The Orthodox-Anglican Divide

The Orthodox-Anglican Divide
A Commentary on Metropolitan Hilarion’s Address at the Nicean Club at Lambeth Palace 9 September 2010
(Read the full address)
image The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll


I must confess that I seldom read ecumenical addresses and agreements because they are so encumbered with diplomatic jargon and a spirit of deference that one hardly knows what if anything was said, much less accomplished. They read like the closing statements of the G8 meeting, where whatever may have been said behind closed doors comes out sounding like “everyone has won and all must have prizes.”

Not so with His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, in his address at the Nicean Society banquet held at Lambeth Palace on 9 September, in the presence of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Metropolitan Hilarion begins his address with a series of thanks. He thanks the Archbishop of Canterbury for the invitation to speak. He mentions Rowan Williams’s “personal contribution to inter-Christian dialogue” and “commitment to keep the Anglican Communion together.” He acknowledges Abp. Williams’s “love of the Russian Orthodox Church, of its saints and great theologians, of its spiritual tradition,” and he offers his prayers and support.

Even in this brief kudos, I detect a note of rebuke, which becomes more noticeable as he goes on. Yes, Rowan Williams has desired to maintain unity within the Anglican Communion, and yes, he loves Russian “confessors,” but his ecumenical sentiment has confused surface unity with true reality and in the process he has bypassed the heart of Orthodoxy – which is, orthodoxy.

Metropolitan Hilarion goes on to laud the aim of the Nicean Club to foster relationships “between the churches of the Anglican Communion and other Christian confessions” (I wonder if his use of “confessions” is a subtle reminder that church identity is based on a common rule of faith). Dwelling on the name “Nicean,” he reflects on the significance of the first ecumenical Council at Nicaea in our contemporary context. He points out that the Council took place amidst a “bitter struggle with heresies and many church schisms” but with one in particular – Arianism – which “undermined the very foundations of Christian doctrine,” and he quotes approvingly Rowan Williams’s scholarly conclusion that Arianism was “an ‘archetypal deviation’, which tends to arise again and again under various names.”

The primary responsibility of the church which is heir to Nicaea, Hilarion states,

is to safeguard the truth. Her foremost heroes were those confessors of the faith who asserted Orthodox doctrine and countered heresies in the face of new trends and theological and political innovations.

He notes by contrast the avoidance of “heresy” in today’s “politically correct theology,” which has characterized Rowan Williams the bishop. How is it, Your Grace, he is saying, that you can detect heresy in the third century and not in the twenty-first? Hilarion acknowledges the existence of “indifferent matters” (adiaphora), quoting St. Paul (1 Cor 11:19), but, he adds, these acceptable differences were “certainly not those which concerned the essence of faith, church order or Christian morals. For in these matters, there is only one truth and any deviation from it is none other than heresy.”

I want to highlight his phrasing, “faith, church order or Christian morals” because this combination is a theme that recurs throughout the address. Orthodoxy, he insists, includes essential moral and ecclesiological truths. Many Anglican revisionists draw the line, rhetorically at least, between orthodoxy in “creedal” matters, of the Trinity and of Christology, and secondary matters of Christian morality and church order. This was the basis, for instance, of the Righter Trial verdict in 1996, which said that a bishop could be disciplined only for violating “core doctrine,” which was limited to the propositions of the Nicene Creed. Indeed, this seems to be the position taken by Rowan Williams himself in his refusal to treat the deviations of the Episcopal Church as heresy but rather as debating points among members of the Anglican branch of the “Nicene Club.”

Hilarion does not agree. Indeed, he sees the current situation as fundamentally undermining Nicene orthodoxy and church unity.

At the time of the Council of Nicaea, the Church was united East and West. But at the present time, there is a multitude of communities each of which claims to be a church even though approaches to doctrinal, ecclesiological and ethical issues among them often differ radically.

This statement might be seen as a typical Catholic/Orthodox critique of fissiparous Protestantism. But that is not what he is getting at primarily, for in fact he goes on to offer a different typology of the divisions within contemporary “churches” and “Christianities”:

All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics and the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’.

He goes on to specify two issues where that abyss is apparent: homosexual marriage and abortion, in which “‘traditionalists’ are being asked to reconsider their views under the slogan of keeping abreast with modernity.”

