Evaluating the Antiochian-Syriac Joint Declaration

On November 12, 1991, the Antiochian Orthodox Synod (EO) and the Syriac Orthodox Synod (OO) came into agreement on matters related to faith and practice, creating a Joint Declaration, which was approved and signed by Antiochian Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim (EO) and Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas (OO).

This document, though not well-known today, instituted an unprecedented limited communion covenant between the two ancient Patriarchates in Syria.

The purpose of this article is to present the information available on this seemingly elusive agreement in a cohesive manner so that a determination could be made as to the existence and understanding of such a covenant. This article will not serve to take a position on the binding nature of the agreement, nor will it present the official position of any individual local archdiocese, bishop, or priest on the matter. Further, it should be stated that I do not represent, in any official capacity, the Church in Antioch nor any of Her local churches. This article is not a theological analysis, nor will it articulate a position on how to reconcile age-old anathemas and jurisdictional separation.

With regard to potential accusations of ecumenism, this article will similarly not take a position that would lead to an implication of “unity at any cost,” but instead will illustrate a time table of official events that led to such an agreed determination. This article will serve as an expository analysis of the existing agreement between the two Synods. This article is not an affirmation or personal agreement of these Agreed Statements, but merely a presentation and acknowledgement of their existence, systematized and structured for context.

In June of 1989, at the Anba Bishoy Monastery in Egypt, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox met, after decades of dialogue (Aarhus 1964, Bristol 1967, Geneva 1970, Addis 1971, Chambesy 1985, Corinth 1987), to issue an Agreed Statement regarding various key points between the two communions. The Agreed Statement reads as follows (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

We have inherited from our fathers in Christ the one apostolic faith and tradition, though as Churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the common apostolic faith of the undivided church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed. What follows is a simple reverent statement of what we do believe on our way to restore communion between our two families of Orthodox Churches.

Throughout our discussions we have found our common ground in the formula of our common Father, St. Cyril of Alexandria : mia physis hypostasis (he mia hypostasis) tou Theou Logou sesarkomene, and in the dictum that “it is sufficient for the confession of our true and irreproachable faith to say and to confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos” (Hom : 15, cf. Ep. 39).

Great indeed is the wonderful mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one True God, one ousia in three hypostases or three prosopa. Blessed be the Name of the Lord our God, for ever and ever.

Great indeed is also the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, for us and for our salvation.

The Logos, eternally consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit in His Divinity, has in these last days, become incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Blessed Virgin Mary Theotokos, and thus became man, consubstantial with us in His humanity but without sin. He is true God and true Man at the same time, perfect in His Divinity, perfect in His humanity. Because the one she bore in her womb was at the same time fully God as well as fully human we call the Blessed Virgin Theotokos.

When we speak of the one composite (synthetos) hypostasis of our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not say that in Him a divine hypostasis and a human hypostasis came together. It is that the one eternal hypostasis of the Second Person of the Trinity has assumed our created human nature in that act uniting it with His own uncreated divine nature, to form an inseparably and unconfusedly united real divine-human being, the natures being distinguished from each other in contemplation (theoria) only.

The hypostasis of the Logos before the incarnation, even with His divine nature, is of course not composite. The same hypostasis, as distinct from nature, of the Incarnate Logos, is not composite either. The unique theandric person (prosopon) of Jesus Christ is one eternal hypostasis Who has assumed human nature by the Incarnation. So we call that hypostasis composite, on account of the natures which are united to form one composite unity. It is not the case that our Fathers used physis and hypostasis always interchangeably and confused the one with the other. The term hypostasis can be used to denote both the person as distinct from nature, and also the person with the nature, for a hypostasis never in fact exists without a nature.

It is the same hypostasis of the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally begotten from the Father Who in these last days became a human being and was born of the Blessed Virgin. This is the mystery of the hypostatic union we confess in humble adoration – the real union of the divine with the human, with all the properties and functions of the uncreated divine nature, including natural will and natural energy, inseparably and unconfusedly united with the created human nature with all its properties and functions, including natural will and natural energy. It is the Logos Incarnate Who is the subject of all the willing and acting of Jesus Christ.

