Page 4, 2nd October 1970

2nd October 1970
Page 4
Page 4, 2nd October 1970 — by Norman St. John Stevas

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Locations: Damascus, Rome


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by Norman St. John Stevas

Sad ecumenical paradox

DURING my recent visit to Greece I had my first

opportunity to study the Orthodox Church at first hand and was deeply impressed by the amount of common ground shared by the Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West.

At the same time there are striking differences of approach and mentality between the two communions, but in an ecumenical age these different perspectives far from constituting insurmountable barriers can be of great benefit to both Churches, opening up new lines of thought which, given goodwill, can converge and create unity.

It is a sad paradox that whereas the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches, who are divided by much greater doctrinal and devotional gulfs than those which separates Catholicism and Orthodoxy, has made rapid progress the movement of reconciliation between the great Churches of East and West has hardly got under way. It may well be that it is here that the great prizes of ecumenical encounter will be found in the future.

Orthodox popular devotion is strikingly similar to that of Catholicism. Orthodox Churches are alive in the same way as Catholic churches, filled with worshippers and those who use the Church buildings for their private prayers. The use of votive candles is as popular in the East as in the West. the only difference being they arc used to venerate ikons instead of In Orthodoxy ikons seem to have an even greater doctrinal significance than the use of images in Catholicism. They are thought to safeguard the full doctrine of the Incarnation. God of course cannot be represented in his eternal nature: as St. John points out to us "no one has seen God at any time," but the Incarnation made a representational religious art possible: God is able to be depicted precisely because he became a man.

I may say that many of the modern ikons arc as hideous as the "repository" art from which we have so long suffered. but this does not affect the devotion of the To see the reverence with which men and women kiss the ikons is a moving experience. Some. of course. look upon it as idolatry. but it is nothing of the


the To see the reverence with which men and women kiss the ikons is a moving experience. Some. of course. look upon it as idolatry. but it is nothing of the


As John of Damascus writes in his treatise on ikons: "I do not worship matter, but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter affected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter throuizh which my salvation has been effected."

Equally striking is the devotion throughout Orthodoxy to the Mother of God: indeed, if anything, it surpasses the worship offered to her in Catholic countries. In Orthodox iconography she is almost invariably presented with her child and this constitutes an important safeguard against Mariolatry. The Orthodox attach especial importance to the first seven general councils of the Church and it was at the third of these that held at Ephesus in 431 that the doctrine of the Theotokos was definitively proclaimed.

Defence of a Doctrine

In doing so the Council was defending not only Mary but the doctrine of the Incarnation itself which had been challenged indirectly by Nestorius when he maintained that Mary was entitled to be called "Mother of Christ" but not "Mother of God" since she was the mother of Christ's humanity but not his divinity. To have accepted this would have destroyed the whole doctrine of the Incarnation since one would have to conclude that God in fact never really became' man. at any rate not in a fully human way.

My visit to Ephesus was for me the highpoint of my journey. The ruins of the Greco-Roman city straggling along the coast of Asia Minor are much more impressive and complete than those of the Forum in Rome. Still standing and clearly recognisable is the great double Church in which the assembled Fathers gathered sixteen hundred years ago to proclaim and protect one of the principal truths of our salvation.

In Ephesus. too. with its idolatrous worship of Diana, is found the clue which explains why Marian devotion emerged so late in the Christian Church. The early Christians were afraid that devotion to her would be confused with the pagan fertility cults to Diana and other goddesses.

It was only after these had declined that a development of doctrine could safely take place. and to Ephesus fell the honour of being the scene of the definition which has vitally affected Christendom across the centuries, As Charles Williams drily remarks: "Such remote Christological quarrels in the slums and boulevards of the Near East are not without interest today. It was the real nature of Perfection as credible and discoverable by men that was then in question. and it is still perfection that we are at."

While at Ephesus 1 also took the opportunity of reading Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians which acquired a fourth dimension from being read amongst the ruins of the dwellings of those to whom it was originally addressed. I was struck again by its extraordinary optimism, by its reverberations of the might and magnificence of the power of God. which Paul himself had clearly experienced and the sense ol' which he was striving to convey to his readers. but I digress.

High above Ephesus are two shrines which are little known in the Catholic world. One is the tomb of St. John, not the fierce divine of Patmos, but the gentle mystic of the Gospel, the apostle of Asia; and higher still the house which by tradition was occupied by Mary after the crucifixion and from which it is said she was assumed into Heaven.

I am not competent to judge its archaeological credentials but there appears to me to be an intrinsic suitability in the Virgin passing her last days in a modest cottage overlooking the great city from which one day her glory was to be proclaimed. I found it a holy and venerable Next week I hope to continue my reflections on the nature of Orthodoxy and its relevancy to Christianity in our time.

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