Monday, August 09, 2004


Perusing the Sunday newspapers last week, I chanced across an interesting snippet in the Herald Sun (1 August 2004) concerning increased co-operation between Christian Churches. Allow me to quote verbatim:
“The Catholic Church and major Protestant denominations have signed a landmark pact to share pews, pray together, recognize each other’s rituals and even share clergy.
Under a “covenant of co-operation,” signed after eight years of negotiations, 15 of the nation’s biggest churches will finally recognize each other’s baptisms and ministries. The sweeping ecumenical pact, signed during the fifth national forum of the National Council of Churches brings together Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Lutheran, Churches of Christ, Quakers, Salvation Army, Congregationalist Churches and seven Orthodox Churches.
Four Orthodox bodies declined to sign the pact. Church leaders yesterday hailed it as a world-first step in bringing Christian communities closer together..”
Now let’s do a little language analysis. It is noteworthy that the article begins stating that it is the Catholic Church that has signed the “landmark” (ie. important) agreement with major (ie. important) Protestant denominations. This statement is clearly wrong and is contradicted by the statement later on, that Orthodox Churches are also party to the deal. One can only assume that the article writer, writing for a predominantly Anglo-Celtic audience, unconsciously adopts such a condescending and fallacious approach because in the wider Australian sphere, the ‘foreign’ churches, are seen as of marginal importance.
Interesting too is the juxtaposition of the words “four Orthodox bodies declined to sign the pact,” in the midst of statement by other Church leaders highlighting the pact as a major breakthrough. The implication here is clear. No prize for guessing who we point the finger of party pooper at. The way the piece is phrased thus seems unconsciously to exclude ‘non-mainstream’ (to the wider Australian community) churches from importance or prominence, while somehow suggesting that Orthodox bodies are less conciliatory or friendly than others.
Issues of greater interest arise when one actually reads the text of the National Council of Churches Covenanting Document. What comes to light from a perusal of the text is in fact that the article, in so far as it purports to report on the Covenant, is incorrect. The covenant is in six parts and raises various pledges of co-operation to which interested member churches of the NCCA ascribe to. Not all Churches have signed every covenant, while others are signed by all member Churches.
To take the assertions of the Herald Sun however, it is untrue that the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations have agreed to share clergy. Dimension Five of the Covenant, representing an agreement to work towards the goal of sharing with each other a mutually recognized and ordained ministry is signed solely by Protestant Churches. It is however true that all fifteen member Churches have agreed to “join in common prayer with one another, intercede and care for one another and explore with one another…Christian convictions.” It appears however to be misleading to state that an agreement exists between Protestant Churches and the Catholic Church to “share pews.” Dimension Two of the Covenant on the Shared Use of Physical Resources, such as buildings, is signed also by the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the East, the Coptic Orthodox Church as well as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia. One cannot fathom why this important ‘ethnic’ snippet of information was overlooked.
The Herald Sun then goes on to say that all fifteen Churches will finally recognize each other’s baptism and ministries. Again, this is misleading. Dimension Four of the Covenant is in two parts. The first part deals with the common recognition of the sacrament of baptism. This part of the covenant is not signed by ALL of the fifteen member churches. It is only signed by nine, of which four call themselves Orthodox and being the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church. The second part of this Dimension, dealing with an invitation to members of each other’s Churches to share the Eucharist is signed only by two Churches of the Protestant tradition.
Finally we come to the greatest (and grossest) manifestation of misinformation, the claim that “four Orthodox bodies declined to sign the pact.” This is totally wrong. There are seven members of the NCCA who ascribe in some form to an Orthodox tradition, of which the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church are prominent members. Other member Churches claiming an Orthodox tradition are the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the East, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church. All these Churches have appended their signature to some, though not all of the Dimensions of the Covenant. The same applies to the Roman Catholic Church, which also appended its signature selectively to the Dimensions it agreed with. Granted, other Orthodox Churches do exist in Australia but they are not members of the NCCA, so the article-writer’s claim is mystifying. It would have been more accurate to state that those other orthodox Churches are not (or do not want to be, as the case may be) members and thus not entitled to sign.
It is interesting how a three-paragraphed article can give rise to a half-page diatribe. Yet incomplete reporting of this nature serves not to applaud but to marginalize the efforts of a Christian Community, which seeks to view itself all-inclusively and embrace all traditions in a climate of Christian love and understanding. It also trivializes the large extent of the Orthodox Christian contribution to the welfare of Australia as well as to the world ecumenical movement, of which it is a pioneer. Granted the covenant is complex document, yet it is an important one that deserves to be reported with greater clarity for it marks a momentous event: the change of perspective from small isolated ‘sects’ in Australia, to a desire for the re-establishment of the One Holy and Apostolic Church that forms the keystone of our Creed.
The Orthodox Christian Church does not need apologists. It represents a two-thousand year old tradition that arose from the very soil that Christ trod on. It is however, worthy of respect and it is indeed sad that while the Christian Churches of this country do afford it the respect it is due and have established a close and warm working relationship with it, our so-called ‘pluralist’ and multi-cultural’ society struggles to free itself from its traditional Catholic-Protestant dichotomy and embrace all religious traditions as Australian. In the meantime, as all Churches continue their work is silence, let us pray for clarity of thought, fruitful discussion and a truly all-inclusive Australia.


published in NKEE on 9 August 2004