We agree in condemning the Nestorian and the Eutychian heresies. We neither separate nor divide the human nature in Christ from His divine nature, nor do we think that the former was absorbed in the latter and thus ceased to exist.

The four adverbs used to qualify the mystery of the hypostatic union belong to our common tradition – without commingling (or confusion) (asyngchytos), without change (atreptos), without separation (achoristos) and without division (adiairetos). Those among us who speak of two natures in Christ, do not thereby deny their inseparable, indivisible union; those among us who speak of one united divine-human nature in Christ do not thereby deny the continuing dynamic presence in Christ of the divine and the human, without change, without confusion.

Our mutual agreement is not limited to Christology, but encompasses the whole faith of the one undivided church of the early centuries. We are agreed also in our understanding of the Person and Work of God the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father alone, and is always adored with the Father and the Son.

This Agreed Statement focused on Christology as the basis of unity. More specifically, it focused on reconciling the Christological differences that have separated the two communions for most of Church history. It appears, quite explicitly, that there was a mutual agreement between both communions at least on matters of Christology and unity in the early centuries of the Church. This meeting in Egypt was the first of two, going into recess for further dialogue and study through appointed committees for six months before re-commencing.

In January of 1990, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions resumed their meeting, this time in Chambesy, Geneva, at the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to produce another Agreed Statement. This time, the publication not only featured a set of agreed-upon statements, but also recommendations for further reconciliation. The Agreed Statement reads as follows (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

The first Agreed Statement on Christology adopted by the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, at our historic meeting at the Anba Bishoy Monastery, Egypt, from 20th to 24th June 1989 forms the basis of this Second Agreed Statement on the following affirmations of our common faith and understanding, and recommendations on steps to be taken for the communion of our two families of Churches in Jesus Christ our Lord, Who prayed “that they all may be one”.

1. Both families agree in condemning the Eutychian heresy. Both families confess that the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, only begotten of the Father before the ages and consubstantial with Him, was incarnate and was born from the Virgin Mary Theotokos; fully consubstantial with us, perfect man with soul, body and mind (nouj); He was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to the Heavenly Father, where He sits on the right hand of the Father as Lord of all Creation. At Pentecost, by the coming of the Holy Spirit He manifested the Church as His Body. We look forward to His coming again in the fullness of His glory, according to the Scriptures.

2. Both families condemn the Nestorian heresy and the crypto-Nestorianism of Theodoret of Cyrus. They agree that it is not sufficient merely to say that Christ is consubstantial both with His Father and with us, by nature God and by nature man; it is necessary to affirm also that the Logos, Who is by nature God, became by nature Man, by His Incarnation in the fullness of time.

3. Both families agree that the Hypostasis of the Logos became composite (sunqetoj) by uniting to His divine uncreated nature with its natural will and energy, which He has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, created human nature, which He assumed at the Incarnation and made His own, with its natural will and energy.

4. Both families agree that the natures with their proper energies and wills are united hypostatically and naturally without confusion, without change, without division and without separation, and that they are distinguished in thought alone (th qewria monh). 20

5. Both families agree that He Who wills and acts is always the one Hypostasis of the Logos incarnate.

6. Both families agree in rejecting interpretations of Councils which do not fully agree with the Horos of the Third Ecumenical Council and the letter (433) of Cyril of Alexandria to John of Antioch.

7. The Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional Cyrillian terminology of “one nature of the incarnate Logos” (“mia fusij tou qeou Logou sesarkwmenh”), since they acknowledge the double consubstantiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is “in thought alone” (th qewria monh). Cyril interpreted correctly this use in his letter to John of Antioch and his letters to Acacius of Melitene (PG 77, 184-201), to Eulogius (PG 77, 224-228) and to Succensus (PG 77, 228-245).

8. Both families accept the first three Ecumenical Councils, which form our common heritage. In relation to the four later Councils of the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox state that for them the above points 1-7 are the teachings also of the four later Councils of the Orthodox Church, while the Oriental Orthodox consider this statement of the Orthodox as their interpretation. With this understanding, the Oriental Orthodox respond to it positively.

In relation to the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox agree that the theology and practice of the veneration of icons taught by that Council are in basic agreement with the teaching and practice of the Oriental Orthodox from ancient times, long before the convening of the Council, and that we have no disagreement in this regard.

