What Should Orthodox Australians Learn from the Local Lutheran–Roman Catholic Dialogue?

by Doru Costache

I take this as an opportunity to reflect on certain shortcomings of my own ecclesial tradition. Self-assessment is a prerequisite of receptive ecumenism—of humbly learning from others. In August 2007, the bilateral commission for LutheranRoman Catholic dialogue in Australia published the document ‘The Ministry of Oversight: The Office of Bishop and President in the Church,’ the outcome of seven years of collaborative efforts. The document is structured in seven chapters preceded by an introduction. It outlines the early Christian and medieval understanding of the episcopal ministry or oversight, together with its representations from the Reformation onwards, down to contemporary Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines and practices. Further sections refer to the divine institution of oversight, its status as a gift to the Church, apostolic succession, the rapports between bishop and synod, and the pastoral dimension of episcopacy. Together with summarising the traditional views of both Roman Catholics and Lutherans, the chapters contain statements on the findings of the dialogue and suggestions submitted to their respective Churches. The resulting depiction of episcopal ministry is complex, nuanced, and shaped by ecclesial considerations. The document ends by mapping the current challenges and the future steps to be taken in the light of the findings outlined therein.

On another occasion, in March 2012, being invited to reflect on the same document for the Executive of the National Council of Churches in Australia, I have addressed a series of aspects within it which may not satisfy an Orthodox reader, particularly one steeped in the patristic and liturgical tradition of the Church. And although this is not the place for returning to my observations of 2012, I believe that those comments, referenced below, may be of some importance as a view from a third party, for whomever is interested in the reception of this document. I return to the document of interest from an angle that suits the focus of this conference. For an Orthodox reader, the document is striking on several levels, such as the humble approach of its authors, their insightful and realistic appraisal of their own traditions, their capacity to recognise in the experience of their counterparts valid and shared aspects—beyond structural polymorphisms and other differences. Such an approach is the very opposite of Orthodox triumphalism for which all sounds invariably well irrespective of how blatantly obvious the problems are. Foremost, the document here examined surprises an Orthodox reader by the ecclesial conviction with which episcopal ministry is considered, namely, from the vantage point of synodality (which here I take in a very broad sense), at odds with the current Orthodox situation Down Under, which illustrates a lack thereof.

In the wake of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (June 2016), which occasioned the disunity of the Orthodox Commonwealth to become worldwide manifest, herein I reflect on the relevance of the document of interest for Australian Orthodoxy. My contention is that the document contains significant implications—beyond the ecumenical framework—for the pastoral and missionary activity of the Christian Churches in Australia, specifically the Orthodox ones.

Lessons from the document

From the outset, it is noteworthy that the two parties involved in the elaboration of the document have consistently, although implicitly, worked in accordance with the criteria of receptive ecumenism, observing such crucial questions as ‘What does the other say?’ and ‘What do I learn from the other?’ This approach is perfectly exemplified by articles 115 and 132, and also by articles 133 and 134, which treat the rapport between episcopal ministry and the synod, and the matter of mutual recognition beyond the differences which historically have kept the two Churches apart. I have chosen these examples for their relevance to the focus of this conference and the scope of my paper. Here is the text of article 115, of particular interest:

While we both hold to the fundamental importance of synodal structures, we recognise that the history of our two communities has meant that there are differences between us on the practice of synodality. The Roman Catholic community has a strong conviction about the role of the bishop in the church. We suggest that the Lutheran community may have something to learn from this understanding of the bishop as the focus of unity of the church. The Lutheran community in Australia, and elsewhere, has a strong history of participation through synodical structures. We suggest that the Roman Catholic Church, as it attempts to bring about more effective participation, may have something to learn from the synodical practices of the Lutheran community.

As a conclusion to Chapter 5: ‘Bishops, Presidents and Synodality,’ which contains an analysis of how the principles of hierarchy and synodality are understood by both Churches, the article defines with clarity what pertains to each ecclesial tradition, and suggests what each can learn from the other. More specifically, the article highlights that the Lutherans learn from the Catholics to better appreciate episcopal ministry as a factor of ecclesial unity, whereas the Catholics learn from the Lutherans the importance of synodical practices for a fuller ecclesial participation. These suggestions are partially reiterated in the last two articles of the document, which contain concrete recommendations of the members of the commission for their respective Churches. Thus, “the Roman Catholic members of the dialogue ask their church authorities to consider that the Spirit of God might be leading them to recognise the authenticity of the Lutheran ministry” (133). Likewise, “the Lutheran members […] encourage the Lutheran Church of Australia to recognise and uphold the distinctiveness and unifying role of the office of president/bishop, and to build upon, renew and deepen its understanding of the apostolic and catholic nature of the office” (134). Even though articles 133 and 134 do not explicitly address the rapport discussed in Chapter 5 between episcopate and synodality, they nevertheless agree on the validity of the two models. In short, the Catholic members propose that their Church recognise the Lutheran synodal structures within which episcopal ministry operates, and the Lutheran members submit that their Church recognise the Catholic hierarchical structures. This is to say that, considered under the Spirit’s guidance, the two models complement each other.

