The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,’ of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be.
Christians of the Reformation traditions will perhaps protest, ‘This is a hard saying; who can hear it?’ It may seem to them that this exclusive claim on the Orthodox side precludes any serious ‘ecumenical dialogue’ with the Orthodox, and any constructive work for reunion. And yet they would be utterly wrong to draw such a conclusion: for, paradoxically enough, over the past half century there have been a large number of encouraging and fruitful contacts between Orthodox and other Christians. Although enormous obstacles still remain, there has also been great progress towards a reconciliation.
If Orthodox claim to be the one true Church, what then do they consider to be the status of those Christians who do not belong to their communion? Different Orthodox would answer in slightly different ways, for although all loyal Orthodox are agreed in their fundamental teaching concerning the Church, they do not entirely agree concerning the practical consequences which follow from this teaching. There is first a more moderate group, which includes most of those Orthodox who have had close personal contact with other Christians. This group holds that, while it is true to say that Orthodoxy is the Church, it is false to conclude from this that those who are not Orthodox cannot possibly belong to the Church. Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation. The Spirit of God blows where it will, and, as Irenaeus said, where the Spirit is, there is the Church. We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not; and so we must refrain from passing judgment on non-Orthodox Christians. In the eloquent words of Khomiakov: ‘Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and ... does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day’ (The Church is One, section 2 (italics not in the original)).
There is only one Church, but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church, and many different ways of being separated from it. Some non-Orthodox are very close indeed to Orthodoxy, others less so; some are friendly to the Orthodox Church, others indifferent or hostile. By God’s grace the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of truth (so its members are bound to believe), but there are other Christian communions which possess to a greater or lesser degree a genuine measure of Orthodoxy. All these facts must be taken into account: one cannot simply say that all non-Orthodox are outside the Church, and leave it at that; one cannot treat other Christians as if they stood on the same level as unbelievers.
Such is the view of the more moderate party. But there also exists in the Orthodox Church a more rigorous group, who hold that since Orthodoxy is the Church, anyone who is not Orthodox cannot be a member of the Church. Thus [St.] Metropolitan Antony [Khrapovitsky]*, head of the Russian Church in Exile and one of the most distinguished of modern Russian theologians, wrote in his Catechism:
Question: Is it possible to admit that a split within the Church or among the Churches could ever take place?
Answer: Never. Heretics and schismatics have from time to time fallen away from the one indivisible Church, and, by so doing, they ceased to be members of the Church, but the Church itself can never lose its unity according to Christ’s promise’ (Italics not in the original).
Of course (so this stricter group add) divine grace is certainly active among many non-Orthodox, and if they are sincere in their love of God, then we may be sure that God will have mercy upon them; but they cannot, in their present state, be termed members of the Church. Workers for Christian unity who do not often encounter this rigorist school should not forget that such opinions are held by many Orthodox of great learning and holiness.
Because they believe their Church to be the true Church, Orthodox can have but one ultimate desire: the conversion or reconciliation of all Christians to Orthodoxy. Yet it must not be thought that Orthodox demand the submission of other Christians to a particular center of power and jurisdiction (‘Orthodoxy does not desire the submission of any person or group; it wishes to make each one understand’ (S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, p. 214)). The Orthodox Church is a family of sister Churches, decentralized in structure, which means that separated communities can be integrated into Orthodoxy without forfeiting their autonomy: Orthodoxy desires their reconciliation, not their absorption (Compare the title of a famous paper written by Dom Lambert Beauduin and read by Cardinal Mercier at the Malines Conversations, ‘The Anglican Church united, not absorbed’). In all reunion discussions Orthodox are guided (or at any rate ought to be guided) by the principle of unity in diversity. They do not seek to turn western Christians into Byzantines or ‘Orientals,’ nor do they desire to impose a rigid uniformity on all alike: for there is room in Orthodoxy for many different cultural patterns, for many different ways of worship, and even for many different systems of outward organization.
Yet there is one field in which diversity cannot be permitted. Orthodoxy insists upon unity in matters of the faith. Before there can be reunion among Christians, there must first be full agreement in faith: this is a basic principle for Orthodox in all their ecumenical relations. It is unity in the faith that matters, not organizational unity; and to secure unity of organization at the price of a compromise in dogma is like throwing away the kernel of a nut and keeping the shell. Orthodox are not willing to take part in a ‘minimal’ reunion scheme, which secures agreement on a few points and leaves everything else to private opinion. There can be only one basis for union — the fullness of the faith; for Orthodoxy looks on the faith as a united and organic whole. Speaking of the Anglo-Russian Theological Conference at Moscow in 1956, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, expressed the Orthodox viewpoint exactly:
‘The Orthodox said in effect: ‘…The Tradition is a concrete fact. Here it is, in its totality. Do you Anglicans accept it, or do you reject it?’ The Tradition is for the Orthodox one indivisible whole: the entire, life of the Church in its fullness of belief and custom down the ages, including Mariology and the veneration of icons. Faced with this challenge, the typically Anglican reply is: ‘We would not regard veneration of icons or Mariology as inadmissible, provided that in determining what is necessary to salvation, we confine ourselves to Holy Scripture.’ But this reply only throws into relief the contrast between the Anglican appeal to what is deemed necessary to salvation and the Orthodox appeal to the one indivisible organism of Tradition, to tamper with any part of which is to spoil the whole, in the sort of way that a single splodge on a picture can mar its beauty (‘The Moscow Conference in Retrospect,’ in Sobornost, series 3, no. 23, 1958, pp. 562-563).
In the words of another Anglican writer: ‘It has been said that the Faith is like a network rather than an assemblage of discrete dogmas; cut one strand and the whole pattern loses its meaning’ (T. M. Parker, ‘Devotion to the Mother of God,’ in The Mother of God, edited by E. L. Mascall, p. 74). Orthodox, then, ask of other Christians that they accept Tradition as a whole; but it must be remembered that there is a difference between Tradition and traditions. Many beliefs held by Orthodox are not a part of the one Tradition, but are simply theologoumena, theological opinions; and there can be no question of imposing mere matters of opinion on other Christians. Men can possess full unity in the faith, and yet hold divergent theological opinions in certain fields.
This basic principle — no reunion without unity in the faith — has an important corollary: until unity in the faith has been achieved, there can be no communion in the sacraments. Communion at the Lord’s Table (most Orthodox believe) cannot be used to secure unity in the faith, but must come as the consequence and crown of a unity already attained. Orthodoxy rejects the whole concept of ‘intercommunion’ between separated Christian bodies, and admits no form of sacramental fellowship short of full communion. Either Churches are in communion with one another, or they are not: there can be no half-way house (Such is the standard Orthodox position. But there are individual Orthodox theologians who believe that some degree of intercommunion is possible, even before the attainment of full dogmatic agreement. One slight qualification must be added. Occasionally non-Orthodox Christians, if entirely cut off from the ministrations of their own Church, are allowed with special permission to receive communion from an Orthodox priest. But the reverse does not hold true, for Orthodox are forbidden to receive communion from any but a priest of their own Church). It is sometimes said that the Anglican or the Old Catholic Church is ‘in communion’ with the Orthodox, but this is not in fact the case. The two are not in communion, nor can they be, until Anglicans and Orthodox are agreed in matters of faith.
*St. Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of Kyiv has been locally glorified by some in the OCA.