(ACNS) Last week’s meeting of the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission in Hawarden, Wales, and the agreement on dropping the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed has moved the two families of churches “one step closer to as close as we can be”, a leading Orthodox bishop has said.
“For us, we saw [the filioque clause] as an addition to the Creed,” Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, said. “One of the founders of our Church, Saint Athanasius, was instrumental in formulating it. As a church that has been persecuted for most of its existence, our faith and faith issues are exceptionally important.
“The relevance [of the agreement] is that we are one step closer to as close as we can be. There are things that we are not going to be able to agree on but that should not stop us resolving things that we can agree on.”
The centuries-old disagreement centres on the words “and the son” which were added to the Nicene Creed by Charlemagne to counter the Arian heresy that Christ was a lesser member of the Trinity.
“When Anglicans proclaim the faith of the Church in the words of the Nicene Creed, they do so with Christians around the world, and within the generations of Christians who have gone before us all the way to the fourth century,” the Revd Canon John Gibaut, director for Unity, Faith and Order at the Anglican Communion, said. “While this creed is called “Nicene” from the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, it is actually the product of two successive councils, the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople held in AD 381; theologians and historians more precisely refer to it as the ‘Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed’.
“There is, however, one significant difference between the ways that Western Christians, such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Protestants; and Eastern Christians, including Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox; proclaim the Nicene Creed, and this is in what we say about the Holy Spirit.
“The Creed as it was crafted in 325 and 381 states: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified...’
“In the early medieval period in the Latin West, a small but important addition was made: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified...’
“Known as the ‘filioque’ clause from the Latin meaning ‘and the Son’, these words were never added by a council. They were originally introduced in the West in the late sixth century by theologians to strengthen the Creed’s proclamation of the divinity of the Son, and only centuries later was it ordered to be inserted in the Creed by the Emperor Charlemagne, and spread around the Western Church, including medieval England where it passed into the heritage of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.”
Canon Gibaut said that Eastern Christians have long resented the Filioque clause as something unilaterally introduced by the West into what was a once common profession of faith. “Moreover, Eastern Christians have repeatedly pointed out that the insertion gives an unbalanced theology of the Holy Trinity in which the Spirit does not proceed directly from God the Father, but through the Father and the Son,” he said. “They remind Western Christians that the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters in the creation narratives; that the Spirit overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary; that the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism; and raised Jesus up on the third day.”
Last week’s discussion on the Filioque was not new: the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches urged that the Filioque be omitted by Western churches in its 1987 work on Confessing the One Faith.
Earlier in 1976, the recommendation of the Anglican-(Eastern) Orthodox dialogue to omit the Filioque became Resolution 35 of the 1978 Lambeth Conference to all member churches of the Anglican Communion.
“Many provincial churches of the Communion heeded this call in their revised liturgies; others have not,” Canon Gibaut said. “For both historic and theological reasons, the recent dialogue [between Anglican and Oriental Orthodox churches] has reiterated the work of the 1970s and 80s with a fresh call to the churches of the Anglican Communion to remove the medieval innovation, and return to the common faith of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed,” he said.
“The fresh call to omit the filioque is a matter of respecting ecumenical process, and a step towards proclaiming the historic creed of the Church together.”
For the Anglican co-chair of the Commission, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, the agreement provides an opportunity to do more than “open the way for Christians to be united in Mission and common witness to the World”
In a comment piece published today on anglicannews.org, he points to the location of the Orthodox family of churches in “the most troubled area of the world” and says: “To assert our common understanding of Christian faith with them at a time when the very existence of Christianity in the Middle East is increasingly under threat therefore is a timely assertion of Christian solidarity.”
The agreement “means that we can very confidently say that we believe in the same things as far as Christology – which was fundamental – but also the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Angaelos said. “That means that when we stand together in prayer then we are using the same creed and the same statement of faith.”