Conversion or Reconciliation?

Especially in the last 20 years or so, it has become common for Orthodox Christians to refer to those of us who become Orthodox later in life as “converts.” While the term has a certain pastoral and existential value, I believe that the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate bringing to light another, often overlooked dimension of becoming entering the Orthodox Church as an adult. When baptized Christians from a Catholic or Protestant background enter the Orthodox Church, the bishops seem to argue, they are being reconciled to the Church from which they are in some way already a member, even if through no fault of their own, their fellowship is incomplete and they are estranged from her.

At the end of the last installment, I suggested that the August 2000 document by the Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions” offers us a vision of ecumenical dialog and activity that I would describe as therapeutic rather than the more typically apologetic that is common especially among Americans. If, as the bishops argue, Christians outside the Orthodox Church, by virtue of their baptism, have a real, if “incomplete” communion with the Church, then becoming Orthodox is more accurately described as a reconciliation or the healing of an incomplete communion.

This therapeutic approach to ecumenicism is rooted, I would argue, in the more general, therapeutic approach of Eastern Church to the spiritual life. In my experience, the Orthodox tendency to see Christian faith and morality in therapeutic terms is very powerful. For many Roman Catholics and Protestants however, the therapeutic emphasis of Orthodoxy is one of the most attractive and life-giving aspects of Holy Tradition. It is with some irony then that when the topic turns to ecumenicism many Orthodox Christians, especially in America, eschew any language that suggests that reconciliation or healing is what is called for in our conversation and witness to Christians in other confessions.

The bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate however take the high road and refuse to acquiesce to those strident and sectarian voices that would counsel a simplistic reduction of ecumenical work to “us” vs. “them” or “Orthodox” vs. “heterodox.” Instead, BPA challenges Orthodox Christians to foster the reconciliation of non-Orthodox Christians with the Church. Speaking of reconciliation is more appropriate because, as we have seen, the bishops argue that the grace of Christ is not absent from non-Orthodox confessions. Indeed central to any Orthodox ecumenical witness is the conviction that “In spite of the rupture of unity, there remains a certain incomplete fellowship which serves as the pledge of a return to unity in the Church, to catholic fullness and oneness.” (1.15)

Speaking or reconciliation rather than the conversion of Catholics and Protestants does not, in the view of the council fathers, undermined Church’s self-understanding. While the “ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition,” there nevertheless exist in these communities “certain characteristics” which are shared with the Orthodox Church “the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion.” (1.16) Through our use of “various rites of reception (through Baptism, through Chrismation, through Repentance)” we affirm as Orthodox Christians that there are varying degrees to which non-Orthodox communities embody “the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession.” While I will address this more fully later, it is important that, while we can speak of reconciliation and varying degrees of communion with the Church, we cannot “assess the extent to which grace-filled life has either been preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession, considering this to be a mystery of God’s providence and judgement” (1.18)

To be continued. . .

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