The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East has been involved with ecumenical dialogue since the advent of the Faith and Order movement in the 1920's. In the United States of America the Federal Council of Churches of Christ approached Archbishop Antony (Bashir), Metropolitan of the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of New York and North America, to join them in 1936. Metropolitan Antony joined the council for two main reasons: 1) membership would provide the necessary authenticity and exposure for Orthodox Christianity in the US, and 2) reassurance from the council that it would ask for no money for the archdiocese’s membership. This became the principle rule for our archdiocese’s ecumenical participation for many years, including membership in the newly-formed National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCC) in 1950.
In 1969, Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) led the change of the archdiocese’s name to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of New York and all North America. In 1975, Metropolitan Philip and Archbishop Michael (Shaheen) of the Archdiocese of Toledo and Dependencies effected the union of the two North American Antiochian Archdioceses. The unified Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America continues to be involved in inter-Orthodox activities and ecumenically in several areas: 1) The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA); 2) the newly-forming Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT); 3) Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation; 4) Orthodox-Lutheran Theological Consultation; 5) World Council of Churches (WCC) membership through the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.
Since 1975, the archdiocese’s active involvement in ecumenism is based on several principles, which were best expressed in a report of the “Special SCOBA Commission on Ecumenical Relations” regarding membership in the NCCC, 1992, and which follow:
The present involvement of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement is regularly and faithfully reflected in the columns of our Orthodox publications. However, the movement today is a rapidly evolving and highly confused phenomenon. Orthodox Christians, especially those living in the West, simply cannot fail to face the problem. Some of them give, at the very start, an enthusiastic approval to any ecumenical enterprise. Some, on the contrary, react with a violent opposition to any ecumenism, which they identify with a betrayal of the faith. The vast majority, however, remains passive, expects guidance from the Church and feels uneasy when guidance fails to come or is given in a contradictory and inconsistent way.
It is well, therefore, to reiterate a few fundamental principles from which the Orthodox attitude to other Christians, and to ecumenism, stems.
First of all the Orthodox Church is neither a ‘sect’ nor a ‘denomination,’ but the true Church of God. This fact defines both the necessity and the limits of our involvement in ecumenism:
(1) The Church of God, because it is ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic,’ is concerned with the whole of humanity, with the whole of Truth and with everything positive and good happening in the world; if we refuse to learn, to listen, to be concerned with the life and the beliefs of other Christians, we will not only miss much ourselves, but we will also be unfaithful to Christ’s commandment of love and to our responsibility to witness to Orthodoxy everywhere. Inasmuch as the various ecumenical meetings, councils, and assemblies, provide us with these opportunities, it is our Christian and Orthodox duty to be there.
(2) However, since the Lord has established only One Church, since our being Orthodox implies that we are members of it, and since, therefore, the fullness of the Truth is accessible to us even if it is not entirely understood by each one of us individually, there cannot be, on our part, any compromise in matters of Faith. Our essential responsibility in the ecumenical movement is to affirm that the true Christian Unity is not unity on the basis of a ‘common minimum’ between denominations, but a unity in God. And God is never a ‘minimum:’ He is the Truth itself! The limit of our participation in the ecumenical movement is in our opposition to relativism.
These two principles must remain the primary focus for our continued ecumenical commitment, in spite of the fact that the ecumenical movement itself has gone through many historical phases–‘Life and Work’ principles, which meant that theological, doctrinal differences were to be disregarded, and Christians were to ‘live’ and ‘work’ together as if the differences did not exist; ‘Faith and Order’ movement, which placed theological discussion at the forefront so that Christian unity could be reached through doctrinal agreement; and the creation of the World Council of Churches.
It is on the assumption that these reasonable principles were accepted by all that the Orthodox Churches joined the ecumenical movement. And, in spite of the fact that in recent years many new factors have appeared which bear heavily on the situation, we must not shy away from our commitment based on our original principles for participation within that movement.