Inter Church Relations and Ecumenism

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Between the two World Wars, many Orthodox churchmen of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, of Greece, of the Balkans, and of the Russian emigration took part in the ecumenical movement. Several private associations of churchmen and theologians promoted understanding between Eastern Orthodoxy and the 'Anglo-Catholic' branch of Anglicanism in this period.

After World War II, however, the Orthodox Churches of the Communist-dominated countries failed to join the newly created World Council of Churches (1948): only Constantinople and Greece did so. The situation changed drastically in 1961, when the Patriarchate of Moscow applied for membership and was soon followed by other auto-cephalous churches. Before and after 1961, the Orthodox consistently declared that their membership did not imply any relativistic understanding of the Christian truth, but that they were ready to discuss with all Christians the best way of restoring the lost unity of Christendom, as well as problems of common Christian action and witness in the modern world. Often, and especially at the beginning of their participation, the Orthodox delegates had recourse to separate statements, which made clear to the Protestant majorities that, in the Orthodox view, Christian unity was attainable only in the full unity of the primitive apostolic faith from which the Orthodox Church had never departed. This attitude of the Orthodox could be understood only if it made sufficiently clear that the truth, which ancient Eastern Orthodoxy claims to preserve, is maintained by the Holy Spirit in the Church as a whole, and not by any individual or any group of individuals in their own right. And also that the unity of Christians, which is the goal of the ecumenical movement, does not imply cultural, intellectual or ritual uniformity but rather a mystical fellowship in the fullness of truth as expressed in eucharistic communion.

During the papacy of John XXIII, when Roman Catholicism became actively involved in ecumenism, the Orthodox after some hesitation participated in the new situation.

The spectacular meetings in the 1960s between the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and the Pope, in Jerusalem, Istanbul and Rome, the symbolic lifting of ancient anathemas, and other gestures were signs of rapprochement, although they were sometimes mistakenly interpreted as if they were ending the Great Schism itself. In the Orthodox view, full unity can be restored only in the fullness of truth witnessed by the entire Church and sanctioned in sacramental communion.

The Serbian Orthodox Church was the last Orthodox Church to take an active part in the work of the World Council of Churches in 1965. Patriarch German was elected its president in 1968. The participation of the Serbian Church in the organization and its position on ecumenism (especially the ecumenical dialogue espoused by the Roman Catholic Church) may have caused more disagreement among the bishops than any other issue in recent years.

Ecumenism as a way of transcending narrow national and confessional interests has always had strong opponents in the Serbian Church. Not infrequently, ecumenism has been condemned as a mortal danger for Orthodoxy, or its betrayal, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been branded a Masonic organization in the service of the 'new world order'. The strong anti-western sentiments are most clearly expressed in the writings of Nikolaj Velimirovic and Justin Popovic about Europe and the West. Archimandrite Justin Popovic was notably a bitter critic of both ecumenism and the WCC. In both church and non-church circles these two authors are among the most abundantly quoted domestic theologians since about the 1980s. Their followers have further elaborated their teaching that both Catholicism and Protestantism are heretical, and a betrayal of Christianity, and that Catholic ecumenism is a continuation of the centuries-old drive by the Vatican to expand its jurisdiction over the Balkans at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

During the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia representatives of different faiths issued several joint statements and made several joint appearances. The patriarch condemned the attacks on the Bajrakli mosque and the parish office of St Ante in Belgrade, and had previously sent an eirenic response to the publication of an anti-Semitic article. But on many other occasions the Serbian Orthodox Church failed to condemn religious intolerance and discrimination. The church press has published critical articles on minor religious organizations and sects, and on the Roman Catholic Church, on quite a few occasions. Their authors have been particularly touchy about aid flowing in through humanitarian organizations connected with Protestant Churches the world over. There is an underlying concern in the Serbian Orthodox Church at large that if religious communities are allowed to operate in conditions that are more liberal then the Serbian nation may become divided along religious lines too.

In 1997, a number of monastics made an appeal to the Serbian Orthodox Church, asking it to renounce its membership of the WCC. The Serbian Orthodox Church Assembly, at a regular session that year, considered the matter and decided to propose to all Orthodox Churches, and to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to convoke a panOrthodox session to consult on a joint position towards the WCC. However, not all bishops were sure that ecumenism was necessarily bad. In May 1998, the Assembly again debated the whole range of issues related to the Orthodox Church's attitude to the ecumenical movement, and bishops again disagreed with each other. The Assembly adopted the conclusions of the pan-Orthodox consultation in Thessaloniki, whose participants agreed to start official talks with the WCC on the inadmissibility of the organization's present concept, structure and methodology, and the need to place it on a new footing. That year the Serbian Orthodox Church sent two representatives to the WCC Assembly in Harare. In the meantime, the decision to pull out of the organization had neither been cancelled nor put into effect and the opponents of both ecumenism and the WCC wrote that the imported heresy could only be destroyed with the sword of the Spirit.

The NATO bombing of the former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 increased the feeling of deep mistrust and fear, and even hatred, of the West. More frequently, however, one can hear other, albeit toned-down opinions that the West and America are not the only cause of the domestic calamity.

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