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For What Kind of "Union of All" Do We Pray?

Concerning the Third Petition of the Great Ektenia

"For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy Churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord,"—thus reads the third petition of the Great Ektenia which the deacon (or priest) proclaims at the beginning of the Liturgy, Vespers, and Matins. Contemporary ecumenists and members of the "Eastern Rite" maintain that the Holy Orthodox Church supposedly prays for the union of all churches, i.e., the Orthodox, Catholic and various Protestant churches. Such an interpretation is mistaken. This is evident since, in Greek, the word "church" (ekklesia) is feminine gender, but the word "all" (panton) is genitive case, masculine gender. Therefore, one can in no way interpret "for the union of all" to mean "for the union of all churches."

The expression, "for the union of all," is taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, Until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:13). Blessed Theophylact the Bulgarian explains this passage thus, "We all attain to the unity of the faith, i.e., we appear all having one faith, not differing from one another in matters of dogma, and not having amongst ourselves differences in manner of life. For then there will be true unity of faith, when we will have the correct opinion in matters of teaching and will preserve the union of love" (Commentary on the New Testament by Blessed Theophylact). Christ prayed for this union of the faithful in the Church in His prayer to God the Father, Neither pray I for these alone (the Apostles), but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word; that they all may be one (John 17:20-21). Thus, according to St. Simeon of Thessalonica, in praying for the "union of all," we are praying for the spiritual and mystical unity of all members of the Church with each other, "for unity in correct faith, love, and a God-pleasing life" (quoted from the Explanatory Typicon by Skaballanovich, 2nd ea., p. 77).

We must note that in certain ancient liturgical texts, in the corresponding petition of the ektenia it reads, "for the union of Churches" (for example, in the ancient Liturgy of the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord, which was in broad circulation in ancient times). The Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, which are in use today, represent an abbreviation of the Liturgy of St. James. Until the present time, the Liturgy of St. James is served in Jerusalem on his feastday, October 23. The Liturgy of St. James was first served in the Church Slavonic language in Belgrade in 1938 (This Liturgy is a translation of Igumen Phillip Gardner and is performed in churches of the Russian Church Abroad on the Apostle's feastday.).

"For the peace of the whole world and the union of all the holy Churches of God, let us pray to the Lord" (Liturgy of St. James).

What Churches and what sort of union is spoken of in this petition? The word "church" (ekklesia) usually is not used in Patristic writings in relation to heretical communities, with only a few exceptions (see Lampe, Greek Lexicon). St. Hippolytus of Rome, for example, does not call the community of Bishop Kallistos a church, but rather, a school, as the heretical communities were called (see Studies in the History of Church Dogma by Bishop Ilarion (Troitsky), p. 325). This is in spite of the fact that the differences between St. Hippolytus and Bishop Kallistos were not dogmatic, but were of a disciplinary character, i.e., a schism. Furthermore, only Orthodox Churches could be called "holy Churches of God." Therefore the pretense of the ecumenists to interpret the word "churches," as used in the petition, to mean heterodox churches, has no foundation. (In Russia, the expressions "Catholic church" and "Lutheran church" came into use only during the time of Peter the Great, evidently under the influence of Western word usage.)

"The Holy Churches of God" are local Orthodox Churches. Since apostolic times it has been the custom to call the Christian community of each city a church. Thus St. Paul writes his epistles to the Church of God which is at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), and unto the Churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), and St. John the Theologian writes to the Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (Rev. 2:1, 8). In our time the Church of an entire nation is usually called a church: the Russian Church, the Georgian Church, etc. All of these local Churches, remaining in oneness of mind and prayerful communion with one another, comprise the one, catholic (universal), Church. This is what the petition "for the union of all the holy Churches of God" says concerning oneness of mind and unity.

The word "union" (enotiz) here has the meaning, unity, remaining in unity. That the word enotiz can have the indicated meaning is evident from the fact that it is used in relation to the Persons of the Holy Trinity, One in essence (see Lampe, Greek Lexicon). Thus, the Holy Church, in the petition "for the union of all the holy Churches of God," prays not for something which does not exist and is necessary to attain, but for that unity of the Church which already exists, that it might always exist and not be destroyed by some heresy or schism.

