Contribution to inter-faith dialogue is more potential than actual, but here too the Orthodox Church has an important contribution to make, especially in the difficult area of Christian and Muslim relationships. The two faiths grew up in the same Middle Eastern environment and have been involved in a 'living dialogue' ever since. Relations have gone through various stages, including violent conflict and damaging legal discrimination in which the Orthodox have until recently usually been the victims. But the Orthodox occupy a potentially creative and reconciling space between western Christians and Muslims. Like the Muslims, they were the victims of the violence of crusaders between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, and then later suffered with Muslims at the hands of colonising powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Orthodox can also remind westerners that they have neglected the needs of Middle Eastern Christian communities which have been in sharp decline owing to emigration to the west and to the attacks ofa militant fundamentalist Islam, while western states and churches have shown relatively little interest in their plight.
The Orthodox Church is confronted with organisational problems. These affect its spirituality; they raise the question whether the church as an institution has the adaptability and the internal resources required to develop an international spirituality capable of accommodating the needs of western Orthodox. This will require not only an inclusive local spirituality, which will contribute to the emergence of new nation states, but also an ecumenical spirituality, which can engage with other churches, and indeed faith communities, in a way which contributes to the ecumenical dialogue without compromising the distinctively Orthodox witness.
Lying behind these problems of organisation is the question of how the church adjusts, develops and changes. Its emphasis on local church life, brought into being through the liturgy, and its rejection of any form of centralised authority, such as is seen in the Roman papacy, raises the question of how the church might change - if it wanted to. It is difficult to see how an issue such as the ordination of women to the priesthood could be debated and decided on, and what body could do this. While it is true that most Orthodox would strongly argue against this, there needs to be at least the possibility of such changes. In the Byzantine Empire, the development of the tradition was facilitated and enabled by the ecumenical councils, convened by the emperor and attended by bishops. These pronounced not only on doctrine but also on disciplinary and legal matters. In the contemporary Orthodox Church, local synods of bishops in the various national churches meet regularly, and deal with disciplinary and other matters. But larger questions need the authority
Was this article helpful?