Unity Efforts Between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

Window view of the Armenian Church, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1994

UNITY EFFORTS BETWEEN
EASTERN AND ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCHES

A Conversation with Archbishop Aram Keshishian (now Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia)
Moderator of World Council of Churches and Prelate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon

By Hratch Tchilingirian


Q. What is the position of the Armenian Apostolic Church
with regards to the unity efforts between the Eastern and
Oriental Orthodox Churches, and particularly with regards to
the joint communique that was signed in Switzerland in
1991?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Before I touch the question of the
position of the Armenian Church, pertaining to the ongoing
dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox family and Eastern
Orthodox family of churches, I think it is important that I say
a few words about this dialogue.

In fact, this is not the first time that these two families have
engaged in theological dialogue. As you remember, the Faith
and Order of the World Council of Churches had already
organized four unofficial dialogues among the theologians of
these two families of churches. These dialogues took place,
as far as I remeber, late in the 60s and early 70s. In these
meetings, the theologians have raised the basic questions
concerning the respective christoligical and doctrinal
postitions of these two families. The issues - as they have
been developed in the course of history of each respective
church - were treated in substanial and serious way
Therefore, we should not underestimate the theological
literature that was produced by these four consultations and
dialogues. As I said, these were informal dialogues, the
theologians who took part in these discussions were not
official representatives of their churches, but they were
individuals discussing mutual concerns. And they treated the
subject as such. In other words, four documents or statements
that were produced by these four dialogues - theologically,
christologically speaking - were very much in line with the
positions of the churches in the two families. From a new
perspective, in a new context, and with an ecumenical spirit,
these efforts were serious attempts in terms of reevaluating
the christological question that divided the churches.
Obviously, these documents were never sent to the heads of
the churches, and as such, the churches never reacted to their
conclusions.

Unlike the previous efforts, the latest dialogue that started
between these two families is a formal dialogue.

First, those who take part in this process formally represent
their churches. Secondly, the intention of this dialogue is not
just theological discussion - for the sake of clearifying some
of the misunderstandings or misinterpretations that marked
the history of these churches - but the restoration of
communion between these two families. Therefore, it was
with this intention and aim that this dialogue was initiated.

We had four meetings. During these meetings, we produced
three christological statements and one pastoral statement.
Of course, the process is continuing. We face some
difficulties. Nevertheless, at the same time we realize that the
substance of our faith is the same - we are not different in
terms of the very essence of our doctrine of faith - but we are
different in formulation and expression of our faith.

Q. When you say "formal meetings," does that mean that the
process was set up by the respective churches?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes, "formal meetings" denotes the
fact that the dialogue was initiated by the churches of the two
families. To be more precise, the initial step was taken by the
Ecumenical Patriarchate [in Constantinople]. The
Ecumenical Patriarchate sent a representative to the heads of
the Oriental Orthodox Churches to discuss with them the
possibilities of starting this formal dialogue. In this sense, the
dialogue is formal, that is, the churches are talking with each
other and not individual theologians sharing mutual
concerns, which was the case with the previous dialogues.

Q. What are some of the issues and aspects in the formal
documents that were produced during these four meetings?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: There are three spheres to these
documents.
First sphere:

a) Christology. We came to say, always in a formal way, that
Nestorianism and Eutycianism have been rejected and
anathematized by our churches and we adhere to that. In
other words, we both anathematized, once again, Eutycian
and Nestorian hereasies. This is the first step.

b) Formula. We said that the well known Cyrilian formula of
"One nature of the Incarnate Word" has constituted the basis,
the crux of our christologies.

c) The issue of Natures [of Christ]. In terms of definition,
when one family says "One nature," it means "Two natures
united." We do not speak about numerical one, but always
united one. When the other family says "Two natures," it
does not mean two separate natures, but united natures. In
other words - when we use these two formulas or
terminologies - we mean exactly the same thing: united two
natures, without confusion, without alteration, without
change, without division, without separation. (In fact, this
was said by our own St. Nersess the Gracious in the 12th
century). Hence collectively, we came to this conclusion. On
the other hand, we realized that there are some nuances,
some differences of emphasis - as they have been developed
in the course of our histories. For instance, for us the Oriental
Orthdox, it was very important to put the emphasis on the
fact that it was the Logos who assumed humanity. We always
put the emphasis on the divinity of Christ and this is in line
with the Alexandrian christology. We also say "two natures"
in theoria - because in our understanding we cannot speak
about "two natures" after the "unity," after the incarnation.
So, even though there are some differences of emphasis,
essentially we are saying the same thing. And this is very
important. We realized this issue and reiterated it together,
this time in a formal way. This is more or less the
christological aspect of our dialogue.

