THE history of the Christian Church is marked by schism and
split. Western Christendom was divided by the Reformation. Much
earlier, the formal excommunications of 1054, and the sacking of
Constantinople by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade in 1202, left
their marks engraved on the fault-lines of Europe.
Earlier still, the Council of Chalcedon of 451 meant that those
Christian communities and Churches on the fringes of the Byzantine
Empire - the Syrians, Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, and the
Malankara Christians of South-West India - were left outside the
larger (Greek and Latin) part of Christendom, which accepted the
This is the most ancient, significant division in the Christian
Church, and at its centre is and was nothing less than the nature
of Jesus Christ.
It was therefore a historic moment when, at a meeting in Cairo
in October, an Agreed Statement on Christology was signed by
Metropolitan Bishoy of Damietta of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and
me, as the co-chairs of the International Dialogue between the
Anglican Communion and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, set up by
the Lambeth Conference of 1998.
Anglicans at the Reformation inherited the Chalcedonian
Christology from the Western Catholic Church. Yet significant
Anglican theologians, such as Richard Hooker and Richard Field,
recognised the significance of St Cyril's understanding of the
person of Christ, which is definitive for the Oriental Orthodox
Cyril speaks of the "one nature of the incarnate Word", using
the Greek word mia (meaning one in the sense of united)
rather than monos (meaning one in isolation). Hence, as
the Agreement states, the correct term for these Churches is
Miaphysite, not Monophysite.
Cyril speaks of a "hypostatic union", meaning a union of
divinity and humanity in Christ from the very core of his personal
being. Cyril can also be seen as anticipating later kenotic
Christologies, in which the radical self-giving of God in the
incarnation - his emptying of himself, as Paul puts it in his
Letter to the Philippians - comes down in the fullness of divine
love to the lowest part of our human need.
In speaking of the nature of Christ and of the cost of our
salvation, Christians have needed to say that in Jesus Christ we
see one who is fully human, not someone whose humanity is only in
appearance; but equally that Jesus Christ is the one in whom "the
fullness of the Godhead dwells". Ultimately, how this is so is a
mystery that stretches human language, but the reality of this
incarnation is at the very heart of our Christian faith.
ANGLICANS have had a long relationship with the Oriental
Orthodox churches since the mid-19th century, when Queen Victoria
sent a printing press to Patriarch Peter of the Syrian Church. (The
Patriarch's portrait hangs in Lambeth Palace.) After an earlier
Anglican-Oriental Orthodox forum, the new commission agreed to
study Christology. At the very first meeting, in Etchmiadzin,
Armenia, in 2002, a draft statement on Christology was agreed. This
was subsequently sent for comment to the Oriental Churches and to
the Provinces of the Anglican Communion.
When the Dialogue - interrupted because of the controversy over
the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States -
resumed last year, some of the responses received were considered,
and full consideration was given to them at the meeting of the
commission in Cairo this October. It was with great joy that we
were able to agree a significant Christological statement.
This is not an isolated agreement. It builds on similar
agreements between the Byzantine Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox
in 1989 and 1990, on the Driebergen agreement between the Reformed
Churches and the Oriental Orthodox in 1994, and on the joint
statements between Pope John Paul II and visiting heads of the
Oriental Orthodox Churches. Thus this new agreement is part of a
wide ecumenical endeavour to overcome this most ancient of
Christian divisions on a major matter of doctrine. Metropolitan
Bishoy, my Oriental Orthodox opposite number, believes the
Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Agreement to be the best and most
substantial of all these agreements.
Inevitably, the agreement is concerned with the technical Greek
terms which were involved in the early divisions. But it recognises
the limits of all theological language and the philosophical
terminology of which it makes use: "We are unable to net and
confine the mystery of God's utter self-giving in the incarnation
of the divine Word in an ineffable, inexpressible and mysterious
union of divinity and humanity, which we worship and adore."
The agreement cites words of Richard Hooker: "It is not man's
ability either to express perfectly or to conceive the manner of
how (the incarnation) was brought to pass," and cites Hooker's
emphasis on the importance of St Cyril's insistence on the unity of
the divinity and humanity in the single person of Christ.
The agreement concludes with the words: 'The Son of God emptied
himself and became human, absolutely free from sin, in order to
transform our fallen humanity to the image of his holiness. This is
the gospel we are called to live and proclaim.'
Given the perilous situation of many of these Churches in the
Middle East, faced with Islamist persecution, this unity in faith
is something in which we can all rejoice.
The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell was formerly the Bishop in