An external expression of the unity of the Church is the liturgical communion of the local Churches with each other. Misunderstandings and disagreements, which sometimes spring up for various reasons between individual Churches, can lead to division and severance of prayerful communion between Churches. It is for this reason that we find in the service books prayers for the cessation of division and for the peace of the Church.

For example, "make the schisms of the Churches to cease" is from the Liturgy of St. Basil. By the word "schism" ( in Greek, schisma literally means: a split, tear; from the word schizo: I tear, I rend) the Church is represented as a piece of clothing torn in pieces. This brings to mind the vision of Hieromartyr Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria (martyred in the year 311). The Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him in the form of a twelve year old child in torn clothing. In answer to St. Peter's question, "O Creator, who has torn Your tunic?" the Lord answered, "The mindless Arius; he has separated from Me people whom I had obtained with My blood" (Lives of the Saints by St. Dimitry of Rostov, Nov. 25).

This vision is referred to in the service to the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council: "O Savior, Who hast torn Your raiment? Arius Thou hast said" (Verse for "Lord, I have cried"). Also, in the service to the Fathers of the Six Ecumenical Councils we find these words: "O honorable fathers, you wisely mend the raiment of Christ, torn and shredded by the jaws of dogs" (Verse for "Lord, I have cried").

Here one must understand the raiment of Christ to be the Church—the tunic of Christ which the pagan soldiers once decided not to tear is now being rent by heretics. For the Holy Fathers the tunic of Christ, without seams but woven from top to bottom, symbolizes the unity of the Church. According to St. Cyprian of Carthage, "The tunic of Christ, completely woven together, indicates the indivisible harmony of all of us who have been clothed in Christ. With the mystical sign of His clothing the Lord prefigured the unity of the Church" (Concerning the Unity of the Church, quoted from Studies in the History of Church Dogma by Bishop Ilarion (Troitsky), p. 380).

St. Basil the Great uses a similar comparison in describing the condition of the Church in his time. In a letter to the priests in Tarsus he writes, "The condition of the Church already resembles old clothing which in every circumstance is easily torn and can no longer return to its original strength (Works of St. Basil, St. Petersburg, 1911, Vol. 3, p. 138). The time of St. Basil was a troublesome period for the Church. The Arian heresy had become widespread, being protected by Emperor Valens. Worse than the attack of the Arians, however, was the lack of unity among the Orthodox. Many of the bishops were not in liturgical communion, suspecting each other of heresy. The main task of St. Basil the Great in his episcopal work was the establishment of peace in the Church and the unification of the Church. When establishing communion with any Church St. Basil required that it confess the Nicene Creed. In our times heresies and temptations likewise rend the Church of Christ: ecumenism, the new church calendar, modernism, Sergianism. As a result many Orthodox Churches have broken communion. When praying for an end to the schism and the union of the Orthodox Churches, however, we must remember that the foundation, the cornerstone of such a union can only be the truth.

"Thou, one Dominion and threefold Light, one divine Ruler, threefold Sun, .. according to Thy goodness grant union to the Churches" (Canon to the Holy Trinity, Tone 8, Ode 9).

"O Virgin pure and undefiled, Who hast given birth to our Life, 'bring to an end the scandals of the Church and in Thy love grant Her peace" (Great Saturday Matins, second stasis of the "Lauds").

"End the divisions of the Church, O Michael the Supreme Commander, intercessor for our souls" (Menaia, Sept. 6).

Hierodeacon Andrew


1) St. Basil the Great, Letters.

2) Skaballanovich, Explanatory Typicon, Kiev, 1910.

3) Ilyin, All-night Vigil, Paris, YMCA Press.

4) Dimitrievsky, An Historical, Dogmatical and Mystical Explanation of the Divine Liturgy, St. Petersburg, 1897.

5) Priest G. Diachenko, Discussions Concerning the Divine Services, Moscow, 1898.

6) Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford, 1961.

7) Blessed Theophylact the Bulgarian, Commentary on the New Testament.

8) Bishop Ilarion (Troitsky), Studies in the History of Church Dogma, St. Sergius Lavra, 1913.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 42, No. 4, July-August 1992, pp. 26-29. Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus, #22,1991.