9. In the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology as well as of the above common affirmations, we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways. It is this common faith and continuous loyalty to the Apostolic Tradition that should be the basis for our unity and communion.

10. Both families agree that all the anathemas and condemnations of the past which now divide us should be lifted by the Churches in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion of our two families can be removed by the grace and power of God. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and Fathers previously anathematized or condemned are not heretical.

We therefore recommend to our Churches the following practical steps :

A. The Orthodox should lift all anathemas and condemnations against all Oriental Orthodox Councils and Fathers whom they have anathematised or condemned in the past.

B. The Oriental Orthodox should at the same time lift all anathemas and condemnations against all Orthodox Councils and fathers, whom they have anathematised or condemned in the past.

C. The manner in which the anathemas are to be lifted should be decided by the Churches individually.

Trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, Unity and Love, we submit this Agreed Statement and Recommendations to our venerable Churches for their consideration and action, praying that the same Spirit will lead us to that unity for which our Lord prayed and prays.

A few very interesting points emerge when examining this document. Firstly, there appears to be strong re-affirmation of a reconciled Christology between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions, and the theology behind the agreed statements is expounded upon. Secondly, there is mention of the Great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, and while the Oriental Orthodox continue to maintain the first three, the agreement appears to imply that in light of reconciliatory understanding of the two communions’ Christology, that the Oriental Orthodox have a positive outlook and possible reception of Chalcedon through Nicea II. In fact, in point 8, the document goes as far as saying that the Oriental Orthodox have always regarded the theology and dogma expressed in Nicea II to be valid, even prior to the invocation of the Second Ecumenical Synod of Nicea. This is a beautiful admission and witness to the apostolicity of the practice of veneration and iconography in the early Church, considering the two communions have been separated since Chalcedon, centuries before we see the theology of icons and veneration codified dogmatically. In perhaps the most interesting admission, point 9 declares that both communions have, in fact, maintained the same Apostolic Tradition with unbroken continuity throughout the ages with a different expression of the same theology. The Agreed Statement then dives right into the issue of anathemas and makes a recommendation, based on the other agreements, that anathemas ought to be lifted by virtue of linguistic misunderstandings. This recommendation is expressed in the form of mutual “agreement” according to point 10.

Then comes the most pertinent point for the purposes of this article: point C. This is the “recommendation” portion of the Agreed Statement and consists of three over-arching points that, interestingly, no longer deal with any differences between the two communions, but focus explicitly on the lifting of anathemas… and delegating that responsibility to each Church individually. That is, by each local Church individually.

Another very interesting consideration is that this Agreed Statement is signed by delegates and clergy representing virtually every local Church between the two communions. For transparency, here is a list of the signatories:

  • Metropolitan Damaskinos (Ecumenical Patriarchate – EO)
  • Professor Vlassios Phidas (Patriarchate of Alexandria – EO)
  • Professor Athanasios Arvanitis (Ecumenical Patriarchate – EO)
  • Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Peristerion (Ecumenical Patriarchate – EO)
  • Professor Father George Dragas (Ecumenical Patriarchate – EO)
  • Metropolitan Petros of Aksum (Patriarchate of Alexandria – EO)
  • Metropolitan George Khodr (Patriarchate of Antioch – EO)
  • Metropolitan Damaskinos (Patriarchate of Antioch – EO)
  • Nikolai Zabolotski (Patriarchate of Moscow – EO)
  • Grigorij Skobej (Patriarchate of Moscow – EO)
  • Professor Stojan Gosevic (Patriarchate of Serbia – EO)
  • Dr. Ivan Zhelev Dimitrov (Patriarchate of Bulgaria – EO)
  • Boris Gagua (Patriarchate of Georgia – EO)
  • Horepiskopos Barnabas of Salamis (Church of Cyprus – EO)
  • Professor Andreas Papavasiliou (Church of Cyprus – EO)
  • Metropolitan Meletios of Nikopolis (Church of Greece – EO)
  • Professor Father John Romanides (Church of Greece – EO)
  • Bishop Jeremiasz of Wroclaw (Polish Orthodox Church – EO)
  • Bishop Christoforos of Olomouc (Czechoslovakian Orthodox Church – EO)
  • Father Joseph Hauser (Czechoslovakian Orthodox Church – EO)
  • Father Heikki Huttunen (Finish Orthodox Church – EO)
  • Metropolitan Bishoy (Patriarchate of Alexandria – OO)
  • Bishop Dr. Mesrob Krikorian of Etchmiadzin (Patriarchate of Armenia – OO)
  • Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios (Patriarchate of Antioch – OO)
  • Dr. Joseph M. Faltas (Patriarchate of Alexandria – OO)
  • Bishop Serapion (Patriarchate of Alexandria – OO)
  • Father Tadros Y. Malaty (Patriarchate of Alexandria – OO)
  • Metropolitan Estathius Matta Rouhm (Patriarchate of Antioch – OO)
  • Archbishop Mestrob Ashdjian (Catholicosate of Cilicia – OO)
  • Archbishop Aram Keshishian (Catholicosate of Cilicia – OO)
  • Father George Kondortha (Patriarchate of Antioch – OO)
  • Archbishop Abba Gerima of Eluvabur (Patriarchate of Ethiopia – OO)
  • Reverend Habte Mariam Warkineh (Patriarchate of Ethiopia – OO)