Metropolitan Hilarion goes on to apply his typology to Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, where he finds the two churches “on the opposite sides of the abyss.” Anglicanism as a worldwide church, he suggests, is liberal, whereas Orthodoxy is “traditional.” Having made this generalization, Hilarion quickly qualifies it by noting that “in the Anglican Community there remain many “traditionalists” especially in the South and the East, but the liberal trend is quite noticeable, especially in the North and the West.” He goes on to mention that almost 200 Anglican bishops “refused to attend” Lambeth 2008 on grounds of conscience, and he in no way condemns them for so doing.

What is interesting here is that Hilarion is judging the character of the Anglican Communion not in terms of numbers – since the majority of Anglicans worldwide is orthodox – but rather by ecumenical standards. Canterbury is still the focus of unity for Anglicanism, and hence Anglicanism must be considered on the liberal side of the abyss. For this reason, he rejects as insufficient Rowan Williams’s gesture in withholding the TEC representatives from ecumenical dialogues with the Orthodox, because the problem is not merely the overt offences of TEC but the overall liberal trend of official Anglicanism: “The dialogue is doomed to closure if the unrestrained liberalization of Christian values continues in many communities of the Anglican world.”

Nicene Trinitarianism is not enough to ensure ecumenical camaraderie. Violation of basic Christian morals is an equal sign of heresy. So, too, Hilarion implies, is the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. It is interesting to note that while female priests constitute a barrier to ecumenical agreement with the Orthodox, it is the more recent approval by the Church of England of consecrating female bishops that stretches the division to the breaking point. Why is this? I think Hilarion is saying that it is the liberal rationale, employing secular equal rights thinking, which reveals that there is no common ground for dialogue on this issue.

Finally, Metropolitan Hilarion moves from diagnosis of heresy – which he identifies as theological liberalism – to treatment: heresy is schism, which leads to broken communion. He states:

Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture.

What basis in Holy Scripture might he have in mind? Here are several texts to that effect:

Matthew 18:15-18: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.

2 John 1:9-10: Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.

He goes on to specify which churches have broken the bond of koinonia by their actions:

In 2003, the Russian Orthodox Church had to suspend contact with the Episcopal Church in the USA due to the fact that this Church consecrated a self-acclaimed homosexual, Jim Robertson, as bishop.

I find the mis-naming of the bishop in question quaintly significant, in that the matter was not “all about Gene” but about the heretical and schismatic actions of the Episcopal Church. In a similar vein, he condemns the Bishop of Woolwich, “Dr. I.A.T. Robinson,” author of Honest to God, as a forerunner of the theological liberalism that has infected Anglicanism. The Church of England’s toleration of John Robinson and the Episcopal Church’s coddling James Pike and John Spong sent a clear warning signal of the broken communion to come.

For a moment, Hilarion does step back into usual Orthodox condemnation of Protestantism for allowing theological development away from Scripture and tradition – without acknowledging that many conservative Protestants would agree with the Orthodox on matters of doctrine, morals and even women’s ordination. But he does this in order to designate Anglicanism as just another Protestant sect, thus denying Anglican “third way” exceptionalism. He admits that the Orthodox at one time considered seriously the idea of Anglicans as embodying a special apostolic continuity, but no longer: “Now we are very far from this. And the gap between liberal Anglicans and the Orthodox keeps growing.”

Toward the end of his address, Metropolitan Hilarion turns to the problem of the moral and spiritual deterioration of the West. It is important, he says, for the Christian Church to provide a unified front against those who would destroy the essence of Christianity, especially in Europe. He speaks of an “Orthodox-Catholic” alliance to this very end. But it is clear he does not trust that the Church of England can be an effective member of that alliance, as it has allowed the secular enemy to infiltrate its ranks.

Hilarion ends on a note of guarded hope. The Orthodox, he says, have had a long history of ecumenical relations with Anglicans. They are more than ready to resume that dialogue on the basis of a true confession based on Scripture and Tradition. But yes, this willingness is guarded indeed and depends on a change of direction:

We do not betray our commitment to the dialogue. However, we feel that many of our Anglican brothers and sisters betray our common witness by departing from traditional Christian values and replacing them by contemporary secular standards. I very much hope that the official position of the Anglican Church on theological, ecclesiological and moral issues will be in tune with the tradition of the Ancient Undivided Church and that Anglican leadership will not surrender to the pressure coming from liberals.

To the extent that that Anglican leadership is focused on Rowan Williams, Hilarion’s hope is not likely to be fulfilled. Abp. Williams seems to think he can hold traditional and liberal poles in creative tension. He seems to think one can be “affirming” (a.k.a. liberal) and a catholic at the same time. According to the Metropolitan, such a view is itself a denial of the either/or character of Christian orthodoxy as expressed at Nicaea. At a political level, the result of Rowan Williams’s “indaba-ing” is that the liberals wink and move on with their agenda.

