Consecration of gay bishop clouding ecumenical relations with the Orthodox

November 18, 2003

The consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay priest to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church is clouding and complicating some of the church’s ecumenical relations—especially among the Orthodox.

Noting that for “almost 200 years” relations between the two churches have been “warm and friendly,” the Russian Orthodox Church announced November 17 that it is suspending further cooperation with the Episcopal Church.

In a parallel action, the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches “postponed” a scheduled meeting of the international commission because “the present time is clearly a moment of uncertainty in the life of the Anglican Communion with the consecration of a homosexual person in a committed, same-sex relationship as a bishop within the Episcopal Church USA.”

The communiqué signed by Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Armenian leaders following a mid-October meeting in Lebanon said that the “on-going dialogue between the Anglicans and the family of Oriental Churches would be better served by waiting, at present, for the Anglican Communion to have time to take proper account of, and reflect upon, the consecration which has taken place. It is very much hoped by all participants that the work of the commission will be resumed at a time convenient to all.”

( A copy of the statement is available at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/)

Prof. J. Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary in New York, a member of the joint commission, pointed out that “we have nearly reached full agreement in our dialogue with these four great churches on the doctrine of Christology. I hope very much that, in spite of this present difficulty, that we will be able to complete this work, as planned, and celebrate the agreement at the next Lambeth Conference.” He said that the text and an introduction is now being circulated among the churches for reaction.

A great danger?

The Russian Orthodox statement was blunt. “Homosexualism is a sin, which separates man from God. At the same time the Church does not deny help to those unfortunate people who are possessed with this ailment,” the statement said, adding that the action of the General Convention in approving “a possibility of blessing unisexual marriages” was “a great danger” because it signaled a growing tolerance of such action.

The Russians expressed anger with those who participated in the consecration. “We shall not be able to cooperate with these people not only in the theological dialogue, but also in the humanitarian and religious and pubic (sic) spheres. We have no right to allow even a particle of agreement with their position, which we consider to be profoundly antichristian and blasphemous.”

The statement said, however, that the Russian Orthodox “want to maintain contacts and cooperation with those members of the Episcopal Church in the USA who clearly declared their loyalty to the moral teaching of the Holy Gospel and the Ancient Undivided Church.”

(Text of the statement is available on the church’s web site at https://mospat.ru/en/)

The bonds of baptism

“We are deeply saddened by the actions of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Russian Orthodox Church with respect to our ecumenical conversations,” said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church’s deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. “While we understand their dismay, we would have counseled them to heed the Primate’s advice to our own Communion members and ‘to avoid precipitous action’ at least until the new Eames Commission can do its work,” referring to a commission appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury following a mid-October meeting of Anglican primates in London.

Epting also referred to an earlier comment from Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold who said, “Just as baptism establishes an indissoluble bond between Christ and the members of his body, so too baptism creates an indissoluble bond between the baptized. It is not always easy or comfortable to recognize the presence of Christ in one another. Even so, we are bound together in the same body, like it or not. And what is more, with our very differences, we are for one another’s salvation.”

Epting expressed a hope that “a way forward may, in due course, be found to resume our ecumenical journey together.”

Wright said that the action by the Orthodox was “very serious and very sad, but not totally unexpected in view of the actions of General Convention that precipitated them. I think there is now a special responsibility of the bishops and deputies who voted in favor of those actions to state clearly the theological reasoning that undergirded their decision. The purpose of ecumenical relations is to facilitate dialogue on such matters,” he said, “not to foreclose the exchange of views, and I regret that the parties involved have failed to understand this.”

Challenging times

The chill in relations was not apparent in the November 17 welcoming remarks of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, during a visit by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. “We offer thanks to our Lord for the gift of your presence among us today, which we regard as a great blessing and a sign of the bond of love that unites our two Churches in the name of our common Lord. It is indeed a remarkable gift of divine grace that there has never been a cause of conflict or bitterness between Anglicans and Orthodox in the course of history. Our relations have always been marked with mutual respect and there have been times when the Anglican Church supported and assisted the Ecumenical Patriarchate at difficult times.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate did acknowledge, however, that “the times in which we live today bring with them serious challenges to the Christian Church… All these call the Christian Churches to reconsider their theological and pastoral priorities and place their confessional differences in a new light. The quest for Christian unity appears to be imperative in the present circumstances. All of us should avoid taking initiatives and proceeding to innovations that may create obstacles to our unity. Christian unity is necessary today more than ever before.”

In response, the archbishop of Canterbury said, “Despite our present difficulty, I am confident that the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Churches will continue to grow together in love and fellowship. There is much that unites us, and it has been a source of great happiness that in our dialogue we have been able to agree statements about our common doctrine of the Church.”

Williams added, “This growth in understanding has been built on a foundation of personal respect and affection, and I trust that this will be strengthened as our bishops, clergy and lay people learn to know each other, to understand each other's traditions, and to share the deep love of our Lord. It is therefore with faith and hope, as well as love, that I greet Your All Holiness and ask for your prayers for the ministry that we share.”