Following these Agreed Statements, another dialogue took place in September 1990 in Chambesy, Geneva. While this dialogue didn’t produce the same sort of joint declarations between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions, it did provide recommendations on pastoral issues and further reiterated point “C” from the agreement in Chambesy (1990) in stating the following (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

I. Relations among our two families of Churches

1. We feel as a Joint Theological Commission that a period of intense preparation of our people to participate in the implementation of our recommendations and in the restoration of communion of our Churches is needed. To this end we propose the following practical procedure.

2. It is important to plan an exchange of visits by our heads of Churches and prelates, priests and lay people of each one of our two families of Churches to the other.

3. It is important to give further encouragement to exchange of theological professors and students among theological institutions of the two families for periods varying from one week to several years.

4. In localities where Churches of the two families co-exist, the congregations should organize participation of one group of people – men, women, youth and children, including priests, where possible from one congregation of one family to a congregation of the other to attend in the latter’s eucharistic worship on Sundays and feast days.

5. Publications (a) We need to publish, in the various languages of our Churches, the key documents of this Joint Commission with explanatory notes, in small pamphlets to be sold at a reasonable price in all our congregations.
(b) It will be useful also to have brief pamphlets explaining in simple terms the meaning of the Christological terminology and interpreting the variety of terminology taken by various persons and groups in the course of history in the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology.
(c) We need a book which gives some brief account, both historical and descriptive, of all the Churches of our two families. This should also be produced in the various languages of our peoples, with pictures and photographs as much as possible.
(d) We need to promote brief books of Church History by specialist authors giving a more positive understanding of the divergencies of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries.

6. Churches of both families should agree that they will not rebaptize members of each other, for recognition of the baptism of the Churches of our two families, if they have not already done so.

7. Churches should initiate bilateral negotiations for facilitating each other in using each other’s church premises in special cases where any of them is deprived of such means.

8. Where conflicts arise between Churches of our two families, e.g. a) marriages consecrated in one Church being annulled by a bishop of another Church; b) marriages between members of our two families, being celebrated in one church over against the other, c) or children from such marriages being forced to join the one church against the other, the Churches involved should come to bilateral agreements on the procedure to be adopted until such problems are finally solved by our union.

9. The Churches of both families should be encouraged to look into the theological curriculum and books used in their institutions and make necessary additions and changes in them with the view to promoting better understanding of the other family of Churches. They may also profitably devise programs for instructing the pastors and people in our congregations on the issues related to the union of the two families.

This Agreed Statement brings forth more interesting declarations, namely in an implying of acceptance of one another’s Sacraments (points 2, 4, & 6), and encouraging both communions to visit one another and to even attend one another’s Eucharistic ceremonies. Point 4 deserves some special attention as well, as in point C of the prior Second Agreed Statement in Chambesy. Here, there is a specific mention of local jurisdictions in which both communions exist, an encouragement of those two communions to concelebrate.

