Unity in the Orthodox Church

As our Lord Jesus approached His death, according to the Evangelist John, He offered a prayer for the unity of His disciples (John 17:1-13).  We proclaim this Gospel on the 7th Sunday after Pascha as we commemorate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  At the beginning of the 4th Century, the time of that Council, the Church was in grave disunity, torn apart by theological controversy.  It was a time where the Constantinian peace for the Church was beginning – the persecutions ended, but disunity emerged writ large amidst the peace.     Our Lord Jesus Christ also prayed for the unity of all who would come to believe in Him through the work of His disciples and His Church.  Though we know Jesus spent long periods of time in prayer, this is one of the precious few prayers of His that we have recorded.    Here is part of what Jesus prayed for us before His crucifixion:

“I do not pray only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.  May they be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me, I have given to them, so that they may be one even as we are one; I in them, and you in me. May they be perfected into one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and that you have loved them, even as You have loved me.  . . .  Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I knew you; and these have known that you have sent me.  I have made your Name known to them, and I will continue to make it known; so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (John 17:20-26, EOB)

Our Lord prayed that all of us who follow Him may share a oneness, a unity like that which is shared by the Persons of the Holy Trinity.   He didn’t further define what the oneness might look like – a oneness of heart and mind because we loved one another?  Or because we perfectly agree on all issues?  A monolithic faith?

Of whatever this oneness consists, the world would learn from that unity that God the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world.   A lot is riding on this unity!

And yet, we see already in the New Testament various kinds of disunity emerging even in the age of the Apostles – some fruitful and some perhaps not.  There are four versions of the Gospel.  Peter and Paul disagreed mightily over some issues.  The Jewish and Gentile Christians experienced serious tensions.  Paul and Barnabus parted ways after a disagreement.

Today the Orthodox Church is endeavoring to work on its unity by calling a Great and Holy Council this month for the edification of the entire Church and the world.  And in some ways Orthodoxy’s condition today is like the Church of the 4th Century: we are emerging from a long period of having to exist beneath the radar of the world’s notice.  We emerge with some sense of peace and the possibility of letting our light shine to the world, rather than remaining hidden beneath a basket.  And yet, just as in the 4th Century, the emerging Church found itself a divided Church and had to grapple with the issue of disunity.   Interestingly, one can read the history of the Ecumenical Council in two different ways.  First, one can decide the Council affirmed clear lines of where the Church was not and who could not be in the Church, that the goal was to exclude those who had a different point of view.  On the other hand, it is possible (and certainly the many Councils that followed seem to indicate this), that the Church was searching hard for a language that was inclusive and that all could agree upon.  That unity through language proved elusive in history, yet the Church continued to pursue that goal as shown in the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils.

On the webpage of the Orthodox Church in America we read the following about this  month’s Great and Holy Orthodox Council and its noble goals:

“The convening of the Holy and Great Council as a sign of unity and as a witness to unity is a worthy vision for Orthodoxy pursued with patience and determination by His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The painful difficulties in realizing this vision have always been evident. The dangers on the road towards this vision are now seen in bold relief, yet the beauty of the vision is clear as never before. Today, the Orthodox Churches stand before the world unable to conceal the wounds of our fractured relationships. Yet vision of unity will not be denied, because it comes from the heart of the Orthodox Faith and is intrinsic to the Good News of Christ. Whatever the difficulties and wounds we bear, we are following the Risen Christ and are empowered by Pentecost to witness to the Gospel of Christ everywhere and at all times.”

Orthodoxy has not embraced a notion that the unity of the Church lies in the person of the Pope of Rome.  It has held to some ideas of unity based in consensus and conciliarity.  But there is also a reality that by not holding a Great Council for 1200 years, the various Orthodox have not tried to actually make unity work, or to work on unity or work for unity.  There was a more nebulous (mystical!) unity of faith that held it together, and because they weren’t working together the unity wasn’t tested.  The Orthodox didn’t get together to work the unity, and this may be the only reason the unity held.  Many marriages and communities are held together by a false sense of unity based in the people avoiding each other and avoiding the conflicts which abound like mines in a field.  True community – a common unity – though may be real only when tested by real life interaction.  The desert fathers pointed out that going off to live alone in a desert is no proof that one has overcome one’s passions of anger, irritability, and irascibility.  One can pretend one is a peaceful person if one avoids others.  But such peace is pretend.

