Sitting in a church in suburban Athens on a sweltering evening recently, I attended the Paraklesis service, a daily supplication to the Mother of God which takes place from August 1 until the Assumption. The hour-long service combines a strict liturgical format with fervently devotional content. The large congregation were largely passive, yet one sensed that the ancient chants in their archaic language satisfied their spiritual longing in a way which appears to elude us in the Catholic Church, where liturgy and devotion often seem like former spouses who have gone through an acrimonious divorce.

I fell to sporadic daydreaming, drifting back and forth from the dense theology, combined with deep affectivity, of the now familiar texts. For so long I have wanted to be part of this, able to participate fully in what I currently experience only as a tolerated stranger. I want to be in communion with my Orthodox brethren, but without renouncing communion with the Church of Rome, willed by Christ to be the centre of unity, to which my forebears remained faithful for so long at so much cost.

Can unity ever be re-established, in the face of theological disputes entrenched for more than a millennium and of equally longstanding distrust and mutual lack of understanding? And if reunion is more than a pipe dream, how would it occur?

The question of “how” is relatively easy to answer. The re-establishment of union must of necessity involve an ecumenical council, where all the re-uniting churches participate as full members of equal dignity and authority. Before this could happen, there would need to be a consensus established within both churches that the major bones of theological contention had been resolved. First, the Orthodox would need to be convinced that the Catholic doctrine of the Filioque, that the existence of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity derives eternally from the Son as well as the Father, is not heretical.

There is these days a general conviction among Catholic theologians that the Filioque controversy is not at bottom an irreconcilable difference, and that Orthodox reservations may rest on a misunderstanding based on slight variation in meaning between Greek and Latin technical terms. However, although this has received some support on the Orthodox side, it has failed so far to gain general assent there.

Unquestionably, more theological work needs to be done. A reunion Council could only succeed as the end point of a process of convergence. That is the lesson of past failures. After the Councils of Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1434, lack of reception by the Eastern clergy and faithful revealed the shortcomings of the preparations and the one-sidedness of the deliberations. Next time there must be no stitch-up among prelates and theologians, but a true meeting of minds involving each church as a body.

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