21 June 2005, 09:52
1. The unity of the Church and the sin of human divisions
1.1. The Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ established by our Lord and Saviour Himself, the Church confirmed and sustained by the Holy Spirit, the Church about which the Saviour Himself has said: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt. 16:18). She is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the keeper and provider of the Holy Sacraments throughout the world, "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). She bears full responsibility for the proclamation of the truth of Christ's Gospel, as well as full power to witness to "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
1.2. The Church of Christ is one and unique (St. Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church). The unity of the Church, the Body of Christ, is based on the fact that she has one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:23), and that working in her is one Holy Spirit Who gives life to the Body of the Church and unites all her members with Christ as her Head.
1.3. The Church is the unity of a "new humanity in Christ". By His incarnation the Son of God "commenced afresh the long line of human beings"(St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, 3, 18), creating a new grace-bearing people, the spiritual posterity of the Second Adam. The unity of the Church is above every human and earthly union, for it has been given from above as a perfect and divine gift. The members of the Church are united in Christ like vines, rooted in Him and gathered in one eternal and spiritual life.
1.4. The unity of the Church overcomes all barriers and frontiers, including racial, linguistic and social differences. The message of salvation is to be proclaimed to all nations in order to bring them into one fold, to unite them by the power of faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15; Acts 1:8).
1.5. In the Church, enmity and alienation are overcome, and humanity, divided by sin, is united in love in the image of the Consubstantial Trinity.
1.6. The Church is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3), the fullness of uninterrupted grace-filled life and spiritual experience. "Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace" (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, 3, 24). This unity of grace-filled life is the foundation of the unity and changelessness of the Church's faith. Always and without change "the Holy Spirit teaches through the holy fathers and doctors. The Catholic Church cannot transgress or even err or utter falsehood instead of truth: for the Holy Spirit, who always acts through the faithfully serving fathers and doctors of the Church, guards her against every mistake" (The Letter of Eastern Patriarchs).
1.7. The Church is universal, but she exists in the world in the form of various Local Churches This does not diminish the unity of the Church in any way. "The Church, illumined with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. She spreads her branches, laden with fruit, over the whole world. He freely flowing streams extend to the farthest regions, and yet throughout all this her head is one, her source one, and she is one mother, rich in the abundance of her fruitfulness" (St. Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church).
1.8. Church unity is bound up inseparably with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the faithful, partaking of the one Body of Christ, are really and truly joined in the one and catholic Body, in the mystery of Christ's love, in the transforming power of the Spirit. "Indeed, if 'we are all partakers of that one bread', then we all comprise one Body (1 Cor. 10:17), for Christ cannot be divided. That is why the Church is called the Body of Christ, while we are 'members in particular', according to the understanding of the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 12:27)" (St. Cyril of Alexandria).
1.9. The One, Holy, Catholic Church is the Apostolic Church. Through the divinely instituted priesthood the gifts of the Holy Spirit are communicated to the faithful. The apostolic succession of the hierarchy, beginning from the holy apostles, is the basis of the communion and unity of grace-filled life. Any deviation from the lawful Church authority is a deviation from the Holy Spirit, from Christ Himself. "See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. <:> Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church". (St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrnians, 8).
1.10. It is only through relationship with a particular community that each member of the Church realises his communion with the whole Church. By breaking canonical relations with his Local Church a Christian damages his grace-filled unity with the whole Church body, tearing himself away from it. Any sin distances a person from the Church to a greater or lesser degree, but it does not cut him off from her altogether. In the understanding of the Early Church, excommunication was exclusion from the eucharistic assembly. Those excommunicated, however, were never re-admitted to Church communion through re-baptism. Faith in the indelible nature of baptism is confessed in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed: "I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sin". Apostolic Canon 47 reads: "Let a bishop or presbyter who shall baptise again one who has rightly received baptism: be deposed".
1.11. In this way the Church bore witness that those who have been excommunicated retain a certain "seal" of belonging to the people of God. By accepting them back the Church brings back to life those who have already been baptised by the Spirit into the one Body. Even while excommunicating one of her members, sealed by her on the day of his baptism, the Church hopes for his return. She considers excommunication itself to be a means of spiritual rebirth for such person.
1.12. Throughout centuries Christ's commandment of unity has been repeatedly violated. Contrary to the catholic unanimity enjoined by God, differences and divisions have arisen in Christianity. The Church has always shown a strict and principled attitude towards those who have challenged the purity of her saving faith and those who have brought division and confusion into the Church: "Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that we are members one of another?" (St. Clement of Rome. First Letter to the Corinthians, 46).