From the aforementioned Agreed Statements, what appears to be implied strongly is that 1) Christology was examined and agreed upon, at least to a degree, 2) that the lifting of anathemas still needs to be worked on, 3) that the two communions are seemingly co-existent, and 4) that each local Church is now tasked with continuing this dialogue on their own to a great degree. In fact, the recommendations seem clear that each local jurisdiction is to begin working out their ecclesiastical relationships/differences with their counter-parts. It appears as if the Agreed Statements in Egypt and Chambesy give a sort-of “green light” to the local Churches to begin their own process of reconciliation locally.

Following this Agreed Statement is an even lesser known Agreed Statement referred to as the “Syndesmos Final Document.”  In this 1991 document, the youth between both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communities issued their own Agreed Statement and recommendations, writing (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

We, 25 youth representatives from Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches in 11 different countries, met in St Bishoy monastery, Egypt, 20-26 May, 1991. This meetimg was made possible with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch and Pope Shenouda III and of His Holiness Patriach and Pope Parthenios III and by the gracious hospitality of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Bishoprics of Youth, and Public, Ecumenical and Social Services.

We rejoice in the fact that our Churches have God’s will, in the official dialogue, “clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the Apostolic Tradition that should be the basis of our unity and communion”. (Second Agreed Statement of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Chambesy, Switzerland, 23-28 September 1990). In accordance with the recommendation on pastoral questions of this official dialogue and the resolution made by the XIII SYNDESMOS General Assembly (Boston, USA, 1989) SYNDESMOS convened this Consultation, with the aim of enabling Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox youth movements to support the imminent re-establishment of communion between our Churches.

During the Consultation we heard three presentations which provided the basis for our deliberations: Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland spoke on the History and Progress of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches; Bishop Moussa, Coptic Orthodox Bishop for Youth, and Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Byblos and Batroun both spoke on Challenges for Co-operation of Pastoral Questions. We discussed these two themes in groups: How can SYNDESMOS support, at the youth level, the official dialogue between the two families of Churches? We shared a common worship life reflecting our varied liturgical traditions.

We agreed that youth should participate in making the official theological agreed statements an ecclesial reality. This can be achieved initially by informing our young people of the results of the official dialogue between our Churches, which, in turn, will help the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox youth to know and love each other better, and to live their common faith together, thus preparing themselves for the restoration of communion.

We agreed to make the following recommendations:
1. That all Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox youth movements prepare their members for the imminent communion of our Churches through information, common activities and close co-operation. This is particularly important in those regions where our Churches co-exist.

2. That SYNDESMOS publish and distribute information about the official dialogue. This information could take the form of a booklet containing a short history of the Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches and their youth movements, and a chapter summarizing the history of the dialogue between our Churches up to the recent agreed statements.

3. That SYNDESMOS actively encourage the close co-operation on a local and regional level of youth movements of both families of our Churches. This co-operation could take the form of regional and local committees, retreats with biblical and liturgical studies and discussions on these themes of Tradition and renewal.

4. That SYNDESMOS initiate a program of contacts and exchanges between students and teachers of Theology from both families of Churches.

5. That SYNDESMOS amend its Constitution to allow Oriental Orthodox youth movements and theological schools to become full affiliate members of SYNDESMOS, thereby enabling these movements to participate fully in the decision making of SYNDESMOS.

As the Consultation concluded on the day of Pentecost, we thanked God who through His Holy Spirit had brought us together in our common Orthodox Faith, and guided us in an atmosphere of Hope and Love.

Like previous Agreed Statements, we see more of the same sort of language.  Point 1 is of special interest, calling the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox youth communities to prepare for communion between the two Synods.

This is where the Antiochian-Syriac Agreement comes into play.

Following the 1989, 1990, and 1991 Agreed Statements, it appears that the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Synods in Antioch came together, based on the recommendations of prior Agreed Statements, and formulated their own Agreed Statement, unique to their respective Sees. This meeting occurred in November of 1991, only months after the meeting in Chambesy. The Agreed Statement reads as follows (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

A Synodal and Patriarchal Letter.
To All Our Children, Protected by God, of the Holy See of Antioch:

Beloved:

You must have heard of the continuous efforts for decades by our Church with the sister Syrian Orthodox Church to foster a better knowledge and understanding of both Churches, whether on the dogmatic or pastoral level. These attempts are nothing but a natural expression that the Orthodox Churches, and especially those within the Holy See of Antioch, are called to articulate the will of the Lord that all may be obey, just as the Son is One with the Heavenly Father (John 10:30).

