Ecumenicism: The Moral Imperative Based on the Priestly Prayer of Jesus

Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:11).

In just a few short weeks most of the Eastern Churches (and Western Churches as well) will be reading this passage from St. John’s Gospel during Holy Week. Are we one, are we in unity, are we responding to the Fathers embrace prayed for by His Divine Son? The answer is blatantly: No! Not to respond to God’s Will is being in a state of sin: thus disunity is sinful.

Jesus prayed that we be ‘kept in the Fathers name and be one’ but we are free to reject the Father. Why? Because we are created with ‘free will’. Thus we are free to sin. But we are also free to work toward conforming our will to His Will. Brokenness in the world, the evils around us, the disunity among the communities of Christians are due to choices made by us individually and collectively by our Churches, ecclesial communities and religious establishments.

There is no doubt that Ecumenism in some Orthodox circles is anathema. But if we take serious Our Lord’s prayer to that we be one then Ecumenism is not an option it is a requirement. However ecumenism, must be based on the Orthodox teachings of Christ and not any heterodox models. It behooves us then to be Orthodox ecumenists.

As Christ gave us a path to healing by his death on the Cross and triumph over sin and death at His Resurrection, so too we are going to have to carry our ecumenical cross to enter the path of healing disunity.

In weakness and brokenness love can emerge. The brokenness in the world, often a source of despair, can be transformed into an opportunity to empty ourselves (kenosis) from our own passions of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth and put on Christ – an emptying that reaches fulfillment in love towards God and neighbor and in communion with one another. As Orthodox what can we do? We can: come to know one another, not only others who call themselves Christian, but all of mankind, as children of God; we can know and respect (neither condoning nor disparaging) our various ecclesial traditions, help one another and those around in need out of the common love of God, and arduously pray, proclaim and communicate our desire for unity in faith and communion in Christ. Mot of all we must fully humbly witness our commitment to Christ and the teachings (Orthodox) He gave us. As Orthodox Christians we know and follow the words of Jesus: “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9) and “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved…no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 10:9a, 14:6b ). The way to the Father is Jesus, His mystical body, enlivened by the Holy Spirit: the Orthodox Church.

An excellent example of what can be done is the inter-cooperation of religious communities, politicians and scientists to protect, conserve and care for our God created earth and it’s environment. A recent conference in February 2008 sponsored by the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles highlighted the work of the Religion, Science and Environment Symposia (RSES), to bring about active change in the environment. Leadership was originally provided by His Holiness of Blessed Memory Pope John Paul II (and now Pope Benedict XVI) and His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As noted by Fr. Deacon John Chryssavgis, (Ecumenical Patriarchate) in his Conference address, lack of caring for the environment “is a sin”, he went on: “The crisis that we are facing is not primarily ecological, it has more to do with spirituality and icons. The way we imagine the world is an inhumane way to see it … we are not seeing the world as it really is — a gift from God.” Because of these ecumenical efforts significant changes have already taken place environmentally challenged countries. As an example: an oppositional and hostile Albanian government did a 180° turn around in cleaning a extremely toxic community following world pressure after the RSES investigative report. We as Orthodox Christians can cooperate on similar and other need projects on our local community level. To make real in our lives of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of mercy is something all can do now until full unity of understanding of Christ’s teachings are reached so eventually all can partake of His Eucharist. We can pray to the Holy Spirit to break down the walls that separates us.

The warning of St. Makarios of Egypt rings clear: “Grace does not make a man incapable of sin by forcibly and compulsorily laying hold of his will but, through its presence allows him freedom of choice, so as to make it clear whether the man’s own will inclines to virtue or to evil … for the law looks not to man’s nature but to his free power of choice, which is capable of turning towards either good or evil” (Philokalia III). Let us proclaim among ourselves, our fellow Christians, and most importantly our hierarchs the sin of evil disunion and the good ‘as one’ of returning the Fathers embrace in full unity with His Son, Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.


Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (eds). (1986). The Philokalia: The Complete Text compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol. 3). Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.


  1. Unfortunately, while the Fr. Morelli reiterates what has always been the “requirement” of Orthodox participation in Ecumenical activities, namely the maintenance of Orthodox doctrine, the fruits of such labors over the years are quite obvious. While clergy, and academic theologians may understand that participation with other religious groups (self proclaimed “Christian” or otherwise) in activities driven by Gospel imperatives does not signal acceptance of the doctrines of these other bodies, the faithful are often led to assume that we must all be pretty much the same since we all follow the teachings of Jesus – we all have the same faith.