Second sphere:

We discussed the whole question of anathemas. We have to
realize that things are very much interrelated - you cannot
divorce christology, anathema, councils and other aspects of
the debate from each other. Christology, necessarily leads us
to the old question of anathemas. In this respect, we agreed
that we are ready to lift the anathemas pronounced against
persons and synods, provided that lifting of anathemas
should not necessarily imply the acceptance of that person or
synod as holy or ecumenical. Therefore, lifting the
anathemas should not imply anyting specific. It is just
automatical lifting of anathemas. We said that lifting of
anathemas should not be done in a solemn way, but rather
each church should do it in its own appropriate ways,
according to their own traditions.

Third sphere:

We discussed the old question of conciliarity - the
ecumenical councils. Of course, during our discussions we
reiterated our acceptance of the first three ecumenical
councils and that we hold fast to that. The [Eastern
Orthodox] family accepts seven ecumenical councils. And
they attach a particular importance to the seven councils. As
far as they are concerns, you cannot divide these councils,
they all go together. However, what we said, is the following:
historically, theologically, doctrinally or in whatever
perspective you want to look at them, you cannot put all
these councils in one basket; you cannot deal with each of
these council on the same level. They are theologically and
qualitatively quite different from each other. Even the
ecumenicity of the first three councils has much more weight
than the other councils. Therefore, we tried to make a clear
distinction between the first three and the ones that followed
them. For us, the crux, the substance of Christian faith is in
the first three ecumenical councils. The four councils that
followed them just reinterpreted and re-elucidated the
theological teachings of the first three. In fact when you look
at these councils closely, you realize that they did not have
anything substantial over the earlier teachings of the
councils. In view of this, our position was firm on accepting
the first three as the most fundamental and conclusive of all
councils.

Q. How pragmatic were these discussions?

The most recent meeting that we had was very crucial in this
respect - we tried to establish a process to implement our
decisions. At this stage we wanted to raise some questions
which are important to Christian unity - after all Christian
unity is not just theological unity. We raise four main
questions and tried to treat them in a very critical and
objective manner:

a) What is the competent ecclesiastical authority from each
side for the lifting of the anathemas? What are the
presuppositions for the restoration of ecclesiastical
communion?

b) Which anathemas of which synods and persons could be
lifted in accordance with the proposal of paragraph 10 of the
second common statement?

c) What is the canonical procedure for each side for the
lifting of the anathemas and the restoration of ecclesiastical
communion?

d) How could we understand and implement the restoration
of ecclesiastical communion in the life of our churches?
What are the canonical and liturgical consequences of full
communion?

Having raised these questions, at this stage, we faced some
difficulties. For instance: the Eastern Orthodox said to us that
they cannot draw a line demarcation between the first three
ecumenical councils and the four that followed them. They
go together. So whatever we do, we have to do it as a
"package deal." Of course, our position was very clear on
that. Then the status of the church families was raised - in
other words, what will happen to the two families after the
restoration of full communion? Whether the families should
stay as they are or dissolve into one entity. This is another
question that needs serious discussion. Another question was
the dypthics - commemorations during the liturgy, the
mention of the name of patriarchs and heads of churches. For
instance, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they mention all
the patriarchs - starting with the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Another question was the issue of protocol, which I
remember I raised at the meeting. For some it may sound
funny, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed. There is a
well established protocol among the patriarchs of the Eastern
Orthodox churches, however, what will happen after the
unity? We do not have such protocol in the tradition of the
Oriental Orthodox churches. So, what will happen when we
come together? What would be the arrangement? Of course,
this is a question of protocol, but its implications are more
than that. There were other similar issues that we tried to
deal with in a very practical and realistic way.

In light of our discussions, we prepared a statement which is
a summary of our conclusions and sent it to the churches.

Q: What is the next step?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: As I said earlier, we have produced
a christological statement. These were sent to the heads and
synods of the churches for their formal response. Some
churches responded with some observations and remarks and
some churches did not.

On the other hand, parallel to this process, we have started a
new process, as I said, raising some critical questions. First,
it is important that we have the formal response of the
churches concerning the christological questions.

Q: Was the non-response of some churches a part of your
discussions?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, this is not related to this
process. This new process is taking place while we are
waiting for the responses and comments from the churches.
We thought that - at this juncture - it is appropriate that we
raise some critical questions concerning the procedure that
will follow the restoration of communion. We wanted to start
that now. And I think that these two processes compliment
each other. On the one hand, we have to push our churches to
sent their formal responses and on the other hand, we need to
discuss the canonical and practical questions - in order to
clarify the ambiguities of these complex issues. So, this is
where we are. Up to this point, non of the churches have
taken any formal steps toward full communion.

The discussion is among the formal representatives of the
churches, we have come together, we have discussed certain
things, wrote down the conclusion of our discussion and sent
it to the churches for their formal reaction. This is where we
are.

