Does the Orthodox Church Have Saving Grace from an Anglican Perspective?

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch +Bartholomew, Pope Benedict XVI 


By Bp. Joseph Boyd (HCCAR)

According to the Ancient Fathers, grace is the Presence of God, which is the very basis of all existence. Within the Church, we have particular grace in the Person of Jesus Christ, which we access in the Holy Spirit through Faith. Therefore, saving grace is present in Faith in Christ for salvation, in the Sacraments, which are filled by the Holy Spirit and which IS the Presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist. The Orthodox Church is unique historically in that it has an ancient root going back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, and that it didn't "add to the fullness" by having a pope as the "Vicar of Christ." It has all the fullness possible for a local catholic church, it has saving sacraments, it has a wonderful, unbroken Tradition of theology that is invaluable and essential to all other local churches. In this way, it is full and important. 

The Orthodox Church believes that grace is regulated by the church councils, that decisions of Orthodox synods determine who is in and who is outside of God's economy of Grace. The Anglican position is that ecclesial grace flows from bishop to bishop in the context of the local catholic church, and that councils are a mechanism for dealing with administrative problems and the clarifying of doctrinal points, but that they do not control God's grace or limit His action in other local catholic churches. For Anglicans, the earmarks of catholicity and validity of sacraments would be a Nicene Faith, a preserved, tripartite Church order, and a sacramental, Eucharistic Church life in harmony with the teachings of the Early Church. For the Orthodox this is not enough. 

According to recent Orthodox canonical interpretations, what makes a local church inside the Catholic Church is not continuity of apostolicity and maintaining catholic practice and order, but admittance to Orthodox Communion through the recognition of a previously established canonical synod. How Constantinople or Moscow would reckon this canonicity and authority would be completely different - The Phanar believes that it alone holds presidency and the deciding vote in issues of Church recognition, while Russia believes it has inherited the mantle of Rome and is now the canonical head of the Orthodox world by number of adherents and by fault of history (the Fall of Constantinople and 400 years of Turkish rule over the Greeks). Thus, Russia undertakes the establishment of "autocephalous" churches worldwide that remain under its presidency, all of which go "unrecognized" by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 

The EP and the MP continue to factor canonical grace differently, thus the unresolvable nature of their conflict and the "soft schism" between them. Each is unwilling to declare officially what is going on in reality because of the popularity of the Orthodox idea of schism from the larger body being to be cut off from ecclesial grace, and also because of the massive number of pilgrimages generated by the Slavic block, which funds all the ancient patriarchates and helps uphold the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul - which is absolutely vital towards maintaining canonical control. 

Up to now, the Ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, operate as they did under Turkish rule, as sub-departments of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, thus assuring prestige and synodal power to the EP. Romania normally sides with Greece on cultural grounds, and both show fidelity to the EP. Meanwhile, Russia and Serbia head up the Slavic block, which, while superior in numbers, is lacking the ancient fame, holy sites, and canonical mechanisms that the ancient Pentarchs hold. This situation has led to a stand-off, as neither side is willing to submit to the other or jeopardize their position of authority by pushing into a decisive break. It is politically more expedient to appear united to the outside world, with the EP and the MP both claiming to lead the "Orthodox World", than to force the issue and acknowledge that schism occurs for political and cultural reasons, not just for doctrinal reasons. The whole argument for exclusion of other Apostolic Christians would fall apart, as would Orthodox demands for canonical submission. To acknowledge this to the outside world would be to admit that Orthodox canon law does not define saving grace, which would be to release Orthodoxy's one great claim to power, and make Orthodox episcopacy primarily pastoral again, not princely or imperial. To release this political hold is all but impossible.

This internal conflict is why recent Orthodox canonical interpretation has become increasingly "harsh" and does not recognize the sacramental validity of any consecration occurring outside of its own canonical boundaries. This is why Christians from other Apostolic Churches even have to be re-baptized, according to Orthodox fundamentalists and the fathers of Mount Athos. Ordinal consecrations are also not recognized, and thus, the episcopacies and priesthoods of other churches are held to be null and void by the Orthodox. This is the canonical opinion, but since local bishops have authority in application, there is a wide variety of practices, with some bishops doing chrismations on Christians already baptized in the Name of the Trinity, and others completely redoing the Baptism. Those who do not re-baptize are effectively acknowledging that ecclesial grace is not limited by Orthodox canon, but they have come up with a novel solution to explain this to reactionary Orthodox who would otherwise declare them heretics and drum them out of communion, that Chrism "completes" the hollow, non-saving "form" of the sacrament and fills it with the Orthodox Church's saving, canonically-defined grace.

As an Anglican, I can sincerely state my admiration for Eastern Orthodoxy and my confidence in the apostolic, catholic and truly doctrinally orthodox nature of its positions and its effective and valid sacraments. It was mainly through the Orthodox witness that the Anglicans rediscovered the ancient fathers and re-appropriated an apostolic independence from the Pope as a prerogative of the local catholic church. In this way we are indebted to Orthodoxy. The only thing we deny to the Orthodox, as the Orthodox would deny to the Pope, is control over God's grace by later political or canonical mechanisms. Apostolicity and ordination confer the grace upon which councils are based, not the councils providing grace upon which bishops are made. The Seven Ecumenical Councils state the mind of the Church in the conditions and contexts of the day and must be interpreted within them. They are extremely valuable as standards of Church life and administration, but are not "infallible" without this contextualization nor equal in importance to Scripture, which reveals the source of all church authority. Therefore, we must contend that there is Apostolic Grace, true episcopacy and effective sacraments that are not defined by the Byzantine Communion. While the Orthodox hold "fullness of grace", they do not limit grace or define its borders. We believe that we, too, are a local expression of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is what Anglicans believe and see as biblical and self-evident, but what Orthodox fundamentalists can never accept, because they apply St. Cyprian's maxim "there is no salvation outside of the Church" not to the local catholic, apostolic, sacramental Church, but to the Orthodox Communion as an institution. We would argue that in St. Cyprian's time, such an institution did not exist and what he meant was the Apostolic Succession of the local catholic church and faithfulness to the Nicene Faith. Thus, our interpretive grid would be different, and our conclusions opposed, which is truly unfortunate, since we share the same faith in Christ as our Lord and Savior.

2009 Joint Anglican and Orthodox Dialogue Hosted in Crete 

Comments

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  2. The title was deceptively provocative. I feared you were going to come to a frightful conclusion. :) But then the article was quite gracious and helpful to see that an interpretive grid might be the only things separating us.

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  3. Good article, Father. I have shared it on my pages. Thank you for your insights and wisdom. They are very valuable.

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