch as the church has the capability--and also the duty--to survey the challenges of the times, and deal with them accordingly, it ensures its own pre-eminence. The church, as the body of Christ, is filled with the Holy Trinity and without altering its dogmatic heritage and its ethos, is of course capable of making decisions in order to deal with new situations and phenomena which have no precedent in church history. In this perspective, certainly the ecumenical movement and the theological dialogues offer a new reality and opportunity for an Orthodox witness to the truth.


(1) On Prayer, PG 79, 1180B.

(2) G. Every, The Byzantine Patriarchate, London, 1974, p.ix. Quoted in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, Harmondsworth, 1969, p.271.

(3) See my article, "Doxology, the Language of Orthodoxy", The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 38, 1993, pp.155-56.

(4) Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

Constantine Scouteris is professor of patristic studies, the history of doctrine and symbolics at the department of theology of the University of Athens. This paper was presented to the Special Commisson on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, meeting in Berekfurdo, Hungary, 15-20 November 2001.
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Author:Scouteris, Constantine
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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