    In fact, given Hebrews 11:6, and the Orthodox understanding that in order for works to be pleasing to God, they must be undertaken with faith (and the implication that the faith is the Orthodox faith – I think we said something to that effect at yesterday’s pan Orthodox Liturgy in LA), I can understand why they would feel that way.

  2. Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse :

    Yes, but how much of the confusion is due to the ignorance, and indifference, of the Orthodox to the teachings of their own faith? If the Orthodox buy into the cultural rubric that “all religions are essentially the same” (they’re not), then doesn’t that indicate a deficiency on our end?

    Secondly, how helpful is the assertion that “…the faith is the Orthodox faith”? I am Orthodox and I will always be Orthodox. I certainly don’t mean to challenge anyone’s commitment here. But we cannot deny Christ works elsewhere, and neither can we deny that we have some serious problems.

    My read is that ecumenical deliberations are beneficial in this respect: the encroaching secularism and the dimming of awareness of the sacred dimension of human existence it portends (susceptibility to ideologies, diminished value of human life, a coarsened public culture, etc.) ought to be of concern of all religiously minded people. Yes, proper distinctions have to be drawn (is there any real purpose in “dialogue” with, say, liberal Episcopalians, for example?), but I don’t think that the possible confusion among the Orthodox is reason enough to cut off discussion altogether. We need to teach our people better, it seems to me.

  3. Michael P Bauman :

    There has never been “Christian Unity”. Even when Jesus was with His Apostles in the flesh they could not agree with one another. The disagreements and the schisms have only increased since His Ascension. Ecumenical activity whose goal and purpose is to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again is worse than useless. It is driven by reductionism, political correctness and only leads to confusion, heresy and greater disunity. It does not allow anyone to be true to Jesus Christ in the manner they feel called to. Instead of real Christian unity, a chimera is produced.

    There is a type of ecumenical activity that is legitimate and does bear Godly fruit: sharing one’s knowledge and faith in Jesus Christ and acting together in concord as is appropriate. Such ecumenical activity presupposed a living faith the Jesus, the same Jesus who the Church has always recognized as Lord, God and Savior, one of the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, even some clergy and hierarchs in the Orthodox Church fail to demonstrate such knowledge and faith. We are not even able to find a way to avoid slandering one another while supposedly in communion.

    Until we can re-establish our own community on the Living Tradition we claim to represent, we have no business even considering any but the most ad hoc ecumenical activity of any kind.

    Christian unity is not forged in meeting rooms or even councils. The 4th Ecumenical Council ranks as one of the most divisive Christian meetings in history. Are not the Bishops charged with “rightly dividing”? Does not Christ Himself separate?

    Most talk of unity is disguised fear of ever being able to discern the truth or simply not wanting to offend anyone. I have and will be unified with anyone who loves Jesus Christ while at the same time I will stand firm in rejecting all attempts to pander to an emotionalised version of unity simply for the sake of unity. Such unity is no more than a damned lie.

    Our sins separate us from God and from each other and ultimately from our own bodies. Jesus Christ and many saints throughout Church history including St. Ephraim, remind us that we must look to our own sins and not be troubled by the sins of others.

    Real unity exists only in love of God. Nothing else will suffice. But it has to be the same God whom we love. Ecumenism frequently denies that reality disparaging both God and His love in the process.

  4. Father, knowing that internet fora are seldom good places for reasoned discourse, I’d been thinking and praying about whether to respond and how. Needless to say, this response is probably more driven by me than by the Holy Spirit, but I can hope otherwise.

    You’re statement that we need to draw lines, using liberal Episcoplians as an example, really points to the crux of the matter. If I understand you correctly, you would be okay entering into ecumenical dialogue with, say, the AAC (American Anglican Council) or one of the other conservative Episcopal bodies. As someone who was an Episcopalian for over 40 years, I can tell you that the reason there are liberal Episcopalians is not do to some small group of heretics taking over a portion of the church, but rather is due to something fundamentally wrong with Anglicanism in the first place. In fact, the Church of England is really a shining example of the fruits of an ecumenical spirit. The whole notion of Via Media is that unity can be had in spite of significant doctrinal differences. It is not a long trip from that notion to the notion that doctrinal differences must not be very important at all. In many ways it was the AngloCatholics (the Oxford movement) which accelerated the process. How can you have two groups such as evangelicals and catholics united with contradictory positions on matters of great import? It turns out you can’t – not for very long. The attempt to do so opened the doors to the liberal developments. Currently, so-called AngloCatholics and Evangelicals are united against modernism, but that ediface is cracking and will do so more significantly once that battle is ended (presumably due to a separation of the liberal/conservative camps in global Anglicanism). Even if the ECUSA goes its own way, or the conservatives go their own way, it will only be another 20 years or so before a new liberal movement arises amongst the conservative remnant.

