Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy – Historically Speaking
May 3rd, 2022
by The Most Reverend Chandler Holder Jones, SSC
On the eve of the Great and Holy Council of the Eastern Orthodox in June 2016, the first general meeting of the majority of Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs and hierarchs in many centuries, it should be beneficial take a moment and reflect upon what the Eastern Orthodox Churches have historically held and taught concerning their closest ecumenical friend and partner, the Anglican Church. The impending Council will discuss the current relationship of the Eastern Orthodox with other Christian bodies, including Anglicanism.
Below are passages from a remarkable and rarely studied book, The Thyateira Confession – the Faith and Prayer of the People of God, an official catechism of the Greek Orthodox Church. It was published in 1975 by the Faith Press of England, with the blessing and authorisation of His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Demetrios I. It is as official a doctrinal book as one could hope to procure from the Eastern Church; it recognises the unique relationship enjoyed between Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a relationship which was once de facto sacramental communion, as it also affirms the validity of Anglican priesthood and sacraments. The text was almost certainly translated from Greek into English, so the language and syntax do not flow very smoothly in parts and places.
One cautionary note: Traditional Anglo-Catholics, naturally, will not agree entirely with all the assertions made in this text about ourselves or our Church. We may particularly dispute the explanations provided for the meaning of some of the Articles of Religion. But the cited text proffers us an understanding of where the Eastern Orthodox usually stand on these issues. Many traditional Anglo-Catholics maintain, a la Tract XC and the Tractarian theological movement, that the XXXIX Articles of Religion are patient of an orthodox catholic interpretation thoroughly compatible with the received Holy and Apostolic Tradition of the Undivided Church and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and beyond this, that the Articles are so intentionally designed – being as they are Articles of Peace and theological limitations and not of dogma or Faith. The Articles must be subject to and interpreted by the Book of Common Prayer and the consensus fidelium and consensus patricum, not vice-versa. We may also find the claimed differences on Eucharistic doctrine to be semantic, linguistic, and not substantial, as well. The Common Prayer Book, the Great Creeds, and the Seven Holy Councils are the living magisterium of orthodox continuing Anglicanism. Such is the stuff of ‘continuing’ dialogue…
We must never forget the fact that all Christians are not Apostles as the Twelve were, though all are duty bound to participate in the Apostolic Mission of the Church. The Orthodox Church together with the Roman Catholic and the Anglican, etc., maintain the three Degrees of the Priesthood: those of Bishops, Priests and Deacons as indispensable for the Ministry of the People of God and the systematic dissemination of the Gospel of Christ.
Orthodox Christians believe that the following Churches have valid and true Priesthood or Orders: the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Ethiopian, the Copto-Armenian and the Anglican. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of Romania and the Church of Cyprus half a century ago declared officially that the Anglican Church has valid Orders by dispensation and that means that Anglican Bishops, Priests and Deacons can perform valid Sacraments as can those of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is perhaps right to state here that there are still differences of opinion among Orthodox people in regard to Anglican Orders. There are Orthodox Churches and theologians who are more rigorous and others less so regarding the validity of the Priesthood and consequently of the Sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church.
This difference of opinion among the Orthodox is based on the fact that the Orthodox Church as a whole has not yet examined these important questions. We hope, however, that the Ecumenical Orthodox Council which is to be called soon will investigate not only the Mystery of Unity but also the Mystery of disunity and answer among other matters the question of valid priesthood and the validity of Sacraments celebrated within non-Orthodox Christian bodies.
Orthodox Christians know that they have been in friendly relations with Anglican Christians for more than a century past. Orthodox Christians know that the Anglicans believe as the Orthodox do in the Holy Trinity, in Christ the God-Man, in the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit, in the Church and its mysteries and traditions. The Orthodox Christians know that the Anglicans acknowledge the two great Sacraments, that is, Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. For this reason Orthodox theologians at various theological discussions raise the question: What do the Anglicans believe about the remaining five Sacraments? The Anglicans answer that they accept them as being Sacraments. However, they distinguish the first two as being basic and indispensable for salvation.
It is rather evident that all the Anglicans do not agree with this interpretation because there are among them groups who prefer the Protestant views, and groups who as true Catholic and Orthodox Christians accept all the Holy Sacraments of the Church.