It is our duty and that of our brothers in the Syrian Orthodox Church to witness to Christ in our Eastern region where He was born, preached, suffered, was buried and rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sent down His Holy and Life Giving Spirit upon His holy Apostles.

All the meetings, the fellowship, the oral and written declarations meant that we belong to One Faith even though history had manifested our division more than the aspects of our unity.

All this has called upon our Holy Synod of Antioch to bear witness to the progress of our Church in the See of Antioch towards unity that preserves for each Church its authentic Oriental heritage whereby the one Antiochian Church benefits from its sister Church and is enriched in its traditions, literature and holy rituals.

Every endeavor and pursuit in the direction of the coming together of the two Churches is based on the conviction that this orientation is from the Holy Spirit, and it will give the Eastern Orthodox image more light and radiance, that it has lacked for centuries before.

Having recognized the efforts done in the direction of unity between the two Churches, and being convinced that this direction was inspired by the Holy Spirit and projects a radiant image of Eastern Christianity overshadowed during centuries, the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch saw the need to give a concrete expression of the close fellowship between the two Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox for the edification of their faithful.

Thus, the following decisions were taken:

1. We affirm the total and mutual respect of the spirituality, heritage and Holy Fathers of both Churches. The integrity of both the Byzantine and Syriac liturgies is to be preserved.

2. The heritage of the Fathers in both Churches and their traditions as a whole should be integrated into Christian education curricula and theological studies. Exchanges of professors and students are to be enhanced.

3. Both Churches shall refrain from accepting any faithful from one Church into the membership of the other, irrespective of all motivations or reasons.

4. Meetings between the two Churches, at the level of their Synods, according to the will of the two Churches, will be held whenever the need arises.

5. Every Church will remain the reference and authority for its faithful, pertaining to matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, adoption, etc.).

6. If bishops of the two Churches participate at a holy baptism or funeral service, the one belonging to the Church of the baptized or deceased will preside. In case of a holy matrimony service, the bishop of the bridegroom’s Church will preside.

7. The above mentioned is not applicable to the concelebration in the Divine Liturgy.

8. What applies to bishops equally applies to the priests of both Churches.

9. In localities where there is only one priest, from either Church, he will celebrate services for the faithful of both Churches, including the Divine Liturgy, pastoral duties, and holy matrimony. He will keep an independent record for each Church and transmit that of the sister Church to its authorities.

10. If two priests of the two Churches happen to be in a locality where there is only one Church, they take turns in making use of its facilities.

11. If a bishop from one Church and a priest from the sister Church happen to concelebrate a service, the first will preside even when it is the priest’s parish.

12. Ordinations into the holy orders are performed by the authorities of each Church for its own members. It would be advisable to invite the faithful of the sister Church to attend.

13. Godfathers, godmothers (in baptism) and witnesses in holy matrimony can be chosen from the members of the sister Church.

14. Both Churches will exchange visits and will co-operate in the various areas of social, cultural and educational work.

We ask God’s help to continue strengthening our relations with the sister Church, and with other Churches, so that we all become one community under one Shepherd.

Damascus
12 November 1991
Patriarch Ignatios IV of the Greek Antiochian Church
Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

There are quite a few points of interest within this document. Beginning with the title, it appears to imply that this decision was made Synodally between the two communions along with their respective Patriarchal Heads, who signed the document. In addition, the first half of the “decisions” appear to focus on policy for a sort of unity absent concelebration, while the second half of the “decisions” appear to focus on policy with limited concelebration. Point 3 expressly prohibits proselytizing, while point 4 states that the two Synods will meet as necessary. Point 6 lays out proper protocol for the presence of two bishops in Sacramental ceremonies. Point 7 clearly mentions that all the points before it are not in relation to concelebrations (presumably only of the Eucharist). Then, the document begins to discuss the more sensitive topics. In point 9, we read the first clear expression of concelebration, opening and allowing for the practice of communion between the two communities in the event that a need arises due to the absence of clergy. In these cases, records are to be kept and made accessible between Synods. Point 11 seemingly expresses concelebration between communities as well, even going so far as to temporarily assign the parish of the sitting priest to the bishop of the opposite community, in the case of the bishops attendance. In point 13, we see another startling arrangement in the sharing of godparents between the two communions. From a basic reading of the document, it seems to explicitly imply a limited communion agreement between the two local Sees.