1.13. Throughout Christian history, not only individual Christians but also entire Christian communities moved away from the unity with the Orthodox Church. Some of them have perished in course of history, while others have survived through the centuries. The most fundamental divisions of the first millennium, which have survived to this day, took place after the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils, when some Christian communities refused to accept their decisions. As a result, the Assyrian Church of the East and the non-Chalcedonian Churches, including the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian Jacobite, Ethiopian and Malabar Churches, are separated even today. In the second millennium, the separation of the Roman Church was followed by internal divisions in Western Christianity, brought about by the Reformation, which resulted in the continual formation of different Christian denominations outside of communion with the Roman see. There were also breakaways from the unity with Local Orthodox Churches, including the Russian Church.
1.14. Delusions and heresies result from a person's desire to assert himself and set himself apart. Every division or schism implies a certain measure of falling away from the plenitude of the Church. A division, even if it happens for non-doctrinal reasons, is a violation of Orthodox teaching on the nature of the Church and leads ultimately to distortions in the faith.
1.15. The Orthodox Church, through the mouths of the holy fathers, affirms that salvation can be attained only in the Church of Christ. At the same time however, communities which have fallen away from Orthodoxy have never been viewed as fully deprived of the grace of God. Any break from communion with the Church inevitably leads to an erosion of her grace-filled life, but not always to its complete loss in these separated communities. This is why the Orthodox Church does not receive those coming to her from non-Orthodox communities only through the Sacrament of Baptism. In spite of the rupture of unity, there remains a certain incomplete fellowship which serves as the pledge of a return to unity in the Church, to catholic fullness and oneness.
1.16. The ecclesial status of those who have separated themselves from the Church does not lend itself to simple definition. In a divided Christendom, there are still certain characteristics which make it one: the Word of God, faith in Christ as God and Saviour come in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2; 4, 2, 9), and sincere devotion.
1.17. The existence of various rites of reception (through Baptism, through Chrismation, through Repentance) shows that the Orthodox Church relates to the different non-Orthodox confessions in different ways. The criterion is the degree to which the faith and order of the Church, as well as the norms of Christian spiritual life, are preserved in a particular confession. By establishing various rites of reception, however, the Orthodox Church does not assess the extent to which grace-filled life has either been preserved intact or distorted in a non-Orthodox confession, considering this to be a mystery of God's providence and judgement.
1.18. The Orthodox Church is the true Church in which the Holy Tradition and the fullness of God's saving grace are preserved intact. She has preserved the heritage of the apostles and holy fathers in its integrity and purity. She is aware that her teaching, liturgical structures and spiritual practice are the same as those of the apostolic proclamation and the Tradition of the Early Church.
1.19. Orthodoxy is not a national or cultural attribute of the Eastern Church. Orthodoxy is an inner quality of the Church. It is the preservation of the doctrinal truth, the liturgical and hierarchical order and the principles of spiritual life which, unchangingly and uninterruptedly, have been present in the Church since apostolic times. One should not yield to the temptation to idealize the past or to ignore the tragic shortcomings and failures which marked the history of the Church. Above all the great fathers of the Church themselves give an example of spiritual self-criticism. The history of the Church in the IV-VII centuries knew of not a few cases when a significant proportion of believers fell into heresy. But history also reveals that the Church struggled on principled terms with the heresies that were infecting her children and that there were cases where those who had gone astray were healed of heresy, experienced repentance and returned to the bosom of the Church. This tragic experience of misunderstanding emerging from within the Church herself and of the struggle with it during the period of the ecumenical councils has taught the children of the Orthodox Church to be vigilant. The Orthodox Church, while humbly bearing witness to her preservation of the truth, at the same time remembers all the temptations which arose during her history.
1.20. Due to the violation of the commandment of unity which has led to the historical tragedy of schism, divided Christians, instead of being an example of unity in love in the image of the Most Holy Trinity, have become a source of scandal. Christian division has become an open and bleeding wound on the Body of Christ. The tragedy of divisions has become a serious visible distortion of Christian universality, an obstacle in the way of her witness to Christ before the world. For the reality of this witness of the Church of Christ depends to a considerable degree on her ability to live up to the truths preached by her in the life and practice of Christian communities.