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Alexander Schmemann

"Unity", "Division", "Reunion" in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology

Adress given at the Annual Conference of the Fellowship of S. Alban and St Sergius at Abingdon, England in August 1950.

From Theologia, ΚΒ, 1951, p. 243-254

Chapter IV

It seems to me that I can now venture to draw several conclusions regarding the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards the fact of division and meaning it attaches to the idea of «reunion». It should be noted at the offset that the attitude of the majority of contemporary theologians to the fact of division is very different from the attitude of the Eastern Church at the time of the Ecumenical Councils and in Byzantium. It may be said that contemporary theologians seek above all to discover the meaning of division and wish paradoxically to determine what might be called the theological statua of division. How is division possible, what happens to the Sacraments in a Church or a community separated from what is supposed to be the true Church, what is the validity of their orders —these are the questions raised to day. It seems to me that all these questions, which «a theology of schism» attempts to answer, are fundamentally connected with the Roman conception of the Church as one universal organism and can arise only out of Roman presuppositions. A theology of schism is a product of the desire of theologians to find a place for the Church where, according to their own presuppositions, there should be no place for her. But the whole trouble is that, from the Orthodox point of view, these questions are unanswerable, because the whole problem is falsely posited, and formulated in the wrong terms. This may best be proved by the fact that neither the early Church nor the Church of the period of the Ecumenical Councils never raised these questions, and in contemporary Orthodox theology they are a product of Roman and, generally, Western influence.

For the Byzantine Church division meant the falling away of one or several local Churches from catholic agreement and, consequently, from the trite faith expressed in and through this agreement, not, would I repeat, a separation from a universal organism, nor the breaking away from Eastern Church, regarded in some sense of the word as the source of the Church, but the violation of Tradition and Truth. But in so far as the Church manifests and recognizes her ontological identity in this unity of Tradition, in this manifested Truth, and the unity of faith is a condition of this identity, the violation of catholic agreement interrupts the communion in the Sacraments. For the Roman Church division is precisely a breaking off of communion with Rome, because Rome is the source of the Church and the source of her visible of unity. The term «Romana» is in fact a nota ecclesiae, which includes the notae of apostolicity, unity and catholicity. But for the Eastern Church such a nota ecclesiae, in the absence of which she can recognize neither apostolicity, for unity, for catholicity is not the East but “Orthodoxy”— the fullness of tradition and genuin unity in faith. This signifies that, when one or several local Churches fall away from catholic agreement, the Orthodox Church cannot raise the problem as to their «validity» as Churches, because outside the fullness of tradition, outside the manifested truth which is Orthodoxy, we can not «know» «acknowledge» (or recognize) this validity. Tradition, in this sense, is that which permits us to truly apprehend and receive what God did for us, truly receive the Mystery of our salvation; and hence outside this Tradition we simply know nothing of «validity» or «invalidity».

To cite an example : when the late Patriarch Sergius of Moscow and several other Orthodox theologians expressed the opinion that the question of the validity of Anglican orders cannot be solved by the Orthodox Church without general dogmatic agreement, they meant, I believe, precisely this : that for us the problem of «validity» is inseparable from that of right «interpretation», since this «interpretation» is the acceptance of the validity of Salvation, achieved once and for ever. And this adequate interpretation is the Tradition of the Church, expressed in Catholic agreement.

This explains the fact, which I have already mentioned, that the Byzantine Church, in her polemics with the Western Church, invariably raised the problem noe in terms of a re attachment of the Western Church, to her, or of a natural recognition of sacrament or ecclesiastical organization, but purely on the plane of dogma on which the Western Church violated the Truth and fell away from Catholic agreement: the Filioque, etc... This was so because it is only in dogmatic agreement, more precisely in agreement in faith, that the Sacraments of another local Church can be acknowledged by us and the Sacraments of our Church, in other words this Church can be acknowledged as the some Church. In the last resort, dogmatic agreement is a necessary criterion of acknowledgment of another Church, as being the same Church; without this criterion the external unity of the Church ceases to express her «ontological» unity. It follows from this that though the Orthodox Church cannot have any «theology of schism», because something negative cannot be interpreted positively, and consequently «justified», yet she knows the true conditions for reunion and the way that leads to it. I shall not disclose anything new in saying that this way can only be the way of dogmatic unity, of a true dogmatic agreement. This dogmatic agreement, in the light of what I have said implies not only an agreement, on specific points, a certain artificially defined dogmatic minimum, but an integration of the “historical fullness” of Tradition. Our divisions were primarily the result of a break in catholic agreement, of ecclesiastical parochialism and of a limitation in men's experience of the Church. And the call of the Orthodox Church back to the Fathers and to the Councils is a call not to the East or to Herself, but to that very fullness and genuine catholicity of the Church's experience which both Fathers and Councils were able to express. Our first task is to discover that language of the Church, without which formulae and definitions may be introduced into the Creed but cannot become the true content of our faith.

In practice this means that dogmatic unity is impossible without a measure of doctrinal unity. Dogmatic unity is the beginning of an endless growth into «the fullness of unity» and in this process of growth all those tensions between different schools and doctrines which have always existed in Christendom are legitimate and even necessary. But may I emphasize once more that dogmatic unity cannot be achieved without a measure of «integration» of the Church’s history, of her historical experience We must once more follow the course of the Church's history, experience anew this history as our history; her «past» must come to life and become our actual present; It must become the basis and expression of our unity in the Church and hence of the unity of the Church itself. The Church is one because the Church ÌS unity. Someone has remarked during this Conference that the essential difference between «catholics» and «protestants» lies not in a different approach to the Bible, lo the Church, etc., but in the fact that in the last resort, though we have one Bible, and the same historical fact of salvation, we believe in different Jesus Christ. In the last resort, the entire tradition of the Church is but an answer to the question: Who was, who -is Jesus from Nazareth? And only in Tradition, in the full experience and life of the Church, we acquire—not a portion or an aspect of the Gospel, not a «biblical doctrine» on this or that particular point,—but the whole Gospel, the whole Mystery of Salvation which is announced in it and ever dwells in all its fullness in the Church. For this reason the unity of Tradition is not a condition or a consequence of the Church's unity, it is indeed the visible unity of the Church. This unity of tradition determines the unity of the Church's outward structure, but only in it does this unity of structure become actual and valid Thus neither apostolic succession, nor the episcopate, nor the Sacraments can in themselves be recognized as the foundation of unity, but only that faith of the Church manifested in tradition, which bestows on this entire structure its true significance and “comprehends” its “validity”. In conclusion, I would suggest that an arduous and possibly a long road lies before us, — the road that leads to the “integration” of the Universal and Catholic Tradition of the Church. Every attempt to shirk this road, to find a kind of «eschatological» unity outside its «adequate» historical manifestation will lead not to true unity but to a purely human makeshift unity and to the disincarnation of the Church. And only if we advance along this road the words «reunion with Orthodoxy» — which, in essence, expresses what I have attempted to say, will no longer seem to our Western brethren a manifestation of human pride, and will be revealed to us as the only possible end of the road and the true completion of the journey.
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