The Call to Unity

Metropolitan of Thyateira


It is exactly seven years ago since, in this beautiful country and by the fair shores of Lake Leman, we made the first step towards discussing a subject which should be of interest to the whole of Christendom. After centuries of separation and dire estrangement the first attempt was once more made to mend the torn robe of Jesus in order that the divided members of His mystic Body, the Church, might again be bound together. To the call, sent forth from beyond the ocean, the Orthodox Church of the East, the most ancient of all, hastened with her younger sisters of the West, to reply; and though still " bearing in her body the marks of the Lord Jesus " she regarded it as her duty not to be absent from a Conference which set before it so high and useful a purpose. And now after that first notable contact, the Orthodox Church has been following with ceaseless interest the untiring and inspired efforts of those who conceived and initiated this work, and comes here a sharer in the common endeavour. She who, for centuries, has been a continuous witness to the apostolic Faith, comes to contribute her share towards the building of reunion, the erection of which is the object of this Conference.

Having been invited as representative of this Orthodox Church to address you at this inaugural meeting, I thought it would be of interest for you if I were, in a few words, to explain to you the conception of reunion held by the


Orthodox Church; this explanation, I think, will form a preamble, as it were, to the subjects to be discussed hereafter.


That those who believe in Christ and acknowledge Him as their Head must form one body, is self-evident according to the Orthodox Church. For the primary will and intention of the Saviour and Founder of the Church was that all who believed in Him " shall be one fold with one Shepherd" (John x, a6). Our Lord, foreseeing the divisions that were to occur among those who were to believe in Him, asks during His last moments on earth of the Father who sent Him that He keep them in unity, " 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 xvii, 2i). This unity of the faithful, a reflection as it were of the unity that is in God, was to be the most significant incentive for those who had not received the revelation to recognise the divine mission of Jesus and, being converted, to believe in Him" that the world may believe that thou hast sent me " (John xvii, 2a). And even as our Lord, so the Apostles conceived of the Church as being, from the beginning, a unity; to this the phraseology used by the Apostles when speaking of the Church bears witness, as for instance when they call it " the building of God," of which the corner-stone is Jesus Christ, and also " body," having as its head Jesus Christ. The wonderful picture especially which St. Paul draws of the Church leaves no doubt that the recreative force of the Holy Spirit in the body of the Church may then only be considered complete when each part keeps secure the bonds that tie one to the other, by means of its communion with the common Head, Christ; that is, when they form a unity.

In this way, the Orthodox Church, regarding as it does the unity of the Church as being the will of its Founder, recognises at the same time that through absence of unity the work of the Church both external and internal throughout the world is greatly hampered.


Its external work is hampered because the principal mission of the Church, which is like leaven destined to leaven the whole lump and to draw into its fold all the nations, is frustrated. For is it not well known that the first question that comes to the lips of those who are called to enter the bosom of the Church is, "Which of the many churches am I to enter?" And if they should happen to enter one or other of the Churches, the moment they come into contact with some Church other than the one they have entered they are so far confused as to be perpetually troubled by doubts as to whether they have "chosen the good part," or are drawn from the one to the other in turn. I do not even mention here the scornful comments of those outside the Church, which are heard by all those who have any relations with them.

Its internal work is hampered because, whereas modern conditions demand a united front against the subversive elements of the world which threaten the Christian edifice, the division of the Churches or, which is the same, of the striving forces of Christianity, seriously impairs the strength of their array. And even if we only take into account the recreative activity of the Church among its own members, it is obvious that it more fully achieves its purpose when it is undertaken by a united Church than by a Church divided and, at times, at variance.

Hence the Orthodox Church at all its gatherings prays for the reunion of all, and never ceases to hope that that which is considered humanly impossible, the reunion of the Churches, is not also impossible to God. But what does the Orthodox Church understand by the reunion of the Churches ?

