Differences between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches - Printable Version
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Differences between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches - Paul Harrison - 14-09-2006
It is very heartening to read in Abba Seraphim's introduction to "Our Daily Life" that progress is being made to heal the oldest schism in Christianity, that between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. To a Westerner, there would be little to distinguish the two branches, yet an Antiochian Orthodox priest once told me that being "non-Chalcedonian Christians", the Oriental Orthodox Churches are in greater schism with them than are the Western churches, the RC essentially, which was a party to all of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. So can someone who really understands these things explain the long duration of this schism and whether or not it has any bearing on the reality of living a Christian life.
My incomplete understanding is that the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's nature said that He had two natures, one divine and one human. The Oriental Churches claimed that He had but one nature which was both human and divine. Hence the term Monophysite. Yet to a merely amateur theologian like me, we are dealing in semantics. If there is any important difference between Christ having two natures, human and divine, or one nature, human and divine, its certainly lost on me. The politics of power are far more likely to be behind the schism as is the theology. The Popes refused to accept the filioque for almost half a millennium before it was forced on them by the Carolingians.
Any moves which can be made to right the wrongs of history must be most welcome, but are there any other important issues dividing the two families of Christian Orthodoxy? Due both to geography and history, the Orthodox Church has the right to call itself the Church of Christ. Yet a Westerner enquiring would want to know how deep these divisions go.
- admin - 16-09-2006
Much has been done in recent decades to heal the division which formed between those who accepted Chalcedon and those who rejected it, while holding the same Apostolic Faith.
The division is, as you suggest, mostly based now on terminological differences, though its long lasting nature is due in no small part to the fact that the Imperial forces of the time were used to try and enforce acceptance of Chalcedon at the point of the sword. Many tens of thousands of non-Chalcedonians were killed at the time and this hardly produce a climate which was likely to see reconciliation. Most bishops were exiled or martyred. It was very difficult, nothing at all like the ecumenical environment in which we find ourselves now where serious discussion can take place.
Not so long after Chalcedon much of the empire fell into Persian and Muslim hands and so the possibility of reconciliation receded even further.
In the last few decades official dialogues have taken place which have produced some substantive results already.
Two Agreed Statements have been signed by representative bishops of both communities which state among much else:
In the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology as well as of the above common affirmations, we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways. It is this common faith and continuous loyalty to the Apostolic Tradition that should be the basis for our unity and communion.
There have also been agreements signed between the Antiochian Greek and Syrian Orthodox such that members and clergy of either community can receive the sacraments in either church. Here are a few excerpts from the agreement which was issued by the Antiochian Patriarch himself:
It is our duty and that of our brothers in the Syrian Orthodox Church to witness to Christ in our Eastern region where He was born, preached, suffered, was buried and rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sent down His Holy and Life Giving Spirit upon His holy Apostles.
All the meetings, the fellowship, the oral and written declarations meant that we belong to One Faith even though history had manifested our division more than the aspects of our unity.
and it also says
Every endeavour and pursuit in the direction of the coming together of the two Churches is based on the conviction that this orientation is from the Holy Spirit, and it will give the Eastern Orthodox image more light and radiance, that it has lacked for centuries before.
Having recognised the efforts done in the direction of unity between the two Churches, and being convinced that this direction was inspired by the Holy Spirit and projects a radiant image of Eastern Christanity overshadowed during centuries, the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch saw the need to give a concrete expression of the close fellowship between the two Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox for the edification of their faithful.
And some of the concrete expressions instituted by the Antiochian Synod are:
In localities where there is only one priest, from either Church, he will celebrate services for the faithful of both Churches, including the Divine Liturgy, pastoral duties, and holy matrimony
If a bishop from one Church and a priest from the sister Church happen to concelebrate a service, the first will preside even when it is the priest's parish.
Godfathers, godmothers (in baptism) and witnesses in holy matrimony can be chosen from the members of the sister Church.
We ask God's help to continue strengthening our relations with the sister Church, and with other Churches, so that we all become one community under one Shepherd.
Quite clearly it is the opinion of the Antiochian Patriarch and his Synod that the two communities are in communion with each other, even while there are still historical issues to resolve. A bishop and priest could not concelebrate if there were not communion. Therefore the Antiochian priest you spoke to is out of step with his own Church. I can only assume that he is a convert priest? and is trying to be zealous for his new faith and has overstepped the bounds of that which is own Patriarch teaches.
It is also the case that one of the British Orthodox priests was an Antiochian priest in the UK for some years and sought and obtained a canonical release from his Antiochian bishop to the care of Abba Seraphim. Such a canonical release can only be issued if both communities consider each other as 'canonical' and Orthodox.
To be honest, the fact of the number of councils which a community are party to seems a weak measure of what a Church actually believes. Not only were the Oriental Orthodox not even invited to councils 5-7, but the Roman Catholics who could be considered to have been present in 5-7 have actually developed many other doctrines incompatible with Orthodoxy.
The content of the latter Eastern Orthodox councils could be summed up as:
4th - That Christ is God and man
5th - That the Three Chapters are rejected
6th - That the humanity of Christ has will
7th - That icons should be used.
Now in Oriental Orthodoxy there has always been a very clear understanding that Christ is God made man, without any change in his divinity, nor confusion of these natures of divinity and humanity. So the substance of the 4th is accepted and always has been. I have written an article on the Oriental Orthodox teaching about the humanity of Christ if you would like to read it.
In relation to the 5th council, well the Oriental Orthodox had rejected the Three Chapters 100 years previously and therefore do not need to accept a council which only came to do so quite late.
