Approximately 50 years ago a rapid series of events has concentrated the attention of many Catholics on the Orthodox Church.  This widespread interest is something new.  After 1917 there grew up in most Western countries a diaspora of Russian Orthodox exiles.  This had several small-scale consequences.  It led to the rise of a few small Catholic groups dedicated to the study of the problem of reunion with the Orthodox — the Amay community, now at Monastère de l’Exaltation de la Sainte Croix in Chevetogne, Belgium, and, in England, Fr Bede Winslow and the other promoters of the Eastern Churches Quarterly.[1] There also appeared a small society of Anglicans and Orthodox, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius.  There were a variety of reasons why numbers of High Anglican clergy should have become interested in the Orthodox. For one thing, intermittently, High Anglicans and Orthodox had had relations since the mid-seventeenth century. Behind these relations lay—at any rate, on the side of the Anglicans—a very genuine theological interest in a Church which seemed, from afar, to be a real remnant of that ‘Undivided Church’ of the first centuries which was the ideal of the Patristic scholars of the learned wing of High Anglicanism. There were also—on the side of the Orthodox—often political reasons for seeking relations. Both sides detested Rome. Subconsciously, High Anglicans felt that any measure of acceptance of them by the Orthodox would increase their ‘Catholic standing’. Hence, in the years between the wars, the Orthodox Liturgy was quite often celebrated in English in Anglican churches, a few Anglican ordinands stayed in Orthodox seminaries, and a large number of Orthodox national Churches (though not the Churches of Greece and Russia) pronounced rather ambiguously on the validity of Anglican Orders. 

The Orthodox exiles in contact with this Anglican movement soon developed a fruitful line of apologetic—especially Dr Zernov.[2] Put simply, this maintained that Orthodoxy represented alone the integral Catholicism of the early Church, a Church constituted by the sacraments and ‘right worship’ in the Eucharist. Through these the Holy Ghost creates and sustains ‘sobornost’,[3] a supernatural, interior unity of life and faith, out of which automatically flows true Christian living as a spontaneous love. In such a mystical view of the Church, there is little place for hierarchies, primacies, canon law, organised good works or missions. So, the apologetic ran, Western Christianity — Rome included — has all fallen away from ‘sobornost’ into a Pharisaical legalism, activism, materialism; all are alike ‘Protestants’ in this.  To High Anglican readers this apologetic offered multiple attractions.  Its extreme supernaturalism appealed at a time when the anti-Liberal reaction was strong.  It seemed to show that as Anglicans came more and more to share such an outlook, by the Orthodox theory of ‘economy’, their Orders would become progressively more and more valid — indeed, it by-passed the whole sterile problem of validity.  So also it by-passed the mass of problems about Scriptural exegesis — for, if Zernov were right, all that would be needed would be the living interior Tradition of the Church’s life.  Finally, it by-passed all problems about a primacy in the Church — for there could, on Zernov’s theory, be no such thing. Every Orthodox worshipping community at the Eucharist was mystically the whole Church; the Holy Ghost Himself and ‘sobornost’ could do without primacies or even Councils. 

The war brought into this country increased numbers of Orthodox and Eastern Catholics. But it also brought the first Anglican criticisms of the Zernov apologetic.  Closer acquaintance with Orthodoxy in the national Churches proved somewhat disconcerting.  In the first place, although it was true that Orthodoxy was through and through permeated with an otherworldly spirit remote from the normal atmosphere of Western Christian life, alongside that were very different features — an extreme complexity of rubrics and Canon Law, a positive pullulation of autocratic primacies, often locked in battle. From very early indeed in Eastern Church history, there existed very autocratic local patriarchal primacies claiming Divine and apostolic succession. Alongside them were the sweeping claims to Oecumenical or Universal Apostolic Primacy of the Patriarchs of Constantinople — the Second Rome —and Moscow — the Third Rome.  Alongside that were the claims of Caesar, first at Byzantium, then in Moscow, to be Head of the Church. Then there were the theories which gave practically complete ecclesiastical autonomy to national hierarchies — of the ‘autocephalous Churches’.[4]  It seemed that the Zernov theory of ‘sobornost’ and a mystical unity apart from all law and primacies had long roots back in Pan-Slavism,[5] and represented only one — an Opposition — strand in Orthodox ecclesiological thought, common amongst Orthodox exiles in history. 

