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World Religions in Assisi with Pope Francis


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September 8 2014 16:30 | Auditorium KBC

Which unity do we seek?


Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop, Church of Cyprus

St John Chrysostom, commenting on the words of St Paul in Ephesians: “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (?ph. 4:13), he writes: “To the unity, says he, of the faith. That is, until we shall be shown to have all one faith, when we shall all alike acknowledge the common bond. Till then you must labour to this end. Now, when we shall all believe alike, then shall there be unity” (Homily on Ephesians 11, PG 62, 83). In this way St John Chrysostom is defining the frame of the unity we are looking for, which is nothing else but the unity of the faith. The faith constitutes the bond among all. To that goal, he believes we have to work.

The unity of the Church is a diachronic quest. It began with the earliest references in the New Testament. Jesus Christ in his Hierarchical Prayer, shortly before the Passion of the Cross, prayed for his disciples and the whole of humanity, “That they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee that they also may be one in us…” (John 17:21). St Paul also makes his own references to unity and develops the ecclesiological image of the “body and its limbs” in order to make clear the meaning and necessity of unity in the Church. 

Moreover, throughout the history of the Church, there has been awareness among all, without exception, of the necessity of unity. Nonetheless, it is as if we run panting behind a cause and, unfortunately, that which the Christians of all ages have achieved, is precisely the opposite: the continued division of the Church. 

The notion of unity has multiple meanings and dimensions. We believe that Jesus leads us to the primary sense and reality of unity, not because there historical divisions in the Church already exist, but the meaning of unity, as this is expressed in his prayer, lays the foundations for the ontological relationship and union of humanity with God, a unity that was broken as a result of the fall and of sin. In the prayer of Jesus Christ two different aspects of the concept of unity co-exist and exist within each other, which, according to theological definitions of the Fathers of the Church, the first corresponds to the Theology, the speech about God and the second to the Economy of God for the salvation of the human genre: a) the unity of the persons of the Holy Trinity and b) unity among the human persons. Consequently, from this twofold unity emerges the necessity of unity between, on the one side, the persons of the Holy Trinity and, on the other side, the human persons.  This view indicates the “reconciliation” between God and man and the restoration of unity and the relationship between God and men, but also the whole of creation.  

The fall of the human genre has led to the introduction of "hatred" (Gen. 3: 15) between God and man. This hatred destroys the relationship of man with God, of people amongst themselves and of mankind with the whole of creation. Instead of the peace and love of God reigns "war" and opposition to God's will. From the moment that sin prevails, then the relationship of peace and justice between God and Man becomes distorted.

Due to sin and the animosity between God and human beings, and, consequently, the hatred among humans, we observe the phenomena of wars, conflicts, divisions and the various injustices in relations between people. The dissolution of this hatred has been achieved by God with His plan of divine economy and mainly with the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, with his death on the cross and his resurrection.

The question is whether people are able to become receivers and conveyers of peace and justice. Of course, we should not expect that these principles of peace, justice and unity will prevail once and for all on earth. God invited and called upon everyone to become workers for peace and justice throughout time, to become workers and members of God's kingdom. Peace and justice, as well as unity is the fruit of struggle for these principles of God's kingdom. (See Book of Revelation, where there is a continuing struggle until the eschatological victory of the will of God and his Kingdom). Christ blessed those who work for peace and justice, which are components of the kingdom of God. "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, they shall be filled" (Mt. 5:6). "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"(Mt. 5:9-10). The lack of peace and justice means the degradation of God's kingdom on earth. The founder of the Church, Jesus Christ holds us responsible for this degradation.

The section, in its various dimensions is connected with justice and peace. The saving work of Christ and the general "economy of God" for man and creation as a whole has as its purpose:

• The unity between God and man, namely restoration of communion between man and God, which had been broken after the fall, so that man may be brought to salvation, sanctification and deification by grace.

• The unity of the human race. Babel divides and Pentecost unifies and brings peace. Consequently, the mission of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost of the Church is to unify.

• The unity of creation. The Apostle Paul wrote: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom. 8:22-23). Here we see the rupture of relations between creatures because of the fall. Christ is the only Mediator for the restoration of unity, peace and justice.

• The unity between heaven and earth. The transcendental and the material creation is not at conflict with each other because God's creation, visible and invisible, spiritual and material, is itself good. Only sin distorts the benevolent nature of God's creation. The energies of God unite the beings of creation between them and God.

• The unity of Heaven and Creation. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, after the saving work of Christ, ceased to govern the progress of man towards his purpose prescribed by God. Christ has opened Paradise again to Mankind. Moreover, the adoption of the human nature by Christ, gave worth and value to unity with the divine nature.

• The unity between angels and humans. The spiritual and material beings of creation work and worship together the Triune God and by doing God's will unite and create harmony within creation.

• The unity between men and women: "there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28). The sexes are not at conflict, nor are they competing for dominance one over the other.

• The unity of peoples and nations amongst themselves: "There is no longer Jew or Greek" (Gal. 3:28). One of the essential points of Christian teaching is to avoid conflict between peoples and nations, but also the obligation of peaceful reconciliation and the prevalence of justice.

