If dialogue between the Churches was a way out of the tensions of the world wars of the 20th century, today’s new conflicts show that the efforts of that great work could not eliminate the reasons for divisions, which very often closely linked to historical-political events rather than spiritual issues, as was the case in the most ancient schisms.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended a few days ago, and beyond the many worthy meetings in Catholic and Protestant churches, it was evident how much “classical” ecumenism, inaugurated at the beginning of the 20th century by Evangelicals and progressively also accepted by Orthodox and Catholics, has now sadly spent itself.
The almost total absence of representatives of Orthodox Churches, devastated by wars and schisms as never before, has clearly exposed the powerlessness of all Gospel-centred confessions, unable to find a way to peace and reconciliation.
Russia’s “holy war”, blessed and proclaimed by the patriarch and almost all the Russian Orthodox clergy, has brought the Christian world back to a sense of strife that had seemed buried centuries ago, that of clashing peoples and religions.
Many quarters have explicitly condemned Patriarch Kirill's "imperialist heresy”, and the World Council of Churches has recently discussed the possible expulsion of the Russian Church.
Pope Francis has condemned war at every opportunity, trying at the same time to keep an open door to dialogue with the Moscow "brothers", but the jubilation of the greeting ¡Somos hermanos! (We are brothers!) that Pope Francis addressed to Kirill during the historic meeting in Havana, on 12 February 2016, no longer echoes. The anniversary of that meeting is coming up soon, but it now seems to be centuries ago.
Ukrainian Orthodox, while trying to unite to counter Russia’s war and ideological invasion, cannot really find a formula that can represent them all together. Ukraine remains the land with the most Orthodox jurisdictions, and any attempt to bring them together under a single ecclesial roof generates further divisions and fragmentation.
The Ukrainian government has recently granted the "autocephalous" Orthodox Church the exclusive use of the country’s most prestigious religious site, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, driving out the pro-Russian metropolitan and monks who are in turn split between “pro-Kirill”, “pro-Onufriy (the moderate metropolitan), neutral and “quasi-autocephalous" factions.
The jurisdiction, which was historically linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, with its 13,000 churches (more than in Russia itself), declared itself "autonomous" in June, but it seems mostly to be “anarchical Church", without stable moorings.
In the convulsive events of war, reciprocal "ecclesiastical sanctions" have piled up, intended to exclude any kind of encounter between Christians fighting over lands, churches, and monasteries, even the dates of major liturgical feasts.
Anathemas from Kyiv are dropping on the Russian patriarch and his acolytes, including relatives and acquaintances, even a 30-year "sentence" was issued against Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev), one of the most ardent historic enemies of the many "non-Muscovite" Orthodox, which found him in Hungary where he was exiled by Patriarch Kirill himself for rather obscure political-ideological reasons.
The crisis of ecumenism is not, however, the result of the recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which is in part a consequence of a much older and broader cleavages.
If dialogue between the Churches was a way out of the tensions of the world wars of the 20th century, the new conflicts show that the efforts of that great work could not eliminate the reasons for divisions, often not very spiritual in nature and closely linked to historical-political events, as was the case for the most ancient schisms.
Even before the great political changes that marked the end of the 20th century, which tore down the “Cold War” wall and redefined the world order, an increasingly intricate and contradictory climate was beginning to be felt in the various venues of interconfessional dialogue.
Since the 1980s, the Churches have not made any real progress in understanding and cooperating, for reasons that now appear patently obvious, since Russia has justified total war as a reaction to the "loss of traditional values" in the rest of the world.
An increasingly radical reaction in the ecumenical field has been triggered by the process of secularisation and the end of historical prohibitions such as divorce and abortion, not to mention homosexual unions and women’s priests, inspired by movements and social groups that found forms of expression even inside the Churches.
The ecumenism of dialogue and openness to the demands of modernity has increasingly been replaced by the attempt to forge conservative and anti-secularist alliances, of which the apocalyptic vision of Russian Orthodoxy is the latest version.
The dream of unity among Churches has vanished, leaving room to partisanship in which what counts is not internal union, but common opposition to an external enemy. And 2016 was the emblematic year that marked this radical turning point.
in February of that year, the patriarch of Moscow met with the pope of Rome, the highlight of the Catholic-Orthodox alliance, but in June the pan-Orthodox Council of Crete failed spectacularly after Eastern Churches split precisely over the ecumenical question.
The historic meeting in Cuba itself had aroused very negative reactions among the Orthodox, in Russia and beyond, with critics complaining about making “compromises with heretics" that Kirill tried in vain to justify with the need to cooperate to save ancient traditions.
The days that preceded the Council, which was supposed to sum up an entire millennium of divisions in unity, saw the Churches of Bulgaria, Antioch, Georgia, Serbia and Russia stay away; eventually, the Serbs changed their minds, going to Crete to scuttle the document on the "Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world".
At that point, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople put aside all internal diplomacy, and after the Council, set in motion the process that two years later led to the proclamation of Ukrainian autocephaly, finally breaking ties with the "degenerate daughter" Church of Moscow.
Churches are no longer "mothers and daughters", nor even "sisters", but only allies or adversaries. Amid this, Catholics and Protestants are just spectators at the undoing of the “Christian family”, whose vocation instead should be the defence of the “natural family” against the new rights and freedoms, with Churches incapable of understanding how to close ranks to fight together, and end up instead haphazardly taking sides on the battlefields.
The radical and anti-ecumenical Orthodox are finding allies among the very conservative Pentecostal movements, which are very active in supporting sovereignist and intolerant policies, but also many Catholic communities who feel unrepresented by the current Roman hierarchy, and end up adding their voice to the chorus of fundamentalist protest.
The slogan of classical ecumenism, "unity in diversity", applies to a pluralistic and inclusive vision of the relationship among Christians, which corresponds to an open-to-dialogue and non-invasive presence of the Church in contemporary society.
This vision led the Georgians and Bulgarians to abandon the World Council of Churches in 1997, showing the unease that runs through the Orthodox world, very traditionalist in its very nature.
Since then, attempts have been made to experience a "local ecumenism" or one “from below”, limited to brotherly relations between different confessions in specific areas; but so far, that has yielded mixed results with the evident recognition of the impossibility of meeting at the broader level.
Some Lutheran theologians have defined this crisis as a transition from a unitive ecumenism to an interdenominational one, as two variants that are now incompatible with each other.
One of the most authoritative Russian Orthodox hierarchs, Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) also known as "Putin's spiritual father", has repeatedly said that he sees "no real future for the idea of ecumenism in the Church".
In the face of attempts at "ecumenical conformity", there will always be in his opinion "defensive reaction of believing people" who follow " unfalteringly and without waiting”.
Many Russian priests, Tikhon notes, "remember the ecumenical prayers of Soviet times, which the clergy were obliged to join, by the will of the state."
The theology of ecumenism is "sad and affected, and has no real foundation," while true Orthodox theology is "inspired and founded on the traditions of the Fathers." One of Kirill's closest theologians, Protoiereus Alexander Lebedev, calls ecumenism a "terrible spiritual disease, which has long infected all the Churches."
A well-respected Ukrainian ecumenical theologian, Orthodox Father Cyril Hovorun, at a recent conference in Rome, urged everyone not to be completely discouraged in the face of the failure of dialogue and the willingness of the Russians to include everyone in their metaphysical war.
He maintains that "excluding a brother is not the way to reconciliation; dialogue also means inviting repentance and change, metanoia, beginning with the conversion of one's own heart.”
Ecumenism must start again from scratch, invoking the redemption of all, as is inevitable for humanity wounded by original sin and by the sin of Cain.
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