Q: Has the Armenian Church responded?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Concerning the position of the
Armenian Church, during the last meeting, I read a short
paper about how I understand the restoration of communion
among the churches. First, let me say that the Armenian
Church is represented with two delegations: representing the
Etchmiadzin Catholicosate and the Cilician Catholicosate.
Nevertheless, it has been our understanding that on the issues
that pertain to Armenian theology and christology, the
Armenian Church as a whole, we would have (and we have
had in the past) one position - the Armenian Orthodox
position.

The documents were also sent to the heads of the Armenian
Church: Catholicos of All Armenians and the Cilician
Catholicos. However, we have not yet responded formally.
Recently, when Catholicos Karekin II was in Armenia, he
raised this question in the presence of Catholicos Vasken and
the two Patriarchs [Archbishop Torkom of Jerusalem and
Archbishop Karekin of Istanbul] reminding them that as a
church we need to formally respond to this document. We
need to respond. So far we have not. I know that some of the
Oriental Orthodox churches have already responded. We
need to do it also.

Q: What should be the position of the Armenian Church?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I have to give you my personal
understanding and evaluation, my personal conception of the
whole process. First, after fifteen hundred years of
separation, we cannot restore communion with two or five or
ten meetings. We need to take our time. There are numerous
questions that need to be discussed. I don't think that we
should leave anything ambiguous. We need to clarify
everything that is related to the relationship of these two
families of churches - because we have had some bitter
experience in our relationship with the churches of Byzantine
tradition. We had a long history of controversies, of
animosities, of tensions, so we need to be very careful. We
cannot erase or change history. History is a continuous
reality. Therefore, I think we should not hurry. We should
take our time to deal with all the pending questions and
problems related to the dialogue.

Secondly, we have to be very faithful to our own tradition, to
our own christological tradition. The christological position
of the Armenian Church has been developed in the course of
history. When you take the christology of St. Nersess the
Gracious and the christology of the fifth, sixth, seventh
centuries, you immediately realize a tremendous difference
of approach that exist between these theologies of the
centuries. So, we need to realize that our christology has
been evolved over the centuries. We have been very flexible
during the Cilician period of our history, yet our position has
been very tough and firm during the fifth, sixth, seventh
centuries. Therefore, what we are saying in our dialogue is
that through the centuries we have been open and
understanding toward various positions. Just as with the
example of St. Nersess the Gracious, we have been very
ecumenical and dialogical. St. Nersess has beautifully
described the position of the Armenian Church, that is, he
has reconciled the two positions saying that when the
"formulas" are explained they fundamentally mean the same
things. I believe that in our present dialogue we should take
the statement of St. Nersess seriously and that should provide
us the framework and the context within which we can very
easily express our christological position. We stick to our
formulation, but at the same, if the crux of your formulation
corresponds to that of ours, no problem. The problem is not
one of formulation but one of content of our faith.

Q: So far does the Armenian Church have a christological
agreement with Byzantine churches?

AARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, because we are working as
part of a group and not as Armenian Church. Within our
Oriental Orthodox group, we are expressing our views as
"one family." Of course, the Armenian Church is well
represented in that group with three theologians. For instance
at our last conference, I presented a paper stating the position
of the Oriental Orthodox churches. So our views and position
is very much there, we are very actively participating in these
dialogues, but we are working as a group. However, now that
the statments have been prepared and sent to the churches,
we need to respond as the Armenian Church. Therefore, the
synods of the Armenian Church should come together and
discuss just one issue and we need to have one response.
This is what we've proposed to His Holiness Catholicos
Vazken I.

I do not think that we would have any difficulty with the
formulation of the content of the christological debate -
because they are saying the same thing as we are, but in
different formulations. However, after the restoration of
communion, it is important that the specificities, the
particular characteristics of each family and each church be
maintained. This is very important for us. We cannot become
a part of the Byzantine tradition. We cannot go against the
course of history, because these churches have been
developed in different ways. We cannot change the
historical, cultural, linguistic, liturgical, theological, patristic
identities of these churches. So, we have to be faithful to our
own traditions, to our own identities and particularities.

Q: What you are saying is that inter-communion would not
mean assimilation.

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes. There should not be a kind of a
merger of the families. This is an important question for us.
However, this is not acceptable idea for the Byzantine
churches. They are unable to understand our concerns in this
matter. In fact, I raised this question in a very strong way at
our last meetings and one of the Metropolitans said, "wait a
minute, I disagree with you, because in Orthodox theology
we do not believe in inter-communion, but communion. He
said, your description of communion is inter-communion, as
if two families are coming together and restoring their
communion, that is to say, they are entering into inter-
communion. And that is not acceptable. Theologically and
canonically speaking, he is right. I said, I agree with you
theologically, but you cannot forget the historical level, the
"life" level. The question is how do we reconcile these
positions: the historical development, the practical aspect and
the theological dimension. We need to do it.

