The Greek Orthodox Church is unwilling to be represented at the Second Vatican Council by mere observers because it feels that its presence would be meaningful only if it could fully participate in the council on a basis of equality.
This is the explanation given by Nikos A. Nissiotis, a professor of theology at the University of Athens, Greece. He is here representing the World Council of Churches as a council observer.
He is associate director of the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland.
Nissiotis told this correspondent that the Orthodox Church of Greece sincerely pursues the goal of Christian unity.
“To our mind,” he said, “this unity actually is a reality because all Christian churches receive the same spiritual nourishment from the Holy Spirit which perpetuates the event of Pentecost.
“As a matter of fact, ‘orthodox’ to us is a synonym of both ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic,’ for the true Church in our view is undivided and indivisible because it attains to one and the same source, which is Christ.
“The unbroken continuity which goes back to the early, apostolic Church applies to all churches, it belongs to all the people of good will who wish to be united in spirit by professing their faith in Christ. To our mind, in all Christian churches there is to be found salvation.
“We think that there should not be any reluctance to accept different forms of worship or different doctrinal expressions. There should be a willingness to accept multiplicity and diversity rather than insisting on uniformity. No church should attempt to impose its own type of life upon other churches whose type of life is different.
“Rather should all churches pursue a charismatic, Eucharistic unity so as to ‘restore all things in Christ.’ This is what we mean by ecumenical intercourse, and this is why we cooperate with the World Council of Churches, which subscribes to this concept of Christian unity.”
“You do not, then, accept the primacy of the Bishop of Rome?” I asked.
“We never have denied it,” replied Nissiotis. “But we consider it as a sort of ‘consensus ecclesiae,’ as the tangible link between the various Christian churches which should not exclude the independence of the individual church bodies and their heads. The pope therefore in our view is ‘primus inter pares,’ the first among equals who deserves to be recognized as such.”
“Is it on these terms that your Church now has agreed to engage in a ‘dialogue’ with the Roman Catholic Church?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Nissiotis. “Such a dialogue may be initiated after the Second Vatican Council, but it must be on equal terms.”
“Would not observers of your Church perhaps be in a position to pave the way for such a dialogue?” I asked.
“I don’t think so because observers have no real standing. They have no right to speak at the council. Their presence here would not be a step toward Christian unity.
“Also there is the difficulty that in all the council documents the other Christian churches still are only called ‘communities’ which is unacceptable to us.”
“Were this point clarified to your satisfaction, would you then see a real prospect toward the reunion of your Church with the Church of Rome?” I queried.
“Once our concept of what might be called ‘coexistence’ were accepted, no real problem would remain between our two Churches. We have always been willing to engage in a truly ecumenical dialogue with Rome on a basis of equality.
“The primacy is not an issue at all, and the proselytism of the Catholics of Byzantine Rites would no longer be one, once the Christian Church is properly understood, as we think it should be, namely as a unit comprising all the churches professing the same Faith in Christ so as to be guided by a common standard, which, of course, is the Nicene creed.
“Practical matters such as the status of the laity, which we view differently from Roman Catholics, or the married clergy we have in the Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox churches should be no stumbling block,” he added.
Referring to the Pan-Orthodox conference of Rhodes held Sept. 26 to 28 under the chairmanship of the representative of Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, Metropolitan Meliton, and to its decision to initiate a dialogue with Rome, I asked what further moves in this direction might be expected.
“Well,” said Nissiotis, “we may anticipate a message of Patriarch Athenagoras I addressed to His Holiness Pope Paul VI replying to the one the latter addressed to the Patriarch prior to the opening of the present session of the Second Vatican Council.
“Such a message may suggest that a dialogue on equal terms be inaugurated at a mutually suitable time. The Patriarch may even come to Rome for a visit to Pope Paul VI, if this visit could be reciprocated by Pope Paul.
“In the meantime, I think that the recognition of episcopal collegiality on the part of so many council Fathers here, which is in harmony with our ideas, will help create an atmosphere conducive to better mutual understanding.
Father Placid Jordan, O.S.B.
NCWC Rome correspondent