Metropolitan Hilarion’s address is not the first shot across the Anglican bow from the Catholics and Orthodox, but in the particular context of a banquet of the Nicean Club in Lambeth Palace, it hard not to see it as the handwriting on the wall. The Orthodox are fed up and about ready to class Anglicans with the worst of Protestant schismatics, not to mention Arian heretics.

Let me conclude with a few observations on this address from the viewpoint of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, which emerged from the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem in June 2008. In its final statement, the Conference noted certain “facts” about the state of the Anglican Communion in terms quite similar to Metropolitan Hilarion:

The first fact is the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel. This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, not the way, the truth and the life. It promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right. It claims God’s blessing for same-sex unions over against the biblical teaching on holy matrimony. In 2003 this false gospel led to the consecration of a bishop living in a homosexual relationship.

While Hilarion identifies particular deviations in the Western churches, such as homosexual practices and abortion, he recognizes that these deviations are part of a holistic worldview which is antithetical to traditional orthodoxy. Just so the GAFCON churches see the source of trouble not merely in specific issues but as a false gospel, which one can certainly identify with Hilarion’s “liberalism.” Over against this liberalism, GAFCON offers a “traditional” confession drawn from classic Anglican sources (e.g., Canon A5 of the Church of England): The doctrine of the Church is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

The second fact, according to the GAFCON statement, is that major churches of the Anglican Communion have broken communion with the liberal revisers.

The second fact is the declaration by provincial bodies in the Global South that they are out of communion with bishops and churches that promote this false gospel. These declarations have resulted in a realignment whereby faithful Anglican Christians have left existing territorial parishes, dioceses and provinces in certain Western churches and become members of other dioceses and provinces, all within the Anglican Communion. These actions have also led to the appointment of new Anglican bishops set over geographic areas already occupied by other Anglican bishops. A major realignment has occurred and will continue to unfold.

So the churches represented at GAFCON have taken the same actions toward TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada that the Orthodox took in 2003. Hilarion notes the “vivid indications of disagreement” within the Communion apparent at Lambeth 2008 due to what he politely declines to describe as “schism.” The FCA churches have not had the luxury of declining to name the schism. After a decade of attempts since Lambeth 1998 to rein in the violations of TEC, they felt it necessary to state clearly: “We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed, /(Jerusalem Declaration, art. 13) and they have taken the logical step of recognizing alternative churches in those regions, e.g., North America.

The GAFCON statement notes a third sad fact about the Anglican Communion today:

The third fact is the manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy. The Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada, in proclaiming this false gospel, have consistently defied the 1998 Lambeth statement of biblical moral principle (Resolution 1.10). Despite numerous meetings and reports to and from the ‘Instruments of Unity,’ no effective action has been taken, and the bishops of these unrepentant churches are welcomed to Lambeth 2008. To make matters worse, there has been a failure to honour promises of discipline, the authority of the Primates’ Meeting has been undermined and the Lambeth Conference has been structured so as to avoid any hard decisions. We can only come to the devastating conclusion that ‘we are a global Communion with a colonial structure’.

This third fact is also in line with the observation of Metropolitan Hilarion that the source of false teaching and lax discipline in the Communion has its origins in the “North and the West,” that is to say, in Canterbury’s own jurisdiction. I have noted elsewhere that the “Instruments of Unity” as currently constituted are under the sway of the “Lambeth bureaucracy,” and hence the ecumenical failure of Anglicanism can only be laid at the door of Canterbury himself. This tough fact is exactly what Hilarion has brought to the banquet table at Lambeth Palace.

So GAFCON and the Orthodox share the sober critique of contemporary Anglicanism. It would be facile to say that today’s Anglican confessors are of one mind with the Orthodox. Surely there are issues of substance and ongoing discussion between the two. The Jerusalem Declaration, for instance, while respectful of tradition (art. 3) places Scripture as the supreme rule of faith (art. 2) and endorses the Anglican articles which state that General Councils of the Church “may err and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God” (Article XXI). It is by this standard that the FCA will evaluate an issue like the ordination of women, and by this standard it will be careful to listen to the ecumenical voice of the historic churches.

