Sunday, November 16, 2014

Anglicans and Copts and an Agreed Statement

          In October of this year, as reported by theAnglican Communion News Service, the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission held its third meeting at the Coptic St. Mark’s Center in Cairo.  The Commission consists of Anglican and Oriental Orthodox theologians who met with a view to resolving the Christological differences which for centuries have separated them.  The Oriental Orthodox (so called to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox—i.e. us—a bit confusing, since “oriental” simply means “eastern”) have in times past been called “the Monophysites” (from mono physis, “single nature”).  The term derives from their historical refusal to accept the two-nature Christology articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in favour of their own single-nature Christology.  They dislike the term “Monophysite” as misleading, if not derogatory.  A politer term for them is “non-Chalcedonian”.  Whatever the nomenclature, since 451 A.D. they have been out of communion with the rest of the “Chalcedonian” Orthodox Church.  The Coptic Church (“Coptic” simply means “Egyptian”) is joined in this dialogue by the Armenian Church, which shares their single-nature Christology.  It is the schism between these churches and the Chalcedonian churches that the Anglican Communion centered in Canterbury wishes to resolve.  In October the Commission met to finally approve an Agreed Statement about Christology which they had been working on and circulating among their member churches since 2002.
            A lot of the Christological legwork and doctrinal heavy lifting has already been done.  Our own “Chalcedonian” theologians have also been meeting with our non-Chalcedonian brothers for some time now (they first started in 1964), and have come to the same conclusions arrived at by this Commission.  That is, it seems that at the end of the day when the political muscle and interference of the Byzantine Emperor is no longer around to muddy the doctrinal waters, that the two groups are both confessing the same truths about Christ using different terminologies.  We both confess that (in the words of the recent Agreed Statement) the incarnate Christ is “perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity, consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity and consubstantial with us according to His humanity, for a union has been made of two natures”.  These two natures are so closely united that they can be distinguished “in thought alone” (so St. Cyril of Alexandria), and these natures continue to exist “without separation, without division”.  Christ has a single nature in the sense that He has “one incarnate, united, divine-human nature”.  In many ways the Agreed Statement which our Coptic friends have signed with us and our Anglican friends leads one to heave a heavy sigh.  If we could’ve gotten this in the fifth century, the schism originating in that century would not exist now.  As it is, the current Agreement is being hailed by the Anglican Communion News Service as “a significant step of reconciliation”.  The agreement is now being sent to the “responsible authorities” of the churches involved for “their consideration and action”.
            How should we regard this recent development?  Certainly any level of agreement between Christians is a good thing and should be treasured and celebrated, especially if it involves resolving long-standing disagreements.  But is this really “a significant step of reconciliation” in the sense of being newsworthy?  After all, the Copts and Armenians more or less said the same thing to us some time ago.  Does this recent Agreed Statement mean that Canterbury-centered Anglicanism (there are now several kinds of Anglicanism) will soon reconcile with the Copts and share communion?  Is it really almost time to uncork the champagne?
            Well, no.  The ecumenical goal of restored communion between presently divided churches cannot be accomplished simply by having their theologians issue agreed statements to which their synods later simply sign on.  The insufficiency of such a method is well illustrated in the case of the Anglican Communion—for how can the Anglican Communion agree with the Copts about Christ’s divine and human natures when some of their own clergy don’t even believe that He is divine?  The goal of restored communion presupposes that the churches involved in the restoration share not merely bureaucratic assent to the contents of a piece of paper, but also share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life.  This includes not only agreeing upon a Christology, but also upon agreeing upon the very importance of Christology itself, as well as other important things.   
To share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life, the reuniting bodies would have to agree upon such things as how decisions in the church are made, and by what authority.  They would have to agree upon what constitutes true liturgy, and how to prepare for that liturgical experience.  They would have to agree upon what things are morally forbidden to Christians, and what things are mandatory.  In other words, they would have to agree upon such presently controversial issues as the synodical structure of the church, the authority of Scripture and the Fathers, the sacrificial Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of the efficacy of prayers for the dead, devotions to the Mother of God and the saints, the use of icons, and of the necessity of fasting.  They also would have to reach a consensus regarding the ordination of women, the legitimacy (or otherwise) of homosexual behaviour and of abortion.
Put another way, the ecumenical goal will not be reached until the members of either church in those reuniting with each other can attend the other’s churches and find the same doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and ascetical realities and standards.  For sharing communion means not inter-communion between different churches, but communion within the same church.  That is why these other details are so important, for they constitute what it means to live as a part of a church.  If “living the Christian life” for one person means effectively jettisoning the Fathers and Tradition, accepting the ordination of women, gay marriage, abortion, dispensing with fasting, and having a stripped down 30 minute Mass, while for another person “living the Christian life” means abiding by the Fathers and Tradition, rejecting the ordination of women, gay marriage, and abortion, and insisting on fasting in preparation for the Church’s historic Liturgy, then clearly these persons are living in two entirely different churches.  This fundamental fact cannot be altered simply by having some theologians sign an Agreed Statement affirming a Christology which some of one church’s members regard as meaningless anyway.  One wonders if the Anglican Communion News Service recognizes this.  Regardless, it should be apparent even to journalists that the Anglican Communion and all Orthodox Churches, whether “Oriental” or “Eastern”, are miles apart on all these issues, and that the gap separating them grows wider every day.  It is good to have reached this agreement, but it is far from time to uncork the ecumenical champagne.  This agreement is but one step on the long road to unity.

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