Modern-day scholarship appears to interpret this Agreement in various ways, usually disagreeing that it implies any sort of limited communion agreement, and that may be so, but from a plain reading of this Joint Declaration and even the events leading up to such an agreement being made, this seems to be a difficult position to take and defend. Having consulted many sources, I haven’t been able to locate a synodal nullification of this agreement, which would likely answer many curiosities surrounding the events leading up to this agreement and its enforcement afterwards.

In fact, to even further reinforce what many within the Orthodox Church thought of this document and agreement, a letter was published in December of 1993 by several Athonite monks following the events of its signing. The Athonite monks wrote a scathing rebuke to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for his non-interference in another agreement (Balamand Agreement), but mentioned, as an alternative point, the Antiochian-Syriac Agreement. About the Agreement in question, they said (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

…we cite the case of the Patriarchate of Antioch, which, without a Pan-Orthodox decision, has proceeded to ecclesiastical communion with the Non-Chalcedonians [Monophysites]. This was done despite the fact that a most serious issue has not yet been resolved. It is the latter’s non-acceptance of the Ecumenical Councils after the Third and, in particular, the Fourth, the Council of Chalcedon, which in fact constitutes an immovable basis of Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, in this case, too, we have not seen a single protest by other Orthodox Churches.

This is a staggering claim. Here, the Athonite monks explicitly admit that the Patriarchate of Antioch has entered into ecclesiastical communion with the Syriac Orthodox. They go on to write that there has not been a single protest by any of the local Churches on the matter. If there were any doubts as to the meaning of the document and the existence of some sort of limited communion between the Antiochian and Syriac communities, it appears that these Athonite monks cast down the notion by affirming that there was at least an understanding that Eucharistic communion was restored or established between both Synods.

In 1993, another Agreed Statement was issued by both the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communities, this time dealing with the lifting of anathemas against one another.  This meeting was held in Chambesy, Geneva, at the headquarters for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  The text contains much of the same materials found in the previous Agreed Statement Recommendations.  It reads as follows (my bold emphasis included for further discussion):

Proposals for Lifting Anathemas (1993)

1. In the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology at St. Bishoy Monastery 1989, and of our Second Agreed Statement at Chambesy 1990, the representatives of both Church families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations of the past can be consummated on the basis of their common acknowledgement of the fact that the Councils and Fathers previously anathematized or condemned are Orthodox in their teachings. In the light of our four unofficial consultations (1964, 1967, 1970, 1971) and our three official meetings which followed on (1985, 1989, 1990), we have understood that both families have loyally maintained the authentic Orthodox Christological doctrine and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they may have used Christological terms in different ways.

2. The lifting of the anathemas should be made unanimously and simultaneously by the Heads of all the Churches of both sides, through the signing of an appropriate ecclesiastical Act, the content of which will include acknowledgements from each side that the other one is Orthodox in all respects.

3. The lifting of the anathemas should imply :

a. that restoration of full communion for both sides is to be immediately implemented;
b. that no past condemnation, synodical or personal, against each other is applicable any more;
c. that a catalogue of Diptychs of the Heads of the Churches should be agreed upon to be used liturgically.

4. At the same time the following practical steps should be taken :

a. The Joint Sub-Committee for Pastoral issues should continue its very important task according to what had been agreed at the 1990 meeting of the Joint Commission.
b. The co-chairmen of the Joint Commission should visit the Heads of the Churches with the view to offering fuller information on the outcome of the Dialogue.
c. A Liturgical Sub-Committee should be appointed by both sides to examine the liturgical implications arising from the restoration of communion and to propose appropriate forms of concelebration.
d. Matters relating to ecclesiastical jurisdiction should be left to be arranged by the respective authorities of the local churches according to common canonical and synodical principles.
e. The two co-chairmen of the Joint Commission with the two Secretaries of the Dialogue should make provisions for the production of appropriate literature explaining our common understanding of the Orthodox faith which has led us to overcome the divisions of the past, and also coordinating the work of the other Sub-Committees.

