Ways to Church Reunion (I)

by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

[This is a sketch of certain ideas, already expressed in an article “By Jacob’s Well” (John iv. 23), Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, No. 22, Dec., 1933]

As long as divided Christianity is merely concerned with a  preliminary discussion of the whole problem of Reunion, the real practical difficulties which obstruct the way are not perceived. But whenever a practical approach is made to this problem difficulties emerge which are insuperable. They will remain insurmountable as long as the main postulates of the whole problem are not radically reconsidered in an attempt to liberate them from a mistaken hierarchical and dogmatic maximalism, which so frequently dominates this whole realm. These obstacles to Reunion emerge, firstly, in the sphere of theological doctrine, in so far as this tends to regard itself as compulsory dogma; and, secondly, as a result of hierarchical centralism, which identifies the body of the Church with the central organ of the hierarchy. Such an approach to the problem is, in its very essence, Roman. It cannot be justified outside the limits of the Roman Catholic Church and, in our opinion, even in that communion it can be considerably moderated. Such an approach to the problem is illustarted by the Florentine Unia (1439). The more important hierarchs of the East and of the West with the Pope and the Patriarch investigated all the dogmatic differences which then existed, and after achieving (apparent) agreement, recognized the highest hierarchical organ in the person of the Pope. The agreement was then sealed by Communion from the same Cup. The Union was proclaimed by a corresponding edict (a pala Bull and an Order of the Emperor) to the whole Christian people, who in the East, however, simply refused to accept it. From the Roman Catholic point of view the procedure was more or less congruous, for every Reunion in the Roman Church can only be interpreted dogmatically as absorptionnot correspond to a true understanding of the Church, where the hierarchy does not command, but merely gives expression to the ‘soborny’ consciousness of the Church through submission to Papal authority. From the Orthodox and generally speaking the non-Roman Catholic point of view, however, such a conception does not correspond to a true understanding of the Church, where the hierarchy does not command, but merely gives expression to the ‘soborny’ consciousness of the Church.

Nevertheless, even up to the present day,* the whole course of Church Reunion (in particular the relations between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Churches) still follows this same path. Here also it is taken for granted that Reunion may be accomplished by an agreement achieved merely between the higher organs of the hierarchy, without any active participation of the people of the Church. Such an approach is no less utopian than it was in the fifteenth century.

On the other hand it is not only a complete agreement in dogma which is sought, but agreement also in dogmatic doctrine. This, as a matter of fact, does not even exist within the limits of the same Church. Whenever theological thought develops with intensity different theological movements are bound to emerge. This happened at the height of the Patristic age (e.g., in Alexandria and Antioch). In practice even within the fold of the Roman Church there is no dogmatic unanimity, although this may be disguised by an iron discipline and the enforced silence of the dissentients. This fact is unexpectedly observed here and there. In our search for dogmatic unity, therefore, it is necessary to fix a dogmatic minimum, which comprises an

A controversial Orthodox Metr. comuning at a ROman Catholic Altar
A controversial Orthodox Metr. comuning at a Roman Catholic Altar

essential condition for Church Reunion. This should not only be done according to external factors (viz., the dogmas of the ancient undivided Church), but also according to their inner significance for Church Reunion. But then the question arises, how can we be attained to in some distant future, and is thus the last and not the first step along the path of Reunion?

All dogma is characterised by the fact that it is not only a norm of teaching, but a basis of life, not only theoretical doctrine, but a quality of religious life. It is from this living power of the dogma that we should proceed in our definition of the required dogmatic minimum at the beginning of Reunion. The life of Grace which flows in the Church in its Sacraments, pre-eminently in Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, represents the universal and basic fact which fulfills and sums up the dogmatic teaching of the Church. The division of the Churches not only gives rise to the spirit of heresy  aiÀresis – which stands for the discord and one-sidedness of teaching, but similarly to a heresy of life, which results in the fact that the Christian world in a light-hearted and painless way reconciles itself to a separation before the Holy Chalice. Somehow or other it has become a self-evident fact [ which one should note here has never been proved by anyone] that dogmatic agreement is the prius, and the eucharistic, the posterius, a sort of result of the first. The call to unity which springs from the Eucharistic Chalice itself, remains unheeded. In spite of this, actually, the divided Churches are united by the oneness of the Chalice, which cannot become a reality to them. This constitutes the paradox of Church divisions. The efficacy of the Sacraments is mutually recognised by the divided Churches, at least by Orthodoxy and Rome (for the moment I put aside the question of Anglicanism). The Sacrament of the Eucharist is also regarded as effective: it is valid, but not effective beyond the limits of one’s own Church for the members of the divided Churches. Of course if we absolutely deny the validity of the sacraments outside a particular confession (as is the case still with certain Orthodox theologians who are of this opinion, viz., the Metropolitan Anthony and others) then the very question of any union in the Sacrament falls to the ground. But if we recognize the validity of the Sacrament, which is in fact the case with the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, then the question arises, may not this efficacy of the Sacrament become real in actual Intercommunion; and if so, what can this Intercommunion represent both dogmatically and canonically? Here, of course, it is no longer a question of complete unanimity on all the dogmatic points, in all their local and historical peculiarities, but precisely in the dogmas without the recognition of which the Sacrament of the Eucharist cannot be contemplated.

