Orthodox-Protestant dialogue

   The Protestant movement began as dissent within the Roman Catholic Church, which is still the major focus of Protestant relations with the rest of Christendom. At first, Protestants had little contact with Orthodox Christians. A dialogue initiated by Lutheran theologians at the University of Tübingen with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople toward the end of the 16th century did not achieve much agreement and had no follow-up. The Counter-Reformation further separated the two streams, by placing Catholic-controlled lands (such as Poland) between Protestant and Orthodox countries.
   In the 19th century, Protestants, till then confined to northern and western Europe and North America, launched a worldwide missionary program. Increasingly, they found themselves working in traditionally Orthodox lands or in juxtaposition with minority Orthodox communities in Asia and the Middle East.In India, Protestants encountered the Mar Thomas churches; in the Muslim lands of North Africa (including Ethiopia) and the Middle East, they sought converts primarily among traditionally Orthodox peoples, rather than Muslims. Missionaries also arrived in eastern Europe, and although their primary targets were Jewish communities, they sought Orthodox converts as well.
   The Church of England played a particular role in the Protestant encounter with Orthodoxy, based on its centuries-old concern about the legitimacy of its bishops. Roman Catholics insisted that the Anglicans had broken the legitimate line of succession from Christ's apostles, ever since the reform of ordination rites under Edward VI. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) reiterated this charge in 1896.
   In the 19th century, the Anglicans began to turn to Orthodox Churches, whose relations with Rome had also been disrupted over the centuries, for recognition of its orders. In spite of missions that were bringing Orthodox believers into the Church of England, cordial relations were established. Among the high points was a statement issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1922 stating that "the practice in the Church affords no indication that the Orthodox Church has ever officially treated the validity of Anglican Orders as in doubt, in such a way as would point to the reordination of the Anglican clergy as required in the case of the union of the two Churches." Similar statements have been issued by other Orthodox churches throughout the 20th century. In reaction, some Anglicans came to think of themselves as Western-rite Orthodox.
   Relations between the Orthodox and Protestants suffered after the Russian Revolution, when many Orthodox churches found themselves under an antireligious totalitarian government. Many in the West questioned the legitimacy of the Orthodox leadership, especially in the official Russian Orthodox Church. Many ethnic communities in America formerly under Russian Orthodox leadership left to establish a full array of ethnic Orthodox denominational bodies.
   Early in the 20th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate indicated a desire to enter into dialogue with other Christian churches. As early as 1920, Orthodox churches were invited to participate in the Life and Work and the Faith and Order conferences, the precursors for the World Council of Churches (WCC), and in 1927 Orthodox leaders attended the first Faith and
   Order conference. When the WCC was formed in 1948, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, and the Church of Cyprus were among the charter members; most of the other major Orthodox bodies joined later on. In addition to those Eastern churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Russian, Greek, Anti-ochean, Romanian, Bulgarian, and so forth), the WCC eventually attracted those churches that continued ancient Orthodoxy and did not affirm the Chalcedonian statement on the nature of Christ. These non-Chalcedonian bodies include the Syrian, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches. Over the years, a number of Orthodox leaders have served as president of the World Council.
   The Orthodox Church sees itself in direct continuity in faith and practice with the first-century Apostolic church. It rejects doctrinal looseness and entered ecumenical dialogue with the understanding that the goal is full unity of faith, though it accepts that diverse Christian communities can cooperate on mutually agreed upon projects and offer one another support, assistance, and new experiences.
   The Russian Orthodox Church was accepted into ecumenical circles in the early 1960s, with the support of mainstream Protestants. Conservative church leaders in the West had accused the Russian Church leadership of being either dupes or collaborators with the Communist authorities. However, in subsequent decades, a spirit of cooperation has ensued.
   Toward the end of the 1990s, new issues have challenged Protestant-Orthodox relations. The Orthodox always criticized Protestants for a variety of reasons: their lack of an episcopate (apart from Anglicans), their doctrinal differences, and their views on the Eucharist. Since the 1970s, the ordination of women and the role of homosexuals in church life have joined the list of controversial topics. Even earlier, Orthodox leaders faced opposition in their own communities for affiliating with churches that reject many of the essential Orthodox doctrines and practices.
   In 1998, at the General Assembly in Harare, the WCC appointed a Special Commission on Orthodox Participation. In 2002, the WCC Central Committee adopted the commission's recommendations, including the development of a new decision-making process, a reform of the council's system of representation, a new framework for conducting common prayer, and the initiation of studies aimed at elucidating fundamental differences between Orthodox and Protestant churches.
   Following the Harare Assembly, two Orthodox churches withdrew from the World Council, citing among other issues the council's willingness to consider questions of homosexuality. Other Orthodox leaders countered with public statements of support for the council.
   Just as liberal Protestantism has evoked a conservative counterpart, so Orthodoxy has developed a similar conservative wing. The conservatives oppose participation in the Ecumenical movement and any accommodation to communist governments; they refuse to adopt the Western (Gregorian) calendar. Old calendar churches exist in Greece, Romania, and Russian expatriate communities worldwide.
   Further reading:
   ■ Faith and Order Commissions, The Orthodox Church and the Churches of the Reformation (1975) A Survey of Orthodox - Protestant Dialogues (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1965)
   ■ Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission, Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue. Agreed Statements 1985-1989 (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1992)
   ■ John Meyendorff and R. Tobias, eds., Salvation in Christ: A Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1992).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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