Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Anglican - Oriental Orthodox relations

Last night I went to an open meeting arranged by the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius at Pusey House to hear an interesting lecture on the ecumenical discussions between the Anglican Communion and the Oriental Orthodox churches. The speaker was the Rt. Rev. Dr Geoffrey Rowell D.D., sometime Chaplan of Keble College and until recently the Anglican Bishop of Gibralter in Europe. 

Bishop Rowell began by recounting his langstanding interest in the Oriental Churches, which began whilst he was astudent in Cambridge, and led to him eventually becomg co-Chairman of the Amglican- Oriental Othodox Commission.


A meeting of Anglican and Oriental Orthodox representitives in 2001
Bishop Rowell is seated in the centre

Image: Anglicancommunion.org

The Oriental Orthodox churches are those which do not accept the formula worked out at Chalcedon in 451 about Christology and the two natures of Christ. Though often referred to as monophysite this is a term they dislike and describe themselves as miaphysite. There is an explanation of this at the online article Miaphysite churches. There is an online account of the churches and their history here.

The chuches which beliong to this group are the Egyptian Copts, the Ethiopian Copts, now with the addition of the Eritrean Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenians, with two Catholicos at Etchmaidzin and for Cilicia in the Lebanon and the Indian Malankara church. The Armenians in 2001 celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their becoming the first Christian nation. Most of these communities have lived under Islamic rule for most of the last fourteen centuries, and as far as the Westrn and Byzantine Orthodox are officially concerned have been deemed to been heretics since 451, although in 1989 the Byzantine and Oriental Orthodox lifted whatever anathemas separated them.

The churches use their own liturgical language, and are not Greek speaking liturgically - thus in Syria Syriac is sued, the Armenians use their own langauge - created by one of the early churchmen and the Ethiopians use a distinct liturgical language analagous to Old Church Slavonic; the Indian Malakara Syrians use Malayala.

The Chalcedonian division can in part be explained by the politicala nd military events of the times - as the late Patriarch Karekin I of the Armenians argued in recent years the ancestors of his people were too busy fighting the Persians to attend the Council. The Chalcedonian formula struck the more ardent supporters of the views of St Cyril of Alexandria as conceding too much to the ideas of St Cyril's opponant Nestorius, and the Orientals place great emphasis on the one nature of the Incarnate Word, not as monophysite but that two separate identities are united in the misphysite Person. That Unity reaches outwards from the centre.

In consequence they have little fellow feeling for the Nestorian Church of the East or, as it is sometimes known today, the Assyrian Church, of which there is a history here. Oriental Orthodox can be heard blaming Nestorian monastics in pre-Islamic Arabia for giving Mohammed a false idea of Christian teaching. This group now has a very scattered diaspora, but early Anglican contact from the time of Archbishop Benson and the supportive resolutions of earlier Lambeth Conferences had been in consequence of some concern to the Orientals

Until recently there were few members of any of these Oriental Orthodox in this country, although there was some contact from the nineteenth century made by travellers, and Queen Victoria presented a printing press to the then patriarch peter of Syria to assist his Church. In recent years, and following on from a suggestion by Bishop Rowell to the British embassy the Prince of Wales has visited some monasteries in south-east Turkey. Interest in Syriac and other liturgies had led scholars to look at the service books of the Orientals - Bishop Westcott of Durham was intrigued by the rite for consecrating clergy wives.

Like the Anglican Communion the Oriental Orthodox form a communion, but with no common canon law, and no clear idea as to who can all a Council - the Emperor Haile Selassie did so on one occasion relying on his Imperial authority - but they do not possess a primus inter pares like the Archbishop of Canterbury and the power to invite to a Lambeth Conference.

Following on from the building up of contact over a number of years Anglican-Oriental OrthodoxDiscussions in Holy Etchmiadzin did result in an important document in November 2002 an Agreed Statement on Christology which drew upon the traditions of both communions and rejected both Nestorian and Eutychean formulae. Bishop Rowell had telephoned Henry Chadwick - the nearest thing to an Anglican fount of intellectual theoloical authority  - as to signing to be reassured that if the Byzantine Otthodox were happy with the Orientals the Anglicans could be.


The Commission which drew up the Joint Statement at Holy Etchmiadzin in 2002


Organising reception of this by bothfamilies of churches has proved slower than might have been hoped. In 2004 the controversy over the impending US consecration of the divorced homosexual Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire led several of the Oriental Orthodox to say they could not attend a plenary joint meeting at Walsingham - for them such aconsecration would be exploited by Muslim journalists in their own countries as to whom they were associating with.  As aresult the meeting was cancelled.

In 2013  there was a successful full meeting to discuss th role of the Holy Spirit and the Filioque clause, and, all being well, another meeting is scheduled for this year in Cairo. Current political circumstances always posed problems, not least that the Orientals might not want to be seen as tools of the West.

Visits by successive Archbishops of Canterbury to these churches had helped develop good realtins, as had the presence of orientals at such Papal events as the inaugurations of both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

This was a very interesting evening, the topic presented with lucidity and insight as well as good humour and Anglican episcopal elan of the best sort. This was ecumenism with a sense of history, and a sense that something worthwhile was being achieved, even if the timescale was very much in centuries.

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