    Ecumenical groups – either organizations like the Anglican Communion, or WWC, are based on a minimalist approach to belief. What is the least we need to believe. Former ABp of Canterbury Michael Ramsey understood how the minimalist approach is contradictory to the Orthodox phronema:

    “The Orthodox said in effect: “…The ‘tradition is a concrete fact. There 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. 562-3.]”

    When Orthodox pursue unity with other Christian bodies, either for the sake of some vague missionary work, or for “dialogue”, it has to be done so with the implicit understanding that the doctrinal differences are not as important as the unity. Pretty soon, doctrine won’t be important at all.

  5. One more point, if I may. Missionary work – feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, etc., undertaken by a Christian is undertaken with the hope that they can lead the hungry and prisoner either to God or closer to God. If the Orthodox Church (OCMC, IOCC, etc.) does this, then people are led to the fullness of the Orthodox faith. If we do it as part of an ecumenical group, where controversial points of doctrine have to be hidden, then at best we give people what Fr. Stephen Freeman refers to as a truncated Gospel. Are we really doing good at that point?

  6. Michael P Bauman :

    Jeff hits the problem right on the head. As is pointed out in a article elsewhere on this site, Fr. Alexander Schmemann frequently told us that Christianity is not meant to “help”. Chrisitianity is meant to lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is one thing to sit with someone who loves Jesus Christ and is doing everything within their understanding to be one with Him, quite another to act in concert on a macro-level.

    On the macro or organizational level how can one be sure that even seemingly simple words mean the same thing? How can one be sure that we are even serving the same Jesus Christ?

    If we are to be true to the faith delivered to the Fathers and the Marytrs we must proclaim it boldly without equivocation or compromise. We must live it even more boldly. Trying to find the least common denominator so that we can have ‘unity’ as is par for the course in the Ecumenical Movement is simply wrong.

    St. Paul cautioned us against doing things that lead the weak astray even though for us to do them is perfectly lawful. The Ecumenical Movement is a bit like eating meat sacrificed to idols.

    Yes, the separation amongst Christians is the result of sin. That does not mean that such a sinful state is something we can or should change in any obvious way. Sin is only cured on a personal level on a Person to person basis. If we, as recipients and guardians of the Pillar and the Ground of the Truth do not witness to the fullness which we have been given, who will? We will have buried our talent in the ground out of fear. Triumphalism must be avoided at all costs, that is the sin that keeps us all apart, but we must also avoid the sin of worshiping the created thing more than the Creator. We must not worship the idol of ‘unity’ at the expense of the truth.

    In a recent conversation with a fine Evangelical minister who had never even heard of the Orthodox Church until God brought us togehter, I was asked if I felt that the belief I expressed that Mary is the Mother of God must be held in order to be a real Christian? I should have said yes, but I equivocated and simply said that we must at the very least follow the Scriptural command to call her blessed. Of course, she is blessed because she is the Mother of God, at least in my understanding, but to my friend, Mary was the Mother of Jesus. The actuality that she is the Mother of God was brand new to him. In the context of the rest of our conversation, I am confident that the truth was communicated, by the grace of God, but it is so easy to turn aside from simple truths just to please others, the human desire not to offend.

    Here is another important crux–so much of the political correctness of our time (which AOI purportedly wishes to challenge) is built on the fear of giving offense to anybody about anything. Sorry, but Christianity is offensive, otherwise there would be no martyrs. Christianity is radical, that is why it is difficult. I’m Orthodox because Jesus Christ led me to be, but part of my acceptance of the faith was founded upon the realization that the Orthodox Church is the most radical and offensive (to the world) statement of Christianity I could find. Just to get into the Church I had to spit at Satan for pete’s sake. How neat is that! I had to reject all heresies, ancient and modern—all heresies, ancient and modern! Through the Church, Jesus tells us, “Reject Satan and reject heresy and I will cleanse you of sin and bring you into union with Me, I will annoit you with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, to be true to my word means rejecting many of the critical doctrinal beliefs of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. To do less is to deny my very existence in the Church, my very salvation. It abrogates the oath I took that allows me to partake, however unworthily, of the Body and Blood of our Lord without which I have no life. That Life is the unity to which His priestly prayer calls us, not the lukewarm pablum of ecumenism.

    With all due respect to Fr. George from whom I have learned much, to use Jesus prayer for unity as a sort of bludgeon to force us set aside the truth on which genuine unity is founded (as I feel he does in this case), is not worthy of him or of the mission of AOI.

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