On account of friendly relations it has become customary for the Orthodox to perform funerals for the Anglicans and offer to them the Holy Eucharist in places where there is no Anglican clergyman available. This is reciprocated for the Orthodox Christians wherever there is no Orthodox clergyman available. This is done both officially and unofficially and in various localities it is a necessary practice expressing Christian sacramental hospitality. Furthermore it is certain that the Christian people themselves seek this sacramental hospitality. This is certainly a sign of the intention of the People of God by thus establishing practical unity because they see that both groups believe in the same Bible and traditions and confess the same Creed of Nicea-Constantinople.
Orthodox Christians know that in certain matters they disagree with Anglicans and these are as follows: —
- In the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist the Anglicans seem to reject the theory of transubstantiation and emphasise their faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. This view is not entirely acceptable to the Orthodox because the Presence of Christ seems to coexist in the bread and in the wine of the Eucharist. This coexistence means that Christ is present as He is present everywhere. However the Bread and Wine are not totally changed into Christ Himself. If the Eucharistic Bread and Wine are changed into Christ’s Body then there is an identical agreement between the Anglicans and the Orthodox. If however Christ by His Presence coexists with the Bread and the Wine then the Orthodox disagree with this view because Christ said: ‘This is My Body.’ This means that Christ is not solely present in the Eucharistic Bread but rather that the Bread is changed into the Theandric Christ.
It is evident, however, that the Real Presence concept is an effort of Theologians to approach and explain the Mystery. This view does not seem to be the faith of the Anglican Christians because when they receive Holy Communion they believe that they take Christ the God-Man.
- As to the question of the Ecumenical Councils some Anglicans declare that they accept only Four, that is, of Nicea AD 325, of Constantinople AD 381, of Ephesus AD 431, and of Chalcedon AD 451. The remaining three some Anglicans accept as ecumenical and others not. The differentiation has been evident in what Anglican theologians answer when the Orthodox enquire about the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils.
- The exercise of authority in the Anglican Church is another question which the Orthodox often raise and about which they frequently ask the Anglicans. The fact that some Anglican Bishops and Priests and theologians express and publish opinions in sermons and books that are in disagreement with the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the Church has led the Orthodox to seek an answer in order to determine the question of authority. Christian people and especially Anglican students of theology are often confused because they see that there is a difference between the teachings of some Bishops and theologians and the teachings of the Book of Common Prayer, in matters of great importance, such as, the Person of Christ, the Resurrection, the Seven Sacraments and the Apostolic Succession of Bishops. It is certain that the majority of Anglican Bishops and theologians see the centre of Church authority in the Faith proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ecumenical Creeds and the hierarchical structure of the Church, and the faith and worship of her believers.
- Another matter of disagreement between Anglicans and Orthodox is that of the well-known Thirty Nine Articles, which for historical reasons – and despite the wishes of many Anglican Bishops, priests and laity – are still to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. Some of these Articles are unacceptable to Orthodox Christians because they declare:
- that the formulations of doctrine agreed by the Ecumenical Councils are not infallible (Article 21).
- that adoration of the saints and their relics and ikons, being confused with veneration, is considered an impious invention (Article 22).
- that Holy Communion is received in a manner that indicates denial of the Eucharistic Reality, since Article 28 states that it is given and received only in a heavenly and spiritual manner.
- that the theory of predestination is advocated as a revealed truth to benefit the very few (Article 17).
- that the Sacraments are only two in number, while the remaining Five are mere products of the ‘corrupt following of the Apostles’ doctrine’ (Article 25).
However, we must not fail to observe that the [English] Book of Common Prayer contains the Offices of six Sacraments, although only two of them are considered to be Sacraments of the Holy Gospel. The seventh Sacrament, Holy Unction, is now widely practised after a recent decision taken at the Convocations of Canterbury and York.
All these questions have been thoroughly debated between Anglican and Orthodox theologians. We believe and pray that a blessed time will come when Anglicans and Orthodox Christians will eventually reach an understanding that will lead to the Unity of the Faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
This Unity does not mean unity of administration, and the submission of the one church to the other. It means freedom in the preservation of the characteristics of each church, and that unity in the Blessed Sacraments that is so dearly desired by Anglican and Orthodox Christians.