Unlike many international ecumenical groups, the work of the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Dialogue may well be interesting to those other than ecclesiastical nerds, of whom Miss Jean Brodie says “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like”. Its work is set against a background of persecution, modern martyrdom, ancient division, Islam, and the exotic music, dress, languages, liturgies and cultures of the Middle East.
The Anglican Communion has international ecumenical commissions with six global church families: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed and Methodist. A small group of worldwide Anglicans are appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion to serve on these dialogues. I was honoured to be appointed to the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission earlier this year and have just returned from our first meeting in Cairo, Egypt.
Most of the International dialogues are about building relationships and engaging in theological dialogue to find common ground and heal divisions. On the face of it the Anglican Oriental Orthodox dialogue is the same. However, unlike the other dialogues, there is a much deeper and more pressing rationale. The International Commission is really an act of solidarity with an increasingly persecuted Christian community.
For those who are not familiar with Oriental Orthodoxy, it is the communion of the ancient churches found primarily in the Middle East who refused to subscribe to the Council of Chalcedon. The Oriental Orthodox comprise: The Armenian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Eritrean Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Malankara Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox. These churches represent the most ancient forms of Christianity found today with many still speaking West Syrian, East Syrian, and even Aramaic – the language of Christ Himself.
Their music, religious liturgies and customs, dress and culture seem to many western Christians alien and they are often confused with Islam. If you observed black clad Syrian orthodox clerics chanting and prostrating themselves during evening prayer you could be forgiven for first thinking they were a group of Imams. The similarities are striking. However the reason they are striking is not that the Christians are worshipping like the Muslims but rather the other way around. There are some who even believe that early Islam was strongly influenced by the Assyrian Orthodox communities in the Persian Empire (modern day Iraq) who, holding to the Nestorian Heresy, deemphasised the divinity of Christ and who tended to think of him as a Prophet like in the Koran.
These communities flourished after the Edict of Milan established tolerance of Christians in 313AD until the coming of Islam in 634AD when their traditional territories were overrun. For the last 1400 years they have lived in their homelands as a religious minority. Although there were periodic persecutions under the Byzantine, Persian, Muslim and Ottomans it is the 20th century that has seen one of the greatest threats to the survival of the Oriental Orthodox: the attempted genocide of the Armenian Orthodox (1 and a half million Armenian Orthodox were killed and 750,000 Assyrian Orthodox, and 750,000 Greek Orthodox) and a sustained persecution of the Syrian Orthodox the by the Turks, as well as violent persecution of the Coptic Orthodox by militant Islamists in Egypt (94 Copts have been killed in the last two years). Palestinian Oriental Orthodox have been denied traditional human rights in Israel and forced to flee the country (fifty years ago 15% of Palestinians in Israel were Christian while today that percentage has dropped to only 1.5 and most predict there will be no indigenous Christians in the Holy Land in twenty years) and the indigenous Church of the East (Assyrian Orthodox) in Iraq has been almost wiped out. The only traditionally stable country in the Middle East for Christians, Syria, has been a refuge for them from persecution. The current destabilisation of that country may well see another great exodus of these communities from their homelands to new homes in Canada, Australia, and the United States.
Although it is a difficult thing to face up to, the reason so little international attention has been paid to the plight of these Christian communities is the widespread ignorance of these churches by Western Christians and their instinctive Islamaphobia towards those from the Middle East. Part of the Anglican Communion’s attempt to educate the rest of the world about the urgent need of our sister churches has been to highlight, prioritise, and publicise our dialogue with them and encourage the churches of our communion to learn about their history, culture, predicament, and to foster local ecumenical relationships with them. Although Montreal has the most Oriental Orthodox communities in Quebec, there is a Coptic Orthodox community in Quebec City and a Syrian Orthodox community in Sherbrooke. There are even a couple of Coptic families in Magog.
As Anglicans, we look to the Scriptures, Tradition (the early church), and Reason (the three legged stool of Richard Hooker) for authority. As such, the Council of Nicaea (325AD), Constantinople (381AD), Ephesus (431AD), Chalcedon (451AD), and the Creeds that came from them (The Nicene and the Apostles Creed) hold doctrinal importance for us second only to Holy Scripture. Anglicans have placed patristics (the writings and teachings of the fathers of the undivided church such as St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Jerome, and Pope St Gregory the Great) as part of Tradition. As Anglicans hold to the teaching of the early church, the Council of Chalcedon, which defined the human and divine nature of Christ, is central to our understanding of God and his work in the creation. It is this Council and the nature of Christ that the latest meeting addressed.
For decades international dialogues between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox, between the Anglicans and the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox, as well as the Church of Rome have led to a re-evaluation of the significance of the refusal of the Oriental Orthodox to subscribe to the Council of Chalcedon. This has primarily been attributed to the complexities of several Greek words and their Syrian translations. To make a complicated theological argument simplistic – we have agreed that the Oriental Orthodox in speaking of the one nature of Christ do not thereby deny full humanity and full divinity of Christ. Therefore, our historical condemnation of the Oriental Orthodox as being Monophysite (those that believe that Christ has only one nature which therefore must be either fully divine or fully human), was incorrect and a misunderstanding of their true position as Miaphysites (those that believe that Christ’s one nature is a unity of his humanity and divinity and are united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration). I assume the significance of the difference is self-apparent: if we believed Christ had only one nature then our central Trinitarian theology of incarnation and the atonement would be meaningless and we would not believe God is encountered by us through his creation, one another, and the Sacraments.
For almost thirty years the Anglican Communion and the Oriental Orthodox have been trying to reach an agreed Statement on Christology. The Orthodox had already come to the same agreement with the Oriental Orthodox which paved the way for our agreed statement. On October 15th we finally achieved our goal and the Joint Agreed Statement on Christology was signed. Thus an almost 1600 year division was swept away. The next day the entire delegation was received in St Mark’s Cathedral, the largest Cathedral on the African continent and filled with thousands of Copts, by the Patriarch of Alexandria (one of the four Ancient Patriarchs or Popes of the undivided church) where we presented His Holiness with the fruit of thirty years of theological dialogue, ecumenical friendship, mutual understanding, and a passion for unity in the spirit of Christ’s High Priestly Prayer “that all may be one”.