• The unity of macro and micro-societies. The unity of faith in Christ requires the implementation of the cohesion of societies and the avoidance of conflicts and tensions because societies are governed by the principles of the Gospel of Christ.

• The unity of a nation. By the same reason, Christian principles require solidarity among members of society, even to overcome the crises, such as the current economic crisis. The apostle Paul expresses the necessity of solidarity with the sentence: "Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ." (Gal. 6:2). Certainly, solidarity is not limited to only the physical aspect, but is eminently spiritual. Everything is regulated by love, which is the cornerstone of social welfare and economy. Solidarity is one of the basic principles of the common existence of people who do not live individually but who live in obligation to others due to this common existence. Besides, this is imposed also by the Christian principle of loving one's neighbor in the golden rule of the Gospel of Christ. ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."(Mt. 7:12). Today in Europe solidarity has become a political slogan, but its content is very different, judging by the behavior of the International Monetary Fund, European countries and other banking systems towards Greece, Cyprus and other countries with financial problems.

• The unity of the family. All, on the basis of the teaching of the Gospel, become brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, because they accept and believe the faith in the Triune God, they accept Christ as their Savior and Redeemer and thus they become a "temple of the Holy Spirit.

• The unity of the Person (individual) within himself. The Person is exempt from the divisive forces of evil and sin and his relationship with God makes man complete, because the only principle in which the Person can develop into adulthood in Christ is that of love.

• The unity of the Church. The Church is the constant call and invitation to everyone to reject the works of sin, division, conflict and become children of light and partakers of the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of peace, justice, holiness and thus to be adopted by God.

According to Saint Maximus the Confessor, the rupture of unity among all these different groups is the result of the fall and sin. That is why Jesus became " a curse for us…so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Gal. 3:13-14). "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness;" (I Pet. 2:24).

The unity of the Church becomes a visible and empirical reality among its members, because at the head of the Church is Jesus, with the communion of the sacraments, with the visible organisation of the Church, with the Church’s mission in the world and with all its other visible manifestations. .

During the first Christian millennium, owing to the prevailing conditions, more weight was given, both to the content of the faith per se, and to the precise expression of the faith. It is certain that at the pre-Nicaean Ecumenical Council, there was diversity in the expression of the faith, evident through the different baptismal symbols of the various Churches. When, however, the need arose for a common expression of the orthodox content of the faith, as opposed to the heretical expression, the conviction began to develop of a single form of confession of the faith.  Nonetheless, the introducer of the term “consubstantial”, Athanasios the Great, following the reactions encountered by the formulation of the faith at Nicaea, as well as the suggestions for the use of other terms by heretical groups like the “Anomioi”, or the so-called “consubstantialists” (omiousianoi)- using the term    ?µ????s??? instead of the ?µ???s??? of Nicaea), appeared prepared to place priority on the content of the faith rather than on the use of terms, since what was most important was the unity of the Church  .

As is only to be expected, contemporary thinking around the issue of the unity of the Church presents a certain complexity. The proposal and/or wish of the Churches to find unity may be simplistic, for the venture may be beyond the powers of humans. To what unity do they refer? A number of initiatives have developed around this matter, efforts have been made by the Churches and a number of Church Organisations and Councils, numerous texts have been written about unity, with a view to putting forward the ecclesiology and tracing the ecclesiological frameworks which will form the basis for the unity of the Churches.   

We will not analyse the historical background of the modern efforts to achieve unity of the Churches. We will simply mention a) the Ecumenical Movement, in general, b) the World Council of Churches (WCC) more specifically; c) the earliest movements in search of unity, such as the “Faith and Order” movement, the “Missionary” movement, which later became commissions of the WCC, d) the bi-lateral theological dialogues, etc. In the Ecumenical Movement there were trends either to tackle only purely theological and dogmatic issues, or to combine theological issues with the social dimension and the work of the Church in the world, or even, because of disappointment from the failure to achieve results on the basis of the theological efforts to achieve the “visible unity” of the Church in the world, a turn to solely social activism, since, as it has been said, “doctrine divides, while human activity unites”. 

Furthermore, with a view to overcoming the deadlocks that are created by discussion of the theological issues that divide the Churches, efforts have been made to orient the dialogue to numerous other matters, and various other descriptions have been added to the notion of “unity”. For example, the basic article of the Constitution of the WCC states that the main objective of the Council is to reinforce the efforts of the Churches to find the “visible unity of the Church”, a description that has received a plethora of interpretations and meanings and that is why the Special Commission for the relations of Orthodox seeks clarification of the meaning of “visible” unity. In addition, the ecclesiological declaration of the Canberra Plenary linked the unity of the Church to the sense of “communion”, another difficult theological term, which is capable of numerous interpretations, as it may be interpreted, for example, by the Orthodox, who appear to have introduced the term, as communion of faith, life and tradition, but other Churches describe it as a simple sacramental communion, without the conditions required by the Orthodox Churches for sacramental communion . Moreover, many texts, either of the WCC, or the Faith and Order Standing Commission examine the relationship between unity of faith and the diversity of expressions and up to what point is the use of diversity legitimised and up to what point the necessity of confession of the one faith is legitimised .