Again, a closer study of early medieval history made the sweeping simplicity of the apologetic idea of a Papal, Western aggression on a peaceful and loving Orthodoxy seem dangerously misleading.  Western barbarous treatment of Orthodox in the earlier middle ages is undeniable, but there was also a far older Greek tradition of contempt for the West.  When the Eastern Emperors were strong they — like the Russian When the Eastern Emperors were strong they — like the Russian Emperors later — had no hesitations in imposing Eastern rites by force; when in control of Italy, the Byzantine Emperors imposed Greek Popes on Rome.  Greek polemic against the West never halted at a demand that each side should live and let live; on the contrary, the Greeks regarded Western rites and canons and beliefs as all suspect of heresy.  

Again, the claim of the apologetic that the Orthodox have always been unchanging — reproducing entire and purely the life of the primitive Church — does not stand up well to close examination. The Orthodox Liturgies do retain the early Church’s insistence on one altar only in each Church.  But otherwise, in general and in a host of details, their Liturgy and Office have undergone at least as many changes as the Western liturgy. The eikonostasis and the dialogue character of the Eastern Liturgy are no older than the distant altar and silent Canon of the West, and neither are primitive. In theology and in Church government, the Orthodox have undergone a long series of outside influences — of the Byzantine Imperial government, of Peter the Great’s establishment of the Synod, of influences from German Hegelian philosophy, Catholic theology and canon law, Lutheran and Calvinist theology.  We get an external impression of immense conservatism and antiquity when we look at Orthodoxy.  After all, it lives in ancient sites — although most often in late medieval or modern buildings.  Its clergy and people are obviously fanatically conservative — but what they conserve in detail is more often Byzantine or early modern fashion than ancient, and their conservatism is to a large degree bred out of the conditions of life under Turkish rule.  It is a commonplace of the Zernov apologetic that the East has not had — or needed — a Hildebrandine Reform, a Counter-Reformation. But this is misleading — since the Orthodox have known many crises, many mass-schisms and apostasies, many black periods of collapse and many spiritual revivals. 

Lastly, there is the undoubted fact that theological and Patristic and Biblical studies are at low ebb amongst the Orthodox; that the religious life is passing through a very severe crisis indeed amongst them, and is at its lowest point so far in history … and this at a time when the challenge of the Oecumenical Movement and the challenge of the coming of Western technology and all its social and religious consequences to the Near East are both confronting the Orthodox inexorably.  As traditional patterns of life change, as Communism and modern materialism sweep over the Near East, there is grave danger that the Orthodox clergy will have no resources to meet the threat but a retreat into mysticism, the liturgical life and obscurantism.  This will not hold the masses and — infinitely more important — is a sub-Christian response to the challenge.  In all this the Orthodox have an immense amount to learn from a West which they still basically regard as barbarous and inferior.  The belated and still adolescent movements in the Greek Church to revitalise catechetics, to adapt the monastic life, to establish a living theology, Patristics and Biblical theology have not got very far. What is badly needed is that Orthodoxy should produce real philosophers — instead of accepting on ecclesiastical authority a stale amalgam of Neo-Platonism and German Hegelianism; that they should produce real exegesis, instead of catenae [6] of the exegetical opinions of Byzantine theologians; that they should produce a living Patristics, instead of treating the Greek Fathers — seen exclusively through the spectacles of Byzantine, or even nineteenth-century Russian, theological comment — as mines of proof texts; that they should appreciate that the great Greek Fathers were themselves far more rationally-minded than they imagine, far less sure that they themselves were the last word in wisdom, conscious that they were caught up in many local controversies of their day. 

Unfortunately these frank criticisms of Greek Orthodoxy were voiced by few, and the Zernov line in apologetics remained very influential. But now, in rapid succession, have come the joining of the World Council of Churches by the Orthodox (and who shall say how far political and national motives influenced this move, and how far the urgings of the European and American Orthodox exiles?), the appearance of Orthodox observers at the Vatican Council, the imminence of Catholic-Orthodox theological conversations, the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Simultaneously the great movement for theological, liturgical and ‘governmental’ self-criticism and renewal has been fairly launched in the Catholic Church.  This, in its turn, has brought an immensely strong and realistic desire for reunion.  On our side many barriers between us and the Orthodox have fallen.  But what sign is there of any similar movement on the other side? 

