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Christian Unity: A View from the Orthodox Church

The following is the slightly edited script of an April 2002 interview with Fr Andrew which was conducted by a local member of the Church of England who is doing a project on Christian unity in Suffolk.

RT: Does the Orthodox Church believe that the disunity of Christians is a sin?

FrA: Of course, disunity is a terrible sin. It is the one thing that all who call themselves Christians agree on. The question is how can we achieve unity? In the Gospel of St John (17,21) Christ prays that all should be one as the Father and the Son. But in the Gospel of St Matthew (10, 34-35), He also says that He has come not to bring peace, but a sword, and that families will be divided because of Him. In other words unity in Christ is a special unity and it seems according to His words that all will never be one. There will always be some who reject Him, for 'the world lieth in evil'. Therefore we should hope and pray for unity, but knowing that unity will never be total.

RT: So you are pessimistic about the possibility of Christian unity?

FrA: I would not say that. Simply, I believe that unity is not actually an aim and it would be a mistake to make unity into an end in itself.

RT: So how is unity possible, if it is not an aim?

FrA: Unity is the result of something else, it is not an aim. The aim of our Christian faith is not unity, but salvation.

RT: What do you mean by salvation?

FrA: I mean the salvation of the soul, in other words, personal holiness. As the Apostle Peter puts it, we are to 'partake in the divine nature' (2 Peter 1,4), or if you wish, to get ready to meet God. Holiness is the aim of everything, that is the sole reason for the existence of the Church, it is the Church's only purpose. And if holiness exists, there is unity. Holiness leads to unity, it breaks down all barriers like fire melts ice. Wherever there is holiness, there is unity and wherever there is no holiness, there is no unity. You see, disunity is the result of secularism, of worldliness, of everything that is opposed to the Church, to Christ, to the Gospel, to holiness.

RT: I have never heard this said before.

FrA: I find it very sad that this is not mentioned at ecumenical meetings, which sometimes seem to have a secular programme or attitude, couched in secular jargon. Church unity is not like political unity, a give and take, a compromise between two different sides, management and unions, or two different races. Church unity is about truth and untruth. Until this fact is faced, however politically incorrect it might be to say it, there is little point in ecumenical meetings.
It is true that unity has existed in different human societies, for example Hitler and Stalin created unity - but only by massacring everybody who disagreed with them. Unity is organic, a growth from inside, not imposed from outside. I am afraid that the pursuit of unity can become a sort of secular diversion from the one thing needful, i.e. holiness.

RT: In that case, how do you see Christians achieving unity?

FrA: The simple answer to that question is - by pursuing personal holiness!

RT: The simple answer? You mean there is also a complicated answer?

FrA: Yes. But that involves defining such words as 'Christian'. For example, St Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century, says that someone who does not honour the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, cannot call himself a Christian. If we are to go by that fourth century remark of a great Saint of the Church, then of course a lot of people who call themselves Christians in this country today are not Christians. I do believe that we have first to define a word like Christian, before we can begin to talk about unity. It is sad that after a hundred years of the ecumenical movement even such basic questions as the meaning of the word 'Christian' or 'Church' have still not been answered.

RT: You are beginning to sound anti-ecumenical.

FrA: That all depends on what you mean by 'ecumenical'! As I have said, disunity is a sin. At every service the Orthodox Church prays for 'the unity of all people'. For example, a few Sundays ago a Protestant lady came to our service. She lives three doors away from our church. After the service she had a cup of tea with us and talked to various people. She said that she had been feeling lonely, that she had recently been burgled and the thief had stolen a number of things, including her New Testament. So we gave her one. If that is ecumenical, then we are very ecumenical.

RT: I understand that, but then what role do you see for a more formal, higher type of ecumenism, conferences?

