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Is There a 'Real' Communion between Christian Churches?

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

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Intervention at the meting of the Plenary Commission on 'Faith and Order', Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), 30 July 2004

The 'Faith and Order' paper No 181, 'The Nature and Mission of the Church', includes a section on 'communion real but not fully realised'. This section contains the following statement:

One blessing of the ecumenical movement has been the gradual and increasing discovery of the many aspects of life in Christ, which our still divided churches share; we already enjoy a real, if imperfect communion.

I would like to challenge the very notion of 'a real if imperfect communion', which appears also in other 'Faith and Order' documents in various modifications. This notion seems to me to be questionable, misleading and deceitful. The only 'real' communion that could exist between Christians is Eucharistic communion, and if we do not have a common Eucharist, it means that there is no 'real' communion among us. We may - and indeed should - lament about this fact, but we should not deny it and pretend that we have already reached, or almost reached, the koinonia which is to be the crown of our ecumenical endeavour.

Our inability to share the Eucharist, in turn, reflects the most profound division in dogma, spirituality, ethics, in the very experience of faith that exist among various bodies calling themselves 'Christian churches'. Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima in his response to the paper in question has rightly pointed out that 'there is little ontological unity and little agreement among those. who confess Christ as God and Saviour'. And let us be honest to one another and not pretend that the question is about a 'unity in diversity': we are deeply disunited, in spite of almost a century of the ecumenical movement.

The tragedy of contemporary Christianity, I believe, consists in the fact that, while we are all engaged in a laudable struggle for unity, processes are underway within some Christian communities which alienate us from one another ever more profoundly. And I think it is no longer the divisions between the Catholics and the Protestants, or the Orthodox and the Reformed, or one confessional family and another that should be an object of our primary attention. We must address very seriously the fundamental discrepancy between the traditional and the liberal versions of Christianity.

I believe that the recent liberalization of 'faith and order', of dogma and morality within a number of Western churches of the Reformation has alienated them from the traditional churches - notably from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches - more than several preceding centuries of Protestant history. As a result of this liberalization and in spite of many decades of ecumenical quest for unity, we are now more profoundly divided among ourselves than ever before.

I would like to conclude my intervention by a plea to take more seriously the tragedy of division existing among Christians of different confessions, and to look more honestly at the sources of our disunity instead of pretending that the 'real' - even if 'imperfect' - communion which we are all seeking is already achieved.

Read this article on the Russian Orthodox Church - Orthodox Europe website.

Posted: 8/18/04

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