Joint statement breaches divide

Published January 1, 2003

History was made recently when the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion presented a joint statement about the divinity of Christ.

Rev. Harold Nahabedian of St. Mary Magdalene’s, Toronto, and the sole Armenian Anglican priest in Canada, has been an Anglican delegate to the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission since 1998 and attended the commission’s recent meetings in Armenia.

“The joint statement overcomes 1,700 years of division over the Christology of the church,” Mr. Nahabedian said in an interview. “It brings these two communions together. Basically, it says that what each has taught over the centuries has been the faith, even though we have used different language.”

Mr. Nahabedian helps as an interpreter and translator on the commission. “The sessions were in English, but we were in Armenia, so I did translate quite a lot,” he noted.

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of faith, worship and ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada, said the statement is significant, meaning “a schism starting in the fifth century will be healed.”

The point at issue, she said, was mostly over an ancient disagreement in use of theological terms.

“It has to do with the relationship of the human and divine nature of Christ. Christ is at the same time fully human and fully divine, but is one person,” she said.

“Attempts to explain how this can be in the philosophical language of the fourth century led to misunderstandings between east and west – that is, between churches which we now call ‘Oriental Orthodox’ and the rest of the Christian world.”

In the last few years, Ms. Barnett-Cowan added, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches had agreed that what they fought about centuries ago was based on a misunderstanding. The Anglican agreement, she noted, is similar.

There are six Oriental Orthodox churches – Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and the (Indian) Malankara. They are in communion with each other and are also called ancient Oriental, lesser Eastern, and pre- or ante-Chalcedonian churches.

The Ethiopian, Coptic and Indian churches have been full members of the World Council of Churches since its inauguration in Amsterdam in 1948. The Syrian church joined at the New Delhi assembly (1961), and the central committee in Paris admitted the Armenian church in 1962.

Formal dialogue between the Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox churches stemmed from recommendations of the Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and 1998 and the decisions of the Oriental Orthodox Churches that the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue be upgraded from a forum (1985-1993) to a commission.

Mr. Nahabedian said the statement is a measure of official inter-communion. He added that the Armenians invited the Anglicans to receive Holy Communion in the cathedral in the city of Etchmiadzin, the mother cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church and the seat of the Catholicos – or senior bishop – of the Armenian church.

“They have already concluded an agreement with the Roman Catholic church from some years before,” he noted.

The agreement is even more significant for the Ethiopian and the Copt member churches, Mr. Nahabedian added. “It’s a much newer relationship than in Canada, for example. We’ve been in relationship with the Armenians for 120 years.”

Another meeting is planned in Ireland for 2003 where the two groups will talk about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The joint November statement has been submitted to authorities from both church families for consideration. Other topics the commission will discuss in future will include the procession of the Holy Spirit, authority in the Church, ecclesiology, the mission of the church, sacraments, human sexuality and mission and pastoral care.


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