Two old books by Orthodox in the West give us someindication of a change of heart — operating very slowly.  The first, The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, an English convert to Orthodoxy, obviously owes very much to Zernov apologetic.[7]  Its view of the history of Catholic-Orthodox relations is still controversial and superficial. But these defects pale into insignificance before the positive virtues of the book.  It is frank about the present realities of Orthodox life (except perhaps in Russia).  In the sections on reunion with Rome, it recognises plainly how unprepared the national autocephalous Churches are for theological dialogue and how much they have to learn from the West.  The second book, The Primacy of Peter: essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church, by four Orthodox theologians, reveals clearly how impoverished their exegesis of Scripture, Patristics and theology are. When dealing with Scripture, the authors have no body of modern Orthodox scientific exegesis to depend on, but are forced to improvise or quote Byzantine authors, late nineteenth-century Russian manuals or modern Western works by Catholics and Protestants.  Much the same is true in Patristics and theology.  In general they fail to come to grips with the problem of primacy in the Church.  They admit that Orthodox theological tradition knows, de facto, of a multiplicity of conflicting views on the Roman Primacy and on primacy in the Church in general — but that Byzantine and Greek and Russian theological writers have almost never risen beyond blank statement or polemics when treating of this.  Most of the authors of the book take refuge in ‘sobornost’ — the self-sufficient local worshipping community — and condemn outright any search for a ‘universal ecclesiology’ as materialism, Western Protestant activism and legalism; indeed, as exiles, they would equally condemn the theory of the autonomous authority of patriarchs, heads of autocephalous Churches, Synods.  But in two of the essays— by Fr. Nikolay N. Afanasiev († 4 Dec. 1966) and Fr. Alexander D. Schemann († 13 Dec. 1983) — there is a partial admission that perhaps a Roman primacy, exercised as a general superintendence in love without any fixed theological definition or canonical status, has a genuine place in ‘Orthodox tradition’.[8]

Complementing these books in many ways is The Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity, a series of papers by Catholic Melkite Eastern bishops.[9]. Three subjects—closely related ones — are dealt with; the whole problem of reunion with the Orthodox as seen by Eastern Catholics, the Vatican Council and Melkite objections to Western Catholic ignorance of Eastern ways and theology.  The book begins rather curiously with a very trenchant survey of the problem of adjusting the West to union with the East — a survey simply headed ‘Publisher’s Note’.  Two things are particularly impressive in this remarkable book.  The first is the vigour and clarity with which it pleads that the renewal of life in the Western Church is integrally bound up with reunion with the Orthodox.  In effect it extracts from the Zernov thesis its truth and leaves aside its errors.  The West has much to learn from the East — a sense of proportion about Church government, about the liturgy, about the position of the laity.  The existence of the Catholic Eastern Churches and of the Orthodox diaspora in the West (of which Patriarch Athenagoras († 7 Jul. 1972) of Constantinople was a member) had been Providential.  The second remarkable feature of the book consists not so much in what it says as in how the book is written.  In its vigour, theological and historical clarity it contrasts strikingly with the formalism and hesitancy of the Orthodox essays in The Primacy of Peter.  In this, it is a clear example of the benefits for an Eastern Church of being in living communion with the Catholic Church of the West. 

[1]. Rediscovering Eastern Christendom: Essays in memory of Dom Bede Winslow. Ed. L. B. Fry and A. H. Armstrong (Dann, Longman and Todd,1963). 

[2]. E.g. Nicholas Zemov, The Reintegration of the Church, 1952.

[3]. Sobornost (собо́рность) “Spiritual community of many jointly living people”) [с. и. ожегов и н. ю. шведова, толковый словарь русского языка / S. I. Ozhegov and N. U. Shvedova Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language] is a term coined by the early Slavophiles, Ivan Kireyevsky and Aleksey Khomyakov, to underline the need for co-operation between people, at the expense of individualism, on the basis that the opposing groups focus on what is common between them. Khomyakov believed the West was progressively losing its unity because it was embracing Aristotle and his defining individualism. Kireyevsky believed that Hegel and Aristotle represented the same ideal of unity.

[4]. Autocephaly; (from the Greek: αὐτοκεφαλία, meaning “property of being self-headed”) is the status of a hierarchical Christian Church whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop (used especially in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Independent Catholic churches).

[5]. Pan-Slavism, a movement which crystallised in the mid-19th century, is the political ideology concerned with the advancement of integrity and unity for the Slavic-speaking peoples.

[6]. A catena (from Latin catena, a chain) is a form of biblical commentary, verse by verse, made up entirely of excerpts from earlier Biblical commentators, each introduced with the name of the author, and with such minor adjustments of words to allow the whole to form a continuous commentary.

[7]. Since its first publication thirty years ago, Timothy Ware’s book has become established throughout the English-speaking world as the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy continues to be a subject of enormous interest among Western Christians, and the author believes that an understanding of its standpoint is necessary before the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches can be reunited. He explains the Orthodox views on such widely ranging matters as ecumenical councils, sacraments, free will, purgatory, the papacy and the relation between the different Orthodox churches.

[8]. Meyendorff Jean; Afanassieff Nikolay; Schemann Alexander; Koulomzine Nicholas. The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church.  The Faith Press, 1973.

[9]. Sayegh, Cardinal Maximos IV Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem. The Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity. Herder, 1963.