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S2 E3 Ecumenism: Friend or Foe?

You can listen to the episode on Anchor or Spotify.


Ecumenism. A loaded word that most people have very strong feelings about. Some hear it with a smile on their faces. Others have a tendency to have quite the frown when they hear it. And then there are most people who have no idea what it means. If you google the word ecumenism, the following result comes up: “the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian Churches.”

If you ask your spiritual father about it, you are bound to hear one of two answers. If he thinks ecumenism is a friend, he might say, “This is the loving and Christian response to the words of Christ in the gospel of John where He emphasizes the importance of unity of all believers who shall all become one flock under one shepherd.”

Another spiritual father might think it is a foe and thus he would say something like this, “This is the heresy of the age ran by freemasons aiming toward dissolving the articles of the faith with the purpose of bringing Orthodoxy to ruins.” I am not going to address these two comments for now and just shed some light on how the ecumenical movement sees itself.

To do that, I will look at the World Council of Churches which is the ecumenical entity par excellence. If you go on their website, you would find the following words in the opening of the mission statement,

“At its founding assembly In 1948, WCC member churches understood that the new Council was not a church above them, certainly not the church universal or incipient “world church”. They understood it to be an instrument whereby the churches bear witness together in their common allegiance to Jesus Christ, search for that unity which Christ wills for his one and only church, and co-operate in matters which require common statements and actions.”

Historically, hierarchies of churches, students and lay movements of the 19th century such as the 1920 encyclical from the (Orthodox) Synod of Constantinople suggested inaugurating a “fellowship of churches” similar to the League of Nations. Leaders representing more than 100 churches voted in 1937-38 to found a World Council of Churches, but its inauguration was delayed following the outbreak of the second world war. You can already see how early the involvement of the Orthodox witness to ecclesial unity is.

Now the World Council of Churches has smaller assemblies resembling it in various areas in the world such as the Canadian Council of Churches, the American Council of Churches, and the Middle East Council of Churches. Each of these will likely include two major commissions such as the commission of faith and order which discusses convergences and divergences between the different churches on the one hand and the commission of peace and justice which looks for ways for members of different Churches to come together to help making the world a better place or make it resemble the kingdom that is to come a little bit more.

What the World Council of Churches has offered so far is room for Christians to come together, sit in one place, have a conversation where they can agree, disagree, or remain neutral on all kinds of theological topics in an unhostile place. This seems like something someone could respond to with a nonchalant “whatever.” But when we consider the fact that the 20th and 21st centuries have had the least amount of sectarian violence among Christians, this becomes a big deal.

When we consider the fact Christians are killing each other far less and that protestants are willing to sit at the same table as Catholics without associating the Catholic Church with the whore of Babylon—which believe it or not, this is what many Protestants in America believed well into the nineteenth century.

Catholics are now able to sit with other Christians with little to no elitism or an expectation of other churches to “come back” in quotation marks to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church even went as far as recognizing the truth in other Churches and the continual sacramental presence in the Orthodox Church even when they are not in communion with Rome or its pope.

Today, Christians are able to sit together, share a cup of coffee, around a table with no swords or guns or name calling. You can disagree with me but I call that a win.

Now about the fear of freemasons being behind the ecumenical movement, I won’t dismiss this accusation and will just ask few questions around it. And before you listen to these questions, I want you to deeply reflect on how much you know about the freemason movement to begin with. But now let us look into the following questions:

  • Question 1: Do you really think if freemasons were behind the ecumenical movement, it would go into the state of de factor limbo that it is in with little to no tangible outcomes for the past decade or so?
  • Question 2: Do you really think that if freemasons were behind the ecumenical movement, that we would still have schisms between even the Churches that have agreed statements stating quite unequivocally that they believe the same things such as the Eastern and Oriental families of Orthodoxy?
  • The last and final question: even if we were to grant that the ecumenical movement is in fact led by the freemasons, what makes you think that this is what will bring Orthodoxy to ruins?

The Orthodox Church lived through eras of persecution, canonizing murderous emperors and empresses, ordaining two bishops over the same see, centuries of resolving theological conflicts and heresies as in the case of iconoclasm, and you really think that is what will get her? The freemasons? Like come on. Even if the freemasons were the gates of hell, we have the promise of Christ that the gates of hell will not prevail against His body.

And if freemasons were out to get the Church, it would not be the smartest move on their end to get anyone to unite with the Orthodox. There is approximately 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians and 60 million Oriental Orthodox Christians which is to be contrasted with 1.2 billion Catholics and 800 million to 1 billion protestants. Now add to that how most Orthodox Christians are either under persecution or recovering from it, and you will realize how unhelpful getting Orthodox Christians under your wing would be if worldly power is what you are after. I am not saying we are insignificant to Christianity. I am just saying that we are insignificant population wise relative to the other major denominations.

Now let us turn back to the main topics. If ecumenism is intended to get Christians to see if they truly understand each other or not, then I believe it is good. If ecumenism is intended to get Christians to ignore how they disagree with one another and pretend they agree with each other, then I believe it is bad. But if ecumenism is intended to get Orthodox Christians to do away with their beliefs, then I believe it is ugly and should in fact change its name from ecumenism to syncretism which is the attempted amalgamation of different religions or denominations.

I do not think any true Orthodox Christian would want this and if this is what ecumenism is then indeed it is the heresy of this age. But I must say I have been to enough ecumenical meetings to say that these meetings are far slower than anyone might think and the statements they produce take entire years and in fact they do not aim to have anyone give up whatever they believe in or take on what they never believed in. If anything, it is an opportunity for you to understand the other, and for others to understand your faith. It can even be an opportunity to clarify misconceptions about what your faith truly stands for.

Allow me to conclude with the following story about St. Silouan the Athonite, a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterised by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself, he was utterly convinced that “salvation lies in Christ-like humility,” and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone to his capacity for loving Christ.

I will now share with you the story after simplifying it a little for the audience though you can read it in full with no changes in the biography of St. Silouan,

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of Silouan and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. Silouan asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people.

The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly, “I tell them, ‘Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’”

St Silouan heard him out, then asked, “But please tell me, holy archmandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ – that He is the true God?”

The archimandrite answered, “Yes, they do believe that.”

St Silouan said, “And do they honour the Holy Mother?”

The archimandrite said, “They honour Her, but they teach erroneous things about Her.”

St Silouan asked, “And what about the saints – do they acknowledge their existence?”

The archimandrite replied, “Yes, they do, but ever since they have severed themselves from the Church, what kind of saints could they have?”

St Silouan inquired, “Do they perform services in Churches? Do they read the word of God?”

Once again the Archimandrite said, “Yes, and they also have temples and services, but if you could only see how inferior their services are to ours – how cold, how soul-less they are!”

St Silouan then said, “Holy archmandrite, their souls obviously feel that they are acting correctly in believing in Christ, in honouring the Holy Mother and the saints – whom they invoke in their prayers. That is why, when you tell them that their faith is illegitimate, they will not listen to you…

But if you told the people that they are right in believing in God, that they are right in honouring the Holy Mother and the saints, and in going to church for services and praying at home, that they are right in reading the Word of God and all the rest, except that here and there they have a few incorrect theories which should be corrected, then everything will be just fine and pleasing to God, and by the Grace of God, everyone will be saved….

“God is Love”, and that is why a sermon needs to always spring from love. Only then will the preacher and the listener both benefit. But if you censure them, then the souls of the people will not listen to you and no benefit will be achieved.”

May we acquire the heart of St Silouan that beats with love for all Christians and may we learn to approach the other in love and wisdom rather than apprehension and skepticism. May we all witness to the truth in love.

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