Although the Orthodox Church considers unity in faith a primary condition of reunion of the Churches, yet it rejects that exclusive theory according to which one Church, regarding itself as the one true Church, insists that those who seek reunion with it shall enter its own realm. Such a conception of reunion, amounting to the absorption of the other Churches, is in every way opposed to the spirit existing in the Orthodox Church, which has always distinguished


between unity on the one hand and uniformity on the other. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios, had already established the rule which in its practice the Orthodox Church has followed ever since. "In cases where the things disregarded are not a matter of faith and do not involve disobedience to any general or catholic decree, a man capable of judging would be right in deciding that neither those who observe them nor those who have not received them act wrongly." (Encyclical Letter to Pope Nicholas I.)

As a consequence, only those things which have a direct reference to the Faith and which are by general consent accepted should be considered obligatory and as making for unity. Hence the Orthodox Church, following the advice of Augustine, in dubiis libertas, concedes to theologians freedom of thought as regards things which are not essential and which have no connection with the faith of the heart. But whilst it does not forbid such freedom, and willingly recognises that the nature of these questions is of such a kind that the solutions given to them are necessarily in the realms of doubt and probability, yet it stands by the principle that it is necessary to have agreement in essential things. In necessariis unitas.

But what are the elements of Christian teaching which are to be regarded as essential ? The Orthodox Church holds the view that it is not necessary that these should be discussed and determined at the present time, since they have been already determined in the old symbols and decisions of the seven Ecumenical Synods. Consequently, the teaching of the ancient undivided Church of the first eight centuries, free from every question which did not have a direct relation to these things which were to be believed, must to-day also constitute the basis of the reunion of the Churches. The soundness of this basis has been universally recognised in the discussions on reunion which in past years have taken place between Orthodox, Old Catholics and Anglicans. I may be permitted to say that no true Orthodox theologian would be found to deviate from this principle, and to enter upon a discussion of subjects which, according to his convictions, have already been decided,


except in cases where such discussion has for its sole purpose the justification of the faith held by his Church.

But while the Orthodox Church stands inevitably by the basis laid down, it has at the same time no intention of putting forward as a condition of reunion anything that, after the first period mentioned, either is believed on the authority of Holy Scripture and tradition or has been defined in local councils and synods. And though we do not deny that there have existed in the past, and still exist among Orthodox theologians, those who insist on the acceptance by others of these more recent decisions also, yet those who judge aright confine themselves to those decisions alone to which the common Christian conscience of East and West had, of old, come. And when we take into account how small is the number of decisions they officially made, it becomes evident that there is a very wide field of discussion remaining open to the Orthodox theologians and to those who are outside the Orthodox Church but who are impelled by the same desire for reunion of the Churches. And thus, subjects such as the nature of the Church, its common creed, 'the significance of Holy Scripture, the meaning of the sacraments, all of which are due to be discussed by our Conference, are clearly to be included among the number of these about which the Orthodox theologian may formulate an opinion. In doing so, he performs a duty towards his own Church, inasmuch as he is thereby contributing to the removal of obstacles which stand in the way of its unity.

My friends, at this moment when, having called down upon us the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are about to undertake our labours, let us call to mind the deep signification of our mission, being at the same time fully conscious that we all of us have a grave responsibility for the wasteful division of the Churches, and feel repentance for the, neglect we have hitherto permitted of this duty, and devote ourselves to this work without prejudice and with the requisite tranquillity. Above all, let us cast aside all selfishness, and human calculations, and rather be animated with respect for the convictions


of others, and beyond everything else, with love. Let us not forget that, apart from all the points that divide us one from the other, there exists a common bond which binds all these gathered here, and that is faith in our common Saviour and Redeemer, our Lord. I am not of those who are so far confident as to imagine that the question of the reunion of the Churches is one which requires only a short period of time and a short discussion and exchange of views; for that which long centuries have divided cannot be reconciled in a single day. "Two Churches," Doellinger said, "cannot at once throw themselves into each other's arms like two brothers meeting after a long separation." We shall be happy if, before departing from here, we are able to thank God that the seed sown by the Conference on Faith and Order has not fallen on barren ground. May God bless our labours.

Source: H.N. Bate, ed., Faith and Order: Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, August 3-21, 1927 (London: Student Christian Movement & Garden City NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928). Numbers in square brackets [xxx] are the original page numbers.