It is acknowledged that the quest for unity of the Churches in the modern age must take into account many internal ecclesiastical as well as extraneous factors, such as globalisation, multi-pluralism, the cultural and political factors that affect the life, theology and ecclesiological practice of the Churches, as well as the state of Christianity as a whole. However, the fact remains that the objective, which is the unity of the Church of Christ, is not a simple social phenomenon that is subject to sociological commentary. Indeed, as a result of the state of Christianity and the various Churches today, namely the multiple divisions, the issues to be faced are many and complex. For the sake of clarity, a number of examples will be mentioned: first, among the issues of historical theological and dogmatic differences are the issues of the content and expression of the faith, ecclesiology, the sacraments, the priesthood, etc; secondly, among contemporary issues, those put forward include, for example, the ordination of women, ecclesiology, ethics, the diverse sometimes contradictory theologies and ecclesiology of the Churches, the issue of tradition, hermeneutics of the Scriptures, inter-religious dialogue, etc.

From the whole spectrum of theological discussions since the beginning of the life of the Ecumenical Movement, several models have been proposed for unity.


It seems that a certain “ecumenical fatigue” has come about, since, while there used to be enthusiasm with regard to the cause of unity, the lack of effectiveness of the theological discussions has led to disappointment. We all acknowledge the existence of a crisis in the Ecumenical Movement and the difficulty in finding ways out to help the Churches in their effort to move towards unity.

The last ecclesiological agreed text of the Faith and Order, "The Church: Towards a common vision" describes these difficulties. In the chapter on unity it is noted:

C. The Importance of Unity

8. The importance of Christian unity to the mission and nature of the Church was already evident in the New Testament.  In Acts 15 and Galatians 1-2, it is clear that the mission to the Gentiles gave birth to tensions and threatened to create divisions between Christians. In a way, the contemporary ecumenical movement is reliving the experience of that first council of Jerusalem. The present text is an invitation to the leaders, theologians and faithful of all churches to seek the unity for which Jesus prayed (cf. John 17:21) on the eve before he offered his life for the salvation of the world (cf. Eph. 5:25; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Rom. 8:32).


9. Visible unity requires that churches be able to recognize in one another the authentic presence of what the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (381) calls “the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” This recognition, in turn, may in some instances depend upon changes in doctrine, practice and ministry within any given community.  This represents a significant challenge for churches in their journey toward unity.


10. Currently, some identify the Church of Christ exclusively with their own community, while others would acknowledge in communities other than their own a real but incomplete presence of the elements which make up the Church. Others have joined into various types of covenant relationships, which sometimes include the sharing of worship. Some believe that the Church of Christ is located in all communities that present a convincing claim to be Christian, while others maintain that Christ’s church is invisible and cannot be adequately identified during this earthly pilgrimage. 

Fundamental issues on the way to unity

Ever since the Toronto Declaration of 1950, the WCC has challenged the churches to “recognize that the membership of the church of Christ is more inclusive than the membership of their own church body.” Moreover, mutual regard between churches and their members has been profoundly encouraged and advanced by ecumenical encounters.  Nevertheless, differences on some basic questions remain and need to be faced together:  “How can we identify the Church which the creed calls one, holy, catholic and apostolic?” “What is God’s will for the unity of this Church?” “What do we need to do to put God’s will into practice?” This text has been written in order to assist the churches as they reflect upon such questions, seeking common answers.

Of course, the text, not only in these paragraphs, but as a whole, is lacking, because it uses theological and ecclesiological terms with obvious ambiguity. But this is a consequence of the unclear ecclesiology and theology of many Churches concerning the unity. For example, what is the Church of Christ, in accordance with the Declaration of Toronto, which is more comprehensive than a local Church? Is there a difference between them? If the local church is not the Church of Christ, then what is it? My goal is not to make a review of the various problems in the text. I have repeatedly in the past made a critique of the methodology followed by the WCC to lead the churches in search of unity. Within the methodology, concepts, terms and models are used for unity which does not comply with the ecclesiology, theology and tradition of the Orthodox Church.

I would like to conclude these few thoughts and reflections concerning the Christian unity, by pointing out the following. I previously outlined various forms of unity. The pinnacle of all unity, according to Orthodox theology and ecclesiology and the unity of the Church has as its prototype the given unity of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The Fathers of the Church routinely emphasize that the Persons of the Trinity are of one substance, have one will and one energy, but also have distinct missions within the "economy of God" for the world. This ontological unity is that object which the search for unity among the churches should aspire to. If you achieve unity modelled on the Holy Trinity, all the observed divisions in the world disappear and unity is achieved in diversity and variety in unity.

Peace and justice, as of course unity, should not be considered only in their political, social and economic dimensions, because they have clearly a theological content. Nor should we believe that the Churches possess the fullness of peace and justice. Peace and justice are objectives and principles to be achieved during the attempted course of the Churches in realising their own unity.




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