Pastoral Letter of SCOBA Hierarchs
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The holy Church includes many people, men, women and children without number. They are all quite different from one another in birth, in size, in nationality and language, in style of living and age, in trades and opinions, in clothes and customs, in knowledge and rank, in welfare and in appearance. They are nonetheless all of them in the selfsame Church. Thanks to her, they are all reborn, newly created in the Spirit. The Church grants to all of them without distinction the grace of belonging to Christ and of taking his name by calling themselves Christians. Faith, moreover, puts us in a position which is extremely simple, and incapable of separation, in such a way that the differences between us seem not to exist, because everything is gathered together into the Church and reconciled in her. No one lives alone any more, no one is separated from the others, but all are mutually joined together as brothers and sisters in the simple and indivisible power of faith. Of the first Church, Scripture says: "The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul", (Acts 4:32) in such a way that all the many members looked like a single body, truly worthy of Christ himself, our true Head. And speaking of the action of Christ in the Church, the Apostle asserts: "There is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcised nor uncircumcised, neither barbarian nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all." (cf. Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11) Christ with the unique power of goodness and with infinite wisdom reunites everything in himself, as the center from which the rays go out. [Maximus the Confessor - Mystagogia, 1 (PG91, 664)]
A Community of Healing and Reconciliation
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me." (John 17:20-21)
115. We must continually remind ourselves that the Church is a community of healing and reconciliation centered upon Christ and His Gospel. The Lord came into our midst to reconcile us with the Father (cf. Romans 5:10). This divine act of love was expressed time and again in His teachings and His actions. As the Apostle Paul reminds us God, "reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5: 18-19). Faithful to the Lord who is its Head, the Church seeks always to be a sign of God's love for all, and the means through which the Lord continues to heal and reconcile His people.
116. Divisions among Christians are a tragedy which cannot be ignored. These divisions diminish the message of the Gospel of Salvation and impede the mission of the Church in the world. These divisions among Christians often divide families and contribute to alienation within our society. Recognizing this harsh reality, the Church has always sought to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). When divisions have occurred, the Church has consistently sought both to bear witness to the Apostolic Faith and to seek reconciliation so that the world may believe in Christ and His Gospel.
117. The involvement of the Orthodox Church in the quest for the reconciliation of Christians and the restoration of the visible unity of the churches is an expression of our faithfulness to the Lord and His Gospel. By seeking the reconciliation of divided Christians, we are in fact sharing in our Lord's ministry of reconciliation. As the Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference said, "the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement does not run counter to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church. It constitutes the consistent expression of the Apostolic Faith within new historical conditions, in order to respond to new existential demands."(18)
118. This commitment of the Orthodox to Christian reconciliation does not mean that we approve of every endeavor which is called "ecumenical." Indeed, we hold that genuine ecumenism must always be rooted in the quest for Christian truth and directed towards a visible unity through which the historic faith of the Church is proclaimed. It must contribute to the salvation of all and give glory to the Lord who calls His disciples to be one so that the world may believe (cf. John 17:21).
119. In many parts of the world today, Orthodox have been deeply troubled both by those who tend to diminish the richness of the historic Christian faith and by others who have engaged in proselytism directed towards Orthodox believers. Neither of these developments can contribute to genuine reconciliation. Indeed, these tragic developments serve to deepen our conviction that true reconciliation can be founded only upon a common profession of the Apostolic Faith which is free from all expressions of coercion.
120. The Orthodox Church recognizes that the healing of the division with the Oriental Orthodox Churches is a preeminent challenge before us. Following decades of informal dialogues and more recent formal discussions, the international Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches has declared (1989): "We have inherited from our fathers in Christ the one Apostolic Faith and tradition, though as Churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As the two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion, we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the common Apostolic Faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed."
121. Mindful of this formal dialogue between the two families of Orthodox Churches, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) has decided to establish a Joint Commission with representatives of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in America. This Commission will take into account both the theological studies of the international Commission, as well as the cooperation and opportunities for common theological studies which have existed in North America for many decades. The Commission also will address the pastoral issues confronting our people and parishes in America.
122. SCOBA has been responsible for establishing and overseeing formal, bilateral theological dialogues with a number of other churches here in North America. A dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church was established in 1965. Subsequent dialogues were established with the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches in 1968. Begun in 1962, a dialogue with the Episcopal Church has recently been reestablished. While each dialogue is distinctive, each has been concerned with identifying points of doctrinal agreement as well as those points of disagreement which deserve further study.
123. These bilateral dialogues, which have been sanctioned by SCOBA, have frequently served to foster Orthodox ecumenical witness at the local level. In many places, Orthodox clergy and laypersons have come together with Roman Catholics and Protestants for theological reflection, Bible study, social witness and prayer for reconciliation. Such activities have done much to overcome old misunderstandings and prejudices among Christians. In addition, these activities have become important means through which both clergy and laity share in the reconciling ministry of Christ our Lord within our society today.
124. Our ecumenical concerns involve us in relationships with other Christians and their churches. Our relationship with persons of other faiths are of a different character but are also very important. As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the different faith perspectives between us and the adherents of other religions. At the same time, we affirm the need to treat all persons with dignity and respect. Living in this multi-religious society, we also affirm the critical need for respect and understanding of different religious traditions. These differences in religious belief and practices can not be used to justify any form of prejudice or discrimination. On the contrary, we encourage Orthodox Christians to join with all persons of good will in addressing the serious moral challenges which we face together in this society.