The Jerusalem Declaration holds out hope for ecumenical dialogue when it states: “We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships. (JD, art 11). And it may be of interest to note that the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans has chosen to describe its position over against contemporary liberalism in terms of “orthodoxy,” a term which can include some of the historic streams of Evangelical, catholic and charismatic (see The Way, the Truth and the Life, pp. 30-40).

From time to time – less often than one might wish - the Church and its leaders speak the truth with boldness and clarity, as commended by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 4:2). I believe the Lambeth bishops spoke such a word in the 1998 Resolution on Human Sexuality. I believe GAFCON again spoke plainly in 2008. Metropolitan Hilarion’s address, in my view, was such a word to the Church, to the Anglican Communion, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Unless the Communion and its leaders heed this word urgently – and we are more than twelve years on in the current crisis - it will be weighed in the balance and found wanting by its ecumenical partners, it will be fractured internally, and its days will be numbered as a great historic communion.

A Postscript on Canterbury and the Pope

This piece was written at the time of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to England. Clearly the forum was quite different than the Nicean Club, and the tone between Romans Catholics and Anglicans necessarily cordial. One gets glimpses even on this occasion, however, of the divide described by Metropolitan Hilarion – and not simply the old Reformation divide – between the two communions. For instance, in his opening address to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Benedict says: “It is not my intention today to speak of the difficulties that the ecumenical path has encountered and continues to encounter.” Surely that “continues to encounter” includes the direction that Anglican Communion has taken since 1998, from homosexuality to the approval of female bishops. Whatever kind words are spoken publicly, it is hard to imagine any substantial ecumenical progress so long as Canterbury continues to sound his uncertain trumpet on matters considered central to historic Christian bodies.

The Archbishop and the Pope both saw the occasion of the visit as an opportunity to raise the issue of the role of the church in the public square in a country where secularism and Islam have been steadily eroding whatever may remain of the Church of England’s establishment. The way they raise that issue is, in my opinion, telling. Benedict, in his address to Parliament, argues that the Church’s role is based on its understanding of God’s truth available in creation and reason:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion [read catholic Christianity] in political debate is not so much as to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers -  still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

This is no more than a restatement of the classic natural law tradition, a variant of which is found in Anglican realists such as Richard Hooker and C.S. Lewis and Oliver O’Donovan. It is a view that stands in opposition to postmodern relativism (Hilarion’s “liberalism”) and Islamic legalism. It is a view espoused in the Pope’s controversial Regensberg address of 2008. It is clear that Benedict has not altered his opinion that voluntarism, in which the will to power trumps the truth of reality, is the enemy of the church and a vital politics.

Rowan Williams, in his welcome address, also adverts to the question of religion in society. He speaks of the “trends in our cultural environment that seek to present the Christian faith as both an obstacle to human freedom and a scandal to human intellect.” So far the leaders are agreed on the problem. But Abp. Williams’s solution leaves one scratching the head. Williams uses warm, fuzzy phrases like bishops as “agents of mission,” a “commitment to the dignity of all human beings, from the beginning to the end of life,” and the life of faith as “a life well lived and joyfully lived.” But on what basis is one to discern what “mission” and “end of life” and “a life well lived” mean? Benedict stands on the firm ground of classic Catholic teaching; Williams, I am afraid, is mired in the quicksand of “affirming Catholicism.”

Archbishop Williams, unlike Pope Benedict, does not cite any exemplars of his views, nor does he offer any disquiet with the Pope’s praise of Thomas More or John Henry Newman, More who connived in the arrest and execution of William Tyndale, and Newman, who attacked the Anglican Articles of Religion or revised them to his own liking. Williams does commend the Oxford divine E.B. Pusey for saying of Anglicans and Catholics: “it is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart.”

If it is really true that what divides Anglicans and Roman Catholics is their “unholiness,” then surely one side or both should repent forthwith and reunite. If this is true, surely the English martyrs of the 16th century - on both sides - died for naught. In the current context, Rowan Williams clearly finds the holiness of Katherine Schori as qualifying her for a seat in high Anglican counsels, while he pointedly leaves an orthodox bishop like Robert Duncan out in the cold.

At the end of the day, Rowan Williams is a follower of Schleiermacher, the godfather of theological liberalism. Religiosity – a.k.a “holiness” – is the determinant of truth, whether in the church or in the public square. Hence the divide between Anglicans and Roman Catholics is as unbridgeable as that between the Anglicans and the Orthodox, and a genuine dialogue of issues that unite and divide Christians will not happen.

Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll
17 September 2010

Posted November 8, 2010