Indeed, Chapter 5, of which article 115 is a part, has emphasised that, historically speaking and passing over the complexities pertaining to both traditions, by and large the two Churches have displayed different ecclesiological figures, one hierarchical, the Catholic Church, and one synodal, the Lutheran Church. In recommending what each tradition should learn from the other, article 115 suggests that an ideal Christian Church combines both principles, hierarchical and synodal, and so preeminence and fellowship, authority and consultation. Reading between the lines, one could infer that according to the proposed model the ideal Church, hierarchical as well as synodal, would be able to avoid the pitfalls of despotism and fragmentation, neither of which is serviceable to the Gospel. I shall return to the lesson of this article in my attempt to draw wisdom for Australian Orthodoxy.

Turning to article 132, the reason for my choosing it is that it accounts for the underlying perspective which led the bilateral dialogue to its very fruitful conclusions. Here is the passage of interest:

In different ways in the theology of both our churches there is an understanding that the apostolic ministry can be preserved in certain circumstances even when there are variations in structure.

Addressing the main topic of the document, namely, the ministry of oversight, the article brings to the fore that there is a theological agreement between the two parties on the apostolic nature of the leadership of the two Churches. Of interest is the statement that apostolicity should be recognised in both models despite the different forms of organisation, hierarchical and synodal respectively. In stating this agreement, article 132 lends further substance to those discussed earlier. Likewise, it discloses something fundamental about the approach that led the two parties to mutual recognition: the theological charism of prioritising what truly matters, against matters of secondary importance. Together, the articles surveyed herein, 115, 132, 133, and 134, show the aptitude of the authors to perceive the truth beyond its circumstantial polymorphisms, together with their adherence to the principles of receptive ecumenism. This adherence presupposes the humble awareness of one’s limitations and the need to learn from the other’s strengths.

To discuss the outcomes of the document is beyond the scope of my paper, but there is evidence that its guidelines are seriously considered by the concerned parties. In what follows, I point out what Orthodox Australians could learn from this document and from the mechanics of the dialogue that led to its elaboration—but not before I sketch the condition of Orthodoxy in the Antipodes.

Enter Australian Orthodoxy

Herein, by ‘Australian Orthodoxy’ I understand the ecclesiastical units representing the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition present Down Under. These ecclesiastical units, the fifth volume of The Cambridge History of Christianity, on Eastern Christianity, and The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity inform us, were originally established in direct connection with the phenomenon of migration, but some are currently at the stage of reluctant indigenisation due to a shift in numbers in favour of their Australian-born members. In local idiom, these ecclesiastical units are called jurisdictions. Each jurisdiction is organised according to the customs of its Church of origin, and as a rule operates according to guidelines issued by overseas headquarters. Overall, this orientation, replicated with little variation across jurisdictions, does not favour an indigenised missionary and pastoral activity Down Under. More specifically, and this is the first relevant issue, local Orthodox jurisdictions do not engage their context, instead creating ethnic, cultural, and linguistic bubbles that are separated from one another, the other Christian Churches, and the Australian society at large. As certain local jurisdictions insist to have their membership recorded by the census authorities, belonging with an Orthodox Church is not a matter of Orthodoxy; it is a matter of ethnic identity. From a jurisdictional viewpoint, literally and figuratively, the phrase ‘Australian Orthodoxy’ is therefore meaningless.

True, there is a recently established Episcopal Assembly of Orthodox Christian Bishops of Oceania, which inherits the seemingly defunct Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Churches in Australia. The website of the Assembly gives the impression of coordinated efforts between the various jurisdictions in the region. But a genuine cooperation remains a dream to be realised, not a fact. Barriers unrelated to either the Gospel or the Orthodox tradition preclude a genuine collaboration. The main difficulty, once again, is the overall ethnocentric orientation of these jurisdictions, which affects Australian Orthodoxy as much as it does internationally the Orthodox Commonwealth, whose profound disunity has become apparent on the occasion of the Holy and Great Council (Crete, 2016). This situation leads me to the second issue of interest.

To focus on the local context, the jurisdictional disunity Down Under and the lack of appetite for contextualisation betray a common cause, the lack of synodality—again, taken in a very broad sense. Within the jurisdictions, this deficiency takes the form of a break between leadership and membership. The two categories nurture different if not opposite aspirations. Whereas the leaders largely observe the ethnic interests of their homelands, behaving as though forever migrants, the grassroots, particularly the Australian-born members and the converts, are interested in bridging their identities, Orthodox and Australian. Simply put, challenged by the inherent tensions of their minority status Down Under, the members are interested in shaping an Australian Orthodoxy, not in ethnic agendas foreign to their everyday experience. Unfortunately, the rigid hierarchical figure of the Orthodox jurisdictions represented in our country makes impossible an honest conversation over these matters. It is at this point that I highlight the significance of the Lutheran-Catholic document under consideration, which illustrates a wisdom to be appropriated by the Orthodox in the Antipodes.

