Unity of The Churches

Since Vatican Council 2 in the early 1960's there has been growing contact between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches

By John Ramsden

Headline news reports of the June 1995 meeting between the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Rome may not have seemed particularly interesting to the man-in-the-street. To the evangelical Christian the event passed as merely another piece of evidence showing a kindly Pope working hard to bring about unity among Christians of all denominations.

So why then were Bible readers and students of prophecy so excited to witness what could well turn out to be one of the most significant religious events in recent years? And what, one may ask, did the publication of the Pope's latest encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" just a few days prior to the meeting have to do with it? That encyclical, it will be remembered, set out the Pope's ambition to bring about a re-union of the Greek Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church before the year A.D. 2,000 when he hopes to celebrate the new millennium by a great gathering of all "Christians", Muslims and Jews on Mount Sinai. A twenty-three page paper circulated by the Vatican to 140 cardinals proposes a 'Pan-Christian Council' bringing together Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants into what in effect would become a Third Vatican Council for the purpose of achieving unification of 'Christian' churches.

Bitter Rivalry

This is all the more remarkable in view of the bitter rivalry which has existed between the Roman and Orthodox Church organisations for upwards of 1500 years. To understand that situation in the correct perspective we have to go back even further, to the Old Testament times of the prophet Daniel.

Readers of the Bible Magazine will be familiar with the account in Daniel chapter 2 of the dream which the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar had in which God presented him with not just the history-in-advance of the forthcoming Medo Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, but also with an indication of what was to happen in the days in which we live. The two legs of that image were a very apt symbol of the divided iron power of the Roman Empire. Readers will recall how this once great imperial power was split in two around 320 A.D. in the time of Diocletian and Constantine. One capital was left in Rome in Italy, while another was created at the Greek seaport of Byzantium in Turkey. It was called "Nova Roma" and subsequent Roman emperors were crowned here. Later it was named Constantinople, and today is known as Istanbul.

Not surprisingly, there soon grew up great jealously between the two empires accompanied by mutual suspicion between the local church leaders. So much so, that in A.D. 395 Emperor Theodosius in virtual de-facto recognition of the situation drew a dividing line across what has become known as Yugoslavia, roughly where today's Catholic Croatia is divided from Orthodox Serbian territory. From that time onwards the two basic spheres of religious influence started to grow apart. There seemed to be a certain unanswerable logic in the proposition that if there were to be two capitals, there should be two church organisations also.

A Third Rome in Moscow!

The fate of the two legs of the Roman Empire at the hands of the power of Islam is well recorded elsewhere. First, the Arabic Moors spread across North Africa, into Spain and up to Northern France where their advance was stopped by the predecessors of Charlemagne in the 8th Century. Then, as we read in Revelation chapter 9, there came the invasion by the Ottoman Turks of the Eastern leg of the Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, with the downfall of constantinople in 1453 A.D. This was followed by the flight of the Eastern Caesars to Kiev and Moscow where they created yet another 'Rome' and their titles were translated to Tsar. The words of the famous letter written in 1510 A.D. from the Orthodox monk Philotheus to Tsar Basil III sums it up when he said that the Tsar was

"...the leader of the Apostolic Church which stands no longer in Rome or Constantinople, but in the blessed city of Moscow ...Two Romes have fallen, a third stands and a fourth there shall not be".

Meanwhile the conflict between the two church organisations of Rome and Constantinople had grown so bitter that one Summer afternoon in 1054 A.D. just as a service was about to begin at the Ayia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople a papal delegation from Rome marched up the aisle and placed a bull of excommunication upon the altar and promptly marched out again. Thus came about the Great Schism of the Christian Church the effects of which are with us today. A panel at the end of this article summarises a few of the key differences between the two church organisations and the Bible reader will not judge between the two quite apostate systems.

An estrangement between the East and West branches of the church lasted from 1054 until Pope Paul VI met with the Orthodox Patriarch Athanagoras II in Jerusalem in 1964.  Several meetings have since taken place. What interests us most is how that both Daniel and John in Revelation foresaw the very days in which we are now living. In Daniel chapter 2:43 we read how the toe kingdoms of the image will "mingle" themselves with one another. Thus, prior to the return of Christ, we are to witness the start of a process of the mingling of the two powers represented by the successors to the two legs of the Roman Empire. The evidence of this at the international or political level is now so obvious there is little need for further comment. We are seeing the emergence of a United Europe (under papal influence) and a turbulent post-Communist-era Russia seeking a detente with the West. The East-West trade deal earlier this year would have been unthinkable 10 years ago to anyone other than a keen student of prophecy.