In relation to the 6th, well the Oriental Orthodox always taught that the humanity of Christ was perfect and complete and lacked nothing, Indeed that it was the same as ours without sin, so they have never taught that the humanity was without will, so again this council only had a local relevance to the Byzantines who had to deal with this heresy.
And in relation to the 7th, well every Coptic Orthodox Church is filled with icons, and our British Orthodox Churches are as well. Not generally on every inch of wall space, and we in the BOC don't tend to go in for covereing everything with gilt paint. But we do venerate icons, I have several here in my home with me. And the Oriental Orthodox didn't destroy all their icons in the 7th-8th centuries which is why many of the oldest icons are in fact Coptic. So this was also rather a local council dealing with a particular Byzantine problem.
Now if the Roman Catholics are closer in theology to your Antiochian priest friend, and I must admit I have never heard an Eastern Orthodox say that before, then why were icons pretty much eliminated in the West? Why have the Romans introduced so many other doctrines such as papal infallibility, papal supremacy, the filioque etc.
I would have to say that if he thinks himself closer to the Roman Catholics than to the Oriental Orthodox then it might say more about him. Was he an Anglo-Catholic Anglican in the past? That might perhaps explain his opinion.
Have any of these quotes helped?
Of course the practical matter that all over the world Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are being communed in the other community suggests that there is a real sense that we are both Orthodox and just need to get on and sort things out once and for all.
- Paul Harrison - 18-09-2006
The Antiochian priest to whom I refer didn't say that he was in any way closer either theologically or practically to Rome than he is to yourselves. He was merely stating that the schism between Oriental Orthodoxy and Chalcedonian Christians which include Rome, Constantinople etc, is much older than the schism between East and West usually dated, quite arbitrarily as 1054. And you are right. He is an ex-Anglican priest.
But the fact that you are in communion with each other gives the lie to any serious schism. Who is in communion with whom can be a complex issue. There are Eastern Rite churches in communion with Rome. There are (in the US) Anglican Rite churches in communion with Rome. Protestants tend to have open communion because they are lacking an understanding of the need for sacramental assurance. To this end, Rome offers communion to the East as it recognises Orthodox orders but not to the Anglican Communion whose orders it considers null.
Yet Eastern Christianity, as far as I'm aware, offers communion to nobody else, not even Rome except in dire conditions such as imminent death. The point of all this is that if the Antiochians are willing to share communion with Coptic Christians then they can't consider any schism to be of any great moment.
- admin - 19-09-2006
I think you are right Paul, especially in the context of Orthodox bishops in the West who have to live and work with others.
In my own British Orthodox church in Chatham we have a Russian Orthodox English convert woman and her daughter who have been worshipping with us for many years and communing with the knowledge of both the Russian bishop and our own Abba Seraphim.
And we had a ROCOR member who wanted to worship with us and had found the Russian culture rather difficult, he was received as an Orthodox Christian, which is how the Oriental Orthodox view the Eastern Orthodox. He is rather ill at the moment and hasn't been able to travel but we do not consider that he has 'converted' to our Church, rather he was already Orthodox and was choosing to worship in a more British environment.
Indeed I know many OO folk who receive communion in EO churches and I know personally EO who receive in OO churches. Some friends of mine in the US were becoming Orthodox and though they liked the Coptic Orthodox Church it was a 2 hour drive. Their nearest Church was a Greek one. They spoke to both priests and were told that whatever they decided they would be able to commune in the other.
So personally I think much of the ground work has been done for reconciliation. In fact talking to some Roman Catholics yesterday at Minster in Thanet, serious academics who know their subject, I am sure that in terms of Christology there are no significant difference between the OO and Roman Catholics either.
If you read back in the history of the non-Chalcedonians or Oriental Orthodox, you will find that even when things were most difficult between the non-Chalcedonians and the Imperial authority, I mean when people were getting killed for making the wrong choices, even then the manner of recieving people from the Chalcedonians was by a confession of faith, not by a baptism or even chrismation, because it was clear that in the substance of the faith there was agreement.
- alexander - 25-01-2007
The whole question on the differences between the Oriental & Byzantine churches, and the reason why there is such a universal misunderstanding of the Coptic Church's position, is one that has long puzzled me. Peter's posting is therefore helpful. It seems to me that it could be a fruitful area for research - but I am not equipped to undertake this.
Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy - John Charmley - 25-01-2007
It is a puzzle, and Peter, like Abba Seraphim, explains it terribly well. There is much that could be said on another occasion, and there is a lot on the BOC website that helps us through this. But having debated this elsewhere, what saddens me is the spirit of narrow exclusivity evinced by some EOs. It may be some OOs do, but maybe I have been lucky and not seen that. But the Copts, perhaps because they have never been an Imperial Church, seem much more eirenic, and whilst holding to the Orthodox Faith, do not seem to insist that God is their Father and their Father only.
It does seem to me that if one goes back to Chalcedon, there were real differences, based on real issues which were not understood in the same way by the different sides involved. But, essentially, this was a family quarrel, which, like all such, makes Our Father sad at our fallibility; fortunately, He is the ultimate loving Father and He is always willing to forgive those who repent. We all have much to repent, and he who says he is without sin speaks folly.
The Orthodox Unity website at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.orthodoxunity.org/">http://www.orthodoxunity.org/</a><!-- m --> gives more than enough evidence that without compromise on essentials, movement towards unity is possible - and it is so sad that Christians with so much in common (more than some of them know) remain sundered.
But that does not stop us being brothers and sisters in Christ - even if some don't acknowledge the family resemblance!