The Elephant in the Ecumenical Room

Especially in advance of the much-anticipated Great and Holy Council scheduled for later this year, there has been much talk about the importance of our ecumenical connections, including the possibility of recognizing the baptisms of all the other Christian churches and denominations. Part of the discussion has revolved around the question of how to receive Christians from such churches who desire to convert to Orthodoxy—do we receive them by baptism, thereby effectively totally denying the basic ecclesial reality of their churches, or merely by chrismation, accepting their baptisms as valid and thereby giving more ecclesial recognition to their churches? Some of the scholarly discussion has invoked the wisdom of St. Basil, who dealt with questions like these in his “canonical letter” to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, which was in turn utilized in the canons attached to the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in canon 95.

This material distinguished between three different situations—1. Christians whose faith (represented sometimes by the baptismal formula they used) was sufficiently different from that of the Church to require them to be received by re-baptism—which of course, was not really a re-baptism, but simply a baptism, since the baptism they received from their heretical church was regarded as no true baptism; 2. Christians whose faith retained enough similarities to that of the Church so as to allow them to be received by chrismation alone, without re-baptism; and 3. Christians whose faith was sufficiently similar to that of the Church so as to allow them to be received into the Church upon them simply renouncing and anathematizing their former heresies. Examples of the first group of converts requiring rebaptism were the Paulianists, as well as the Eunomeans, who baptized with a single immersion. Examples of the second group, those received by chrismation alone, were Apolliniarians, who declared that Christ had no human soul, but that the Logos took the place of the soul in Him. Examples of the third group, converts received through simple renunciation of error, were groups like the Nestorians.

Here the details concerning the heresies are less important than the underlying principle involved, which is that various groups were received according to the principle of how far their faith differed from Orthodoxy. Groups judged close to Orthodoxy were only required to renounce their previous errors. Groups judged further out and differing more dramatically from the faith of the Church were required to be chrismated. Groups whose faith was judged as radically incompatible to Orthodoxy were received by baptism, with the implicit judgment that their former faith was not truly Christian, whatever it claimed to be and whatever its outward similarities.

Many scholars still invoke these principles today, and on the basis of them suggest that the Church recognize the baptism of all the other Christian churches. Those churches, they suggest, are sufficiently close to Orthodoxy so as to allow the Orthodox to accept their baptism because they accept the same Trinitarian faith as Orthodoxy does. But are they really?

Here we must speak of the elephant in the ecumenical room. It is probable that most of the representatives of those Protestant churches do indeed accept a Trinitarian faith, and have enough proximity to Orthodoxy to allow them to hang out in ecumenical circles and talk to us very articulately. But we Orthodox have had a similar experience before which should caution us to take what is said in such ecumenical discussions with a grain of ecumenical salt. Our previous discussions with Anglicans, for instance, gave us the impression that 1. Anglicanism was confessionally homogenous, with all Anglicans committed to the same faith; and 2. this faith accepted (for example) seven sacraments and seven ecumenical councils. That was because the ecumenical delegates talking to us at ecumenical gatherings accepted these things, and we assumed (gratuitously, as it turned out) that they represented all Anglicans. It was not so. Many Anglicans accepted not seven sacraments, but two, and not the seven ecumenical councils, but four (or possibly five or six), but certainly not the last one, which blessed icons. It turned out that there were High Anglicans, Low Anglicans, and Broad Anglicans, and heaven knows what in between. Having no such experience of confessional diversity (or “comprehension” as the Anglicans called it) we assumed that such diversity did not exist within the churches with whom we were speaking. We were naïve, as it turned out, and were soon disabused of our naivety.

It is high time to learn from our past mistakes. The delegates speaking for the various Protestant churches, let us charitably assume, are convinced and devout Trinitarians, persons whose faith approximates ours enough to allow them to take part in ecumenical discussions. But the devout Anglican Trinitarian does not represent all Anglicans. Anglicanism (to take but one example) allows its members and even its bishops a great latitude in their faith, so that some have been famously anti-trinitarian with no ecclesiastical consequences whatsoever (men such as Bishop Pike and Bishop Spong). Evidently such diversity (or comprehension) is entirely legitimate within the Anglican Communion.

It is not just anti-trinitarianism that is allowed within the boundaries of their “orthodoxy”. Their refusal to condemn abortion is allowed, as is the view which says that women can be bishops, and homosexuals and lesbians can be married (and ordained). The rejection of Scripture, Tradition, and the canonical tradition implicit in accepting such teachings is also allowed and is mainstream in these traditions. This reigning theological liberalism is the elephant in the room. Bishop Spong, for example, may declare himself a Trinitarian according to his redefined definitions and recite the Creed every Sunday, but what of it? Liberalism allows him to redefine the ancient creedal words in whatever way he likes, so that although he may say the traditional Creed, he may actually not believe a word of it. We know that this is allowed, because Spong has written best-sellers to boast about it, and remained a best-selling bishop. Anglican Comprehension apparently is wide and comprehensive enough to include such diversity. Given this, it really scarcely matters what the devout Trinitarian attending the ecumenical gatherings believes. His or hers is a private opinion, and cannot be regarded as really representing the church which he or she purports to represent.