Q: For instance, we are in communion with the other
Oriental Orthodox churches and yet there is no dissolving of
identities or characteristics.

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: Yes, we are in communion with
them, but not inter-communion. The intention of the present
dialogue with the Byzantine churches is to become one
family of Orthodox Church: theologically, canonically,
liturgically, etc. and not two families as it is currently the
situation. This is a problem for us, because there are other
questions that are related to this. For example, as I raised the
question earlier, the issue of dypitcs. If we become one
family, the dyptics should be organized accordingly. A
protocol should be organized accordingly.

Their perception is quite clear: we were one family and we
were divided into two families and we have to restore our
communion of becoming one again. This is a serious
question that we need to tackle.
Personally, I do not think we are going to face other
major problems. For us as Armenian Church, the Armenian
identity, the Armenian tradition, the peculiarities that mark
the specificity of the Armenian Church is very important. We
need to maintain our specific identity. Otherwise, I do not
see any major problem. This is where we are for the time
being. We need to proceed in this process very slowly and
seriously. We are not there just for dialogue, but we are there
to restore communion. Whatever happens, the autocephality,
the identity of the Armenian Church, in all its manifestations,
in all its dimensions and aspects, need to be maintained
intact. This is very important for us.

Q: Do you see any possibility that a member church or some
of the churches in the Oriental Orthodox family would
unilaterally declare communion with the Eastern Orthodox
family?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: No, because we have raised this
question amongst ourselves and have agreed that no member
of the Oriental Orthodox family would - under any
circumstance - unilaterally establish communion with the
other churches. This is our understanding and it is very clear.
In fact, the Coptic Orthodox Church in her response has
raised that question. They said that we agree with these
christological statements, provided that the other members of
the Oriental Orthodox family agree with this as well. So,
their agreement was very much conditioned by the agreement
of the other churches. This is an important term. We sit, we
talk, we act as one family.

Q: Can you give a time frame when these dialogues and
meetings would lead to a final agreement and communion?
How long is it going to take?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I remember in one of my statements,
I said, in an enthusiastic way, that before the end of the
century we need to do our utmost to establish communion
among our churches. But, we see some difficulties with our
partners - the Eastern Orthodox side.

During our last meeting, I expressed my thoughts to our
partners. I see two trends in this process: the first is a very
open ecumenical approach in favor of unity, as soon as
posible, and this trend is headed by the Ecumenical
Patriarchate. The Patriarch has had - and continues to have -
a very constructive and decisive role in this whole process. I
have seen a clear flexibility and realism exercised by the
Ecumenical Patriarch. The second trend is the approach of
the Greek speaking churches - such as the churches of
Greece, Cyprus, Alexandria Patriarchate. These churches are
very conservative and hold fast to their tradition, especially
christological issues. They say how can we restore
communion with the other family when they are not ready to
accept the Seven Ecumenical Councils - at least they are not
ready to accept the Council of Chalcedon. Their approach is
very conservative and it reminds us the debates and fights of
the fifth, sixth, seventh eighth, ninth centuries, when
Byzantine emperors and patriarchs put some conditions and
demands for the restoration of unity.

These are the two tendencies on the Eastern Orthodox side. I
should say that dispite all our difficulties, the general climate
is very positive. For instance, a few months ago, the
representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan
Damascinos, informed me that once again the Patriarchate is
willing to continue and speed up the process of unity.

In sum, I could say that we have not prepared any kind of a
time table for this dialogue. But we need to remind the heads
of our churches that, first of all, they need to respond
formally to the christological statments, so that in light of
these responses we may revise or edit or rewrite the whole
statement and send it back to the churches for their formal
approaval. This will take some time.

Q. How about the Syrian Orthodox Church or the Jacobites
who have gone a step further beyond this document - due to
political conditions or other factors in the region - and have
made some agreements with the Patriarchate of Antioch (in
Syria)?

ARCHBISHOP ARAM: I read their statements of agreement
and I have spoken with their representatives and as well as
the Syrian Patriarch - there is no formal theological
agreement or unity between these churches. They have just
established terms for practical collaboration concerning
some practical areas of pastoral, educational and other issues
in their communities. What they've done is to strengthen
their closer, practical collaboration and not theological
statements. This is due to the situation in this part of the
world, which pushes or neccesitates the churches to give
much more importance to the pastoral, practical aspects of
their collaboration than to theological dialogue.

Q. What is your understanding of church unity?

For me unity is not a theological statement. We cannot just
declare unity. Unity needs to be translated into action in the
real life of the church and community. That is real unity.


*This interview was conducted in Antelias, Lebanon, on June
22, 1994.


Hratch Tchilingirian
1994-04-01
e-mail: info@hrach.info
Copyright © 2019 Hratch Tchilingirian. All rights reserved.