Drawing on the document’s lessons

Turning to the matter of what Orthodox Australians could learn from their fellow Christians, it is noteworthy that local jurisdictions experience a difficulty that represents a central concern in the document under consideration—the imbalance between hierarchy and synodality taken in a general sense. Whereas the document addresses this imbalance mainly from a technical viewpoint, namely, ecclesiological, for Orthodox Australians this is a matter of normality and survival.

Generally, the Orthodox define themselves as synodal, thus communal and consultative, but numerous cracks in the wall of this narrative have become obvious after the Holy and Great Council. As the Orthodox cannot synodise (literally, “to walk together on the path,” from Gr. συνοδεύω, whence σύνοδος, synod) on the international arena, we have seen above that they are even less apt to do so in Australia. Concerned with ethnic idiosyncrasies, complacent about their self-definition as migrant communities, and functioning primarily top down, hierarchically, local jurisdictions do not share in each other’s life, do not contextualise their message, ignore the traditional principle of synodality, and are unwilling to recognise shared values beyond cultural differences. Thankfully, there are exceptions from this pseudomorphosis, but this does not mean that the problem does not exist.

Should they be disposed to listen in the Spirit to the wisdom of their fellow Christians, Orthodox Australians could learn immensely from the document here considered. The latter may inspire them to seek a balance between hierarchy and synodality. The retrieval of synodality, which would amount to the recovery of normality within Australian Orthodoxy, is a matter of urgency both within jurisdictions and between them. The Lutheran-Catholic agreement on the synodal dimension of episcopacy reminds Orthodox Australians that episcopal ministry cannot function above, outside, and without the Church. The current top down structure of the local jurisdictions has led to pastoral and missionary impasses which threaten their very survival past this generation. These impasses, particularly the incapacity of these jurisdictions to recognise the truth that, at least some of them, are no longer migrant Churches and that they have a duty towards their Australian constituencies, cannot be overcome without balancing the top down hierarchical figure with a bottom up approach. The latter would entail consultation, synodality, and fellowship within jurisdictions and between them.

I shall end by pointing out that one of the strengths of the team that worked out the document of interest is the mechanics of realistic examination, discernment, and pertinent dialogue which led to its successful elaboration. When they are strenuously contemplated, the processes put in place and the document itself, particularly the articles discussed above, remind Orthodox Australians of forgotten traditional structures. Traditionally, Orthodoxy has balanced hierarchy and synodality, authority and consultation, and this balance has been its strength in history. The document of interest and the processes that led to its elaboration remind us, Orthodox Australians, of what was ours and is now lost. In this case, listening to the other, learning from this document how to approach things in the Holy Spirit, may prove to be our wake-up call and way back to normality. And we must retrieve the normality of being able to assess all matters of importance together. This, in turn, may increase our chances to survive the current pseudomorphosis—God willing.


Angold, Michael (ed.). The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 5: Eastern Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2006). A very important resource for the understanding of the origins and specificities of the Orthodox jurisdictions represented in Australia. The volume contains numerous references to the Orthodox migration Down Under.

‘Christianity—Orthodox.’ ABC Religion & Ethics blog. 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/stories/s817554.htm The article defines the Orthodox jurisdictions in Australia as migrant Churches.

Costache, Doru. ‘Notes on The Ministry of Oversight Document’ https://www.academia.edu/1467374/Notes_on_The_Ministry_of_Oversight_Document My analysis of the document from the viewpoint of the difficulties it poses to an Orthodox reader.

Episcopal Assembly of Orthodox Christian Bishops of Oceania http://www.orthodox.net.au/en/episcopal-assembly The official website of the Assembly, presenting data about the Orthodox jurisdictions in Australia and the region.

Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church https://www.holycouncil.org/ The official website of the Council, which includes information about the roadmap to the Council, its deliberations, and its official documents.

Parry, Ken (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. A very important resource for the understanding of the origins and specificities of the Orthodox jurisdictions represented in Australia. The volume contains numerous references to the Orthodox migration Down Under.

‘The Ministry of Oversight: The Office of Bishop and President in the Church’ Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. http://www.cam.org.au/Portals/66/Resources/Documents/LutheranChurch/Ministry_of_Oversight2007.pdf The text of the document under consideration.


This is a slightly revised version of the paper presented for The Fourth International Conference on Receptive Ecumenism: Leaning into the Spirit: Discernment, Decision-Making and Reception. The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture at Australian National University, Canberra. 6-9 November 2017. http://arts-ed.csu.edu.au/centres/accc/projects/2017-conference-receptive-ecumenism

24 January 2018 © AIOCS