Let us for a moment prescind from this discussion and play a game of historical imagination. Let’s pretend that St. Basil could be presented with the case of a church that allowed its bishops to publically and emphatically reject the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the existence of hell, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Let us assume that he knew further that this church allowed abortion, blessed homosexual marital unions, and even ordained such homosexuals to the highest offices in the church. In which of the three categories we have mentioned above do you guess he might place this church? Is there any doubt that he would regard such a confession as essentially Gnostic, and receive its converts by baptism? For all of the churches he surveyed in his days agreed with his Orthodox church regarding all these moral issues.   Churches which dissented so radically about such basics as our modern liberal Protestant churches do would not have been accepted by Basil and the Councils after him as sufficiently close to Orthodoxy as to allow their baptisms to stand. The issue of what determines ecclesial legitimacy cannot be confined to Christological matters and Trinitarian theology. It embraces orthodoxy of moral praxis as well as orthodoxy of belief, and churches which diverge so dramatically in matters of basic moral issues cannot be considered true churches. Calling darkness light (see Isaiah 5:20) is enough to forfeit credible claim to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

This being so, it has important implications for our ecumenical discussions. All our past ecumenism has been based upon the happy principle of confessionalism—i.e. that a certain church or denomination was more or less consistent in its confession of faith.   Thus all Protestants could be counted upon to accept the divinity of Christ, all Calvinists could be counted upon to accept the Westminster Confession, and all Lutherans could be counted upon to accept the Augsburg Confession. That is why the rite of receiving such converts found in Hapgood’s Service Book asks the Reformed converts (for example) if they renounce the “false doctrine of predestination of men”, because they assumed that all Reformed converts accepted the same Reformed confession of faith. We assumed that each denomination was characterized by fidelity to its historic confessions and could be counted on to keep to that historic path. For the last generation at least it has clearly not been so, and Christians from those confessions have been free to accept or reject the historic confessions of their past, or in fact anything else they liked. That is why they now reject Protestantism’s historic theology of the sanctity of unborn life, of Holy Orders, of sexuality, and of gender.  It should be noted that I am here referring only to the “historic” Protestant churches of the Reformation now characterized by theological liberalism, not the more conservative Evangelical Protestant churches which have retained a more traditional moral praxis.   It should also be noted that these reflections are intended to have implications only for those converting to Orthodoxy in the future; those already received by chrismation alone should of course be fully accepted with no suggestion that their previous  baptism requires remedy.

As long as Protestant churches allow such diversity (or heresy, to give its ancient name) our ecumenical discussions will partake of a certain unreality. We will pass motions accepting the baptisms of all Lutherans, assuming that all Lutherans are like the Lutherans we have been talking to, when in fact many of them are nothing like them at all. The fact that theological liberalism reigns in the historic Protestant churches has not been mentioned in any of the ecumenical documents I have seen. If that elephant in the room has indeed been noticed by Orthodox participants, no one has been speaking about it. It is time that we did.




  1. What would say then is the state of a covert received only by Chiramation when, perfectly speaking, they should have been received by both Baptism and Chrismation?

    1. I would say that however a convert has been received should not be subject to second-guessing or revision. If someone (like myself ) has been received by Chrismation only, then the matter should be regarded as settled and that convert should not be regarded as needing anything else to be fully Orthodox. What is at issue, in my view, is our judgment upon the health/ ecclesial status of the liberal Protestant bodies from which converts come, not the validity or acceptability of any individual convert’s baptism itself.

  2. Because of the array of understandings and beliefs vary so broadly from person to person within each denomination, it seems prudent that the counsel should offer guidelines, which the priest would then use to discern the manner of reception of each convert.

    1. Excellent idea, Father. In general I would suggest that the baptisms of such liberal churches not be recognized, but that certain cases could be accepted by economia.

      1. It would seem to also touch on the sacrament of marriage would it not? If the marriage rite has been so defiled by extending it to people of the same sex, can any such marriage be considered as such?

        1. Yes, I think that if a denomination allows for the marriage of two homosexuals, they clearly have an understanding of marriage incompatible with that of Orthodoxy. But I feel that blessing homosexual practice is a deeper and more fundamental problem than that of their understanding of marriage.

          1. I think that Liberal Protestant acceptance of homosexual “marriage” along with Evangelical Protestant acceptance of “revolving door polygamy” to quote a Muslim neighbor of mine to describe their practice of serial divorce and remarriage reflects a pan-Protestant belief that marriage is nothing but a private arrangement, a complete rejection of the sacramentality of marriage. I personally feel that Protestant converts to Orthodoxy or Catholicism should be remarried upon their reception.

