I've given the matter some thought, and feel that the subject of ecclessiology should be returned to on this forum, but perhaps with a different perspective. Rather than indulging disputes about "who is" and "who is not" Orthodox (I mean this amongst those who claim to be Orthodox - not against those groups which most everyone here agrees are sepearted, unfortunately, from the Orthodox Church, such as the See of Rome, and it's followers, or the Non-Chalcedonians, Protestants, etc.)
Rather, without getting into that ugly topic (which seems to go nowhere), I'd simply like to speak about principles...principles which I hope, transcend that discussion (or at least it's particular players).
I propose the following as a starting point, but look forward to anyone else's contribution.
- What do we mean when we say "Orthodox Church"? At the least, I think this refers to the communion of Churches which confess the same faith (Orthodoxy, then, as a quality of said Church), and it refers to the exoteric, canonical foundation, the "collection of local Churches" which together can be called "Orthodox Churches" (Orthodox Christianity then, as a visible establishment, in the world.)
- Essentially, at a basic level, what is this "Orthodox Church"? I would answer, it is the Body of Christ - Christ being the "True Vine", the Church (which is composed of people) being His members. He is diffused, by a certain grace, in those members, in some way (I put it this way, since there are ailing members, and healthy members, and even extremly "healthy" members, whose assimilation of Christ into their being is profound - these are the type of people who are recognized as "Saints").
- The Orthodox Church exists as a Sacrament, the chief Sacrament, to the world. The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), as far as I can gather from what insight I've managed to acquire on this subject, are simply "particularizations" (is that even a word?) of this singular Mystery. Christ, God-Incarnate, is the Saviour - yet we would all agree, He established His Church as an extension of Himself, and She mediates the grace of salvation with Him, for in truth She is inseperable from Him (by His own choice...this is simply God's economy, as He has decided to unfold it.)
With the above in mind (if there is something lacking in the above three points, I'd appreciate some correction/elaboration by others), we come to the issue which has been so contentious in this forum; the situation of those who are outside of the Church...in particular those outside of the Church who bear the name "Christian."
Using Serge's well known (at least on this forum) definition of "apostolic churches", what can rightly be said of them from an Orthodox p.o.v.? I make the following observations about them...
- It is obvious, at least on an exterior level, that they possess the "apostolic succession" in terms of the laying on of hands.
- It is also quite apparent (though in the case of the Roman Catholics, I know many Orthodox have reservations on this, particularly in regard to their eucharistic rite, which has long lacked a proper "epiklesis", which we know the Roman Liturgy once had, like that used by the Orthodox Church) that on the same "exterior" level, that these "apostolic churches" also make use of the same basic "sacramental rites" - they baptize with a threefold immersion/pouring (the latter, from an Orthodox p.o.v. though, should only be used when circumstances make it necessary...but that's another topic: I will simply say that I'm not going to argue it is, of itself, an "invalid" manner of baptism), they chrismate/confirm their adherants, they have various eucharistic liturgies, etc. etc. ... and with some notable variances (particularly with the Roman Catholics), they more or less attach the same meaning to all of these practices.
- in these "apostolic churches", their clergy can at least functionally be regarded as being what their titles denote (an observation I've made in a conversation I'm having on another forum with Anastasios). For example, Roman Catholic episkopoi/bishops (lit. "over seers") do in fact "oversee" their respective territories and the flocks committed to them; their priests/presbyters (lit. "elders") do act as extensions of this episcopal ministry in their respective "parts" of their bishop's territory...etc., etc.
With all of this said, I have to ask the following...
- Acknowledging everything I've just mentioned (both about the Orthodox Church, and about non-Orthodox "apostolic churches"), what is the significance of their use of basically Orthodox rites, and ecclessiastical structures? What can be their significance, when they are obviously not being ministered within the bosom of the Orthodox Church, which I doubt no one here would deny (at least not the Orthodox), is the Church which Christ Himself established?
There is lots of talk about these "apostolic churches" being able to validly baptize. How is this meant? Does this simply refer to their use of a "valid rite"? Or does this mean something unseen occurs in such baptisms, such as the imposition of a character/seal upon the soul (whatever it is that fundamentally differentiates someone who has been truly baptized, even if they subsequently fall from grace and live like an infidel, from someone who has in no way whatsoever been baptized)? Or further, does this mean that not only this occurs, but also the remission of sins, and true integration as members of Christ?
I think it's fair to say that at least in the case of the Roman Catholics (I'm not saying this doesn't apply to other groups, imho...I simply do not want to get into the non-Chalcedonian controversy at this point), it is fairly obvious they are not Orthodox in their confession - there are a whole host of ways in which they, both subtly and obviously, depart from the true confession of the Church ("Orthodoxy", as in "right belief"). I think it is also fair, and non-controversial, to say that canonically/institutionally, these "apostolic churches" (both Roman Catholic, and other, like the Non-Chalcedonians) cannot truly be regarded as parts of the Orthodox Church (going back to the view of the Orthodox Church as an ediface in the world; a recognized, visible group of Churches with canonical foundation for their existance.)
In short, these groups ("apostolic churches") are heretical schisms ("heresy" simply meaning to have a "different opinion", in this case, on the dogmas of the Church, which is no small matter), or at the very least, schisms.
Given all of this, can it truly be said that heresies and schisms have a participation in the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ? For this is what would be necessary for their use of the sacraments to have any efficacy beyond simply existing as exterior, visible phenomena. The Sacraments are acts of the Church, so to have any sort of spiritual content, the schisms/heresies utilizing them would have to be participants in Christ. This, as far as I can make sense of it, would be the unavoidable conclusion of saying "Roman Catholic baptisms grant the remission of sins" (or replace "Roman Catholic" with "Non-Chalcedonian" or "Old Catholic", etc., etc.) This opens up something which I find hard to wrap my mind around - the existance of real un-Orthodox Churches.
If this is the case (such really does exist, for the sake of argument), what then is the point of encouraging people from these groups to become Orthodox? Why disrupt their lives so terribly, cause problems between them and their families and friends, if it is possible to be saved without confessing the truth (or only part of the truth, mixed with some serious errors)? Or in the case of simple schisms (without the question of heretical beliefs), why the dire need for their return to the unity of the Church? Is it simply an issue of charity, or is there anything else they're losing by their alienation?
There is more that I could say, but I throw this out as a starting point. Your thoughts, corrections, contributions, etc. will not only be appreciated, by I'm whole heartedly encouraging them.