The language expressed here remains largely consistent with previous Agreed Statements.  In point 1, there is another acknowledgement of both communities being “Orthodox” based on theological evaluation over the decades. In point 2, there is a recommendation that all Church Heads agree to the formal lifting of anathemas unanimously and simultaneously, which has not happened at an ecumenical level to this day if in fact this point is referring to ratification by a Universal Synod.  In point “d,” however, there is a statement implying that ecclesiastical matters relating to specific jurisdictions ought to be arranged by their own respective local Synods, which also seems to be what the Antiochian and Syriac Synods took upon themselves in 1991 after the original set of recommendations.  Another interesting item to note is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not seem to have taken the Athonite letter seriously, as the Ecumenical Patriarch moved forward with dialogue for years following their letter in 1993, which was written one month after the aforementioned statement on the Lifting of Anathemas. To my knowledge, the Athonite monks still stand by this letter to this day.

Since this time, formal dialogues have not produced much more substance, but have continued in various degrees.  Anathemas have not been formally lifted ecumenically, yet there does seem to be an understanding between the hierarchs of both the Syrian Sees that some sort of unity exists. To what degree this unity exists is difficult to identify, but there are a few key considerations that should also be noted:

  • In 2014, during the enthronement of Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, he includes in his statement of faith, “I also proclaim the oneness of faith with my partners in the Apostolic ministry, the shepherds of the sister Oriental Orthodox Churches. I accept the general statements of faith produced by the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, in particular the statements produced in Chambesy in 1990 and 1993. I consent to the agreement that took place between my two immediate predecessors and the Heads of the Church of Rome in 1971 and 1984, as well as the agreement with the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in 1991.”
  • There are memory eternal commemorations on both Antiochian and Syriac Archdiocese websites about one another’s bishops.
  • Official forms from the Patriarchate of Antioch direct local churches to include prayers for both captive bishops (Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John) of Aleppo (EO & OO) without any distinction during the Great Litany.
  • Countless images, videos, and articles show joint services in which the Patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Synods participate in together.
  • Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is on recording following the Agreed Statements in Chambesy, admitting that the Christological differences between EO and OO communions have been resolved and that all that remains is the lifting of anathemas and reconciling jurisdictive matters.

Does limited communion indeed exist between the Antiochian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Synods today? I don’t feel comfortable taking a firm position, but based on the evidence presented, it does seems that there is some sort of agreement in practice to some varying degree, or perhaps an understanding between the two Sees that has not yet been publicized in more obvious ways.

So, I pose this question to our readers:

Is there a limited communion agreement between the Antiochian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox Synods, and why do you hold your respective position?

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Okay so this looks pretty convincing and I don’t understand how we can deny this happened so where does that leave us? I’ve heard of this agreement but I’ve never seen it so this is pretty eye-opening. I know your not taking a position on it but if you don’t think its right then how could you not? It doesnt seem clear, I think it is clear.

    1. Thanks for your response! I don’t take a position on its validity, but I do take a position on its existence. The reason I don’t take a position on its validity is because I haven’t been able to find any “new” information, at least in abundance, since the Synodal decree was given, and anathemas have not yet been formally lifted between the two Synods by name. Further, I also don’t take a position on its validity because I honestly don’t know what to make of where this agreement puts us today, namely as a Church. The Agreed Statements exist. The timeline is pretty airtight. It will be interesting to see what more comes of this, if anything, in the years to come.

  2. Inb4 “ah this is ecumenism jnafjnadsj”

    It aint ecumenism if the whole Church is doing it though. Why arent we told about these agreements? WILD! Thanks for writing this

  3. This is a terrific compilation of an issue that is difficult to sift through. I’ve been researching this agreement for years and I haven’t been able to put the pieces together. Bookmarked. Thank you.

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