            I think that Protestant marriage should be considered less than nothing in both Catholic and Orthodox Churches that not only should Protestant marriages be reconsecrated, but also Protestant divorces should be considered the sin of non-marital cohabitation and fornication, of course mitigated by believing under false pretenses that they were married.

  3. I think this is correct. On has to wonder about what ecumenical discussions with the liberal protestant churches can achieve. Then there are protestant bodies who adhere to a false doctrine of baptism. Here this issue is an explicit theology that contradicts orthodox understandings of baptism.

  4. Roman Catholics do not hold to the same trinity as Orthodox (The Holy Spirit proceeds from The Father and the Son), thus their baptism is not trinitarian.

    Should not they be received by Baptism?

    1. I would say that they are indeed trinitarian, and that in the past no one in the eastern church suggested that the disagreement about the filioque meant that those in the western church holding to the filioque had a defective baptism. The filioque was regarded as an error, but not one so fundamental as to negate their baptismal status.

  5. By Anglicanism do you mean Episcopalian? The Anglicans in New Zealand are not exactly what you describe ,though female clergy and bishops are found I don,t think homosexual weddings occur in churches.I only speak from personal experience of course.
    Odd feminists occur and give an impression which is bad but they are getting old now.

    1. Yes, by “Anglican” I did mean “Episcopalian” and was speaking from within a North American/ English setting. I understand that the Anglican bishops in Africa are much more conservative than their North American/ English counterparts.

  6. As an Anglican from South Africa, I can understand how ecumenism with the Anglican Church can be seen as fruitless by an Orthodox Christian. Our parish is traditional and we do have some Greek Orthodox Christians who tend to visit us now and then. At our last women’s meeting we had a speaker from the Greek Orthodox Church to teach us about icons. He expressed his pleasant surprise that none of what he said sounded foreign to us…just like nothing on this site ever sounds foreign to me or most Anglo Catholics. Maybe the only solution is for those Anglican bodies desiring communion with the EO to present themselves on an individual basis. I pray this happens…..cultivating such relations could save the Anglican Communion from what seems to be certain death.

    1. I am given to understand that Anglicanism in Africa and Asia is a different reality than Anglicanism in England and North America. Also, some more theologically conservative Anglicans have already separated themselves from their liberal colleagues, essentially forming another denomination (e.g. the so-called “Anglican Network”). The baptism of these conservative denominations might not be subject to the greater rigour with which we would regard the baptisms of (for example) the more liberal Episcopal Church of the USA. It is these continually shifting changes in Protestantism that make ecumenical engagement so difficult. We Orthodox are sometimes never sure who we are speaking to.

  7. You raise some very good points, Father. I am also wondering why the canon requiring baptism by triple immersion is so often ignored today in the receiving of converts from western traditions. To my knowledge, most western traditions use single immersion, aspersion, or sprinkling, not triple. This seems inconsistent with the prescription you cite from St. Basil. Also, my understanding is “validity” is a western term, not truly an Orthodox theological or doctrinal category. That is, non-Orthodox Trinitarian baptisms are not considered “valid” or “invalid”, but rather their form (using water and in the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is accepted by economy and what grace is lacking in them fulfilled by one’s reception into the Church at Chrismation.

    1. Karen: Thank you for your comments. I quite agree about “validity” being a legal concept, alien to our tradition. Regarding the use of water in baptism: the Anglican (and I think also Lutheran) traditions pour water thrice over the candidate in a triple pouring, as does the United Church. The baptistic churches (Baptist and Pentecostal) seem to use a single immersion, which we indeed consider problematic. I would suggest, however, that we widen the discussion to discern not simply the baptismal praxis of the various churches, but their theology and closeness to Orthodoxy as a whole. Thus, even if we would accept the form of their baptism, we should re-baptize if the church doing the baptizing is sufficiently heterodox in other significant ways.

      1. Thank you, Father. I am most familiar with the baptismal rites of baptist and various other Protestant free church and Pentacostal traditions, but I did see a dramatization of a Roman Catholic baptism on TV which used triple pouring, so what you say makes sense. Now I’m curious about Methodists and Presbyterians, since they seem to stand in between older Anglican or “magesterial” Reformed traditions and later Radical Reformation traditions and beyond. 🙂

        I agree the overall nature of a tradition’s teaching and how far it adheres to or departs from Orthodoxy is more critical than the details of the form of a non-Orthodox Trinitarian water baptism. I don’t envy the Bishops in their task of figuring out where to draw the line so as to both preserve the Faith intact on the one hand, while endeavoring not to put an unnecessarily legalistic stumbling block to salvation in someone’s way on the other.

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