What has not as yet been nearly so obvious, however, is the mingling of these two great powers at the spiritual or religious level. Somehow or other (and the wise Bible reader does not predict how or when it will happen) there will come about a similar sort of entente at the church level as we are now seeing at the political level. In the end, that great Euro-Asian confederacy referred to by the prophet Ezekiel, and indirectly also by Joel, Zechariah and others will be supported by the same sort of perverted religious fervour as was seen when, in the Middle Ages, the Catholic inspired Crusades from Europe attempted to invade the Holy Land. Anti-semitism is already growing once again in Europe and there will be a sense of mission against God's people and their land.

Bible readers were therefore not surprised to hear the Pope state quite openly that the time had now come for unity between the two church systems which arose from within territories of the successors to the two legs of the Roman Empire.

A Slow Process

Typically however, the re-unification process has been, and might well continue to be, a slow one. The estrangement between the two branches of the church lasted until Pope Paul VI met with the Orthodox Patriarch Athanagoras II in--significantly enough--Jerusalem in 1964. The 900-year old Bull of Anathema was then lifted by Rome in 1965. In 1979 the present Pope visited the former Orthodox Patriarch Dimitrios I in Istanbul when the two of them pledged to continue the dialogue. (Their communique was issued on St. Andrew's Day--a nice touch considering that St. Andrew who founded the Orthodox Church was supposed to be the brother of St. Peter--the legendary first Bishop of Rome!) In 1991, the Pope convened a synod of Eastern Bishops and described the two churches as "being one soul breathing with two lungs".

Correspondingly, Russia abandoned Communist persecution of the Church and in 1969 the first communion service was held in Moscow's Uspensky Cathedral for 70 years. The following year the Russian Government passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and at the same time abolishing the KGB's commission for the repression of religion. In January 1995, Russia's Premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexsy II, joined hands to lay the foundation stone for the new $300 million Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the very site where Stalin had destroyed its predecessor in 1933! So the thaw that followed the end of the Cold War is now moving into church circles too!

The Present Situation

There are however some intriguing features of the present situation which Bible students will be watching very carefully and which have to do with the way Orthodox church affairs are currently arranged. Strictly speaking, the Orthodox Church comprises 4 patriarchates and 11 autonomous churches based in such territories as Poland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Serbia, Greece, Russia etc. with a total worldwide membership of 280 million. (There are 300,000 members attending over 250 churches in the U.K.). There is no one in the Orthodox Church who corresponds to the Western Catholic pope, although by tradition, the Ecumenical (or Universal) Patriarch based in Istanbul does seek to speak for the 15 component groups within his church on the long established basis that he is the "First among Equals". The problem is however, that by Turkish Law this man must be a Turkish citizen, and his appointment is subject to the approval of the Turkish Government. (The current 56 year old multi-lingual Patriarch, Bartholomew I and his predecessor were both Turks). Ironically his own church in Istanbul is the smallest one with only about 4000 members and an administrative headquarters staff of about 20 in a city of 8 million Muslims! What is more, Turkey is 98% Islamic.

So in terms of ecclesiastical realpolitik, who holds the real Orthodox power to negotiate with Rome? When the bargaining chips are down, it must be the Russian Church which with its 50 million members is not just by far the biggest of the autonomous Orthodox Churches, but is also in the shadowy background of the tragedy in Yugoslavia and appears to be calling the shots elsewhere in the Balkans, too.

So as we watch what is going on in the inexorable move toward the mingling spoken of by Daniel, we simply wonder whether the Pope's ambitions would best be realised by dealing with Istanbul or Moscow. "Uniatism", or the process of the whole poaching of Orthodox members by the Roman Catholic Church in the Ukraine, has not exactly endeared the Pope to Patriarch Alexsy in Moscow. No doubt the Vatican also realises the threat which Islamic Fundamentalism poses to many European countries (e.g. the bomb atrocity on the Paris Metro which coincided with the visit there of Yasser Arafat and his Orthodox Christian wife). Plus of course the simple fact of history that twice before it has been Islam that has seen off the power of Rome. Although we know the ultimate end of the story, we are not in the business of predicting what will happen next. Watching, not predicting is what the Bible reader is commanded to do.