The Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, is the Anglican co-chair of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission. Here, he explains the significance of last week's agreements on the Filioque clause of the Nicence Creed.
To quarrel is human, but God calls us to reconciliation. It was a remarkable week last week therefore for Anglicans, when theologians from one of the oldest families of Christians, the Oriental Orthodox, came to together with Anglican representatives to try to settle some of their outstanding differences.
Last year, the AOOIC (the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission) came to agreement on how to understand the incarnation of Christ, settling (at least to the satisfaction of Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox) an argument that had started in the Church in 451.
This year, the Commission turned to the way in which we understand the Holy Spirit. It all revolves around three little words, since Western Christians say in the Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, while the Orthodox say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. The phrase is known in Latin as the Filioque (Latin can do in one word what takes three in English), and has long been a source of contention between Western and Eastern Christians.
It was inserted into the Western creed unilaterally by command of Charlemagne, largely in order to defend the position of Christ as God at a time when the Arian heresy was arguing that Christ was a lesser being.
However, it was done without the authority of an Ecumenical Council, a gathering of all the world’s bishops, which has long been recognised (outside Roman Catholicism) as the greatest authority after Scripture when it comes to interpreting the Christian faith.
Oriental Orthodox don’t like the phrase, partly because of its unorthodox beginning, but also because it threatens a balanced understanding of the Trinity, in which the Father is the source of the divine life.
What was achieved in Hawarden (building on the previous meeting in Cairo) was a recognition that the two truths could be held together: the Holy Spirit, in eternal terms, proceeds from the Father alone, but the sending of the Spirit in time was from the Father and the Son.
It might seem a pretty neat distinction, but the Creed, as the symbol of our faith (Anglicans would say “the sufficient statement of our faith”) is ultimately the acid test of what is fundamental to Christian faith, and therefore to how Christian Churches can recognise one another.
So, the representatives of two great Christian families, the Oriental Orthodox and the Anglican, can now say that two of the biggest disagreements – on Christ and on the Holy Spirit – are capable of being put behind us.
Has any of this got any practical impact?
As it happens, yes it does.
The Oriental Orthodox are an interesting family of churches - pushed to the edge of European Christianity because they rejected the Creed of the Council of Chalcedon. However, significantly today, they sit in the midst of the most troubled area of the world, the Middle East, being representative of the Egyptian, Armenian and Syrian (and Ethiopian and Indian) traditions of Christianity.
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.
More than that, such agreement is future oriented; it opens the way for Christians to be united in mission and common witness to the world, so that we who believe that we have been reconciled to God in Christ, can proclaim the message of God's love and reconciliation more effectively by our own example.
The meeting in north Wales last week was characterised by a huge sense of friendship and fellowship, but more importantly it spoke about how Christians should stand together in the face of persecution, should be faithful in proclaiming hope for the persecuted and the refugee, and to speak with one voice about the hope we find in God for the transformation of our world.