I haven’t done much blog reading recently and last week as I was looking at Phil Sumpter’s Narrative and Ontology and regretting that I will probably never have time to catch up on his posts on Brevard Childs, one of his links caught my eye. (He has this blogroll which actually tells you what people are writing on which is very useful – I’m not sure if WordPress can do that but I must investigate when I get down to some blog housekeeping…) I saw a post entitled The Arrogant Papal Brow by Father Milovan Katanic of Again and Again and, thinking that the pope might actually have gone and done something significant, went and clicked on it. I got really infuriated when I read it as there was nothing new, but it seems that there has been a whole lot of talk in the blogosphere about an imminent reunion of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. This is, quite frankly, just scaremongering and I was reminded of the Patriarch of Constantinople’s encyclical for the Sunday of Othodoxy this year where he wrote:

In their polemical argumentation, these critics of the restoration of unity among Christians do not even hesitate to distort reality in order to deceive and arouse the faithful. … They disseminate false rumors that union between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches is imminent, while they know well that the differences discussed in these theological dialogues remain numerous and require lengthy debate; moreover, union is not decided by theological commissions but by Church Synods. They assert that the Pope will supposedly subjugate the Orthodox, because the latter submit to dialogue with the Roman Catholics!

I thought of posting on this then, but was concerned that I’d just end up ranting. I also realised that these Orthodox reactions – which whenever there is contact between Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs scream that the Orthodox Church is about to capitulate to papal arrogance, the pan-ecumenical heresy etc. etc. – are in a sense simply a mirror image of some of the reactions which I have experienced among Catholics. All too often they also see such contacts as indicating that we are on the verge of unity, that the differences between the Churches have actually been sorted out, or are simply unimportant, and that all we need to do is say a few prayers and be polite to one another and that life can go on as it was.

When faced with either of these extremes who seem to think that unity is imminent – the one horrified at the prospect and the other delighted at it – I have tended to wonder: am I living on another planet? If people have such a minimal grasp on reality, then where can one start to talk? And are people interested in really listening? I do believe that unity is important and that dialogue is important. But then it must start from reality as it is and should enable one to really listen to the issues involved. And the issues are not simply the pope and the filioque, which may or may not be resolved in the official dialogues; they also go much deeper and touch on the lives of ordinary believers.

I was therefore pleased when Deacon Stephen wrote a very sensible post on the subject. He is by no means rejecting dialogue but argues that the resolution of the issues separating Orthodox and Catholics will require considerably more than polite contact between the hierarchs of both Churches.

Unity is a lot more than Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops visiting and being polite to each other. I’m all in favour of them doing that, and even doing the same thing with Anglican and Zionist bishops, but it doesn’t mean that reunion is imminent.

Some think that it is only a few minor theological issues that can be sorted out quickly. But it’s not just papal primacy and the Filioque that keep us apart, but a millennium of history. We differ in soteriology (Anselm’s theory of the atonement, which swept the west, never got much traction in Orthodoxy), ecclesiology (the Orthodox temple versus the Roman monolith and the Protestant heap of stones) and missiology (Roman missiologists believe that Orthodox missiology is derived from Origen).

All these have led to a different culture and ethos, and this is just as much theology as the kind of theology that is written in books. And so before there can be any reunion, these things must be faced and examined.

There was some reaction to his post which had the potential to become a rather interesting discussion, but instead of doing that there he has proposed continuing the discussion at the Thandanani forum. (“Thandanani is a Zulu word meaning “love one another” and is a space for Christians from different backgrounds to learn more about each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect). If there are readers who are genuinely concerned with dialogue and unity, or with understanding the issues involved between Orthodox and Catholics, I would encourage them to continue this discussion there.

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As an aside, in case there are readers who don’t follow his blogs, Deacon Stephen (Steve Hayes – I never quite know what to do with this title thing!) is one of the soundest Orthodox bloggers that I’m aware of and he has had some excellent posts – Spiritual but not religious was particularly good – on Khanya recently which I thought of recommending but never got to. Of course, the fact that he’s a South African is also a recommendation!

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