One Apostolic Faith & Tradition

The Chronicle of Mathew Paris, a monk of St. Alban’s Abbey, records under the year 1250, the story of Bishop George, who was the leader of a group of Armenian fugitives who fled from the Tartar invasions. He died in the town of St. Ives and was buried next to St. Ivo’s spring and soon after, as proof of his holiness, began to perform miracles.

These Tartar invasions extended over a twenty year period as the Mongol Golden Horde, under the grandsons of Genghis Khan, swept across Eastern Europe, conquering the Slav principalities of Kiev and Vladimir and threatening the Eastern European kingdoms of Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. They were characterised by their brutality and left behind great pyramids of skulls as a witness to destruction. Now, more than seven centuries later, a similar terrifying army, the self-proclaimed Islamic State,  has been threatening those defenceless souls, who are surviving vestiges of Christianity from their ancestral homelands, and driving all before them in terror and panic. The momentum of this tide of dispossessed humanity, once again, is lapping on our shores. Nor can we overlook, even as in 2015 we marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and the Syriac Sayfo, where millions were martyred, that the fragile remnant which remained is still being systematically effaced.

The long tradition of hospitality, shown by Great Britain, is being pushed to its limits, but the compassion of the British public is reaching out with its traditional generosity when confronted with the harrowing images of human suffering and tragedy.

Among these “poor, huddled masses, yearning to breath free, this wretched refuse of the teeming shore, these homeless, tempest tost,” – I quote from the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty[1] – are large numbers of Orthodox Christians. Eritreans and Syrians from the Oriental Orthodox family as well as assorted Eastern Europeans from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who come as economic migrants. In the past two decades, the Orthodox Christian population in the United Kingdom has probably quadrupled and the efforts of their mother churches, previously confined to chaplains attached to their respective embassies, have been stretched to the limit in their efforts to minister to them spiritually. The current estimate of the Orthodox population currently here is 354,000, although generally their regular attendance at services is low or limited to the great feasts.  

Although the two families of Orthodox are not in communion with each other, the general tendency is for the clergy of both sides to admit them as occasional communicants. This pastoral response transcends the canonical boundaries and reflects the fact that a strong measure of theological agreement has already been reached between them.

As the British Orthodox Church originated from the Syrian Orthodox tradition it should have been a ‘three council’ church, recognising only Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus as ecumenical. In fact, in 1867, Bishop Julius Ferrette adopted the Eastern Orthodox position by accepting seven ecumenical councils. Although this position persisted right until 1994, when we entered the Alexandrian Patriarchate and returned to being a ‘three council’ church, we always held that both families of Orthodox held the same Faith regardless of which councils they recognised as ecumenical. This was why the preamble to the First Agreed Statement of the Joint Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches was able to say, “We have inherited from our Fathers in Christ the one apostolic Faith and Tradition, though as Churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the common apostolic faith of the undivided church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed.”    

By 1994 the Joint Commission had made huge steps towards reunion and was already discussing means by which the lifting of anathemas and condemnations of the past might be achieved. It was clearly stated that the lifting of the anathemas should imply the restoration of full communion on both sides was to be implemented. The Coptic Orthodox Church, encouraged by the late Pope Shenouda, played an active and committed role in this dialogue and, at that date there was a sense that this would be fulfilled soon. Already there had been tentative moves towards the desired consummation. In November 1991 the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch issued a Synodal and Patriarchal Letter speaking eirenically of the Non-Chalcedonian Patriarchate of Antioch as its “sister Syrian Orthodox Church”, refusing to receive members from it; and authorising mutual participation of clergy at baptisms, weddings and funerals. In 2001 a Pastoral Agreement on mixed Christian marriages was agreed between the Greek & Coptic Patriarchates of Alexandria.

I am, however, saddened to find that some of the Orthodox clergy in the UK are not inspired by this vision of unity and still regard Oriental Orthodox at worst, as tainted by Monophysitism or at best, stubbornly intransigent about accepting the later councils. They are usually poorly informed about history and Christology but can always find champions of their position among Athonite diehards and their disciples. 

Sadly, this most significant of all ecumenical dialogues, appears to have stopped completely. In 2000, Father John H. Erickson wrote, “In the course of the last decade, the impulse towards reunion of the churches has slowed. Articles published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, soon after the Joint Commission issued its agreed statements on Christology, could speak optimistically of ‘recent strides towards reunion’ and ‘last steps to unity.’ Since then, however, progress has slowed considerably.”[2] As he enumerated some of the emerging hostility to reunion, across both families, Father John observed, “The question at this point is whether we really desire unity more than our present disunity. Will we continue to be divided simply by the power of division itself? Certainly at the present time we seem to prefer the disunity to the status quo. Our cherished anathemas and preferred formulas give us a sense of security. Without them, our very identity seems threated.” Nineteen years later, the situation is unchanged.

A tragic, but potent symbol of this desired reunion, is the image of the two kidnapped Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, who were kidnapped together in April 2013. Typically, both bishops were united in a humanitarian mission, it has been said to negotiate the freedom of a kidnapped Armenian Catholic priest. They have not been heard of since, but they are prayed for regularly in British Orthodox Churches and in many other churches around the world. I knew both bishops personally. I first met Metropolitan Paul when he was staying in the UK to improve his English and he stayed in touch exchanging Paschal and Christmas greetings.  I stayed with Mar Youhanna in Aleppo; we met each other often and he dined with me at my club in London only a few months before he was taken. 

It is not insignificant that it was Metropolitan Paul’s brother, Patriarch John X (Yazigi) of Antioch, who has made the strongest call for the resumption of the official dialogue, when in the Encyclical Letter marking his enthronement in 2013, he wrote: “We hope to accomplish all steps towards a full sacramental unity with our brethren in the Eastern non-Chalcedonian Churches, based on what we have agreed upon in Chambesy as a positive result of a long and extensive dialogue.”

It is to be lamented, however, that whilst support for the Dialogue has powerful and committed backers among Orthodox hierarchs, there are others on each side of the two families who work to frustrate the process, believing that they are the true champions of Orthodoxy. Their intransigence has effectively prevented reunion moving towards its logical fulfilment.     

Orthodox ecclesiology still maintains the principle of the primitive church, which is the rule of one bishop in one city, although in Great Britain it as widely ignored, as elsewhere in the lands of the diaspora. In reality Orthodox bishops preside over jurisdictions based entirely on ethnicity rather than territory, which is a complete departure from the canonical norms of the Orthodox Church. Although there are fraternal exchanges and occasional ecumenical gatherings, each jurisdiction is very much self-contained. In some cases the bishop with jurisdiction is not actually resident in the UK, so contact with him is infrequent.  Small though it is, the British Orthodox Church, is a true local church and not a diaspora ministry from a mother church elsewhere. 

The British Orthodox Church already transcends this divide between the two families, with Orthodox from many jurisdictions worshipping among British-born converts and having both clergy and worshippers from Greek, Russian, Roumanian, Eritrean, Ethiopian & Egyptian heritage. Reaching out to these displaced Orthodox and attempting to respond to this and other developments and the changing dynamics taking place in the Middle East and Britain is one of the challenges to our ministry for which, being a truly local church, we are best suited.   

Abba Seraphim

[1] “New Colossus” by Emily Lazarus.

[2] Father John H. Erickson, Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today, Symposium on 1700th Anniversary of Christian Armenia (2000).