It is not difficult to make clear the primary assumptions on which the Sacrament of the Eucharist is based. Firstly we must recognize the real (and not the symbolically-significatory or the subjective-reminiscent) character of the Sacrament. In it we have the preasentia realis, the true Body and Blood of Christ through the changing of the bread and wine. One may add here the actual theory of the change – “transubstantiation” or any other – does not constitute a dogmatic postulate for the efficacy of the Sacrament. This is obvious from the fact that the early Church throughout the first 1, 000 years of its existence had no Eucharistic doctrine at all. But belief in the actual change, or the praesentia realis – without which the Sacrament loses all meaning and power – already takes for granted faith in Christ as the Son of God and the God-man. In other words it comprises all the Christology of the Church, and further, as a necessary link, also the doctrine of the Trinity. (It is completely incompattible of course with any liberalism or unitarianism which deny both).

But such a condition de facto implies the acceptance of all the Seven Ecumenical Councils in their fundamental Christological definitions, outside which there can be no question of a true Christian faith. (Of course the same is not true of some of their special definitions, which have no dogmatic significance, but only canonical value. The Seventh Ecumenical Council we can also view as a Chrsistological one, because of its insistence on the divine-human nature in Christ.) The demand for an acceptance of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is usually founded on the fact that their definitions stand for a commoni confession of the one faith of the ancient Church. The Eucharistic foundation in our opinion is more essential than this chronological basis, because apart from the Christology of the Church there can be no true Eucharist.

Another dogmatic-canonical postulate of the truth of the Eucharist is the efficacy of the celebrators as of the hierarchy of the ‘apostolic succession’ – in other words the existence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The apostolic succession of the Church which has been voluntarily broken by Protestantism. As a result of this Eucharistic life within Protestantism has been destined to diminution and to a certain weakening, if not to direct ineffectiveness. The Eastern and the Western Churches were never divided in their recognition of the necessity of the hierarchy, and even now the hierarchy of the divided Church is mutually recognized. The Anglican hierarchy occupies here a special place for its destinies were involved in the general turmoil of the Reformation, as a result of which its validity came to be questioned. However, the Anglican hierarchy, which is not recognized by Rome, finds growing recognition by Eastern Churches – at least in so far as its hierarchy is concerned, and consequently the Eucharist which it celebrates.

The laying on of hands by the bishop is absolutely essential for the validity of the Eucharist, and consequently the Eucharist celebrated by pastors, who have not received an episcopal laying on of hands, is not a true Church Eucharist (even if we do not deny its possessing a certain kind of Eucharistic significance, a ore precise definition is outside our immediate scope). Therefore if Protestantism really wants to enter into the bosom of the United Church, it must overcome the results of the Reformation at this point, and re-establish within itself the sacramental priesthood of ‘apostolic succession.’ It must do this in the name of tradition namely also of Church love, so as not to separate itself in such an essential fact from the whole of the Christian world. (I am not speaking of sects here which are born of a spirit of sectarian particularism, for historical Protestantism does not desire to be a sect, but it becomes a sect in so far as it persists in rejecting the episcopal laying on of hands.)

As things stand, three branches of historical Christianity fit into the scheme we have outlined – Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism (assuming that we recognize the validity of Anglican orders), and have a dogmatic and sacramental possibility of uniting before the Holy Chalice. Let us, however, consider the dogmatic and canonical difficulties which stand in the way.

To be Continued

* The present day is 1935.

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