Now we read this statement recently released from the Ecumenical Patriarchate:


“The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which bears the first responsibility for safeguarding the unity of Orthodoxy… “

The sentiment seems to be closer to the Papal notion of unity than to ideas of the unity being found in conciliarity and consensus.  But that may be reading more into  the statement than it intends. The statement only claims a “first responsiblity for safeguarding the unity of Orthodoxy” not that the Patriarch represents that unity in his office.    It would seem that Orthodox Tradition has held more to a notion that unity was found in the Councils, not in one Patriarchate.  But again, Christ did not specify how this  unity would be maintained or what it would look like.  The OCA’s Synod does think the idea of the Great Council is part of a worthy vision, a noble ideal, perhaps.   In this sense, Patriarch Bartholemew might be in his office upholding a great ideal for the entire Church, a vision of unity.

2016 Holy Synod

I agree with the statement of the OCA and appreciate its sentiment.  We don’t need to pretend there is unity where it doesn’t exist, but we all can work for that unity in the Church. [The OCA being excluded from the Council is the perfect sign that unity does not in fact exist in worldwide Orthodoxy!]  And if contentions arise or are obvious, as the Church of truth, we don’t need to hide from them or pretend they don’t exist.  Rather we can witness to the world about how we deal with differences as Christians, following the Gospel, loving one another, bearing our cross.   As Orthodox Christians we ought to be able in faith and love to acknowledge our disagreements and the need to discuss them.  We should be able to put everything on the table, to speak the truth in love, and to acknowledge where we disagree without forming into oppositional camps.  After all, Christ teaches us even to love even our enemies.

St. Paul did not shy away from contention, controversy, debate or disagreement with his fellow apostles.  Yet, he writes of a vision of unity as well as a unity of vision:

“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Unity does not mean the Church needs to be a monolith, with absolute agreement on every issue.  There can be unity as long as the leaders agree to respect each other and allow that bishops do have authority in their dioceses to do some things differently.  Bishops can respect each others abilities and authority to disagree without breaking the unity of faith, without ending a unity of vision or the vision of  unity.

In Acts 15, we see how the Apostles handled a painfully divisive issue which was tearing apart the nascent Church.

“And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.’

Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.  And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, ‘Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;
So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the LORD who does all these things.’ …   Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.  For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”   (Acts 15:7-21)

Perhaps if we followed the Spirit and the logic, we might realize we need to work on a unity among us Orthodox.  We have to actually talk to each other in order to form, maintain and nurture the unity and to show that unity in the face of differences amongst us.  This is not to mention the possibility that we are to see worldwide Christianity as our responsibility as well, and that we are somehow to hold a unity even with all “Gentile” Christians as well – all those who are beyond the household of Orthodoxy.

We have to discern whether in fact all the issues we can possibly discuss in fact require complete agreement, or whether a consensus that allows differences is in fact within the bounds of unity that Christ Himself envisioned for us.  We actually fail if we demand conformity in thinking on issues that Christ Himself does not demand unity.  We end up imposing a uniformity by which we try to create our own tower to heaven, which we know ended in Babel.  A falsely demanded conformity in thinking will result in a multitude of languages as every goes off to interpret the monolithic idea in their own way.  Better that we recognize there is disagreement and work with that reality, finding the way to maintain the bond of peace and concord of soul.  That would be truthful at least, rather than a pretend unity based in avoidance.

Unity is not real if it is based in simply not talking with each other.  We Orthodox have had a unity based on our not being able to meet together to talk as well as based on avoidance of issues.  But the fact that there are disagreements doesn’t mean that there is no unity.  Unity can be based in respect and trust that it is OK on some issues for their to be variety, disagreement and variation.  Unity turns out to be a polysemous word.  If we have love for one another, and refuse to break the love, we don’t have to absolute agreement on all issues.  The Ecumenical Patriarch has a noble and worthy vision of unity, can all of the Orthodox primates agree on a vision of unity?  There is plenty of biblical and historical example for them to follow.