FrA: I think that that type of ecumenism is not higher, but lower! But even that has a big role to play in overcoming ignorance. Just one example: last week an Anglican lady, a lay reader, whom I met, expressed astonishment that we are going to have Easter on 5 May this year. Personally, I was far more astonished than she was - but by her ignorance. How is it that Anglicans do not know that 200 million Christians are celebrating Easter on 5 May this year? That this level of ignorance can still exist in this day and age of a global society is quite incredible to me.

RT: How does the Orthodox Church in Felixstowe contribute locally to ecumenism?

FrA: First of all by our existence. Anybody can attend services here, they are accessible to all. Any organisation can phone me and I will come and give a talk about the Orthodox Church or Orthodox worship. In many ways I believe that anyone who simply enters our church and sees an icon of St Felix side by side with one of St John the Wonderworker will see how we contribute to unity. St Felix, as you know, was a bishop who came from France in the seventh century to evangelise this area. St John the Wonderworker was a Russian bishop and lived in the twentieth century and was a tireless worker for the unity of East and West. A great Orthodox ecumenist - though completely unknown to the ecumenical movement. Or again, if you look at our icon-screen you will find an icon of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, martyred in the ninth century, side by side with an icon of Queen Victoria's grand-daughter, the German princess, St Elizabeth, who was martyred in 1918. This is Orthodox unity, Saints together, different centuries, different cultures, but united within the Orthodox Faith and Church.

RT: In your view then, how did disunity between the different Churches happen and how can we get back to unity?

FrA: Disunity happened because people lost the faith of the first centuries, the faith of the Early Church. To get back to that is the key to the problem.

RT: How can we go back to the early Church?

FrA: Literally, go back to it. For example, why do Catholicism and the Protestant groups simply not return to the Christian calendar? That in itself would be a gesture of goodwill and would bring all Christians into line again as it always used to be. Then this year an Anglican would not be astonished that Easter falls on 5 May. More importantly, why do Catholicism and the Protestant communities not return to the original Creed of the fourth century, the so-called Nicene Creed? In other words, going back to the Early Church means just that.

RT: But what you are suggesting would mean other Christians adopting the Orthodox Church. Then you are saying that Orthodoxy would not have to change? That sounds one-sided to me.

FrA: Orthodox would most certainly have to change for unity to take place. Orthodox would have to become holy! As I said at the beginning of this interview, disunity is a sin, the result of sin, the result of Orthodox and others not being holy. When Orthodox have achieved holiness, there will be unity of all who call themselves Christian. In that sense, the Orthodox Church would not have to change in Herself but those who claim to belong to Her would most certainly have to change, we would have to become holy and we are not holy. This is the biggest change you can imagine. I would go further, if there is disunity, it is the fault of the Orthodox, because we are not holy.

RT: But even if Orthodox were holy, I still cannot imagine all Christians going to an Orthodox Church with golden domes and so on.

FrA: Nor can I! Why on earth golden domes? True, some Orthodox do worship in churches with golden domes. A great many do not. We certainly do not in Felixstowe! Forgive me, if I say that the golden dome idea is a superficial one. Orthodoxy is not in externals, in cultural attachments, it is in the heart, the seat of potential holiness. The model of the Orthodox Church is the Holy Trinity, Three Persons in Unity. In other words, our model of unity is unity in diversity: cultural diversity, but theological unity.

RT: What for you is the Orthodox Church then?

FrA: I see Orthodoxy as a bouquet of flowers. Every flower is a different colour, has a different shape and a different perfume, but they are all flowers. Thus, for example, the Romanian Orthodox flowers are not the same as Japanese Orthodox flowers, the Arab Orthodox are very different from the Finnish Orthodox, and so on. In future, even more flowers will be added to that bouquet: I can tell you already that French Orthodox flowers, for example, are not the same as English Orthodox ones!

RT: In what circumstances could Christian unity come about then?

FrA: When all Christians have given up worldliness, when all Christians have given up secular attachments, 'isms', ideologies, when all are together in their pursuit of holiness. And not before.

RT: Thank you, Fr Andrew. I will have to think about this.

FrA: Thank you, Richard.

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